Friday, July 28, 2006

How well do you really understand how the world works?

Russell Roberts (who ranks equal to Don Boudreaux in the genius rankings) poses a fantastic question on his blog:

An American tourist goes to a remote island for a vacation. The natives live by a barter system-they have no money. When the tourist tries to pay for his lodging with a check, the owner laughs at first, but then decides that the design on the check is quite attractive and agrees to accept the check in return for lodging. This happens again when the tourist pays for food and some native artwork. The checks are never cashed. They begin to circulate on the island as money, replacing the barter system that had existed before.

If the checks are never cashed, who pays for the vacation of the tourist? Or is it free?

Answering this question really does force you to think about concepts like "value" and "wealth" and ask yourself about the meaning of "money".

Some attempts at the answer (and Russell's answer) are here. Russell's answer can be found by searching for "Posted on July 24, 2006 06:41 PM"

Collective term for a group of bloggers

Chris Tomkins asks how we should describe a group of bloggers.

I met him - and several other bloggers - in Hursley today and he posed the question there.

I think the term should be "An Autism of Bloggers". Someone will probably tell me off for offending people but I think it's probably appropriate :-p

I don't do wizards

An anonymous reader asks why this blog is called "Gendal World". The answer is quite simple: Gendal is my middle name.

Important to get these things cleared up quickly.... I don't do Wizards and Goblins and Gandalf-y Lord of the Rings things.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Anyone have a Geiger counter?

The loons at Greenpeace have published this nuclear train timetable to scare us.

The problem is that it fascinates me. I want to see one!

Given the number of times I have hung around Ipswich station recently waiting for a train to London, I have probably seen several nuclear trains go past and not even realised. How annoying.

Waste, junk, consumerism, excess, moving house, and why collecting junk is like running the government

I will shortly be moving house. Therefore, it is an opportunity to reassess my wardrobe, throw away junk and otherwise slim down my list of possessions.

This is an extraordinarily difficult task. Apart from the impulse purchases, all the junk items I've accumulated over my life were bought for a purpose. Therefore, even stuff that hasn't been used for a year is hard to part with.... "but I might need it again! It would be a waste to bin it only to have to buy it again".

There are several issues here:

  • Some people regard it as in someway wrong to bin things that they don't need but which work

    • But.... they're not valuable enough to sell in any efficient manner

    • So... perhaps they should be given away... but to who? Who wants a six year old answering machine?

  • Gifts are difficult - it feels wrong to dispose of things that others have gifted to you

  • It seems wasteful to part with items that you may need again

There are various solutions to these problems.

  • eBay lowers the costs of marketing your unwanted items to a large number of people but there are transaction costs, fulfilment is a pain (you have to post all the junk) and there is a non-zero time cost in doing it

  • Companies such as flogit4u will do all the hard work for you but there is a minimum value for items they will take

  • Charity shops will take a lot of stuff but dumping junk on them is probably not something they would appreciate.

  • The "Freecycle" movement looks interesting. Thanks Chris

The solution I have come up with, therefore, is multi-faceted.

  • I will fill small boxes with items I no longer need and put the box as a whole on eBay. The first such box is here.

  • I will give unwanted clothes to charity

  • I will bin the rest

  • I was very tempted by freecycle but I couldn't risk the extra stress of having to coordinate multiple deliveries and collections while I was in the middle of moving house.

I can't help thinking that bundling my items will result in a lower price than had I sold them separately. But the thought of having to list and post individual phone chargers and telephone cables and alarm clocks leaves me cold. Far better for someone with more time to buy the box and make a profit by remarketing the contents separately. If you're such a person, buy this box!

At the end of this thought process, however, I have reached a depressing conclusion: the same process that results in massive piles of junk "that I might just need" is precisely the process that results in ever more regulation, bureaucracy, unnecessary governmental intervention, obscure laws and other unwarranted expansion by the state: it's very easy to acquire new stuff but very, very hard to get rid of it. Accordingly, my house move has only served to confirm my suspicion that governments should be forced to justify at length and to a high standard any new invasion of our lives before they do it. It's too late once they've done it!

SmartPhone not dead? Pity.

Apparently the SmartPhone isn't dead. As an owner of a Siemens SX1 and a friend of several Nokia 6600 owners, I can only express my dismay that those disasters were not sufficient to kill this technology stone dead.

I rejoiced the day my Siemens SX1 finally died.

Of course, it may not be all Symbian's fault: the SX1 was a shoddy product regardless of the software it was running.

However, as the first phone with a keypad that ran on either side of the screen, it is sure to be a collector's item. So why not buy one?!

As chance would have it, I have one for sale. As you will see, it is for sale as part of a bigger package. More on this later...

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Internet Explorer 7

I've installed the IE7 beta and am quite impressed.... it looks nice, the tabbed browsing works well and some of the rethinking they've done (e.g. hiding some of the menus, etc) is ahead of Firefox.

However, I still don't like the search functionality - I much prefer firefox's "active" find that jumps around the page as you enter the text you're searching for.

I've encountered a few pages that don't load with IE7 (they check for IE6 and will only run on IE6). I found this patch very useful:

The third question contains a link to a registry hack to make it switch between IE7 and IE6 modes.

Restaurant Menu Choice and Food Quality

Andrew Ferrier asks an interesting question: "Let's say you're setting up a restaurant. How large should the menu be to encourage potential clientele to believe in your food?".

How the restaurant business works is a fascinating subject. I guess we all learn several truths about restaurants as we grow up. For example:

  • Chain restaurants offer consistency. When you're in a strange place, the neon sign of a familiar chain tells you: "Come here... it's safe... it's familiar.... it's not scary". That's valuable

  • Restaurants in fantastic locations don't need to try very hard. And rarely do.

  • Restaurants with large plastic or laminated menus are unlikely to specialise in seasonal or fresh produce :-)

But Andrew is asking something slightly different: how many items should be on the menu?

I think the extreme cases are easy to answer. Very posh restaurants typically prepare a new menu every day and there are only one or two choices for each part of the meal. They clearly want their customers to believe that everything has been prepared freshly that day. Restaurants with massive menus clearly cannot have bought all possible items freshly that day: they would go bust within the week. Therefore, you must assume there is a degree of reheating and freezing to be expected.

I guess the problem is: fresh doesn't mean better; frozen doesn't mean worse.

Therefore, contrary to what I thought I'd write at the beginning of this post, I no longer believe the size of a menu is a reliable predictor of restaurant quality. I guess relying on recommendation remains the best way to go.

Don Boudreaux is a genius of the highest order

I am extraordinarily grateful that I currently earn more than the minimum wage. I hope misfortune, ill-health or other calamities never conspire to lower my earnings potential but I'm ever-wary that they might.

However, if my earning power was to reduce to the extent that discussions of the minimum wage became directly relevant, I fervently hope that the minimum wage had been aboloshed by then.

Don Boudreaux explains why.

I was reminded of this post as a result of his recent discussion about the Doha Trade Round: Required Reading.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Unaccustomed as I am....

My blogging has been a little light of late as I was preparing for an old school friend's wedding, where I was best man.

The wedding was this weekend and, now that it's over, I can relax.

Chris asked me to be his best man over a year ago. I was on business in Saudi Arabia at the time and I remember the call very well indeed.

Of course, when the main responsibility lies a year in the future, it's very easy to say yes. I won't make that mistake again (only kidding, Chris.... I'll also be your best man next time if you want....) [I wanted to use this line in my speech but I was told that 1) it would make the bride cry and 2) it wasn't funny anyway. Shame]

What I hadn't grasped last year was that there was more to being best man than organising a few drinks a few weeks before and delivering a speech after dinner. It became vividly clear this year that my role would also need to include helping with the planning. Whenever I spoke to the groom, my head started spinning with the random things he was telling me so I took it upon myself to build a schedule for the day detailing what everybody needed to do at every time ("Ushers move ornamental trees from outside church and place on coach; take seats on front row"..... "19:30: First dance; Best man and chief bridesmaid to join Bride and Groom after one verse".... ). We were on version 1.7 by the time the big day came. This document came in for some mockery on the day. I can't think why...

Of course, it doesn't matter how well or badly a best man does the rest of their job, it's the speech that everyone judges you on. I started work on it several weeks before the wedding and went for a traditional approach (Respond to the groom's toast, introduce yourself, embarrass the groom, praise the groom, compliment the bride, read the telegrams, propose a toast to the bride and groom).

As I imagine is normal for such occasions, I rewrote my speech several times until I was happy with it and had a structure that flowed sufficiently well for me to be able to deliver it without notes, whilst still sounding spontaneous.

In the event, all the preparation paid off and the speech was very well received. I even got several laughs. Which was gratifying since those who know me know that I don't do funny. However, the success of the meal - and of the day itself - was down to the bride and groom, their wonderful famiilies, the bridesmaids and the ushers.

Chris, Jacintha: congratulations!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

iTunes problem solved!

I have been pretty pleased with the new Lenovo ThinkPad T60p I was issued with a few weeks back. It's bigger and heavier than I would like but I'll live with that.

However, when tranferring my files and settings from my old laptop, I managed to mess up iTunes. About one track in two that I tried to play would fail and iTunes would issue a message that said: "[name of song] could not be used because the original file could not be found". The irritating thing was that the file was on the disk and, if I pointed iTunes at it, it would work. What was going on?

I ignored the problem for a while until I decided to fix it this morning (being crippled, there was not much else I was good for this morning).

A search for the error message turned up lots of scary postings on message boards suggesting my iTunes database was in some way corrupt.

Thankfully, it was nothing so serious: I store all my music in the "My Music" folder of "My Documents" and iTunes keeps track of all the files through its "iTunes Music Library.xml" file. A quick glance through this file showed the problem: I am using a different user ID on my new system and so the "My Documents" folder has a different location... iTunes was telling the truth after all!

My first inclination was to edit the file. So I pulled up the documentation for sed and did a global search and replace on the file. No joy.... iTunes was still complaining. A further search of the web provided the problem: iTunes actually reads a binary representation of the XML file ("iTunes Library.itl").

The recommendation was to corrupt this file so that iTunes is forced to rebuild it from its XML file. The side effects (lots of meta-data gets lost) were more than I was prepared to accept so I reinstated the original file and employed a hack:

I created the missing directory and copied all my music files into it so that they were now were iTunes was expecting. Result.

I can't walk

Being the weak man that I am, I allowed a friend to talk me into playing squash yesterday. I haven't played squash for about seven years. I played about as well as one would expect given the gap, and the fact that I wasn't very good back then anyway. Unfortunately, I woke this morning with a sense that there was something wrong..... when I tried to get out of bed - and couldn't - I assumed I had suffered some sort of stroke in the night.

Alas, nothing so respectable.

Listening to my body, I conclude that exercise is bad for me. It is a lesson I will not forget.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Diamond Geezer does the City

The always-fascinating "Diamond Geezer" is continuing his tour of London by documenting the wonder of the world that is the City of London.

Excellent stuff.

As convenient as it would be for me to find a long term engagement at a client in Canary Wharf (I could walk there), I'd much rather be working somewhere in the City. The closest I get at present is walking from Liverpool Street to Bank on a Thursday evening on the way back from my East Anglian client. Even though I only walk half a mile and go down the same road every time, I always spot something new... the place is just so astonishingly densely packed with interesting features.

Track-side advertisements

On the train back from Liverpool this afternoon, I went past several trucks parked in fields with large messages on display saying things like: "Your advert could be here!"

The fact that there was, in fact, no paid advertising on any of them made me think:

  • Were I a company wanting to market my products or services, would such an advert persuade me to call the farmer and buy an ad? The advert didn't really give me any reason to call. Perhaps they'd have been better telling me how many trains go past each day or how many people would see it or what their demographics wee.

  • Perhaps the farmer should be advertising to those who place ads rather than those whose products are being advertised.

  • Those travelling on peak-time weekday inter-city services are overwhelmingly business travellers (the price ensures that). Adverts that attract their attention will be different to ads that interest weekend leisure travellers. Some sort of targetted advert based on the nature of the traveller would seem useful

  • Perhaps there's a role for technology here. Train schedules are known in advance and real-time train information feeds are also available. Perhaps targetting travellers by destination would be sensible. If a Glasgow-bound train was about to pass, perhaps a nice advert for a deep-fried Mars-bar would drive some extra sales at the chip shops in Scotland. Perhaps it would be profitable to advertise the virtues of M&S "Simply Food" to those travelling on a train scheduled to arrive at Euston on a long distance train around dinner time. Perhaps, even, trackside sensors could be profitably employed to display different ads to those in first class, standard and "quiet zone"

One thing's for sure.... writing "Your company could advertise here" clearly doesn't work...

Is Kangaroo Bustmeat?

I made a brief visit to Liverpool this weekend. One of my best friends is getting married in a couple of weeks and I will be best man. I wanted to sit down with him and his delightful fiancée and go through all the details and ensure nothing had been missed. They seem to be remarkably calm and on top of things. (Phew...)

After I was done, I visited my parents and we went out for a meal. The restaurant was pushing their "exotic trio" platter - which consisted of kangaroo, springbok and something else that I forget at present. It was a little over-meaty for my tastes (although I should, perhaps, have anticipated that...) but I enjoyed it.

I hope I'm not about to appear in the New Scientist's hall of shame....

When "Second Life" makes the Sunday Papers, you know it's time to take it seriously.

Today's Observer carries an article about "Second Life".

The eightbar boys won't stop talking about it and (who'd have guessed it) they might be on to something.

I have quite enough trouble keeping my first life under control so I don't intend to get involved just yet but I sense it may just be a matter of time....

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Where's a physicist when you need one?

Given that I owe my first class degree in mathematics to a big bet on being able to master "dynamics", I shouldn't admit that I couldn't answer this question immediately. However, I thought I'd throw it open.

I was in a bar on Saturday afternoon watching the England vs Portugal match.

I say "watching". I was, for the most part, bored out of my mind. I find it very, very hard to get excited by football. I watched the penalties; they were fun. I grasped, correctly, that it was not appropriate to demonstrate my enjoyment of the penalties; everybody else there was taking them extraordinarily seriously.

I digress. My point is this: I found myself interested by the fan that was being used to circulate air in the warm bar.

It was one of those fans that moves about a vertical axis, hence blowing air across an arc.

I was sitting about three metres away.

I observed that it took four seconds for me to feel the rush of the cool air from the time the fan was directly pointing at me.

From this, I think it is safe to surmise that the air was being pushed across the room at 0.75 ms-1.

My question is this: do we have enough information to calculate how fast the blades were spinning? And if so, what was that speed?

(Like I say, I was bored...)

There's got to be money to be made here somehow...

As I suffered the tyranny of the "premium" ringtone on the train on Monday morning, it occurred to me that there's a missed opportunity.

Those who inflict novelty ringtones on the rest of the world have paid good money for the privilege. I sat, open mouthed, through an advert on Sunday evening offering three "emergency service alarm sounds" per week, at a charge of £3 per tone!

However, once you have paid this money, you are not strongly incented to answer the phone as soon as it rings. You want to hear the tone you've paid so much money for - and, of course, you want to share your exquisite taste with those around you.

This means that the caller must wait longer for their call to be answered and the call is in "ringing" state for longer.

In the UK, callers don't pay for unanswered calls. Yet.... there must be some way to monetise all those phones that are ringing for several seconds longer than they need to.

  • Adverts on the display of the callee? (What else are they going to do while they sit there, gormlessly, listening to the first verse of "Sweet Child of Mine" before answering it?)

  • Some way of charging the caller from the second they hear the ringing tone?

  • There has to be something....

Monday, July 03, 2006

SOA Anti-Patterns

Sandy Kemsley links to a great post on SOA anti-patterns.

I'm only partially through the article because I'm reading it through my fingers, in the agonizing way one tends to behave when you're reading unpalatable truths and you know you've been guilty of the crimes.... Well worth reading.

What he said...

Andrew Ferrier (yet another Hursley-ite) has sprung up on the scary side of the firewall.

Welcome, Andrew.

He has a great post on the wonders of trade and specialisation.

Not even Alan Partridge stayed in a hotel that was also a nightclub

Accordingly to an intriguingly anonymous poster, my discussions of the "top five best things about a laptop" mean I am walking along the wrong side of Alan Partridge.

Such an observation is probably justified.

I thought about Alan Partridge when I checked into my hotel this evening. I was informed that a "little disco" would be taking place "but that it would be over my midnight". Fair enough, I thought; I don't tend to go to bed much before then anyway.

What I didn't count on was the noise being so deafeningly loud - and my room so close to the source - that I am finding it hard to sustain a chain of thought for long enough to compose a sentence.

In the blissful three-second peace between two tracks, I did ask myself "What Would Alan Do?" However, I realised that going to an all-night garage and striking up a friendship with the assistant would not be a optimal long term strategy.

So, instead, I'm blogging about it.

I can't help thinking I'm not progressing very far back towards the right side of the line....