Thursday, September 29, 2005

What am I, Donald bloody Trump?

These two girls I know from Posh Uni. We started out in the same year, but they took a sabbatical and went away for a year (one of them was an Au Pair in London, don't know where the other one went). They were hitch-hiking from Campustown to Capital City one time and I gave them a lift. Turned out that we lived in the same dorm building and on the same floor. I helped one of them with her new computer - something I enjoy doing one way or the other - and sort of hung out with them the final year.

What bugged me though is that they only appeared when they needed help with something. Now, I don't mind giving a mate a lift or showing how to split a cable connection, but it did get somewhat annoying after a while.

Today - I mean, like ten minutes ago - one of them calls me up on MSN and says if I could do her a huge favor. I proceed cautiously. It seems that she needs to pay her dorm bill right now, or she'll be kicked out Monday. She's asking for money.

I didn't even bother asking how much she needed. First, the dorm costs at least a hundred Euro a month, if you've got a roommate, and if you live alone it's more like E150 - I should know, I paid that for two years straight. And if she's getting kicked out, she's obviously more than one month overdue. I don't have that sort of money to spare - my policy on loaning people money is to only give as much as you can afford losing; if you don't really expect it back, you don't get mad at a person, and if they do repay you, it's a pleasant surprise.

Second, it's not like this is an unforeseen expense, and by asking, she isn't exactly instilling in me the confidence that she will pay it back promptly.

Third, and related - a true friend wouldn't ask; I'll help out a friend if they are in serious trouble, but this is the sort of mess you make yourself and should clean up yourself. I have friends who make way less money than me and have expenditures that they can do nothing about, and still make ends meet somehow. I never borrow any sort of serious money myself (well, except from the bank) - the last time I borrowed any from a friend was less than a Euro, and only because there was nine of us in a cafe and it was easier than everybody dumping cash on me so I could pay the bill with a card. I still intend to pay her back tomorrow night, when the gang gets together again.

Fourth - that girl isn't really a friend, is she?

I told her that I'd been on vacation so cash is tight, and I'm only getting half a month's salary. Which is, by the way, perfectly true and another reason for not giving her the money.

A year ago exactly this same girl asked me to cosign her student loan (a thousand Euro-ish), completely out of the blue. She had the gall to call it a "business proposition". There is a practice among students with discernible official incomes to cosign each other's loans, or to cosign for somebody else for a fee - but it's not very smart to get a grand now and have to pay off seventeen thousand later...

The essence of funny

Many topics, when discussed by an American and a European, have the potential to lead not only to misunderstanding, but to all-out conflicts. These include George W. Bush (perhaps less than others, because most Americans who dare venture out of their land are of the sort that hang their head and apologize), that version of Rugby where you can pass forward and people wear half their weight in kevlar, and the handling characteristics of the Dodge Viper.

But even in this fine company one topic stands apart. And that is American comedy.

America's undying efforts to export its mass culture have led to the current state of anything popular in the States being taken over by Old World networks. I do not need to prove to anyone that the trend has reached epidemic proportions, with things released on an unsuspecting public which should not be. Survivor was actually invented by the Swedes, and while we're going to have a long, hard talk with them about it, we can't really grumble too much. But now one of Small Country's two major networks has produced a local version of The Simple Life, and thus a new low has been reached in television history.

Some American exports have enjoyed their well-deserved success in the Old World (mainly The Simpsons), but this is a rare occurence. Unscrupulous promoters attempt to run anything that was popular in America; unfortunately for them, we have been spoiled rotten by British comedy. From this stems the theme of many an altercation between folks from both sides of the pond:
I'm sorry, but Family Guy is desperately unfunny.

It is a show beloved by the absolute majority of US residents. I can recognize why that is - it's based on mixed metaphors, subtle references and distinctive characters; and in American TV, anything not obscene is considered intellectual. The trouble is, it isn't properly good. The techniques involved have been proved to produce results, but they are used without much talent; it's like a 10-year-old's first effort to make British comedy. While Family Guy does exceed comparable US cartoons by a comfortable margin, it cannot escape the national tradition. The authors attempt to produce comedy by a brute-force assault on social conventions; the show is not exactly obscene, but it centers on flaunting its disregard for propriety, and this in itself is not enough to make it funny. Family Guy is unable to reach escape velocity, and is thus still closer to South Park than My Family.

No matter how much Americans try, they keep tripping over themselves. Team America was the best effort in recent memory, and they still couldn't help themselves, making the lead character throw up for minutes, The Fast and the Furious style. Considering the radical Dicks and Pussies monologue, and the gem that is Derka Derka Mohammed Jihad, the disappointment can hardly be measured.

The overwhelming majority of American comedy is sitcoms. This may well be the fundamental flaw: relying on the situation to make comedy. When Americans do a show about nothing, they put the characters in contrived circumstances and expect Jerry Seinfeld to pull the show out by the bootstraps, inflicting mental pain on the audience until they concede. When Brits do a show about nothing, they get Spaced.

Not that Britain doesn't have a lot to answer for, comedically. It may seem to be the land of great comedy, with even the figure-obsessed field of automotive journalism enriched by stars like Anthony ffrench-Constant, former CAR Magazine contributor Alexei Sayle, and the inimitable Jeremy Clarkson; but it can, and does, produce thorough crap. But while we can still trace the roots of (fairly) modern efforts like Black Books to the all-time masterpiece that was Yes, Minister, it is in an entirely different league.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Sacred Cow: Hydrogen fuel cells, Part III

Now that I've shown you why hydrogen cars won't work, I'm going to tell you what will. I'm not going to tell you to drive less, for two reasons: one, I'm sure it's not something you have much say over, and two, I enjoy driving even in my crappy Honda, and I can't really fault others for it. I'm also not going to tell you to use public transportation, because if you're an American, you won't understand what I'm talking about, and if you're European, it's probably more expensive than driving - and over long distances, not very environmentally friendly: you'd do better to drive across Europe in a Ferrari than to fly EasyJet. Plus, public transportation sucks.

So, here is some rational, reasonable advice on what you can do to make baby pandas feel better:

1. Don't buy an SUV. (If you've bought one, don't drive it.) This really ought to be obvious. SUVs are heavy, and not very aerodynamic, which means that they need a big engine making big power and burning a lot of fuel to get you and your frappucino to work no better than a Citroen C1 can, running on pure enthusiasm. This isn't just a dig at Americans. SUV sales are booming in Europe, and while I can appreciate the desirability of a supercharged Range Rover Sport - God knows I want one - it's really quite silly. If you absolutely must, buy a Volvo XC90. It still uses a lot of petrol, but at least it's safe for you and the person you're going to crash into.

2. Don't buy a hybrid. They're not actually that fuel-efficient, but they cost insane money. In Small Country, a Prius will set you back double what a Corolla would, and you're only perpetuating the myth. Because a hybrid's electricity still comes from the petrol engine, your improvement is a result of it working slightly more efficiently - it charges up the battery while idle, which normally would be wasted power. It would be a lot more energy-efficient to just kill the engine when you're not moving. There are engines out there designed to do this well. Let's hope the technology improves.
A lot of Americans are apparently buying a hybrid SUV. It gets the same MPG as the European sedan counterpart with the same engine minus electric motor, but is a worse car by all accounts - a lot more expensive, too. Silly people.

3. Buy a diesel car. If you're American, your current choice is outdated Volkswagen tech, but I keep hearing that they're going to start selling low-sulphur diesel fuel over there Any Day Now. Mercedes is bringing over its diesel range next year, and theirs are some of the best. If you're European, stop being a snob and go some magazine reviews of the Skoda Fabia vRS and BMW 535d (though the latter is still ugly as sin).

4. Think about how much car you really need. If you're usually the only person in the car, with an occasional passenger, buy something small. If you can afford a Focus, buy a Citroen C1 and upgrade your home theater. If you can afford a base 3-series, buy a Mini Cooper S for the same money. If you can afford a Mercedes S600, buy an Aston Martin V8 Vantage. Then, with the money you save, buy a Mini Cooper S and keep the Aston for the weekend.

5. If they sell biofuel in your country - use it. Biodiesel is getting more and more popular in Europe, and so is E85 (85% ethanol, 15% petrol, useable in most petrol engines). Biofuel is the closest thing we have to a perfect solution: you can always get more of it, you don't need to change very much in a car to run on it, and the external energy source that makes up the difference in getting the power out is the Sun. You can grow biofuel crops just about anywhere, and since they're not for people to eat, you can genetically modify them, fertilize them to hell and use any pesticide you want. Plus all the EU farmers will have something to do.

6. At the end of the day, you could always try to drive less and use public transportation more. Sorry.

News from Small Country

In the news today:

  • A quarter of all the traffic policemen in Capital City have been caught by Internal Affairs taking bribes, and were promptly fired.

  • As a bonus, 19 of 27 people operating a customs station on the border between Small Country and Russia were fired for the same thing.

  • The M/S Regina Baltica beached itself off the coast of Sweden last night. Passengers headed for Capital City were given free booze while the ship limped to Kappelskär harbor. Eleven years ago to the day, the M/S Estonia sank for undetermined reasons, producing the biggest loss of civilian life since the Titanic (over 800 people dead).

  • Saw not one, but two pile-ups on my five minute drive to work today. Probably a dozen cars involved altogether.

And now, back to your scheduled programming...

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Sacred Cow: Hydrogen fuel cells, Part II

So, hydrogen-powered cars rule. Electric motors are efficient and make it easier to design a car, so engineers love them, and fuel cells don't produce any nasty stuff, so baby pandas love them. Everything's great, right?


Unfortunately, there are problems with fuel cell vehicles. Let's start from the lesser ones:

1. Lots of water vapor means lots of humidity and rain. Not a very scary prospect for Californians, I guess that's why they love fuel cells so much. In Small Country, we've got more rain than we can handle.

2. If you put a motor inside each wheel, you increase the unsprung mass. I'll explain what this is in a later post, for now, just remember that this makes the car bounce a lot more, and is generally considered a bad thing.

3. Electric engines aren't very powerful. And even if you've got the really good ones, they will only give the car as much power as the fuel cell generator, or battery, can provide. This is why the Lexus RX400h only has 270bhp, although the petrol engine and electric motors combined are rated at almost 400bhp! The electric motors can't put out more power than the generator and battery give them, and if the engine is making all of its 211bhp, then the motors are powered by the battery, which only gives them 45 Kilowatts. They could do better, but they have nowhere to get the extra electricity.

4. Keeping hydrogen in a car is kind of complicated. It's not particularly dangerous - hydrogen has less energy density than petrol vapors (meaning that the same amount will make a lesser bang), and it dissipates in the atmosphere a lot better, meaning that it's better to have a hydrogen leak than a petrol leak. But it needs to be kept in a pressure tank, and those are heavy and bulky. More heavy and more bulky than the ones they use for cars running on natural gas/LPG. An even bigger problem is that you can't use existing gas stations; they'd need to put in all-new underground tanks, etc.

5. And the biggest problem of all, the one that makes fuel cells a useless prospect: you need to get the hydrogen from somewhere, and you probably need oil to do it. Getting hydrogen from water is actually not very efficient - hydrogen and oxygen like each other a lot, and you'd need a lot of electricity to get them to separate, much more than you could hope to get by combining them again in a fuel cell. You need an external source of electricity, which is usually a powerplant, which is usually oil- or coal-powered. You could use nuclear power, which actually only produces a small amount of radioactive materials that you can store somewhere out of the way (I propose the basement of the Kansas school board - who's gonna know the difference?), but baby pandas say that nuclear is icky. There are environmentally-friendly ways to get electricity, but not a lot of it, certainly nowhere near as much as needed. There's probably a solution to the mess, but I don't know what it is.

So, the point:
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles do not solve the problem of pollution - they simply move it out of the cities and into the countryside where the powerplants are. They also do this at the enormous expense of changing the whole gas station infrastructure, plus forcing the manufacturers to invest in all-new cars built in all-new factories.
Who do you think is gonna be paying for all that?

If human kind makes a concerted effort to switch from oil to hydrogen, the air may get cleaner, but your fuel bills sure as hell aren't going to get smaller. Plus, it'll rain all the time.

Join me in Part III, where I try to prove that I'm not just criticizing everything without suggesting any alternatives. Don't you hate people like that?

Why the petrol C1 beat the diesel model

It's a really good question, so I decided to make a separate post out of it.

Larger engines aren't more efficient than small ones, but in circumstances like the ones in the Sunday Times article, they run in a more favourable mode.

A 1.4 diesel running at 3000rpm isn't going to burn less fuel than a 1.0 petrol running at 3000rpm. The advantage for a diesel is that it makes a lot of torque at low revs, so to accomplish the same task - accelerating a Citroen C1 from 0 to 60mph - it needs to rev less, burning less fuel. This doesn't work for bigger engines, because although they may produce more torque at lower revs, they burn more fuel with each turn of the crankshaft (bigger cylinders = more fuel injected).

But if you're not using these cars in city driving (their natural environment), you may see some weird results. In the Sunday Times piece, the cars did one whole lap of the M25, the freeway that circles London. They averaged 49mph and tried to be as smooth as possible, without sudden accelerations or stops.

Now, here is the thing: if two cars with the same engine capacity are traveling at the same speed, it doesn't matter which of them has more torque. You don't need that much power to overcome wind and rolling resistance at 50mph, but your engine is still going to rev pretty high. The final drive on the car can't be changed, and top gear is also a fixed ratio, so even though you may not need all that power, you have to keep up the sort of RPM that, multiplied by all the gearing and the diameter of your wheels, will make them spin at a rate that translates to 50mph.

And diesels really don't like revving. There are objective mechanical reasons for this, and you can't really get around it. A city car like a Citroen C1 isn't meant for traveling at 50mph, and doesn't like revving that high. You need to inject extra fuel just to keep up the revs. Where the petrol engine may be producing more power than it can use, the diesel is struggling to produce as much as it needs. Add to this the fact that the diesel is a 1.4-liter - 40% larger - and burns more fuel with every combustion cycle - and you can see why in these specific circumstances the petrol faired marginally better.

On bigger cars the problem is fixed by using tall gearing (something that is pointless in a C1, which needs to accelerate quickly a lot more than it needs to go fast). In a modern six-speed, you can make the last gear really tall, so if you're calmly driving down the autobahn, the engine is barely ticking over - if it's a big and torquey one, it already produces as much power as you need to keep up the speed. Then again, a tiny engine in a big car must have short gears to make the acceleration half-decent. I know a person that lives in America, and took European delivery of his BMW 330i, doing a tour of the Old World before putting it on a container. Next year he returned for his vacation, rented an Opel Vectra 1.8, drove down the same route, and got the same mileage. The reason? The Vectra needed to rev long and hard to keep up with autobahn traffic, and although it burned less fuel on every revolution, it needed a lot more revolutions to cover a mile.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Sacred Cow: Hydrogen fuel cells, Part I

In the wake of The Sunday Times determining in a real-world test that the petrol Citroen C1 is the most fuel efficient car in Britain, more efficient than the Toyota Prius by a good margin and even slightly better than the diesel (how did that happen? Short answer: more powerful engine is less stressed and uses less fuel), I would like to take on the matter of the much-vaunted fuel cell car. I come here not to praise hydrogen, but to bury it; and unlike Marc Anthony, I mean it.

For the last half a decade at least, car manufacturers, engineering students and the automotive media have been collectively ranting and raving about the glorious future of the fuel cell vehicle. Everyone and their grandma is making a prototype - even Lada! Theirs actually cost $30,000 to build, compared to millions for other car makers - but only because they used the fuel cell generator developed for the Soviet space program. Incidentally, that thing was designed and tested to withstand forces of up to 100g. That's a hell of a lot more than you get in a car crash.

The idea behind fuel cell vehicles is two-fold. The primary benefit is zero toxic exhaust. A free-standing hydrogen molecule consists of two atoms; so does a free-standing oxygen molecule. Hydrogen and oxygen are very keen on bonding with each other (which is why there is so much water around), so what happens when you mix hydrogen and oxygen molecules is, and this is grade school chemistry:
2H2 + 02 => 2H20 + 2e
Two molecules of hydrogen combine with one molecule of oxygen and make two molecules of water. They also release two electrons. (Each oxygen atom releases one molecule; it originally bonded with the other oxygen atom because they were both one electron short - so they designated two electrons to be used by each one in turn, forming the bond - but now each of them have two electrons available courtesy of the hydrogen atoms. If you want to know why most atoms are short of electrons and have to form molecules, talk to your chemistry teacher, or google.) These two electrons then travel down some conductors and make an electric motor work.

The upshot is, you put in hydrogen, suck in some air that contains about 21% free-standing oxygen, and get water out the other end. The water then comes down as rain or whatever, into the rivers, etc; if you take some water and introduce a lot of electrons - by running an electric current through it, dunking a couple of wires basically - you get hydrogen and oxygen again. So you can always get more fuel, and as an added benefit, your car doesn't kill baby pandas.

The other benefit of fuel cell cars is what happens after you get the electricity out. Electric motors are really much better than internal combustion engines.

  • They're small, so you can put one on every wheel and have an AWD car without all the bulky transfer case nonsense - just lay some wires. (By the way, you can make one hell of an electric offroader - without the need for driveshafts, you can make the ground clearance really high, and it's easy to direct all the power to the wheel that's slipping the least at the moment.)

  • When you brake, instead of using discs and pads you can throw the electric engine in reverse and actually charge the batteries using the car's inertia!

  • Electric engines don't need to gather revs - they always produce maximum torque, right away. If you don't need all the torque it's capable of - give it less electricity; in fact, give it exactly as much as you need, and save the rest. And in the winter, clever computers can work out how much torque to give each wheel without it spinning on the ice. In general, electric engines make the car go zoom and only spend as much energy as they can use.

  • The power losses from running some electricity down some wires are quite small, especially since you're not running it very far in a car. The losses from running torque from an internal combustion engine to the wheels are, by comparison, enormous - especially in AWD cars.

Looks extremely nice, doesn't it? Electric engines are efficient and make it easier to design a car, so engineers love them, and fuel cells don't produce any nasty stuff, so baby pandas love them. Unfortunately, there are problems here. These I will be explaining tomorrow, in Part II.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

What is this, Bad Sequel Day?

It's slightly amazing - the fall season has arrived, and Small Country's two local channels have removed all trace of interesting shows from the weekend. Saturday used to have C-16, The District, some sitcom, Everwood and The Mountain; throw in a decent movie, and you're set for the night. But now, nothing. I wonder what their thinking is - that people go out of town on weekends?

Choice weekend entertainment includes two Bandit sequels - not the Burt Reynolds ones, but weird straight-to-video-looking affairs. I don't know the guy who plays Bandit, but his sidekick is Brian Krause, of Charmed fame. Today's feature even included Elizabeth Berkley, an actress who fulfilled so many adolescent fantasies by going from Saved By The Bell to Show Girls.

And yet, this is not the low point. (Actually the Bandit films were kinda nice.) Are you ready for this? Sunday morning television in Small Country:

The sequel to Bring It On.


Ground beef

So, I'm reading the latest issue of CAR Magazine. What we have ourselves here are some sacred cows. And I'm in the mood for a hamburger.

I've been an automotive journalist for many years, and I would just like to say to all my colleagues - could you please stop with this crap?

Sacred Cow I: The Citroen DS was an amazingly futuristic car, the marque's high point, and nothing out there today is as groundbreaking.

Honestly, this one never ceases. Every single time somebody starts talking about a modern Citroen, they mention how good the DS was and how it's all gone downhill from there. Gavin Green says: "There has never been a more advanced car, a more iconoclastic car, a more idiosyncratic car, and, even today, if it were magically to appear, brand new, at this year's Frankfurt show rather than at the Paris salon in October of 1955, it would still be celebrated as progressive and far-sighted."

No it wouldn't. The DS was underpowered, unreliable and unprofitable. It may have had more gadgets than other cars of the time... but where are those gadgets now? The turning headlights were not a Citroen first, they appeared on the Tucker Torpedo in 1948 and never got caught on because there was little point. The hydropneumatic suspension? Nobody wants it - people like their cars to handle well, and while ride comfort is a nice thing to have, the sporty Peugeot 406 has been outselling the comfy Citroen C5 by orders of magnitude. And the DS's beauty? In the eye of the beholder, certainly; I concede that it was unusual, but it was never as unassailably gorgeous as, say, a '55 Chevy or a '59 Cadillac hardtop.

Sacred Cow II: The coupe-like profile

As far as I can tell, this one started with the Alfa Romeo 156. It was a four-door whose rear door handles were hidden in the C-pillars, so car hacks started saying it looked like a coupe.

It was a nice hook for one article, but it wasn't strictly true. If you look at the 156 side-on, you could never mistake it for anything but a sedan. It's not just the shutlines, although you'd really need to squint to miss them; it's the fact that the front doors are just too short. You could not get to the rear seats through them, and they are out of proportion with the body; your mind has no choice but to parse the rest of the car, looking for an extra pair of portals.

Still, the 156 was (and remains) a gorgeous car, one of the all-time great saloon designs, and a shape that evokes primal desire rather than dazzles with its novelty. Unfortunately, this whole coupe-windowline nonsense did not die with the first round of reviews; the manufacturers' marketing division picked up on the idea and started to believe it.

Mazda developed the RX-8 around this concept; the car does have an unusual side view, and I dare say it is rather pretty, but it does *not* look like a coupe. Actually, although it has a separate boot, it looks most of all like a five-door hatchback. If they'd taken this design, thrown out the RWD to improve the luggage space, dropped in a Focus drivetrain and released it as the new 323/Protege - wow! (Of course, they're not doing badly with the Mazda3 either.)

The Mercedes CLS came next, and again - if the board of DaimlerSomething actually had any balls, they would have made that the default shape for the E-class. What a beauty! They say it's strictly a four-seater, but if you want space, get a minivan. And I don't accept the argument that it would have made the staple Mercedes unattractive to taxi drivers, because they don't use it anyway - too unreliable.

Next, it seems like VW (who has a sort of corporate insecurity that makes them pursue niche markets) is gearing up to make a "four-door coupe" version of the Passat.

Look: the Alfa 156, Mazda RX-8 and Mercedes CLS are all exceptionally good-looking cars. Respect to you for putting them into production. But they look nothing like coupes, so for the love of God please stop calling them that!

Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Wordsmith

"Was proved right"? Has the great Tycho Brahe lost his mojo?

Heh. Truth is, I am quite impressed with Tycho. Here is a person who carved out not only an existence, but a fair measure of celebrity by shear virtue of having something to say and saying it eloquently. He is a great influence for me, and I am a regular Penny Arcade reader despite not being a very dedicated gamer. It's an attribute of true mastery, I suppose - when people read your articles even when they can't understand many of the references, or extract much usefulness from the discussion itself.

A post about work

I like being a tech writer. I've mentioned before why I chose this field above journalism or translation - because I didn't want to be treated like crap in either one, and besides, I can do both on the side; a tech writer on the other hand is a specialist, working at a company full of specialists, and if you're lucky, run by specialists. You're treated with respect, because you are the guy that can do what nobody else can in an environment of guys who can do what nobody else can; if you're at the sort of company that hires the best people, you will notice that your coworkers are generally very secure people. Their egos are nourished by the constant affirmation of their greatness. I cannot overemphasize how beneficial such a thing is to one's people skills.

That said, I did make certain trade-offs. I like my current employer for their policy of "as long as the job gets done" - I quit my first tech writing job, despite the fact that there were some very likeable people working there and I got to go to the USA on the company dollar, because it was run by fans of the Puritan work ethic. Now, I can surf all day and nobody gives a shit, as long as my tasks are finished on time and with decent quality; and because I am both very good and very quick at what I do, my job remains fundamentally unstressful. I could be making more money - I've recently met a tech writer from Capital City and was appalled to hear how much he was getting paid - but for now at least, I'm comfortable with the status quo.

So it is quite interesting to read Opinionista's tales of woe, especially considering that from what I gather, a lot of her work is actually very similar to mine - writing and proofing documents, searching for deeply hidden information, etc. I like Opinionista, maybe it's because she spoke kindly of Antyx despite refusing, for understandable reasons, to link here from her blog (as opposed to the asshole from Gizmodo who reported on the Geek Grail wrist keyboard based on my tip, and didn't even include a "Thanks for the tip"). Or maybe it's transfer of the affection I should be feeling for my sister, who is also a lawyer, but a person I manifestly dislike.

I don't have an insightful point for you today, except maybe that what sort of money you get and what you need to sacrifice for it doesn't always depend on your job description. You could be a technical writer working nine-to-five and blogging out of boredom, or you could be a legal writer working now-to-tomorrow and blogging out of annoyance. If you've made a conscious decision and know what you're doing - well, good for you.

Friday, September 23, 2005


So, a couple of days ago the left brake light on the car went out. The bulb broke - no surprise, for all I know it's been there since 1988. I just went to the auto parts store, got a new one and replaced it. I was, however, disproportionately proud. I may know a lot about cars, but I'm not mechanically inclined enough to work on mine, normally.

This was also, by far, the cheapest fix I've ever done to any of my cars. I only paid for the new bulb, which was a decent one, Osram, at a fairly mainstream (and thus expensive) car stuff store. It cost me slightly less than one US dollar.

And that makes it non-money.

An acquaintance of mine, another E-type fan, from Russia, is a worrysome sort of personality. She seems to be mildly paranoid about reality in general, unable - unwilling, rather - to let loose and enjoy life. I have my suspicions as to the nature of this phenomenon, but that's outside of the scope of this post; anyway, she kept telling me how I shouldn't use my phone so much in Sweden because the roaming charges are huge, and it's generally too costly. The truth is, while my cellphone bill this month may be double what it would normally be, in numeric values it is still an amount that I can spend without needing to consider my decision carefully.

There is a theory - I read it a while back on JoS?off, but maybe it's been around for longer - that any sort of programmer's tool or other non-major bit of software should be priced at no more than $99; because that is the edge of the level at which one would not think long and hard about whipping out the credit card and forking over the money to save a measurable amount of effort that would have otherwise gone into inventing a fix by oneself, or finding an open-source alternative.

The definition of non-money is, a sum which you are prepared to spend at any given time, for marginal satisfaction, without the indecisiveness associated with a major purchase.

Non-money is central to the concept of retail therapy, and also the marketing of non-essential goods. I am sure that most people have experienced the pleasure of spending money without guilt. The reason why you try to get a good job and earn a lot of money is not to afford something, but to not worry about affording it.

A successful middle-class person, in my definition, adjusted for the realities observed in Small Country, is a person who, with the exception of major expenditures such as a house or a car (or a baby), will not concern himself with the price of things he buys. He does not need to ask, because he can afford it.

I understand that in America, checks are still used widely; but Small Country is hugely proud of its IT infrastructure achievements, and that includes banking. My salary gets deposited into my bank account, and I access that money using my primary card - it's a real embossed one, accepted by Amazon and PayPal, but it has no overdraft so I can only use it within my debit limits. I also have a secondary, proper credit card that I can use anywhere they accept Mastercard, and the overdraft will be automatically repaid from my bank account in set payments (which I can adjust at will). What this means is that, if I never need to use cash, and never need to worry about the price of my purchases, then for most intents and purposes the concept of money is irrelevant to my everyday life. Like that episode of The Flintstones where they end up in the future, and don't pay for anything - they just sign; the act of me handing the checkout girl my card does not resemble a trade transaction so much as an identification ritual, verifying that I am entitled to receive the goods I have selected.

And now the funny part. There is a name for a form of modern society where money is not used, where everyone contributes to the general good through working, and for this receives a decent living standard, where all the necessities are readily available.


Thursday, September 22, 2005

Universe Abridged, Part III: Who's your God?

I am not, in fact, against God. I am certainly an atheist, by Douglas Adams' definition I believe-there-is-not-a-God. However, it was Adams who summed up all religion gloriously on the example of a man who was nailed to a piece of wood two thousand years ago for suggesting that we actually be nice to each other for a change. So, I am all for faith and spirituality, because they truly accomplish some marvelous things. It would be very nice if people could just be moral on their own, without fear of eternal damnation, but hey, you can't have everything.

What I do have a problem with, is religion. Because any organized religion, by default, is a bunch of people telling others that they know what God wants them to do. This is annoyingly arrogant of them, but I couldn't pass judgement on that basis alone, because I'm annoyingly arrogant myself (err... sometimes). Organized religion is bad because it provides unassailable justification. It allows people to act on their darkest impulses because they believe it is for the best, they are doing God's work, and they are justified.

I'm sorry, but there are things which you are never justified in doing. Not even if the Lord Almighty has descended from Heaven above and placed the gun in your hand. Moral judgement cannot be deferred to a higher authority, it is the one thing that every person must process for themselves.

Justification is the root of all that's evil about religion.

And when people have been exposed to religion enough, when they form a habit of substituting justification for judgement, they end up saying and doing some really stupid shit. Like teach creationism in schools.

Frankly, I cannot understand how this could be happening. Like Charles Babbage with his MPs, I am incapable of correctly assessing the confusion of minds that produces such bullshit. And at the end of the day, these assholes have the gall to challenge evolution on the basis that "it is just one of many theories", and attempt to substitute it with idiocy like Intelligent Design.

Unfortunately, I have no power to do anything about it, I don't live in the USA and don't vote in their elections. So I'm going to do the best I can, and dismantle, in clear and understandable terms, the laughable claim that creationism in any form is remotely scientific.

Creationists do not present a scientific argument about the existence of God. They never have. A proper scientific argument begins with "Let us assume that an apple of X weight falls down from the tree at Y speed and hits the ground with Z force", and eventually arrives at "therefore, all objects are drawn to each other with a force directly proportional to their weight and inversely proportional to the square root of the distance between them".

A creationist argument begins with "Let us assume there is a God", and eventually arrives at "therefore, there is a God".

Creationism also has no falsifiers. If you assume that there is an Intelligent Designer who has kick-started the Universe and is now directing its actions, then it explains absolutely everything. It is not possible to conceive of a situation or event that could not be explained by the existence of an Intelligent Designer. Therefore, an Intelligent Designer cannot exist.

So, the notion of teaching creationism in science class is entirely preposterous on the basis that it is demonstrably and indubitably unscientific.

The existence of God is not just highly improbable; if you discount relentless blind faith in what your parents and your minister told you, if you simply take the entire wealth of knowledge available to the intelligent thought of man, you will be forced to come to a singular conclusion; that despite any advances in research or scientific philosophy that have come about in recorded history or may come about in the future, the existence of God is fundamentally impossible.

Evolution is not for certain, but only the most plausible explanation we have for the moment as to how life works.

Creationism, however, is indefensibly wrong.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Universe Abridged, Part II: Falsifiers

Let's talk about falsifiers.

There was this enormously smart guy called Karl Popper. Born around the time Einstein was having brainstorms, and dead some years after the fall of the Soviet Union, which must have given him immense personal satisfaction (he'd been a Jew in Austria in the 1930s, so he hated totalitarianism in all its shapes and sizes). He's a famous philosopher and has said some very interesting things in his career, but probably the most remarkable bit for the layperson is the concept of falsifiers. This is important because it is the current measure of a theory being scientific.

Here's the point in a nutshell. Anything we can objectively state about how the world works, is based on what we know about it and can logically assume from that. Then again, there are more things between Heaven and Earth, friend Horatio, yadda yadda. So every scientific theory can be disproven by showing that it is incorrect. This is important, so try to follow me here: if you can find a case where the scientific theory doesn't work, then the theory is proven to be wrong. No "ah, but", no "exception proving the rule", nothing. If you have a theory that has been tried out a lot of times, the theory is extremely likely, but no matter how well supported it is, if you can show it to be false, it's false, and the fully tenured research scientists before you are utter morons.

Let me make sure that you've understood this right. It's not like, "the apple has always fallen down from the tree, but there's a minuscule chance that next time it might just fall up". (No, that's quantum physics. Har har.) Rather it's, "the apple has always fallen down from the tree, and it will continue to fall down from the tree; but if somebody shows me a tree, without magnets or anything, where the apples fall up, then I'm gonna shut my big mouth and go teach high school science".

Now, here's the fundamental bit. Because of what was said above, a scientific theory is only valid if it allows the possibility of an event that would disprove it. You could say, "Apples fall down from trees, and that's because all objects are attracted to one another with a force directly proportional to their mass and inversely proportional to the square root of the distance between them". It would be a scientific theory - because eventually somebody could come along and prove that apples fall down from trees because there are metals in the grass and metals in apple juice which form a strong magnetic force. It's implausible, but it could happen - and that's why the theory is scientific.

The event that could conceivably disprove a theory is called a falsifier. Now, here is the entire point of this enormous multi-part post:

If a theory has no falsifiers, it is not scientific, and therefore it is wrong. I don't have to prove that your theory is wrong. If your theory doesn't include a situation where you would say, "Oops, looks like I'm full of shit", then you're full of shit.

Join me in Part III, where I discuss why creationists are morons.

Universe Abridged, Part 1: We apologize for the inconvenience

Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us, and to die)
Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man;
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;
But vindicate the ways of God to man.

From Alexander Pope's 'Essay on Man'.

I had a bunch of increasingly weird electives in high school, the administration was experimenting with a college-like system and used extracurricular subjects as guinea pigs. Still, a lot of those turned out to be fairly useful. By far the most remarkable was philosophy, because of who taught it. The guy was a Russian Orthodox priest. And I mean, he was a proper Father, with robes and a considerable beard.

That said, for a cleric he was an exceedingly well-adjusted personality. The class was separated into two parts, for the first semester he introduced us to Greek philosophers so our parents wouldn't bitch about him talking to us about the Bible for the second one. Now, he was obviously extremely well-versed in old Greeks, that sort of thing just comes with being a fairly senior Orthodox cleric. His lessons were interesting, and he was fundamentally disinterested in grades. If you could start mumbling in the right general direction at the exam, he would continue for you, then ask you if you remembered it now, and give you an A. If you couldn't recall anything, he repeated the lesson from the start and gave you a B. Needless to say, we were happy with the arrangement.

But the truly remarkable bit was how he taught us the Bible. It was as if he had no intention at all of installing in us a belief in God. Many people know the story about the Virgin Mary (the word used in the Hebrew source meant "young woman", and was erroneously translated to Latin), but he told us another one. The bit about creating the world in 7 days? Translation error. The Hebrew word denotes a fixed period of time, i.e., you speak of multiple equal periods without specifying their length. He said that scientists were correct that the universe was about four billion years old; the ancient Jewish nation that put together the Old Testament had understandable issues grasping it, so they adapted to it.

Incidentally, in Judaism very few things are actually the Word of God. The Torah is an educational history and the Talmud is a collection of really good suggestions from people who were much smarter than you. The notion of treating the Old Testament as literal gospel is laughable.

The Father taught us about religion in that vein. The Bible, he said, was a guideline on behavior, and had a very good reason for saying what it did. To this day I feel that the Bible makes a bunch of really valid points, tragically obscured by the fact that people think they came from God.

If you've studied English and European history, or at least read Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything, you will have noticed that Enlightenment scientists were all quite religious. From Newton to Galileo, they never criticised God, but only man's understanding of God. In fact there was a singular exception, made infamous by his defiance - Cyrano de Bergerac, the first science-fiction writer on record and a man of extraordinary nasal qualities - and even he repented on his death bet, in the proper atheist fashion, Just In Case. (Funny how it's the atheists that never have a problem entertaining the idea that the other side might be right.) The natural philosophers progressed quickly to build a more-or-less coherent world picture of an unimaginably large universe, of which the Sun is an unimaginably minor part, and the Earth is an even more minor pebble. 'Essay on Man' actually includes the concept of other planets being inhabited by sentient beings significantly different from humans. OK, so Alexander Pope was a poet, not a scientist - but he was a prominent figure of the time, and the fact that he was not drawn and quartered for suggesting this speaks volumes.

How come is it that a lot of people today - predominantly in America, and I can see causes there, of which later - honestly believe, and what's worse, are trying to get others to believe that the Bible is literal, and the world was created out of nothingness some five thousand years ago? Oh, and that God actually listens to your prayers and cures cancer, as opposed to those heathen MDs. Look, Newton and his ilk are the sworn enemies of creationists everywhere, but they had no trouble resolving God and astrophysics. Darwin was deeply troubled by his conclusions, and did his best to conceal them for years, but he was a scientist and simply could not ignore that which was painfully obvious. These people were exceedingly smart, under the "shoulders of giants" concept they were universal geniuses that would make Stephen Hawking look like an undergraduate, and their general message to the likes of today's Christian fundamentalists was - "The Universe is a very complicated thing, so stop pretending like you know stuff about it, because you don't."

Join me tomorrow for Part II, which you're going to want to bookmark and maybe put in your forum signatures, because it explains a very important thing in a way that you can understand.

The Geek Grail

I want one.


Unfortunately, they're like $600 with the strap, just under $500 for the basic model.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A post about knowing how to live

A female acquaintance recently said in her MSN display name that she apparently did not how to live. I'm not sure whether this is a positive or negative thing. One way of thinking about it is, if the thought has occured to you, you are motivated to do something about it. Yet, people generally don't like to admit to this, and more importantly - they genuinely do not think that they have this problem.

It is not, incidentally, as arbitrary as you might think. I've known plenty of characters who thought they were doing A-OK, but who were deep in a pattern of making objectively shitty life choices (in short, they were in deep shit). Most established measures of success are ethereal, but there are concrete ones out there.

Another way of parsing this sort of statement is that the person is deeply unhappy, but has no idea how they can improve things. This is a recognizable problem among youth in an environment such as Small Country, which is going through massive economic growth, and the potential for success is unassailably manifest. Some people have the unfortunate combination of being both indecisive enough to flounder when they ought to take charge (of themselves, first and foremost), and intelligent enough to realize that they could be doing so much better.

Not that I'm Bill bloody Gates myself, but the reason I'm being superior here is because I had a particular goal for most of my conscious existence, and I've achieved it. That goal was to create a situation devoid of anxiety. Now, my life is far from perfect; but I've always suffered under the pressure of coming from a distinguished family.

(Just one example: my grandfather on Dad's side was in the glassmaking industry, and not only was he the chief engineer at a major Soviet glass factory (a Jewish man! In the Soviet Union!), but he actually wrote a book on how to make glass, and it was translated into Chinese. Think about it. He taught glassmaking lessons to the people who fucking invented glass.

Anyway, I wasn't so much under pressure to succeed, as under pressure to not embarass my family. I got mediocre grades in school, and that was OK, because I did well enough on my exams to get into Posh Uni; and then, I got a job that pays enough to not worry about money at an everyday level, yet isn't so demanding that I have to constantly struggle with it. Between deadlines, milestones and the desire for outside confirmation that I'm good at what I do, I have always been anxious about something. (Being the fat kid at school didn't help.) Yet I've saved my tears for things that really matter, and assaulted the factors one at a time, until now, when I can go through an entire day without worrying about things.

I am twenty-one years old, and I have achieved perfection.

(Unfortunately, it's kind of boring.)

Monday, September 19, 2005

Offroader 101

First day of work after two weeks' vacation, plus I bought a new bed today and had to assemble it - no stamina left for a blog post, so here's another one of my car articles.

The concept of personal transportation is uniquely appealing to human kind. A car affords you the luxury of leaving, and who of us doesn't have a desperate desire to leave every once in a while? Although roads were invented long before Gottlieb Daimler had a brainstorm, the car was predestined to be developed for accessing more remote areas, or allowing movement in conditions where roads weren't really available. In the First World War the tank did the job fine, being quick enough to keep up with the infantry troops it was supporting, able to run on most hard surfaces and occasional ones where a man's feet failed, and admirably efficient at delivering hellfire to enemy forces. Not so useful for peacetime application though, and while tank-style traction was popular between the two great conflicts, the mighty Willys jeep set the blueprint for offroaders from the 1940s forwards.

Of course today the spirit of the all-terrain runabout has been diluted by SUVs, lumbering hunks of metal that don't seem to be able to do anything well. The remnants of manufacturer conscience see trucks fitted with a low gear and usually some manner of getting the torque to the wheels in sticky (or rather un-sticky) situations, and while this allows an intelligent driver on good tires to take the vehicle off the beaten path, it does not an offroader make. I was impressed with how a V8 Explorer handled a potholed dirt road, but in retrospect my 30-year old Volvo would probably be able to do the same, being fitted with no more "lifestyle" paraphernalia than a sump guard.

The most important technical aspect of an offroader is differential locks. No less than two. A differential is a device that splits torque from an input shaft to two output shafts and does this variably, allowing the outside wheel in a corner to turn quicker than the inside (since travelling at an outer radius, it needs to cover more distance in the same time). In full-time all-wheel-drive cars there is also a central differential, dividing twist between front and rear axles so expensive things don't break when one set of rubber is on asphalt and the other suffering from severe traction issues. Now, with free differentials torque travels via the path of least resistance, which is precisely the idea if you have four wheels on a sealed surface, but once you leave the road, things get tricky. In real offroading - and I mean snow, mud and unlikely cambers - you will very quickly find yourself with one or more wheel up in the air. Without a diff lock, all the torque from the engine will go to the lifted wheel, spinning it uselessly. Electronics have been called upon in softcore SUVs to apply the brake on the freewheeling culprit, in the hope that this will force twist in other directions. This works if you've parked on an ice patch and can't get out, but in saucier circumstances pads will fry long before you build up enough forward movement in the single wheel that is touching hard surface. The solution is to lock the differentials into a rigid 50/50 torque split irregardless of road circumstances. Turning becomes complicated, but you can't go very fast on a deer path anyway. A central differential lock is quite common on American SUVs, but you really need to have at least the rear diff locking as well if you want to reach that secluded forest lake. A diff lock can be engaged via a lever or the push of a button, but make sure that your next mud cruiser does in fact have *mechanically locking differentials* before forking over your hard-earned cash.

Other properties of an offroader are pretty much negotiable. You will probably want a big, torquey engine, although perhaps the most impressive specially prepared machine I have seen was a tiny three-door Suzuki Jimny running on a 1.3 petrol four-pot. Diesel is preferable as it provides lots of pushing power at low revs. All wheel drive is a must, obviously, but whether it be full-time is up to you. If most of your driving is done on clear, dry tarmac, you can do with a vehicle that is RWD under normal conditions and engages the front axle via a rigid link once you're on slippery surfaces (no central differential then). If you want the security of each wheel pushing forward under everyday circumstances, that's great - you'll need a "4-HI" or some similar option on the transmission mode selector. Low-gear is pretty much a given on anything designed to go offroad: this is a special cog in the 'box that trades RPM for lb ft. You'll need to rev the engine and the car will not move very fast, but you'll have gobs of twist. Automatic or manual depends on how hard you're planning to use your muddy beast: a separate clutch pedal and assurance that the electronic brain won't change up at the worst possible moment is an asset, but a lot of autos are smart enough to get the right message from the 4wd low-gear engagement. If you have a shift-your-own option on your automatic, use it and keep the car in first while on the trail.

Many people would argue that a true offroader has a ladder frame and beam axles, and they have a very valid point. The good thing is that these stand up quite well to running into things, which you absolutely will do sooner or later. However there have been some very good offroaders among the recent crop of luxury SUVs. The last generation Mitsubishi Montero (the car that has dominated the Paris-Dakar desert race for as long as anyone can remember) has independent suspension and wheel travel is up from its more primitive predecessor; the Volkswagen Touareg and Porsche Cayenne have air tanks instead of springs and shock absorbers, which allows them to increase road clearance to unholy amounts; you won't have any damping in the top setting, but you can do without. A 313bhp diesel Touareg will hold its own against a Toyota Land Cruiser, but you wouldn't want to give it more than the occasional workout: replacing smashed suspension components will cost you a bundle.

Winches, sump guards, snorkels, lift kits and big tires are all things you should investigate when building a proper offroader, but that's for a specialist more knowledgeable than me to discuss. I'm after the answer to a different question, namely: So which is the prototypical offroader, the greatest mud monster money can buy? The Land Rover Defender is extremely capable, but crude and unreliable. The original Hummer is too wide to drive through a forest. The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is underpowered and hasn't really progressed much since the days of the Willys. No, I believe the Greatest Living Offroader is the rap star's one-time favorite, the machine designed for an army but good enough to still be in civilian production 40 years later, fitted uniquely with three locking differentials, big engines, beam axles, a ladder frame and a look that means business. Known among its admirers as the Gelandewagen, here it is: the Mercedes G-class.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Michael "Beef" Park 1966-2005 R.I.P.

Michael Park died today on the Wales WRC event.

Markko Martin's Peugeot 307 was running well, after he'd convinced the team engineers to use the settings he suggested. He was in fourth place when, on Special Stage 15, the car spun around and crashed passenger-side into a tree. Michael Park, the co-driver, was killed instantly.

The rally has been stopped. Markus Gronholm has forfeited his third place as the Peugeot team declared that they would cease the rally. Sebastian Loeb, who would have received his second World Championship title in case of a victory, intentionally missed the deadline for returning to base camp and was given a two-minute penalty under the rules. That put him in third place, behind Francois Duval. Petter Solberg was awarded the win, although he said it was a formality and asked his fans to not celebrate.

This is the first WRC death since 1986, when Finland's Harri Koivonen and his codriver Sergio Cresta died on the Corsica stage.

Michael Park has been riding shotgun since 1994, making pace notes for Colin McRae and Richard Burns while competing in the British championship alongside Mark Higgins. He teamed up with Markko Martin for the 2000 season in a privateer Corolla, which was impressive enough for them to be signed by Subaru next year, and then Ford after that. Martin and Park have won five WRC rallies overall.

Michael Park was married and had two children.

It's a sad day for rally fans everywhere.

Colin McRae led tributes to co-driver Michael Park, who was killed in a crash on stage 15 of Wales Rally GB. (BBC Sport)

Pics (linked from the messageboard at - I've saved them in case they disappear or the bandwidth runs out or whatever)

Mobiles Part 2: Storage is the new connectivity

In the good old days, new generations of phones used to be driven by a new killer feature - full-graphic displays, games, WAP, GPRS, color screens, cameras... and until a few years ago, size. The Nokia 8210 was as small as they reasonably got, and now phones are bigger (though not too big to fit in the small jeans pocket). They are prettier, but they still don't have any new killer features.

Except now they do. Forget your SE Walkmans, and your Moto iTunes phones, and your five-megapixel LGs (which you are never fucking going to get in English-speaking countries, ever). The first phone to be released in the known world that possesses the prime killer feature, is the Samsung I300.

And its three-gigabyte hard drive.

What makes it a killer feature is the availability of digital entertainment. Digital audio players, including the iPod which I dislike but have to acknowledge, have put computerized music in the mainstream. Broadband and filesharing networks like BitTorrent have made downloadable video content popular. Everyone these days makes an mp3 player, but you ain't shit unless it plays MPEG4/DivX/XviD.

The Samsung I300 plays MPEG4. Ah well, the rest may come with new firmware.

The last bit of consumer electronics hype was connectivity - WiFi and Bluetooth, being able to surf the web whereever you go. This is the killer feature of smartphones, and I'm actually struggling to understand what's so smart about a smartphone other than the fact that it runs Opera.

OK, well, WiFi is out of the burst phase, and growing organically; more phones will get it in the future, but it's not quite widespread enough to provide total connectivity. The other technology is Bluetooth. Despite the application being painfully obvious, nobody has yet released a decent/affordable set of wireless headphones, although I've seen some early attempts at Gizmodo.

In fact the most useful thing about Bluetooth to date is that your phone connects to your car, and you can dial from the center console and hear people through the stereo system without pulling out your SIM card, which was the most ridiculous idea ever. The other option used to be a docking station, but the aftermarket ones were ugly, and the ones offered by manufacturers laughable - cars are designed years before they appear in showrooms, so your shiny new BMW may be optionally equipped with a Nokia 6120. At four times what the phone cost when it was introduced back in the Iron Age.

Bluetooth was actually designed to provide peripheral connectivity. And I'm not talking about wireless keyboards so you can write text messages quickly (anyone remember the Ericsson Chatboard?). The proper application was to connect the device which delivers the content (phone) to the device that stores and plays back the content (personal media player). That is what all the fuss was about.

I'm not spelling doom for PMPs, but there is definitely a market for the convergence of phones and media players. They won't be as good as separate devices, but as cameraphones have proven, this will not affect their popularity.

So, will there be a Samsung I300 underneath my Christmas tree this year? Um, no. The bloody thing is going to cost indecent amounts of money, and I need a new PC. I'll wait for the next generation of gigabyte phones, thank you very much.


Here's a useful trick to remember. If you ever find yourself at a costume party without a costume (i.e., wearing your everyday clothes), just pull your T-shirt half way over your head and raise both your arms - forearms parallel to the ground, everything after the elbows pointing straight up, palms open in front. Now you can say you're Cornholio, and tell people to worship your bunghole.

And if you don't understand the reference, close the browser now and go back to watching South Park, you little fuck.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Mobiles Part 1: Where have all the nice phones gone?

Where are all the nice mobile phones?

Through a combination of planned obsolescence, theft, personal injury and a desire for new toys, I have settled into a year-long lifecycle for my mobile phones. The first one I had, how many years ago I cannot be bothered to count, was a Motorola d520 - essentially a smaller version of the brick d160, which around these parts was the first phone the carrier ever gave away for free.

My sister had a d160. There may very well have been a touch of sibling rivalry influencing my decision.

The d520 was incredibly small for the age, same size as a Nokia 6110, which was a posh one by anyone's standards. It was even compact enough to fit into the tiny sub-pocket of your jeans, which was a lovely idea in my mind - so lovely in fact, that I still carry my phone in that pocket to this day.

Incidentally, internal antennas are overrated. There's nothing like a nice chunky stub to pull your phone out of that tiny pocket.

Anyway, my dad bought me the d520 for 799 SCD (Small Country Dollars), and a year after, when the contract ran out, I sold it for 800 SCD. I'll leave you to work out for yourself whether I shared any of the money with Dad.

I went on to own a variety of models over time, fobbing off most of them to Dad if they still worked after a year, and actually charging him the market price for a used model. The Ericsson T10 lasted a particularly long time, well into its second battery, until one day it simply refused to boot up. I've had similar experiences with a Motorola T191, but I still think Motorolas are reliable and Ericssons are crap - probably due to a particularly bad experience with a 2618s.

Anyway, I now own a Motorola V500, by far the most expensive mobile I've had at 200 Euro (no contract though), and while I'm fairly happy with it, its lifetime is running out in early December - just right for an early Christmas present to myself. So I've started looking around, and have noticed a very peculiar situation.

All progress in mobile phone development seems to have stopped in 2004.

The hot phones out right now are things like the Nokia fashion phones. Ahem. I don't do fashion. Besides, Nokia, who used to have a clearly defined model structure, seems to be intent on maximizing the potential of their four-digit naming scheme: their ultimate goal, I believe, is to offer over nine thousand phones simultaneously, all with very minor styling and functionality differences, to fill up every model name from 0000 to 9999 (of course, they can't reuse old numbers).

Siemens was supposed to be my saviour, and it has delivered me from the woes of indecision in times past with wonderous offerings like the M55 (the phone survived my car crash, the screen was broken but it still received calls). But these days, they seem to have given up completely. The M65 has not gone down in price significantly since the same time last year, and at two hundred bucks, they can stick it. I hear their R&D division was officially closed down, as opposed to similar departments at other companies, which function nominally but have in fact deferred all their power to the marketing types, the kind that collectively jerk off to a 7ft blown-up poster of the iPod every full moon in a sacred ritual.

Sony Ericsson, I can't be bothered with. I'm not impressed with their styling, and I'm not impressed with the concept of a phone that doubles as a camera. I have a two-megapixel Sony Cybershot U, and I am well aware that it is a piece of shit. I'd like to have a P910i, but it's too expensive, and like I said, I need a new PC.

Samsung actually has the design right - I love the look of the X140, but it's too basic for me. The other desirable models are old.

Now, there is always the Moto RAZR, which is unassailably cool, but the software is exactly the same as my V500. Motorola has hardly presented a new model after the Triplets (V300/V500/V600), in fact they are pushing the E398, whose claim to fame is a set of stereo speakers, ostensibly pretty good ones.

I'm sorry, but if you use your phone as a baby ghetto blaster, you need to be repeatedly hit in the face.

In the good old days, new generations of phones used to be driven by a new killer feature - full-graphic displays, games, WAP, GPRS, color screens, cameras... and until a few years ago, size. The Nokia 8210 was as small as they reasonably got, and now phones are bigger. They are prettier, but they still don't have any new killer features.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Return of the real sports car

This is something I did for a project I was attempting to get off the ground - never happened, but there you go.

A car is the second biggest purchase you make in your lifetime, and it's only natural that you want your sparkling new ride to be enjoyable. Successful manufacturers understand this, and popular models are always in some way outstanding. Most people buy cars of outstanding value. Those of us that can actually afford to spend a little more, go for a luxury car or a sports car. If your dream machine is a Cadillac, the following will be of purely academic interest. We're going to be talking about sportscars.

The big problem with sportscars is that their functionality only matches the perceived requirements of the average buyer, not the true ones. When you don't need more than two seats or any sort of damping, you can't afford a sportscar. By the time you start earning enough, you have a wife, 2.3 children and a golden retriever, so at best you buy a station wagon, at worst a minivan or an SUV, equally horrid choices from a car nut's perspective. In his mind's eye, a 45-year-old upper middle class male sees himself in a Carrera, or at least a Miata, swooshing along the coast on the weekend. But it's the trusty ol' Explorer that gets him to work every day.

Relief comes from two directions. If you're hell-bent on retaining any self-respect when life forces you to finally abandon that rotting '67 Stang gathering dust in the garage with the drivetrain in five different locations, you get a sports sedan, or in the last decade and particularly in Europe an estate car with that little something extra. There is a good reason why the Audi RS6 comes with an autobox and a vertical tailgate, or why in the Old World the BMW 3-series outsells the vanilla Ford by three to one. Or, if you can't afford a bahnstormer, the Japanese are happy to oblige. The fact that both Mitsubishi and Subaru decided to give their mainstream sedans some reflected glory during their World Rally Championship effort has had a fortunate side effect for car enthusiasts in the form of the Impreza and Lancer rally specials - genuine performance and genuine useability. In fact, a fairly mature person I know uses a WRX as a daily driver while his modified Laser coupe awaits the weekend. It's a purchase you can justify. The US market for these cars is actually quite large, which drives prices down and - oh joy! - makes an Evo seem almost within reach of a schoolkid. Even though you are not going to see many Imprezas with hood scoops in the hands of people younger than 25.

So that's all good, but the problem with a rally special or a premium sedan is that it's not a sports car. Yes, in most real-life conditions a properly driven Evo VIII is the ruler of all it surveys, but for many drivers that is not the point. At the end of the day, you are still driving a four-door Mitsubishi, while your ego strives for a true sportscar.

But your choices are limited. The previous generation of Japanese supercoupes like the Toyota Supra and Mazda RX-7 have priced themselves out of existence. Affordable models like the current Mitsubishi Eclipse and Toyota Celica aren't much more than econoboxes in drag. The Miata and MR-2 have 140 horsepower, which by today's standards is laughable. The Honda S2000, you're not going to fit into. Audi's TT is outdated, BMW's Z4 is ugly, and both are too expensive. The American car industry can only offer wet dreams like the Pontiac Solstice (in showrooms Any Day Now) and Dodge Razor (rigor mortis). The obvious choice is the Ford Mustang, but everybody else has one, which kind of spoils the fun.

There's hope left, though.

Proper management has taken over at gaijin-owned Japanese car companies. Lo and behold! The Nissan 350Z. Two doors, nearly 300bhp and rear wheel drive! And best of all, you can get one adequately equipped for under thirty thousand dollars. Yes, the interior plastic could be better and baggage space is conceptual, but who cares? The great big strut brace/chassis crossmember with the Z logo is all in the spirit of the car. However if your significant other absolutely insists on your new pride and joy fiting more than two people and their CDs, there is always the Mazda RX-8. It doesn't actually look like it has four doors, and while it's not quite as fast as the Nissan, you can revel in the knowledge that the tazmanian devil rotary behind the front axle can just about hit 10,000rpm. And then there is the Chrysler Crossfire, which you don't really buy for the performance - it doesn't have any - but it looks amazing and doesn't make you feel ashamed for not using the performance potential. We've already established that it's the feeling that counts.

And the future is getting brighter as we speak. The Pontiac GTO imported from Australia and the Lotus Elise are both now on the US market and both have a price tag that approaches reasonable. The former provides a big V8 and genuine interior room, being a rebadged Holden Monaro, the two-door version of the global platform that briefely made an appearance Stateside as the Cadillac Catera. The latter will allow you to go around corners faster than, well, anything; the fact that it's mid-engined will impress those who don't know what an Elise is. Get it in bright red and you can tell people it's a Ferrari.

So it seems like the American sports car buyer is spoilt for choice. From the brilliant new Mazda Miata, to the 330bhp supercharged Crossfire that Chrysler is promising us, you have no more excuse to buy a boring car.

A post about weather... and more

The first autumn chill has descended upon Small Country. Temperature has dropped to +10C or less, and even though I'm driving, I can no longer just wear my windbreaker and a T-shirt. I've had to pull out some sweaters, which is indeed an important milestone: since proper frosts are a rare occurence, I will most likely make do with this combination well into December. It's been known to happen.

Small Country ostensibly has four distinct seasons, which is rather nice in theory. The truth is, spring and fall are surrendered to permaslush, so effectively they are merely the time when one waits and hopes for the proper weather to come. Truth be told, summer's been fun, but at this point I am just about ready for winter.

There may yet be a warm spell, but today is a very nice autumn day - sunny and dry, but cold. I've been fighting a minor sore throat for a couple days now, and that just adds to the effect. I've been fairly successful in keeping myself well-insulated these last couple of seasons, and yet mild sickness is a stable condition for myself, as it is for anyone living in these longitudes. Not that I mind: I've found that my mind works much better when my body is in a crisis. But even more pleasant is that the signs of impending winter point to the imminence of Christmas.

I'll admit it. I like the fantasy. Capital City is beautiful at Christmas time, decked out in lights and decorations, and Campustown isn't any worse, come to think of it. I've watched too many movies, I suppose, and I've been infected with the dream of a white Christmas. Heaps of snow, darkness, a log cabin, a fireplace, a tree - and someone to share it with. I don't have access to a log cabin, unfortunately, and December in Small Country is actually too early for snow most years. But it's the last bit that is the most depressing.

As a 21-year-old male, I am understandably obsessed with girls. The idea is that I should have sex on my mind all the time. Thing is... I don't. Well, sex is nice and all, but what I'm really after is companionship, and human warmth. Someone to sit next to in front of the fire on Christmas Eve, watching the logs crackle. Very few people actually know that side of me. I suppose I am a loner; the closest thing I have to a best friend is more of a drinking buddy, somebody to go out on the town with. The few people I've brought myself to confide in - and they are indeed very few, none of them family - tend to be inaccessible. (There is probably a corellation.)

So I have a problem with girls. I'm not the most eligible guy out there, nor the most handsome (although I don't think I'm a complete freak either), and if you met me in real life, you wouldn't guess that I have a lot of affection to give. It's not like I'm intimidated by the other gender, in fact my circle of acquaintances is heavily female-biased. I can't blame a single destructive event either - I've had my heart broken, and it was the most painful thing I've experienced by far, but the realization I've carried out of it was that the remote possibility is worth the inevitable devastation. And then, maybe I just haven't found the right girl yet - having known a true feeling and lost it, I can't be bothered to pursue meaningless flings. For other things, there's porn.

This post has gone off on quite a tangent, so before I disintegrate into protective cynicism and change my mind about clicking the 'Publish' button, let me end with the phrase that my subconscious has thrown out at me like a major league fastball, some time back, at a moment of particular vulnerability. I've been trying to decipher it, and I think I understand, though maybe not fully. Here it is, the characteristic of the relationship I long for:

It can't be like it is in the movies.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


I'm curious to see what Burnout Revenge would look like on the 360

-from a recent Penny Arcade news article.

Hmm, interesting. Could this be a problem for the Microsoft console? They specifically eschewed the choice of "Xbox 2" in order to not seem a generation behind the Playstation, which would be at number three already. The problem is that 360 is a brand in itself, identifying the machine in a console gaming context. Which means that casual discussions observed by the uninitiated will not feature a discernible brand name. But word of mouth is an important marketing tool. The PS2/The PS3 has no meaning outside gaming, but 360 is not exclusively a console name. By separating the make and model, Microsoft may have done themselves a disservice.

Mazda had a similar problem. Just a few years ago they produced the most forgettable econoboxes this side of the Nissan Sentra (which has an invisibility factor similar to the "Someone Else's Problem" field described in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). The thing is, they were now owned by Ford, so they had a large trunk of R&D money and access to Ford of Europe's platforms. The first thing they did was attempt to find out what people thought a Mazda was. Turned out that they only had one car charismatic enough to be in the public consciouseness - the MX-5/Miata - and everyone thought Toyota made it.

So, in addition to building some extremely good mainstream cars based on the Mondeo and new Focus platforms, they pulled a marketing stunt by calling them the Mazda6 and Mazda3. They insisted that this was the proper spelling - no space between them.

OK, that didn't entirely work, but because in an automotive context 'the Six' and 'the Three' are not unique, in fact by default they refer to BMWs, people do say things like "I love my Mazda 3" as opposed to "I've had no problems with my Protege".

Result, then.

Says who?

Finished reading Crichton's new book, 'State of Fear'. I'm rather fond of Crichton to be honest. He's the anti Dan Brown: while his action is also driven by a deadline, he actually knows how to write a good book, not just re-hash the same notion in different surroundings. (That said, he's never going to win the Nobel literary prize either.)

I remember people completely destroying the book, saying that Crichton fabricated evidence and misquoted people to make it look like global warming doesn't exist. If that's all they got from the book... well. Much more important is the realization that there are huge areas of life which human kind generally doesn't have the first idea about. This point is driven home painfully if you read Bryson's 'Short History of Nearly Everything'. He quotes a famous brain saying that "all science is either physics or stamp collecting", and that seems to be the general attitude: we have studied atoms and particles down to the wire (or string, as it may be), but there are many infinitely more pertinent subjects that have completely escaped our attention.

In Crichton's book, people keep throwing scientific references at each other. Truth be told, my meager three years at college have been enough to show how a lot of scientific research is pure, unadulterated bullshit. So I am naturally wary of arguments like "Professor Z.'s study shows that..." Instead, shall we please actually read professor Z.'s paper and try and understand what made him reach that conclusion? Not all science is based on evidence, and history ought to teach us pretty damn well that not all science is fact.

There are more things in Heaven and Earth, friend Horatio, than are dreamt of by our philosophers.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


So, there's a thread on JoS?off about how Bush is now apologizing for the government fucking up on Katrina. Everyone's taking a bite out of him (and I'm happily joining the pack), when one guy comes in and says,

Good Lord! The man takes responsibility and all he gets from everyone is a load of shit. Besides resigning or killing himself I doubt there is anything Bush could do that would make you folks happy.

Now, two things. One, Bush's opponents are at this point not perfectly rational, in fact for a lot of them it's personal, and they actually hate him - so yes, there is very little he could really do to assuage them. Two, I read Russian blogs and internet sites and watch the news, and I am completely baffled by the Russians' conviction that Putin is personally responsible for every fuckup in the country; so for all the crap Bush has done, Katrina is not his fault, and I have no basis for judgement as to whether the federal agencies did a good job on it or not.

But my god, that would be bloody brilliant! Just imagine - the President of the United States of America, the person who runs the entire country, especially this particular one, unchecked by court or Congress, handing in his resignation! Not because he got caught fucking schoolgirls up the arse, but because the people don't think he's doing a good job!!!

Would do wonders for the American political scene, I think. Be the greatest legacy to the nation and the world than anything else that wanker could ever hope to accomplish.

I'm in love with rock'n'roll

Well here, babe, look at you, in love with someone else
Turned out like all the others, left me by myself
That's how it works, I guess
And you're like all the rest
Guess I can handle it, and that's the way it is...

Story of my life, man. What can I tell you.

A person's musical preference is directly tied in to their inner beat. Our consciousness works at a certain rhythm, and the BPM there certainly corellates with what sort of tunes are in your headphones. I've got a pretty good cross-section of quality music in my mp3 library, and while I still listen to artefacts from days gone by when the proper mood sets in, at this point I'm all about rock'n'roll. And my initiation into this world was through Motörhead.

In the winter of 2003, E-Type was playing all around Sweden. Instead of supporting an album, this was the Euro Metal Tour - all his best songs redone as metal tracks. When the end of the tour was switched around to include a final gig in Stockholm, I knew I had to be there. Now, Martin "E-Type" Eriksson has a perfectly credible metal background. Early in his career, he was the drummer for a band called Manninya Blade, and then Hexenhaus, which at the time was billed as delivering the fastest metal in Europe. He still incorporates drum solos into his live act, and he's pretty damn good. But not as good as the guy he got to play in the Euro Metal Tour. Mikkey Dee, the drummer for Motörhead.

OK, look here: Eurodance is known for a high BPM rate. That's part of the dictionary definition. And on previous live shows, E-Type had an enormous drum set operated by two people. For the Metal tour, however, the music was boosted into overdrive. And handled by Mikkey Dee on a small club setup. That should give you some idea.

I don't care who you think is the best out there. Until you've seen Mikkey Dee live, doing his Tasmanian Devil act - you ain't seen shit. I came back from the tour, and proceeded to buy Motörhead's 25-year anniversary double CD.

I've gotten into old metal a lot since then. I have the limited edition Judas Priest comeback album with DVD (absolutely kickass). I have Alice Cooper's new album, and I've seen him live, with Uriah Heep opening. But Motörhead is still number one.

I'm in love with rock'n'roll
It satisfies my soul
That's how it has to be
I won't get mad...

I've got rock'n'roll
To save me from the cold
And if that's all there is
It ain't so bad!

Monday, September 12, 2005


Went to Sweden over the weekend, which explains the lack of new content. Got lots of stuff to say now.

It's the fourth year I've been doing this - going to SE for concerts. The artist is E-Type; if you're from Sweden or Scandinavia, you know of him. If you're from Europe, you may vaguely remember. If you're from the States, never mind. (Although if you're from Canada, a radio station in Toronto has been running his tracks quite regularly.) He's known as the king of Eurodance, and his peak of popularity was in the mid-90s Euro craze, but he's still alive and kicking, and very much an institution on the home market.

This was my first show outside Stockholm - in fact it was in a tiny town some 270km north. Which turned out to be cool, because the venue was a club. Let me tell you: there is a big difference between open-air and club gigs. No keyboards or fireworks this time, just a classic guitar-bass-drum pattern, plus vocals - featuring Nana Hedin! (She's the voice behind a whole lot of huge acts that used the old Cheiron team in Sthlm - including Britney Spears, for one.) I've got the bragging rights of having seen her perform live now, although the vocals weren't a particular focus. Anyway, it was a proper rock show, short tracklist - only 7 songs - but it was so insane that I doubt if the crowd could take more than that.

My Swedish friends couldn't make it this time, which sucked... but I wasn't all alone. In fact, I was (predictably) the only proper headbanger in the sorry bunch of wimps I was with. (There's a big story there, but I'm not exactly sure if I'm ready to tell it yet, or how I would do that.) I don't dwell on my numerous shortcomings, but the one talent I envy in others (in a good way) is music. I'm rubbish at it. Don't play any instruments and couldn't carry a tune out of a burning building. So to compensate, I'm honing my headbanging skills, and I must say, I'm getting rather good.

Rock on.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Conspiracy society

My dad asked me the other day if I thought Dan Brown would win the Nobel prize for literature. My drink almost came out of my nose.

Somebody described Tom Clancy's books as technology porn, and in the same way Dan Brown is history porn. Like Clancy, he can only really do one thing, and like Clancy, he does it progressively worse. I don't think it's about familiarity breeding contempt either. I read Da Vinci Code first, and loved it, then Digital Fortress, which was utterly ridiculous to anyone with any sort of IT background (and the suspense was lacking as well). Angels and Demons was third, and it was definitely more bearable, although the novelty had worn off. I won't even bother with Deception Point: I've read the cover, and I don't expect it to be good.

The hype is entirely dependent on the claim that Brown is talking about real events, but if you think about it, that is irrelevant. I'm sure secret societies do exist, and I'm also sure they are much more boring than people who are not part of one would like to believe. And no, I'm not a member of any secret society, although I think I was once offered (in roundabout terms) to join the Freemasons. At the time, I didn't see the point, and I still don't, although today I would accept simply to see what the fuss is about. In any case, neither the Priory of Zion nor the Illuminati have the slightest bearing on my existence, and thus for all intents and purposes they do not exist. I'd much rather be pissed off at George Bush.

Conspiracy theories and secret societies are some of the topics that people in general never get bored of. Just like suspense and murder. Go into a bookshop today - it's ridiculous; the volumes which are given pride of place are desperately formulaic crime novels. I suppose one could trace a correlation whereby the degree to which a book is interesting is inversely proportional to the muscle put into its promotion. (However, it would have to drop off shortly before reaching the Guardian literary prize winners.)

The Perfect Device

So, they finally started selling the PSP in Small Country. I'm a fan of Penny Arcade so after all the praise they bestowed on the baby Playstation, I started thinking that maybe it will be the first console I'll buy (8-bit NES clone notwithstanding).

Well, first of all, it costs about twice what the slimline PS2 does now - and half of what I expect my next PC box to cost, so it comfortably exceeds the boundaries of the amount I am mentally prepared to spend on a gaming device. Of course, this is relative - my current gadget, an Archos Gmini 400, cost more still, and I'm pretty much down to using it as a straight MP3 player - the game functionality was useful in college, and the video playback was utilized mostly during bus trips between Capital City and Campustown; but now I've graduated and own a car.

But secondly, and more importantly, the Playstation Portable isn't actually portable. The enormous screen is quite nice, but it does make the thing too big to fit in your jeans pocket, which fundamentally defeats the point of a gaming console that you carry around with you. I absolutely refuse to use a belt holder, so the only pocket I have which would hold a PSP is the one in my coat, which I do not wear all the time.

At the end of the day, however, I just have no use for a PSP any more. Because I drive everywhere (despite ridiculous gas prices), I'm not bored during travel time, and even if I am, I can't exactly pick up a gadget and start gaming; and I get to where I'm going at the right time, so I don't have to sit and wait around. Now, the primary market for the PSP is obviously America, where everyone drives, so I'm just going to make the logical assumption that adults don't generally buy PSPs.

Dammit. I'm an adult.

The one killer feature of the PSP, however, is WiFi. I understand that the new firmware does actually incorporate a proper browser and email client. I'm not exactly sure how one uses them with the D-pad and action buttons, but it's important, especially here in Small Country, where WiFi is ubiquitous and one of the major political parties promises total wireless access throughout Capital City if they win the municipal elections. The ability to access the Net at any time is seriously appealing.

But not appealing enough to buy a PSP, because it is not, unfortunately, The Perfect Device. The concept of TPD necessitates a hard drive of at least 20GB capacity, as well as some means of text entry and easy interface control. There are actually two devices on the market today which come pretty damn close. The OQO, and the Archos PMA400. Both are properly pocket-size, have WiFi, touchscreens (even a full qwerty keyboard in case of the former) and large hard drives.

Unfortunately, the Archos costs eight hundred Euro and the OQO costs two thousand bucks. Crap.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Childhood memories

Holy hell, the national TV channel is showing Motor Mice from Mars and Transformers in the mornings. I'm setting my alarm clock for 6.50 AM.

Now all we need is Centurions and Captain Planet. And maybe Galtar.


This is the first September in my conscious existence that I was not terrified of. Oh, I wasn't looking forward to the end of summer, as it only brings closer the onset of sludge - the weather phenomenon prevalent in Small Country for most of the time between late October and early May. (We very rarely get proper winters, which is a shame.) But for three years of college, and twelve years of school before it, and I suppose kindergarten as well, September was the month that I was forced back to school.

Not any longer.

I was mildly perplexed in high school about my contemporaries' lack of a plan. Twelfth grade was largely redundant, a bit of preparation for final exams and a lot of doing nothing. The faculty had no leverage whatsoever. In math class, we were clearly separated into those who were taking the national exam (A-level equivalent, I suppose) and those who weren't. In case of the latter, the teacher was beyond caring. I hadn't done a spot of homework all year, and while I made the token effort of attending, I spent most of the time talking to my friends down in the back of the class, or reading car magazines. I could not solve a twelfth-grade mathematical problem if my life depended on it. Yet I and others like me were given passing grades for no better reason than the teacher's desire to see as little of us as possible.

But at the end of the year came the national exams, and then college entrance. By this time I had been a part-time mainstream journalist for six or seven years (oh yes), and I was extremely good at English, so my department choices were fairly obvious. The choice of university... well, wasn't a choice, really. Only Posh Uni would do. My parents and my sister graduated from it, and it was the only one that was good enough for me. I could have a primary and secondary option, so because Small Country's language was not my mother tongue (in fact it's the worst of the three in which I am fluent), English came first and journalism second. I took the academic proficiency test for journalism, and by the time I went to the second part of the entrance exams - the personal interview - I knew I had gotten into English (best score that year, 85.5% - the test was designed so that the top end of the bunch would just barely hit 80%), and I just wanted to see if I was good enough to make the free-tuition cut on my second choice. And I said so at the interview. Even then I made the cut, although some lucky person got my spot.

After three years of getting by on charm (OK, not charm - but I impressed enough of the lecturers), I made a token effort on the final thesis and got my Bachelor of Arts. The idea was for us three-years to go on for a Master's, but I was sick of academia and didn't want to commit to a research paper; and the other option, an applied MA in translation, was not worth two years of my life. I do not speak Small Language well enough to make it into the EU interpretation corps, and I have done enough freelancing to be disgusted by the profession. The translator/interpreter is one of those people - like journalists - whom employers in this part of the world treat as absolute shit.

So I'm pretty happy with my technical desk job at a software house, thank you. And when people wonder why I didn't stay in school, with my potential - I just shrug. It's September, and for the first time in my life, I'm doing just fine.


I'm convinced that there is an advanced AI mainframe hidden deep within the bowels of Waterstone's HQ, running a complex behavioral simulation to figure out which books people buy, and make sure that no three books you really want are ever marked 3 for 2.

Otherwise, it's a wonderful system and I was thrilled to find a Waterstone's in Amsterdam. Of course, this was only after I had spent ridiculous money at the railway station shop on a book by Ewan McGregor about him and a friend riding motorcycles around the world. Half an hour later I found the superstore and walked away with three books. One of them was a Guardian literary prize winning affair which I am now dreading. The second was a book of Jeremy Clarkson articles, which I highly enjoyed over my uninspiring overpriced dinner and rather nice overpriced desert that same night. (Clarkson is my hero, as far as journalism is concerned. One of my ambitions is to be on his show some day, talking about my first cars - oh the stories I could tell!) The third one, which I just started, is called 'How to be idle' - it doesn't seem to be all fun, the author actually makes a rather well-argued point in favor of doing nothing; but that topic merits a separate post, which will come as soon as I am sufficiently inspired (or irritated) by it.

The problem is, I now have the Guardian thing and the Ewan McGregor thing waiting to be read, which means that I cannot justify buying more books. Which is a goddamn shame, as the bookshops in Small Country's capital have finally stocked some pretty decent (or at least interesting-looking) English books. They are rather expensive here, so I do need to curb my enthusiasm. It is entirely possible for me to walk out of the big new bookshop in the mall with a third of my paycheck signed over. And I need a new PC.


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