It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Espera...

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Esperanto: Patro Kristnasko kaj malgranda knabino Suomi: Joulupukki ja pieni tyttö (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I find Christmas is a bit like dragging a brick across a table by a bit of elastic. Nothing happens for a long time and then bang! It all hits you at once. Christmas always seems like it’s ages away then suddenly, it’s upon us like a rabid tiger. I try and fend it off with my inner “bah humbug!” but it’s no use – it’s inevitable.

Even though it’s still November (admittedly only just), time seems to be creeping away. I keep seeing updates on Facebook from people who have already put their Christmas decorations up. Down in Cornwall, the old people’s home opposite even had them up two weeks ago.

I don’t mind the inevitable Christmas dinners. I usually have three or four – there’s the office one, the London office one, the partner one and oh yes – there’s Christmas day too. Opening presents is fun too and I enjoy seeing kids faces when they open presents from us.

The bit I find really challenging is choosing presents for everyone. My wife says – what shall we get your Mum this year?  What about your Dad – and my mind goes blank. Not a good sign when they are usually the first two she asks about and that’s before I’ve chosen something for my wife. Of course we eventually get there every year, but it’s a lot of mental anguish in between all those Christmas parties!

christmas tree

christmas tree (Photo credit: peminumkopi)

I have a pathological hatred of wrapping presents – so much so that I bribe one of Julie’s friends to wrap mine for me every year. The princely sum of a bottle of wine usually secures her services and she wraps them with gusto!

Then there’s the question of what we do after Christmas – shall we go away or shall we stay here? Will we have a party? Who are we going to invite. With the kitchen one floor, several worktops, tiles and many doors short, I find it hard to imagine it all being ready in time.

Like everyone, I suspect I enjoyed Christmas a hell of a lot more as a child. Not that I ever believed all that Santa Claus nonsense – I quickly worked out that it was mathematically impossible for him to get to every house in the UK overnight, let alone the rest of the world. We’ve never lived in a house with a chimney and Dad’s assertion that Santa squeezed down the central heating flue sounded very unlikely seeing as every effigy of Santa looked so fat that you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d eaten a reindeer.

Still – ’tis the season and all that – Ho bloody ho!


Rise of the automatons

Model of a robot based on drawings by Leonardo...

Model of a robot based on drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t help feeling that every robot in production today is rubbish.

Brought up on a diet of science fiction films and books, I expect my robots to kick ass. There should be something remarkable about them. After all, C3P0 understands over 6 million forms of communication. The T-1000 is made of liquid metal and can emulate any creature it touches (or skewers with a pointy bit of its anatomy). In comparison, all modern robots are depressingly mundane.

Robots are extensively used in manufacturing. Apart from Morgans, Bentleys and a smattering of low volume models, pretty much every car on sale today is assembled robotically. Robots were built for repetitive humdrum work. Sure, cars are much more reliable these days – but where’s the romance in that?

When he wasn’t busy designing parachutes and helicopters, Leonardo da Vinci came up with a sketch of a robot over 500 years ago and I don’t think he’d be too impressed at how far we’ve come either. There’s no doubting the utility of robots. They don’t get bored and they don’t complain when they’re placed in hostile environments, but don’t expect any scintillating conversation.

Camel racing is immensely popular in Arab countries and until recently, they were jockeyed by small children. Usually, these children would have been taken from their parents and kept in appalling conditions, a practise  universally condemned by detractors. Nowadays, they race with robot jockeys made in the form of humans so as not to spook the camels. Sounds great, but if you’re going to have robot races, get rid of the camels and give the robots weapons – much more exciting.

There are 4,000 robots serving in the US military but alas not in the role of stormtrooper. They are mainly in bomb disposal. The Mars rover is a robot. At least it’s on another planet, but it hasn’t got a mind of its own and receives instructions from NASA. In 2007, robotics expert Henrik Christensen predicted that people would be having sex with robots within 4 years, so in theory the world has enjoyed robot nookie for the last 12 months.

Take me to your leader!

Take me to your leader! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think it’s going to be a long time before we get truly remarkable individual robots, but collectively, they show a lot more promise. The University of Michigan has developed a robot army that at the flick of a switch will turn into a reconnaissance team which can map out a location and pick out items of interest such as earthquake victims, IEDs or enemy robots.

If you find yourself surrounded by wasps in Afghanistan, there is every chance that they are not the yellow and black ones you’re used to. The British military special forces use miniature vehicles called wasps and they carry a very powerful sting in the form of C4 explosive, handy when faced with snipers.

With the advent of nanotechnology, scientists are quite literally “growing” microscopic robots. In time, these robots should be able to self replicate which doomsayers say will result in the world being consumed by an army of grey goo. The possibilities for such a technology are almost limitless, which means I really will be able to say to a machine one day “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot!”

Fantastic plastic

English: Blue plaque commemorating Alexander P...

English: Blue plaque commemorating Alexander Parkes, inventor of the first plastic, in Birmingham, England. Photographed by me 18 September 2006. Oosoom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to think of a material more prolific than plastic. The keys on my keyboard, carrier bags, ballpoint pens, the remote control for the TV and most car interiors are made almost entirely from plastic. The world gets through nearly 300 million tonnes of the stuff every year which has environmentalists up in arms. After all, the plastic we make is so resilient that it doesn’t tend to conveniently rot away in landfill sites.

It’s a very real problem. Roughly half a trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In the UK, we use roughly 15 million plastic bottles each and every day and when you think that it takes 450 years for just one plastic bottle to break down, at any one time – that’s nearly 4.5 trillion bottles rotting away unless we recycle or burn them.

Our appetite for plastic is showing no signs of slowing with annual growth running at about 5% annually. Plastics are made from polymers – immensely complex molecules that link together hundreds of thousands of molecule structures known as monomers. The complex structure is the key to plastic’s versatility. It is flexible enough to be made into almost any shape and it is durable enough to have the strength for multiple applications.

Plastic began in the 1850s when a British man, Alexander Parkes began experimenting with organic cellulose and various different solvents before coming up with the very first plastic, christened “Parkestine”, which was on show at the Great Exhibition in London in 1962. Unfortunately, his product was flawed, it was highly flammable which limited applications somewhat.

Development of the substance continued with an American coming up with Bakelite in the early 1900s. A Swiss chemist, Jacques E. Brandenberger then came up with cellophane by mixing viscose in an acid bath. The word cellophane was voted the third most beautiful word in the English language (after mother and memory) in 1940. I don’t think it would rank quite so highly today.

I can’t help feeling that plastic is both a blessing and a curse. The material is so damned useful that it is absolutely ubiquitous. At the same time, the stuff is so hard to dispose of that every single piece causes us long-term headaches. If you throw away everything in your house that contains plastic, it’s unlikely you’d have much left.

Alternatives are slowly becoming available and not before time. Traditional plastics are highly reliant on petrochemicals whilst the newer, greener alternatives use materials such as corn starch and wood. The quicker we adopt such materials, the quicker we can have our cake and eat it (or maybe store it in an eco-friendly Tupperware container).

The sound of silence

The Noise Within

The Noise Within (Photo credit: Cayusa)

My phone is almost always on silent, which drives my wife mad because I often don’t hear the thing ringing when she’s trying to get hold of me. The main reason is that I don’t really want to disturb anyone else with my ringtone. If I do notice my phone ringing – I try to keep my conversation muted and short if I am in a public space.

Some sounds are pleasant. The sound of water flowing over a babbling brook for example or birdsong on a bright summer’s day. I even quite like the pitter patter sound of rain (if I’m indoors) which is a good job bearing in mind where I live. although people’s tastes differ, almost everyone likes music of one sort or another. I find some people’s voices very pleasant; Lawrence Dallaglio has an amazing voice as does the guy who used to play the lead in Spooks.

Some sounds are unpleasant. Nails scratching down a blackboard make probably the most horrible sound in the world. Breaking glass, screaming and shouting are unpleasant not just because of the sound themselves but also because of what sometimes accompanies such sounds.

As I sat on the train this morning, I was surrounded by a sea of irritating noises. There was the guy who sat opposite who juggled two mobile phones. He was constantly speaking on one of them whilst the other one rang, at which point I assume he told the person on one phone to hold on whilst he answered the other one. I can’t really tell because although his voice was so loud that I heard every word, he was speaking in a foreign language.

Then there was the young girl with ear-bud headphones on. Her music was so loud that just about everyone in the carriage could hear the tinny sound of whichever song happened to be playing. I couldn’t recognise the exact track, but it sounded appalling, and she must be almost entirely deaf. If she isn’t, she will be before long.

They were the main noise polluters but almost everyone else’s phone made some kind of chirp, beep or irritating melody during the hour I was on the train. At one point, I gave up reading my book and took a look out through the window. I just happened to notice a sign at the base of the window. It showed a graphic of a mobile phone with a cross through it and the words “Quiet zone, please  respect other passengers”

God knows what it was like outside the quiet zone.

Going, going, gone!

Image representing eBay as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

To anyone with an interest in the eclectic, eBay is a dream come true. You can find just about anything you want for a price. It brings together buyers and sellers in a way that no other eCommerce site does. I’ve bought and sold everything from cars to complete tat. eBay is particularly good for commodity goods such as razor blades, batteries and light bulbs.

Since the acquisition of PayPal, the whole process of buying or selling is simplicity itself. Now that postage labels can be bought and printed, the despatch of items is easy too. It’s no wonder that so many home based businesses use eBay as their main sales medium.

Your item will live or die based on the description and photos you post. A key part of the description is laying down the rules of your particular auction. Will you end the auction early or do you want to allow overseas buyers for example. There are also rules that eBay lay down and it is amazing how many people are happy to break all these rules.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve stated no overseas bidders, mainly because of the palaver of working out the postage. On items like these, I’ve had winning bidders from all over the world. Nowadays, there’s no need because of the ability to print labels for every country.

I’ve had phone calls from people desperately trying to get me to end auctions early. I’ve had buyers and sellers who want to carry out the deal outside of eBay to avoid the commission (despite availing themselves of eBay’s facilities). I always specify payment by PayPal only, but loads of people try it on to avoid the fees. I always stand my ground and insist on PayPal because it’s the only way to be reasonably sure you’ve got your money.

The rating system means there is transparency about the track record of whoever you’re dealing with and the whole experience is super-slick. Like Amazon, eBay has been honed to be a razor-sharp eCommerce site and despite the niggles about buyers and sellers that break the rules, it is a near perfect website.

Sometimes when I’m bored, I find myself browsing the eBay motors section which is a very dangerous activity. Every so often, you spot something shiny that has no place in your life and is far too expensive for a toy, but it’s nice to dream none the less.

Weasel words

Advertising advertising

Advertising advertising (Photo credit: Toban Black)

Without advertising, many of the services we enjoy would either no longer be free or they would cost a lot more. How would you feel about paying for every Google search you make? Or would you pay a monthly fee for Facebook? How about Twitter? How would you feel if your daily newspaper cost twice as much or if your satellite TV bill was similar to your mortgage?

To most people, advertising is something they put up with and maybe sometimes complain about, but the alternative to advertising is often unpalatable. However much you complain about advertising, if it wasn’t there, you would pay more if that advertising wasn’t there.

Most of the adverts we see nowadays are a good deal more advanced and agencies have budgets that could only be dreamed about before. Most modern adverts resemble mini blockbusters with an all-star cast, an expensive soundtrack and cinematography that wouldn’t look out of place in a blockbuster premier.

With the advent of social media, advertisers are hunting for the holy grail – they want an advert to become viral. If they can make their story entertaining enough, armies of Facebook and twitter users will do all the hard work of making sure that the advert gets to a much wider audience and all at no additional cost to the advertiser.

I have a lot of respect for a finely crafted advert. I love the Honda advert where all the car components roll, swing or fall into each other in a complex chain reaction in order to switch on a piece of music. Allegedly, they filmed it without any CGI and admittedly after numerous attempts, the final advert was one complete take. I also like the gorilla playing the drums for Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and the man sliding through the city on a helter-skelter to a Doobie Brothers soundtrack for Barclaycard.

I hold a special kind of loathing for lazy or misleading adverts. Shot on a lower budget, they tend to go along the lines of “We’ve got some cheap stuff. Come and buy it.” They tend to be characterised by advertising weasel words. Typically, phrases like “up to x% off”, “everything must go”, “massive reductions” or “biggest ever sale”.

Up to 50% off means that the price could have been reduced anywhere from 0 – 50% and guess which end of the scale most products will lie. I thought the whole point of retailing is to sell your stock so everything must go is more a statement of the seller’s fervent desire. I’ll be the judge of how massive your reductions are and when you say it’s your biggest sale ever, how exactly are you measuring that? By the vendor’s expectations?

If I ever commissioned an advert, I would definitely strive for the viral audience by putting some effort into it. Your audience will appreciate the experience rather than endure it and you never know, they might tell a friend.

The 7 wonders of Fore

English: Photograph of tbe remains of Fore Abb...

English: Photograph of tbe remains of Fore Abbey, Co Westmeath, Republic of Ireland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No childhood visit to Ireland was ever complete until we visited the tiny village of Fore in County Westmeath. The place held an absolutely mystical quality. The best bit was the old ruined Benedictine abbey which dates back to the 15th century. You could clamber all over it and once armed with a suitable stick, you could play out your own personal swashbuckling saga.

For a while, we thought the abbey was the sum total of the attractions in the village until one day, granddad took us on a walk around the place. He solemnly told us that we were going to see the wonders of Fore. All the mystical work of a 7th century Irish saint, there are seven wonders in total (although on the day, granddad couldn’t remember what they all were).

He showed us the wood that doesn’t burn, the water that flows uphill and the water that doesn’t boil. He told that the monastery built on the bog was one of the wonders as was the stone above the door which St Fechin raised with his prayers. The ones he couldn’t remember were the mill without a race and the anchorite in a stone. “How do you know the water won’t boil?” I asked him. “Can we take some home and test it?”

He looked at me in horror as if I’d suggested not going to church on Sunday. “You can’t test it – that would be bad luck! You’ve just got to believe it.” At our tender age, that was all that was needed and our scepticism evaporated.

When I returned to Ireland as an adult with my wife, brother and his partner, we told the girls that Fore was the one place we simply had to visit. On the way, myself and my brother excitedly relayed our childhood memories of what was there. We told them all about the abbey and the 7 wonders.

As we arrived, we noticed the transformation in the place. There was now a purpose-built car park and a map board showing the locations of all the attractions. There were nice paths linking everything and little signs by each of the wonders. The abbey was in the middle of a restoration and you could no longer get to the upper floor. The girls were completely underwhelmed by the wonders. Despite the only wondering being done was wondering what all the fuss was about, the place is still magical to me.

Technical Isolation

Hursley House - - 967947

Hursley House – – 967947 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you ever get a chance to visit IBM‘s Hursley Park campus, it’s well worth going. It’s a lovely mansion-house in beautiful surroundings just outside Winchester. There has been a lodge at Hursley since 1413 and the current house dates from 1724. The Heathcote family donated the house together with £5m (a figure equivalent to £116m today) to provide a hospital for US military personnel in WW1. In WW2, the house was used by Vickers to develop the Spitfire. IBM moved in during 1958 as a temporary measure and they are still there today.

The System 360 and the Winchester hard drive were developed there and IBM were granted the Queen’s award for industry for storage & CICS. Today it houses 2800 IBM employees – roughly half of which are software developers making it the biggest software lab in Europe. Altogether IBM has 59,000 employees of which roughly half are based in the USA. They are heavily into the R part of R&D with research going on into particle physics and nanotechnology among other things.

On the Hursley campus, they have an isolation lab which is a completely shielded building used to test the electromagnetic emissions of devices to ensure compliance with the plethora of regulations governing such things. They really needn’t have bothered. There is a perfectly good isolation zone on the South Coast of the UK just outside Highcliffe.

A popular retirement spot, it’s a tiny village which must be the only place in the UK where the funeral parlours outnumber the charity shops. Nothing on any wavelength passes into or out of the place which renders mobile phones completely useless. A couple of times a year, myself and some friends spend a long weekend there and bearing in mind my attachment to social networks and blogging, I find myself isolated for the whole time.

Initially, I find the experience anxious. I can’t check twitter, Facebook, yammer, wordpress or linked in. I can’t phone anyone (unless I search for some change and use the call box). I can’t look anything up on Google or check the news or how the FTSE is doing. I can’t even download the Times.

After a while though, the anxiety ceases and I feel liberated. I get used to being away from email and social networks. I even start to like the idea that I am completely out of contact with anyone. Maybe we should go there more often! Of course, on return, the first thing I find myself doing is checking my email, blog, social networks etc. but it was nice while it lasted.

Predicting the future is a very tricky business


future (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Predicting the future is a very tricky business. Probably because the rate of change in our lives means that by the time you have made the statement or written the article, time has moved on. Because of this, only the foolhardy or the charlatans make such predictions. Here are some famous quotes about the future to give you the idea;

“There are many methods for predicting the future. For example, you can read horoscopes, tea leaves, tarot cards or crystal balls. Collectively, these methods are known as nutty methods. Or you can put well-researched facts into sophisticated computer models, more commonly known as a complete waste of time.”
Scott Adams

“There is no need for any individual to have a computer in their home”
Ken Olson, President of Digital Equipment Corp

“640K [of memory] ought to be enough for anybody”
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft

“Computers of the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons”
Popular Mechanics Magazine

“One-hundred million dollars is way too much to pay for Microsoft.”
IBM 1982

“It would appear that we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology — although one should be careful with such statements, as they tend to sound pretty silly in five years.”
John Von Neumann 1949

“I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.”
Prentice Hall business book editor 1957

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.”
Western Union memo 1878

“We will never make a 32 bit operating system.”
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft

“The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.”
The president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., 1903

After Obama’s victory in the US elections, I thought that now is a good time to make some predictions about what the world might look like at the end of his 4 year term. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether I’m foolhardy or a charlatan.

My version of the future goes something like this;

After  nearly a decade since the banking crisis, the world economies are booming once more. Growth is positive just about everywhere, but some countries are doing better than others. Africa is the new powerhouse of manufacturing with a constant flood of cheap consumer goods flowing both into the Western economies but also Eastwards into the burgeoning Chinese and Indian middle classes. Living standards are improving in Africa but there are many stories of exploitation, low wages and child labour.

After a long period of inflation in India and China coupled with stagnant wages in the Western world, Western companies are busy either repatriating their offshore operations or moving them to the much cheaper African continent.

The European union now operates two separate currencies; the Northern Euro (or Neuro) and the Southern Euro (or Seuro). The whole world is involved in a massive aid operation for Greece which is now a third world country thanks to the austerity measures and constant recession of the last 10 years.

Screens are rare and have largely been replaced by worn screens in the form of virtual reality spectacles and contact lenses. Keyboards are rarely seen, all input is carried out either via voice or gestures. Wireless networking is now free and universal so cables are a thing of the past.

Scientists are in the advanced stages of testing genetic treatments which render cancer an innocculable condition and treatments have been developed to cope with the effects of obesity and alcoholism.

Someone else will have invaded Afghanistan. The Israelis and Palestinians will still be at each other’s throats although peace talks will be looking promising. There will have been 3 gun massacres in the United States by crazed gunmen. After the last such incident in which a huge number of schoolchildren were gunned down, the USA are seriously considering new gun control laws.

Oil is now running at $20 per gallon and people have abandoned petrochemicals at an ever increasing rate. Renewable energy is the new oil and companies leading the field are booming. Most town and city centres have outlawed petrochemical powered vehicles. Global warming has stabilised and the Northern ice cap is starting to grow back once more.

Do I seriously believe my version of the future ? Well – no, 4 years is far too fast for some of the things on this list, but I live in hope that the more positive items in the list do become true and that we wake up in time to prevent the negative items.

Why I could never vote for Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney Steve Pearce event 057

Mitt Romney Steve Pearce event 057 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A wise man once told me that if you are hiring someone, you should look for three essential qualities; the ideal candidate should be smart, get things done and not be a jerk. These seem like excellent yardsticks against which to judge the candidates, Barrack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Although the discussion is moot because since the declaration of independence, I as an Englishman, have no say over what happens constitutionally in the good old US of A. Our needs of the future president are somewhat modest. As long as he keeps the wheels on the world economy for the next four years and as long as he doesn’t drag the world into mass conflict, we will be reasonably OK.

So are they smart? There are rumours that Barrack Obama was a C grade in school and college. As you can imagine, it’s very difficult to find dispassionate and impartial evidence either way during an election. What we do know is that he graduated from Harvard with a law degree in 1991 so he must be reasonably intelligent. What about Romney? He also attended Harvard gaining both a law degree and an MBA so he’s pretty smart too.

So far, so good. Do they get things done? No-one could argue that Barrack Obama was dealt a good set of cards by the previous administration. George Dubbya Bush buried toxic waste under the White House lawn in the form of the nose diving economy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Guantanamo Bay before handing over the keys.

Obama failed to close Guantanamo. Closing the place is easy. Finding a politically acceptable home for the 166 detainees is another thing altogether. So on this point he failed, although I have more hope that he will close it eventually than Mitt Romney ever doing so.

Although Obama brought the war in Iraq to a close in 2011, the war in Afghanistan rumbles on, but at least there is a timetable for withdrawal in 2014 and the Obama administration managed to scalp Osama bin Laden.

On the economy, since the deep recession in 2009, the GDP growth rate has been positive in the US ever since. For over 2 years, the US economy has added jobs and the trend seems positive. Critics have been quick to highlight the rise in the unemployment rate in the latest figures from 7.8% to 7.9%. You could argue anything with statistics, but there are more jobs and there are more people hoping to find a job which must be a good thing.

Critics also point to the towering deficit. As with lots of countries, the US deficit has ballooned since the banking crisis. The US defect stood at an inflation adjusted $1.5 trillion in 2009. Every year since, the deficit has been steadily reduced to a still eye watering $1.1 trillion, but at least it’s heading in the right direction. To put this in perspective, the US budget has been in deficit for 60 out of the last  72 years and the current figure stands at roughly double the deficit from the previous peak in 1945.

Obama brought healthcare to 32 million uninsured Americans, saved the beleaguered US car industry, stopped US torture and allowed gay people to serve in the armed forces.

Romney famously captained the successful Olympics 10 years ago in Salt Lake City. He was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2003 where he managed to cut the deficit from $3Bn. There is history of him running for the White House before, but until now he retains bridesmaid status.

So they can both get stuff done. Are they jerks?

At the end of George Dubbya Bush’s tenure, world opinion of the US seemed to be at an all time low. Obama has done much to restore that reputation. His smooth, tolerant and patient demeanour was exactly the right tonic. He is a likeable man.

Romney famously wrote off nearly half the country with his 47% comments. During the 2nd Presidential debate, he said he would add 12 million jobs to the economy only to say 45 minutes later that Government does not create jobs. He insulted Britain on the eve of arguably the most successful Olympics ever by calling into question our ability to run the show.

And that is why I could never vote for him. The man’s a jerk.