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Monthly Archives: March 2007

Pray
v.

To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.

I’ve recently been reading the Devil’s Dictionary. On the face of it how sad to be reading a dictionary you might think. This one though is a wonderful cynical assault on life, which you must acknowledge in part to be true. It may be dated, but the venom is as potent today as it must have been at the beginning of the 20th century.

I’ve been thinking about the definition he offered of prayer for a little while now. I suppose you’re not meant to take a cynical dictionary written for amusement to heart, but you can’t help dwell on the interesting turns of phrase of a writer like Bierce.

As the eternal cynic, I can certainly appreciate the virulent pen a truly bitter man can wield, and Bierce is that par excellence.

My brother offers the interesting thought that this is a testament to the power of prayer. The laws of the universe, so apparently rigid and unyielding, might be bent for even a short time to sate one who puts his address to the proper Power with the requisite formalities is after all the defining cornerstone of all religion, is at the heart of every miracle and the proof of every Prophet.

Light Bending We add to that the intriguing evidence that it has an effect. This article for example suggests that it might have a statistically significant effect. On the other hand there is the science that points the other way.

At best scientifically we’re left without a conclusion. Not surprising when the effect you’re trying to prove or disprove doesn’t exist in any scientific model of the world, which predicts that all causes are rational and natural. If prayer were proved to do something, we would have to radically redraw the philosophy of science.

To this balance finely tuned ignorance, your stir in the personal. Every religious person, regardless of denomination or religion will tell you of the power wielded by prayer, the miracles of priests and saints and the ample historical record that many a mendicant holds posthumously that many a living doctors would die for. They will tell you of all those things that they prayed for and were given, and how often they work. And this applies to me as well, not that I plan to tell you any of the above things.

In many ways then I’m back where I started. No concrete answers, no knowables. unknowns: maybe but not likely. I feel this question deserves an answer more concrete. Maybe it would help if I actually framed a question.

The Internet is a Series of Tubes

The internet. A strange place. Things that belong there should stay there. Things that start there are still born in the world. Its interaction is hollow. Its information suspect. Its existence ethereal. If not the shadow in the cave, it certainly seems an aspect

To use it as a support, as an aid, is fine. To use it as a substitute, as if reality were fungible and the web was the substitute is flawed. I think that was my mistake, a mistake I made far too enthusiastically. I won’t be making it again.

I don’t want to start
Any blasphemous rumours
But I think that God’s
Got a sick sense of humor

- Depeche Mode

I forced my captive eyes off the swaying hips in front. I chided my mind to focus: I wasn’t going on a feast of the eyes but a necessary departure. I needed to go to the library and get stuff done. I was not to be easily distracted.

I knew what I needed to get from the library, a few books to further my nascent dissertation bravely into areas of law in which I have no experience. I’d left enough time for this to be done comfortably, an extra hour was more then enough to wonder around the library.

Into the law library I walked, and placed my wallet on the turnstile reader. Nothing happened. I put it on the reader again. Nothing was definitely what was happening. I flipped open my wallet, and was confronted by the looming gap where my student card should be. A quick shuffle through my wallet revealed what I had already suspected. Fatema had removed it, and I’d not put it back. Without my student card, Aladdin’s Cave of bound treasure was inaccessible to me.

 I was literally out in the cold. There didn’t seem much else to do except to slowly strangle the 40 minutes that stood between me and my securities regulation class. I went to CoffeeBucks, travailed the line, planned on buying a Hot Chocolate and bought a caramel frappuccino.

There was only one thing to do. I found a comfortable bench, in the courtyard, and enjoyed the fine view. And I reflected that somewhere, God perhaps, or his chthonic accomplice Lady Luck, were having a laugh at my expense.

 

I have a half finished idea to present, in the hope that you might help me finish it off. Being no scientist, I have no desire to create double blind verifiable experiments to test my theories. Though actually, if you happen to be a PhD Psychology student, I imagine you could test this one quite easily if you were so inclined. Personally, I’d much rather watch Football Focus.

Back on track.

My notion is: people best respond to compliments that are in harmony with their mode of being.

That’s it

No really that’s it.

You want me to make more sense?

I guess I’d better use more words.

Read More »

Life’s achromatic

I don’t need to help it be that way.

Dulling myself, in dull times.

I feel the random need to change.

To take flight again

To be brighter.

I don’t talk about comics

Not here.

 

I love them

You seem bored by them.

 

Rules have exceptions

Copper deserves an exception.

 

Sailing Good Life

Dive Waterfall

In my musical odyssey, only one track has made me want to listen to it twice straight away. Given that I’m almost a hundred tracks into the 500, that’s a significant achievement. Taking this as the metric of good music, I wanted to know more about its creators and their music. That’s the whole point of the project.

Being the Tinman, I took the logical step of researching rather then merely being content to listen to the same track repeatedly and giving it 5 stars on my iTunes playlist.

The track, “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield, had two attributes that captured me. Firstly was the remarkable vitatality of the sound, an interesting mix of music that was different from any of the categories that I’d experienced. Secondly, the holy grail of audibility, I understood the words the first time round and they actually meant something, neither of these results that you can rely on with so much of modern music.

There was a sense of “I’ve heard this before”, and I had. It’s the theme that backs the memorable montage that opens Nicholas Cage’s fantastic movie Lords of War, which shows a bullet in all the steps of its journey, starting as a bit of smelted copper, processed, cast, loaded in a magazine, packaged, shipped, loaded, fired and ends with it firmly embedded in a young African boy’s head. You would agree, memorable.

It’s also features, I’ve since learned, in the Forest Gump sound track as well and was a tremendous commercial and critical hit that put the band on the map.

Buffalo Springfield were an influential band (which is why they’re on the Rolling Stone’s Top 500 list) for a short while in early 1966 and already recognized as significant history by the time 1969 came around. Typical, when I find a sound that I like, that it lasted only for 25 months. It represented a unique sound that fused together a wide variety of genres.

Apart from the Byrds, no other American band had as great an impact on folk-rock and country-rock — really, the entire Californian rock sound — than Buffalo Springfield. They are widely recognized as great musicians and even their critics realized they were hugely influential. But besides the one song, they never achieved significant commercial success, and this probably capped their longevity.

in the end they succumbed to the problems of professional musicians; people not getting along, creative battles and differences of personality that proved insurmountable. Buffalo Springfield did this in abundance, trading members like basketball players. Eventually, like all things too good to last, they split up to build solo careers.

Enough about the band. I’m not a fan yet, just curious. They’ve produced an outstanding track. It’s well worth a listen. Or just read the words

Other sounds that have stuck in my ears are Black Sabbath, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, The Flaming Lips, Al Green, Deep Purple & Fleetwood Mac to give a broad brush sample. They all have interesting, but very different sounds and so it doesn’t fit into any category.

 

 

 

Chatting with my brother yesterday afternoon over our McDonalds luncheon, he mentioned a mini-debate going on in the opinion and letters pages of the not so venerable South China Morning Post concerning the horrific plight of domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

The Kitchen Maid by Jan Vemeer The arguments roughly were: how hard they worked, how badly they were compensated, how harsh their employers were and how little support the got from the Hong Kong government or their own in ensuring that they were treated properly.

The rebuttal was that Hong Kongers as a whole generally work hard, for long hours, without much sympathy from their employers and the plight of our poor people is generally acknowledged to be abysmal. The Hong Kong government keeps saying it’ll do something about it but the Oligopolists that control most of our businesses don’t want it, and are far more influential then the collective remainder of Hong Kong’s people. The government’s not being mean to domestic helpers, it’s being mean to all of us.

A brisk summary, but it’ll suffice.

Our discussion got me thinking.

Hong Kong by night We, Hong Kongers, We, Indians of the middle-class, draw on a tremendous labour pool of the third world to act as our domestic staff. They provide the critical support services at strikingly cheap prices that allow us to gain the maximum efficiency out of our days by working extended hours and not having to do basic tasks, that are hard, time consuming, demanding, unrewarding but ultimately very necessary.

It is widely agreed, so don’t disagree just to be contrary, that we live in the most interesting of times, for both the right and the wrong reasons. I don’t want to list the wrong reasons, but any reputable newspaper ought to be able to give you a sufficiently complete picture of those.

One of the right reasons is the tremendous progress of technology of which we are all the beneficiaries. Antibiotics, Mobile Phones, Computers, Air Travel, the Internet and a whole host of other world changing technologies proliferate (rather like Nuclear technology does, but more legally). Our technology lets us solve unbelievable problems. It lets us solve problems that are beyond the scale of the human mind in terms of complexity, repetivity, accuracy and sophistication.

In this age, where people barely use a pen to write anymore, we are still compelled, to use humans to cook, clean, iron and all our other domestic tasks. Why has no automation at all really made it into the home lives of people? How come there isn’t one serious and viable tool for full automation of the domestic? Of course we’ve made it much more efficient, vacuum cleaners instead of brooms, but efficiency is a linear improvement inside the same paradigm. Where’s the radical change, the industrial revolution applied to the domestic sciences?

It somehow happens, that the most basic things we do every day, that we could probably use the most relief from and which would substantially improve the collective human condition for all people if we could get it delivered on a mass scale, is probably the one thing that seems the furthermost away in this age of improvement. In fact, it’s easier to calculate the cost of a flight from two cities I’ve never been to, via a third country that I’ve never heard off, then it is to find a machine that even looks remotely capable of doing my ironing.

Robots - that shite movieThe answer fundamentally may lie in that it’s too difficult. These things that humans can do with their lateral mind and their awkwardly shaped limbs pose fundamental problems that do seem beyond the ken of robots and mechanization. We built all the furniture, so we don’t find it that awkward to use, a robot might well disagree.

A Medeval SerfThe other answer lies in that it’s not worth it. People are fundamentally cheaper to use for tasks that are human specific. They know how to do it, they don’t require special knowledge, and can be taught the basics rather quickly even if they are unfamiliar. The complexity of human social and living habits can be explained to one person, who can and usually does keep track of multiple things without too much effort. The people are a better tool, at a reasonably cheap cost. The result is that it’s not worth developing a automated solution that would do domestic tasks, because it will be cheaper to put the available human labour to use.

Of course I don’t believe it’s impossible, or that it will always stay this way. Every day we learn new tricks, we develop new methods of solving problems that we thought were previously unsolvable, and we discover problems that appear insurmountable. Eventually someone, somewhere, will get around to solving this one.

It just hasn’t happened yet.

I was going to keep this for an opportune moment, in synch with my own posting trends and the different emphasis I was trying to carry off on different days, but since Dom has recommended Joost to me as an entertainment source, I thought I would give him the benefit of my opinion post haste.

Introductions

If like me you’ve never heard of Joost, a brief description might be in order to bring you up to speed. I needed one when Yusuf sent me the invite. I’ll let the creators speak for themselves so that I have an incontestable definition. From their FAQ:

Joost™ is a new way of watching TV on the internet, which uses new and established technologies to provide the best of both the internet and TV worlds. We’re in the process of making it as TV-like as we can, with programmes, channels and adverts. You can also see some things that we think will enhance the TV experience: searching for programmes and channels, for example, as well as social features like chat. There are many more new features to come!

A word about pedigree. Just in case you think Joost is a fly by night hack of a company, it’s been founded by the same people who bought us such great internet success stories such as Kazaa (before it became shite/legit) and Skype. If anyone has a chance to pull back corporate television from the yawning abyss it faces via the rise of p2p access, I’d wager they have to be the odds on favourite. Their technology has revolutionised every other industry they’ve dealt with so far, and I don’t see why they can’t do it to television.

A final word of warning. At the moment Joost is in an invite only Beta, and I don’t have any invites at the moment to hand out. Things might change dramatically before it moves into public release. One example is their new deal with Viacom, which should see a lot of Viacom’s content – channels such as MTV and Comedy Central – made available. That could be enough to get many more people interested and give the system critical mass.

Explanations

Now you might ask how in the hell that works. Either it’s based on the familiar streaming, with all the information just being sent at you, a higher resolution version of YouTube or it might be based on the more modern p2p streaming apps like Coolstreaming and TVAnts which take the idea of software like Bittorrent and use it to broadcast real time tv, usually so people can watch the football without paying the exorbitant rate that’s charged – if the game is available to view at all. Silly rules, in the UK at least, prevent broadcasts of live matches in the 3:00 PM kick off slot to protect live attendance at games, but of course broadcasters in Asia such as ESPN STAR are not subject to these rules and can show these afternoon kick offs. What follows is left as an exercise to the reader. I’ve digressed enough.

It turns out its an encrypted version of the second option, and this should allow them to legal content if they can guarantee that their scheme is good enough and people will be able to have access to their desired programming on demand without unduly aggravating the copyright owners cartel. Again the FAQ says:

Joost™ uses secure peer-to-peer technology to stream programmes to your computer. Unlike other TV and video-based web applications, it does not require users to download any files to their computers or browse through complicated websites.

Impressions

Now that the preliminaries done we can now get down to the serious business. It’s a reasonable download, clocking in at a very respectable 8MB, but in this era of broadband and, really you can’t be using Joost without it, that’s hardly a big barrier and you should find yourself with the installation file in no time. The installation is quick intuitive and doesn’t really offer many options, and those that are given are not complex. So a quick and easy install.

Which leads to my first gripe.

It automatically starts in full screen. Now while I understand as a TV program that it might be sensible, to maximize the useful screen real estate, it’s disconcerting the first time it happens [your screen just goes black] and you don’t really want to suddenly have your screen disappear.

There is an option on the start screen to switch to a smaller sized screen later on, and it’s one of the first things I did. I don’t like to have the screen full sized in one program and even when I watch TV I usually want to use my chat programs or surf the web as often a TV show isn’t as enthralling as its creators think it is.

The interface is otherwise great to use, and I like the way the controls just fade away if you don’t actually need them at that moment. They’re easy to use and intuitive, making it quite easy to flick channels and to cycle through the content that’s available, and there really is a lot of content for a service that very much is in the beta stages. Most of it is focused on music and documentaries at the moment, so not really my cup of tea., but there are a fair few out there who might well like that.

The image and sound quality is very much par for the course, equivalent to my experience using other less legal streaming TV programs and rather depressingly close in quality to the very paid for experience that I get from Now Broadband TV. Roughly speaking it’s equivalent to a standard definition TV signal, and while sometimes it can get slightly more grainy, on the whole the quality is stable and comparable.

Like all streaming TV it takes a little while to get started, as the software tries to make sure it’s got enough video on hand to play for at least a few second, but everyone is so used to Real Player and WMP buffering, that it’s pretty much par for the course. Sometimes it does have a tendency to start playing before it’s ready to go in which case you get an aggravating stop start experience.

There are also a whole plethora of side features, designed to generate the interactive side of the equation with channel information, show synopsis, ratings and a variety of other stuff, such as some extra plugins a notice board and all the other general crap that one now finds on every site that is out to generate a community. I’ve not really bothered to take a look at them in any depth to see if they’ve proved popular, but these are really always dependent on critical mass. If they can get enough people using the service, and the strong response to their beta would suggest that people are interested, they’re not going to have much difficulty with the Web 2.0 side of things.

Summations

Overall it’s a decent service, with some serious pedigree behind it, and therefore it actually has some chance of changing the way we deal with television forever. Naturally I’m going to expect much more commercialization to kick in to take the gloss of the dream. They’ve already agreed with Viacom to be running ads, so there goes one way to distinguish them from a vanilla TV network.

At the moment though, given what other p2p streaming apps have achieved, the real marker for Joost is legality rather then any amazing technical innovation or any radical new way of doing things that will make things fundamentally better. I’ve not seen enough evidence that they have anything radically new to offer, and so if they didn’t have the name, I think they’d very much be also rans.

But with their strong grasp of viral marketing, a very good technical grasp of computing and networks, as so amply demonstrated by their previous projects, and an area that most people agree needs wide reform to bring it into the 21st century, I wouldn’t write Joost off just yet. They’ve so often already changed the way we use the Internet.

I’m moving rapidly towards an information age monoculture of entertainment and information. The BBC, that paragon of Britishness, has become my main source of entertainment, news and sports. Perhaps that’s just one of the more unexpected side effects of a British education

As far as TV goes, my favourites shows by far are all on the BBC now. Top Gear, Hotel Babylon, Life on Mars, QI, Dr. Who and Waking the Dead are all the beneficiaries of Auntie’s high quality production. They come from a variety of genres and represent true quality in terms of acting, plots, execution and enjoyment then more action orientated American shows, which tend to be more glitz and glamour but a less substantial end product.

I used to be big on American TV, especially CSI Las Vegas but their recent episodes have been rather disappointing. Series 7 started with a cliff hanger, but even that succulent prospect wasn’t enough to make me actually bother watching episode 2. You might deduce it wasn’t much of a cliffhanger.

The other show I loved but don’t find myself able to watch anymore is the excellent House M.D. The brilliant Hugh Laurie in the eponymous title role and the medicine/investigative driven nature of the plot has been replaced by a much more character focused and character driven storylines. The false conflicts with all too predictable resolutions detracts from the real genius of House; its fusion of Sherlock Holmes and ER.

With that gone, all that’s left is the depressing Scrubs, which as you may have surmised, I don’t hold out too much hope for. I never got caught up in the Lost, 24 or even the newer Heroes hype and so they’ve passed me by mainly, though I have seen the odd episode of all of them. They just haven’t been intriguing enough to justify following.

For those more serious moments, the BBC succeeds far better then any other organization. Their website is a top notch news source, and their television channels, BBC News 24 and BBC World, are also excellent sources for comprehensive, global and genuinely unbiased as it is possible for a news source to be. Compared to the drivel that they call news on Fox or the mess of a site that CNN is. The big press agencies such as Reuters does have its own site, and MyWay is a particularly brilliant implementation of that. But they’re very lax generally on global coverage, and they’re not designed to make news accessible and informative, and don’t provide as much contextual information as the BBC does.

For sports, without access to Cable here in Hong Kong, I’m forced to resort to highlight shows produced by the BBC to get access to high quality football programming, the only sport I now really care to watch the action in. They have the world famous show Match of the Day, with a much better standard of analysis attached to it and better production values then anything produced by the local market. As even the highlights show is locked away on Cable, there really is not much else I can do to watch the weekend’s action.

I have everything I need to be entertained, bar movies and books, provided by one provider. In an age where the diversity of media and the open access to the market provided by the internet is meant to make us more inclined to find our niche in specialized services, it seems archaic but interesting that one company, albeit a giant one, can provide everything.

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