Sunday, May 28, 2017

De Rerum Congegnites

A lavish two page advertisment in the colour supplement to my weekend paper, paid for by Virgin TV, has introduced me to a brand new giant on the massive-brainbox scene. Never mind intense speculations about the cause of the Universe, the meaning of truth and the underlying rules of mathematics, this is a philosopher for the twenty-first century with a logic that defys all criticism. The towering intellect in question is one Ella Williamson, hitherto unknown to me, possibly because she appears to ply her trade on morning television at a time when some of us are still in bed. And this is the nub of her interpetration of the world.

My philosophy is that gadgets should be easy to use, make life better or, in some instances, save you money or keep track of your usage

I think it was Descartes who established the fundamental principle of things
 There are two types of things. Everything divides naturally into one of these two types. Things that are nice but too expensive and things that are not so nice 1

and Bertrand Russell, in a technically ferocious appendix to the Principia went further

If x, being the quotient of desirability, is less than y, the perceived value of the device or gizmo in question, then, if z is the propensity to waste one's hard-earned cash and k the likeliehood of being arsed to do anything about it, it follows, trivially, that should x/y>{k...k0}.log z/(x^y)=z!!k, that the object will be purchased but remain unused in its box until the wife throws it out in the next round of spring-cleaning. 2
However, Williamson's tenet, or axiom, that gadgets should be easy to use or make life better is revolutionary. Who knew? I always thought that a gadget should come with an undecipherable manual (albeit in twenty languages), that the cardboard box it comes in should break no matter how carefully you try to open it, that the power button should be as close as physically possible to the operating buttons (so that you turn it off instead of doing what it was you wanted to do), that any cables and power supplies should be unique to the gadget, forcing the accumulation of drawer-fulls of such stuff and that the manufacturer will in any case produce an updated version that makes your recent purchase obsolete shortly after you finally understand to use it. And therefore my philosphy was one of resignation and despair at the sheer alien nature of the universe.

I was wrong. Hitherto I shall be a loyal follower of the Williamson Thesis. I shall expect gadgets to be easy and life-enhancing. It is a tough faith to keep. I hope I can prove myself worthy.

1. Les choses qui sont jolies, Paris, 1678
2. pp832-3 (I have cut out the lengthy digression about the best colour for a fitness watch strap)
3. Pedants may quibble about the word 'congegnites' that adorns the title of this piece. I tasked the Editor to find a Latin word for gadget; he claims there isn't one but there is an Italian word 'Congegno'. OK?

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Election 2017: 4 - After the bomb

Out on the campaign trail the Manchester bombing is forcing a change of agendas. Jeremy Corbyn's speech suggesting that British involvement in foreign wars makes us a target of terrorism is both superficially true and yet entirely misses the point. The UK would be a target anyway because we have a free media which will report all such actions, giving the terrorists the publicity they are desperate to have. Our values are fundamentally opposed to theirs, especially on the equal treatment of women and men, freedom of religion and the creation of laws and Government through democratic participation. This is why terrorist attacks are indiscriminate and why they will have no significant effect - everyone who lives in this country is potentially a target and therefore everyone, bar the deranged, will continue to defy them.

On a different note, a single sheet of paper from the Green party informs me austerity will be ended, all cuts reversed and loads of money will be available for everything, apart from HS2. This last promise has a genuine local appeal although the accompanying illustration - of Frays Fields in Uxbridge - may or may not represent an area under threat if the proposal to put the railway in a tunnel up to the Colne goes ahead.

As with the Labour leaflet received yesterday, there is nothing to make me sympathetic to the candidate himself because it doesn't tell me why he wishes to become an MP.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Election 2017: 3 - Labour strikes first

The title of this piece may be a trifle misleading. It merely refers to the arrival of the first electioneering flyer. Vincent Lo has invited our support in exchange for a few bland promises that everything will be all right. The leader of the party, Mr Corbyn, is not mentioned or pictured. Mr Lo himself, though pictured several times, keeps a very low profile [Oh dear: Ed]. I have no idea of his background, interests or even if he lives in the constituency. There is barely a mention of Brexit and nothing to explain how Labour would, in Mr Lo's words "give the NHS the money it needs". The assertion that real wages have fallen by 10% since 2007 and that this can be remedied by raising the minimum wage does not appear to address the position of the huge number of people who earn more than that but nonetheless are finding things hard going.

Labour has no chance of winning here. The Tories got 50% of the vote last time and have a very high profile candidate in the shape of the Foreign Secretary, Mr Johnson, perhaps the only British politician in recent history whose appointment to high office caused titters in diplomatic circles all round the world. Whether he will continue to hold office in a few weeks remains to be seen but it is certain that Vincent will not come anywhere near him when the votes are cast. Still, he can always go back to being a bit-part player in Shakespeare:

"Lo, what light from yonder window breaks?"
"Well, I didn't see anything."  

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


On Monday night I saw a brief note on some news websites about an explosion in Manchester. There was a lot more on Twitter from eye-witnesses but it was not until waking up the next day that I realised the extent of the atrocity. A bomb, detonated by a young man, killed 22 and wounded some 60; mainly young people leaving the Arena after a pop concert.

There is no point in knee-jerk reactions to such an event. Deranged people like to to hurt others. It might take the form of someone thinking that violence will benefit a cause of which they approve or it might simply feed a personal gratification.  Describing the Manchester bomber as an 'Islamic terrorist' is false - he obliterated himself without a message, and (as the newly elected Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham said on BBC radio this morning) he represents nobody but himself, no matter which other groups of deranged individuals claim responsibility.

There will be more police, perhaps reinforced by troops, on the streets, just as we saw in London in 2005. It was not very clear then how they would prevent another such attack and no doubt, if there is no repetition and the threat level can be reduced, the numbers currently being deployed will return to normal.

There are no adequate words to comfort those who are suffering; all we can do is express support and solidarity, with defiance and contempt for those who celebrate the perpertration of such violence.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Windows 10 - is it me or are they just having a laugh?

A little shield icon popped up at the bottom of my screen that I did not recognise so I clicked on it and the following message was displayed:

Useful huh? I wondered which device driver was the cause of concern. In my ignorance I thought that if I clicked on the button marked, helpfully, 'learn more' then I would indeed learn more. But no. The aforesaid click opened up a standard Microsoft web page with a search bar. A blank bar. It did not even have 'device driver problem' or similar pre-inserted. Having told me I could learn more, it did the equivalent of a taxi driver picking up someone at Heathrow who asks for "central London, please driver" and dropping them off in Slough near the station.

So I have no idea which device has incurred the wrath of the backroom boffins  and if they want to play the game of alarming me for no obvious reason, I'm damned if I'm going to play along.

Techie note:
I had just done a backup to my USB 3.0 flash drive, which appears to be working perfectly well, but presumably Windows is capable of identifying it more intelligently than by the useless word "device". Or is it?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Flattery and the scam caller

People phoning you up to claim there is a problem with your computer, so that you will install software that permits them to steal your data or make you pay for something useless, is nothing new. But I may have found a new way to deal with them. This morning's call found me in a good mood so instead of my usual sarcasm or time-wasting tactics, this is how it went.

The phone rings, I hear the usual tell-tale silence followed by a burst of call centre background noise so I am well prepared for the intro.

"Hello, this is George1 from BT Technical Department2. How are you today?3"
"I'm fine"
"Good. I am ringing because we have identified a problem with your internet connection"
"That's funny because your department called me three days ago so why are you calling again?"
"Oh ... did they fix the problem"4
"Yes, they did a wonderful job. Why are you calling again?"

A baffled silence and he rings off.

1. Funny how all these guys in Indian call centres have European names
2. Yeah. And I'm Crown Prince Albert of Schleswig-Osnabruck
3. I suppose I ought to go on and on about my gammy foot
4. My line wasn't in his script but he recovered well. Some callers become abusive at this point but 'George' kept his cool. Well done

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Windows 10 - the perils of the update

I haven't written about my computer's operating system for a while so you might have thought all the problems, the criticism and the carping had gone away. Alas, the golden rule of IT is that if you have a good working product then it has to be "updated" or "enhanced" or "f*****ed up" (as we ex-IT professionals say). Yesterday there were two full restarts and updates, then a message about some glorious new future with something called the "Creator's edition". Microsoft still, after all these years, doesn't seem to understand the fundamental difference between an operating system and the programmes (or "apps", if you insist) that run on it. 

There was a scheduled reboot in the early hours to apply the finishing touches and I woke up my pc this morning hoping all was over. I entered my password on the loading screen and saw a message I had never seen before in some 25 years of using Windows - "User profile service failed the logon". And back to the loading screen. Ah, what to do? I tried again a couple of times. Same result. I tried the alternate profile that I created soon after installation last year but have never used. Same result. No help whatsoever on the screen to explain what this error means and how to progress.

A quick internet search on my mobile revealed this is normally indicates a corruption of the user profile and the standard recommendation is to use another. Fairly unhelpful in my case when both profiles are being rejected. Going into safe mode and activating a default admin account was also posited but in the end I settled for the good old-fashioned reboot and this time the profiles were accepted and everything was good.

Everything that is, except my carefully crafted desktop picture of the wonderful National Trust property Cotehele, site of some of our regular holidays. It had been replaced with some ghastly Microsoft blue screen. Why? Yes, I was able to retrieve it so no harm done. But why? All other desktop settings had been retained. What had my humble jpg done to incur the wrath of the coders from Redmond? Perhaps we shall never know.

The system did stick up a brand new email program and immediately complain that it wasn't associated with an email account. The fact that my emails go into Microsoft's very own Outlook 2007 seemed to pass it by. I think it may be a bit pushier with one or two other things, like hinting that I use Edge; we shall see.

My point in writing this little bit of spleen is to emphasise that the system had failed to load correctly, it had given me an error message but had not provided any assistance in solving the problem. I could not use the pc to access the internet to find a solution because the desktop had not loaded nor had I been given the offer of a default desktop. Despite all the help and user-friendliness supposedly embedded in Windows, when a critical problem occurred, there was no help at all. I can well imagine this causing genuine distress for some less experienced users.

All this a couple of days after a massive encryption-ransomware virus spread across the world, doing severe damage to the systems used by many NHS hospitals and surgeries. I saw this at first hand - whilst visiting my mother-in-law at Northwick Park Hospital, a porter arrived in the ward to take another patient away and told her "There'll be a delay love, all our servers have gone down".  Appointment systems were shut, forcing cancellation of operations and access to patients' data was restricted. The worst of this seems to be over for now, helped by a bug within the ransomware that allowed it to be halted, but the next one could be worse. Cuts in IT support expenditure in the NHS have made it very vulnerable.

We, as a species, have only become reliant on computers for the lifespan of about one generation and the speed of the adoption has been way too rapid for us to keep up. If they fail we don't have adequate fallbacks. It's getting a bit scary.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

President Khan dismisses head of MBI

From our own correspondent in Karakorum who is requesting a transfer to the Aztec Empire

 Sources close to President Ghengis Khan announced today that his old ally, General Jacomi, is no longer in charge of the Mongol Board of Informants. Apparently Jacomi is no longer able to do the job - for which he was widely praised by Khan before the election of the latter - because his head is no longer fully connected to the rest of his body.

The President was reported to be deeply distressed by the need to have Jacomi's body heaved out of his office and onto the nearest dungheap, in accordance with sacred Mongol tradition, and did not quaff more than 10 brimming goblets of beer and ox-blood at dinner. He was also said to have spent some time cleaning his scimitar before waving it about saying "Still pretty damn sharp, eh?"

Jacomi had been linked to the discovery of messages sent to the Chinese ambassador that appeared to confirm an attack on Karakorum was being planned. Rumours about these messages are thought to have assisted Khan's election campaign. However the discovery of a message from Chinese Emperor Bing that was translated as "Give us back Beijing and we will send you much gold", a message subsequently explained by Jacomi as "Just a joke I knocked up after inhaling too near a camel" may have caused the President to doubt his suitability.

The President is now considering who to appoint to the vacancy. There has been a surprisingly large number of dustclouds seen on the horizon recently, and there are no fast horses available for sale anywhere in town. The President's search for his next stooge fall-guy apprentice continues.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Election 2017: 2 - The Big Yawn

General elections used to be fairly exciting. The parties would present their proposals and leading politicians would battle it out over their ideas and suitability for office. Results could be hard to predict and votes mattered (at least in a number of marginal seats).

This year it seems flat and pointless. The lead between the Conservatives and all other parties is, in electoral terms, huge. In terms of the popular vote it is not - they are on about 38% - but the quirks of the British system means that this guarantees a significant majority in the House of Commons and if a majority of UK voters do not actually support them - well, tough cheese because elections here are not about winning national majorities but simply getting more votes than any one else, constituency by constituency.

Furthermore, the national agenda has been suborned by Brexit. It is like the anti-communist era of 1950s USA. If you voice any disquiets about the rush to leave the EU and cut all ties (the mantra "No deal is better than a bad deal" is how we are being softened up for this) then you may be branded at best a moaner, an anti-democrat and at worst a traitor. Just about any political policy can be framed in terms of whether it agrees with what voters are supposed to have voted for when they chose Brexit, albeit that the referendum did not ask anything whatsoever about policies, only about whether the UK should continue to be a member.

It is a pleasure to be able to record that the French public, in the Presidential election last Sunday, chose by 2 to 1 to put in a pro-European centrist.  Only 21 miles away from us1 but so very different in outlook. Mind you, something similar could be said about the Scots.

The Conservatives are running on "Strong and Stable" government. I am not terribly clear what the key slogans of any of the other parties are (mainly because I can't be that bothered to find out)2. It is a little curious that the British are being invited to re-elect the ruling party to make it stronger, rather than be told they will be better off, or that the nasty foreigners will be kept well away3 . It seems to be having to do with facing down those ghastly Europeans and ensuring that no deal whatsoever is done over anything, because that will really jolly well show them and make them sorry they ever forced us into leaving in the first place, or something. I am still wondering what will happen when the first planeloads of British pensioners, kicked out of Spain at a moment's notice, touch down at Gatwick and they all demand access to the NHS and housing.

1 From Dover, I mean. Not from beautiful Ruislip.
2 If any election material ever arrives I suppose I might be able to issue an update on this one.
3 Of course this does not apply to dear old Rupert Murdoch and his perpeptual attempts to buy up British broadcasting. Or any rich person who wants to buy up any property they can get their hands on and hide the ownership in a trust based in a country with no extradition treaty with the UK and total commercial secrecy.  Or any offshore trust that wants to do a dodgy deal with a Labour council in London to steal the ground from a much-loved local football club in order to make profits for themselves and their mates back in the Town Hall.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

The rains have failed

This has been one of the driest winter/spring periods for many a year. In recent times I have documented torrential rainstorms and floods. From Somerset to York to Cumbria and beyond there have been harrowing stories of rivers gushing through poorly-protected towns, bridges swept away and farms drowned and cut-off. Not so in 2017. We had a week in Cornwall recently and, amazingly, had dry and sunny days throughout. There has been barely a drop of rain in beautiful Ruislip for what seems like ages. The ground seems to be holding sufficient water for the plants and trees to be flourishing, fortunately, but the first story of possible hosepipe bans has just appeared in my morning paper and it may be the harbinger of many more.

One really good test of the adequacy of rainfall is how often I need to top up the lake in my estate [pond out the back: Ed]. Again, in recent years, I have been bailing it out most winters in order to keep the garden from being inundated. This year I have twice had to fill up a large half-barrel with tap water to keep the level up. We did get a bit of rain a few days ago, enough to fill up the water butts but if the dry spell continues - as it is forecast to do - then I'll be unwinding the hose and topping up the pond yet again in a couple of weeks.