When Scandal = Opportunity

The latest scandal related to “the royals” in jolly old England has plenty of important people hopping mad and many more annoyed that telephoto photography technology isn’t better than it is.  It seems the newest princess (Princess Kate), was photographed sunbathing topless at a Chateau in the South of France last week and the grainy photos have been published in magazines in at least 3 Euro countries.

The attractive and extremely popular young princess and her family are angry and trying to fight back and contain the damage caused by this invasion of privacy perpetrated from over a half mile away by a magazine photographer (reportedly from a French magazine!), on assignment.

How is this latest scandal an opportunity?  Well, my Brit friends and colleagues have been complaining for years that adopting the Euro as their currency would be a huge mistake for Great Britain and would saddle (or is that “straddle” Joe? 😉 ), their economy with the negative effects of unstable and careless Euro countries (Greece, France, etc.), who economies are tanking (and/or are on the edge of doing so).   Perhaps this Euro-scandal plus the promise of a better, more artful British currency will be enough to ensure (for good), that the powerful government and other forces pushing the UK toward the Euro never succeed and that Brits everywhere can always savor their beloved pound notes.   For those who love tradition (and art), I believe the choice is obvious.

The “New” Old Currency in England?

 

 

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Why the hell is there an MTA tax on my cellphone bill!

The last time I checked, there was absolutely no cellphone reception on the New York City Subway. No phone calls, no Internet access nothing!

Yet hidden away on my cellphone bill is a tax code for the MTA. I was on a call with AT&T a few weeks ago, to perform my yearly check to see if I have the best deal on the service I consume (if seems that unless you call them around once a year, the charges you pay start to either rise or at least don’t take advantage of newer plans). I asked the usual questions:

1. Please look at the service package I have, am I getting the best deal you offer for these services?
2. Is there some new way of configuring my bill to lower the costs?
3. Can you confirm that my minutes that I pay for are close to what I use?
4. If I were to move to your competitor would they offer me a better deal? And would you like to just compete proactively to save me having to do that?

The result is always a reduction of some part of the plan, same or better service, but with a lower price (and it seems they always waive upgrade fees if I choose to upgrade my phone more often than once every two years)

I do the same thing with cable, home insurance, car insurance and banks. Just 15 minutes every couple of months saves many hundreds a year (and yes I do like GIECO).

Anyway while I was on the phone with AT&T, since the call went so well and was quick I thought I’d ask about some of the taxes on the bill. One was labeled MTA, I was sure it wouldn’t be the Metropolitan Transport Authority for New York City, as they offer no cell service. But I was wrong, it is them! Just a few cents every month, but since there are millions of cell users in the area, this is a big ticket item on their budget.

I’m sure it’s a hangover from the days when cables ran through subway tunnels, and they have just kept it going.

Here’s hoping that’s the reason and they are not in fact investing in cell phone services on subways.

Can you imagine how annoying it will be if everyone has to shout over the noise of the trains at each other.

And of course since the emergence of reality TV, where everyone shouts into their speakerphone (so the camera can pick up both sides of a conversation), everyone below the age of 30 feels the need to always answer their phones that way.

If you want to look really stupid, try walking down a street shouting into the screen of a cellphone. It actually makes people who talk into a Bluetooth headset seem sane by comparison.

So now imagine these same reality TV saturated phone junkies screaming into their slab of glass on the subway platform or even the subway, it will not be pretty.

If the number of fights per month on the subway system increases dramatically, I suspect that will be a good indication of the ability to make calls while down there.

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School Sucks

It’s been quite a while since I’ve was a student in a high school, but what I remember was pretty mixed. Twenty children in a class, some classes were great while others were tedious. I always loved the classes with the teachers who pushed the boundaries of what I knew.

Their will always be different qualities of teachers (and students), that’s just life, but something massive has changed in education in the last few decades.

Firstly teaching is really about teaching the skills of learning. When you teach someone how to learn they can learn everything.

But the trend is now to teach to a test, this is very different! When you decide that a test is the measure of success you are turning schools into factories and are not dealing with the idea that every child is unique. And once you forget uniqueness you stop motivating anyone.

Then when you assume that every child is the same you effectively drag the quality for everyone down. Not all children are the same, some have aptitudes in analytical skills while others are artistic and many have specific weaknesses and strengths that need to be supported.

When you ignore individuality you force low performance.

Now if you remove special support for kids (special schools) and place all children in the same class you exacerbate the issue.

More recently, to lower costs, the amount of classes has been reduced, growing class sizes to 30 or even 40 kids, in rooms designed for 20, forcing children to share their personal space, forcing a lack of attention.

So lets summarize what government has done.

1. Implemented mandatory continual testing to specific tests that drive teachers and students to a factory approach to learning.
2. Assumed all kids are the same, and taken away the schools ability to help kids individually.
3. Increased class sizes while not providing enough room or support to deal with these larger classes.
4. Oh and taken away the ability for schools to provide reasonable discipline (kids have rights you know)

Every child left behind

Why has government done this? Well it seems there is a move to privatize public schools (In the US they call these for-profit schools, charter schools). So if you break the public schools then you can make money out of it.

But to do this you need to completely destroy the school system. If public schools work, then you have no reason to change to a “for profit” system.

Today there are more people “supporting” the teachers, than teachers. So called Network services that provide “bureaucratic” assistance to schools, ensuring that the myriad of rules are followed, however inappropriate or overreaching the rules can be even with incredibly limited budgets and the specific talents of the schools and the children. How can that be best for the children? And of course it’s very expensive.

Teachers are not well paid. As an example, in New York, a public school teacher needs to have a Masters degree to get a public school teaching license. I suspect teaching is the lowest paid Masters profession anywhere in the US.

Of course private school teachers do not need to have a masters degree, so they will be cheaper. But is a less expert teacher the right way to teach children?

Here’s an idea that I heard from a teacher recently.

How about we teach children the skills they need to succeed at college, university or work. And then measure the success of a school by how well these students perform once they enter either higher education or the workforce.

It would be very easy to measure and an effective way of measuring the success of students and the schools.

Of course this doesn’t drive the school system to be privatized.

But it is doing the right thing for children, their families and the whole of society.

But who wants that….

Who would have thought Pink Floyd would have been so right

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Why 3D just isn’t good enough

Eyes are amazing devices. When you look around your eyes focus on what you are staring at directly, and everything else you see becomes softer in focus. But as soon as you move your focus the new thing you are looking directly at comes into focus.

Continually your eyes are moving changing the place you are focusing on. Everything in your field of vision is available to focus on.

But when you go to see a 3D movie. The director (through the lens of cameras) has chosen what you should focus on, keeping everything else in soft focus. This is okay for a flat image, because it shows you where to look on the screen. We have become used to it (to some extent) and see it as artful direction.

But when we go to see a huge screen (such as an IMAX movie) in three dimensions, this just does not work.

When you are looking at a massive screen in 3D and only a small proportion of it is in focus, it is just annoying. The issue is that for a 3D movie to be totally immersive, you need to be able to see everything in sharp focus, not just the center of the director’s intent.

When you are watching a forest in a movie (such as Avatar) you want to see all the vines in sharp focus. This gives you the impression of being totally immersed in the movie. But the director chooses to keep just the section when the camera is focused in sharp focus and the rest in soft focus. This just ruins 3D.

Now when a scene is computer generated (CGI) there is no reason to create a depth of field. And when they choose to keep everything in focus, it works so much better. All of a sudden you are totally immersed in a 3D world. That’s how 3D should be!

The only 3D movies worth seeing on a big screen are computer generated. Cameras with lenses need to be focused on a specific spot. That technology just doesn’t do it for 3D.

As filmmakers learn to shake of the shackles of 20th century movie making and adopt a pure system for 3D making, the genre will have a future. If they continue to hold onto depth of field photography along with low frame rates to add creative blur to movies then the life of the cinema may be coming to an end.

If when you go to the movies to watch a 3D movie, and you find the effect makes you a little queasy then that is because of the low frame rate, and forced soft focus. If the whole image is created using CGI and is at a faster frame rate, you would feel you were part of a 3D world on screen, and not on a rollercoaster of blur and enforced head shaking movement.

I suspect the move to create move immersive 3D movies has a couple of groups fighting against it.

Firstly there will be those who are firmly convinced that “traditional” rules are film making must be enforced, in the same way that those who though movies were better without sound fought for their art (and the jury is still out on that one of course).

And secondly if a movie is made to be an immersive 3D experience (as I’ve described) the costs of production would be much higher and the resulting film wouldn’t look as good without a massive 3D screen, reducing the revenue possibilities from smaller theaters and home viewing.

So the chance of seeing really great 3D is limited my tradition and greed.

Two huge factors which are (if history is any guide) likely to win.

Here’s hoping for fully immersive 3D
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Wars lead to something beyond war – But it’s always painful for everyone involved.

England had a war with France for over a century. It happened between 1337 and 1453AD, and today there is still animosity between the Frogs and the Roast Beefs (their names for each other).

If you ever wondered where “giving the finger” came from it was a French response to the effectiveness of the English Long Bow. The French vowed to cut of the fingers of the longbow men if captured. So the longbow men would wave their fingers in the air as a taunt to the French.

This “longbow salute” has over time been simplified to a single finger. But the French still resent it’s origin.

And while Winston Churchill used the salute as a “V for Victory”, you can be sure that he and those who saw his salute knew of this double meaning.

The Irish Catholics and the Irish Protestants, still fight regularly. Thankfully the bombing campaigns of the IRA have stopped, and at a political level there is discussion of their differences. But children still fight, and men still argue with more than words in pubs and at sporting events.

After the forming of an Independent post-colonial India and the subsequent forming of Pakistan and the murder of the world renowned peaceful leader of that amazing change, we still see aggression between the two sides of that argument who now both own the worlds most destructive weapons.

The simple fact is that when arguments turn violent and people are hurt and killed, then the friends and family of those lost will always put aside logic and reason and look for revenge.

If you want to create crazed people who are likely to join together as a mob, who put the idea of killing their enemies ahead of everything else, including the welfare of their loved ones, then it’s easy just kill their son, brother, mother, father, uncle, aunt, sister or wife.

Is there a way of stopping the madness? Well there has never been found a simple way, but a slow and careful set of actions that embrace religious and ethical influencers and the holders of power has been proven to work to some extent.

The Chinese still hate the Japanese because of the atrocities of world war II. Don’t believe me? then count the Japanese cars on the streets of Beijing, You won’t need many fingers.

If you want to know what it takes to move from fighting to talking, just look at the Irish conflict. It’s not over of course, but has made amazing progress. Have a look at http://www.infoplease.com/spot/northireland1.html

The only way to stop killing is to talk. Initially most of the talking happens through back channels. But eventually each side in a conflict must address why the other side holds the position then do, and some form of compromise must be considered before true open discussions can take place.

These discussions are taking place all around the world every single day.

But when a politician stands up and says there is a simple and absolute answer to any conflict, what they are really doing is pandering to one part of their electorate, and they don’t expect their words to lead to a resolution, just make it harder for their political opponents. That is a cowardly and destructive act, and should be derided by all peaceful people.

The issue is every single politician does it! And it makes me very Angry…..

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How everything works

The universe is amazing, in terms of just how big it is, and also how small it is.

Scale stuns.

When we look at the amazing large scale of everything we can see, think just how big it is. When you consider the size of the universe, the speed of light becomes so small.

It takes many lifetimes for light from other galaxies we see in space to reach us. This means we have no practical way of knowing what the universe really looks like at the moment we look at it. What we see happened a long time ago, in fact many long times ago. We see light arriving from many different places, all from different times.
What we see is therefore an illusionary moment in time. And that makes our view of the universe… illusionary. We can only assume what the universe looks like at any moment. Time really isn’t the constant we think it is.

So lets look at the other end of scale. When we look at molecules we see they are made of atoms. And when we look at atoms we see they are made of electrons, protons and neutrons with a lot of nothing in between. And when we look at electrons, neutrons and protons we find they are in themselves made of other things, which we have given even more amusing names. And it turns out even these “things” are made of other things. How deep the rabbit hole goes is anyone’s guess. But the more we find out about the way matter is, the more we see the edges of other ideas of other dimensions and other ways of perceiving.

The space in-between the massive and micro scales where we perceive and spend our thinking lives is still an incredible space, and the more we learn and push the boundaries the more meaning our existence has.

Amazing view of the bonds inside a molecule

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Is Net Neutrality a Myth?

There is this concept called fairness. I say concept because frankly the world isn’t a fair place. The deck is always stacked.

If you can afford it you can travel first class and arrive fresh giving you a competitive advantage.

If you work in a corporation and have a senior position, you will have a comfier chair, a bigger office, an assistant, a key to the executive washroom. All of these perks make you life easier, meaning that you personally will be more productive as compared to someone who doesn’t have these advantages.

If you live in a country with road tolls, you can choose to take the faster, smoother, safer route (and pay more), or take the slower, bumpy route with traffic lights, blind curves and more traffic.

Generally these are not choices, but practice limitations placed on people who cannot afford the cost of the smoother path through life.

Should the Internet be the same way? Is the Internet already the same way?

Access to the Internet is expensive, and the more you pay the better access you can achieve. There is a technique that large banks use to make incredibly fast, tiny trades on the worlds stock markets. They are able to buy and sell millions of times in the time it takes everyone else to make a single trade. This allows huge profits to be accrued just because of the speed advantage.

But is it fair to allow this model to continue. Well clearly it’s not fair, but when has fair ever been a concept that we all adhere to?

Check out this link Is Net Neutrality possible?
I’m personally in favor if keeping the Internet as a level playing field, where no one gets more efficient access beyond what they pay for their on-ramp. I’m just not sure that that it’s possible or ever really existed this way. But we should do whatever we can to keep it as even as possible.

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Piracy – Dealing with a niggling issue of the internet this decade.

There are many cultural transformations taking place right now, due to the pervasiveness of the internet. Many established business practices are changing either to take advantage of the internet or because the internet is forcing them to change to survive.

Media companies, of all types have had to find new ways of working. Newpapers (the ones that have survived so far) have had to find ways to make money outside of just printing copies on paper. While movie companies and the music industry are slowly moving from terrified laggards towards embracing the possibilities of online distribution. Slowly but surely cinemas are moving to digital distribution of films, actually getting out of printing and shipping celluloid, and instead downloading high res digital copies directly to the cinemas.

The end of the movie rental shop is upon us, as people move from browsing shelves to browsing the itunes store. The people who prefer to “own:” or “pickup” a DVD from a video shop are slowly aging to the point where they don’t visit the shops often enough to make them viable.

The issue of piracy has been with us since people would listen to a new opera and hand write the words and music they heard to sell on the street. Every child and student from the 60’s onwards has “bootleg-ed” and today there are millions of copied movies available for download from the internet.

The challenge is that if movies are placed outside of the range of a potential viewer, then these viewers will find other ways to get them. This applies to price, censorship, regional availability or any other limiting factor. I’ve tried and failed to get movies downloaded onto a multitude of devices from many sites (a range of on-demand services and amazon), and if it wasn’t for itunes and the i-range of apple devices I would probably have given up and carried on either buying DVD’s and ripping them to my computer (legal) or if I couldn’t get them that way downloading them from the internet (illegal).

I still have an issue getting non-us movies legally in the US. I really like a lot of the output of the UK, France and Australia, but it can be really difficult to get these online. I have a multi-region DVD player (not called a DVD player as the title DVD actually is protected but if you don’t use the name its legal, go figure!) and purchase disks from other countries for this purpose. But many TV shows just are not available, and it’s really frustrating. I’d be happy to pay to get them online, but the possibility of selling a license to a company in the US at some point in the future, stops companies allowing us to do this, even when they haven’t sold a license for viewing in the US! (and often never will)

The point here is that if you make it easy for people to get movies legally , nearly everyone will. But when businesses makes it difficult then people will take the path of least resistance.

The same goes for the music industry. Pandora, spotify and their ilk are really great. They allow you to listen to music whenever you have the internet. But there are times when I don’t have the internet (travelling abroad, driving in the boonies, on a plane or a subway) and for these times I do download music. Again I use iTunes for this. In the old days I used to buy CD’s and have nearly a thousand of the buggers. The space they consume is horrendous, and so I now prefer downloading songs from iTunes. The new service from apple called iTunes match is fantastic. It has allowed me to create a library of all the music I own (CD’s and downloaded from itunes) and use it on all my i-devices at a very good bitrate, and I can download the ones I want to listen to dead zones. I can afford my music and so see no reason to pirate.

But that’s the issue; I choose to get my movies and music legally, because I like the services available and the quality of the product.

I came to my conclusion to be legal because it works for me. If I couldn’t afford music or the music I wanted wasn’t available to me for regional reasons or censorship or age related reasons I may well have made another choice.

Wake up media industry, think like a consumer, make it easy to be legal and people will.

When you use the law to fight your consumers you actually create a sub-culture that thrives in “putting it to the man”, and you actually create more piracy. Play nice.

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Extreme Laziness 101 – Home Automation

Living in a New York City Apartment has many positive aspects. Personally I have become very used to doing without stairs, and doormen are possibly the best people in the whole world (except my wife of course). And it’s great to have service people doing all the service-ey things that come with a house.

But there is also the downsides of apartment living, the most obvious ones being REALLY expensive car parking and absolutely no spare storage space.

But there is one apartment living pain that just cannot be tolerated, and that is the fact that very few lights are hardwired into the ceiling with a wall switch. This means that you end up with dozens of lamps plugged into wall sockets. So turning the lights on when you get home at night can easily turn into a major enterprise, not unlike watching Doctor Who running the Tardis. With lots of rummaging under tables and pressing foot switches. Add to this that to start with you are performing this in the dark, you can see the issue.

There are ways around this. The easiest way is to get remote controlled lamp controllers. There are many of these on sale, and I think I’ve tried most of them. The issue is that when you plug little blobs of tech directly into wall sockets, they are at the whim of the quality of the power supply. So every year or so they break, and when you try and replace them, you find that the model you have been using is no longer available and so you end up replacing the whole lot. Only to find a year later the same thing happens again.

A few years ago I came across a model that was rather inexpensive and so I had no expectations that it would age any better than any of the others. I have been pleasantly surprised. I think they are now on their fourth year and all elements are still working perfectly.

What I didn’t know until very recently is that these devices are actually built on a standard that is now being followed by quite a few vendors. This means that I can actually add other bits. Which I have just done.

I now have two wall switches in the network along with five plug in lamps. And I have five remote controls that allow everything to be switched from every possible place in my apartment.

And probably the most important part of this whole thing, is that it all works simply.

I’ve just found a dongle that when plugged into the mac or pc will allow me to control all my lights from my iphone. That dongle is in the mail from Amazon as I write this, so is a project for a couple of weeks time.

What I’ve also found out is that I can control the air conditioners from the same automation network. And it turns out I may even be able to get a front door lock that integrates into the system, which in theory means I should be able to lock and unlock the front door from my iphone. I say in theory, because I suspect that my wife may have an opinion on that, and that opinion may not be in line with me turning out apartment into a borg ship.

Still I’m loving the light control we have.

If anyone is interested in automating their lights and maybe a little more, the system I’m using is based on the z-wave standard, and there are loads of choices available from amazon. The main lumps I’m using are from Intermatic and the model is an HA101K, and I’ve added a few wall switches are remotes from GE.
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When clouds go bad.

Like many people I make use of virtual servers from a major domain provider. It’s so easy to provision a server, setup a new domain name and add email addresses. The cloud is truly easy and low cost for a small business, but there is a catch. One that hit me this week.

I use godaddy.com as my provider, and this week they were hit by a denial of server (DDOS) attack.

It seems some would-be anarchist thought that taking down a lot of websites would either be fun or would make a point. Well I have no idea what point they were trying to make, but it was truly annoying.

It seems that even a single spotty teenager can take down a huge cloud with a few zombie machines.

It seems that to keep the cost of the cloud down and to make it easy to use, they skimped on security.

What did bring a little light into a dark situation was that they definetly use their own servers for their help desk. I called the helpdesk number when I noticed the servers were down and what I heard at the other end was frankly excellent.

Rather than the ususal “Welcome to Godaddy’s help desk queue. Your business is important to us, so we will make you listen to this message for a while etc..” what I got was “w,w,w,w,w,w,w,w go, go, go, go godaddy go, go go, welc, welc, welc” it was like a blast from the past. I thought I may have reached either max headroom or possibly the HAL 9000 just after Dave had removed those circuit boards.

I didn’t get to speak to a help desk agent, but while waiting I picked up the story online from a dozen sources, so knew what was going on.

The systems were down for several hours. I hear it may have been ALL their clients who were down.

Here’s hoping cloud technology implementations get better, there is no way that large cloud vendors can survive longterm if they don’t work out how to move beyond this (low) level if risk.

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