Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Good Blogs Article

First up in my round up of decent blogs I've come across is some dude from Hungary. He recently read The Meaning if the 21st Century (like me) and has written a review (unlike me).

His blog, entitled Flow, can be found here.

Fellow Brit Lelly started to blog last year and her blog Mondo Bongo can be found here.

Then there's the Charles Stross. Anyone who reads this blog for any length of time will know that I hold Stross, his writings and his opinions in very high regard. Charlie's Place is here.

Like most people on the web I exist to do Cory Doctorow's bidding. Doctorow recently became a father (congrats!), and as a result his input into the venerable Boing! Boing! blog has diminished. Fortunately he recently recommended the excellent Jon Taplin (entrepreneur, commentator and general polymath).

Another science fiction writer Ken MacLeod deserves recognition for his excellent postings at The Early Days of a Better Nation.

From the geeky to the decidedly awesome (don't worry, it's a circular gauge) I advise you, the reader, to take in the wonder that is Girl with the One Track Mind by blogger Abby Lee.

Just go back to her earliest posting and read all the way through. Hers is an epic story of sex, feminism, evil old-media institutions, politics, sex, travel, experience, and insights into the human condition.

Some Indian guy I found who has resolved (like many people, including myself) to blog more often at Rants of a Survivor.

And to round off, Mark Frauenfelder (great name!) and an associate have created an online magazine called Dinosaurs and Robots. To view and download the magazine go to Boing! Boing! here and follow the link.

The First Post

I just discovered that the First Post, one of the better online news magazines is owned by Dennis Publishing, which is itself owned by none other than Felix Dennis!!

I'm fed up with blogging for today.


I tend not to get excited about issues of freedom and privacy, partly because I prefer not to rock the boat and partly because I feel privacy as baby-boomers understand it will soon be rendered impossible by surveillance technology.

However state-sponsored coercion? If the state wants to coerce me by targeting "young people who may be applying for their first Driving Licence" then the least they could do is stop documents like this leaking out.

Attempts to be paternalistic and authoritarian are not welcome, but incompetence is just embarrassing.


I'm now about on page 2 of 7 of the "NIS Options Analysis Document" and came across this:

This is fairly creepy. Also -- my tax money is spent producing this soulless, poorly written, overly long, wasteful document?

The audacity!

[of course as an unemployed dropout I don't pay taxes, but that is completely irrelevant]

There are two basic objections to the whole principle of any kind of compulsory national identity register - the pragmatic and the principle.

1. Pragmatic: The system will leak. Biometric technologies are only as secure as the media on which they are stored. Biometric data like iris scans and fingerprints and DNA profiles are all reduced to ones and zeroes on the databases and CDs on which they're stored.

As recent news reports have shown these CDs can be lost in the post, stolen, or otherwise mislaid.

So the argument that biometrics is a fundamentally more secure way of securing data is a canard.

A quick search shows plenty of examples of how RFID-based biometric passports have been subverted in various ways and how fingerprint scanners can be duped.

So the result of all this will be that millions of pounds of taxpayer's money will be wasted, law-abiding citizens will still be the victim of identity theft and criminals and terrorists will continue with business as usual.

2. The presumption that the state will control the identity of citizens is wrong. The state is the servant of the people.

The state is a transient and convenient way of ordering our affairs and has no place demanding anything that doesn't make us safer or that doesn't prevent harm to the people.


What a godawfully boring document. I prefer megalomaniacal police-state power-trips to have some style. Maybe an evil logo as a letterhead or clinical euphemisms like "liquidate" would have been more appropriate.

Still, I think it would be a good idea to sign the NO2ID pledge.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Aeroplane Conveyor-Belt Problem

I have come to the conclusion that the aeroplane will take off in the aeroplane conveyor-belt problem.

The forces acting on the plane are thrust from the engines.

The conveyor-belt will simply make the wheels spin much faster than they usually do.

The purpose of the wheels on aeroplanes is to reduce the frictional effects that act in the opposite direction to the thrust from the engines.

These frictional forces will not be greater by virtue of the wheels resting on a surface moving backwards relative to the aeroplane.

*Is the British usage "conveyer" or "conveyor" ... ? I wouldn't mind except I'm very obviously using B.E. in "aeroplane" and I'd like things to be consistent.


Someone has finally written a sensible article on the whole "evil private equity guys are stealing our lunch money/less tax than a cleaner" story.

Polly Toynbee has been particularly irritating on this subject over the past few months.

Tim Worstall is making the very good point that the state shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water on capital gains tax and reduce our country's entrepreneurial spirit.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

False Positives on Holocaust Memorial Day

My antisemitism meter keeps throwing up false positives.

Is it me, or is there something about the Jawas from the successful sci-fi epic Star Wars that resembles the more degenerate stereotypes of jewish people?

1. "Jawa" sounds a little bit like "jew"

2. The jawas wander around Tatooine selling wares

3. The jawas all end up murdered by Imperial Storm Troopers

It's probably that cultural cliches of this type are found scattered throughout literature, and part of the success of the Star Wars franchise was it's adoption of a lot of the old favourites of cinema and epic multi-generational drama.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Stylistic Zeitgeist

It's interesting how particular styles crop up at particular times. There's a very good discussion of trends in logo design here. I also think there are some similarities between the opening credits of The Hustle and the most recent James Bond movie Casino Royale. This "paper cutout" style is also used in the closing credits of The Incredibles:

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


There is an interesting and not entirely pointless article by Jonathan Freedland over on CiF. The gist of it seems to be that the bankers, traders, banks, and moneymen who complained of state-intervention when times were good are now demanding support from the state in the form of stimulus packages.

This seems grossly unfair. From the article:

"If the market economy is looking peaky, then its accompanying free market ideology should be on life support. Behold the hypocrisy. The free marketeers have spent the past two decades preaching against the evils of state intervention, the dead hand of government, the need to roll back the frontiers, and so on. Yet what happens when these buccaneers of unfettered capitalism run into trouble? They go running to the nanny state they so deplore, sob into her lap and beg for help. The results of their own greed - "exuberance", they call it - and incompetence have caused more than 100 substantial banking crises over the past 30 years, yet time and again it is the reviled state which answers the call for help. Four times in this period, the authorities have had to rescue crucial parts of the US financial setup. If the banks make money, they get to keep it. The moment they look like losing it, we have to cough up. In Wolf's brilliant summary: "No industry has a comparable talent for privatising gains and socialising losses.""

This debate looks to fundamental questions of the place of the state and the market in the distribution of scarcity.

If a woman chooses to take up rock-climbing as a hobby then the state has no place to tell her she can't do it. However if she falls and breaks her leg whilst rock-climbing the state has no right to withhold state-funded paramedic care.

My concern is that it is all very well to complain of enormous disparities in income between the bottom and the top, but what do people intend to do about it? The answer is usually to raise the top-rate of income tax. But then what incentive do people have for aspiring to wealth in the first place?

To put it another way - would you, as a citizen of a state, rather take 40% of £100 000 in tax or 20% of £20 000? Rich people, for all that they piss off people with less money, are a positive thing in a society.

PS: the second comment in on that article someone called "tommydog" made a good point.

Friday, January 18, 2008


My copy of Fleet of Worlds has just arrived! I suspect it will take me less than a few hours to read it.


There is a fascinating article over at CiF about how the middle classes in the UK are now more concerned about equality because of the growth of a class of super-rich people immediately above them.

It is really rather disgusting to hear that physicians and architects are complaining about inequality but don't believe that their money should be redistributed to the poor (i.e. households earning less than £16 000 a year).

There is an interesting quotation, apparently from an Oxford study, that claims that the middle classes would only support a reduction of inequality as long as the middle class was expanding.

"There was a big expansion of the middle classes from the 60s to the 90s, but the academics warned it was a one-off event. From now on, any upward mobility would have to be matched by someone else's downward mobility."

From this you could deduce that civilization has become a zero-sum game. Those who benefit from the growth of the economy are only those in the top strata of society, and anyone who gains does so at the expense of someone else.

I've always suspected that Labour was using stealth tactics to redistribute wealth (the EMA, tax credits etc) without telling the middle classes, who would have to supply the money. Labour can keep Daily Mail readers happy by being authoritarian and pro-"British" and funnel cash to poor children and families.

I don't know if we're entering a new gilded age or if there will be some market crash that sees a swing in moral authority away from the rich towards "aspirant" middle class people, such as happened after 1929.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Whither Carnot Efficiency?

An interesting story about a new method of generating solar power from the inventor of the super-soaker. The article claims efficiencies of 60 % are possible.

As some of the comments point out this idea might not be feasible. The Carnot efficiency of a heat engine is given by:

efficiency = 1-(T COLD/T HOT)

(with absolute temperatures used)

The article suggests temperatures as high as 600 degrees centigrade. So (assuming T COLD is room temperature):

1 - ((273+25)/(600+273)) = 0.66.

Giving a theoretical efficiency of 66%.

Of course it's possible there is some error in my understanding of the article and/or theory.

However the endoreversible process is a slightly more accurate method of measuring the efficiency of a heat engine (at least according to the Wikipedia article), which is given by:

efficiency = 1 - (T COLD/T HOT)^0.5.


efficiency = 1 - ((273+25)/(600+273))^0.5 = 0.41

Giving a theoretical efficiency of 41%, rather less than as advertised.

Nuclear Power Endorsement

There are a number of irritating conceits and half-truths in this Nuclear Power Briefing by Greenpeace on the government's decision to endorse the manufacture of new nuclear power plants.

Comments like this, from the Greenpeace Nuclear Power Briefing:

"“We need baseload, and renewables can’t supply that.”

We also need what’s known as baseload – guaranteed electricity to meet
constant demand - and Britain can generate it with low-carbon technologies like
CHP [Combined Heat and Power] and some renewable technologies like tidal, biomass, biogas and hydro.
More efficient use of fossil fuels also has a part to play."

They don't seem to offer any evidence to support this assertion. Tidal projects are very admirable but there aren't many places that lend themselves to use in the this way. The Severn Barrage is one example, but I don't know if tidal and biomass methods can account for a large fraction of our electricity consumption, yet alone a large fraction of our energy consumption.

Is it not also possible that we could use different designs of nuclear power plant, like the Chinese or South African pebble bed reactors? These address the safety concerns and concerns about productions of weapon grade enriched uranium. Because the Chinese models are intended to be "mass produced" and don't require elaborate safety measures they could also be much cheaper than conventional nuclear reactors.

Surely the solution to the problem is to increase efficiency, increase the proportion of our energy sources that are renewable and low in carbon dioxide emissions? Nuclear power helps fulfill the latter of these points.

Greenpeace seem uninterested in providing figures to support their arguments. I'd like realistic estimates of how much of our energy needs could be met by low CO2 emission renewables and how much our energy needs could be reduced before I dismiss nuclear power.

More from the Briefing:

"“If we don’t go for nuclear we’ll be dependent for gas on unstable regimes
like Putin’s.”

The real threat to our energy security is interruptions to our oil supply. However,
essentially all of Britain’s oil is used for transport and cannot be replaced by
nuclear electricity.

Much has been made of the threat of becoming over-dependent on imported gas,
particularly from Russia. Unfortunately, half of our gas is used directly for
domestic space and water heating and cannot be replaced by electricity.
More is used for industrial processes, leaving under a third that is used for
electricity generation.

Much of that third is used to generate electricity at peak
times because gas turbines can be easily switched on and off to meet short term
spikes in demand. Nuclear power stations must be run continuously. This
considerably limits the role nuclear electricity can play in reducing our
dependence on gas, from wherever it is imported."

OK. So wouldn't it make more sense if our cars and buses and trains didn't run off oil? The stuff is going to be running out soon anyway, and we have an opportunity to get in on the ground floor with hydrogen or cell-powered cars.

Shouldn't our intention be to reduce carbon dioxide emissions? Nuclear power stations could be set up to provide electricity at peak times and spend the rest of their time producing hydrogen via electrolysis that could be used to power transport infrastructure.

As to the problem of heating homes - surely we can come up with some solutions based on electricity and greater efficiency? Combined heat and power has a lot of potential in this area.

We're going to have to switch from an oil-based transport infrastructure to an alternative at some point.

"“We can have nuclear AND renewables.”
In reality going nuclear would squeeze out renewables. Indeed, then Secretary of
State for Business Patricia Hewitt said in Commons debate on 2003 Energy
White Paper:

“It would have been foolish to announce …. that we would embark
on a new generation of nuclear power stations because that would have
guaranteed that we would not make the necessary investment and effort in both
energy efficiency and in renewables.”

Since then nothing has changed."

Huh? We're saving the world here. Can't we ditch Trident and pay for both? Again Greenpeace gives no figures and does not give any concrete evidence that we couldn't or wouldn't pay for development of both renewable and nuclear power.

I find myself in a situation where I don't know whether to believe the government or the greens. This is frustrating and counterproductive.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Coming Up...

Questions: "Are some cultures inherently superior to others?" "Is there a God and should I give a crap?" "What mobile phone will I buy?" "Will anyone read this blog?" "Will I pass my January exams?" "Why can't I get a girlfriend?" "Who will win the presidency of the USofA?" and "Are all these questions connected?"

Lists: "My to-read list for 2008." "Books I have read."

Analysis: "Discussions surrounding the World Question Centre [What have I changed my mind about?]."

Friday, January 04, 2008

Design and Writing

I disagree with nearly everything Jeremy Clarkson says, but I agree with him that there is some indefinable essence that certain items are imbued with. Good design.

Good design transcends the value it gives by way of looks and usability and becomes a joy - something to treasure and value simply because it exists. Human ingenuity overcoming the mindless perversity of the universe and converting matter into something that does something well.

Things like the iPhone, and the Nokia 6310i.

Similarly some people write so well that what they write is good simply because of the way the words are arranged and which words are used. Stephen Fry and Terry Pratchett spring to mind. (incidentally I've never been more affected by the news that someone I don't know was ill than when I read that Mr Pratchett had Alzheimer's - the content of his books speaks of a very pleasant and very wise person, it is very sad that he will be robbed of something he and so many other people enjoy so much).

Good design is to be celebrated as much as good writing. It doesn't provoke wonder so much as joy that we can make this difference and do this thing so well.