Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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Category archive: Software
Interesting. I just looked at a particular classical CD on amazon.co.uk, and it told me I’d already ordered it, last October. As it happens, I knew this. I was just looking to see what had been happening to the price of the CD in question. But I am impressed that they reminded me.
In general, Amazon has a clunky, even twentieth century feel to it. Which for a clunky twentieth century guy is very reassuring.
The automatic delivery to my computer of audio files of CDs I have already ordered in plastic form is very cunning. It all arrives on my computer automatically, and arranges itself on something called my Cloud Player. It is now late at night, and although the speakers on my computer are nothing like as good as my real speakers on my real CD player, they are nearer and can thus be quieter. I’m playing one of these audio files now, which is one I have ordered in plasticated form but which has not yet arrived. This way, I can play it as soon as I pay for it, just as if I was living in the twenty first century!
And I’ve got to admit that there is something rather agreeable about not having to get out of my chair to hear music.
On Monday last I attended a BBC Radio 4 event, at which Evan Davis interviewed Deirdre McCloskey:
Yes that is the same screen, and it remained the same colour throughout. In “reality” I mean. If you were there, which I was.
But digital cameras, when set on “automatic” as mine always is, have minds of their own when it comes to colour. One picture happens to have a lot of a certain colour in it, and it changes the overall colour of everything to compensate. For instance, when you take indoor pictures but there is outdoor sky to be seen, then even if in reality the sky is deepest grey, the camera turns the sky deepest blue, and the indoor bits orange. Likewise, when the sky is blue, but if you are outdoors, the camera, for no reason, is liable to fill a clear blue sky with pollution and turn it a sort of slate colour. What was happening here is that these two pictures are both cropped. But the left one was only cropped a bit, while the left one was cropped a lot. And the stuff that got cropped out of the left one meant that the screen was no longer green. It was blue.
As to what Deidre McCloskey actually said, well the thing I was most intrigued by was that she was entirely cool about being asked about how she used to be Donald McCloskey. In which connection, don’t you just love how that circumstance is alluded to in this:
That’s an article reproduced at her website. So, is that her handwriting? Could well be.
I doubt the medical side of the switch was as easy to do as that.
The libertarian propaganda side of this is that McCloskey is a character, rather than just a boring bod in a suit. The usual evasive sneers against pro-capitalists just won’t work on her. And I even think it helps that (maybe because of those medical dramas - don’t know) her voice is a strange hybrid of male and female, often sounding a bit like electrical feedback. She also has a slight but definite stutter.
The reason I feel entitled to mention all this is that it clearly does not bother her, or if it does she has learned very well to stop it bothering her, and indeed to make a communicational virtue of it all. I guess she figures if you are saying interesting stuff, it really doesn’t matter if your voice sounds a bit funny and if people sometimes have to wait a second or two before hearing the next bit of it. In fact it probably even helps, because it gets everyone listening, proactively as it were, guessing what is coming instead of just hearing it.
See also: Hawking.
One of the rules I have developed for my own photographic activities is to try always to take pictures, in among all the merely nice pictures, which tell me where I was and what these nice pictures were of.
I do not always follow this rule. Rules are like that. The ones you follow all the time, automatically, don’t have to be rules. It’s the rules you often break which are nevertheless good which have to be rules, to persuade you to follow them more than you would otherwise.
Here, for instance, is a fun snap:
That was taken on June 29th 2007, 5.38pm (plus 30 seconds), a fact which I now know because my camera automatically recorded it. I called the photo ArtHasItsUses, as this young guy is demonstrating. But, where are we? I have two other snaps of the same scene, but none of them include any information about exactly where we are, like a street name. Nor did I photo the plaque at the bottom of the sculpture, as I often do. This would likewise have given me some useful words to google, and offered me the opportunity to supply a link to other works by the same artist. But I did neither of these sensible things.
I tried following the phone number that you can see behind the Thing, but before anything would tell me anything about that (maybe) then the anythings in question demanded to know all kinds of things about me, and I gave up.
I understand that many cameras nowadays automatically record exact place of shot along with exact time of shot. Mine is not such a camera.
A vague clue is that, judging by other photos taken somewhat earlier, I appear to have been in the general vicinity of Islington, North London. But where? And what is this rather agreeable Thing? Who did it? Anybody?
When I trawl through the archives, I keep coming across excellent snaps which for some reason I quite ignored at the time. Here is one such, taken in July 2007, on Westminster Bridge:
The Thing on her bag, the Wheel, is behind her. She is photoing Big Ben, unless I am much mistaken.
I think one reason photos like this one seem better now than when taken is because hiding the faces of my photographer subjects now seems more necessary than it used to.
The really good news is that the cameras in these old snaps are starting to look very old. Soon, they will be totally out of date, and at that point my Digital Photographers archive will become a wonder.
Here is recent confirmation of the map app effect, i.e. the replacement of paper maps by electric maps.
The pictures below were all taken on June 4th of this year. Soon after that date I picked out these nine snaps of digital photographers doing their things, with a view to showing them here, but I never got around to doing that. I made my selections without any particular thought of maps. So far as I can tell, I picked my winners on a variety of grounds, three of them, it would appear, because of interesting backgrounds, in particular the one (2.1) with the word VISIONS to be seen in the background, on the side of what looks like a TV van. My selection is also biased towards facial non-recognisability.
Here are eight of the nine I picked.
And here is the ninth.
Was that ratio a fair reflection of the ratio for the entire lot of photos I took that day? No. It was not. I took about 350 snaps, of which about third to a half were of digital photographers. That’s a lot. Number of maps being flaunted by photographers: one. That one. Otherwise, no maps to be seen. This does not of course mean that no other maps were being carried. But it is telling, I think.
Four of these snaps, by my calculation, feature pictures being taken with smartphones. I think I was a bit biased towards that also, but the fact that I had so many examples of that to pick out is likewise telling.
Goddaughter Two is in town. She was already spontaneously talking about this map thing, before she knew I had any interest in it. She and a friend are now being London tourists. They are seeing a few maps, but only a few.
Change is not just the new stuff. It’s the old stuff that you don’t see any more.
JUST BEFORE POSTING THIS: Goddaughter One’s dad dropped by. He was recently wondering about maps, his question being: How do I best tell fellow engineers, visiting London for a footbridge conference, where London’s best footbridges are to be found? Give them a paper map and mark the bridges on that map? No. Paper maps don’t sell any more. At all. Ergo, they are rapidly ceasing to make them. Answer: Given them electric map references. They get you to within ten yards of each bridge, no worries.
I’ve recently been doing a lot of trawling through old picture archives, and in the course of this I found a directory devoted to Digital Photographers Holding On To Their Maps.
So here is an enormous clutch of such photos, with the little squares below all homing in on the maps. Click to see the photographers in action, if you wish.
The photos you get by clicking are exactly as taken, but the little squares involved quite a lot of enhancement - brightening, contrasting, sharpening, etc. - the better to reveal their mapitude.
If you don’t wish to click on any of these map squares, fine, but at least reflect with me on how the age of maps, on paper, like this, is now drawing to a close. The above snaps were snapped between 2005 and 2007. I wonder how many such photographs I’d be able to take now. Next time I go out snapping snappers, I’ll make a point of trying to see if paper maps are still being carried by photographers.
My guess would be, yes, just a few. This would be because the keener you are on photography, the more likely you were to have had a nice camera before the smartphone thing kicked in, and the less likely you might be to get a brand new smartphone, to replace your regular, mapless old phone. So maps being held by people with regular cameras are still, I am guessing, around.
But, nobody taking photos with a smartphone will now be simultaneously waving a paper map. Such a person already has a map.
It’s surely worth me adding that I got my smartphone entirely for its map app. It’s lighter than an A-Z and much lighter than all the A-Zs you’d need if you travelled much, and also much nicer than google maps printouts from my computer, because my smartphone, crucially, tells me where I am. For me, a smartphone is a book of magic maps which also does occasional phone calls and textings, not the other way around.
Going back to the pictures above, it’s not just the map-flaunting that is now looking quaint. So do a lot of the cameras. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. A picture collection is like a well stocked wine cellar. It gets better with age.
Mark Steyn may be a grump about such things as the future of Western Civilisation, but he sure can write:
For much of last year, a standard trope of President Obama’s speechwriters was that there were certain things only government could do. “That’s how we built this country - together,” he declared. “We constructed railroads and highways, the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge. We did those things together.” As some of us pointed out, for the cost of Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill alone, you could have built 1,567 Golden Gate Bridges - or one mega-Golden Gate Bridge stretching from Boston to just off the coast of Ireland. Yet there isn’t a single bridge, or a single dam (“You will never see another federal dam,” his assistant secretary of the interior assured an audience of environmentalists). Across the land, there was not a thing for doting network correspondents in hard hats to stand in front of and say, “Obama built this.”
Until now, that is. Obamacare is as close to a Hoover Dam as latter-day Big Government gets. Which is why its catastrophic launch is sobering even for those of us who’ve been saying for five years it would be a disaster. It’s as if at the ribbon-cutting the Hoover Dam cracked open and washed away the dignitaries; as if the Golden Gate Bridge was opened to traffic with its central span missing; as if Apollo 11 had taken off for the moon but landed on Newfoundland. Obama didn’t have to build a dam or a bridge or a spaceship, just a database and a website. This is his world, the guys he hangs with, the zeitgeist he surfs so dazzlingly, Apple and Google, apps and downloads. But his website’s a sclerotic dump, and the database is a hacker’s heaven, and all that’s left is the remorseless snail mail of millions and millions of cancellation letters.
And then it disappears behind a paywall. Which is to say a place where links probably don’t work for you. Which is why I never pay to get beyond paywalls. I pay for things I want. But paywalls, walls I cannot direct every single one of my readers through (in the event that they wish to be directed so), I do not want.
But, I’ll bet you anything, at least this paywall works properly.
I just left a comment at Samizdata, on this posting by Natalie Solent (who has been very productive there of late) about the lack of security of the ObamaCare website, and this Guardian story on the subject:
The insecurity of the site, probably incurable in less than several months (from what I’m reading), has always struck me (ever since I first read about it a week or two back) as the absolute worst thing about ObamaCare, though I admit it’s a crowded field. The Bad News letters from insurance companies at least put a number to how much money is now going to be screwed out of you, that Obama said (about forty times) you would not be screwed out of. But all that data lying around for any tech-savvy passer-by to grab means there’s no upper limit to what you just might lose, if you have anything whatsoever to do with this horrible horrible thing.
It took me years to trust Amazon with my bank details. Only when about half the world seemed to be signing up for that deal did I take the plunge, and I still fear that in some mysterious way I might one day regret this. I mean, what if Amazon gets taken over by greedy incompetents, skilled only at crookedness, of the sort now already running ObamaCare (and also “advising” people about it)? I know, there are safeguards in place, but my fear is, although small, real. My fear with Obamacare would now be big, and real. My attitude to ObamaCare would be (a) I want nothing – absolutely nothing – to do with it, and (b) If the President and his gang say I have to have something to do with it, then I hope the President and his gang rot in hell.
Obama, it seems to me, has been treated like a great many other bad black Americans. He has been cut a million miles of slack, never criticised, never taught any morals, and now suddenly, patience has run out and he faces a lynch mob of enraged citizens. He is going to get the political version of a life-time prison sentence, namely a place in the Presidential Hall of Infamy. (I know what you’re thinking: wishful thinking on my part. Maybe. But his friends are all abandoning him now. He surely now realises that he has screwed up big, and that there is no way back.)
Heinlein had things to say about this. If you are going to punish big later, then it is kinder to give your punishee some warning, with small punishments earlier, when he does small things wrong when younger. I’m not talking physical abuse here, just the odd harsh word when the kid does a bad thing. That way he learns, instead of being hit with the kitchen sink, out of the blue, when he turns 18 or 50 or whatever.
Last night I attended the Simon Gibbs talk about how to herd cats. For me the problem was right there in the title. It was like he knew he was attempting something impossible.
My immediate reaction is that what I do to cats is stroke them, if they will let me. If I “owned” a cat, that would mean that it would also be my duty to feed it. But herding cats? There’s a reason this phrase is used to describe social schemes that can’t work.
Simon’s scheme seems to depend on some kind of website. Websites are not my strong point, even understanding the point of them let alone actually making them work. The less new software I have in my life, the happier I am. So maybe I am missing not something here, but everything. Simon made several mentions of a “button”. When I find out where this is (somewhere at Libertarian Home?), I’ll give it a go. If others do and do whatever Simon wants them to do, then I guess the cats will start being herded and my present scepticism will be proved wrong. I hope that happens. (As I said to Simon after his talk, see this.)
Slightly more seriously, Simon’s talk made me think of a distinction that I associate with the great American theorist of management, Peter Drucker. As I recall it, Drucker describes various different ways to do organisation.
One is to imagine the perfect organisation. You ask: Suppose we had no organisation already, with all its obligations and habits and rituals, what would the ideal organisation for what we are trying to accomplish look like? And then let’s turn what we have into that. An example Drucker was fond of was Sloane’s General Motors, probably because Drucker worked for Sloane, although exactly when he did that work, I’m not sure.
Another is not to dream dreams of future perfection. It is to ask: What little steps can we take, now, immediately, in the right general direction, given the strengths and resources that we already now possess?
In my opinion the second attitude is better suited to the life of a London libertarian with a bit of influence but not much (i.e. libertarians like me and like Simon Gibbs), than is the first.
The late Chris Tame, whose Number Two I was for about a decade, was one hell of a libertarian organiser. Over the years he organised some superb and superbly ambitious events, because he asked what the perfect event would look like (as I did not) and then went ahead and organised it. But my ongoing disagreement (it never boiled over but it was always there) with Chris was that too many of his ideal schemes did not achieve anything other than some rather demoralising costs.
My own approach was to concentrate on much smaller completions – a small meeting, a pamphlet, a radio performance – and just try to get each potential completion completed as quickly and satisfactorily as possible, at which point it was on to the next one, and so on until victory is achieved. (You can see why I like blogging so much. And perhaps also why Chris never liked it, although he had other reasons besides the mere smallness of individual blog postings.)
The reason I mention Chris Tame, apart from the fact that I think it may illuminate, is that what I may very well be doing here is being reminded by Simon’s current scheme, as expounded last night, of a past argument in my life, and then slotting him into that argument on the other side from me. I may, that is to say, be completely misunderstanding what he is now proposing. I might, as the saying goes, be fighting the last war rather than this one. Since I do not now really get what he is proposing, this is not, to put it mildly, unlikely. Happily, Simon’s talk was being videoed, so you’ll soon be able to watch it for yourself and decide for yourself what you think about it.
I may very well, at some future date (maybe after watching the talk again), be explaining why this posting is completely wrong.
Alex Singleton has sent me an advance print-out of a book he has written about how to do PR. I have reached page 59, and am so far very impressed.
When I read a book of this sort, I like to read about relevant personal experiences, as well as Big Lessons and Grand Principles. That way, you are more likely to be convinced that the Big Lessons and Grand Principles really are as good and grand as they may merely seem.
So I particularly enjoyed this bit (from page 59):
When I got my first column in 1994, in a newsstand computer magazine, I had no idea what I was doing. But it seemed like I needed to get some stories, so I wrote to all the relevant companies and invited them to send me information about what they were doing. Not all of them replied - those that failed to respond were PR idiots. Some of them wrote to me saying that they would add me to their press release distribution lists - they were amateurs.
Then some guy called Quentin got in touch. His company, Accountz, sold products by mail order and it was miniscule - just him and his wife. But he wrote me a personal two-page letter (this was before email was commonplace) explaining how he had a Big Idea to defeat the major players in his sector. Unlike some of the other companies, he had no PR agency - but he had a story. And during the 15 issues I wrote that column, I could always rely on him
to take my calls and give me a good quote. When I upgraded to bigger-selling PC titles, including the market-leading ComputerActive, I kept on writing about his company. Today, his products are sold in PC World, Currys, AppleStores and Staples, and as I type this he has just made a successful exit from the company, passing it onto an investor.
What worked about that PR-journalist relationship is that Quentin - perhaps unwittingly - had good personal brand. He never tried to force a bad story on me and never wasted my time.
Alex has told me he is in the market for typos, and I think I see another blemish, to add to the two I’ve already told him about. Shouldn’t “onto” (final line of para 2 there) be “on to”? Not sure, but I think I’m right about that.
More about this book when I have finished it.
In May of this year, I visited something called Burgess Park, which is in South London. It’s a terrific place and it was a terrific day. I was on my way to Michael Jennings’s home, to watch a cricket match on his big telly, if I remember it right.
And while in Burgess Park, I of course took photos. It is a fine place from which to observe the Big Things of the City.
Trouble is, on that day, I suffered from a regular photographic disease of mine, which is a tendency for all my pictures to be twisted at bit, clockwise. Whenever I photo a Big Thing, I try to make it entirely vertical, using the grid on the picture feature for instance. But when I get home and see the pictures on my big screen, the Big Things, as likely as not, will be leaning over to the right. Alex Singleton pointed out that my photos, as chosen and shown here, also have a tendency to do this.
This is caused by some combination of my eyesight, the glasses I wear to correct my eyesight, and the little twiddly screen on my camera, which I think causes me to miscalculate such things as verticals and horizontals.
Answer: Photoshop, or whatever I use instead of Photoshop. Rotate. Crop. Easy.
Well, yes, when only one photo is involved. The rotate thing is easy, and cropping is not a problem either, because it doesn’t matter what the ratio is of width to height for the resulting picture. But, if I am doing a whole clutch of photos, the only way I can make all the small photos I show here, using my Photoshop clone, is to make square exerpts from the big pictures. Which is fine. But I would also like to be able to make small versions of the originals. And if the originals are no long exactly 4x3 in proportion, that means the small version won’t be either, and hence won’t be the exact same size as the other small photos.
What I needed was not just the ability to crop exact squares of whatever size makes sense, but also to crop with a rectangle that retains its exact proportions. This, my Photoshop clone does not have, or if it does, I have not been able to find it.
I wanted, some time in late May or early June, to put up a clutch of those Burgess Park photos, but since so many of the otherwise most suitable snaps were suffering from clockwise twist, I gave up and then forgot about it.
However, recently, in order to do video (I hope to tell you about this later but promise nothing) but also in order to be using the programme that the rest of the world also uses for photo-manipulation, I purchased Adobe-Premier-and-Adobe-Elements, Adobe Elements being the down-market (plenty good enough for me) version of Adobe Photoshop of the sort now used by pro designers and photographers. And my version of Photoshop Elements does have a proportional cropping (if you get my drift) facility.
Which means that I can now rescue pictures like this, good, but twisted, ...:
… buy doing this to them with Photoshop Elements ...:
… resulting in this picture looking like this, good, and not twisted, or at least not nearly as twisted as it was:
Hurrah. I can now show you a great clutch of pictures of and from Burgess Park. Which I will not do now as this posting is already a posting and postings should, as a general rule, say just the one thing.
The Big Thing on the left that looks like a kitchen refuse tub is the notorious Walkie Talkie, notorious because it recently got itself into all the papers by frying nearby shops.
I am now making use of three distinct photo-manipulation programmes, which is ridiculous but there it is. That’s what is happening. I use my Photoshop clone because I do, and it works. I use Paint.NET because I can’t make my Photoshop clone do screen captures, like for the middle picture above. So I use Paint.NET only for that, and save the captured mega-image as a .jpg and then sort it out with my Photoshop clone, because I am used to that. And now I use Photoshop itself, for the reasons explained above.
The twenty-first century is complicated.
Now that I look again at the photo above, having done everything above this paragraph several hours ago, I suspect this picture needs to get ever more untwisted before it’s exactly right. I now suspect another cause of me getting this kind of thing wrong, which is my tendency, due to the local vicissitudes of my desk, to not look at my big computer screen from exactly in front of it, but instead a bit from the side.
The twenty-first century just got even more complicated.
LATER: The above rotation was just the one degree.
Here is the result of rotating two degrees:
Better, I think. Though this time, I just used The Clone, because I know my way around it, so the proportions got shot to hell. But at least I think The Big Things may finally be pointing exactly upwards.
So, could this also work for cats?
And for all the cat lovers out there, don’t accuse Polimeno of being biased toward pooches. Finding Kitty is in the works.
A lot of the cat stuff I stick up here on Fridays is things I find by googling for “cat” news. But this I learned about by getting regular google emails that come to me about face recognition.
Face recognition software is, I predict (as do many others I’m sure), going to have all kinds of weird unintended consequences. This is only the start of it.
For instance, scientists: Which animals have faces that face recognition software can distinguish between, and which not? What does those answers mean?
What about face recognition errors, joining you up with relatives or long lost twins you never knew you had?
What will face recognition do to the lookalike trade? “How much like Brad Pitt do I look? Face recognition couldn’t tell the difference, that’s how much!”
Will face recognition answer the question: Which celebrity do I most look like?
Any more stuff like that that anyone can think of?
Incoming from Rob Fisher:
This is long, but Stallman is a very clear and precise speaker, so there is much understanding to be had here.
This being a YouTube performance from 2005, lasting 1 hour and 44 minutes.
By which I mean interesting software news from New Zealand.
A computer programme is not an invention:
A major new patent bill, passed in a 117-4 vote by New Zealand’s Parliament after five years of debate, has banned software patents.
Quotulatiousness (to whom thanks for the NewZ) says hurrah.
LATER: I emailed Rob Fisher about this, and he replied thus:
That is interesting, thanks.