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For those who didn't see it the first time it made its way 'round the ``'blogosphere'', this film of LSD being tested on British troops at Porton Down is hilarious:
... the efficiency of the rocket launcher team was also very impaired. Ten minutes later, the attacking section had lost all sense of urgency....
One hour and ten minutes after taking the drug, with one man climbing a tree to feed the birds, the troop commander gave up, admitting that he could no longer control himself or his men.
He himself then relapsed into laughter.
For some reason, this film puts me in mind of the Monty Python Funniest Joke sketch. Hmm.
I've received this three times today so far. Twice from friends, and once -- in a slightly bowdlerised form -- from the Newsnight daily email:
``Umm Qasr is a city similar to Southampton,'' UK defence minister Geoff Hoon said in the Commons yesterday. ``He's either never been to Southampton, or he's never been to Umm Qasr'' says a British squaddie patrolling Umm Qasr. Another soldier added: ``There's no beer, no prostitutes and people are shooting at us. It's more like Portsmouth.''
``Umm Qasr is a city similar to Southampton,'' UK defence minister Geoff Hoon said this week. ``He's either never been to Southampton, or he's never been to Umm Qasr,'' says one of the British soldiers now patrolling the Iraqi settlement, which could barely be described as a town.
A search on Google News for `Southampton Portsmouth Qasr Hoon' doesn't match anything. My theory is that this is an invented quote based on the BBC story above, which was certainly written before I received the email, but only by a couple of hours. A look on flakey web-log search engine Feedster reveals some other instances, for instance
but it's a bit hard to tell the chronology, since nobody seems to give time zones for their timestamps. Idiots. In any case it's a bit poor that Jeremy Paxman propagated this one, simply introduced by
A marine based there writes....
I can't see any good way to get to the bottom of this. Any guesses from those more plugged in to the zeitgeist? I doubt it. I agree with Martin: [Web logs] make the Internet an even less safe place for information.
Well, I went and bought my anti-terrorist supplies -- contrary to rumour, shops here have not run out of mineral water, so al-Qaeda may succeed in making a yuppie out of me yet. I haven't managed to find a convenient UK source of potassium iodide yet, but I'm working on it....
There was a programme on the radio yesterday about `nuclear terrorism', which was slightly alarming. It touched on the issue of crashing aeroplanes into nuclear facilities, but not in as much detail as I'd like. I thought I'd do some more research, but the major result of this is that the web is full of contradictory information. The major conclusions so far are:
Reactor containment facilities may be OK, but probably aren't, since the original design specs typically considered incidents on the basis of their probability of occurence, which was assumed to be small as appropriate for accidental crashes.
The high-level waste storage facilities at Sellafield and Cap La Hague in France are probably not OK, since they were not designed to cope with an air crash. The inventories of radioactive materials in these facilities are very large.
The French have deployed anti-aircraft missiles around their reprocessing plant at La Hague; the UK has not, although there are contingency plans. The air exclusion zone around Sellafield is presently small -- 2 nautical mile (3.7km) radius, extending to 2,200 feet (670m) altitude -- taking about 15--20 seconds to traverse at airliner cruising velocity. At La Hague the exclusion zone is 10km and 5,000 feet (1,524m). RAF interceptors apparently take about 10 minutes to get to Sellafield.
On a lighter note, the Gulf War Drinking Game:
Bush mispronounces the word `nuclear'.
Finish your drink if [he's] referring to a bomb that has gone off.
So, last night the USA spent something on the order of $40 million trying and failing to kill Saddam Hussein. Too much of this and US taxpayers will long for the balmy, far-off days before Executive Order 11905 when US forces could try and fail to kill foreign leaders for just the cost of a milkshake.
The BBC's Breaking News Email Service, advertised as ``for the duration of any Iraq crisis only'', is great. After all, when the government is coming apart at the seams, only a push protocol will do....
A thought: is the childish US reaction to France's foreign policy just another version of viewing any criticism of Israeli policy as `anti-semitic'?
Everyone should read Francis Cornford's Microcosmographia Academica -- a classic analysis of academic politics. (Seems to be out of print as a book, but a little work will turn the HTML into something readable on paper....) Thanks to Martin for suggesting this.
This has marvellous commentary on, for instance, the delaying of business:
Another sport which wastes unlimited time is Comma-hunting. Once start a comma and the whole pack will be off, full cry, especially if they have had a literary training.
and the collegiate system:
It is this feeling which... differentiates, more than anything else, a College from a boarding-house; for in a boarding-house hatred is concentrated, not upon rival establishments, but upon the other members of the same establishment.
Moving on, it's always amusing to see the media having a feeding frenzy over university admissions (I can't be bothered to give individual links, but this Google News search should give a taste).
Most commentators are taking as an article of faith that A-level grades are a useful indicator of ability, and that university admission offers should be made on that basis. Yet this is plainly not true, since popular courses typically have a surplus of applicants with all A-grades. This of course means that universities are left to apply other criteria to select among them. These criteria are relatively opaque, seem arbitrary, and the media -- egged on by parents whining that little Johnny, with A grades in General Studies, Home Economics and Sociology has for some reason been rejected from his chosen course -- can readily turn them into stories about elitism, positive discrimination, or however their particular biases spin the stories. And somehow this is all supposed to be the fault of the universities.
If you believe that university admissions procedures should be transparent -- perhaps they should be, up to a point, but that's another argument -- then what's needed is to increase the resolution of A-level grading at the top of the range, but attempts to do this are usually denounced by commentators:
Heads are very strongly opposed to the introduction of a starred A grade. When the starred A grade was introduced at GCSE, it devalued the A grade, especially in the eyes of bright 16 year olds who were put under enormous extra pressure.
(John Dunford of the Secondary Heads Association)
Um. That's kind-of the point, isn't it?
Unsurprisingly the Economist had a good piece on this, but it's not available on the web unless you subscribe. (It's here if you do.) But their proposed solution was SATs; now, the SAT people don't give sample tests on their web site until you give them money, which is a bad sign to start with, but in any case I remember looking at these things years ago and they seemed pretty pissant. ``11+ for 18-year olds'' may be a bit too close to the truth. (If you believe that these are genuine you'll see my point....)
And quite how you're supposed to be able to determine ability at undergraduate level based on coachable multiple-choice tests I don't understand.
I give up.
A couple of interesting things from the news:
Hilarious piece about Jack Straw's student-political antics in Chile in 1966:
``We had the impression that Jack Straw, the appropriately named chief troublemaker, was acting with malice aforethought. This impression might be entirely mistaken and I should hate to start a witch-hunt, but he seemed deliberately to have brought matters to the point where the British Council had to intervene.'' (Alexander Stirling, then the British Ambassador in Santiago)
This one is especially amusing because of the earlier gnashing of teeth which accompanied the news that MI5 held a file on Jack Straw (described, apparently, as a `Communist Associate') when he was leader of the NUS.
Now, the purpose of MI5, as its website tells us with commendable openness, is
to protect national security and economic well-being, and to support the law enforcement agencies in preventing and detecting serious crime.
And now we discover that he started his career by doing his best to create a diplomatic incident. Who could be a more natural Foreign Secretary?
On a slightly related note, David Blunkett hasn't replied to my letter yet. This is most irritating. I (and sixty-million odd others) employ the man to run the country, and among other things that entails explaining what he's doing when we ask him. He isn't doing his job. It's not really clear what he is doing, but there was something on the radio this morning suggesting that, not content with corralling asylum seekers into concentration camps in Britain, he's going to build camps in Albania instead. He's obviously insane and possibly more of a threat to the state than Straw was. Gah.
Naturally he disagrees with me about Starbucks coffee. But that's alright. He lives in London, which makes him a cutting-edge urban sophisticate by comparison with my own fenland unurbaneness. And it's true, there are decent nonStarbucks coffee shops in London. Some of them are even non-smoking.
And I always thought he was such a nice person, not the sort who would indulge in an intemperate rant such as
In the true spirit of BIMBO, I would just like to say that these people are all morons who shouldn't be let near a computer, and that if they don't like what the moderators write, they are perfectly free
- not to read it,
- to `blog' a response, or
- to go jump in a lake.
I don't, in fact, agree about his Starbucks/cookies comments. HTTP cookies are, broadly, a Good Thing, precisely because they allow you to use nonvarying URLs. What sucks about the Starbucks site is--
It doesn't degrade gracefully: if the client doesn't accept your cookie, Just Work without it until such time as you actually need a cookie to work sensibly, for instance when the customer is about to buy something.
Don't jump through hoops to annoy the user who doesn't accept cookies.
What is this stuff about Microsoft .NET passport? Another bit of the email which I didn't quote earlier reads:
Please note that while cookies are required to view Starbucks.com, a Microsoft(r) .NET Passport is not required.
-- which flatly contradicts their error message. Now, almost nobody writes good error messages, but this is really exploring new depths of awfulness. And if Starbucks are tied into .NET Passport, we should probably wonder why....
There's a wider point here, which probably ties into my whole `philosophy' of web design. Every time some moronic web chimp makes a `design decision', like choosing a physical pixel font size, colour scheme, or intrusive user-tracking `technology', they are saying, essentially, ``I don't care about a certain class of customer: they can just piss off'':
|small fonts||short-sighted people|
|poor colour scheme||the colour blind|
|intrusive user-tracking scheme||the privacy concerned, or those behind fascist corporate firewalls|
|tedious plugins||users with slow computers or nonstandard software|
Now, none of those individual groups is very large. But can you really imagine a planning meeting where the web chimp says to his client,
``Let's have a great web site which will lock out short-sighted people! It'll be fantastic, and we can have fonts this [gesticulates with suitable bodily part] small!''
...? You wouldn't get away with that if you were designing a building, I can tell you. My guess -- I haven't gone so far as doing any research on this -- is that once you've locked out a significant number of those groups, you'll have diminished your potential audience substantially.
But that probably doesn't matter. In these lean days for the web `industry', my suspicion is that what most web sites are selling is not the products and services of their ostensible operators, but the skills of their designers; and these skills are not being advertised to the customers of, say, Starbucks, but to other potential web chimp clients. Sod the actual customers, they're not going to buy coffee over the web anyway.
Now, there are new web standards which, I am reliably informed by a collection of ranting USENET persons, will solve all these problems by allowing the user to choose how they see the page. So I can turn off the colours, use the fonts I like in sizes which I can conveniently read, discard the images which are filler and keep those that show something, and so forth. A panorama of healthsome web-related goodness opens up in front of me, looking a lot like the broad sunlit uplands of a better world.
There's only one problem with this vision.
There is no browser which allows me to do this in a convenient way. Yes, I known, I can bugger about in Mozilla's innards for hours on end to install a user style-sheet but this (a) doesn't work very well, and is (b) hardly very convenient. This could be so much better, but nobody developing browsers seems to be interested. Sob.
As for design patterns (payment required -- so much for the sharing spirit of the internet), well, I'll tell you some more when I've finished the book. James's points are fair, I guess, and since I'm out of the professional software development game I'll let what he says stand without any snide comments from me. Yet.
I seem to have been using wikii (suggested plural...) a lot recently. Nice idea, poor user interface. I want one which can attach schedule data to items, so that I can use it as a diary, notebook and all that jazz.
Taken from an email:
I had cause to look at an Apple iBook (or should that be ``... at Apple iBook''?) yesterday. It looked like a well-made machine and at that time I was vaguely considering at some point in the future buying one. However, it's quite obvious that Apple haven't succeeded in squishing the hopeless bittyboxness of the machines.
We were trying to make the machine play nicely with a wireless network. Doing so caused it to pop up a little dialog box which featured:
- a small, brightly-coloured picture depicting a telephone being crushed by a copy of the Yellow Pages;
- the message ``An error occurred whilst connecting to the wireless network.''
So, I think, these things are real computers now, right? What's in the system log?
... the answer? Nothing. Clearly Apple have succeeded in combining the worst features of the Macintosh with the worst features of old-style UNIX.
That said, I may buy one anyway. They do look nicely made and presumably one doesn't have to spend too much time pissing about with configuration just to make the thing work. Of course, it does only have one-third as many mouse buttons as it should....
Why does technology suck so much? I hear that the extra-expensive titanium-cased bittyboxes are quite useless, because their wireless LAN cards are... encased in a titanium Faraday cage. Fantastic!
Various and random:
In addition, cookies allow us to track use of the Site to determine those areas which are useful or popular and those that are not, thereby enabling us to improve and update the Site effectively.
-- which is what you'd expect them to say. It doesn't, of course, shed any light on the question of why their site degrades quite so gracelessly when you switch cookies off. And it would be nice if they could apply the same degree of tracking to their coffee shops, so that
It was also pointed out that, if you were skilled enough at acting stupid, you should go to Starbucks with your passport and a print-out of the error page, and explain that
``I tried to use the Starbucks web site and it said that I needed a passport and to get a cookie. So can I have my free cookie please?''
... worth a try, perhaps.
I've been reading Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language -- more when I've finished it, but so far it hasn't answered the questions which are uppermost in my mind:
If you want to know more about this stuff, I suggest you don't look at this monumentally uninformative FAQ.
(Alexander's book, of course, is about architecture-- the real sort, not `software architecture' or any of the other euphemisms which have been made up in recent years to cover up the fact that programming is basically a pissant occupation. As we know,
If architects built buildings the way programmers write computer programs, the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilisation.
which means, I suppose, that it's a good idea for programmers to learn from architects. That said, a long time ago I talked to an architect-in-training, and asked him about how architects are trained to work with structural engineers. The answer? They aren't, to a first approximation. They are encouraged to draw buildings which are fatter at the bottom than at the top, and told that if they do that, the engineers will probably be able to make them stand up.)
In my continuing quest to find inappropriate technical solutions to social problems, I have purchased a coffee machine and a mains timer switch. In the future I expect to be woken in the morning by one or more of
The point being that I bought the contraption for £7 from a charity shop, so who knows what gunk and limescale is likely to be furring up its safety valve. (I hope it has a safety valve. I haven't checked.) In any case, `an ear-shattering bang' sounds like the sort of thing which is likely to get me out of bed, so it's probably no bad thing either way.
Anyway, this brings me, rather tangentially, to something else I wanted to say....
I know that this is pretty heretical, but that's OK, right? You expect that.
Anyway, I like Starbucks because
The latter is obviously pretty important, but for some people it's actually a disadvantage. These people are mostly smokers, and people who associate with smokers and lack what my friends will laugh at me for calling `moral fibre'. The smoking thing really irritates me, and in fact I'm compiling a list of all the people I know who smoke near me. If later in life I get lung cancer and by then the NHS has been abolished, then I will sue the people on the list to pay for my health-care costs. Unfortunately I understand that it's not compulsory for smokers to buy personal liability insurance to protect others from their actions, but I suppose these people are likely to be richer than me anyway, since if they're already doing their best to decrease their life expectancies, it's probably not worth their making payments into a pension. (Link requires `Power Point'.)
(Logo by Kieron Dwyer.) That was a bit of a digression. In fairness, I should point out reasons that I dislike Starbucks:
I mean, £1.55 for an Americano? I'm not made of money, you know. Also,
Because they have no conception of how to run a queue. Can't be helped, I suppose.
Apparently, many people dislike Starbucks because they resent giving money to a fatuous corporate behemoth.
This is silly. You shouldn't try to change the world by witholding your money from corporations. The correct procedure is to give it to the Labour Party, and tell them what you'd like government policy to be. Oddly none of this is governed by any consumer protection legislation, so they might turn around and decide that they're not going to accomodate your special interest, and you'll be left with no recourse. But that's one of the risks you run.
There are other possible complaints:
``But I don't agree with the aims of the Labour party!''
The Labour party has aims? Why wasn't I told?
``But I don't have that kind of money!''
Then why are you even contemplating going to Starbucks? I ask myself this all the time....
(I was going to link to the Starbucks website -- you can guess the URL I expect -- but then I discovered that to even view their stupid site you have to accept a cookie. Why? It's not like there's anything on their stupid site anyway. At this point I should probably make some cookies / biscuits gag, but what's the point? In fact, the whole thing is a model of bad user interface design. When you go to their site it produces an idiotic message which states
Your browser must accept cookies to use Microsoft .NET Passport.
What the fuck? I don't want to use Microsoft .NET Passport. I want to find out about Starbucks. Does it not occur to these bozos that those two things are completely different and could only possibly be related in the diseased brain of some lackwitted web `designer' or mindless `consultant'? I despair. What's most astonishing here is that, despite idiocy on every level of their organisation, they still serve better coffee than all the `real' cafés in Cambridge. There's a lesson in there somewhere, but I'm not sure what.)
This is all done with wwwitter.
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