Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Greed or Megalomania ?

I recently noticed a newspaper article about pay increases for senior NHS managers.  They had an increase of  7.6% while nurses got 1.9%.

The story is a useful  reminder that  it is not only in the private  sector that those at the top award themselves lots of other people's money. The sums of money seem to be much smaller in the public sector, though that may partly reflect greater job security.

However making money is not the only motive for the ambitious. They also seek power and prestige, and I those are often more important than money. 

That is one of the reasons communist states have failed.  Outraged by the concentration of power in the hands of a few rich people, communists thought they could neutralise that power by ending private ownership of industry. If they ever did that, their success was only temporary.

The ambitious in one generation may be stripped of wealth and power, but ambitious young people growing up in such a society will realise that there is only one way to make a mark – rising to  a senior position in the state bureaucracy. So people of the type who, in a capitalist economy would be rapacious captains of industry, will in a communist state hold the power; more power balancing less money.

Remember what happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Senior Communist bureaucrats, joyfully discovering something called 'privatisation', sold themselves state assets and transformed themselves into the 'oligarchs'

The stereotypical argument between communists and the defenders of capitalism misses the point.

One  side denounces capitalists as greedy monsters who can be neutralized by transferring power to public spirited public officials, and the other represents them as public benefactors .

I think the truth is that many prominent people are greedy monsters, but it is only the chance to make money in the private sector that distracts many them from the pursuit of political power.

Letting them make money seems to be a lesser evil than letting them rule, quite apart from the fact that to prevent megalomaniacs from making money involves also hampering the activities of many other people who are not megalomaniacs.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Working in my own time.

This is my first blog from the net book, which is fiddly, but usable.

Having described my strategy for coping with clock change, I thought I'd report that it seems to have worked.

I didn't get up till 8:15 this morning, a quarter of an hour later than usual, so I've actually taken the time change in three instalments, of 30 minutes, 15 minutes and, assuming I get up on time tomorrow morning, another 15 minutes.

It seems to have worked. I haven't felt at all tired or uncoordinated.

This afternoon I managed a great purge of accumulated magazines, which was most satisfying.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Changing the Clocks

I've just tried a new way to deal with the changing of the clocks. Instead of a single adjustment of an hour, I decided to try two adjustments of half an hour each.

Last night I set my alarm for 7:30 instead of the usual 8 - I decided not to change clocks till this morning. I didn't actually need the alarm as I was awake before 7:30 GMT, so I rose as scheduled.

Having altered clocks by an hour, I've returned the alarm to its usual 8, and wait to see how I feel tomorrow.

Changing the clocks is distinctly odd. It is understandable that people should want to get up earlier when the mornings are lighter, but that could be achieved just be getting up earlier.

Do we need different times for different parts of the world ? One international time would suffice, provided we could overcome a strange superstition, that the various events of our daily routine should each be linked with a certain range of numbers.

People are used to associate getting up with a number between 6 and 9, starting work with a number between 8 and 9:30, going to bed with a number between 10 and 12. Those associations would be broken if we had a single world time. I expect that would be considered a great problem. If it is a problem, that is only because people who do not understand numbers allow their lives to be ruled by them.

Even people usually at home with numbers are sometimes defeated by times. The Economist once argued that Britain should adopt Eastern European time, giving two reasons. First it would be easier for people in  Britain to make phone calls to their opposite numbers in other countries if all worked the same hours, and second, that road accidents would be reduced if people finished work in daylight.

The first reason would require people to align their activities with their clocks, but the second would require people to align them with the hours of  daylight, so that people in Eastern Europe would finish work earlier than those further West.

It is an amusing truth of logic that a contradiction implies anything. (See Chapter 2 of my notes on Philosophy) As it had mutually contradictory premises the Economist's argument was indeed valid, but was still useless for establishing its conclusion. 

Friday, 27 March 2009

Piping Hot Food

I've just seen a newspaper report that drinking tea at a temperature higher than 70o C multiplies by 8 the risk of oesophageal cancer. There appears to be no problem with drinking cooler tea, so I guess the same risk may attach to eating or drinking anything at that temperature.
It often puzzles me that many people should be so anxious that their food and their cups of tea should be hot when they consume them. ''I can't eat/drink this' they say in tones of profound disgust 'It's cold'.

It isn't just that I don't mind if what I ingest is cool. Tastes differ and it doesn't worry me that others like what I do not. However, the difference often bothers those others who do like stuff to be hot.

There seems to be an almost moral fervour in  their denunciation of cold food and drinks, as if they feel it their duty to dislike anything cold entering their digestive tracts. 

Frequently they don't confine their complaints to what is offered for their own consumption, but show an unwelcome and ill mannered interest in the temperature  of my food and drink. 'You can't drink that tea' they'll say indignantly 'It's cold', sometimes trying to replace it by something hot, after I've waited for what seems like ages for it to cool to a temperature at which I can drink it comfortably.

Most odd.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Shape of a Word

My Mother, a primary school teacher, used to say that when children are learning to read, it is usually the short words that baffle them. No one, she said, ever has any difficulty recognising 'elephant'.

I was reminded of that yesterday when Radio 4 reported on the 60th anniversary of the opening of the M1 motorway. They interviewed a lady who helped design the road signs. She said that they had to be redesigned to make them readable by people travelling fast, and that required the use of lower case. Signs in block capitals would have been harder to read because all the letters would have been the same height, which would have concealed the shapes of the words.

It has become fashionable to demand that children be taught to read by only one method, synthetic phonics, in which they are taught to deduce the pronunciation of a word from the sounds of the component letters, and from those alone.

That is not how most people read most of the time. We usually glance at a word and recognise it immediately; we use the 'look say' method.

By insisting that children attend only to the individual letters and ignore the shape of a word, we are denying them a useful clue. Perhaps some children can't recognise the shapes of words, but that is no reason to try to conceal that clue from all.

That is a bit like making everyone walk with crutches because some are crippled.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


I've penetrated the Windows like user interface of my net book and experimented with Linux in command line mode.

I found among my books a 25 year old guide to UNIX, which reminded me of the stuff I used to do on the college Xenix system in the mid 1980's.

Joy of joys, the ancient commands still worked !! 

I created a little file with ed, the line editor, and corrected my mistake.

I generated a calendar for this month and sent it to a file.

It was even more fun that getting a Sinclair Spectrum simulator to run on a PC - something I haven't done for a long time. It made me feel, if not exactly young, at least middle aged again.

Alas, there was a worm in the apple. I couldn't get either of the characters '\' or '|' As the latter is the pipeline symbol that is very serious. They are both shown on the Z key of the Asus, but I can't get them on the screen, though I've tried all the combinations of special keys, caps lock and num lock that I can think of. Readers are invited to post suggestions, preferably ones that do not involve smashing the net book in righteous fury.

Meanwhile I shall copy file containing the missing characters from my PC and try cutting and pasting on the Asus.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Getting a new Cable Modem

Early this year my cable broadband, nominally 20 Mb/s, slowed down to about 2% of that. It was sometimes even slower - I once measured a download speed as low as 13 kp/s, although upload speeds were usually roughly what they were supposed to be.

I therefore had to communicate with Virgin Media. I assume that ‘Virgin' does not refer to the sexual inexperience of the owners or employees of the company. Possibly it signifies a subliminal recognition of their ineptitude in helping customers.

Fist I tried the telephone help line. At least it was free, but I had to deal with a series of menus prefaced by long winded recorded explanations, before I was allowed to listen to half an hour of recorded music while I awaited for Angel in India to answer the phone and tell me to do what I'd already done - reset the modem and wireless router, and plug a computer directly into the modem. Eventually I seemed to lose Angel.

I then tried to send Virgin an email.

Emails have to be sent through a special hard to locate page of the Virgin web site. One has to enter one's autobiography in a set of little boxes, and has to repeat the procedure every time one sends a message.

The messages have to be entered into a tiny window that one can't resize, so that one can't proofread the message before sending it . The size of the window doesn't limit the length of the message, just the part one can see at any time.

Messages are supposed to be attended to within 48 hours. After waiting considerably longer than that I eventually spotted a reply in the spam trap. All emails from the Virgin help staff go into the spam trap.

The message told me to perform various tests, and referred me to various web pages for further explanation but none of the references was a correct url, so it took me quite a while to find them.

The tests were quite inappropriate to my problem of an exceptionally low connection. They wanted me to record three trace routes to the BBC site; my connection was so slow that the process timed out without finishing, closing the MSDOS window, so I had nothing to copy. They wanted me simultaneously to download four large files in case downloading a single file didn't use the full capacity of the connection, but even if four files had used four times as much capacity as one, that would in my case have still be only four times two percent.

Eventually I managed to record three incomplete trace routes, and sent the results to Virgin. Trying to reply to their email drew the response that my message hadn't been delivered, because I hadn't sent it from the Virgin site, so I had to cut and paste into the silly little box, thus losing the message header.

The response was a message identical to the one I'd just replied to. So I resent my previous readings, prefaced by a protest.

I then progressed to a different, but still Spam trapped, request for information. This time they told me how to log in to the modem configuration file. I didn't confine myself to the fields they asked me to look at, but looked at everything, and found the suggestive words:

'Software update failed'

I considered that a CLUE, and emphasised it by putting it at the very beginning of my reply (sent through the little box, of course), and suggested they replace the very old ntl modem.

The Virgin response ignored everything I'd said; it was simply a repetition of the request I'd just answered.

After copying my previous reply into the little box, with expressions of discontent, I tried another telephone call. This time I got through quite quickly to a different lady in India who looked at my account and said 'The reason your Broadband is slow is that you have a very old modem that is not capable of handling the present service. I have ordered you a new modem, it will arrive in two days'

It did, accompanied by a complementary plastic spanner to help fix it, and it works. hence my jubilation. The whole process had taken about two months.

Did the various other people who were supposed to be dealing with the problem fail to notice the modem was out of date? Did they not bother to check, or did they just not exist ? Perhaps they were experiments in AI.

Incidentally, anyone wanting to investigate their modem should follow these instructions:

Using a computer plugged directly into the modem, point the browser at This should take you to that Virgin's message calls the modem's Configuration page. Click on
the Login link and enter "root" as both the username and the password. Then read the horrid truth.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Heart

People used to believe that emotions were located in the heart, but that opinion was abandoned centuries ago. It is more than 350 years since Descartes wrote:

"'The mind does not immediately receive the impression from all parts of the body, but only from the brain" (Meditations, p 139 of the Everyman Edition of Descartes works translated into English)

And for at least a century we've had quite a good idea of how the brain controls the rest of the body, but people still talk as if their emotions were in their hearts.

 The various 'heart' locutions have become cliche's. When people say 'I love you from the bottom of my heart' they don't think of their blood pumps, but visualise a large box of chocolates, shaped like the heart in a pack of cards and tied with a pink ribbon. 

Emotions do have some effect on the heart - it tends to speed up when we are stressed, but emotions have at least as marked effect on the bowels.

''My heart goes out to you' might just as well be 'my bowels move for you', in fact that would be much better because bowels do move, but hearts don't go out.

Similarly 'hand on Heart' might be replaced as a declaration of sincerity by 'fingers up the bum'

I expect most readers of this blog are either  too polite or too timid to adopt either of those alternatives; I certainly am, but when I hear people talking about their hearts, I can't help thinking of what they might more aptly have said.

Monday, 9 March 2009

I've Bought a Netbook

It's one of the Asus machines, with 16 MB of internal flash drive instead of a hard drive, so its power consumption is low and it runs for hours on one battery charge.

It runs Linux, though I suspect the user interface is contributed by Asus. It irritatingly presents a main menu that divides possible activities quite counter intuitively into such categories as 'Work', 'Learn', 'Play', and tasks are assigned to those categories quite haphazardly. For instance the quite reasonable graph drawing programme, which almost anyone who wants to draw graphs would classify as 'Play' and the rest would consider 'Work', comes instead under 'Learn'.

I haven't yet found how to change the categories, and the directory tree available seems to be incomplete. However I have found how to summon a terminal window and have started to explore the various directories there.

I may try to write some of my own commands - I suspect they go in the bin directory.

Hints would be welcome.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Only One Quantum of Intelligence ?

It is about 25 years since Sir Clive Sinclair, who must have known enough Physics to know better, called one of his computers the QL because it was a 'Quantum Leap' forward.

A quantum is the smallest quantity by which the energy of a system can increase, so a quantum leap is the smallest improvement possible.

We still hear the error error quite often, despite fequent corrections. I rather think it was a judge whose misuse of the word inspired this comment.

Those who use recondite words in the hope of sounding clever, should first find out what those words mean.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Hysteria in High Places

Yesterday I heard Harriet Harmen say, of Sir F. Goodwin's pension:

"It may be enforceable in a court of law, but it is not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that is where the government steps in"

There is no court of public opinion, so that part of her pronouncement is nonsense, but what she seems to propose is that laws need not be enforced if the consequences are unpopular.

 The Labour Party has been in office for nearly twelve years. The much deplored excesses of company directors have been perpetrated under a regulatory system which the government could have revised at any time in that period. Even under the present system, the government could have reduced the Goodwin pension; it didn't because it did not understand what was going on.

It is outrageous to react to this mess by proposing an end to the rule of law.

I don't know whether Harmen was being consciously irresponsible, or is just too stupid to realise the import of what she said. In either case she is unfit for public office.