Polonius

To thine own self be true

Archive for September, 2006

International justice

Posted by Polonius on 24 September, 2006

Recently at ScienceBlogs I came across the story of:

“the Tripoli Six, – five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian physician that are on trial accused of deliberately (as agents of Israel and the United States) infecting 400 Libyan children with the HiV virus while working at a Libyan hospital”

The Questionable Authority

On the face of it, the accusation is absurd. I cannot imagine what motive Mossad or the CIA would have to do such a thing. It is hard to see how a fair trial could possibly result in a conviction beyond reasonable doubt, if that standard of proof applies in Libya.

Here in Scotland, I think the court system works reasonably well. Of course it’s not perfect and it can take time, sometimes years, to reach some approximation to justice – years in which a lot of damage can be done. I’m thinking about the infamous Orkneys satanic abuse case. The story had everything needed to set tabloid readers baying for blood; it was even set in an isolated (literally) Scots community, just like The Wicker Man. And like the Tripoli Six, the story was self-evidently absurd.

Just imagine for a moment that you wanted to form a group of people with an illegal common interest; furthermore a common interest that is not only illegal, but morally repugnant to most of society. How would you go about recruiting new members? Advertise in the local paper? On the Internet? As soon as you arranged to meet a new recruit in person, the chances of getting caught would be so high it’s just not worth the risk. The only way to form such a group is by invitation only, and it’s only safe to invite people who have already been convicted of similar offences. The idea that this alleged ring had recruited several members across a local community without once approaching someone who wasn’t interested in joining, and who would obviously raise the alarm, is just ridiculous. But that didn’t stop the witch-hunt.

Another strange story is that of Mohammed Afroz Abdul Razzak. It’s hard to say what’s the strangest aspect of this story. It seems that Afroz and seven accomplices planned to hijack two London to Manchester aircraft on September 11th, 2001 and crash them into the House of Commons and Tower Bridge. The plan got as far as the eight booking their places on the two flights and Afroz, at least, checking into a hotel near Heathrow. This story has been reported on the BBC News Web site, but almost nobody has heard of it. Why hasn’t this been on front pages throughout the world? This offence is alleged to have taken place in England, yet he has been tried and convicted in Mumbai. Was extradition discussed? What has become of his seven co-conspirators? What is going on here?

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Don’t mess with the classics

Posted by Polonius on 23 September, 2006

There’s a saying “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.” (A little googling suggests it may be due to Douglas Bader.) The trouble with this lies in the word “wise”. The saying could be written “…the guidance of those who understand the reasons behind the rules.” The wisdom lies in knowing whether or not you do understand those reasons.

I’ve made my views clear on the subject of fashion elsewhere. Sadly, food is not immune to the hazards of fashion. Fashion victims can ruin classic recipes without even knowing that they don’t understand what they’re doing. The Caesar salad is a little piece of culinary magic. The magic is in the melding of a few none-too-subtle ingredients to result in a unique flavour that bears no resemblance to any of its parts. It only works if the ingredients are cut up small and thoroughly mixed. I’ve just had a Caesar salad garnished with half anchovy fillets and parmesan shavings the size of a postage stamp. It doesn’t work that way! Don’t change what you don’t understand!

Posted in Food, Rants | Leave a Comment »

BBC News continues downhill

Posted by Polonius on 21 September, 2006

BBC News’s Web site is currently leading on the story of yesterday’s car crash involving Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond.

Let me say at the outset that I have no doubt this has been a terrible experience for Mr Hammond and his family. I am pleased to hear that his condition is improving and wish him and his family, friends and colleagues all the best for the future. But is this really the biggest news story of the day? It was the lead story on BBC1’s Breakfast Time this morning and featured prominently on Today on Radio 4.

Choosing and ranking the day’s news stories obviously involves weighing up a number of factors. If most of the readers/viewers/listeners are in the UK, then they are likely to be more interested in events close to home than, say, a military coup in Thailand. A story involving a familiar face (even if it’s only from TV), will attract even more interest. I can even understand that colleagues at the BBC, who may know Mr Hammond personally, may allow their personal feelings to influence their judgement as to the significance of the story.

But I’m conscious that too many stories about BBC programmes feature in the BBC News. I can’t be the only person who has noticed the preposterous number of “news” stories about Doctor Who over the past year or two. And I can’t be the only person who suspects the prominence given to this story is partly down to a particularly cynical attempt to plug Top Gear.

Posted in News, Rants, TV | 5 Comments »

Coming (soon?) to a blog near you

Posted by Polonius on 19 September, 2006

My recent post on the Olympus XA is intended to be the first in a series of posts on design classics that may be found in a fairly ordinary home (i.e. my home). This post serves a couple of purposes:

  1. If you enjoyed the first post, I hope this will tempt you to come back looking for more.
  2. I am often filled with enthusiasm for new projects but, before I get very far, something else comes along and distracts me. By publishing my future plans here, I put myself under some pressure to continue.

My current plans are for articles about the following.

Kenwood Chef

This one’s going to be tricky to photograph, with its stainless steel bowl.

Nikon FM2

I’ll save this until after I’ve done a non-camera piece.

Picquot Ware tea service

I thought this was going to be a “swords into ploughshares” story of exotic aircraft alloys developed in WWII, but preliminary research suggests the design is prewar.

This may be even more difficult to photograph than the Kenwood Chef – it’s not quite as glossy, but it reflects in all directions.

Mag-Lite

I may not have a lot to say about some of these. Oh well – all the more challenging to write!

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Design classics – the Olympus XA

Posted by Polonius on 19 September, 2006

The Olympus XA Olympus XA with A11 flash redefined the compact camera. Until 1979, even “compact” 35 mm cameras were relatively bulky. Then the XA appeared. It was a truly pocket-sized 35 mm camera, with a 35 mm f/2.8 lens. Its ingenious sliding lens cap made for a smooth, and fairly tough, package that could slip into even a relatively small pocket.

Its tiny body was packed with useful features. Most striking was the rangefinder focussing, like the much more expensive Leica M series. This provides very accurate focussing, even in relatively low light levels. Like the Leicas, it had a very quiet shutter mechanism, much quieter than SLRs with their clattering mirrors. These features allowed aspiring but impoverished photographers to attempt to emulate the candid street style of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The XA predated the era of automatic everything; even DX coding of fim speed wasn’t available in 1979. The aperture priority automatic exposure relieved the user of the need to set the shutter speed, but that still left a lot of settings to be input . Arranging all those controls in such a small camera presented huge ergonomic challenges, which weren’t entirely successfully met. Nevertheless, the XA represents a milestone in the development of 35 mm compact cameras.

The legacy of the XA can be seen in Olympus’ μ seriesOlympus μ-1, μ ZOOM and XA. The original μ-1 (or μ[mju:]-1, to give it its full title), of 1991 was a point-and-shoot model that, unlike its ancestor, really did have automatic everything, including a built-in flash, programmed exposure and (100-step?) autofocus. With all those features, especially the flash, it can be forgiven for being slightly larger than the XA. The μ-1 had a slightly slower, f/3.5, 35 mm lens, and later models added zoom lenses. The μ series retains a sliding lens cap similar to the XA’s, but has improved the grip, at the expense of a slightly less smooth shape with the cap closed.

Posted in Design, Photography | 1 Comment »

Design – a preface

Posted by Polonius on 10 September, 2006

First of all, what design is not. Design is not fashion. Fashion is a means by which a few very wealthy people make obscene amounts of money from people who are too stupid to choose their own clothes.

Design covers a wide spectrum. At one end is form following function, often with an elegant simplicity. Concorde is an iconic example. The Millau Viaduct is another. The waiter’s friend corkscrew is a more everyday one. At the other end of the spectrum, design is about using funky colours. This is wandering dangerously close to fashion territory.

Dyson vacuum cleaners cover the full spectrum. Yes they are hideous colours. But we had one for a while, and there are a lot of clever touches. The tools pop neatly into recesses when not in use. The flex (ours was an upright) winds round two hooks and the top hook swivels for a quick release – a simple feature, but nice attention to detail. The transparent reservoir shows how much dust it’s lifting, and it’s very very good at lifting dust. But ask it to lift a cornflake or a dead wasp, and it’s crap! And how can the marketing be legal? It contains a filter. What happens when that gets clogged with dust? Loss of suction.

The Design category of my blog is intended to include articles about design that strikes me as particularly good (or bad). I do not intend to review Web sites. Lots of other people do that, and quite a few are better qualified than I am. Check out the Blog Watch list at meyerweb.com for a good selection of links on that subject.

Posted in Design, Rants | 1 Comment »

Blogging tools

Posted by Polonius on 9 September, 2006

Well, I tried a couple of other tools before I got here, and my thoughts were:

  • Blogger – generates invalid XHTML, and the domain I wanted was taken;
  • infogami – uses its own markup language, which I can’t be bothered learning;
  • WordPress – generates valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional.

Now, if I have to use XHTML, I’d prefer Strict to Transitional. And in fact, given that most of the world is using a browser that can’t properly handle XHTML at all, I’d rather be using HTML 4.01 Strict. But WordPress looks the best of the bunch so far.

And I’ve just spent 3/4 of an hour trying out the various WordPress “Themes” (What’s wrong with “styles”, Guys?), and come back to the default – somebody has given this a lot of thought.

Posted in Blogging | 2 Comments »