Friday, 24 February 2017

Smart tech for dumb folk

“Marathon runner’s tracked data exposes phony time, cover-up attempt” [Ars Technica]. Don’t wear your FitBit while you cut the course in a marathon. In fact, don’t carry anything “smart” for any reason, because “smart” does not mean that you are the smart one.
Headline, plus perfect snark from Naked Capitalism. There's nothing I could add that would improve on this.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Yours sincerely, scribble

God, I look a mess. Or rather, my signature does. I've been half-consciously dissatisfied with my analogue avatar for years, but this fuzzy background feeling of discontent came into sharp focus when my 10 year old started to develop his own signature.

He's a good kid and I'm proud of him in many ways, but even as a doting parent, I wouldn't claim that an innate gift for neat handwriting is one of his particular talents. Having said that, he's worked hard on his writing over the last year at school and he can now produce a neat, legible, hand when he puts his mind to it.

Except when he's signing greeting cards or letters. I've seen a gradual upward slope of improvement since he first started adding his mark to family greeting cards, some time back in pre-school, culminating a pinnacle some time in this last year, when I got a little glow of vicarious pride in a completely clear and legible signature that boasted "this is the handwriting of a literate, well-educated child - aren't we good parents?" But, recently, we got past peak signature and things have gone downhill ever since. Now I'm imagining any adult who sees a birthday card, or thank you note, signed by our lad silently judging us for producing a kid who can't write properly, or is too lazy to try.

But, of course, he can write properly. He's still making an effort with his school work and his general handwriting is still improving. What he's doing is exactly the same daft thing I did as a kid.

I learned to read and write to a certain level and was taught to sign my name at the bottom of cards, letters and suchlike.  So far, so good. But, eventually, I noticed that grown-ups and some older kids didn't just write their name to sign off. They wrote it in a special way, with extra loops and flourishes, exaggerated, elaborated, or simplified out of all recognition, until the name that finished off their correspondence was an indecipherable scrawl. Nobody taught me to to copy this style, but, to me, the people doing it were grown up, worldly and sophisticated, so having an almost unreadable grown-up signature became aspirational.

In went the swoops and swirls and simplifications and flourishes and I ended up with more or less the same signature I have today. The signature hasn't changed much in all those years, but as a kid, I thought it looked pretty cool. Today, I think it looks rubbish. Come to think of it, it probably looked rubbish even back then (except to my uncritical eye), because I was using the wrong tools.The style I was attempting could have potentially looked OK(ish), but in those days, a lad transitioned from writing in pencil to using a Biro at about the same time he graduated from shorts to big boy trousers [ex-lasses can insert the female equivalent of big boy trousers here] and attempted copperplate flourishes in ballpoint pen are not a good look.

Interestingly, one of the few bits of Orwell's 1984 that works as a specific prediction (as opposed to a broad satire on 1940s propaganda and authoritarianism which each subsequent generation has appropriated to label the real, or perceived, political bullying and obfuscation of its own day), was a throwaway line about how bad everybody's writing would get when people started routinely using ballpoints (I'm guessing that the "ink pencil" in this passage was inspired by Mr Bíró's invention, which would have been a novelty and shorthand for modernity when Orwell was writing):
Winston fitted a nib into the pen holder and sucked it to get the grease off. The pen was an archaic instrument, seldom used even for signatures, and he had procured one, furtively and with some difficulty, simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink pencil. Actually he was not used to writing by hand. Apart from very short notes, it was usual to dictate everything into the speakwrite, which was of course impossible for his present purpose. He dipped the pen into the ink and then faltered for just a second.
This would work as a time-specific prediction for somebody of my generation, whose writing habits were formed in the 1960s and 70s (I turned 21 in 1984). But not for my son's generation (teachers have clearly learned a thing or two about handwriting since the 1970s), as newsletters we get from school these days contain the following guidance on the right stuff for your child's pencil case - "a black ink pen (not biro) - in Years 3/4 we request that these are self-inked and do not require cartridges".Orwell's line about not being used to writing by hand came true, too, although the erosion of handwriting by the routine use of technology (keyboard as opposed to speakwrite) happened a bit later than 1984.

Mind you, if you think your scribbly signature looks bad in Biro, just look at what you just did the last time a delivery person bearing a package got your signature on one of those digital thingies you sign with a stylus. A monkey could have signed that for you and nobody would be the wiser.

These days, I'd be far happier if my signature wasn't the one that looked dead cool to the prepubescent me. Just my name in my own normal handwriting would be fine. OK, the scribble is a fraction of a second quicker than writing it out properly, but who signs things so often that the time saved matters? Prescribing doctors, perhaps (and we all know what a mess their spider signatures can be), and autograph-pestered celebs (although these days, knowing how to quickly insert yourself into a fan's selfie, then gracefully slip away is probably a more useful celebrity time-management skill). But most of us don't sign things so regularly that the odd half-second matters.

Maybe I'm just turning into grumpy old bugger, but my scribbly signature now looks to me like a number plate in some daft italic font that some boy racer stuck on his pimped ride, fondly imagining that it makes him look like the king of the road, when it really just looks a bit prattish. The only thing that stops me changing is (perceived?) path dependency. I kind of think that so many authorities and organisations have my signature that if I started changing it now, it'd raise all sorts of questions and lead to confusion and delay.

For example, my passport just ran out. I'll need to send off another application soon. The signature I'd like to use in my application is probably sufficiently different from the scrawl they have on file to raise questions. I'm sure I'd be able to convince them that I'm not an impostor trying to obtain a fake passport, but is it worth the hassle? I even thought about phoning the passport office and asking whether it would cause a problem if my signature looked different from the one they've already got, but I couldn't imagine the question not sounding suspicious, nor could I think of a good answer to the question "Why would you want to change your signature?" - "Because I just decided I don't like the one I've been  using for the last forty or so years" sounded a bit feeble.

So I'll probably stick with the ugly scribble I came up with when I was too young to know better. But then I look at my son's signature and say ""Just don't do it - you'll regret this one day, when you realise that your normal handwriting looks way better." But I only say it in my head, because there's nothing like parental disapproval to turn a thing that a child already thinks is awesome into something that's definitely super-awesome, with a side-order of amazing.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Breaking news: Tutankhamun dead, nation in shock

Trump clarification of the week:
When I said that something terrible happened in Sweden on Friday, what I meant was that I watched a documentary about Sweden on Friday. Obviously.
Meanwhile, in other news, just look at what happened last weekend in Egypt. Egypt, who would believe this?

That Tutankhamun guy. Dead, and not even twenty. I heard the reports last weekend. Sad.



Sunday, 19 February 2017

The paper age

History is probably too nuanced and irreducibly complex to be chunked into high concept sound bites but, what the heck, here's a simple idea I took away from a radio programme I just heard. Islam's "golden age" was made of paper.

The golden age is conventionally defined as the period from 8th century to the 13th century, when medicine, mathematics, science, engineering and architecture flourished under the Abbasid Caliphate. Like the western Renaissance, the golden age is supposed to have been accelerated by the discovery, or rediscovery, of knowledge from other times and cultures. A translation movement, centred on Baghdad, was responsible for making the intellectual heritage of Eurasia, from Greek philosophy to Indian mathematics available in Arabic.

But why was it a golden age? Well, it's called the Islamic golden age, so maybe it had something to do with Islam. And you could argue that some aspects were specifically Islamic - for example the mathematics and astronomy involved in determining when Ramadan starts and finishes, or the geometry behind the tiling patterns in non-representational Islamic decorative art. But that doesn't explain the embrace, diffusion and development of ideas from non-Islamic cultures (maybe the dominant strain of Islam was particularly ecumenical and tolerant during the golden age, but if that's an explanation, we then need another explanation for the other times when the most influential branches of Islam haven't been open-minded and tolerant).

Maybe it was a specifically Abbasid golden age - stable government over a huge area, leading to trade and the diffusion of ideas. But this explanation starts to look a bit shaky under scrutiny, too. There was plenty of unrest and division - for much of the golden age the Abbasids ruled their caliphate in name only, with actual power residing in the hands of local rulers in Fez, Egypt, Persia and the Seljuq-controlled areas of Turkey and central Asia, while Abbasid control never extended to the Iberian peninsula, which remained under the control of the previous Umayyad dynasty until fracturing into a patchwork of local emirates.

I'm more convinced by the notion that that paper, not gold, was the era-defining material. According to Arab sources, the Abbasid caliphate acquired the secret of paper-making from Chinese prisoners, captured at the Battle of Talas in 751, although this account is undermined by archaeological evidence of paper being manufactured in Samarkand long before the battle. But however the diffusion happened, there's no doubt that it happened and that, when it did, it became a big deal. A really big deal:
By the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809), enough paper was available in Baghdad for bureaucrats to use it for record-keeping instead of papyrus and parchment...

...Since it absorbed ink, writing could not easily be erased from it, as it could from papyrus and parchment. Documents written on paper were therefore more secure from forgery.

Papermaking and stationery were soon significant businesses in Baghdad. Ahmad ibn Abi Tahir (819-893), the teacher, writer, and paper dealer, was established at the Suq al-Warraqin (the Stationers' Market), a street which was lined with more than 100 paper- and booksellers' shops. Stationers in Abbasid Baghdad must have functioned somewhat like private research libraries, for the ninth-century polymath al-Jahiz is said to have rented stationers' shops by the day in order to read the books they kept in stock. Another famous stationer was Abu'l-Faraj Muhammad ibn Ishaq (d. 995), known also as Ibn Abi Ya'qub al-Nadim al-Warraq ("the Stationer"). He used his extensive professional knowledge to compile the Fihrist, an encyclopaedia which remains a mine of information about medieval books and writing.

The new availability of paper in the ninth century spurred an extraordinary burst of literary creativity in virtually all subjects, from theology to the natural sciences and belles-lettres...

... New types of literature, such as cookbooks and the tales we know as The Thousand and One Nights, were copied on paper for sale to interested readers...

 ...Scholars and copyists translated Greek texts, written on parchment and papyrus, into Arabic, transcribing them onto sheets of paper which were then bound into books. The new availability of paper also encouraged new approaches to old subjects. At the same time that paper was being disseminated across the Islamic lands, the Hindu system of reckoning with decimal place-value numerals—what we call "Arabic numerals"—was spreading westward from India. Before the Hindu system was introduced, people in the Islamic lands, as elsewhere, did their calculations mentally and recorded intermediate results either on a dust-board—which could be repeatedly erased as they performed successive additions or subtractions—or by the position of their fingers ("finger-reckoning")...

...The Persian traveler Nasir-i Khusraw, who visited Cairo between 1035 and 1042, mentions that in the bazaars of Fustat (Old Cairo), the greengrocers, grocers and mercers provided free containers to hold or wrap the glassware, ceramics, and bundles of paper they sold. This suggests that paper had become relatively cheap, although it still wasn't so cheap that it was easily discarded. Used paper was saved so that the fiber could be recycled into new paper...

...paper had become an indispensable medium of communication in this commercial society, where bills of exchange, orders of payment, and similar documents, most of them written on paper, were regularly sent back and forth between trading communities located as far apart as Spain and India.
Jonathan M Bloom

In short, the Islamic golden age just happened to be the age when the Islamic world adopted the cutting edge information technology of its day. And the period when Renaissance/early modern Europe began to match, then outdo, the Islamic world's store of cultural capital, was coincidentally the time when the former adopted the next great leap in information technology, printing,* which the Islamic world was slow to take up:
According to Suraiya Faroqhi, lack of interest and religious reasons were among the reasons for the slow adoption of the printing press outside Europe: Thus, the printing of Arabic, after encountering strong opposition by Muslim legal scholars and the manuscript scribes, remained prohibited in the Ottoman empire between 1483 and 1729, initially even on penalty of death, while some movable Arabic type printing was done by Pope Julius II (1503−1512) for distribution among Middle Eastern Christians, and the oldest Qur’an printed with movable type was produced in Venice in 1537/1538 for the Ottoman market.
And now we seem to be at the end of the paper age. When e-readers with e-ink displays arrived, I thought that the transition might be fairly seamless. E-ink is useless for delivering all-singing, all-dancing digital content with video and awesome graphics, but it does provide a point of continuity with paper - like paper it's easy on the eye and less eye-strain inducing than reading long articles or books on a flickering screen. But e-ink e-readers seem, so far, to have been a bit of a flop, compared with the take up of other digital devices. We still have plenty of books being printed, but it does make me wonder whether generations brought up on short form, interactive clickbaity content are losing the habit of reading long pieces of text and don't even see the advantage of a format that allows you to reread a whole book comfortably, because the habit of reading whole books is slowly, but surely dying out.

Maybe, fifty or a hundred years from now, the skill of sitting down with a book-length piece of text and absorbing a long and complicated argument or story will be lost. And, because you can effortlessly get any piece of information you can imagine from the whatever the Internet has become, nobody will miss that skill, any more than people in today's literate society miss the skills of the bards who memorised whole epic poems and stored culture in their own heads. Then, the paper age will be over at last. Maybe.




*Which, itself, depended on Europe adopting paper technology from the Islamic world.

Friday, 17 February 2017

The brand from Hades

Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that hedge fund tycoon Stephen Feinberg was under consideration for a national security position within the Trump administration. Specifically, the billionaire co-founder of Cerberus Capital Management was in line to “lead a broad review of American intelligence agencies,” which potentially could set him up for a high-level intelligence position later on.
The story here is what specific nut cluster recipe Donald is cooking up for this week's Great American Bake Off show-stopper, but right now I'm finding it hard to focus on specifics, when distracted by the existence of an actual company that calls itself "Cerberus Capital Management."

Don't get me wrong, it's a great piece of branding - if you want to invent a suitable name for a fictional company from the portfolio of some comic-book villain like Lex Luthor:
In Greek mythology, Cerberus (/ˈsɜːrbərəs/; Greek: Κέρβερος Kerberos [ˈkerberos]), often called the "hound of Hades", is the monstrous multi-headed dog that guards the gates of the Underworld to prevent the dead from leaving. Cerberus was the offspring of the monsters Echidna and Typhon, and usually is described as having three heads, a serpent for a tail, and snakes protruding from parts of his body. Cerberus is primarily known for his capture by Heracles, one of Heracles' twelve labours.
Well, I suppose the rest of us can't say we haven't been warned.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Arron Banks gets something half right


"I understand that people have the need to blame others, the cover up was wrong but in overcrowded stadiums accidents happened", tweeted Ukip's sugar daddy. When it comes to Hillsborough, Banks is tweeting out of his fundamental orifice. But he's right about (some) people having the need to blame others. If people like him weren't able to leverage the power of scapegoating, his nasty little political movement wouldn't exist.

There's not a lot you can do to counter the poisonous influence of big money on our politics, although you could always make a start with an Ivanka Trump-inspired boycott of Banks's company, GoSkippy (by the look of some of the reviews you'd also be doing yourself a favour).

Hit the bastards where it hurts, in the wallet.








Update - more boycott-fodder here.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Make your body great again

"Take back control", they said, and showed me how...
Are you fat and flabby? Or skinny and gawky? Are you short-winded, pepless? Do you hold back and let others walk off with the prettiest girls, best jobs, etc? Then write for my FREE Book about "Dynamic Tension" and learn how I can make you a healthy confident, powerful HE-MAN.
Now, nobody will ever dare to laugh at me again...

More (NSFW) geeky smart-alec mockery below.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Meaning of life not as simple as people think

We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.
John Foster Hall (and others).

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

"After the horse has bolted" definitely the best time to shut stable door, confirms Labour MP

Labour’s real battle over Brexit starts ‘after article 50 is triggered’ Emily Thornberry says Brexit bill must be voted through and party should focus on shaping Britain’s future outside the EU
Sound advice. I always find that the best way to deal with any serious problem is to wait until the problem starts having a catastrophic effect on my life and make sure that I've personally taken action to ensure that the problem has become irreversible. You need to pick your battles and, as everybody knows, losing battles are the only ones worth fighting.