Polonius

To thine own self be true

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

BBC News continues downhill (6)

Posted by Polonius on 6 May, 2009

When I had occasion to chastise Stephen Fry about the silly modern habit of using “more than” to mean “as many as” (or, less charitably, using “three” to mean “two”), I was sure he wouldn’t be so stupid as to do the same thing with percentages. I had no such confidence in the new, dumber, BBC. Today they published this piece of innumerate drivel.

Checking out the actual numbers at Amazon, I see that the Kindle DX has a 9.7″ screen, compared with 6″ on earlier models. That’s a ratio of about 1.6 in linear dimensions or about 2.6 (let’s round it down to 2.5) in area. That makes it about 150% bigger, not 250%!

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Delusions of adequacy

Posted by Polonius on 15 December, 2008

At my place of work we’ve all recently been asked to update our CVs (That’s curricula vitarum or, for those of you across the pond, résumés.) I don’t know whether to be amused or horrified at those people who consider themselves “highly competent” in MS Word, yet think multiple blank paragraphs are a sensible way to force a page break, when what they should be using is one of “keep with next”, “keep lines together” or “widow/orphan control”. Even barely competent users could insert a proper page break.

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Egregious ignorance

Posted by Polonius on 10 July, 2008

In what way is a word processor better than a typewriter? Firstly, because it can wrap text automatically at the end of a line. Secondly, because it allows users to define text styles. Every word processor I have used over the past quarter of a century has supported styles. So why does almost nobody use them? Of course Microsoft make them less intuitive with every new version of Word, but even before Word 97 people insisted on reinventing the wheel with every paragraph.

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Dumbing down

Posted by Polonius on 19 February, 2008

I’ve followed the journey of The Independent with interest since its inception. When new, it was visually striking. Its then state of the art printing process, together with its editorial policy, led a renaissance in photojournalism. Its initial attempts at political neutrality made it a bit boring, but it soon settled down. As it struggled to find its niche in the market, it sought new stories, often with a strong, sometimes preachy, moral voice. Its international coverage has been better than most.

The story of why the Indy went tabloid is an interesting one. Somebody on the staff (I don’t recall who) drew up a chart. Draw a vertical line down a page, dividing it in half. Draw two horizontal lines across the page, dividing it in six. That’s the UK newspaper market (as it then was). Left and right are the political stance of the papers; top to bottom you’ve got broadsheets, mid-market tabloids and red-tops. Top left is The Grauniad; top right, The Times and The Torygraph. Bottom left is The Daily Mirror; bottom right, The Sun. Middle right are The Daily Express and The Daily Mail. Middle left is (or was) nothing. That was an obvious gap in the market.

I used to buy the Indy daily, then weekly. The Saturday magazine crossword is one of the most entertaining there is. Of course, nobody can beat Araucaria in the Grauniad. And The Listener Crossword is more challenging – but I wouldn’t buy The Times for that. More recently, I’ve found that my main reason for buying the Indy on a Saturday has been (though it pains me to admit it), Jeremy Beadle’s quiz. Now he’s dead and, though his replacement compiled a creditable effort on Saturday, I thought I’d take a long hard look at the paper to see if it was really worth my while.

Of course it’s got a lot of crap in it. It’s always had fashion pages, and the centre pages on a Saturday are always full of bling for brain donors. Even Saturday’s cover story was about fashion. Racism is a serious issue, but I can’t get terribly worked up about serious issues set in a context of a market that only exists because some people are too stupid to choose their own clothes.
I’ve been vaguely aware of a few stories in recent editions that appeared to be pure padding, with no substance to them at all. Turning to page 5 of Saturday’s edition, I came across something that triggered alarm bells – “Computers ‘to match human brains by 2030’“. The first sentence was enough to convince me this was likely to be garbage. Computer power to match the intelligence of human beings – by what measure of intelligence? I don’t know if the piece said, because I never reached the end of it. The second sentence talks of “technical progress” in a way that suggests to me the author doesn’t know the difference between “technical” and “technological”. But maybe he’s a fairly junior writer – or out of his area of expertise? No, his name is Steve Connor and he styles himself “Science Editor”, no less.

I got as far as the fourth paragraph before I encountered this gem: “optical character recognition – the technology behind CDs”. Remember, this pig-ignorant cretin describes himself as a “Science Editor“! Not only should he be dismissed for incompetence, but so should whoever employed him in that post. I gave up in despair and disgust.

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Good blogs, bad blogs

Posted by Polonius on 8 June, 2007

A perusal of my blogroll should be enough to convince you that my interests are fairly eclectic. I generally read blog feeds via Protopage, which provides a handy feed aggregator (and lots of other widgets) that I can access from anywhere I can find Web access.

There are many good blogs in my Protopage blog feed, but I keep them sorted in (roughly) order of interest. Fairly high up the list is Schneier on Security, whose material ranges from fairly abstruse IT stuff, to the latest half-baked ideas from the War on Terror™. In the space of 24 hours [I drafted this a couple of days ago], he’s posted not one, but three interesting articles (1, 2, 3).

At the bottom of my Protopage list are the irritating blogs that I just can’t quite bring myself to delete:

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Voices in my head

Posted by Polonius on 25 March, 2007

A couple of weeks ago, Edward the Bonobo mentioned the concept of a generative grammar, something I’d never come across before. Then, through WTF, I came across  SCIgen, which uses the related concept of a context-free grammar. Today, while trying to get my head around some concepts of musical theory, I followed a series of links around Wikipedia from Mixolydian mode via Musical mode, Key (music) and Chord progression to Generative grammar again. Clearly the Fates are conspiring to guide me towards this concept. Perhaps generative grammars are the basis of the project that’s going to advance my understanding of Perl?

Posted in Internet, Technology | 3 Comments »

Phantom caller

Posted by Polonius on 15 December, 2006

Mobile phones (cellphones if you prefer) are everywhere. I avoided getting one for a long time, but now I have two, one for work plus my own. They’re very useful thing, but they do have a tendency to go off at the most inconvenient times. But on Wednesday, my phone went off just as I parked the car. It took a few seconds to finish what I was doing, so I was slightly flustered when I fished it out of my pocket. I fumbled a bit, pushing the wrong button first, but eventually picked up the call. “Hello!” – no reply. “Hello!”, I repeated. I became aware of a strange reverberation on the line, but still nobody there. I feared that the caller had given up waiting as I fumbled. Then I heard the rustle of a phone in somebody’s pocket or handbag. Obviously somebody had dialled my number by accident. I was just about to hang up when I thought, “But what’s the weird echo?” Then I remembered I have two phones! I pulled out the other one and, sure enough, that’s where the call had come from.

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Single point of failure

Posted by Polonius on 5 October, 2006

Yesterday’s edition of The Daily WTF told a tale of some HVAC maintainers who managed to close down a bank’s wire transfer capability by taking down both air conditioners for preventive (sic) maintenance. It seems slightly implausible, because hardware is usually significantly more tolerant of high temperatures than wetware, but never underestimate the stupidity of HVAC maintainers. I remember, many years ago, two people staggering out of a computer room with splitting headaches after a trained monkey had left a hose flapping about while doing some maintenance. Apparently the people in the room hadn’t acquired the knack of living on an atmosphere consisting largely of freon.

But I digress. One of the bank’s major errors was of course having a Single Point Of Failure (SPOF). For all their redundant systems, the servers were still all in one room. It is bizarre that many of the UK’s ISPs have their main server farms in one building, at Telehouse Docklands. I hope the ISPs have mirrored facilities on other sites. I’m sure Telehouse has no end of redundant electrical supplies, UPSes, generators, inert gas extinguishers, etc., etc., but it’s still one building.

You can design systems to withstand all predictable failure modes, but if you have a SPOF, you can be confident that an event, or combination of events, that you didn’t predict will catch you unawares, and nobody knows that better than Telehouse themselves. In September 2001, it is claimed that 70% of all Internet traffic between the US and Europe passed through Telehouse’s premises at 25 Broadway. When the World Trade Center collapsed, it took out Telehouse’s mains electrical supply. Telehouse’s backup systems operated as designed. The UPSes picked up the load without missing a beat and kept everything ticking over until the generators could be brought on-line. They had enough diesel to keep the generators running for three days. Nobody had predicted a scenario where the electricity supply would be cut off and fuel delivery trucks would be banned from Manhattan Island for over three days. But it happened.

Strings were pulled; a tanker got through. But then another unpredicted event occurred. Just as people can’t breathe freon for more than a few minutes, diesel generators can’t breathe smoke and dust for more than a few days. Telehouse Manhattan was off-line for over 30 hours.

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