Wednesday, 28 October 2009

SCOTD: 0001

Spooky Coincidence Of The Day: Was mainly thinking of two things today. One: Absolute mosquito plague here in South Yunderup. Being right beside the Murray river (The WA one) and there being tidal overflow lakes all over the place, it's always thick with mosquitoes around here. According to locals, last year was a particularly bad year for the bitey buggers, and so far this year has trumped last year in aces, spades, and bucketsful. I swear I was brushing off clumps of them the last few days while venturing outside at dusk, and that's despite spray repellant, full length clothing, and moving around most of that time.

Full length clothing? The bloody mozzies laughedat that, they can bite right through a chambray cotton business shirt. Repellent? They bloody well threw themselvesagainst me in the hope (I guess) that they'd stick for a second and get just one little suck in before the chemical drove them away again. These are desperate mosquitoes, people!

So I thought about what I could plant that mozzies totally HATE, and that made me remember I had the fine book "Companion Gardening" by Judith Collins out of the local library. I've read about 2/3 of the book, not from cover to cover but a cherry-picking approach - what do I plant next to corn? And what helps tomatoes to grow better? You know, the kind of reading for snippets that we refer to as "Googling" if we're doing it online. I hadn't seen anything under a heading "mosquitoes" or anything, though.

But I remembered something Dad said, way back when. He said "if you have a problem, or something on your mind, open a book - any book - at any random page, pick a random paragraph, and tyr and see how it might relate to your issue." I've tried this quite a few times, and it has always worked in some indirect or loosely-connected way. So I figured what the hell, I have a mozzie problem, I have a book of garden solutions - what have I got to lose?

And here's the very spooky result: I riffled the pages and opened the book, (as it happened, at page 85,) and looked at the first complete paragraph on the page.

FLEABANE (Erigeron)

This plant is an excellent mosquito repellent. In my garden fleabane is planted close to the edible water gardens and the swimming pool. It grows well with yarrow, vegetables, marjoram, and feverfew.

Silently sending a thank-you to Dad there on the other side for his wisdom and for guiding my choice to that exact paragraph... Now all I have to worry about is where to find fleabane...

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How To Be Facebook: Be An Asshole.

The now chewed-to-death Facebook revamp of the timeline has been done to death, mostly by journal and magazine writers who've basically said "most people say they just don't like it!" and leave it at that.  Oh, they do go on about alienating one's users, not fixing what ain't broke, and so forth.  But none of them really give any solid information about what the front end now does wrong, aside from be "not liked."

I opened my facebook page that day and noticed that the unread count was now in a little inverse balloon.  (Yep, for some reason I finished up opening the News Feed rather than Live Feed.)  I noticed right away that stories were out of chronological order, and stories I expected to find in my feed weren't there at all.  "Must be part of that unread count" I hypothesised and clicked the balloon.  After all, that was what would reload the timeline before, wasn't it?

For a moment I was flabberghasted because now I was apparently viewing another feed, the "Live Feed" and that wasn't how things had behaved before.  I also noticed that many events weren't in the Live Feed, that I'd become used to having in my old timeline feed.  And a heap that I'd hidden had suddenly come out again.

I decided I could let the Live Feed stay for the moment, and browsed another few sites, then came back to Facebook.  Again, what was showing in the Live Feed wasn't what I'd painstakingly crafted for myself by selective hiding - and some of it appeared to be out of chronological order again, which is definitely NOT expected behaviour for something labelled as a "live" feed.

Then came the last straw.  My pages suddenly all went to the landing page for my mobile broadband provider, and I discovered that a few hundred megabytes had just flashed past in the course of a day.  I pay $50 for 3Gb of data on my mobile broadband connection, which I have because A) the landline service where I am is sub-optimal to say the least, and B) I like travelling around and that means being independent of wall sockets.

I paid for my next prepaid block of data and then studied the network traffic graph.  Not a lot of "grass" at the bottom of the graph there - but there had been NO traffic in between page loads before.  I established that this traffic could easily account for about 100Mb of my traffic that day, i.e. it had cost me as much bandwidth as an average 8 hours' of browsing and blogging on any other day. Multiple "I don't fucking believe this shit!" reloads of Facebook had accounted for another extra chunk of my precious bandwidth that I wouldn't normally have used, and with that, I went back to Facebook Lite (  and haven't really bothered with the full feed.


Some things such as applications and posting links are really only easily available from the full feed homepage.  So I am still having to open that bandwidth-intensive page to play the games I enjoy, post link-based paragraphs, and so forth.

So to me the main problems associated with the change are:
  • I can't afford it.  Surprising as it is in this day and age, bandwidth still isn't free or even cheap.  Having an auto-refresh on a page without an option to turn it off should almost be a criminal offense as far as I'm concerned.  And no - I don't want to switch to the News Feed as it is now because it is not what I want.  I want the Live Feed data structure because it is closest to what I had before and which was precisely what I wanted, with the option of manually reloading it as I was able to before.
  • I did not appreciate there being no warning whatsoever that a live feed had been instituted, this ended up costing me a day's bandwidth that I on a pension can ill afford.  
  • I did not appreciate there being no way to go back to the previous version of the timeline feed without having to go to a totally different feed, the Lite feed.  You need to provide an option for both the old and the new, and let people come to it of their own accord.
  • I thought that the "Top News" method of culling through the timeline is stupid, because it raises significantly raises the noise inherent in the timeline already.  Total crap floats to the top, the things that I really want to follow are buried down several pages back.  This also increases the chance that a total piece of spam can be raised to the top of your feed just because every one of your friends has written "fuck off spammer!" in a comment.  More activity by my network, surrounding a piece of trivia that someone else who's a friend of a friend of someone in my network, doesn't mean I'll automatically love it and enjoy it.  You can't polish a turd, and a lot of the stuff I'd so carefully hidden from my feed were - let's face it - just shit.
So - had they pre-announced it, given people a way to test it and get used to it beforehand, and listened to feedback during the testing and evaluation phase, they would now have a whole lot of satisfied users, and almost all of them would be using the new feed by choice, but customised to each person's liking.

Instead, they've ended up with another red face, another round of people wondering where the fucking Soup Nazi is, and another page in the history books of the Internet and Social Networking where they're shown to be a backward, awkward, fumbling, and totally anti-social organisation.

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Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Are You THE ONE, I Asked In A Hushed Voice

I'm amazed by this sort of story.  It illustrates what I find most wrong with religious zeal.  See, for that one boy, in that one situation, the almighty saved a piece of chalk.  For roughly 2 billion people on the door of famine and starvation, not so much...  Before anyone asks me what religion those unfortunate people are - IT SHOULDN'T MATTER.  If we are to believe, they are all His creations and therefore should warrant the same amount of assistance as some Christian boy in a lecture hall.

Another little tale that illustrates the difference between religion and fanaticism:  In the 70's I was working in Papua New Guinea.  PNG had more missions from more religions than any other place I can think of.  (Outside the USA...)  And a lot of my friends were children of missionaries. On the weekend I particularly remember, we were discussing prayer and churches.  I asked why my prayers don't get answered and was told that "you have to pray in church."

I said that since there were about six people in the lounge room, we could declare it a church, and then would my prayers be answered?  The answer apparently was that there wasn't an authority figure presiding.  (I specifically asked if a father or a monsignor or a pastor was needed and that was how the "authority figure" was hastily pulled out of the hat.)

Fine, I said.  I have demonstrated that I am leading this congregation, there are six of us here, and this is a church.  Will you join me in prayers?  You could almost see them each evaluating if that would perhaps be heretical, then they all declined.  So as we were walking out to their motorbikes, I asked if my prayers would be answered any more if I went to one of their churches.

"No," was the general opinion, because to respond to a prayer was a bit like a miracle, and "He doesn't work like that any more." I asked if that could perhaps mean that God had left us to our devices, and got the kind of frosty silence normally reserved for outcasts.

At that point I decided to give it a try anyway.  "I can see the sky" I said, "and no matter what you think, we have a church right here and right now.  And my prayer will be answered."  I pointed to the guy that had been giving me the most formulaic and constant opposition and said "God?  Please zap him!"

The guy hopped on his motorbike along with the others, and they all started looking at him.  Because his bike wasn't starting for him.  he kicked and kicked that lever, but not even one cough of life.  At that point I walked up to the bike, put my hands on the handlebars and said "Okay you can let him go now."  And the damn bike started right away after the very next kick.... [See Note 1]

The following morning I was discussing that event with a couple of them as had come back to town, and asked if that wasn't a miracle.  And do you know, not one of them would agree that it was.  That's the sort of dedicated one-eyed fanaticism that causes people to get killed "for a cause..."

The best part?  They said they had to get going to take some rugs out to their mission, and as they went to leave I said "God?  Please zap them so they know it was a miracle?"

And they took off, only to return 20 minutes later to strap the rugs on their luggage carriers...

In light of it all, what are we supposed to think?  There must be 40,000 religions and variants and schisms out there, and the Christian church one of the most splintered and divided of those.  Of the religions that most loudly claim to be peaceful, it's always true that they have committed more murder, genocide, and atrocities in the name of whatever god they claim to serve than any number of corrupt military regimes.

So what events caused that conflagration which the Middle East still is?  What is it that has shed more blood in the last two millennia than anything else?  And why is every religion "the one" and only?  Are we really so naive as to kill one another over something that, by its own admission, can never be anything but imaginary?

The guy was flustered.  He had flicked the "chicken switch" (an engine kill switch) to "Off" when he arrived, but because he was too engrossed in the argument he failed to turn it back "On."  I saw that, and when I "blessed" him and his bike, I palmed the switch to the right direction.  Oh come on!  Him forgetting is as much a "miracle" as a piece of chalk finding a softer way to the ground by bouncing off a shoe.  If you want to call one a miracle, you have to allow the other too! 

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Sunday, 25 October 2009

We Have Been Warned, Will We?

Okay.  So there's this thing we call an economy, right?  And the damn thing all collapses on itself and - well, it's still happening as we speak.  But what the hell is it all about, really?  And why?

There's a chap who, back in the '70s, wrote a book about the purpose of money.  (And with it, the economy.)  There's a more concise and shortened summary by Lomas here, you may want to read that as a grounder.

And much as I like to pull the piss out of conspiracy theories, something about this resonates with me.  For example, the problem of national debts plagues me.  As an exercise, try this thought experiment:

Australia has a foreign debt.  We owe money to a lot of countries.  The USA has a foreign debt, and owes a lot of money to a lot of countries.  Japan has a huge foreign debt, China has one, India has one.  I don't actually know any country that has a positive balance.  So where does all that money end up?

It's also a perfect mechanism to describe a way to bring about an economic meltdown.  Because if every country is decreasing in wealth due to foreign debt, those economies had to have been propped up by something else.  Like perhaps inflation and Ponzi schemes and guaranteed financial instruments that are based on worthless financial instruments which are based on supposedly solid loan repayments which in turn are...  Well, you get the idea.

It's all a bit like the Arabian story of the beggar who waved his bread through the steam from some food a merchant was cooking in order to flavour the bread a bit.  The merchant collared the poor guy and took him to the Sheikh to ask that he be paid two coins for the steam the beggar had "used" to flavour his bread, and the Sheikh said "Certainly, we shall provide you with fair value" and jingled two coins so the merchant could hear them.  I get the feeling that our economic giants have been trading steam and jingles for a while now, and perhaps it's all evaporated.  We've based all our sense of worth on one mineral, being gold.  And there's only so much gold in the ground, yet we need to use it to purchase all the other things we extract from the Earth like iron and food and lumber and so forth.  And we're very good at exploiting the Earth...  So of course the number of things we can have increases, while the amount of gold-based wealth perforce isn't growing anywhere near as much.

Oh and I have another theory.  I believe that some very intelligent and possibly rational people have been theorising about the Large Hadron Collider's excessive downtime.  Their theory goes that at some time in the future, the LHC produces some kind of result which leads to time travel and to some kind of ill effect.  And now, people from the future have sent someone back in time to sabotage the LHC and prevent this from happening.

I'm open to such theories, because I've NEVER believed that there are limits, so I'm quite happy to accept that a person from the future could go back in time, and destroy the thing that would make time travel possible, thereby making him(or her) self an incorporeal artifact that never could have existed anymore.

But what if there was also a realisation that because we'd invented this notion of wealth based on gold we were also causing a planet-wide catastrophe due to the exploitation of the resources?  And they sent a party through before the party that was supposed to take out the LHC, to destabilise the economies of the major countries?  Because of course, that would kill two birds, one, slow down the planetary destruction, and also make it harder for the LHC to attract the funding it needs to make all the repairs.

And hey - it's every bit as good as any economic theory you can come up with!  %)

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Monday, 19 October 2009


"That's one striking looking.. ummm - is that a bloke or a chick?"
"Geez, hard to tell. Must be one of them African athletes."

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Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Email Is Dead? Long Live Email Then, Cos I Still Use It Daily.

A very much beat up and overdone topic these days is the death of email.  Oh really? Tell some smart-ass spammer that.  Tell my collaborators and colleagues and friends.  Really.  Of course, there are caveats and maybes to that.  I still send fifty to a few hundred emails every month, and receive almost a thousand in that time span.

One of the maybes is that I used to receive a thousand emails a week at one stage, most of them from server management systems, mail filtering systems, and automated processes in the server room. It took months after I stopped working, before the uneasy feeling went away when I checked my emails and found less than a hundred a day...  So there's some wriggle room, but I seem to be finding that people still use email to about 50% of what I recall four years ago.

Then too there's the number of nasty people who are leaving spam behind and turning to other delivery methods for their malware.  Rats may be filthy and disgusting and disease-carrying, but they do know when to abandon that ship.  Maybe email isn't in its peak years any more.

But go to log into any new web application and what do they ask you?  "email address here please" is the first and foremost means of identifying yourself to a website, and the place where they'll send your reset password link to...  Yes, some sites let you use the hodge-podge that is OpenID - but most OID providers ask you for - yep, you guessed it - your email address...  
So email is NOT about to shuffle off and leave us anytime soon, and anyone that says so is overlooking the fact that it's the Internet's major identification device.

But that's not the worst thing about those "email is dead, long live *insert favourite new app here*" articles.  It's that they DO all tout one or other message delivery systems, or combinations of them.  None of them are game to state the awful truth:  There are just too many ways to keep in touch these days.  The problem isn't that email isn't suitable for our purposes (for most, it still is) but that we only have a certain amount to say, and too many places to say it...

I know I've shifted a great deal of my communication to things like facebook and friendfeed and plurk and plaxo and picasa and flickr and youtube and ...  well, you get the idea.  But I need to upload every video or image or status update several times if I want to update all of them.  So after a while, you find that you're not updating ALL your videos to youtube any more.  And when that Flickr Pro membership lapses...  Ah, just leave it.  I can get my pics up to facebook and picasa and photobucket...

So it's not a result of one application or other being a clear winner - it's that my output is limited to updating two video sites at the most (so goodbye vimeo and the rest, most of the time) or put my status update in one text box only.

Similarly with blogging - I've noticed a lot of people doing what I do, which is to use the relevant "horses for courses" and post stuff to the relevant site.  Since facebook is such a phenomenon, I use that for interesting links and short snippets that may also be suitable to post on friendfeed and twitter, and I use automation to get those short messages out there. I use the blogs for longer articles that have some more meat to them.  And I use photo sites to put photos that I want to reference in blog posts and status updates, or nowadays also facebook, because it allows me to link photos externally now.

So the fact that I'm not updating you by an email list server is simple - I don't actually have the time, the energy, nor the inclination to do that.

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