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Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Future—Today!

We watched the pilot episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" this week. Made in the year 1987 and set in the year 2364, I felt it held up quite well, allowing for some shaky characterisation that you might expect in a first episode. One bit made me laugh though. Commander Riker stops a crewman to ask if he knows where Data is. The crewman takes pleasure in showing him how you can tap a huge panel on the wall and then ask the ship's computer to tell you Data's location. It even displayed moving lights to point you in the right direction.

27 years ago the show's writers thought that this would be cutting edge technology in the late 24th century. Today millions of people have got the same technology sitting in their pockets. Out by three and a half centuries!

We haven't got holodecks yet, but VR headsets are starting to make a real impact, while 3D printers are clearly replicators in the making (no pun intended). Even more than when we were sending rockets to the moon, it feels like I'm living in the Future.

Guess it will still be a few years though before I can tell a kettle to make me a cup of "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot".

Thursday, 21 August 2014

A Curious Optical Illusion Caused by my Spectacles

Sat in a presentation a few days ago I started to get distracted by an odd effect outside. I was in an upstairs room sat on the other side of the room from the window. Outside was a golf course. I was looking at the tiny white dots on the green, presuming they were gold balls but unable to work out why they looked so small. Later on a miniature golfer landed a shot in a bunker. He recovered nicely, tidied up the sand with the miniature rake that had been left there, and moved on. Later still other miniature golfers came and went; some even had a miniature golf buggy.

During a break I wandered over to the window. Now that I could see the drop to the ground, everything looked the right size. It seemed that I had been misjudging distances, thinking things were nearer than they really were, so that they appeared shrunken. When the presentation restarted, I tried to make the golf course look the right size by sheer force of will. It didn't work.

The answer came to me half an hour later, when I happened to take off my varifocals—suddenly the golf course was looking normal. And when I'd stood up earlier, naturally I'd removed my glasses. At this point I confess to missing a bit of the presentation while I experimented pushing my glasses up and down my nose. There was no obvious magnification going on, and although the varifocals do make distant objects appear slightly higher up, I couldn't see how that could be confusing my brain in this way.

I think I worked out what was going on when I noticed how a bit of rough grass changed when I was using my specs: a blur of light green colours changed into distinct blades of grass. My theory is that because the glasses made things more distinct, my brain was fooled into thinking they must be much nearer than they actually were. The only thing that bothers me is that I've been wearing these specs for almost a couple of years now (note to self: book annual appointment at the opticians), but this is the first time I've noticed this effect. My guess is that it was a particular combination of circumstances that generated it, namely having in my near view something (the rough grass) that changed so dramatically when I was using my lenses.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Re-reading Big Cyril

As my book clear-out continues, I find an old copy of 'Big Cyril', the auto-biography of Cyril Smith, one time MP and now apparently also a serial child abuser. I remember this as being quite an entertaining read, back in the day. One bit sprang to mind, so I had a quick look in the index: "sacked from Boards of Governors of twenty-three schools", p 101.

Having been a Labour councillor in Rochdale, Cyril Smith had gone independent in 1966, costing Labour of control of the council. In 1972 they got it back and took action against him, dismissing him as Chair of the Education Committee, and "sacking" him from the Youth Committee, Youth Employment Committee, the Committee of Rochdale Youth Orchestra, the Committee of the Youth Theatre Workshop, and the Boards of Governors of twenty-nine (sic) schools, which I had visited so assiduously as Mayor. Yes, I'm sure he did.

It would be nice to think that someone in the Labour Party knew about his activities and was trying to put some distance between the youth of Rochdale and their future MP. However, I think simple revenge on the man who had deprived them of power for several years would be adequate explanation for their behaviour.

Interesting though how different this page reads in the light of the recent revelations.

Oh, wait. I've just spotted an index entry for Jimmy Saville. Smith met him and even appeared on his TV programme once. He has this to say about him: Jimmy Saville admits openly that his work as a disc jockey is a joke, but his record of public service and charity must be unequalled. Sadly it turns out it was, but for all the wrong reasons.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Speeding up my Nexus 7

I bought one of the original Nexus 7 models last year and, like many others like me, found it gets slower with use. There have been ups and downs. When it installed Android Kitkat it seemed to me to be running faster, while installing the new Google Now launcher made it pretty well grind to a halt.

Recently it's been getting worse again, and last week it reached the point where I felt I had to google the problem again (on a different machine) to look for some explanation. You get a lot of suggestions doing this, some more plausible than others, and some more work than others. I don't want to have to do a factory reset, nor I am thrilled by the idea of having to root my Nexus so I can run someone's clever "speed up your device" app. (To be fair, the app may indeed be really clever, it's the rooting bit I have issues with). In truth, the most common suggestions were ones I'd already tried, or they assumed you were running out of RAM or storage space, which I definitely wasn't.

So I went into Settings and tried to spot apps that were using up suspicious amounts of CPU time. Nothing obvious, and I was out of ideas, so I resorted to uninstalling stuff I don't use much. That didn't seem to help, until I disabled (not uninstalled, just disabled) Screebl Pro. If you haven't heard of this, it's an excellent app that senses when you're holding your device and then stops it switching off the display. Now I noticed a substantial improvement, and a week later the Nexus is still running well.

I have to mention that earlier today I thought I should do the reverse experiment and re-enable Screebl Pro. This had no apparent effect on the speed, which leaves me a little confused. It may be that it was something else I tried that did the speed up, but I only noticed it after disabling Screebl. Or it may be something about leaving Screebl on for a long time that made my Nexus 7 go so slowly. Either way, I thought I'd put this out on the web. If your Nexus 7 is moving like treacle and you've got Screebl installed, it's the work of a moment to try disabling it. If it works for you, great. Otherwise I'd suggest removing some apps.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

And a Farewell to Maps Too

Following on from my last blog, we are also throwing out the collection of maps and guidebooks we've accumulated during holidays to exotic (but more often less than exotic) lands. Who needs a phrase book now when you've got a smartphone in your pocket that can translate for you? And do we actually need to keep that city street plan of Budapest anymore? Even if we ever do go back there, Google Maps will help us get around far more easily than that map, which we've probably left behind in the hotel room anyway.

Like I noted in my blog on aerogrammes, maps and guides are fast becoming superseded by technology.

A Farewell To Books

So after the longest continuous period of my life spent living in the same house, we are moving into York in a few weeks time (subject to contract, etc., etc.). We’re not particularly hoarders, but after nearly 18 years, stuff has accumulated. In previous moves the question has been: what can’t we be bothered paying someone to move from one loft or garage into another? The question is even more relevant this time round, as we won’t have a garage anymore, nor much of a loft either. The cull begins.

Mostly I find getting rid of belongings quite therapeutic, with one large exception: my beloved books. I've been collecting since I was a child. I don’t know how many I’ve got, but the number will be well into four figures. There are shelves and shelves of books, with more books stacked up behind them if the shelf is deep enough. Other books sit in boxes in the loft, some unopened since they were put there in 1996.

It’s time for me to face some facts. I probably have enough unread books to keep me going till I die, and that’s assuming I don’t want to re-read any. In practice, nearly all the books I read from one month to the next are brand new ones, so what are the odds of me re-reading any or getting round to reading books which I bought in a book sale thirty years ago and have never opened since?

But it’s still going to be hard to reverse the habits of over four decades.

I begin to go through my collection. For some books it’s easy: they've fallen apart or the paper’s gone all orange, so they can go. Other’s are out of copyright, and it turns out I can get them for free off the internet. Bye, bye that copy of Little Dorrit, and the James Joyce book I was sure I’d read one day.

Dozens of others I haven’t looked at in 30 or 40 years. Yes, I enjoyed them at the time, but in truth I will never find time to read them again. All these can go too.

As the piles of culled books mount up I start to have doubts. Here I am going through hundreds of books that I know I read, even remember enjoying, but now can recall next to nothing of their contents. Reading is something that has taken up a substantial chunk of my free time, but if I can remember so little of it, what exactly was the point?

For the fiction it’s arguably not so bad: the enjoyment is largely in the reading itself. But I read a lot of non-fiction too; was it really a waste of time? Perhaps not—maybe I take in more than I realise. As a teenager I read Arnold Toynbee’s “Mankind & Mother Earth”, but never quite finished it. When I sat down a decade later to do the job properly, I was pleasantly surprised to find that some of the author’s arguments I had taken on board, without realising their source. Osmosis might be my ally sometimes, though nowadays I make notes as I go through a book, and review them later to try to lock more of the book’s content into that space between my ears.

More doubts now: how can I be really sure I won’t want to revisit these books one day? Would it cost much if I did? A small and doubtless unrepresentative sample on the web provides some hope. Many of the titles are available on the Kindle for just two or three pounds. And wait, there’s more: there are now online subscription services for books. Like with Spotify for music, you can pay a monthly subscription to an online library and read as many of their titles as you want. Scribd charge $9 a month, and I see seven of the books I'm chucking out straightaway on their front page. Oyster Books is another one. There’s even a Mills & Boon subscription service (which I mention purely for the sake of illustration).

In fact, it dawns on me that I’m already using two limited book subscription services. For a decade or so I've been a subscriber to the O’Reilly Safari technical library (which has saved me a small fortune on books about programming), while my Amazon Prime subscription lets me “borrow” one book a month on my Kindle. Their choice of books is fairly limited (I've only used it once), but I'm happy to see that it does include several I'm chucking out. I suspect time is on my side here, and the availability of books by subscription will continue to expand. Not brand new ones perhaps, but that doesn't matter as it's the older books I'm interested in, like the books I bought as a teenager for 30 or 40 pence.

So it looks like technology is going to let me get rid of my books after all without too many sad goodbyes—more like "Au Revoir".

Friday, 27 December 2013

One Cheer for Selfies

Selfies have taken a bit of criticism in the past few days for being "shallow and conceited". That may be, but as someone who's spent quite a bit of time in the past few months going through old family photo albums trying to learn more about his relatives, I'd like to say one thing in defence of them.

I have photo after photo of relatives now dead, some of whom I never even met. Time after time the photo consists of a small image of them against the larger backdrop of some hotel or monument. They wanted to remember where they were; I want to discover who they were. Yet even with a magnifying glass it is hard to make out their faces and gauge their expressions. The occasional close-up I do find is usually highly posed—far from natural.

So in the age of the Selfie, I think how nice it would have been if from time to time my ancestors had just pointed the camera at their own face and captured themselves up close and personal. "Thoughtful and honest" would be my description.