Friday, April 30, 2010

Election update

A week in Cornwall has refreshed Mrs. Commuter and myself but left me perilously out of touch with the General Election. We failed to watch the second and third leaders' debate and the only story that seems to have been of much interest is 'Bigotgate', Gordon Brown's unguarded comments about an awkward encounter with a supporter that were conveniently recorded on a Sky News radio mike (that should have been unclipped before GB drove off) and instantly broadcast to the world.

David Cameron seems to have regained some momentum and is on course to head the largest party in the new Parliament but we won't know if he will have a majority until the day after - this at least makes it a highly exciting poll. The best part of this is that many voters will feel that their votes actually matter and that can only be good for democracy. Mine, alas, does not, living as I do in a fairly safe Tory seat.

The long-term question is whether the LibDems can sustain their apparent support and become a genuinely third player, and thereby break up the two party system that has worked, one way or another, since the early eighteenth century. Whig and Tory, Liberal and Conservative, Labour and Conservative - the stark either/or choice has been the essence of British politics for so long that we really no experience of anything else.  Actually that is not quite right, given the influence of the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, as well as the welter of parties in Northern Ireland, but it is reasonably true for the UK parliament.

I think that a more fluid system will be profoundly good for democracy and in making Governments more responsible to Parliament, and Parliament in turn to the people. So let us hope that some sensible voting takes place next week, and a sense of what may be won has more influence than the smell of fear.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Notes from an ashen-faced commentator

A volcano erupted last week in Iceland and British airspace was closed from Thursday until yesterday. It is amazing how instantly disruptive this was. Thousands of people have been stranded and huge damage has been done to businesses, including the one I work for. Several members of my family are still stuck in various places and though the airlines are now free to fly, the schedules will be screwed up for some time to come as the planes and the crews are brought back to base.

The ash from the volcano - especially dangerous because it exploded its way through a glacier on top of the vent - was thought likely to damage aircraft engines. After a few days  the news was dominated by stories of desperate people fighting over hotel rooms, taking taxis hundreds of miles, running out of money and finding their visas invalid in foreign countries. The airlines were incurring huge losses and they put huge pressure on the authorities and the official line changed. Ash concentrations thought to be dangerous were downgraded and suddenly it was ok to fly, provided the volcano continued to die down.

We will no doubt continue to import food and flowers and other perishables from all over the world. Perhaps we will try to be just a little less dependant in future. There will be other volcanoes and they could erupt a lot longer and a lot bigger next time. I have long been disenchanted with air travel and this year Mrs. Commuter and I will be using train and car instead, and if this restricts us to the UK and Western Europe, no problem at all.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Clegg Effect

Together with about 9 million others, I watched the first-ever British live debate between the main party leaders contesting the forthcoming General Election. And what, you may ask, did I make of the instant success of hitherto little-known LibDem hopeful Nick Clegg? Not a lot actually. Yes he has boyish charm and enthusiasm, nicely contrasting with Gordon Brown's forced smile and David Cameron's look-I'm-really-just-like-you manner.  But almost anyone would have done well against those two. His line about the "two old parties" may come back to haunt him as those of us with some sense of history recall dear old Mr. Gladstone & his pals. What he really has going for him is that he is not laden by the baggage of either New Labour or the ghost of Mrs. Thatcher.

Voters have been drifting away from Labour for some time, but there does not seem to be a sense of real enthusiasm for the Tory altenative, certainly compared to the landmark election of 1997.  It is remarkable how few survive from those days. Of all Cameron's team I think only William Hague saw office before.  When Mrs. Thatcher toppled Callaghan's enfeebled government she had plenty of experienced men (and they were all men in those days) to call on. Now Labour can at least put forward a tried and tested, if not trusted, team [this alliteration is super: Ed]. But will electors fearful of recession and change cling to what they know? Is this the Safety First election to compare to 1931? There are signs that Labour are moving in that direction and I think this may be discomforting the Tories. But how does that help the LibDems? I suspect that the Clegg balloon will deflate as fast as it has gone up when people start thinking of whether things can really get better under a different administration.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Hotmail’s Spam Bodyguard

Regular readers will know that I am fascinated by certain tube ads – those that so badly designed or convey a message in such clumsy fashion that one spends far longer wondering about the brains of the people who designed them than in absorbing the meaning of the content, if any. And today I present to you a specimen of singular interest.

On the face of it this is something about Microsoft's web-based email service, Hotmail. I have nothing against Hotmail. I use it myself from time to time. My interest is in what I can only describe as the ineffable naffness of this ad.

What on earth is a "new busy"? Busy is an adjective. You cannot have a new one. You can have a new, busy person (although that does not have very much meaning, unless by new you denote a synthetically produced human). In the 1930s the word busy was slang for a policeman in the UK and I am pretty sure that nobody in Microsoft's advertising department will know that. So what do they mean? Beats me. There is the outside chance that they think this is popular usage for Businessperson. If so it still produces a meaningless image. Businesspeople do not use Hotmail for business. It is a personal email product, not suitable for collaborative use of email, calendars and resource scheduling, archiving of mail to meet legal requirements and so forth. But let us move on.

What is a spam bodyguard? Why would it be personal? Spam is impersonal mail sent by people you do not know or wish to do business with. If you know them then their emails are not spam, though their receipt may be irritating. So there is no such thing as a personal spam bodyguard. Only an impersonal one, based on identifying emails that are being spammed indiscriminately can do the job. Otherwise you start with the idea that everything you receive must be ok unless you flag it as spam, and this is a model which has been shown not to work.

What in any case is a bodyguard in this context? Viruses, worms and web exploits, all part of the general class of computer software known as "malware", can cause real damage and require a degree of protection for unwary computer users. But spam? Clogs up the mailbox and wastes bandwidth to be sure. But does it do real damage? No. So the image of a bodyguard is without foundation. Possibly this particular bodyguard also protects against malware. But the ad doesn't bother to tell us.

And now we turn to the image itself, the attention-grabbing part of this strange publication. A rusty, corrugated-iron fence nearly meets a crumbling concrete pavement. Poking its face and paws into the gap is a sad looking animal, probably a dog, though wolf, gerbil on steroids and baboon-hound from the Planet Tharg all come to mind [not sure what a baboon-hound is, but I don't know very much about Sci-Fi so let it pass: Ed]. This creature is about to cut its forehead quite badly on the sharp part of the fence and will no doubt go whining back to its owner, or Thargian overlord, as the case may be. But it is associated with the idea of being a bodyguard? Would you entrust your safety to this animal? Not me, Mr. Gates, not me.

So there it is. I don't know what they are advertising or why I should care. I do not wish to be called a "new busy". I don't need, or even believe in the existence of, a "personal spam bodyguard". And nor do you. But if you would like a copy of my new book "Rogue Baboon-Hounds from Tharg destroy the Galaxy", please do get in touch. And Ed – only dorks call SF "Sci-Fi".

Friday, April 09, 2010

Defining our principles

People are asking where Ramblings stands on the great issues of the day, now that the General Election is under way. 

Let us be firm, but not autocratic, decisive yet flexible. Action must undoubtedly be taken but let it not be too hasty, or too protracted. 

We must preserve the best from the past but never be afraid to modernise. We must go boldly into the bright future, always aware of our glorious heritage. Youth has much to offer but we shall not lightly cast outside the experience of the old. 

The hand of government must be gentle, yet powerful but tempered with mercy and always mindful of public opinion, though we disdain popular prejudices. Public spending must be protected but waste will be eradicated. We believe in the finest national health, education, pensions and social policies and will always set taxes at the lowest possible level. 

The spirit of enterprise must be free and unfettered from red tape, but we will resolutely defy the unacceptable faces of capitalism. Part of Europe but proud of our non-European bits as well. In favour of devolution so long as it does not give anyone more power than we wish them to have.

I think this covers all necessary bases [must we have Americanisms? Ed], er, puts fieldsmen into all the right places only allowing quick singles.

A press conference to launch these themes will be held just as soon any journalist expresses any kind of interest.