Watched JFK on DVD last night. An utterly splendid film with very high information compression, meaning you really have to pay attention to it throughout the whole 3 hours otherwise you WILL miss something. I didn’t know very much at all about Kennedy’s assassination up until now, I knew the basic story of course, including the fact that there was “a conspiracy theory”, but I didn’t know much beyond that. Personally I’m with Jim Garrison, and while I may not have been with him at the time (as I, along with the American public, probably wouldn’t have believed the US government to be capable of such things), I’ve had the benefit of seeing another 40 years of history pass by and witnessed numerous further acts of corruption, nest feathering and underhandness.

It was, of course, all about the war industry. Kennedy was a democrat radical, not exactly left wing, but certainly way too left wing for a lot of peoples’ liking. Kennedy was going to end the cold war with the Soviet Union and he wasn’t going to go to war in Vietnam, and of course this was all very bad news for those in the defence industry. The contemporary anti-communist witch-hunt was incidental, although it did not help Kennedy with his polices at the time. The links cannot be proven of course, but doesn’t that sound rather familiar considering what happened in the middle east last year? It’s the same thing every time – the economy of the United States more or less depends on there being a war in the world at any one time, whether US forces are actively involved or not. If there isn’t a war, they create one, otherwise they go into recession. They’re now even recreating the anti-communist witch-hunts, except now it’s with the largely unquantifiable foe known as “terrorism” – essentially an unrestricted meal ticket with no expiry date for the defence industry. It’s utterly sickening.

So now, 40 years on, what used to be an outrageous slur on the US government is more or less accepted as the way things are by the jaded and cynical publics of the world, and if Garrison thought that it was corrupt then, just think how he would feel if he knew what was to come: Nixon (whose corruption brought the country to the brink of crisis), arming the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and General Pinochet; right through to September 11th. Yes, I’m sorry, but I’m with the conspiracy theorists on that one, so many things just don’t make sense or sit right with me, but that’s another discussion for another day.

In summary, excellent film. An important part of United States history revealed, whether it can be proven or not. If you’re interested in United States history from that sort of time period, the film Nixon pretty much follows on from it as far as the timeline goes, although obviously it covers a different subject. Thirteen Days covers the Cuban Missile Crisis, which of course took place a year before Kennedy was killed. Kevin Costner stars in both JFK and Thirteen Days, but plays different characters in each.


New Labour parable

I nicked this off someone on the Internet, who nicked it off someone else, who in turn nicked it off some other person, and none of us have any idea who wrote it, so I won’t even bother with any credits beyond “I didn’t write this”.

The Original Version

The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The grasshopper thinks he’s a fool and laughs and dances and plays the summer away.

Come winter, the ant is warm and well fed. The grasshopper has no food or shelter so he dies out in the cold.

The New Labour Version

It starts out the same, but when winter comes, the shivering grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while others are cold and starving. The BBC, ITV, CNN and all the rest of the News Reporters show up and provide pictures of the shivering grasshopper next to film of the ant in his comfortable home with a table filled with food.

The entire country is stunned by the sharp contrast. How can it be that, in a country of such wealth, this poor grasshopper is allowed to suffer so?

Then a representative of the NAAGB (The National Association for the Advancement of Green Bugs) shows up on Newsnight and charges the ant with “Green Bias” and makes the case that the grasshopper is the victim of 30 million years of greenism. Kermit the frog appears on Trisha with the grasshopper, and everybody cries when he sings “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”

Tony and Cherie Blair make a special guest appearance on the Evening News and tell a concerned Trevor MacDonald that they will do everything they can for the grasshopper who has been denied the prosperity he deserves by those who benefited unfairly while the Conservative were in power.

Gordon Brown exclaims in an interview with David Frost that the Ant has gotten rich off the “back of the grasshopper”, and calls for an immediate tax hike on the Ant to make him pay his “fair share”.

Finally the EEOC drafts the Economic Equity and Anti-Greenism Act. RETROACTIVE to the beginning of the summer. The ant is fined for failing to hire a proportionate number of green bugs and, having nothing left to pay his retroactive taxes, his home is confiscated by the government. Cherie gets her old law firm to represent the grasshopper in a defamation suit against the ant, and the case is tried before a panel of high court judges that are appointed from a list of single-parent welfare mothers who can only hear cases on Thursday afternoon between 1:30 and 3:00 PM when there are no talk shows scheduled.

The ant loses the case.

The story ends as we see the grasshopper finishing up the last bits of the ants food while the government house he’s in – which just happens to be the ant’s old house – crumbles around him since he doesn know how to maintain it. The ant has disappeared in the snow. And on the TV, which the grasshopper bought by selling most of the ants food, they are showing Tony Blair standing before a wildly applauding group of cretins announcing that a new era of “Fairness” has dawned in the UK.

It’d be funnier if it wasn’t so dangerously similar to reality.


Lift Culture

Lifts these days play a very important part in my life. Before I moved to Manchester I rarely used to get into lifts due to various childhood nightmares that I won’t go into here. But since moving I’ve been forced to confront those fears and now I use lifts both at home and at work. In total I reckon I get into a lift around ten times a day, and as a result of this I’ve become something of a lift expert, not so much technically, but certainly in terms of etiquette, common misconceptions and culture.

For instance, there is a tale that if you’re midway up a building, and you call a lift, and one lift is on the top floor and the other on the ground floor, the lift from the top floor will come and get you as it requires less power to drop a lift than it does to lift it. Not true. Lifts are counterbalanced by a gigantic flat weight which runs up and down the lift shaft. When the lift is at the bottom, the weight is at the top, and vice versa. It therefore requires no more power to drop the lift as it does to bring it up, as if the motor’s dropping the lift it is at the same time lifting the weight. It makes no difference.

That was a technical example, which is different to actual etiquette, or in a number of cases, personal preference. For instance, I *hate* sharing lifts with people I don’t know. I’m a very territorial person anyway, so to be sealed in a small windowless box with someone for a period of time, no matter how brief, is quite intolerable. Luckily it doesn’t happen that often; at home I leave and get home at different times to everyone else in the building and at work the building’s not full yet so the (three) lifts are usually uncontended.

If sharing a lift with someone isn’t annoying enough, it only makes it worse when people do any of the following:

  • People who press already illuminated lift buttons. The lift’s control system already knows that the lift must stop at that floor, and has indicated so by illuminating the button. Yet people get in and press it again – why? Do they think it will get there EXTRA FAST if they press it more than once?
  • The same applies when calling a lift. If the button is illuminated, then the lift has been called. Sighing and pressing the button again, as if to suggest that the lift has somehow “forgotten” to stop at the floor and needs reminding.
  • This one’s great: Some, not many, but some people think that if you HOLD DOWN the button of the floor you want to go to, the lift won’t stop anywhere else until it gets there. Riiiiiiiiight.
  • Recursive door holders: God I hate these people. I *never* hold doors for people (see above re. sharing lifts), and as annoying as people might find this, I do it for a reason other than personal space. There’s nothing worse than when the doors are about to close and someone jumps in before they do so. The doors open and go through their cycle again, except now someone else is coming, so the person who jumps in presses the door open button and the doors reluctantly open again. That person then does the SAME THING for another person who’s lagging behind, and so it goes on. By this time the lifts at home are squealing because they’ve got some sort of fucking alarm that goes off if the lift remains open on a floor for more than an arbitrarily short amount of time.
  • People who live/work on the first floor yet insist on taking the lift to the ground floor. You’re coming down from 7th, usually in a hurry, and there’s some fucking idiot on the 1st floor who’s been waiting outside the lift for 5 minutes and is all huffy and sighing as a result who has to stop the lift ONE FLOOR from its final destination when they could have saved themselves and me a whole load of time just by WALKING DOWN ONE FLIGHT OF FUCKING STAIRS. When I build Stuii Towers, I will remove the lift buttons for the first floor and replace it with a key switch, giving the keys to disabled people, etc.
  • “My wife/mate/mum’s just coming” – people who’ve managed to get into a lift with you, but are holding the doors open for someone who’s fucking about in the boot of the car, or talking to someone in the lobby, or SOMETHING that indicates that they’re clearly not really interested in the fact that you’re being held up by them and their companion. This one time at home I entered the lift in the basement and these two horrible children ran in after me and kept their fingers on the door open button waiting for their blasted mother to get her Harvey Nichols bags out of the boot of her car. After a minute and a half or so of this, I asked the children (very nicely) if they would mind taking the next lift, to which they retorted with shouts of “NO!” and frowns and scowls on their faces. Incensed, but unwilling to argue with them, I pressed EVERY SINGLE BUTTON in the lift, all nine floors, then get out and walked up the stairs. I didn’t wait around to see what happened, but you can be sure that the mother would have gone mad, assuming that her kids had been playing around with the lift again and that they would have to stop at EVERY SINGLE FLOOR until they got to their floor. The best part about it was that I knew for a fact that they lived on the 8th (top) floor. I can just imagine the kids: “But Mummy it was this man, he pressed all the buttons!” – “YEAH, RIGHT” *whack*. I’m so evil.
  • People who leave a cloud of cigarette smoke in the lift. Enough said. Exactly how antisocial do you need to get before you start to give a shit about anyone else but you?
  • People who get in the lift when it’s going in the wrong direction. This frequently happens at home on the ground floor. The lift will be on its way to the basement, with one of its passengers stopping at ground. The lift is, therefore, “going down”. Someone on the ground floor has pressed the “up” button, so when the lift arrives at the ground floor to drop of its passenger, the person waiting assumes that the lift’s arriving for them (despite the fact that there was no light or chime). They get in, and promptly find themselves in the basement. Cue the inevitable huffing and puffing from them, and smirking from me.

I could go on and on, but I really need to do some work now. If you’re a regular lift user I’m sure you’ll have a laugh at this and perhaps pass it around your office.


Old maps of Manchester

I find maps fascinating, I think they are beautiful works of art and I spend many many hours studying them, whether they are current, out of date, or even proposed. I find that no matter how long you’ve had a map or how many times you’ve seen it, each time you look at it you notice something that you hadn’t noticed before, and I really love that, it’s like an everlasting film that you don’t have to watch all the way through to find something else that you like.

Since moving to Manchester I have developed an active interest in the city’s history. I’ve bought many books with old photographs and accounts of how the city has developed over the past couple of hundred years and I study these avidly too. I was therefore delighted yesterday to find a whole bunch of websites using the power of Google which have some old maps of Manchester going back to 1801, some 203 years ago now. These, I found, were the best:

Many have asked me what used to be on the site that my apartment building is now built upon. As far as I can tell from the history books and peoples’ own accounts, before 2000 (which is when they starting building it) it was just a car park, land ready to be developed (as indeed it was). Before that it was a bit of wasteland for a bit in the years immediately following the demolition of St. Mary’s Hospital, which stood on the site, the site of the Ritz nightclub next door, and the site of the Lock Building which is next door to that:


I’ve no idea when this hospital was built or indeed demolished, but I do know that before the hospital was built there was a collection of buildings on the site, one of which was apparently a world-famous musical instrument store, situated about where the Sainsbury’s Local is now. Before that I don’t know, I suspect that was probably the original collection of buildings put there when the area was initially developed from farmland. Speaking of which, I found this street plan from 1801 particularly interesting, as it shows a very young and small Manchester, and while obviously in the throws of expansion, it was still absolutely tiny compared to what it is today, to the extent that not only is my building’s site out in the middle of nowhere, but so is St. Peter’s Church, which used to stand in St. Peter’s Square, now considered one of the principle city centre focal points.

Observe: Funnily enough this tiny farm building is built almost exactly where my actual flat stands now (the whole W3 building itself obviously covers a larger area):


And to put all this in context with the surrounding area, including St. Peter’s Church:


This particular map is obviously very old, 203 years to be exact, and if you examine the whole map you’ll see that there isn’t even a hint of a railway anywhere in the city, let alone any tram-like installations. This is firmly entrenched in the age of the canals, and even then the canal network has not yet been fully built (you’ll remember from paying attention at school that canals were basically superceded by the railways in the late 1800s).

So yeah, there’s my anorak bit for the week :)


Misuse of the word “turbo”

Today I am going to rant about the widespread unacceptable misuse of the word “Turbo”. There is this common misconception that the word somehow means “fast”. You can buy “turbo” cars, “turbo” computers, “turbo” running shoes and even “turbo” irons(!)

Turbo cars, I hear you say? But surely they exist, and they are really fast!?

Correct. But they are not fast because they are “turbo”. They are fast because they are fitted with a device called a “turbocharger”, which works by using the power of exhaust gasses to compress clean air back into the engine, thus further aspirating it, making the combustion stronger and thus and making it more powerful. It does this using a turbine, much like a very small (and indeed very fast) windmill. Observe HowStuffWorks: Turbochargers for more information.

But still, the word “turbocharger” has the word “turbo” as a subset, so it might imply that something is fast – right? Yes, but implication and meaning are two different thing. It is called a turbocharger because it uses a turbine. “Turbo” is a latin word meaning “an eddy , whirling round; a mental or political disturbance; a child’s top; a reel; a spindle” (reference: UND Latin Dictionary and Grammar Aid) – which obviously relates to the turbine as that’s the part that does the whirling and spinning. But that doesn’t mean that “turbo” means “fast”, it simply means “spiral”, “whirl”, which, in the context of a combustion engine, is used as part of one method to make the engine more powerful without adding significant extra weight.

So why oh why oh why do people slap “turbo” stickers on irons and computers when no such whirling or spinning parts are present (CPU fans don’t count, smartarse, making the computer fast is not their purpose). Turbo does NOT mean fast, it means spiral, whirl, spin. Show me where the spinning turbine is on a super w@w turbo iron or the latest Phillipine sweatshop products that you put on your feet.

Yes, yes, I know that the word’s now become so common that its implied meaning is now generally accepted, like a lot of other silly words that make it into the OED every year, but that’s not going to stop me from ranting about the stupidity of it.


Web development truths

Anyone can be a web developer, right? Wrong. During the dot.com boom of the late 90s, any old jack-the-lad was claiming that he was a web developer, ranging from 14 year old nephews (known in the industry as Nephew Technology – used by company directors to produce their website in acts of blind faith in untrained schoolboys) to pensioners with way too much spare time on their hands. The dot.com crash of 2000 sorted the men from the boys as those who really didn’t have any genuine skills at all lost their jobs or customers, whilst those who did know what they were doing were more likely to retain theirs.

“Red Herring” websites that cost an incredible amount of money but at the end of the day proved to be little use to anyone became a thing of the past. The Emperor had finally seen the true nature of his new clothes and was no longer willing to pay over the odds for poor results.

I survived the dot.com crash by not getting involved with any of the silly companies that sprang up at the time, instead choosing to make reasonable money and consistently getting better at what I do. People can now easily see the value in my skillset and experience when they brief me for projects. But along the way I’ve learnt a few home truths, which I am not afraid to tell customer both new and existing when I need to:

“How much is a website?”

Never EVER ask a web developer this question. Imagine yourself walking in to a car showroom and asking the dealer – “How much is a car?”. Ludicrous isn’t it? The dealer can’t possibly tell you how much a car is because the price of cars ranges from £5,000 to £500,000 depending on what sort of specification you require and how much you’re willing to spend.

It’s exactly the same with a website. Before a web developer can even give you a ballpark price for developing a new website project, he/she needs to have a reasonably detailed description of what you want it to do.

If you don’t know what a website can be capable of, then they will be more than happy to present options to you, in much the same way as a car salesman will explain the meaning of the obscure acronyms you read on a car’s option list. You may not know what a car can be capable of, so ask the salesman, he’ll tell you. The same applies to web developers, although obviously not on the subject of cars.

You have to tell them what you want, only then can they tell you what it’s going to cost. Not all websites are alike. They don’t come in a set range of flavours. Almost every single website in the world is unique. You’re basically specifying a customised product, with a customised cost.

Fast, Good, Cheap – Pick Any Two

This is golden rule number 1 when constructing a brief for a new project or an extension to an existing project, and it’s by no means specific to website software. Think about it carefully: If you want a good quality product in a hurry, it’s not going to be cheap. Alternatively, if you’re still in a hurry but don’t want to spend a lot of money, the product isn’t going to be particularly good. Lastly, if quality and low costs really are paramount, then you’re not going to have it finished in a hurry. Personally I recommend option 1 followed by option 3 as I’m a perfectionist and actually find it quite difficult to produce something that’s not “good”.

Few companies, at least of the size that most web development agencies operate at, can offer all three, and those companies who claim to be able to do so often just try to sell you a pre-packaged website solution that probably won’t be directly suitable for your purposes, which then of course brings the “quality” factor back into question – are they really offering all three after all?

“I want to be able to update it myself”

This is, has always been, and always will be the biggest double edged sword in the whole website arena. It sounds like a marvellous idea doesn’t it – a website that the owner can control and update themselves with no programming knowledge or dependence on the web developer required. Cynics may well claim that web developers don’t like to produce such products because it subtracts from maintenance contracts, and to be honest there is an element of that, but it is by no means as extensive as you might think.

Principally, the simpler something becomes, the less flexible it also becomes. Again, this is not specific to web development projects, it applies to pretty much all software and hardware products that require some sort of human interaction, from Microsoft Word to your washing machine.

Let’s change the brief here to “I want it to just wash my clothes by pressing a button”, when you’re buying a washing machine. Imagine a washing machine with just one button – “Wash”. Sure, it would wash your clothes, at a fixed temperature and with a fixed programme, and for a lot of people this would be fine. It’s simple to use and virtually foolproof. But woe betide it ruins your Club Monaco wool-knit t-shirt because the programme was unsuitable, because then you would need to change how the machine operates when washing such garments. You need another button. Suddenly the machine has become twice as complicated as it was before.

The same applies to “update yourself” websites (the proper name for which is Content Management System, or CMS). I can provide you with a form with one single text box that allows you to change the content of a paragraph on your website. No problem, you just type the text and the paragraph is updated. But now you want to change another paragraph, and not only that, the paragraph is on another page, and furthermore you want to add an image and change the text colour and add a few links. But at the same time, you don’t want to have to know anything about HTML. Herein lies the problem.

Now you have two options. If you want your content management system to become more complex to satisfy your growing needs, you either need to start learning HTML (the markup language that’s used to define the layout and content of web pages), or you need to invest more money into the CMS in order that you don’t have to. One route is obviously more expensive than the other, and each have their disadvantages.

With the first option, many people fall into a common trap known as Microsoft Word, but the trap also applies to other HTML-producing software. Microsoft Word, a popular item of software on most peoples’ computers, claims to be able to export normal Word documents as HTML files. This, for the most part, is untrue. It may well be able to product HTML files, but the HTML it produces is the most god-awful excuse for markup code that’s ever been seen, and this is not just a personal opinion, this is one of those Internet-wide truths that everyone (bar perhaps Microsoft) accepts. Yet it’s all too tempting for website owners just to simply cut and paste Word HTML into the CMS and expect it not to completely screw up their website.

The point here is that allowing people to include their own HTML on their website empowers them to do a wide range of very powerful things. It also allows them to do some very bad things. If you want to manage a complicated website yourself, then you’re going to have to learn how to do some complicated things, including learning at least basic HTML that’s sympathetic to the site’s design and style, rather than how Microsoft Word thinks it should look.

The second option is also not without disadvantage. There is no end to how complicated your CMS can get in order that you don’t have to learn any HTML, and therefore there is no end to how much money you can sink into it just because you don’t want to have to “know about programming and stuff”. This is good for the likes of me, but bad for you. In some cases people spend more money on the CMS so they can then spend their own time updating the site themselves than they would have done paying their web developer to make the changes for them under their maintenance contract. There’s a point at which updating the site yourself simply ceased to be cost-effective.

It is necessary to strike a balance between allowing the CMS to automate and you to provide your own creative input by using HTML. The web, despite its apparently simplicity to the average user, is getting more and more complicated by the month underneath. If you want to be involved with controlling the back end then you too will need to become more complicated and technically literate. If you don’t have the skills for this, are not willing to learn the skills for this, or if it otherwise scares you, then leave it to someone else who does have the skills and isn’t scared to take advantage of it.

Rhydio customers should note that this quasi-rant is not aimed at anyone in particular – I just sometimes get this feeling of tremendous dread whenever I hear the immortal words “I want to be able to update it myself” :)


Student tuition fees

In light of the recent shennanigans concerning university tuition fees, here’s an idea I’ve had which from the outset at least seems very fair. We all know that there are a lot of wasters who go to University and never really work hard, whilst at the same time some people work exceptionally hard and deserve the best degree at the end of it. Yet all students from both ends of the spectrum are subject to the same tuition fees and also the same tuition subsidies (as students don’t pay all the fees, the LEA pays a contribution too). How is that fair? Well, it’s not, really, and it’s set to become more unfair if the tuition fees go up.

So here are the main issues, at least in my view:

  • Too many students are going to University these days, often to do useless, “Mickey Mouse” degrees (media studies, leisure and tourism studies, etc.)
  • Many of these students have no intention of actually doing any work, whether that means they get a degree or not.
  • Whether a student succeeds or fails, they still use the same financial resources to pay for their course, both from the LEA and their own pockets.
  • Many students from poorer backgrounds cannot afford to attend University, even if they are exceptionally bright.

So here’s my idea: How about some sort of “discount” system that’s directly linked to A-Level grades? I believe there’s a system in use at the moment called “UCAS points”, whereas when I went to University it was just A-Level points. I don’t know about the exact system that UCAS points use, but let’s for the sake of argument assume that they are interchangeable with the former A-Level points system, in that for every grade you receive two points, so an “A” grade would get you 10 points, a “E” grade would get you 2 points, and a “U” grade none at all.

30 points therefore equates to three “A” grades at A-Level, or 6 “A” grades at AS-Level (i.e. excellent grades, proof of hard work and commitment). Let’s then say that if you get 30 points (or more), you receive a 100% discount on your contribution to your university tuition fees. If you get 6 points (three “E” grades), you get a 20% discount. If you receive three “U” grades (zero points), you receive no discount at all, assuming of course a university will take you with those grades (stranger things have happened).

This system would bring the following benefits:

  • Students who work hard during their A-Levels are rewarded with a cheaper education, for they deserve it. They are more likely to make the best of the opportunity presented to them.
  • Students who don’t work hard during their A-Levels are not rewarded as much. It will be more difficult for them to got to university, but the incentive is there.
  • Students who don’t work at all at their A-Levels aren’t rewarded at all.
  • I know it’s generalising, but it’s normally safe to assume that people who don’t work hard at their A-Levels aren’t likely to bother to change their ways when they get to university, and so having no discount on their tuition fees may well deter them from going to university at all, it would be a waste of everyone’s time, including their own. They would be better off starting their career at 18.
  • Bright students from poorer backgrounds who would not normally be able to afford a university education would then be able to because of the large discount they would receive from doing well at A-Level.
  • The theory that if you work hard, you will be rewarded will be restored, rather than the current system of rewarding people whether they work hard or not.

Obviously, I can’t have possibly covered all the angles here because I don’t know the education system well enough and I never will, but don’t you think that at least initially it seems like a reasonably sensible idea?

But then, as with everything that’s “reasonably sensible” in this country, those very words mean that it and nothing like it will ever even be tabled, much less implemented. That is, however, a rant for another day. Probably tommorow.

The only disadvantages I can see with this is that it may be necessary to raise the standard tuition fees in order that those with low or no discounts are able to subsidise those with high or complete discounts. At the end of the day, universities still need a certain amount of money in order to operate properly, and if they just take A-grade students then they’re going to be a bit short of dosh. That’s a problem for an accountant though.

Don’t like this idea? Too right wing? Think I’m ill-informed about such matters? Sorry about that, but I’ll write whatever I like here.