12:18pm: The Mystery Box A very geeky post; skip if you aren't interested in old gadgets Since I moved into my rented house in Staines 4 years ago, I've often wondered about the Mystery Box. The Mystery Box is about 30cm x 45cm x 10cm, and is mounted on one wall of the living room of my rented house in Staines. It's painted white, and has a switch and a control knob on the front, but has no visible identifying marks or branding. The Box is silent, cold, and appears inactive. Neither the switch nor the control knob seem to have any effect. At the prompting of my friend Alex Atkins, I finally took the cover off and found ... ( picture and description. I warned you it was geekyCollapse )
2:55pm: April Fool
I'm sure my friends Anne and Shaun Atkins will understand when I say I hope that I don't have to confide in them in future. The plain fact is, having fallen for yesterday's spectacular April Fool's Day prank by their daughter Bink and myself, they will never believe me again.
A few background facts: Bink and I have been close friends for more than five years, and when we first knew each other our names were occasionally "linked" – I used to describe myself as Bink's "inappropriately older man" (being nearly 20 years her senior). We are exceedingly fond of each other, and this closeness is often mistaken for something more. I have also grown close to her family, a ragtag band of alcoholic misfits and ne'er-do-wells who are fine company: intelligent, witty, charming, and kind. As Anne's readers will be aware, they value and exemplify English traditions of courtesy and hospitality. Bink's older sister Serena is to be married this summer (read all about that here), and Bink has been somewhat anxious about the bridesmaid's dress which is being made for her.
I have come to stay with the Atkins family in Bedford for a few days, with the intention of commuting over to Cambridge to show my face in the office. I mentioned a couple of times on Sunday evening that I had been called to an emergency meeting on Monday (a public holiday in the UK). Then after supper I said, "Shaun, will you be free in the morning? I'd like a chat with you, before I head off to this meeting. It's quite important, and I'm too tired to talk about it now." Shaun innocently agreed, and the stage was set.
On Monday morning I had terrible stage fright, but summoned up the courage and tapped on Shaun's bedroom door. In a highly charged and emotional five minutes, tongue-tied and blushing, I explained that over the years of our friendship Bink and I had grown very close, that I was very conscious of my many handicaps as a suitor (age, divorce, children), but that despite them I felt that I ought to propose marriage. Being aware of the value the family places on tradition, I wanted Shaun's blessing before I did so. Could he please speak to Anne about it today, and perhaps we could talk about it further in the evening? Only, I have to dash off right now to get to my meeting. KTHXBAI.
Knowing myself to be a terrible actor, I felt sure that Shaun would see right through this and the whole plan would be a damp squib. As we drove off to my fictional meeting, Bink and I were astonished and a little daunted, as this initial success meant that we had to go through with phase II. Obviously Anne and Shaun couldn't approve such a mismatch for their daughter, but how would they break that to me? And could we reverse their opinion with another bombshell?
We stayed out for most of the day, and equipped ourselves for the denouement. When we returned, we rather expected the gaff to have been blown and to face some dastardly counter-prank. But no: Shaun had been out all afternoon, and now they were both sequestered in (yet another) logistics conference for Serena's wedding. We had to wait until about 7:30 for Bink's turn. She asked her mum for a quiet word (on which I was able to eavesdrop using the handy intercom system the Atkinses need for communication in the vast warren of their beautiful house). How much had already been spent on her bridesmaid's dress? Wouldn't it be possible for Bink to wear a suit instead? She didn't want to wear the dress. She couldn't wear the dress! She didn't want to say why. She hates it when people stare at her. The dress wouldn't fit. Because, because, ... because she's pregnant! About 15 weeks, probably. Who's the father? Why does everybody ask that? Nick asked the same thing! Why does it matter? What was she going to do?! She couldn't bear to tell Shaun: couldn't Anne tell him?
Again, we had underestimated our abilities for deceit, and this news was taken at its shocking face value. Happily Anne suffered neither a stroke nor a heart attack, but as she fetched Shaun to break this news, and Bink excused herself to come upstairs, we were both genuinely concerned that we'd gone too far. The only way forward was to skip rapidly to the final scene. Bink donned the astonishing ring we had picked up in Claire's Accessories and we burst into the silent space between Anne and Shaun. They had each just broken their news to the other: were they facing a shotgun wedding? Twenty years of accelerated grandparent duties? Would Anne's career have to go back on hold for another decade? "Mum, I told Nick that I've told you and he's proposed! Look!"
The icing on the cake was surely that Anne didn't have her spectacles, so for several more seconds this, um, remarkable ring was all too convincing. It was only after Bink was enfolded in a maternal hug, and we were warmly congratulated, that the reality sank in and the air turned blue....
10:13pm: Automated cryptic crossword solvers
Helen and I successfully completed yesterday's Guardian crossword. It wasn't especially difficult, but we are especially slow sometimes. I posted on FB, and was asked whether it would be quicker to write a program to solve crosswords. I was pointed to an automated solver for cryptic crosswords, and decided to try out the free trial version. Here are the results. I think it'll be a while before AI catches up with this quiet weekend pursuit.
Correct: top guess was correct answer
Engineer in a car plant (6)
A lack of publicity about illness? That’s OK (3,3)
9:42am: Tulip Fever
I finished Deborah Moggach's "Tulip Fever" last night. This is a book which has been on my shelf for five or six years, and probably first arrived there because I have a passing interest in the Dutch tulip mania of 1636/1637, which provides the title, the backdrop, and a key plot mechanism for the book.
The Dutch at the time were the leading trading nation in the world, rich and becoming richer, and were busy inventing most of modern banking in order to manage that wealth. Tulip mania was a bubble market in tulip bulbs, fueled by the invention of futures and options contracts, and at its peak [a contract for future delivery of] a single rare bulb might cost as much as a house. It was made famous by the account in Charles Mackay's "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds", one of my favourite books, although Mackay sensationalized the story to a great extent.
Tulips take a decade or more to be grown from seed to flower - so breeding a new variety is a long process with uncertain outcomes - but grow in a single season from a bulb, and can be propagated from nodes which form on the bulbs, allowing an existing variety to be reproduced. They are also susceptible to viral infection which causes petals to grow in different patterns and shapes, yielding a huge variation in forms including extreme rarities. They were also quite novel at the time - they had only been cultivated in Europe for a few decades - and represented Dutch success, ingenuity, and care. The combination of these factors, with the wealth that was sloshing around at the time, made for a natural bubble. The bubble formed in mid-1636, after the bulbs for that season were lifted and could be readily traded. In September/October, the bulbs should be back in the ground in order to flower the following spring, and so the trade shifted from physical bulbs changing hands to futures contracts and then to newly-invented derivatives. That took the brakes off and prices shot up swiftly, until the crash in February.
Unfortunately Moggach ignores most of this splendid history for plot reasons (for instance, her bubble is already well-established at the start of 1636, and a late plot twist depends on a single bulb physically changing hands in mid-November). More seriously, the central romance in the novel is between two deeply unlikeable people - short-sighted, vain, selfish, deceptive, feckless - engaged in a vile scheme. When Jan neglects his student, I want the student's father - a butcher - to come around with the tools of his trade and exact bloody vengeance. When Sophia stands on a bridge and contemplates suicide, I long to push her in.
There's much to like about the book: rich descriptive prose, a vividly-realised and plausible society, a charming secondary romance between the two most likeable characters (which is almost fatally destroyed by the feckless central couple), some interesting reflections on the nature and pace of individual change. There's also quite a bit of art history - which may or may not be any more accurate than the economic history - together with a number of plates in my edition. But overall I'm disappointed.
8:11pm: Old emails
I receive many thousands of email messages in my main work account (not counting my Climate Code Foundation account, which lives on gmail). It used to be a lot more (see statistics below), but it's still a huge number. For the last decade or so I have two main rules in dealing with email:
1. Never, ever delete a message: every message ends up in an archive folder; [I learned this the hard way, by deleting important messages. Disk space is free, more-or-less.]
2. Archive personal, public, and work messages in separate folders. [Also learned the hard way: when leaving a former job, I essentially had to leave my whole digital life behind.]
So how do messages get into folders? Any incoming message which I don't have to act upon is filed immediately when I see it. Everything else (maybe 10 to 20 messages on a typical day lately) goes into my "outstanding" folder, which acts as a to-do list. A lot of those I deal with and refile soon afterwards, but some form part of a long-running conversation and hang around in "outstanding" until they are resolved, and sometimes I don't get around to refiling them: they get buried under the flood. So every once in a while (once a month, ideally) I go through the top few hundred messages in "outstanding", weeding messages to the archives. But despite this, maybe fifty messages in any given month get left behind and the folder steadily fills up. If I am particularly rushed or stressed, even this cleaning-up process doesn't happen, and "outstanding" bloats.
It's been hovering at about 10,000 messages for the last couple of years, and this week I had had enough (five-digit message IDs are depressing). On Wednesday morning and this morning, I went through the whole folder, looked at every message, and refiled ruthlessly. I have 400 messages left, almost all from the last four months.
This was an interesting and challenging process, travelling backwards in time over the last decade, cleaning out dense knots of the past from particularly difficult periods. 2008/9: dealing with the forced move down to Surrey. 2006: grieving for my parents and trying desperately to keep my marriage together, and learning the hard way that it takes two. 2003/4: childcare challenges when my wife started work away from home and the local schools were failing our younger child. 2000: a babe in arms, and a little boy on chemotherapy. All cathartic, but I'm not surprised I've been putting off this spring-clean for so long.
For any geeks in the audience, here are stats since 2003, from my mail logging system:
End of year only
Life before spam-filtering: 800 messages every day!
2:07pm: This force
Something in the air, the moist and yielding opening earth, she sighs, she stirs awake, cries out for boist' rous love. The fresh shoots rise and thrust into the lover's rays, the buds engorge, the sap flows rich with winter's stores, the ways that wordless timeless lust knows well. Before the saint, before all saints, before the word, this vast eternal love, this force more powerful than death, this fast yet slow dance drives us all, brings us to life, to shine, to seek, to find, to call, to ask you, be my valentine.
5:10pm: T-Mobile apologizes, refunds £246.25 T-Mobile charged me money for a year without providing any service. I complained back in September, and received no reply. This week I started to escalate it to CISAS. Today a T-Mobile customer service rep called me. I explained the history. She apologized for not responding, said that my letter did not appear on my file and therefore possibly had not been received. I explained the history, she went through my file, apologized for the events, checked with her manager, and has arranged a refund of everything I've paid them since September 2009.
I am registering the following points as a formal complaint.
I have been a T-Mobile customer since September 2006. I had a Web'n'Walk PCMCIA card on a Pay-Monthly contract, £19.98 per month paid by direct debit.
After three years, in September 2009 this card was stolen in a burglary at my home. I called T-Mobile to report the loss. I was told that the PCMCIA cards were no longer in use, and I would be sent a USB stick (and SIM) as a replacement.
Before the USB stick arrived, I realised that I no longer made much use of Web'n'Walk, and checking the T-Mobile website I discovered a Pay-As-You-Go Web'n'Walk service which would save me money. I called T-Mobile again, and was told I could certainly cancel the Pay-Monthly service and use Pay-As-You-Go instead. I would be sent a separate USB stick and SIM. I was specifically told that I should return the Pay-Monthly USB stick and SIM unopened, and that the Pay-Monthly contract would be cancelled.
I did return the Pay-Monthly USB stick and SIM, unused and unopened, when they arrived. I started to use the Pay-As-You-Go stick. As far as I was concerned the Pay-Monthly contract was cancelled and that was the end of the matter.
I have made a very few uses of the Pay-As-You-Go service. On about 7th September 2010, I tried to use it, and found that I needed to top it up. I tried to log onto my T-Mobile web account to do so, and found to my surprise that it showed a £19.98 balance for the Pay-Monthly service.
The next day I called T-Mobile customer service to clarify this, and was very alarmed to be told (by a friendly and efficient member of staff) that I had been charged £19.98 per month for Pay-Monthly, in every month, for the last year.
Furthermore, I was told that the Pay-Monthly account had not been cancelled because a confirmation text message, sent to the Pay-Monthly SIM, had not been answered.
The practice of sending text messages to Web'n'Walk accounts is ridiculous--such messages are very unlikely ever to be read. The use of such a message to confirm cancellation of my account, sent to a SIM which I had explicitly been told to return unopened, is beyond absurd. T-Mobile could have written to my address, or used my actual cellphone number, but chose instead a method of communication which--following the instructions I received from T-Mobile--I could not receive: a message which I knew nothing about, sent to a SIM which I returned unopened to T-Mobile.
In short, T-Mobile has charged me £19.98 every month for a year--a total of £239.76--because I did not read a message which I could not possibly read, and which T-Mobile certainly knew had not been read. I insist on immediate repayment of this amount. I am cancelling my T-Mobile direct debit today.
I look forward to a swift response to this letter.
12:03am: M4, or Alphabetic Iambic Pentameter Consequences, in Six Quatrains and One Couplet
Along the road the Dairy Crest man drove. Beneath his hands the steering wheel was round1. Cars right and left, before, behind; above1b descends the evening sky. His weighty load1c emptied across the carriageway. Police! Fire! Rescue vehicles: flashing lights descend. Giraffes and lions roaming through the trees.2 How did they get there? Was the truck pretend?3 Ignorant, they knowingly escaped,4 jumped free across the verge into the woods. Kindness! The strange and moving scene was taped.5 Long queues of traffic formed while men in hoods manhandled crates of milk, the smoking wreck, now empty, towed away. The mystery! Outraged, the driver shouted, "'oo the 'eck put them in there? 6By what strange history?" Quite puzzled he stood there, surrounded by reporters, cameras, and microphones. Stunned, our hero stared, confounded by their questions. Later8, many precious stones, uncovered in the murky undergrowth, valued by an expert with a loupe9, were found. The lion and giraffe were both X-rayed by vets, produced more in their poop. Yet whose were they? And who cleaned up the mess?11 Zoo animals can't tell: you'll have to guess.
 As opposed to square, say. [1b] A rhyme. Well, sort of. This was composed as a driving game, without paper, and not planning to blog it later. Initially it was just alphabetic iambic pentameters, which then just started to form a poem. [1c] God only knows what happened to this rhyme.  You what?  Good questions.  Ooh, poetic, eh?  Taped off by police? Recorded by roving reporters? We leave it to the reader.  ... and then continued in quite a different voice ...  Because our story so far is much too simple and dull, ...  If this doesn't rhyme with poop, I don't want to know.  That's enough footnotes.  MIB. Look into the light.
Yes! I do know that I'm rubbish, very poor, unworthy, unreliable, the rest: inattentive, barely fit to sweep your floor and that you deserve far better than my best. But this is who I am. Aching and stained with mud and rabbit shit, weary and old, preoccupied and burdened, conscience strained with all the world to save and kids to hold when I'm allowed. No, I can't put you first as you would like, as we all need and long for and should have. I know that pain, the burst of jealousy that bites and burns so strong, I've lived that life, I've been where you are now when gratitude is not enough somehow.
5:07pm: For David
In Sheringham and in the morning sun descend the car-park steps and concrete ramp onto the shingle, steadily, with one intent, one goal, we shed towels on the damp tide-line and step together through the surf into the sea. The constant, changing, sea: eternal shroud and swaddling of the earth for petty finite creatures - you and me. We vanish in its grip, like ash or sand run through a grasp, like youth, tulips in May. Renewed, refreshed, reborn onto the land, we climb the beach, to Sea View and the fray: the non-stop happy riot of your clan, your legacy beyond this mortal span.
4:23pm: Comment on the IPCC review
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces reports which review and summarize the science of climate change. These reports are then used by inter-governmental treaties, bodies, conferences, and national governments, as the basis for international and national policies on climate change. In other words, it is vitally important. There has been a lot of controversy about the IPCC reports, some of it stirred up by vested interests such as the coal and oil industries. Any hole they can pick, they pick.
The InterAcademy Council (IAC) represents the national science academies of many different countries, including the Royal Society of the UK and the National Academy of Science of the US. Responding to the various controversies, in March the UN asked the IAC to conduct a review of the IPCC processes and procedures. A committee has been established and the review is underway. The committee is now soliciting public comment. This is a rare and general opportunity to influence the way in which the science of climate change is conducted, reviewed, synthesized, and communicated. In other words, this is a chance to Save The World.
I have written the following draft comment. Please suggest changes. On Monday I will finalise it and then solicit signatures.
11:13am: Alcohol duty
There is a debate on alcohol pricing in the UK, based on the notion that high levels of drunkenness are fuelled by cheap alcohol.
NICE and other experts are proposing a minimum price per unit (10 ml) of alcohol (numbers such as 40p and 50p are bandied around). The government doesn't like that, possibly because the powerful supermarket lobby wants to keep selling cheap booze (starting at somewhere around 15p per unit at the moment). The supermarkets favour a rule of "not below cost price", which would allow them to keep selling cheap booze - the big supermarkets have tremendous purchasing power and generally dictate their cost prices to their suppliers - while preventing off-licenses and convenience stores from doing the same. It seems unlikely to me that "not below cost price" would have much effect on "happy hour" in pubs and bars - often connected, at least in the public mind, with alcohol problems - because the wholesale cost of drinks is only a small part of the cost burden in on-licensed premises.
At present, government controls on the price of alcohol are in the form of a duty - a tax paid by the importer or manufacturer. Current duty on spirits and beer is based on alcohol content (23.8 pence per unit of alcohol on spirits, 17.32 pence per unit in beer). Duty on cider, perry, and wine is calculated using a complex banding system. For instance, still wine between 5.5 and 15% alcohol is subject to duty of 225 pence per litre[*], which works out at 15p per unit for the strongest wines and about 18-19p for a typical wine. The lowest duty per unit of alcohol, by far, is on still cider at just under 7.5% alcohol, which incurs 4.8p per unit.
Alcoholic drinks also incur VAT at 17.5%.
Note that on a £3 bottle of wine, duty and VAT accounts for £2.03, leaving under a pound for retailer, wholesaler, bottler, importer, and producer. No wonder it tastes so lousy. On a £5 bottle of wine, the supply chain gets nearly 3 times as much money, which is why £5 wine tastes much better.
It seems completely obvious to me that the simplest way in which the government could increase the cost of alcohol would be to put a flat duty across all alcoholic beverages of, say, 25p per unit. This would simplify an existing system rather than add new and complex rules and monitoring to retailers. It would allow for loss-leaders, but no sector can survive on loss-leaders (there's an old gag with the punchline "we'll make it up in volume", which stopped being funny around the time of the dot-com implosion).
[*] This creates an upward pressure on alcohol content, to the top end of each band. I don't know whether this has caused wines to get stronger, but my impression is that they have and it might be connected.
5:39pm: Jon Venables
The answer which should be given to any question about the present circumstances of Jon Venables is surely:
That individual was given a new identity. I have no further comment.
And all the vile muck-raking parasites in the media should be banged up for contempt of court, or similar. Starting with the editor and proprietors of the Mail and the Express, and working up through the food chain to those responsible for the BBC news output. It's a complete disgrace. They will have blood on their hands.
3:26pm: Sonnet #40: "M23"
I pack my bags in haste, it's not too soon to load the car again - another trip down South, to Brighton in the afternoon to you, your arms, your constant comradeship, your patience with my dull timidity: my failure to give in to kindly fate, to own my feelings, the rapidity, the rush of blood, the tongue-tied nervous state which you provoke. Your presence fills my world so no-one else is there, though in a crowd - there is just you. I keep this secret curled up in my mind: it cannot be allowed or spoken. Let us do crosswords instead. This clue must burn on, safe inside my head.
To the Independent Climate Change Email Review Committee,
I am making this submission with regard to the discussions of software in the hacked CRU emails, and to the small amounts of software source code also published in the same incident. I am a software expert with long industrial experience. I also have some expertise in climate science software. I hope that my submission may clarify some of the issues raised.
12:28pm: Secret conspiracies
Roger Helmer MEP and Godfrey Bloom MEP made almostidentical submissions to the science and technology select committee inquiry about the CRU emails. The submissions were full of the usual blogosphere borderline libelous nonsense about "hide the decline" and about the Hockey Stick: the kind of stuff which is common currency among the ignorant, the stupid, and the gullible.
What I want to know is: did one of them write this and share it with the other, or did they both receive it from a third party?
Wavering between the profit and the loss In this brief transit where the dreams cross The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying (Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things From the wide window towards the granite shore The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying Unbroken wings
And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices And the weak spirit quickens to rebel For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell Quickens to recover The cry of quail and the whirling plover And the blind eye creates The empty forms between the ivory gates And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
This is the time of tension between dying and birth The place of solitude where three dreams cross Between blue rocks But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away Let the other yew be shaken and reply.
Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden, Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still Even among these rocks, Our peace in his will And even among these rocks Sister, mother And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea, Suffer me not to be separated
12:52am: On computer sums
Since certain sceptics don't like my attempts to correct some of the misapprehensions in their blog postings and comment threads, and refuse to allow my comments, I have tried to clarify some issues relating to computer arithmetic in a post on the project blog instead. I'd appreciate any numerate friends having a quick look, and commenting here.
Begin, believe me, take this tangled ten, vainly. A busy worker grabs a broken vent, mainly. Twisted in a way, with my first, your first, dip. Near - takes me back - a climber holds a fast in its grip. Is digging with yaks begun? Farewell the second part. Bug-eyed monsters shorten young Shirley's saintly heart. These dismal clues all solve to (2,2,9). Forgive me! Will you __/__/_________?