L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

01 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

It's that time of the year when the Riviera's mimosas are in full bloom with the hills behind Mandelieu in particular turning yellow. This one is taken just up the hill from out house and gives you not just a mimosa but, free and gratis too, an olive tree. The tree was pruned last year - I don't think I have a picture of it in its formerly shaven state but, like the ones in our garden has bounced back to become extremely bushy this year.
20080201 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
As always you can click on the image to see it enlarged and are invited to visit the olive tree blogging archives to remind yourself of how nice olive trees are.

01 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Asus Eee hackery

So I've put eeeXubuntu on my eee. The process, including the swapping out of unwanted programs for wanted ones, was remarkably painless all things considered.

I say all things considered because I decided to hack around with trying to save my exisiting eee state and to also try ensuring I could restore the eee from the CD image before I trashed the original config. In the process I also had 'fun' installing the latest betas of the linux SysrescueCD on SD flash cards and USB hard drives. None of this was particularly necessary, useful or relevant. When I got down to eeeXubuntu and installing that, first on an external USB hard-drive and then on the internal SSD it was pretty straight forward. Even using SysrescueCD to copy the installed partition from the USB to the SSD was simple - just remember to edit /etc/fstab on the new partition because the UUIDs are going to be wrong unless you fix them.

The eeeXubuntu wiki page above and its follow on about customization pretty much guide you through the process (I added a few notes for spots where I thought some help would be good) and once you have done all that you have a nice Xubuntu linux install that does what you want. I particularly like the network browsing tweak for Thunar (a single /media/network mountpoint using fusesmb) that is described here.

However one tweak that isn't there (quite) is the ability to use F5 to switch between internal LCD and external monitors (and for that matter the enabling of wifi involved a good deal of hand editing). The information is sort of there but it isn't as clear as the rest and did (until now Tadaa!) require quite a lot of manual hackery. I have now fixed it so that manual hackery in both cases is reduced considerably (although not eliminated) as you will discover by visiting this page.

Other than that? well the eee and eeeXubuntu are proving to be most excellent. As is the SysrescueCD or rather the Sysrescue SD flash card. I do recommend though that you put two partitions on the flash card - a small one for the CD image (200 MB should be fine) and a larger one to mount once booted on which you can store stuff that seems useful...

03 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Skiing on the Côte d'Azur

One of the reasons why the Riviera (both Franch and Italian) is so good is that when you don't feel like lounging at the beach you can go skiing (and I mean skking on fluffy frozen water rather than the Mediterranean). In fact the closest ski station to our house (Gréolières les Neiges) is about 50 minutes and 44 km away as the driver drives and about 30 as the crow flies. Probably the best skiing (Limone just across the border in Italy) is little more than a couple of hours drive away (and 120 ish km). In other years it has been well worth the drive to Limone, this year we're having enough snow that there's no point - at least not if you just like the idea of a short day-trip.

Due to the fact that She Who Must Be Obeyed has noted the development of what the French call "Poignet's d'Amour" on my otherwise Adonis-like form we did the cross country sort of skiing instead of the downhill variety.Indeed SWMBO didn't have to make much of an argument about it, ever since I learned how to do cross-country skiing in Finland I've preferred it to the up and down version. Greolieres doesn't have an enormous area for cross country skiing, but it has half a dozen groomed trails of varying lengths and difficulties, and the price (€12 to rent the gear - €6-50 for the right to use the trails) is right. Even better the staff are friendly and reasonably flexible (although not quite flexible enough to cope with everyone wanting lunch at 12:30).

All in all, an excellent time was had by all and we called it a day a little early due to the fact that more fluffy white stuff was coming out of the grey sky and umm, we were knackered.

One thing that I did notice, and I've seen it elsewhere is that no one know what to wear for cross country skiing - some people use their downhill ski clothes and generally explode in a cloud of steam after 10 minutes, others wear hiking gear, others wear dead posh lycra racing gear - but then these latter group are usually the ones who are expert at the sport. This confusion can be a problem for some people. SWMBO gets all worked up about not wearing the right gear - I think this is her Japanese heritage as I've noticed that the Japanese (and the French) don't think they can play any sport without first going to a shop and buying the right clothing. Englih people on the other hand seem to think that until you commit to the sport (and frequently even after that point) you might as well use some ratty old gear that is only vaguely related.

03 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Yoof of Today

Charlie Stross, an author that I'd read a lot more of if his books were available electronically, has an excellent blog and he recently wondered (and asked his readers to assist) what it is like as a teenager growing up in the 'nought'ies. In particular what do you take for granted that your parents and other older people don't and what things do not miss because you never knew they existed, that sort of thing.

It is a fascinating list.

There is an interesting related question which is how much has changed in our lifetimes, something that Kim at Mildly Diverting, writes about in the context of her grandfather (1896-1986).

There may be a related trick here. One of my grandmothers was born about a little over a decade before Kim's grandfather and she died in 1976. I don't think she added much to what she knew at the begining - though she did tell me about seeing Queen Victoria during her diamond jubilee - and I guess she would recall some of the early 20th century wars and revolutions that led up to the 'Great War' that the young boy would not be so aware of. But by dying a decade earlier she completely missed the arrival of the home computer to name but one major invention that affects us all today. Also Mrs Thatcher, the falklands, the miners, the space shuttle and no doubt some other interesting political / foreign events that I can't think of right now.

Moving back to my lifetime. My first computer (not the first I used, that was a ZX81, but the first I bought - ok with parental help but it was mostly because I asked all those who were likely to give me a present for my birthday and christmas to give cash, combined with pocket money I saved up) was a 48k ZX Spectrum. It cost a bit over £100 I think. 25+ years later the eee costs around £200 (probably less than £100 in 1983 pounds). It has 512MB of memory, a battery, a screen, a built in 4GB drive and so on. Even if it isn't perfect it can load games in seconds (the spectrum used a casette player and typically loaded a 40kb game in 5 minutes or so) and the game will be 3D with 24 bit graphics (32 bit?). The spectrum's games were 4 bit colour (with considerable limitations). The spectrum screen (on an external TV) was 256x192 resolution. The eee does 800X480 on its internal screen and at least 1280x768 on an external one. And so on. Trains and telegraphs in the 19th century made vast improvements but trains, for example, did not go multiple orders of magnitude faster in 25 years. The first trains went about 10mph. It took until 1904 to get one going at 100mph and another 60 years to get to trains that ran regularly at over 100 mph (Japan's shinkansen introduced in 1964). If computer development were at that speed we'd be at a 64k spectrum with 32 colours today.

When we get to the early 20th century development moves faster. Consider a 1914 plane vs a 1939 plane, the latter goes maybe 5 times faster, twice as high and so on. But again in computer terms we're looking at the difference between a ZX Spectrum and a 128Kb Amstrad - or between an IBM PC and the AT delivered about 4 years later.

I don't think anyone from a previous era of the world has seen such radical improvements. In global capability that is, clearly any stone-age tribesman contacted by a modern culture saw similarly radical improvements in his personal world.

If my father dies at the same age as his mother (i.e. over 90) he will have missed the initial development of the aeroplane and the motor car, and possibly things like widespread electrification of the country, that his mother experienced. But he will have seen far far more changes because he will have survived about 40 more years of the late 20th early 21st century. Indeed, since he has written published books on at least 2 generations of computer (a 128k Amstrad and a win98 laptop), as well as a PhD thesis that he typed in the early 1980s, he has witnessed the changes at close hand.

Then we get to me. I have actually typewritten a letter, but the one I used for most real corespondance as a teenager was an early electronic one that I hooked up to my Spectrum and used as a printer. A child born in 1990 will have no idea about typewriters, electronic or manual.

04 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Economics for Environmentalists

A.k.a. sums for moonbats. Charlie Stross has a link to an excellent blog called Depleted Cranium where the authors expose lots of a bad science, statistics etc. in causes beloved of tree-huggers and others of that 'progressive' tribe. The best recent entry is the one Mr Stross linked to, the essay entitled The Top Ten Things Environmentalists Need to Learn.

This is not just a recommendation to "read the whole thing" it is also one to mark, learn and inwardly digest it too. And then go read the Skeptical Environmentalist and other related works too.

It is also interesting to read some of the comments on Stross's page as well as those at the blog itself. I think I could summarise the guidance for environmentalists as
  1. Don't try and break people's comfy lifestyle, come up with ways to improve it that are environmentally better and cheap.
  2. Scalability is an issue.
Scalability is something that a lot of people can't handle so it should be no surprise that environmentalists can't. Scalability involves doing the sums so that what works for individuals or in a community of 10 houses also works for a nation of 10 million or a planet of 1 billion. Generally speaking you can get almost anything to work at the 10 house scale. But getting the jump up from there is hard. One reason that it is hard is that the price will change as you scale up and sometimes the price doesn't decrease because of "economies of scale" the way we expect it to. Or rather it may decrease with economies of scale eventually but initially you are likely to increase demand significantly faster than you can increase supply and thus prices rise.

A good example of this is PV solar power. PV solar panels are made from fairly pure silicon and that comes, for the most part, from the same places that make the wafers to make computer chips. These silicon fabrication plants are big expensive things that take a few years to build and three or four years ago no one was anticipating an exponential growth in demand for solar panels - hence there is not enough capacity coming on stream now to make them. In another 2-3 years I expect we'll have masses of supply, especially if we see a slowdown in the world economy and particularly the demand for electronic gadgets, but right now we have a tight market.

04 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Machines that go beep

In many ways, I am a typical gadget freak kind of person. If it's new and goes beep then I tend to buy it unless I roll a saving throw. However it has occured to me that there is in fact a limit to my enthusiasm, even my tolerance, for machines that go beep.

One example would be the bathroom scales we own which calculate your body fat percentage as well as your weight and appear to require you to press a number of buttons before you are allowed to stop on them, because if you don't they don't weigh you. I'm sure the digital scales are more accurate than the old fashioned ones in my parents' bathroom but so what? I don't need to know my weight to the nearest 50grams and what I'm really interested is the long term trend so if I weigh 80kg today and 79kg next week that is just as satisfactory as weighing 79kg today and 78 a week from now. But when we went looking for bathrooms scales a couple of years ago the electronic ones were the same price as the traditional ones and hey it was easy at the time to decide to choose the electronic ones because it's good to know your body fat %age isn't it?

Another example is the air-freshener kit I bought for the toilet last week. We found a nice lavendar scented spray some time back but the spray can it comes in isn't very aesthetically pleasing. We noticed that the can said it was a refill for a freshener kit so when the freshener in the other toilet ran out I decided to buy the kit and the spray rather than just the refil bottle. The kit does indeed look better but it was oounly when I got home (and SWMBO had hacked her way into the "childproof" packaging) that we learned that it required 2 AA batteries to work (batteries included fortunately). And you can't use the kit without the batteries being installed and the kit switched to "on", a mode where it dispenses perfume every hour or so whether or not the bathroom has been used. I mean all I wanted was somethign that looked slighlty nicer than an aerosol can and had a button that you could press at the conclusion of your mission. But no this is far too simple for anyone these days!


04 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink


About a year ago I was introduced to the world of Liad/Korval thanks to the series being picked up by webscriptions. The authors have had bad luck with their publishers (to lose one publisher is a misfortune to lose two looks like carelessness?) and have examined other ways to bring in money from their work.

One way that they tried was to produce a novel in serial form publishing a draft chapter a week assuming there were enough donations to cover the minimum per chapter ($300) - following that well known model the buskers cap or begging bowl. That work was called Fledgling and it raised by my calculations a good $10,000 because they said somewhere that they had donations up to 36 weeks (although there were in fact only 31 chapters produced - at that point they were at 90k words and so they decided to stop the book). They have now resumed the tale in a book entitled Saltation. We're on week 3 and so far things are looking up - I believe they reported somewhere that they had the money to get up to chapter 6 (i.e. $1800)

and Saltation cover the growing up of a side character called Theo Waitley and look like a classic "coming of age" double act and I am proud to have contributed to both.

05 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

eBooks and Paper - Coexistance or Conflict?

Eric Flint's "Salvoes against Big Brother" columns in Jim Baen's Universe are always must reads, and usually the sorts of thing that have me nodding in agreement as I read them. His latest one, where he questions ebooks will mean the death of paper books is, for the most part a case in point. The critical question that he asks is, I believe, this one:

Will the relationship between traditional paper publishing and electronic publishing be one of replacement? Or will it, instead, be a supplemental one? And, within that range, what are the most likely outcomes? Should we use as a past historical model the relationship between:

a) typewriters and computers—complete substitution;

b) manual transmissions and automatic transmissions—a division of the market;

c) ground personal transport and air personal transport—supplemental, with both old and new technologies used by almost everyone;

d) kitchen knives and home food processors—the old technology remains dominant, with the new one purely supplemental and used by relatively few people.

I agree with him that, for the most part, we are not going to see a) or even b). In general ebooks will complement paper because of all the advantages that paper has in terms of reliability, ease of use, price, compatibility etc. As he writes, people who argue that ebooks are going to replace paper typically argue from analogy and, for the most part, an assumption that technology always prevails.

What he doesn't seem to say (so I'm going to) is that most ebook analogies comapre ebooks to music or movies. There is of course one stonking difference between a book and CDs, DVD, vinyl 45s, video cassettes, audio cassettes, celluloid film and all the other ways that we store music and movies. To wit that the book doesn't need a playback device. This is a key differentiator and is why comparing books to these other things is idiotic. To read a book you need the book. To play recorded music/video you need a player. In other words while a new digital MP3 player is indeed a substitution for an old gramophone player, an eBook reader is a new thing that is not replacing anything.

I suspect that the best item/market to compare with is the games market. Like books, the basics of the traditional games market: cards, dice, chess-boards etc. do not need any additional equipment to use. Also like books, but unlike music, video, cars, electrical gadgets etc., games have a very long history - longer in fact than reading/writing since even illiterates get worked up about gambling and your average caveman / mesopotamian peasant has had periods of the day/year when there isn't much to do and playing a game sounds like a good idea. So have traditional games died out because of video games? no. But on the other hand they have probably declined in usage. People play chess on a computer now instead of against some fellow in the park or club. Children (and adults) play single and multiplayer video games instead of solitaire or board games like monopoly. But there are still plenty of times and places where people play traditional games the traditional way. It seems to me that what we are seeing in the games world is a mixture of Eric's B) and C) categories - i.e. substitution in some parts but not all and supplementing by adding new customers. I suspect that as the generations that grew up without video games as a child (I put myself pretty much on the cusp here, in that I grew up with the first generation pong/space invaders, donkey kong etc.) we'll see a lot more substitution but I doubt we will see the sort of overwhelming replacement we have seen with typewriters vs word processors as there are always going to be significant parts of the market where we want regular non-electronic games (the electronic ones still show a distressing inability to handle jammy fingers, spillages of drinks and other activities that don't do as catastrophic damage to their traditional rivals). I see no reason why the same does not apply to books and eBooks - namely a mixture of supplement and substitute with a gradual increase in the percentage substituted.

Something related that Eric doesn't touch on is that it seems clear to me that the book market is not a single entity. Even in a single English speaking country, the readers of books divide into a number of categories (and of course there are overlaps). The first category are the non-readers. The people who basically don't read for pleasure and probably read no more than one or two books a year - probably a holy book such as the bible. In the US this appears to be about 33% of the population. We can and should ignore these people when we look at ebooks because they don't buy paper books so why would they buy a reader to buy ebooks?

[A major market for religious books are the prayer are hymn books used in churches. I can't imagine any church dumping its prayer books for electronic readers, not without these readers becoming massively cheaper]

The second category is the occasional reader. Aggregated together these probably buy the most books by volume but they buy the fewest different titles. This is the market of the best-seller, the purchasers of Harry Potter, Tom Clancy and the top end of the genres such as Jerry Pournelle and Nora Roberts. These people probably buy at most one book a month on average and usually - HP being an exception - they buy the mass market paperback version on sale in supermarket, airport shops and so on. For these people a book has to cost $7.99 or less because it is effectively competing with $4.95 magazines, a beer in the bar or chips in front of the TV or the internet. For these people their book purchase habits are such that they spend less than $100 on books each year split over multiple $8 purchases.

The third category is the frequent reader. The frequent reader reads between a book a week and a book a month. He or she does read the bestsellers but also tends to visit places with a wider selection of books and read midlist writers. These people are the ones that keep midlist writers and genre publishers (Baen, Harlequin...) going.

Finally there are the bibliophiles. These people read multiple books a week, frequently read more than one book at a time (a book in the bedroom, a book in the purse, a book on the coffee-table) and have more books than they have bookshelves for despite having more shelving that any five of their neighbours combined. These people may have already moved to eBooks because they don't have the space for anything but beloved favourites. Even though they borrow library books and find other ways to read stuff for free these people probably spend $50-$100 a month on new books and are always in danger of blowing additional money in used book shops.

The bibliophiles are going to buy ebook readers, probably more than one each because they want the eInk screeen of one, the ease of use of another and so on. Unfortunately for the ebook makers (and for that matter the publishers) these people are a tiny minority of the population. They are of course the classic early adopters and since they tend to blog about books and generally make a lot of noise they can be very influential. I am one of this group. I can justify the $400 cost of a dedicated reader like the Cybook or Kindle because I spend a minumum of $180 a year on Baen webscriptions (for c. 50 new books that I don't currently own), at least $50 on ebooks from other publishers and another $200 or more on new paper books (and then there's my 2nd hand book habit...). On the other hand as Eric points out, the bibliophile is likely to buy ebooks in addition to printed ones. Ebooks will likely replace the books they buy that they tend to read once and then donate or resell.

The question is whether the frequent readers and the occasional readers will want to make the move to electronic. For frequent readers - who spend maybe $200-$300 a year on books - ebooks are going to be a hard sell because the price of the reader today is more than they pay for a year of books. It's also another gadget to lose. However they might switch over if the reader is a multifunction device and they might well switch over if the price is right. If a reader buys two $10 books a month (to make the sums easy) then that is $240 a year spent on around 20 books. Assuming said reader is interested in Baen-like F&SF then a year's webscription (giving 72 titles and an average of 4 a month that are new) for $180 is clearly a bargain so long as the reader is not too expensive and is usable. Many people find LCDs and CRTs hard to read from so the reader needs to have a good screen and decent battery life - I think the eee is acceptably bright and big but it is probably close to the low end of the acceptability curve for most people and its 3 hour battery life is also at the same low side of the curve.

Current eInk readers are, everyone assures me (and when NAEB get me my Cybook I'll be able to confirm) massively better in terms of display quality and they also tend to have much better battery life (days of use rather than hours). Unfortunately e-ink is currently too expensive to meet the price point for the frequent reader. If we work on the example above then the reader save $60 a year on ebooks vs paper (yes he gets more but he may not read more) so if the reader costs $300 (and that is cheaper than any current eInk reader) then his ROI is 5 years. This is not a fast enough payback period. Adding the equivalent of an iTunes music player is not really going to make much difference (cheap MP3 players cost what $25? these days). If the eInk device drops to $150-$200 then the ROI is 2-3 years then that is more reasonable and once we get down to the sub $100 range then we may indeed see the dedicated ebook reader suit the frequent reader.

This is not the case for a product like the eee since it is a multiuse product and if you decide to buy an eee (or are given one by your employer). In other words a frequent reader who also needs a portable computer thingy like the eee for something else is going to have the reading device already. In that case the switching cost would be very low. The same (a non-dedicated reading device) also makes sense for the occasional reader and this is where the ebook market might well complement the existing paper market, as long as the ebook prices are reasonable ($5 is about right IMO) and you don't have to jump through hoops to download and read them. DRM is probably the major hoop and in my own experience (and I'm a computer guy) it can get so annoying that I don't buy the books. This is not the long term worry of "will I still be able to read my book 5 years from now" it's the short term "how many dedicated tools and websites do I have to pass through to be allowed to download a damn book?" and it is exacerbated by the fact that many ebook websites seem to cater solely for the MS windoze + Internet Exploder crowd. [This is one reason why I'm not taking advantage of Eos' free ebook offer (the other is that you have to be a US resident).]

So to sum up. Ebooks can certainly complement paper books but in order to do so they have to be easy and cheap to buy. For the most part they aren't either (with the honourable exception of Baen). Hence the only people who will bother to buy them are at the bibliophile end of the book buying spectrum and hence they are indeed going to be substitutes for paper.

07 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Surrender Monkey Sarko

So President Sarko, France's man of steel who can extract a Euro and a grovelling apology from Ryanair, has decided to surrender to some revolting taxi drivers. I blame it on the new wife keeping him occupied so he doesn't feel the need to go around beating up innocent French slackers. As AFP reports:

An economists' report on boosting growth presented to President Nicolas Sarkozy last month called for several regulated professions -- including the taxi business -- to be opened up to more competition.

It urges the government to issue tens of thousand of extra taxi licences, saying the number of Paris taxis, for example, should increase from 16,000 to around 50,000.

But taxi drivers warn the proposed changes would put many of them out of business -- and cause the resale value of their hard-earned licences to collapse -- without benefiting consumers.

The drivers union (La Fédération Nationale Des Artisans Du Taxi - artisans? yeah right...) protested last week blocking various airports and roads and again yesterday causing chaos via "Operation Escargot" - i.e. driving down the road at a snail's pace. This behaviour is the sort of thing that one might have expected to result in strident denounciations from Super Sarko, mobilizations of tow trucks and so on but for some reason not in this case. On the contrary in a demonstration of a spine almost as rigid as a jellyfish, Sarko's Prime Minister Francois Fillon (or rather an advisor to the PM) invited the union leader to coffee and cakes and during their chat stated that actually they were going to change their mind and not liberalise the taxi-driver regulations after all.

I'm sure the new Mrs Sarkozy, as an Italian mama, knows the recipe for Ossobuco and I hope she serves it to her new man and his government.

08 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

Daffodils, azure sky and an olive tree. A summary of why I, and many other Northern Europeans, like to live on the Côte d'Azur. Nothing like the gray wet, snowy, foggy etc. February weather we grew up with.
20080208 - friday olive tree blogging
As always you can click on the image to see it enlarged and are invited to visit the olive tree blogging archives to remind yourself of how nice olive trees are.

08 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Sarko Deploys the Kärcher

cleaning up the 'burbsHe may have surrendered to the taxi drivers, but Sarkozy is not going to surrender to everyone. Today he (finally) got around to delivering his plan for fixing the suburbs. These sinkholes of crime and unemployment got him into trouble with the elite when he talked about deploying a "Kärcher" and getting rid of the "racaille" (scum) in late 2005 but his words then certainly played well with a significant proportion of France. His tough response then was certainly part of the reason why he became president; unlike Vile Pin, Sarko had no truck with the "it's our fault they are rioting" pandering that emanated from the bien-pensants in the capital and it was always understood that when he became president he would act to try and fix them.

As AP reports, his plan has two prongs. One is a €500 million investment in aid for the estates over 5 years (and where precisiely is the money to come from we wonder?), the other is a massive increase in security with new patrols, 4000 more police, more police stations and a "guerre sans merci" on the drug traffickers and other criminals that infest them. The security increase is to start now in the Seine-St-Denis department northwest of Paris, which could certainly do with the investment and security. This department, colloquially "Le neuf-trois", was the place where the 2005 riots were "sparked off" and is the one that tourists arriving in France at Charles de Gaulle airport must pass though to get to Paris. Today this journey, in my opinion, is about as unwelcoming a view of Paris as one could hope to get - particularly if one takes the RER rail service, and even more so if you are unlucky enough to catch a graffitied train that stops at various intermediate stations, all of which combine a certain run-down 1970s brutalism with an air of menace from the lounging youths that frequent them. 

However Sarko isn't just throwing money and policemen at the suburbs. He is also addressing the problems of (non)integration of the second and third generation immigrants by looking a bussing children across suburbs so that they mix and is promising to stamp out the hidden racism that means that it is far harder for people with certain names or addresses to get jobs. I don't quite understand how he intends to do this, but I wish him luck because if he really can break the barriers down then he will have fixed one of the major blemishes on French society today.

At the bottom of this AFP report (in French) there are currently 5 related articles.
If you can read French it is well worth reading all 5 to learn more. My rough translation of the headlines is:
The first three are fairly straightforward. The last two perhaps not. The league table shows which towns are meeting their statutory requirements to provide a certain percentage of social housing and which aren't - in other words which towns that don't have any ghettoes are busily making sure they. Fadela Amara, the minister responsible for urban areas, is the lady who founded "Ni Putes, Ni Soumises" and is a sign of the inclusiveness Sarkozy clearly hopes for since she is of Algerian parentage and was a socialist councilor. Whether Ms Amara is worth of Sarko's trust is another matter, it is unclear to me whether she is actually any good at creating or implementing policy although she is certainly very good at pointing out injustice and hypocrisy.

09 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

The Archdhimmi of Canterbury

Rowhamed The Archdhimmi of Canterbury
Rowhammed Williams, leader of the Mosque of England
(with apologies to the Jyllands Posten, Kurt Westergaard and Rasmus Sand Hoyer)
Rowhamed The Archdhimmi of Canterbury

18 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Belated Friday Olive Tree Blogging

(not much excuse for the belatedness other than basic knackeredness after a hard week sampling the fleshpots of Barcelona along with 50,000 other attendees of "Mobile World" about which anon)

Anyway on my way driving back from Barcelona last Friday I took a pit stop at the Caissargues  rest area on the A54 near Arles. A place that turns out to have a reconstructed roman theatre colonnade (why? no idea!) and a small museum about the archeological remains found on the side that date back to about 1000 BC.
Belated 20080215 Friday Olive Tree Blogging
In front of the museum is this fine olive tree. The rest area is extremely pleasant and has numerous other olive trees under which weary travellers may have a snooze. I recommend stopping there if driving across the bottom of France.

As always you can click on the image to see it enlarged and are invited to visit the olive tree blogging archives to remind yourself of how nice olive trees are.

18 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Of Barcelona, Boothbabes and Beeping Machines

P2120016 - Mobile World Barcelona 2008I spent last week in Barcelona, sampling the fleshpots at night and the oh so wonderful toys and gadgets of Mobile World by day. I think I'd like to go back to Barcelona sometime when it isn't filled with a gazillion cell phone fanatics because they did rather detract from the ambiance, as did the adverts for unfortunately named devices such as the "Viewty" that plastered Barcelona's busses. Not to mention other adverts on massive hoardings around the show itself.

This year the show was even bigger than before but I don't think they can really grow it much further - at least I hope not.

P2120018 - Mobile World Barcelona 2008In gadget news, there was a heartening (to me) resurgence in visibility of alternative manufacturers from the extremely tiny Neo pictured on the right to phones with built in cryptographic circuitry and other tricks. Interestingly amongst companies notable by their lack of attendence (lack of stand anyway) was Apple. I say interestingly because it seemed like the iPhone was the poseur's gadget of choice. Amusingly amongst noted iPhone users were representatives from carriers in certain markets (e.g. Bulgaria) where I don't think the iPhone is officially for sale. Still having seen the iPhone I don't want one. It is undoubtedly terribly clever and has some neat ideas but when I actually played aorund with one at the T Mobile hospitality tent I was distinctly unimpressed with its usability. For people who want to do real mobile data activities rather than show off there were a number of gadgets that seemed (to me) to be rather more practical.

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Firstly there was the Datawind Pocket Surfer. This GPRS connected device uses some proprietary compression scheme to seriously speed up its surfing and was, in the brief few minutes I had to play with it, not much slower than your average broadband network. The major drawback is that it seems to be an entirely closed system so you can't connect it to other devices (e.g. a laptop) and you can't download or run unapproved applications (skype or an ebook reader perhaps?) on it. All in all it is rather reminiscent of the iPhone in philosophy, just a bigger device with a keyboard from a company no one has ever heard of. A side note - the folks at the Datawind stand were clear that they had got some major (Taiwanese?) device manaufacturer to design and build the hardware which they then resell via mobile operators as part of a package. I would guess it costs less to make than an eee - though perhaps not much less - and while I don't know its precise memory/flash etc. capacity we're at the stage where a wholesale $100 or so will get you some pretty decent hardware.

Then there was the readius - this isn't quite out yet and unfortunately my camera didn't work when I tried to take a picture. It is the productized version of the foldable eInk screen that was displayed a year ago by polymer vision. What the folks at polymer vision have done is pretty remarkable - the product is in many ways a kindle killer - but they've extended the phone part so you can actually take and receive calls on it. You can also read blogs, newspapers etc. as well as download books, listen to music etc. etc. Its also small. Folded up it is comparable in size to a standard 3G phone - 115 x 57 x 21 mm - while unfolded it has a 5 inch diagonal 320x240px display. This is less than the kindle (6 inch - 600 x 800px) but is, from what I could see, entirely sufficient to read on. The Readius also offers 16 greytones instead of 4 on the kindle. Compared to the iPhone? well its a 3G device so it loads web pages quicker. The display is physically bigger - the iPhone's 800x480px display has lots of pixels in a tiny 3.5 inch display - and since it is eInk based doesn't need a backlight. I don't think the readius is perfect - a numerical keypad would have been nice for example - but it is a neat bit of kit.

There were also some totally useless windows CE based smartphones as well as various blackberries all or which looked like total pants. I can't really imagine any of them - even the smarter Nokia version - being terribly useful to anyone with average sized fingers. If Nokia extend the N810 to become an actual GPRS/UMTS device then that would be interesting. The 810, like the eee and the iPhone has a screen of 800x480 pixels and its display size is somewhere between the two. The poky keyboard that slides out is usable and not much different to the one on the infamous Nokia brick (you won't be setting typing records but you'll be typing faster than on anything else the same size or smaller - only the eee and the Pocketsurfer are bigger) and the product seems to be pretty solid. Aside from its lack of GPRS/UMTS the other gripe with the 810 is that it apparently has a fairly short battery life, almost as bad as the eee's (see below).

Finally there is the eee. Asus weren't exhibiting at the show but I was far from the only person to be wandering around with an eee and over drinks at the ETSI stand a fellow eee user told me that the Huawei/Vodafone 3G USB stick worked fine with Ubuntu on the eee (huawei have the drivers somewhere). The same gentleman told me that the best place to get the contract to use the stick if you roam a lot was Germany as Vodafone.de is offering a highly attractive data rate. The one problem that the eee has is battery life. If you have wifi enabled (forget a USB stick just the built in wifi) then you're looking at about 2 hours of usage. Perhaps worse, my colleague discovered that his eee with the standard Xandros distro didn't seem to properly suspend when the lid was closed - meaning that you end up getting 5 minutes of actual use out of the eee. I'm using Xubuntu and having less of a problem but I'll agree that the suspend power consumption could be lower.

Moving on to lighter topics. The male attendees (i.e. about 90%) clearly seemed to welcome the return of the booth babe. The tiny Neo smartphone mentioned above, was publicised by some "fully featured" young ladies wandering around and they were far from alone.
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Perennial boothbabe vendor CBOSS went for a flamenco look this year and very nice they looked too. And there were others. In most cases I have no idea what the company providing the eyecandy was actually trying to sell (or even in one case what company they were representing). For the ladies and gays there was a weedy superhero guy wandering around with a rather embarassing male camel-toe - he clearly figured this out and for much of the show walked around with his cloak covering his groin so that he looked like a cross between superman and a flasher in a plastic mac down in the park.

One problem with the show was the lack of decent internet access. Phone access (voice calls and GPRS at least) was excellent but wifi access was the pits and the show charged stands £900 (€1300 ish) for ethernet internet access. The show allegedly had a for pay wifi service but in fact that was more of a kind of torture because you could never quite get to a login page where you could actually submit your credit card details. The quality wifi it turned out was at the T mobile hospitality tent where it was free and not fighting for spectrum with about 50 other wifi networks. I'm not clear why T-mobile had a hospitality tent but I certainly appreciated its wifi and free soft drinks.

Away from the show there were apparently various security incidents with people being mugged, losing laptops etc. Barcelona is not the world's safest city and an influx of tens of thousands of people carrying all sorts of portable electronic toys clearly meant that a few people were going to encounter some of Barcelona's freelance wealth redistribution folks. It is clear to me that Barcelona is not a place where you can wander where you like with impunity but I have certainly felt just as wary in London, Nice, Milan and Paris to pick various European cities. Having said that I, personally, felt pretty safe in Barcelona even in the dodgier inner city bits (El Raval and the Gothc quarter near where we were staying) but then I'm a fit largish male and I made sure not to be displaying my bling or otherwise acting like an idiot.

There was also the legal robbery of certain segments of the service industry. Hotel prices rose significantly Monday-Wednesday: our fairly grungy 2* hotel was a good example charging €110 (ish) for those three nights and a mere €70 (ish) for Thursday. And I'm pretty sure the restaurants did the same: meals that I would have thought would have cost say €30 a head seemed somehow to end up at over €50 a head and so on. However I personally do not complain too much here. This was the law of supply and demand coming into operation and I'm not really sure how else you make sure that non conference attendees are incentivized to not visit at that time.

As a final note, the people that didn't appear to be ripping off the punters were the taxi drivers: rides that in Nice would have mysteriously ended up costing €25 even though you could have sworn the meter sad €13.65 last time you looked at it really did cost €13.65 when you had to pay. Of course they probably didn't need to. They must have been coining it just from the number of people trying to use them.

18 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Ever more eBooks

I wrote a post a week or so ago about the ebook vs dead tree thing and then I went to Barcelona and spent some time thinking partly about ebook readers (see the adjacent post). I come back to the news that Tor seems to be finally getting the ebook clue and has given away its first free eBook - Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. Congratulations Tor, you've just sucked me into a new series. Unfortunately though I now have to hold myself in suspense because books 2 of the trilogy is only available as dead tree format (and book 3 hasn't been published yet). Hopefully they'll sort that problem out when they launch tor.com properly.

One gripe amongst those of us who got Mistborn is that it is only available in PDF format. Fortunately I'm not totally allergic to PDF and, even better, although it is in PDF format it doesn't have any DRM so converting it to basic HTML was pretty simple (Pdftotext with various options plus a perl script to tidy it up if you must know). However elsewere on the net, it is reported that this lack of options to PDF was more in the line of a technical booboo than a deliberate decision, and we get somne other intriguing news too from Patrick Nielsen-Hayden of Tor, who says:

In fact, the plan for the giveaway was originally to offer the books in both PDF and HTML, and then the HTML version got dropped at the last minute for technical reasons that have now been fixed. As I understand it, starting with book #2, Old Man's War, they'll be available in both PDF and HTML, and we're actively looking into MobiPocket, among other formats.

I do want to emphasize that the program under discussion is a nonce, one-off, quick-and-dirty promotional program designed to do one thing only: encourage people to pre-register for the super-duper-secret Tor site currently being constructed in our secret laboratory high atop Skullcrusher Mountain. About which (the site, not the secret lab), I can simply say that it will combine elements of news, original fiction, lightweight Web 2.0-ness, and Other Stuff, and we'll be rolling it out in late Spring. This new site--not to be confused with our normal company web site, which is at www.tor-forge.com--will not be built around giving away free digital editions of novel-length works, although we may well do some of that when it suits our other purposes. And it's entirely possible that in the fullness of time we'll have something like the Baen Free Library (or, just as likely, simply join forces with the Baen Free Library). But the shapes of the cones in which we're giving away this particular round of free ice cream should not be taken as determinative of any future "e-book" plans.

So all the various mumblings about Tor getting serious about ebooks again - recall that 2 or 3 years ago Tor almost released some books via webscription.net and then the various bean counters and lawyers in its parent company got cold feet - look like finally paying off. Woohoo.

Tor isn't the only publisher starting down the road. Harper Collins are doing almost the same thing - releasing free ebooks to get people to sign up for a newsletter. Unfortunately they obviously haven't read my Harper Collins are clueless morons post from last year because, unlike Tor, they are releasing the books in DRMed formats and are otherwise making it hard to sign up because they appear to require you to use Internet Exploder (and be a US resident).

Still at least they seem to be slighlty better than Random House and Hachette in the UK. According to yesterday's Sunday Wapping Liar, these two publishers are so hyped by the opportunity to sell ebooks for the kindle that they, and allegedly other UK publishers, are planning to sell "the books at just below the price of a hardback". I refer Hachette and Random house to my aforementioned rant. The article also says that:

The first [ebook] device to be launched in Britain will be the Sony Reader, probably in late spring. The manufacturer has been working with the Borders bookshop chain in America so shoppers can both buy the device and download books at branches. In Britain, it is understood to be in discussions with Waterstone’s.

This seems to be true to the very limited extent that no dedicated ebook reader has been for sale on a UK high street. However people with clue have learned about this thing called the Internet, and on the Internet it is possible to find any number of ebook readers available that can be sent to UK buyers. There are kindles on ebay for $425 or Bookeen Cybooks available either from the manufacturer (or NAEB). Then there are devices like the N810, the eee, the iPhone etc. that can perfectly well read non-proprietary ebook formats and which are available in the UK highstreet but not classed as ebook readers because they do other things too. And so on. This article is marginally better than the one that showed up in the business section of the Wapping Liar last week about the death of the book. But only marginally.

However it does seem to me that, one way or another, despite the pricing and DRM errors that some publishers continue to make, the ebook market is becoming rather more mainstream.

19 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Who Will Be Hoist With The Kosovo Petard?

A petard, as eny fule kno, was a rennaissence era blasting charge or bomb used to blow up walls and gates during siege warfare and as Shakespeare pointed out there is something highly satisfying about seeing the process sabotaged:
For 'tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petard; and 't shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon: O, 'tis most sweet,
When in one line two crafts directly meet.
Kosovo, the new born country, is certainly a potentially explosive situation. And its current independence was engineered by a variety of folks all of whom are, I suspect, going to regret it.

To begin with there are the nations and groups who supported the Serbs in the 1990s Balkan wars. Serbia itself, and particularly the Serbian nationalists, are seeing the end result of stirring up a poisonous brew of nationalism when you don't have many friends. Basically you get your arse kicked and then some. I think the Kosovar government is probably an unpleaseant bunch of crooks, who - if you changed their skin colour - would fit in perfectly in most of Africa and not a few nations in Latin America or Arabia. Normally the international community would not have anything to do with such folks when they are not in government, as they weren't before the Kosovo war ten years ago. The community did get involved on their side because the Serbian government in Kosovo was clearly doing its best to ethnically cleanse the region of about 90% of its population. The fact that the serbian 10% is now being ethnically cleansed in turn is pretty much covered by "what goes around comes around" or "as a man sews so let him reap".

The friends of Serbia (primarily Russia, Greece and China) are in worse state. If Kosovo can unilaterally declare independence then so can various regions of Russia (Chechnya for example) or China (Tibet say) and states in all but name such as Taiwan. For the despotic rulers of these countries the loss of face involved if this happens could be fatal. And the wars that may break out to stop them may also be fatal if it turns out that the region involved is not a push over. This particularly relates to China if it tries to stop Taiwan. Not only will Taiwan resist - probably in conjunction with the US and possibly with the assistance of Japan - but the Chinese economy itself will take a major hit. Even assuming the Taiwanese haven't decided to destroy Chinese infrastructure and ports as part of their defence (and that would be a major part of my defensive plan) the fact is that Taiwanese companies are some of the more successful investors and intermediaries between China and the external world. If their country and head offices have just been destroyed they are not going to be doing much investing, exporting, or intermediating. Russia may not have anything like Taiwan to worry about - the Chechens appear to have been pretty much bombed into the stoneage - but they do have a major diplomatic consistency problem. Russia has been supporting a number of separatist movements in neighbouring countries (Georgia in particular) and the logic of it protesting Kosovar independence while promoting Abkazain independence is challenging. Greece probably isn't so affected except to the extent that Kosovo puts the Greeks in Cyprus further on the diplomatic defensive.

Then there are the various members of the international community. The UN and EU diplomats have demonstrated, yet again, that diplomacy and negotiations are not in fact an answer to some problems. Indeed negotiations and the whole structure of transition agreements are all shown to be pretty silly. I expect this to mean that in future people will pay even less attention to these morons except as useful idiots and potential human shields or targets if things go pearshaped.

Then there is the EU itself and its various member states. Some nations (Spain for example) clearly have a major problem accepting that a province can declare independence because of what it implies for Spains restless Northern provinces of Catalonia and the Basque country. Other nations and governments may also be harbouring reservations. What if Scotland decides to secede from the UK? or Flanders from Belgium? What about a possible partition of Italy say? Indeed what about nations withdrawing from the EU itself? It isn't completely inconceivable that England (or the UK) would elect some sufficiently Euroskeptic conservatives that they decide to unilaterally quit the bits of the EU they don't want to pay for or even just quit the whole thing. An England that decided to quit the EU and set up as an offshore financial haven for Euro investors would make a fortune. I can't see the EU actually managing to invade or blockade England and economic sanctions would hurt the EU far more than the UK (see Taiwan/China above).

Then there are the arab and muslim nations who are keen to welcome another muslim nation into the fold. As with Russia and China a number of Muslim nations have unhappy minorities who might want to secede (the non-malay bits of Malaysia for example). And of course the Kossovars may align with Iraq in gatherings as a pro-US group which may upset things. Certainly unless Saudi Arabia has managed to do a lot more proseletizing that I think it has the Kossovar version of Islam is rather less radical than the average so Kossovo may not help strengthen the voice of Islam in the way they may hope.

The only question in my mind is which group of people are hurt first by the consequences of Kossovar independance. As far as I can see the only really unaffected nation is the Great Satan - the USA. No wonder George W Bush was so happy to welcome Kossovar independence.

19 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Sterilization != Contraception != Good Idea

Fay Weldon, in one of those sounds like a good idea at first glance ways, has proposed a mandatory contraceptive implant for all females between the age of 12 and 17. Or at least to be slightly more accurate she is supporting and extending an idea from ZANU Labour minister Dawn Primarolo, who is now minister for public health. The idea is that giving these girls a long term pill at age 12, that lasts about five years, so that they will therefore not become teenage mothers on welfare etc. etc.

The problem is the silly woman calls this temporary sterilization. If I wanted a phrase that would cause every chav in the country (and let us be quite clear here we're talking about the chav girls here, not the middle/upper class ones) to reject the idea then I reckon that would be it. If you called it long term contraception as the government has done then it will be considerably more attractive that calling it sterilization. Indeed some bint in the Grauniad's Comment is Free called Emily Hill goes after Fay Weldon mostly, as far as I can see, because she doesn't like the wording and the fact that it has come from someone who is perceived as an ex-feminist. In other words in typical guadianista fashion attacking the (wo)man not the ball.

Having said all of that I don't think that mandatory contraception is a good idea. For once I think that the government has a sensible idea - marketing voluntary take up of long term contraception. Not for the first time I think the Daily Mail's spin and improvement is a completely nuts idea.

The problem here is that later on in Fay's column she starts getting things right. Incentives matter and the welfare state has so skewed incentives that it actually makes sense for a subsection of the British population to be an unwed teenage mother. To add to the problem, the education system is clearly to blame because it fails to give these girls (and their boyfriends for that matter) the desire to improve their lot or to be able to think about long term consequences. Or even teach them to do the sums well enough to understand that living on a welfare handout is not the way to long term prosperity and happiness. Moving the incentives back some way so that teenage girls (and/or their parents) have a strong incentive to not get pregnant would be a really good idea and if we combined it with voluntary long term contraception (as in incentivised it so that girls / parents wanted to take it and remove a long term worry) that would be even better. But a mandatory "You Vill Take Ze Pill" law is going to backfire badly and will in fact probably take down the whole long term contraceptive idea with it - even though it is a reasonable idea.

Of course our guardianista doesn't address any of those issues. She just wrings her hands about the betrayal of former feminist Fay and proposes no solutions at all.

20 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

IP Growth - Intellectual Piracy that is.

Over at the Reg, Guy Kewney has a nice piece about the stresses in the Patent system. In it he points to US companies like Qualcomm who seem to be particularly rapacious about how much royalty they charge for their patents and about how the companies in the chain don't appreciate it. There are some delicious quotes such as this bit from someone who might be a Huawei exec (a company well known for its somewhat casual attitude to other people's IP) and from Broadcom (which isn't):

"We are paying 25 per cent of the price of every product in royalties to Western businesses. It has to come down to at least ten per cent." Which is, of course, improbable, as my consultant friend observed to him. "We'll have to do something about it," repeated the angry [Chinese] entrepreneur.

"Are you suggesting you will stop paying royalties?"

"That is not my decision," said the exec. In other words, he knows someone who will make that decision.

America's IP owners are well aware of the friction. Even the most rapacious intellectual pirates are calling for reform of a system which is destroying any goodwill there ever may have been for patent holders.

McGregor again: "The problem is multiple charges for royalties. For example, if I sell you a device on which I hold a patent, you have to pay me royalties. But what if you sell that device onto someone else, who incorporates that component as part of something they sell on to a fourth party? Am I justified in chasing that someone else for royalties on something for which you've already paid, and then for their customer in turn?"

If you want my view about why people haven't really taken the UMTS and are ever so keen on LTE and WiMAX it is because of the patent situation. Qualcomm is not the only offender, indeed it may not be the most egregious one, but it is certainly an excellent example of a company which seems determined to extract every cent it can no matter or not whether that ends up strangling a technology at birth or shortly afterwards.

I am of the belief that IP is a good idea. That patents and copyrights (and trademarks FWIW) add value to human society and we need them. However, and this is something that Qualcomm execs, IP law firms and media publishers need to bear in mind, if you abuse a system you will wreck it. Even if your abuse is strictly legal (and we won't discuss the way lobbyists get laws passed here as that as a whole seperate can of worms), if you are preceived as charging more for something than it is worth then people will look for alternatives. These alternatives could be different products/technologies that are priced more reasonably or they could be just finding ways to use the product/technology without bothering to pay. The way people are sticking with EDGE or using Wifi/WimAX are good examples of choosing alternatives, Rambus' travails in the DRAM business a few years back would be another. As for the avoiding altogether strategy just look at the music industry.

It all boils down to what economists call rent-seeking and this is not a popular thing. Indeed if you think about the age of Aesop's Fable of the dog in the manger it hasn't been popular for thousands of years. The danger here is that the rent-seekers and rip off merchants will so abuse the system that we will lose all respect for IP. This, it seems to me, will be a very bad situation to end up in. This is also an area where further government regulation is a good idea because all IP is protected ab initio by government regulation. I don't know what the regulation should be but I'd suggest schemes like setting maximum royalty rates, tapered rates (so that older patents or copyright works get less) and situations where after a certain length of time patents and copyrights are required to be non-exclusive with licenses required to be granted to anyone who will pay the royalty fee and so on.

There also probably needs to be some thought given to how to make IP work in a global environment. What we are seeing from the pharma industry (and the pirate movie business) is that one high fixed rate clearly doesn't work but that in a world of open trade, multiple rates leads one to grey market imports and so on.

22 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

If you want to think "true Provence" then you think of herbs. At this time of year the herb in flower is rosemary as in this example below one of our olive trees. This year the fruit trees are blossoming now too, a little later than some years. Maybe next week I'll upload some pictures of olives and blooming fruit trees...
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Coincidentally I noticed that the neighbours decided to crop the tree I featured 3 weeks ago on Olive Tree blogging. Here is a afterwards shot to go with the one from before.
20080222 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
As always you can click on the image to see it enlarged and are invited to visit the olive tree blogging archives to remind yourself of how nice olive trees are.

22 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Gréolières - Azur Skiing

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about doing cross country skiing at Greolieres. Well I took the afternoon off work and took She Who Must Be Obeyed and one of the people who went skiing last time back there. This time it was warmer, sunnier and the camera was happy so I have photos (~sry - you happy now?).
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We left home (~ 150m elevation) where I took today's olive tree blogging photos in early spring and drove the 40 km roads to get to Gréolières les Neiges over 1000m higher up. We were a bit worried on the way because there didn't seem to be too much fluffy white stuff when we started looking at the North facing slopes we realized we were silly to worry. There was plenty of snow, although it was defnitely not the wonderful powdery stuff we had last time.
P2220045 The advantage of owning one's own kit is that one gets to stand around in the snow taking photos of the surroundings, which may include dogs that are left to lie in the snow by their owners, while the others rent their kit. As I mentioned last time the prices of cross country skiing are a lot more reasonable than they are for the Alpine variety so it is highly attractive to take the odd afternoon off and head up to the slopes so long as there is snow. I think we might try this again next week too.

She Who Must Be Obeyed had never done the cross country skiing thing before so she was a bit nervous but it didn't take more than about 2 minutes (most of which was spent trying to get the boots to attach to the skis) for her to be swooshing along like a pro. I guess doing downhill skiing and rollerblading, not to mention a decent sense of balance, is kind of handy.
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Once we'd done the introductory oval to prove that yes we could do the basics without falling over we set out on the longer loop. At the top the views were spectacular. Even more so if you think that this is so close to the glamour of the Riviera.
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Although if you looked closely northwards towards the next set of south facing slopes the lack of snow was striking. Also, and probably not visible in the photos, it was possible to see a bit of the brown pollution haze if you looked in the wrong direction.
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As an expert I was forced to venture off piste to demonstrate my skills.
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Then it was downhill for a while. SWMBO discovered that cross country skis are somewhat lacking in those edge things that make it easy to goe downhill with alpine skis. Fortunately most of the downhill parts have the same tram track things so as long as the skis stay in the tracks and you don't panic at the speeds acheived, descent is a doddle.
When we got the bottom though we discovered that one of the trails back was suffering from the punctual lacks of English so we had to take the other way back to the start.

23 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Where are the E-ink displays?

Going on the trials and tribulations of NAEB it is becoming clear that demand for e-ink screens appears to be outstripping supply. How do we know that? well because of this:

Accepting orders for the 2nd 100 units to ship late March.

Those of us who are subscriber's to Baen's Bar and the EbookReader forum there can read a little more background and see that it looks like Bookeen are perpetually running out of stock. It is unclear to me what the volume they are shipping is but given that NAEB appears to be a fairly major customer for Bookeen I'm going to guess we're looking at rates of about 1000-2000 per month or so which is not exactly flying off the shelves.

Teleread has also been doing estimates about the sales of the Kindle and they too seem to be in the 1000s range rather than anything greater. And, as with Bookeen, there seems to be more demand than available supply - although perhaps not so much more demand that profit can be made reselling them. Indeed last year teleread also reported a researcher estimate that Amazon might sell a mere 50,000 kindles in a year.

I don't know how to estimate iLiad or Sony Reader sales but I would suspect both are at similar orders of magnitude. iLiad selling less that Bookeen, Sony probably selling somewhat more, possibly 10 times more but definitely not 50-100 times more.

In other words if we add up all the ebook readers multiply by some finagle factor to count for lower counts and so on and we're looking at current production of somewhere around 30,000 e-ink displays a month. I could be underestimating here because a digitimes article from late 2006 indicates that at that point it had a capacity of 60,000 units per month and that it was planning to increase this. However even if we are a little above that quoted 60,000 units a month annual production is under a million. Teleread also reports that the iLiad was also out of stock last month and that Sony sold out too recently. So it isn't just the new readers that are having supply issues.

Bear in mind that the Apple iPhone, which is a major seller but not outstanding in phone volume numbers, shipped 3.7 million units. Asus is predicted to sell anywhere up to 6 million of its eee in 2008. Other non e-ink readers like the Nokia tablets, are hard to get numbers for but it was the number 3 product on Amazon this Christmas and, given that Nokia is now on its third generation one (and rumours of a WiMAX enabled fourth gen one seem pretty solid), it seems likely that volumes are healthy. Since Nokia ships around 400 million phones a year healthy means at least 1 million per year. And let us not forget all the other PDAs, smartphones etc. that can be used to read eBooks.

If the e-ink readers are to be a commercial success they also need volumes in the millions. Each of them. Going on the evidence in 2008 we'll be lucky to see combined sales volumes of all e-ink readers hit a million units - unless PVI the sole manufacturer can really ramp up its prodcution that is.

25 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Dubya's Place in History

John Scalzi tentatively puts GW Bush second in list  of worst US presidents (it is worth noting that his worst president, Buchanan, is the run away winner though). The Belmont Club thinks history will treat GW Bush rather better than Clinton. Other commenters seem to vary but many on the left think he alienated the world and split the US while those on the right give him hassle over perceived mismanagement in Iraq and an inability to stand up to the pork faction in congress at home.
Abroad he seems to be generally reviled by MSM pundits and practically everyone in Europe except the folk in Kossovo. In Africa he's loved, Asia and South America mixed with the pundits on the European track but the man in the street rather less radical as far as I can tell.

So er what did he do?

If anyone can remember what he did before 11 Sept 2001 then they're doing well. The only thing I recall was the China spyplane incident which highlighted the fact that W did not intend to continue the Clintonian "We ♥ China" policy of handing the Chinese anything they wanted for military development. Had 9/11 not happened the US/PRC cold war could have been interesting. As it was no one has noticed.

Post 9/11 he started off well. The invasion of Afghanistan was done well and, while one can quibble about the follow-up on the whole Afghanistan showed very clearly that there are limits to acceptable behaviour by minor powers. Even if

Then there was Iraq: a good idea marred, in my opinion, by poor execution and even worse marketing. Hussein deserved death and his regime deserved to be overthrown. I'm with Hitchens when I say that the biggest error Bush Sr made was not continuing the war in the early 1990s, especially not supporting usefully the Shia uprising in the south. And the oil for food scandal etc. really really didn't help afterwards. But getting rid of Saddam was one thing. Replacing him with something better turned out to be rather harder and it certainly didn't help that the US appeared to have a very limited plan for what to do next. Of course, as an armchair general looking back with hindsight, I am no doubt guilty of failing to understand the limits he and his team were working under at the time but I still think he could have done better in planning the post invasion government. Far worse, IMO, is the way he let the liberal, lefty media, pundits and politicians (e.g. Chirac and Schroeder) win the marketing campaign over the justification for invading Iraq. I don't know whether a better sales effort could have been made but I think so as the messages were mixed and the concentration on WMD was a mistake. It was a mistake not because of what we subsequently learned about the state of Saddams WMD program but because it distracted from the Saddam as dictator and terrorist sponsor message that was the real reason why Bush thought about invading Iraq in the first place.

In the fullness of time I expect Iraq to be listed as a Bush achievement. The Petraeus "surge" will go down in military history as one of the most successful counter-insurgency strategies ever. Further more, the swing amongst Arabs against Al Qaeda resulting from their attempted takeover and subsequent rejection in Sunni Iraq may be seen in the future as the second point at which it became clear that militant Islamofascism (or your epithet of choice) was not inevitable - the first being Afghanistan. So if we get to a point where we say in a decade or two from now that it was odd how everyone got worked up about Islamic fundamentalism then Bush is likely to be the main cause of that.

In the same vein, whether or his foreign adventures end up being ultimately successful he restored morale and belief to a US military that, under Clinton, felt unloved and unappreciated. Not to mention being made politically correct in inappropriate ways. He also, and I count this in the win column others may disagree, caused the hysterical anti-war left to jump up and down and identify what it stood for so that the majority of the US could decide they didn't like it and wished it would go to Canada like it promised to.

On the other hand I think we can safely lay the public relations mess that is Gitmo at his door. Guantanamo seems to have been a deliberate attempt to lawyer a way through a situation that isn't lawerable and all the lawyering has done is make things worse. Had the US simply left Al Qaeda captives in Afghanistan (or Iraq) and interrogated them there in conjunction with the local government things would probably have been better. They could also have let the local government hold the trial necessary to shoot the scum once they had spilled their guts. But no, people captured in all sorts of different places and in all sorts of different legal situations were all taken and mingled at Gitmo thus allowing human rights lawyers and other useful idiots to make the case that because subject A was illegally detained so are all other inmates.

On the domestic side his economic policies have been adequate. I don't think his administration has made enormous errors but I also don't think he's done any major good either. He did sign Sarbanes Oxley which was probably a mistake but then it was passed by both houses of congress and there was a palpable demand for Washington to DO SOMETHING. SOX is a bureaucratic paperpushing nightmare and his latest "stimulus" package little better but neither seems to be actively harmful in a Nixon or Carteresque way.

It looks to me like his appointments of Roberts and Alito were very sound (although why Harriet Miers was touted first seems bizarre). Indeed Miers, like a nunber of his other appointments or would be appointments, seems to be a classic case of rewarding loyalty with a job the person is not qualified for. Also domestically he managed to fracture a good deal of the Reagan republican coalition by, at different times and in different ways, seriously annoying just about every component of if. From anti-pork libertarians to religious conservatives via anyone who hated gun-contol or thought that national security would include trying and jailing security leakers at some point he managed to bend when he could have stood firm. In particular his lack of backbone over pork, and especially pork within the republican party, means that he missed a very clear (and I think popular) way to differentiate the republicans from the democrats. Reagan talked a good talk about cutting government spending and people tended to give him a certain amount of benefit of the doubt. Bush has never really talked the government cutting talk and has shown little desire to walk the walk either.

I can't comment on No Chld Left Behind or some of the other stuff that has happened. I suspect its mostly Sarbanes Oxley in other areas - i.e. classic "government must do something, this is something, hence this is good" sorts of legislation that isn't going to fix the problem it is supposed to but isn't immediately fatal either.

Overall though I suspect his legacy is mixed. He's not the worst or even the 5th worse US president but he's not the best or 5th best either. Somewhere in the pack around the middle I reckon. We only think he's special now because he's the most recent and none of us were around to debate the strengths etc. of Teddy Roosevelt or Andrew Jackson.

26 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink


Hitherto I had considered "Fairtrade" products to be a nice way for smart capitalists to rip of the woolly headed. My reasoning went that the smart capitalists charge a premium for "Fairtrade" branded stuff and pocket a profit margin which is greater than they can get away with for less ethical produce. Of course they would undoubtedly be spending more on the raw materials but raw materials are typically a small proportion of the overall product cost with the majority going to labour, packaging, shipping not to mention marketing and possibly government taxes and tariffs. For example say coffee beans are sold for $1 per kilo normally by the producer and the manufacturer sells the output at $10/kg at the retail store. A rough breakdown of where the consumer's $10 goes is something like this:
SalesTax/VAT $1.50
Retailer $1.50
Manufacturer $7.00

Packaging, shipping etc.

Coffee Producer/Middleman

Now see how the sums look with a 30% markup on the price ($13) and a 100% increase in coffee bean price for "Fairtrade":
SalesTax/VAT $1.95
Retailer $1.95
Manufacturer $9.10

Packaging, shipping etc.

Coffee Producer/Middleman

Isn't that nice. The coffee producer gets $2 instead of $1 and perhaps the $2 is actually all his instead of being skimmed by a middleman taking his 20% so yes the producer does benefit. But the manufacturer benefits more (110% increase in profit margin) and both the government and the supermarket retailer also benefit by 30% as well. In other words Fairtrade coffee is a great way to separate the woolly thinkers from more of their money than you would otherwise get.

A better slogan for FairTrade?However via Samizdata I'm led to a Torygraph blog piece by Alex Singleton where he points out that Fairtrade is in fact only selectively good for the poor peasants it is supposed to help. In fact (read the link) it turns out that only certain sorts of peasant can qualify for Fairtrade. Basically you have to be part of a farmers cooperative, if you own your own land and work by yourself you don't qualify. And neither, apparently, can certain other forms of land tenure. Only cooperatives need apply. Also, oddly enough, Fairtrade coffee seems to be processed in the poverty stricken nations of Belgium and Germany so if you happen to think that it might be a good idea to roast, grind and package the beans in the country where they are grown then you can't be part of the Fairtrade scheme.

Not at all to my surprise it turns out that Fairtrade requires lots of paper-pushing bureaucracy, so larger cooperatives have an advantage over smaller ones. Even more interestingly, I learn from this article about Tate & Lyle's fairtrade sugar that how they pay the extra is not quite as simple as you think:

To be Fairtrade accredited, producers must be paid a minimum price to cover the cost of sustainable production plus an extra premium to be invested community development projects.

In other words T&L is required to give grants to various development schemes - run, no doubt, by the usual bunch of NGOs - which may or may not spend the money on things that the farmers themselves consider important.

About the only good thing that Fairtrade does is ensure that beans from Fairtrade nations sold on the free marker are likely to be better quality (whereas those within the scheme probably are of lower quality):

While high-street chains like Starbucks and Caffe Nero have encouraged consumers to favour higher-quality, speciality coffee, there is growing evidence that Fairtrade is damaging quality, too. Fairtrade farmers typically sell in both Fairtrade and open markets. Because the price in the open market is solely determined by quality, they sell their better quality beans in that market, and then dump their poorer beans into the Fairtrade market, where they are guaranteed a good price regardless. Moreover, because co-operatives mix every farmer’s beans together, farmers who improve quality receive the same payment as those who do not, which discourages improvements. That’s worth considering next time you pop out for a double espresso.

Fairtrade. Good for third world socialists. Not necessarily good for third world farmers.

26 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

The Slow Death of Captcha

For those who don't know, a Captcha is one of those obfuscated words that are used to stop computers signing up or spamming things. Captchas are remarkably successful in stopping machines because decoding them, something that humans find very easy, is not so simple for machines. Unfortunately it is possible that the captcha may be no more.

The register has an article about spammers cracking Google's Captcha linking to this websense article with more detail than you could possibly want. However in summary, as with Yahoo and MSN captcha cracking, what we have is a system where Pwn3d computers fill in the user details and when they get to the Captcha text send the request back to a master server or two somewhere. Ths master server(s) then makes the attempt to crack the code, something that they succeed in about 20% of the time, and send the response back to the 'bot which then fills in the field and hopefully gets a gmail account.

If you read the websense article it looks like at least some of the captcha decoding is being done by paying humans to respond. So in other words captchas are working sufficiently well that it becomes worthwhile paying people to break the barriers. This is kind of a good thing because it indicates that the captcha technique really is mostly uncrackable. On the other hand the fact that it is worthwhile for people to be paid to crack captchas indicates that significant value is available once you have something "free" like a gmail account.

So if captchas are dying what are the alternatives?

Harder captchas are not the solution. The problem being that we need to find a way to differentiate between "good" humans and "bad" Pwn3d bots with "bad" humans answering the questions as opposed to merely differentiating between "good" humans and "bad" Pwn3d bots.

One way that might help is a two-way dialog with fairly strict response times. A possible way to do this would be a game where the person signing up has to (say) shoot down 5 space invaders in 10 seconds. Once the game is over the game sends the score (encrypted in some manner) back to the authentication server along with some other information. If the score is good enough you get to pass the test. The trick here is that the human has a time limit which limits the ability of an Pwn3d computer to call back to base and get a reply. Another advantage is that one can create almost unlimited nearly identical java/flash whatever applets that can be downloaded but which perform sufficiently differently that you can't simply fake the return. You could even create a KittenAuth applet as one of the alternatives....

Other possibilities are to enter things like post code and street address (and possibly cross check at least vaguely with IP address) and be asked for something that would be hard to find out quickly unless one were actually there. With this sort of thing you can limit the number of people who can attmept to sign up for something from a particular address and validate that the address exists. This would work really well in the UK where post codes get you down to about a dozen buildings usually but might also work for other places with a bit of care. For example asking where the nearest post office is. Or some other notable building (church, shop, bank, pub). Or...

And of course you could do simple things like addition, word games that you struggle with if English is not your native language and so on. Even ask trivia questions. All of these would be predicated on the idea that the computer can't figure out the answer and the human will not be of the right culture to get it right quick enough.

In fact the key here would probably be to ask the human which sort of test they want to do so that they have plenty of options. All this would be fairly easy to code I think, at least the simpler versions would be, and I'm fairly sure that you could make the applet non-reverse-engineerable in real time. No doubt even so the bad guys would have ways to get around some of these but by changing the applets you would make it hard for them to keep up, just the same way that malware writers mutate their product to make it hard for virus detectors to keep up.

26 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Automatic Oopsies

Just recently I noticed that some websites that try and be helpful get their extra infomration wrong. Take google for example. I know there is a Royal Bank of Scotland branch (it's their Child's dead posh banking subsidiary) at 1 Fleet St in London. If you search for that using google maps (see this link) it shows you the bank as it should do, but unfortunately tells you that the address is:

WC2B 4, Westminster, London

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, wrong and comes from google doing a search for something like "Royal Bank of Scotland, London" and getting the wrong address.

Another automated oopsie that I noticed recently is Fox business where they try to automatically give stock quotes for things that look like they might be ticker symbols. Their ticker algorithm is wrong because what it works on is (TLA). Unfortunately (TLA) can just be an abbreviation as in "Three Letter Acronym (TLA)" and in these cases it isn't a stock quote. One example is this Foundry Networks press release, where they give quotes for Internet Protocol (IP) and Full Duplex (FDX) and try to get quotes for MPLS, FIB and so on.

Another automatic oopsie that I've noticed are in the adverts on certain sleazy sites (e.g. Yahoo mail) that try to list women I might be interested in dating in my vicinity. Unfortunately the way my ISP works the geolocate services think I'm in the Ile-de-France which means I tend to get a load of tarts from the Paris suburbs rather than from somewhere useful. Not you understand that I intend to take advantage of the offers but it is peculiar to see the sites that are otherwise in English such as Yahoo telling me that there are "Femmes dans votre ville qui vous chercher"...

27 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics and Climate Change Statistics

That famous dictum about lies, attributed to either Mark Twain or Benjamin Disraeli depending on who you trust, probably needs to be extended. The more I read, the more I feel that the statistics underpinning Climate Change/Global Warming etc. look remarkably ropy and the models that are constructed with their help are, if anything, worse.

We should I think skip lightly over the "hockey stick" as that particular bit of statistical analysis now looks about as convincing as Al Gore professing an abiding love of Florida election technology. However that is far from the only example of science where the conclusion seems to have helped select the data used or the manipulations required. For example this post by tamino explains:

In the same time period (1958-1988) during which Puerto Maldon raw data show more than 2 deg.C cooling, its neighbors show about 1 deg.C warming. To make the Puerto Maldon trend match its rural neighbors (which will include a lot more than I�ve shown here), it needs an adjustment amounting to about 3 deg.C during that time period.

Which I might translate as - this station gives the wrong answer for what we want unless we change it, so since we know the answer is right we change it to work. Better known as working back from the answer and when inky schoolboys do it we call it cheating. I do understand the rationale behind the adjustment, its just that if you are doing that adjustment you are creating a dependant variable from an independant one and thereby breaking some fairly basic statistics/probability rules and thereby making the whole calculation extraordiarily iffy - if not flat out wrong.

Anthony Watts and his team of volunteers at Surface Stations are busily demonstrating that the raw data used by some of the climate change folks is, well to put it politely, not exactly high quality. Since this data is used to create all sorts of alarmist models the raw data quality would seem to be critical. As we all know from computer science "Garbage In, Garbage Out" is a basic rule so if the raw data is crud then the results are going to be basically meaningless. This, one would have thought, should be well understood by climate scientists since it is well known that the earth's climate is one of those complicated fractal things were minute changes of initial conditions lead to enormous changes in conditions a few years later.

Apparently this is not the case. Over at Climate Audit, Steve McIntyre has looked at some of the data used (e.g. in Peru) and found very definite oddities that would seem to spring from poor initial data or sloppy use thereof.

The fact that climate change scientists can then say that both warming and cooling observations fit with the model without going into detail does kind of make you wonder. It is possible that the models predict warming and cooling as CO2 increases (or whatever the current scare du jour is) but you do have to wonder. Recall claims about the hurricanes? Well the evidence that hurricanes are increasing is at best mixed and at worst disproven. The world's weather is currently severely affected by a monster "la niña" which means that January was saw a major drop in global temperatures. The analysis of this drop is interesting.

Even more interesting is the comparison of four series of global temperature changes that indicates the quality of climate change statistics. Anthony Watts and/or another studious amateur created a combined data series listign global temperature variation from "normal" per month for each of the four major data sets from Jan 1979 to Jan 2008. Mr Watts then created 4 histograms from those sets and looks at them. Personally I find it more interesting to just overlay them, as I have done below (click to enlarge and show table of data):
Overlain histograms for global temperature
The green and yellow lines are the two satellite data sets. Since they use the same base satellite sensor it is not surprising that they agree in large part with each other, athough there are two clear differences with RSS (green) having nearly 20 more months in the range 0.3 to 0.4 compared to UAH and a similar number less in the range -0.2 to -0.1. However when you look at statistical measures such as the mean and standard deviation (as well as the max and min), you see very close agreement (mean 0.7 and 0.8, std dev 0.21 and 0.23).

On the other hand the ground data sets clearly differ not only from each other but also from the satellite sets. The red (HadCRUT) more closely corresponds with the satellite data than the blue (GISS) although it is clearly on average warmer than the two satelliet sets. Interestingly, and I'm not sure if this says anything sensible, the standard deviations are similar to but slightly smaller than the satellite ones (0.19 for HadCRUT, 0.20 for GISS).

Of rather greater interest is that, just as RSS & UAH share the same base satellite data, HadCRUT and GISS have considerable overlap in surface stations. It's a bit of a worry when one is consistently warmer than the other and reminds me of the advice: "Never go to sea with 2 chronometers - take one or three". We could use a third opinion for the ground data I think and ideally one that doesn't "use statistics the way a drunk uses a lamp post - for support rather than illumination".

27 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Writers and Free

At Wired, Chris Anderson (Mr Long Tail), has a whole piece about the economics of "Free" as a business model. I'm sure its just coincidence that AP reported yesterday that various other authors and publishers are following in the footsteps of Baen and giving work away for free:

NEW YORK - Charles Bock's "Beautiful Children, a best-selling debut novel about characters adrift in Las Vegas, is the latest book to be offered for free online.

Starting Wednesday, Bock's novel can be downloaded from the Web site http://www.beautifulchildren.net/read. The free electronic edition will also be available from such leading retailers as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com.

"I want people to read the book," Bock said in a statement issued Tuesday by the Random House Publishing Group. "If that means giving it away for free online, great."

"The book really struck a chord with readers as bookstore sales have demonstrated," Avideh Bashirrad, deputy director of marketing for Random House, said in a statement. "We believe it has even more potential readers out there, and the best way to reach them is online, with this unrestricted access."

And guess what? It works too. Despite all the worries about "piracy"

Publishers have worried about Internet piracy and whether online text could hurt traditional sales. But lately the trend has been to make more books available on the Internet and hope that interest in all formats will be increased.

HarperCollins recently announced that books by Paulo Coelho, Neil Gaiman and a handful of others would be posted online (although not for printing or downloading). In mid-February, financial advice writer Suze Orman said on Oprah Winfrey's television show that "Women & Money," published in 2007, could be downloaded from Winfrey's Web site over a period of 33 hours. More than 1 million copies of the book were downloaded and the paper edition jumped into the top 10 on Amazon.com.

Gee. Eric Flint has been telling the world this for years over at Baen's Free Library and more recently in his JBU columns.

On the other hand at the Boston Herald there is a column with a link to a Harlan Ellison rant called "Play the Writer" where he points out that you have to pay to play. He points out that freebies can be a bad idea sometimes and he has a fair point. Free is only sensible if it has a payback. The column points out that many creative people face a similar challenge because "career development" may mean they ought to do one thing but the need for food, clothing and housing means they can't aford to.

The question posed is not one with a simple answer and it applies to all sorts of other activities that surround the process of marketing a work or a career. John Scalzi undoubtedly helped his works by having a blog, but as he points out he had the blog for years before he actually sold any fiction, and he also benefited from not being the sole-breadwinner in the haousehold; indeed he somewhat controversialy suggested that creative types marry someone with a steady job.

The problem of marketing of creative stuff has been a problem that their creators have faced throughout history. The upper end sent samples to would be patrons, the lower end stopped the story and refused to continue before the hat was filled. Both of these are essentially what Chris Anderson is talkign about in the intitial link. The advantage the internet brings is that the free sample / teaser can be distributed for very little cost which makes a bunch of otherwise marginal creative activities possible. And this is where Mr Ellison gets upset because (paraphrasing) the amateurs give stuff away for free so people get used to it and refuse to pay the professionals.

To go back to the free ebooks thing, I find myself (to my shock) in agreement with Andrew Burt - most books (all popular ones for sure) have pirate electronic editions available for a monetary cost of $0.00 if you want to spend the time find them. The argument is about piracy reducing sales is silly as the pirate copies already exist. The trick is to make the free copies bring you other sales and the way to do that seems to be to out "pirate" the pirates yourself.

However not all ebooks need to be given away for free.This is what worries even otherwise smart folk like Jerry Pournelle, however it appears that if you price your ebooks sensibly you can sell them to people with disposable income who like ebooks. Many people prefer to reward the author as long as they don't think they are being ripped off and if you don't make an ebook available (or price it too high) then you deprive yourself of the opportunity to make money from these people. This excellent presentation from the O'Reilly TOC conference makes the point very clearly with respect to how the music industry didn't get that right.

28 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

Sympathy for Climate Scientists

I have a certain amount of sympathy for the scientists involved in studying the global climate. The sympathy is due to the fact that they are studying a complex chaotic system and looking for trends in the 0.1-0.5 °/decade range from data that
  1. exhibits variation in the 40°/year range (minumum January temps of -5°c max august temps of +35°c are common over quite a lot of the temperate world - mid-continental higher lattitude locations often show more, tropical locations may show less)
  2. is measured by equipment and data recorders that may exhibit significant instrumentation biases and these biases may change dramatically when a sensor is replaced or a new recorder starts taking the data
  3. is further buggered up by local changes in the environment (urban heat islands, asphelt, changes in land use etc.) that again seem to be a good order of magnitude greater than the underlying trend
  4. is even further buggered up by changes of location and other factors which may well not be properly documented.
  5. and finally where reliable data is only available for a few decades in a few parts of the world (yes some good data is available for over a century but the majority isn't)
The result of all of this is that the signal to noise ratio is clearly more 1:100 instead of 10:1 as is common in many other data analysis examples. Hence determining trends is clearly going to be very difficult and hence my sympathy. This is particularly difficult for the paleoclimatologists who try to figure out what the temperature was in the centuries before mankind had thermometers and the like.

However I do think that climate scientists who make blanket "consensus" statements and who react to criticism by attacking the credentials of the critic do their cause no good at all. I do firmly believe that despite all the argument most climate researchers are basically honest and do believe that the science shows that the earth is warming. Indeed I too think the science shows that the earth is warming - that is to say I think you'd be an idiot to think that 100 or 200 years ago the earth was warmer than it is today.

Where I tend to lose agreement, and lose sympathy, is the way that the warming of the earth is automatically assumed to be caused by human activity and frequently to claim that the current global temperature is unprecedented etc. etc. To put it very simply, I'll believe the earth is above a record temperatures in the recent past when grapes grow in Greenland. We know the vikings grew wheat there, we know that you can't do that today, hence by implication Greenland is not as warm now as it was then. Unless someone can either
  1. come up with a convincing reason why Greenland's weather is a fluke and not representative
  2. come up with proof that Greenland is as warm now as it was c.1000 years ago
I'm going to remain highly skeptical that there is serious global warming. And I'll remain equally skeptical of a human cause until it can be shown that there was another reason for the temperatures 1000 years ago and that that reason does not apply now.

I'm also highly skeptical of the models because of artifacts like this which seem likely to produce spurious correlations. This means I have a lot of problems with many of the concepts of PCA (excellent explanation of how PCA works here, here and here) and how many scientists (Mann, Hansen for example) use PCA to detect spurious data points and add corrections to particular data series.

Which leads me back to another reason why I have so much sympathy for climate scientists. Their leaders have predicted disaster after tragedy and used that as a way to extort money from the rest of us. If the whole house of cards turns out to be built on garbage initial data then the whole pack of them are going to need to find a job suddenly and they won't have many qualifications. This might possibly explain why they seem so keen to defend the "consensus" and attack the critics. I'd do the same if my job were threatened too.

29 February 2008 Blog Home : All February 2008 Posts : Permalink

20080229 - Leap Year Day Olive Blogging

For the first time ever (and quite probably the last) we have Olive Tree blogging on the 29th February. Hence, despite fierce competition from the other photos I took today on my way to the very excellent Auberge St Donat for lunch, I decided to go with a photo of one of our olive trees.  Admittedly the white blossom behind is the neighbours plum(?) tree but the blossoms in the lawn are all ours.
20080229 - Leap Year Day Olive Blogging
As always you can click on the image to see it enlarged and are invited to visit the olive tree blogging archives to remind yourself of how nice olive trees are.