Quiet Mumblings

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

What a wonderful world

Louis ArmstrongThis has to be one of my favourite quotes:

"Some of you young folks been saying to me, 'Hey Pops, what you mean what a wonderful world? How about all them wars all over the place? You call them wonderful? And how about hunger and pollution? They ain't so wonderful either.' But how about listening to old Pops for a minute. It seems to me it ain't the world that's so bad, but what we're doing to it, and all I'm saying is see what a wonderful world it would be if only we'd give it a chance. Love, baby, love. That's the secret. Yeah. If lots more of us loved each other, we'd solve lots more problems. And man, this world would be a gasser." - Louis Armstrong

Who could possibly disagree?

Friday, August 25, 2006

Bunny suicides

More than a little surreal and possibly quite evil, Bunny suicides is also most probably a work of sick genius...

Bunny Suicides

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Applications on a USB Memory Stick

USB DriveIf you work offsite a lot you can sometimes find yourself in need of a vital application that you have on your work PC, but isn't on the one you are working on. If you're especially unlucky, that PC might not even be connected to the internet. I found myself in that situation last week, and so have put a load of my favourite apps on a flash memory drive. To help you decide, Wikipedia has a list of software that runs directly from your flashdisk. My personal collection is gVim, FileZilla, KeePass, PuTTY, WinSCP and ZipGenius. ZipGenius isn't portable but has to be the finest freeware zip program ever, so deserves inclusion!

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Norham Castle, Sunrise by Turner

Allegedly one of the original inspirations for the impressionist movement, the paintings of Turner are always wonderful. This one is entited "Norham Castle, Sunrise" and was stolen from the Web Gallery of Art in Hungary.

Norham Castle, Sunrise by Turner

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Microsoft AdCenter

Today UK Yahoo advertisers finally got a letter to say that our Yahoo ads would no longer be showing on MSN Search. The deadline for this change? Yesterday! This sent some advertisers into quite a panic, but gave me a chance to have a look at Microsoft's new offering MSN AdCenter.

I had been looking forward to this day for quite a while: I had read the initial hype on the web, seen the presentations at Search Engine Strategies London, and heard the vague mutterings of approval and disdain from our American counterparts on WebmasterWorld.

My first thoughts: what a disappointment. The interface is clunky and slow like Overture's, the functionality is nothing to write home about, and its missing vital tools for keen advertisers like me to migrate. There's no bulk import that can create Orders (Adgroups), Adverts (Creatives) and keywords, and there's no API! Its adequate, but nothing more, and that's not really enough. Microsoft should be out to wipe the floor with Google, and if they really think that advertisers are going to spend loads of time optimising keywords using MSN's demographic ad targeting through a bad interface for a search engine that doesn't even produce much traffic, they're surely misguided. But they actually consider this their saving grace!

I really hope Microsoft improve dramatically on this meagre first attempt over the next year - giving Google some serious competition would be a really good thing for everyone. Firstly, an API, then a nice slick AJAX powered interface.

Oh, and they could have named it AdCentre in the UK!

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis is one thing to see before you die - at least I imagine it would be, I haven't seen it yet. Here's a photo from the Aurora Borealis page at Alaska.com.

Aurora Borealis

An explanation of how this comes about can be found on Wikipedia's Aurora page.

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Blogger and Google Sitemaps

Google SitemapsGoogle Sitemaps (which is incidentally about to change its name to Google Webmaster Tools to reflect the whole raft of new features being added) has always been a bit inaccessible to Blogger users because it has relied on a file being placed on the server to verify that you are the owner. Well, not any more. Thanks to a bit of imaginative thinking from Google (and some would say, about time) you can use a META tag in your template body instead.

To take advantage of this and get some crawl stats about your blog, simply register your site for sitemaps, select to Verify the site, and from the new verification methods dropdown select META Verification. You will be given the exact META tag to add to your template (which you can add below the <$BlogMetaData$> tag) and then select to check the verification in sitemaps. You should now have fully functioning crawl information on your Blogger blog!

Also well worth a look of course is Google Analytics - invaluable for in depth statistics on your blog

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Sunrise by Monet

Another couple of dry posts on this page now, so time for some more colour courtesy of the impressionists. This time its Monet's Sunrise, thanks to the История импрессионизма page at impressionism.ru:

Sunrise by Monet

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Regular Expressions for an SQL programmer

Regular expressions are one of these things that I've managed to put off for the whole of my career until now. Mainly of use in Linux/Unix environments, regex syntax is at first glance highly complex, unfriendly and not easily readable. For example:


Like an SQL query's LIKE clause but much more powerful, regular expressions allow you to match strings on very complex criteria. Also like SQL, there is a whole science and art to optimising them to perform quickly and efficiently.

An example of an SQL query's WHERE clause might be:

first_name LIKE 'mich%l'

This query will of course match "michael", "micheal", "michel", "michekevekolol", "mich12l" etc. In a very simple equivalent statement (but not the most efficient) you could write the regular expression:


The . is used to represent any character (but only one instance of it), while the + is used to represent a "repetition", which means that any number of the previous characters are ok. This is effectively the same as writing a regular expression for:


The great thing about regular expressions is you can be much more specific than that, by telling the expression exactly what you want to match. To do this, you can use option blocks, which are denoted by square brackets: []

For example the regular expression "[abc]" would match any string that contained the letters a, b or c. It would match "michael", "christopher" and "barry", but it would not match "helen". Within these option blocks you can also specify ranges, for example "[a-zA-Z0-1]" would match anything that contained a number of a letter. It would match "michael", "123455", but not "!!!!!".

Combine this with the repetition control + and you have a powerful tool. For example our previous regular expression could now become:


This time it would match "michael", "micheal" "michel" and "michekevekolol", but not "mich12l". Alternatively, you could write:


Which would match "michael", "micheal" and not "michel", "michekevekolol" and "mich12l".

But what if you wanted the expression to match "michael", "micheal" *and* "michel" but *not* "michekevekolol"? You could do this with the question mark, which like the + repetition character affects the character directly before it, but makes it optional. The regular expression:


Would match "michael" and "michel". So our query:


Would equal "michael", "micheal", "michel". It would also of course match "michzxl", "michil" and "michpl". If you really just wanted "michael", "micheal" and "michel" you could use:


The | pipe character is like a logical OR statement, or a switch. It will select any instance out of the multiple options ae, ea or e.

There is much more clever stuff you can do (there are books written about regular expressions), but here's a few good resources from the web:

Good luck - also check out the REGEXP function in MySQL to take your SQL to another level!

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

I don't quite understand terrorism...

Terrorism in the UKThe news of the recent chaos in the British skies and airports has passed me by rather quietly considering the amount of yammering that has been going on in the media. I don't have a TV, and I don't read newspapers, so beyond my occassional glance at the front pages of the BBC World News and The Guardian Online I've rather missed out. I occassionally catch a passing glance at the TV in the lunchroom at work, and on the day that the plot became public knowledge there were plenty of dramatic pictures of armed police at airports.

The thing that makes me curious about the current terrorist attacks in the UK and the USA is that I don't quite get what the terrorists are trying to acheive. Of course I know that many Muslim communities are pissed off at America and the UK, and most of the time for good reasons. And like any community in the world, there are extremists who are willing to resort to violence as a way solve these issues. But I don't understand what they hope to get out of the whole situation.

Attacking the UK and USA is not going to make our governments go away quietly with their tail between their legs. Not because we are countries of principles, bravado and courage (like the politicians would like us to think) but because we just can't do that - it would be unworkable for so many reasons. Instead, it is going to make our politicians more and more likely to fight back with violence in order to appease the voters, and that can only do damage to the Muslims around the world.

I would love to know if there is a sane and organised rationale behind those who wish to carry out attacks like the one foiled last week, or whether it really is a group of crazed, suicidal madmen, like our media would like to make out. Because right now I can't quite understand their goals.

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Woman Combing Her Hair by Degas

I have lots to do today and unfortunately not a great deal to say, so instead I'll post another image from Degas. This one is entitled "Woman Combing Her Hair", was painted in 1886 and was stolen from Artchive:

Woman Combing Her Hair by Degas

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History up in smoke

Mel Smith as Winston Churchill

The rather magnificent British commedian Mel Smith (above) appeared this week in the Edinburgh fringe as one of history's most recognisable personalities - the British war leader Winston Churchill. Churchill, who was not too long ago voted as the Best Brit in a BBC poll, is famed for his bullish looks of determination and resolve, and also his constant cigar smoking.

Winston ChurchillUnfortunately, it is the last of these characteristics that has caused a bit of a storm, as Scotland has recently banned smoking in public places. The Edinburgh council, with not unusually characteristic self righteousness, immediately announced that if Mel was to smoke on the stage at the Fringe, not only would the play be immediately cancelled, but also the licensor would not be able to get a license at any subsequent Fringe event.

Possibly a little over reacting? Or possibly just fair play all round? The arguments have been flying both ways since and there is nothing the Fringe loves more than a bit of a philosophical/political argument.

Mel himself, being the quiet and unassuming man that he is, has refused to comment... or maybe not:

"It would have delighted Adolf Hitler. Adolf Hitler, as you know, was anti-smoking. You couldn't smoke at Adolf Hitler's dining table, so he'd be pleased, wouldn't he? Congratulations Scotland."

Maybe a slight over reaction on both camps then? The Guardian sums it up nicely.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time

Leo Tolstoy, the Russian author most famous for writing Anna Karenina and War and Peace, was undoubtedly one of the most interesting and powerful minds of the 19th century. His books are still literary legends, and his quotes (like the one in the subject) are frequently recited. One of the finest quotes I've found comes from his deathbed and is reported to be his last words. His friends were trying to persuade him to finally embrace Orthodox Christianity before he passed away:

"Even in the valley of the shadow of death, two and two do not make six."

He obviously didn't agree...

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Womble: You're never going to knock off on my cake!

Just to continue our rather magnificent fruitcake theme for the day, I came across a nice article from Claxton bakeries' competitor, the Georgia Fruitcake Company, run by a Mr John Womble. The fruitcake industry in Claxton is clearly suffering from jokes made about its texture, but is fighting back with local pride. As Womble himself says:

"I think about this every time I make a cake. I make sure you're never going to knock off on my cake!"

Maybe you have to be British to find that funny, but believe me, you don't want to know!

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Fruitcake Capital of the World

Claxton - Fruitcake Capital of the World

Claxton, Georgia in the USA that is - its claim to fame being the delicious looking fruitcake that comes from the Claxton bakery. I wonder if anyone in Claxton is aware of the British English meaning of the word fruitcake, as in a slightly crazy person. It would be a shame if they could miss the humour in their own magnificent heritage!

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Infernal Spares: Has Hollywood Run Out of Ideas?

Infernal AffairsThe 19th century British author Charles Caleb Colton once wrote in his book Lacon (Vol I) that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery". I hate to dispute the wisdom of one who's no more able to stand up for himself than a Christian in a Ukrainian lion pen, but I have to disagree. Imitation can be the most unflattering action, especially when it is the careless rehash of a brilliant film.

Hollywood has a history of remakes that stretches back to its first days. Sometimes they have been a success, but most of the time they have ended up as second rate unoriginal disappointments. Unfortunately right now we seem to be going through an era of remakes and sequels, and none of them even seem to be an exception to prove the rule.

Now I have no problem with Hollywood making remakes at all. If you want to take your own cultural gems, put them through a dumbing-down machine and spit out second rate pebbles, then that's ok - its your culture and your right. Unfortunately Hollywood's latest obsession is taking the brilliant acheivements of other countries and turning them into farcical unimaginative shells of their original glory.

Hollywoods current problem (if you can call it a problem, because I'm not sure the money men would agree with me) seems to be a lack of any real daring. Even with the films that they remake they take out anything that could be remotely described as fresh or challenging, and just stick to that incredibly durable Los Angeles formula of "good people are introduced, bad things happen, good people prevail, everyone smiles".

Particularly gruelling for me, with my unabashed fascination with the Orient, is Hollywoods recent and horrific destruction of Asian movies. It seems that finally the US has realised that the Far East is not just about kung fu and samurais, but that it does actually produce some top notch films about different topics, like Ringu, Infernal Affairs, Oldboy or Shall We Dansu. Unfortunately, this discovery now means that Asia has now become a primary focus for America's money photocopier, and after their initial phase of Japanese horror they are now pumping up their remake machine to full speed with a whole series of remakes of ace Asian movies. Included on the list of films mentioned are Infernal Affairs, Oldboy, Ikiru, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Eye, Il Mare and many more.

I'm hoping desperately that in that list there is the one gem that will make all of this pain worth it - and yes, I'm looking at Infernal Affairs. The American remake is called The Departed and is a tour de force of Hollywood talent, staring Leonardo Di Caprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen. Most importantly it is to be directed by Martin Scorsese, and I think he has chosen his topic wisely - Infernal Affairs could be one of the few Asian storylines that could really cross the cultural boundary onto US soil.

Maybe this is a sign of the US learning what works and what doesn't - Shall We Dansu was laughable even before they started, and there are rumours that Oldboy has now been shelved (it wouldn't have worked). I hope so, because we all know that Hollywood can make exceptional films, and at the right moment maybe it can make a remake into a real compliment and show these films to a whole new section of potential fans.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Dr. Angry and Miss Smile Illusion: Do It Yourself v 2

A couple of posts ago I tried to work out a way to replicate the Dr Angry and Miss Smile Illusion using The GIMP. Today I've come up with a slightly more effective version, by producing a better HSF image:

Attempt at a LSF and HSF image

Like in the first version the LSF is simply a gaussian blur, but the HSF is made up of four layers:

1) Take one blank grey image
2) Run an Edge filter on your original image, to produce an inverse (white on black) image made up of lines
3) Paste the white on black image onto the grey image with in addition mode
4) Invert the Edge image to get a black on white image
5) Paste the black on white image onto the grey image with in subtraction mode, slightly off-centre, so that it interacts with the white lines and produces a 3D effect.
6) Take the original image and paste it over the top in Multiply mode with a very low opacity, to add some shading around the dark areas.

Once you've got that simply paste your HSF image over your LSF image in Hard Light mode with a reasonably low opacity. This is the result:

Hybrid ImageShrunken Hybrid Image

A little more effective than before, but still plenty of room for improvement!

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Silicon development, metaphorically speaking...

Silicon STM image
"In any new technology, there are always many problems, but you overcome them one at a time, and when you overcome them all you have a product." Ghavam Shahidi, Director of Silicon Technology at IBM

I think you could very easily replace "techology" with "system" in the quote above and come up with a great description of enterprise IT. A long period after the implementation of any software, be it bespoke or off-the-shelf, there is going to be lots of messing until its settled into its environment.

Quite a few of my clients have hit that point right now, and they're all about to panic as they realise that things aren't quite as easy as they envisaged.

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Portrait de M Duranty

My last post was rather long and very greyscale, so I would like to inject some beautiful colour to cheer things up. This is a painting by Degas called Portrait de M Duranty, and is from the Degas Exposition page at The Commission Scolaire de Saint Hyacinthe.

Portrait de M Duranty by Degas

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Monday, August 07, 2006

Dr. Angry and Miss Smile Illusion: Do It Yourself

The optical illusion below is a fairly new one, and was produced by the University of Glasgow:

Spatial Frequency Optical Illusion

If you look at the image when you are close to your screen, you see an angry man on the left, and a calm woman on the right. If you step away from your screen a few paces then the woman on the right will turn into the angry man, and the man on the left will turn into the calm woman.

There are plenty of other examples of this at a Hybrid Images page at MIT.

After doing a bit of digging to try and work out how this worked, I stumbled across a blog post called "A short meditation lines and shade" on a blog called Metanoid Revelusions, which featured this image:

HSF and LSF imagery

The High SF is High Spatial Frequency, while the Low SF is Low Spatial Frequency. To me they look like a couple of Photoshop filters, but, hey, this is science!

If you look at these images while you are close to the screen, you should find that the HSF image is quite clear, while of course the LSF image is blurred. If you step away from the screen then the LSF image becomes "sharper" with distance while the HSF image all but disappears.

Combining two different images with a similar structure, but one in HSF form and one in LSF form, should result in an effect similar to the one scene in the optical illusion. I thought I'd test this theory. I started with two images:

Original Images

And then put them through some processing in The GIMP. For the sad face I ran a Difference of Gaussians with radii of 3 and 1, and then pasted the original image over the top again with a low opacity. For the happy face I simply applied a strong Gaussian Blur.

Rough attempt at separate HSF and LSF images

I then pasted the sad face on the happy face in Multiply mode, and flattened the image. The result is below:

Rough LSF/HSF HybridRough LSF/HSF Hybrid - Small Version

Not quite as elegant or effective as the original illusion, but its a proof of concept! Next stage is to make a more accurate HSF image in The GIMP - let me know of a good set of steps if you discover one - and use some more similar original images.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Irn Bru - Soft Drink of the Gods

If you've ever looked at the main page of this blog you might have spotted a link in my Pagerank Votes to a site called Irn Bru. For those that do not know of it yet, Irn Bru is the finest soft drink known to man. It is made in Scotland, is bright, lurid orange and tastes like bubble gum. Converted already? Good.

Scotland is one of the few countries (regions?) in the world where Coca Cola has not become the most popular soft drink, but now, thankfully, it is spreading. It has long been in the North East of England, has already reached London in small doses and for some reason sells very well in Russia. It also recently made its first tentative movements over the Atlantic to an altogether tougher market.

So good luck Irn Bru, and to quote a bastardisation of the most famous Irn Bru advertising slogan:

Irn Bru - made in Scotland from girders and drunk by nuts

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Bushisms: Bush and Geography

George Bush and a Canadian flagBush's grasp of geography has never seemed to be the strongest in the world, as these quotes suggest. It would seem to be a necessary requirement for a president, but in his own words: "anybody who doesn't think I'm smart enough to handle the job is underestimating."

"The point now is how do we work together to achieve important goals. And one such goal is a democracy in Germany." (5th May 2006)

"Wow! Brazil is big." (6th Nov 2005)

"When a drug comes in from Canada, I wanna make sure it cures ya, not kill ya... I've got an obligation to make sure our government does everything we can to protect you. And one -- my worry is that it looks like it's from Canada, and it might be from a third world." (8th Oct 2004)

"I don't know why you're talking about Sweden. They're the neutral one. They don't have an army."

"Iran would be dangerous if they have a nuclear weapon." (18th Jun 2003)

"The problem with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur."

"My trip to Asia begins here in Japan for an important reason. It begins here because for a century and a half now, America and Japan have formed one of the great and enduring alliances of modern times. From that alliance has come an era of peace in the Pacific." (18th Feb 2002)

"I couldn't imagine somebody like Osama bin Laden understanding the joy of Hanukkah." (10 Dec 2001)

"Border relations between Canada and Mexico have never been better." (24 Sep 2001)

"But I also made it clear to [Russian President Vladimir Putin] that it's important to think beyond the old days of when we had the concept that if we blew each other up, the world would be safe." (1st May 2001)

Finally, one that isn't actually a geographical error, but I couldn't resist anyway.

We actually misnamed the war on terror. It ought to be the Struggle Against Ideological Extremists Who Do Not Believe in Free Societies Who Happen to Use Terror as a Weapon to Try to Shake the Conscience of the Free World." (6th Aug 2004)

You just couldn't make it up, could you?

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Google Bombing

Miserable FailureGoogle Bombing is the fabulous art of producing false Google results through mass linking. The classic modern example is of miserable failure, which when searched for in Google shows George W. Bush's home page first.

This result is acheived by putting many links to George W. Bush's biography page with the words miserable failure in the link text, as this and many other blog posts do. It works for the following reason...

Long gone are the days when search engines can just look at the content of a page and determine how good it is and what it is about. Webmasters have invented plenty of tricks to fool search engines that work this way, and there are plenty of spam sites that completely fake meta data to manipulate the results. Google and similar search engines therefore work on a system of building trust through links - at the most basic level, the more sites that link to your page, the more important Google thinks your pages are. Google has been constantly refining this technique over the years, adding more and more factors to help it decide which pages are important and what they are really about.

One method that Google uses in particular is to look at what words links to a site contain, in the hope that when people link to a page they use relevant link text. Google can then associate that page with the keywords most used in the inbound links.

The technique of falsely manipulating Googles results this way was first discussed by a guy called Adam Mathes, who experimented with Google Bombing to make his friend's website first for the term "talentless hack". Since then there have been many Google bombing campaigns across the web, and some have gained coverage in the popular press. There have also been commerical attempts at Google bombing, which is a form of spamdexing.

My personal favourite Google bomb is still the "miserable failure" campaign, and long may it survive. You can also read Google's offical response on the Google blog.

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Self contradiction

I suddenly had the worrying thought that my last two posts might actually seem to contradict each other. I hope not. The differences between British English and American English are something that I hold as sacred as the issues in the ichigo problem. It is strange how your sense of nationality can disappear when you are in your home country, but then become a potent force in you when you are somewhere else. I think that this is why cultures are so easily influenced by neighbours - the grass is always greener on the other side...

And Hollywood is the ultimate green field generator.

Ichigo is best!

Japanese is a fabulous language to learn - it takes a lot from Chinese, but also extends it with its own cultural identity. Learning a language as radically different to your own reminds me of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis of Linguistic Determinism, that thought is determined by language. Differences in the way sentences are structured and in the vocabularly that is available to you can make you act differently and sometimes even consider problems in a different way.

It is a big shame therefore that the influence of British imperialism, American media and Western globalisation have over the centuries affected so many languages such as Japanese by replacing old words and expressions with new English ones. My favourite example is the beautiful Japanese word ichigo (いちご or 苺), meaning strawberry. On Japanese drinks and yoghurt containers these days you will almost always find the word ストロベリー or sutoroberii, taken directly from the English word strawberry.

I'm sure some linguists will argue that this has been happening with language throughout history and that it is part of our ever changing world, but the power and influence that English-language culture has over the entire globe must be fairly unprecendented. I would sometimes love to be able to demonstrate to other nations around the world that countries like Britain and America are not the cool and wonderful places you see on your television screens and in your cinemas, but that they have problems like anywhere else, and they are as flawed as anywhere else. Then maybe more people in distant cultures will stop looking towards us, but start appreciating the finer aspects of their world vision that make them unique.

Diversity can only be a good thing IMHO.

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British words not used in the USA

Just stumbled across a fantastic Wikipedia entry about British versus American English: List of British words not widely used in the United States. Some of the entries are very interesting (I didn't know Americans didn't use the words abseil, autocue, courgette, fiddly, holidaymaker, invigilator, pushchair, rota, and whinge), and many are genuine, but some of them are hilariously old fashioned. For any Americans out there who don't know better, the average Brit really doesn't use these words any more: argy-bargy, bate, berk, bimble, blimey, boffin, bonce, cobblers, cockle, fettle, flibbertigibbet, gen, gogglebox, gor blimey, guff, higgledy-piggledy, how do, hugger-mugger, manky, mardy, merrythought, mither, mong, nash, overfaced, recce, sixes and sevens, sleeping policeman, spawny, spiffing, spiv, squiz, tonk, trafficator, twee, wojumacallit and yomp.

Also of interest is the List of words having different meanings in British and American English - you can see why George Bernard Shaw would say that Britain and America are "two countries separated by the same language".

Jianzi - Why Badminton is for Wimps

JianziA Jianzi (or 毽子) is a set of circular weights with feathers sticking out, like the one in the picture on the right. It resembles a badminton shuttlecock, and it is thought that Jianzi was the key inspiration for the discovery of badminton in Greece 2000 years ago. Unlike badminton, a Jianzi is played primarily with the feet, not a racquet.

There are various games you can play with a Jianzi - you can play by yourself or with others. The simplest form is a kind of keep-it-up where players can work together or against each other in order to keep the shuttlecock in the air for the longest time possible. For a demo check out this video of Chinese schoolchildren playing jianzi. You can take this one stage further and turn it into a volleyball-like sport played between two teams - there are some videos of this sport on the Dutch Jianzi Football site.

Although the game is known in Europe, unfortunately it is not popular and it is hard to acquire a proper Jianzi here. But if you travel anywhere in Asia you can usually find one fairly easily - it is great exercise and you can get pretty skilled with practise.

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A Russian in North Korea

I stumbled across a really nice site by a Russian guy called Peter Sobolev. He took a trip to North Korea with his camera and came back with plenty of pics to show fellow Russian's what he'd seen. Thankfully he also created a page in English, and it makes interesting reading.

North Korea StereotypeWe get so bombarded by our media with negative imagery of North Korea that its easy to forget that there are normal people living normal lives in that country. It often makes me wonder about our media - in a country where there are so many impressive images like the ones below, is the BBC being completely honest in only showing pictures like the one on the right? Do we really think that this is representative of the country as a whole, or is most of the country filled with kind folk who just want to live out their lives in peace (and for the most part, can)?

I have a close affiliation with China and many times get frustrated with news reports about China for the same reasons - its all so negative. We don't have to agree with the politics (and for the most part with China and North Korea, I don't) but its easy to go to war with countries like these because we don't get a real picture of what the country is about. This was really hammered home to me when viewing satellite imagery of Bahgdad on Google Maps - on here you can see schools, parks and sports fields - when did we see those images on our television screens in the run up to the Iraq war? Or did we only see deserts and people suffering under the evil rule of Saddam Hussein?

Anyway - enough of my ranting - to the pictures:

A North Korean wedding - by Peter Sobolev
A North Korean wedding - by Peter Sobolev

The May 1 Stadium - by Peter Sobolev
The May 1 Stadium - by Peter Sobolev

Children playing football - by Peter Sobolev
Children playing football - by Peter Sobolev

Pyongyang traffic police - by Peter Sobolev
Pyongyang traffic police - by Peter Sobolev

Hotel with revolving restaurant - by Peter Sobolev
Hotel with revolving restaurant - by Peter Sobolev

Check out the full site for more - its well worth a look.

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Google Analytics Bug?

Google Analytics LogoI read with joy a few days ago on the Google Anayltics Blog that Google have increased the number of profiles allowed in Google Analytics from 5 to 10. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be working for me - I've added some new profiles fine and set them up no problem, but some of them are saying they can't find the tracking code and some of them find the tracking code but then on main screen still say that the tracking code has not be verified. Its quite frustrating.

Although I'm sure its probably just a temporary glitch or a load issue, I'm surprised to have not seen this reported elsewhere...

For the record this is not the first issue I've found with Google's excellent new analytics offering. When setting up multiple Analytics profiles for different websites in the same Adwords account (especially if that Adwords account links to multiple different sites as well) you get really messed up CPC cost data in Analytics, with keywords from one domain appearing in the stats of the other. I currently have cost data turned off in my profiles because of this.

Other than that though - Analytics is by far the best free web stats analysis tool you can get. Tons of data, nicely laid out.

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There are now 92,615,362 websites online

The above is a quote from the BBC's new interactive timeline of the world wide web, which has been created to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the web's creation. It is the type of figure that has begun to irritate me a bit, and typifies not just the BBC but much of the modern media: there is no indication of where that number comes from or what it defines. For example:

  • Where did the BBC get its information from? Is there a scientific paper where they read it, or a company they hired to find it out?
  • Is it just domains, or is it web pages? Its much smaller than the billions usually quoted for total page counts, and it says "web sites", so I'll assume something like domains.

  • Is it just domains? For example, do GeoCities accounts count as individual sites or not?

  • What about subdomains? Are sites like this blog counted under Blogspot or are they counted separately?

  • If its just domains, is there any account taken of the fact that some domains are actually the same site, or do redirects to another domain?

These may all seem like pretty fussy questions to ask - after all, the number is big, so what does it matter? But what matters is not how many web sites there are in the world, but that our media reports facts to us accurately. Without citations, explanations or references how can we ever be sure that a junior researcher at the BBC did not just pull that number out of the hat?

A quick search on the web finds that the data actually comes from the Netcraft August server usage survey, which rather disappointly doesn't give too many details of what it defines as "hosts" either.

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St Maarten's Approach

Plane spotting is something that I just don't get, along with trainspotting, tractor spotting and the likes. The idea of going to some of the worst places on earth (and by that I mean airports) to see some of the noisiest modes of transport is not something that appeals to me, but I am happy to live and let live.

However, one place that did catch my eye was the popular aircraft spotters dream destination of St. Maarten's Approach:

St. Maarten's Princess Juliana airport has just one runway that is right next to the beach, and there are hundreds of other photos besides this one of rather large aircraft coming a bit too close for comfort. For the more devoted enthusiast I also refer you to some videos, and the Google Sightseeing post that set it all off.

In case this rather odd looking destination has fired up your fantasies of becoming a glamorous and globe-trotting plane spotter, let me just bring you back down to earth with a link to one of the most mind-blowingly obsessive products I ever had the misfortune to discover: Amsterdam Schipol Airport 2001 - The DVD. I quote:

The best airport I've seen from a shooters (and a watcher's) point of view, with no fences, just canals, and the heavies plopping down right in front of you. Loads of KLM B747/MD-11/B767 action, lots of landings and takeoffs, some sunset and evening shots, some heavies landing after rain (nice spray) and some quite strange stuff, including a Lebanese B707. One of the nicest airport programs I've done, just tons of action. No captions, some narration.

Now there's a film worth adding to your collection... A Saturday night in with the lads need never be dull again.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Kings of Flickr

I like to dabble in the fine art of photography every now and again, but I must confess that however much I strut and preen with my camera I am certainly no pro. Despite this, I love Flickr, and I love stumbling across an image that I find truely inspiring, or even better, a photographer whose work is consistently stunning. Some recent finds are:

Katana by Mazgrp
Katana by Mazgrp

Gulls by BunchOfPants
Gulls by Bunchofpants

There is also a superb Taiwanese photographer, Antonio Papago who is also more than worth a look, but unfortunately his images are not available for sharing.

Open Source vs Microsoft

Open source has to be one of the finest revolutions of the digital age - a group of skilled people working together, without pay, without ownership and without an agenda to produce freely usable tools for the rest of us. It has produced some of the most remarkably powerful products (Apache, Firefox, OpenOffice, Linux, The GIMP, etc) and gained both a huge userbase and developerbase around the world.

The applications built by open source have sometimes been so perfect for their purpose that they have completely surpassed commercial competitors in their field. The two most perfect examples of this success have to be:

  • Apache HTTPD - this superbly reliable, flexible and powerful web server now enjoys a market share of over 60%, only suffering a slight drop after Microsoft's well-hyped ASP.NET language came out on their IIS server platform. To be fair on Microsoft, Apache had a head start, but considering the massive amounts of marketing MS have thrown into IIS, Apache's success can only be based on its outstanding quality.
  • Mozilla Firefox - admittedly Firefox has not surpassed its competitors, but to come to market after the Netscape v IE wars and still manage to gain a market share of 25% is a huge achievement. IE is installed on users PCs by default and had become the defacto browser on the web, but Microsoft had become lazy and had rested on their laurels too long. When Firefox came along with functionality that IE users hadn't even dreamed of, people who had never even heard of open source moved over immediately.

These two shining examples of open source success indicate what the movement really can achieve, but there is a proportion of the open source community that seems to be sabotaging its own future.

Having embraced the open source movement for two years and enjoying the benefits of Debian Linux on my laptop, Firefox as my browser of choice and OpenOffice as my productivity sweet, I have finally moved back to a Windows and Microsoft Office based environment. Why? A mixture of laziness and frustration at the arrogance of some members of the Open Source community.

Laziness is the easiest to explain - Linux is more effort that Windows. There are a lot of good reasons for this - especially lack of manufacturer support - and also plenty of bad excuses. There is a large amount of the Linux user interface that is still underdeveloped - even on the "friendly" Linux flavours such as Mandriva and SUSE. This is especially true of control panel style maintenance interfaces, which often don't do everything that you could want them to do or break down when you use them. Linux experts would argue that we should do this through the command line - and on our work servers I'm more than willing to do this - but on my home PC I don't want to spend longer than necessary working on tasks such as system maintenance. I also don't see my wife doing this when she wants to install a new game.

So far none of this is a complaint - I can accept with gratefulness and admiration that Linux is a system under development and that people are working hard on improving it. The frustration comes at the contradictions that the Linux community throw around - a mixture of self-obsessed arrogance ("Linux is ready for the desktop", "Linux is better than Windows") and user bashing ("How can you complain about missing features like that when you don't contribute code?", "You can't complain you can't use your webcam on Linux - its the manufacturer's fault", "You can't expect OpenOffice to have a smooth interface like Microsoft - OpenOffice is free!").

As a professional software developer I can safely say that the best people at finding bugs in your software and working out where your code is inadequate is the ignorant user, who can discover ways to make your apps crash in ways you never thought possible. Development is a constant discussion between developer and user. Some of the Linux community, in its comfortable insulation, doesn't seem to realise this. Features that they consider unimportant to them end up undeveloped, features (such as a web server or browser) that they use daily are brilliant. They are reluctant to take criticism from those who know less than them.

On top of this, another minority (of possibly the same users) surround Linux projects with childish flamewars and waste valuable time and user confidence on insulting other development efforts. The classic example is KDE vs Gnome. Gnome is an attempt to make a user interface as simple as possible, sacrificing unnecessary flexibility for a lack of complexity. KDE is an attempt to make a user interface as fully featured and flexible as possible, sometimes providing basic users with a bamboozling range of options. KDE is also based on a proprietary system that for some users is not strictly in line with the spirit of open source. Unfortunately among some Linux users, being a Gnome user or a KDE user has become a matter of religion, and flame wars break out frequently with one camp insulting the other.

Flamewars are not just limited to user interfaces - they occur at all levels of Linux, and all throughout the history of Unix-based systems - including browsers (Konqueror/Firefox), editors (vi/emacs), distros (too many), and many more.

It is this geeky obsessiveness with all things Linux that has both powered but is now hindering open source. If I can't say that OpenOffice's interface is more clunky than Office's, or say that the Linux GUI is less stable than XP, without a barrage of comments or insults about my own ability and knowledge, then I am unlikely to have confidence that the software will develop the way that I need it to. I personally don't want to know how Linux operates behind the scenes to be able to type a text document, and I can guarantee that my mother would give up at the first hurdle.

If Linux and other open source projects are going to flourish in the world of the average user then a good proportion of the contributors are going to have to get over their self-pity at being at the disadvantage of corporations like Microsoft, and just keep on with doing their best and listening to their user base. The more users that try it now and are put off by its failings and a few unhelpful individuals, the less chance that they will try it again later on so easily.

Type I Saw Today

I'm not really a big person when it comes to design - at least not the intricacies that a true designer has to go into to acheive that "just right" result that all of us subconsciously know but so often fail to replicate. My job involves occassionally looking at some of the worst designed websites on the web - both in terms of useability and aesthetics - and I know what people are capable of. It is one of the big shames on the web that a large proportion of its contributing population have not realised even the roughest basics of this art.

Anyway - I rather randomly came across this site by someone who could be described (respectfully) as a font obsessive! He photographs and blogs about interesting type that he comes across on his travels. Its a topic that I don't remotely know about, and you can feel his frustration at being a professional in an industry that is taken for granted and abused daily by everyone else in the world (including myself).

One of my favourite of his recent posts is Schism in Spiritualism:


On blogging

Since I am going to start this blog, and since I don't currently have an agenda for it, I thought I'd explore some ideas about why I might be doing it. I've always considered blogs to be an egocentric activity. Some might say that it is part of improving the democratic process, or giving a voice to the people, or moving the vox populi away from the commercial media to a more distributed, less controlled form of communication, but I see it as simply massaging your own self-importance.

Who is it that want's to read what I want to say?

But if that were true then blogging would not have become the phenomenon that it is today. Looking around, everyone has blogs, and more amazingly, other people actually read them. A quick survey of the most successful blogs indicate that they contain at least one of the following key factors:

  • They are by people in the public eye
  • They are focussed and contain the opinions of experts
  • They are by people who are in situations that are different to the average blog reader (eg. they are a taxi driver explaining his daily live, a homeless person, etc.)

On top of this, they have to be fairly personal, forthcoming and honest. They can't just be a random person writing about random things s/he likes and dislikes. So to be honest, I think this particular blog is doomed to failure already.

Michael Crichton's State of Fear

Having just read Michael Crichton's State of Fear, I think I'll start this blog with a vague critique.

I am a Michael Crichton fan - as a non-scientist average Joe I find his books enjoyable and often fascinating. It is important to take his words with a pinch of salt - with subjects that I do know about he's not always quite on target - but generally he gets me to think about topics that would otherwise pass me by.

State of Fear is his take on climate change, global warming etc. In it we follow the increasingly thrilling (and unlikely) escapades of an American attorney as he slowly and reluctantly gets converted from believing that anthropogenic (human-generated) global warming is a real threat, to believing that it is simply a tool used to scare the population of the developed world into behaving the way their government, and large institutions, would like them to. It is quite a journey, and in between all of the action and adventure we get presented with mountains of evidence to back up his ideas. And as always with Crichton's books, the data is convincing, inspiring and exciting - the impression is similar to that of the Da Vinci Code - of being let into a secret global conspiracy that seems too big to be true.

Unfortunately, as with the Da Vinci Code and with Crichton's other works, it is just a highly enjoyable fantasy. A bit of internet research will find countless references with just as impressive titles as the ones in his book which at least cast his certainties into doubt. The best source I found was on a site called RealClimate.org, which reviews his work almost as if it were a scientific publication, and pretty much tears it to shreds. Crichton also brings up a number of interesting side notes, such as claiming that environmental hysteria about DDT caused pressure on third world countries to stop using it, and resulted in the malaria deaths of millions. Even this is not clear cut in reality.

But the action is good? Well, actually, no its not. Its a bit more Hollywoodesque than the average Crichton thriller - going very silly in places and sometimes seeming a very over the top to prove its point. Our intrepid attorney and his fellow travelers are trapped down ice crevices in the Arctic, caught in flash floods in central USA, shot at, struck multiple times by lightening, poisoned with obscure octopi, captured and almost eaten by cannibals, and much more. There are unlikely reunions, stupid villains, unbelievable victories and a rather damp squib of an ending.

So we should just throw it away? No - I don't think so. It has the one redeeming feature that even the worst Crichton thrillers have - passion for its subject matter. It did make me think, and it did make me want to know more about the science behind global warming. It also put some questions in my mind about the validity of all of the climate data that we are presented with - Crichton did not in any way convince me that global warming is a hoax, but he did a very good job of demonstrating how difficult it is to convincingly prove the case on either side. The environment is a complex beast and we don't really understand it as much as we would like to.

Overall - worth a read, as long as you don't take it seriously!

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