I Get Certified

2015-07-22 22.36.53
I’m too wrecked to go out so I am having a small party at home. Here is my invited guest.

As of 5.15 pm today, I am an Oracle-certified MySQL developer!

Somewhere in the distance, a dog barks.

Yeah, OK. Boasts that you have to explain are not good boasts. For the last four months I have been studying hard for a qualification in something most people have never even heard of.

Which is a shame, because it is actually the secret language that runs the world.

But first, let me tell you about my day. This was… a tough day. Not only did I take a two and a half hour professional exam, I attended a two hour public meeting right after. The way it began though – well that was even worse.

You know when you know you’re doing something wrong? I mean, when the front of your mind thinks everything’s all right but the back of your brain is waving frantically to get your attention? The feeling you’re forgetting something that you decide to ignore. The nagging awareness that you probably shouldn’t blog while drinking a bottle of wine. Sometimes you know deep down that you’re making a mistake but it just doesn’t seem to reach the surface. So yesterday evening I was being very organised for my exam. I did all the little things, like making sure the car had petrol and water – even that the windscreen washers were working properly. Yet even as I did it I thought to myself: “You know, there’s a danger here. This is breaking my routine. If I break my routine to do all these checks, I could forget one of the important things I do routinely. Fortunately though, I haven’t forgotten anything this time.”

So I finished checking the windscreen washers and went peacefully to bed. Leaving the the car electrics switched on.

This morning an hour went on trying to charge, shove, and sometimes swear the battery back into life before I eventually got a jump start off a neighbour; hardly the calm and collected pre-exam preparation they recommend. Perhaps it was for the best though. Had I time I would probably have indulged in some last-minute panicky “study” as likely to confuse as to clarify. And the record shows I actually seem to do better in exams when faced with non-starting cars. It wasn’t déjà vu, this did happen before.

Outside the venue I met up with Nick and Diarmuid, two of the best students in the class, and was relieved to find that they seemed at least as nervous as me. Because we were (for no readily apparent reason) doing the exam in batches of three, we had feedback from those who sat it earlier in the day. The news was… mixed. On one hand, almost everyone so far had passed. On the other, they had all said it was harder than they’d expected. You can imagine which of those hands seemed more significant to three people about to walk into an exam.

Or about to try. We went to the front door only to find a sign saying to use the side door. We went to the side door only to find it locked. We rang the intercom, only to get an answering machine. I hope I didn’t actually leave the message that went through my head at that point.

But they let us in eventually, and when they’d done with mugshots and fingerprinting (well, almost) they sat us at the consoles. The exam is a computer-based, multiple choice affair not dissimilar to the driving theory test. Except instead of being about stuff everyone needs to know, it’s about stuff nobody in their right mind wants to even think about. I had a tense moment when the very first question was completely unintelligible to me, another when I came to one that, I will swear to my dying day, did not have any possible correct answer. But mostly I felt like I was doing OK. Afterwards Mark our tutor asked me on Facebook how it had gone. I said I thought I’d got about 3 in 4. When the results came through – in only about 15 minutes, mercifully – it transpired that I had 78%. The passing grade is 64. I am a Certified MySQL Developer.

Which is what, exactly?

It’s like this. Once all the important knowledge was kept in wise old people. That’s what the word “wizard” originally meant: Old guy who knows things. Later, with the invention of writing, far more information could be kept within books. But in this information age in which we’re living, the vast (vast vast) majority is kept in databases. They are the electric libraries, the quiet machines behind the scenes of every modern technomarvel. And that’s how I ended up here, basically. MySQL is as important to modern Web design as HTML itself.

And on the way home I attended a public meeting about technology and the arts, part of the campaign to make Galway the European Capital of Culture in 2020. Asked for suggestions on the theme of a digital city, I sketched out an idea for an app so spontaneously that it took even me by surprise. A good idea? I can’t tell. I was very tired by then. Some great ideas come when you’re tired, but so do some great hallucinations. I can only say that it’s simple – so simple that it has to be either brilliant or obvious. The difference, I guess, being whether someone else has done it already. Such is the fine line between stupid and clever.

But it would be great to do, I hope they take me up on it. And why wouldn’t they? I’m an Oracle certified database developer. That’s like a wizard from the future.

Picture Puzzle

Inequality-V-Debt
Sources: Left Irish Left Review, Right IMF

OK it’s way past my bedtime but I couldn’t resist showing you this. I was researching something when I was struck by the similarity between these two diagrams. On the left we have income inequality – roughly speaking, the difference between the richest and the poorest fifth of each society. On the right we have the amount of debt that countries across the EU have gotten into in the last few years.

Broadly speaking, it’s the most unequal countries that are also the most indebted. How does that happen? The ‘liberalisation’ of many economies in the past decades was ostensibly meant to make them richer. The effect though has been very different. Low-tax countries are having to borrow in order to meet expenditure, particularly when times get tough. Meanwhile their lack of redistribution means that citizens are encouraged to borrow in order to compete socially – sometimes even to meet basic expenses. This private indebtedness tends quickly to become public when lenders collapse.

In short, trickle-down economics is really trickle-away. Though a minority of individuals within them are of course better off, countries that cut back on tax and expenditure end up impoverished over all. People seem to vote for such policies in the optimistic hope that they will somehow get into that ever smaller, ever richer minority. The odds suggest that they should buy lottery tickets instead.

Aftermath

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So what was the Vatican’s response to Ireland’s historic vote for marriage equality?

Slightly muted, somewhat bitter, and more than a little enlightening.

The Pope himself said nothing publically, presumably not to appear fallible. It was left to close deputy Cardinal Pietro Parolin to make this odd but revealing pronouncement:

The Irish vote, he declared, was a “defeat for humanity”.

The decision of a majority to accept and cherish a minority? To me, that is the triumph of all that is best about people, humanity at its absolute finest. It seems that when the Catholic Church uses the word “humanity” it means something quite different.

Itself, I suspect.

A 2,000 year old all-male global institution. For sure that’s an organism of a sort, able to preserve and replicate itself successfully. But its goals and its needs, its triumphs and defeats, are not humanity’s. Life, but not as we know it.

Privilege

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Can you really prevent the country from knowing what was said in the Dáil? Of course you can’t. The idea is plainly ridiculous. If you’re rich enough though, you can send out a flotilla of lawyers to try.

I can’t say whether that’s the action of a balanced mind, but it does seem clearly to be oppressive and anti-democratic. The whole notion of an interlocutory injunction is problematic at the best of times, allowing you to censor media without having to first prove that the information in question is either harmful or untrue. We only accept it because we’re used to speech being insanely curtailed in this country. But attempting to impose one on the national law-making assembly seems just downright hubristic.

And I think I’m beginning to detect another sickening aspect to this story: An attempt by Fianna Fáil to spin Denis O’Brien as Fine Gael’s creation because of his dealings with Michael Lowry, in the hope of making themselves seem the clean party by comparison. This is specious of course. The fortune of Denis O’Brien and of others like him grew under both governments, as each pursued virtually indistinguishable policies of making the rich richer.

And with that greater wealth came greater power, until the super-rich think nothing of biting the states that fattened them. The democratic form of government has never been in greater danger than it is now; not from revolutionaries or evil foreign dictators, but from the elites it itself created, beginning to believe that they can do just fine without it.

Send A Message To The World

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A Yes vote won’t change so much. Not all Gay people will be rushing out to get married just because they can. It won’t, contrary to the fantasies of the overly religious, give them a strange new right to get babies tailor-made. And nor will it stop them being bullied in school or beaten on the streets. Life will go on about the same. So why is it so important?

Imagine you’re an ugly person. I know, it’s hard. But just picture yourself as unappealing. Possibly some sort of mutant. Even so, you might still fall in love. With someone equally hideous, presumably, but that’s life. So you’re about to get married, but suddenly your society turns around to you and says “Sorry, no. You’re… You’re just too damn ugly. We can’t be doing with that.”

Or say the objections of the religious were actually honest, and they made it the law that all infertile couples couldn’t get married. Or we had a more coldly logical regime where you can’t legally marry if you’re too poor to raise children in safety and health. Or too stupid. Or you and/or your prospective life partner are habitual drunks with a history of rage and violence. Consider a more pure and idealistic world where rich old ugly people aren’t allowed to marry poor young pretty people, where celebrities didn’t marry each other as a career move, one where you actually have to be in love before you can commit your life to someone else.

Thankfully – I think – we don’t live in any of those worlds. Destitute, ugly, drunk, diseased, violent, angry people have every right to get married – and sometimes do. In fact as long as they’re over the age of consent and aren’t siblings, it’s perfectly legal for any two people whatsoever to marry each other, however tragically unsuited.

Unless they are the same sex. It doesn’t matter how much in love you are, how long you’ve been a couple or how good you are together, you can’t marry your partner if you’re both girls or both boys. Society at large thinks you getting married is worse than drug-trafficking arms-dealing sadistic escaped war criminals settling down to raise a brood.

But you can have a sort of cut-back version called Civil Union, what’s wrong with that? Well there are some legal niceties, but the main difference is straightforward: It’s not marriage. It’s marriage-except-you’re-not-allowed-to-call-it-that.

Because-you’re-Gay.

And that’s the nub of the whole thing. When it comes down to it, Gay people aren’t allowed to marry… because they’re Gay. It’s not the marriage part that so many disapprove of. It’s the Gayness bit. This is why most of the arguments of the No side are so illogical. Marriage won’t create a right to have children by surrogacy, any more than it does for straight couples. Nor will it change the criteria that adoption services use. Yet these fervid scenarios are dragged in anyway, because they are about the only quasi-acceptable opposing arguments they can make. Their purpose is to disguise the real motivation: A refusal to accept that homosexual is just a thing that some people are, and not a terrific sin that bad people are getting up to because it’s secretly enormous crack. It’s not about the children. It’s about the religion.

We’re being asked today to stop blatantly discriminating against Gay people. It won’t, as I say, change the world. But it will send a message. It will tell people that we oppose the oppression and mistreatment of people who happen to be Gay. That we no longer demand, as we have for so long, that they hide the truth about themselves in fear and shame. That we oppose the mistreatment and discrimination, the bullying and the beatings. That we consider Gay people to be… just people, with the same possibilities and rights to respect and responsibility as anyone else. This is the message we can send by voting Yes.

And if we let the No side win, we will send precisely the opposite message.

The Watch of the Future, Today (Not Today)

Charging a watch from a phoneFirst they unplugged your phone from the wall, rolled it up and stuffed it in your pocket. Then they took your camera off the shelf, shaved it down to the thickness of a playing card and slid that inside the phone. They crammed in your Walkman too. Your address book and appointments diary. Pager, torch, pedometer, radio, dictaphone, bookshelf, TV, PC, satnav, even your wallet now. In short, just about any piece of equipment you might want to carry around in your pocket finds itself inexorably sucked into the single über-device we still, for want of decision, call a phone.

There is a good one-word explanation for this: Synergy. All these functions share at least some and often many requirements – a visual interface perhaps, network connectivity, speakers, data storage, computational power of course. The user benefits greatly by not having to carry multiple versions of essentially the same hardware. Imagine how we’d rattle if we did. It wouldn’t be worth the effort or expense to make most of these things pocket-sized. Make them a function of a universal gadget however, and the synergies flow.

The one that really clinches it though is power. At first it may seem counter-intuitive to put all our electric eggs in one battery basket. When one goes flat, they all go. But consider the alternative: If all these things needed charging separately there would be one or more plugged in pretty much all the time, completely undermining mobility. The greatest synergy of all is that you can charge everything at once. In many respects what we’re really carrying around is a fantastic little power source with some peripherals attached to it.

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why smart watches have never really taken off. They cannot as yet replace the smartphone, and carrying both means you duplicate many functions while adding few. Yet they have to be charged as often as phones or more, doubling your inconvenience for very little palpable benefit. While you might embrace one enthusiastically as the badge of an early adopter, it won’t be so long before you find you forgot to charge it. The simple fact is, you don’t need a smartwatch.

I’m sure the Apple Watch will be more successful than any that has gone before, but that isn’t saying much. It may serve as a status symbol – at those prices, it is hard to imagine what else it could serve as – but in its current form it’s another niche product like Apple TV, not the next Apple game-changer. Here’s why:

To ever be more than an expensive optional accessory to the smartphone, the smartwatch has to turn the smartphone into its optional accessory.

Note the word optional. The market-redefining smartwatch will have to do all the indispensable communication things – texts, emails, social media updates and, last but still not least, voice calls. But unlike the current Apple offering, it needs to do it without an attached smartphone. Otherwise it’s really more of a burden than a blessing. The smartwatch will be successful when it’s the one device you always want to bring with you. Your wrist is the natural place for that.

This will not mean the end for the unit we still call the phone. We’re unlikely to abandon such a convenient, multifunctional device while it still has irreducible advantages: A far larger screen interface, room for more and better sensors, more data, and of course much more energy. But we can reimagine the phone now. Specifically we can imagine it… without the phone.

If your watch can receive your calls and data, then the “phone” no longer has to be an always-on device. It can be more like a small tablet, used for apps, browsing, media and other roles that benefit hugely by the larger screen and greater processing power. But like a tablet it only needs to be powered up when you actually want to do those things, putting it in the class of devices with battery life measured not in hours but in days. And this introduces a very interesting possibility: it could act as a power bank to the watch. You’d worry a lot less about running out of juice on the road if your communication device could be topped up from its energy-rich companion. That’s not just a synergy, it’s symbiosis.

And this is not the only opportunity offered by taking the phone out of the phone. The limitations on the dimensions of your pocket device have always been dictated by its phone functions. Giants like the Galaxy Note 4 or iPhone 6 Plus push at the limits of what most people can comfortably use one-handed. Go much larger, and you cross the boundary of what fits into pockets. Shifting the communication function to the watch though means you no longer really need its companion to a be go-everywhere compromise. It can, literally and figuratively, be whatever your pocket allows. You could even have more than one of them – a slim one for tight pants and a big one for a bag, anything from a born-again flip phone to a workhorse device with a pen or keyboard. What the phone will evolve into is a set of optional extensions for your wristwatch. These may reproduce some of its functions and add others, but their essential purpose is to allow you to choose the best interface for the way you want to interact with it.

All this awaits the creation of a smartwatch that really is usable for voice calls and data, yet has battery life to last comfortably through the day. It’s a tall technological order, and the (first) Apple Watch certainly doesn’t achieve it. What it may achieve though – indeed, perhaps what only Apple can achieve – is an end to our culture’s resistance against talking into your wrist like a cartoon character. That alone would be a great stride toward the next mobile revolution.

Healing

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I finally went to a doctor, something I hadn’t done in years. Why not? In case I was ill of course. This is what stops people (OK, men) seeking help – the fear that we might need it. If you went there to get health booster shots or something we’d turn up every week. But to discover that you might really have a flaw, a weakness… Well, many men would sooner die. Many do.

I had a strange little spot on my leg. Every time it seemed to grow bigger – which was about every time I looked at it – I thought Oh no, should have seen a doctor before now. I’ve probably left it too late. I’m gonna die.

And then I’d ignore it again, for I am a manly man.

And thanks to getting myself a fantastic new phone for Christmas, I’d discovered another way I might be going. This is not a spin they put on it when they promote these health and fitness apps, is it? Get the new BitFit, find out you’re gonna die! My one has a doobry that can measure heartbeat. It tells you what is “normal”, and what is not. Mine was not.

Way not.

But by using my kneecap for leverage I finally got myself through a surgery door. And I’m so glad I did. The doc was nice and soon put my mind at rest. Yes that heart rate is quite elevated, she explained. But this means you’re badly unfit, not that It’s About To Blow. The thing on your leg you thought might be a death sentence for the last few years? That’s an old insect bite.

Well, she used words like “tumour”, “cyst” and “fibroid”, but thankfully it had nothing to do with cancer or cystic fibrosis. It was just a scary name for a weird kind of scar which, despite being in Latin, is perfectly harmless.

And she gave me anti-inflammatories to deflate the knee. As I suspected it was just a wrenching of the cruciate ligament, which in layman’s terms is the thing that keeps the lower end of your leg attached to the top end. I was very relieved to hear that surgery is not usually needed for this. Seriously, there are countless parts of my anatomy I would sooner have cut with sharp knives than my knees. But just in case, I’m on a waiting list to see a specialist too. And with the state of our medical service, there’s every chance that I’ll be completely healed before my appointment! Excellent.

Speaking of healing… It’s a week since the Charlie Hebdo massacre now. I wonder when the healing will begin there, or what form it will take. Nothing that’s happened since inspires much optimism, does it? We’re still going through the inflammatory reaction. A display of formation hypocrisy by the world’s leaders, evil and brainless “revenge” attacks on mosques, and of course promises of tough new laws right across Europe.

What, because the murderers took advantage of a loophole in the current anti-murder legislation? Do they think if a law is broken that means it wasn’t strong enough? It’s a kind of superstition, a fetishisation.

“Terrorism happened, we must make laws!”
“But terrorism is already illegal.”
“Well then we’ll make some other things illegal!”

And so there will be new powers of surveillance, new crimes of saying things that might lead to terrorism – the attack on public speech balanced by an attack on private speech. Perhaps it’s like the man with the hammer; for legislators, a problem is a thing that isn’t illegal yet.

The best response to terrorism is to do what you were going to do anyway.

How Do You Respond To Atrocity?

Paris_5And in particular, atrocity that touches you personally in some way. Carried out against other cartoonists, other satirists. Of course I am going to feel that more closely than the murder of say doctors or teachers or soldiers. It is only human.

But it would not be right to come to a different conclusion or demand a different response just because I feel it more personally. Maybe I shouldn’t even be writing this, considering that I haven’t stopped to lament any other atrocities recently. However there are more reasons to speak out here than the merely personal.

So what sane and just responses are available to us? Not many. In an understandable show of emotion, mourners are protesting the right to freedom of speech. But while a violent attack on any form of media is censorship, the right to free speech was never really the issue. When Charlie Hebdo decided to republish the “Danish cartoons”, there was no serious question of it being illegal. The question was whether it was justified or wise.

Nor do I think did the killers believe that they were going to defeat free speech. They must be as aware as anyone that their attack is likely to provoke more insults against Muhammad than ever before. The sort of person who wants to blame everything on Islam is going to do so twice as loudly now – to show how acts of terror cannot influence them in any way…

I’d say “And that’s exactly what the killers wanted”, except – I wonder if the real motivation here was even that sophisticated. To be honest, this feels more like an act of crude vengeance. They took offence on behalf of an idea and attempted to murder a magazine. Uncontrolled, almost infantile rage, without objective beyond the emotional release of smashing the face that laughed at you.

How do you react rationally to the irrational? You can’t. The only right response is to not react. Neither bend nor strike back. You cannot appease blind rage. You cannot avenge it either.

As any decision taken right now will be a bad one, we should take this time to contemplate. The West’s relationship with the Middle East is going seriously down the crapper. Recent history – decades now – seems like a litany of horrific acts from both directions, with absolutely no indication of it de-escalating. Does it have to be this way, or can we change our hearts and minds – on both sides?

Some creativity is badly needed here.

Song From A Sick Bed

First Pic_09Well Happy New Year all you walking people, with your legs. I’m sorry, perhaps my frustration shows. I did my knee on New Year’s, thanks to wild and frenzied dancing at Roisin Dubh. Someone’s frenzied dancing knocked a drink over, I ambled past and slipped on that.

It’s funny how you know, even before you hit the ground, that it’s injury time. “This,” you say to yourself as you start to descend, “will not end well.” Something to do with the angle. And the wrenching. And the popping.

It was painful for a while, but now it only looks painful. And oddly, something like Van Goch’s Irises. I’ve made good progress, though it did mean being confined to bed for a couple of days. OK, there are worse places to be confined. All other places. And I was very fortunate to have a friend staying, who could mop my brow and bring soup and generally indulge me. But then spoiling someone is actually very nurturing. If your GP gave you a medically unnecessary backrub now and again, maybe a scatter of gentle kisses, far fewer people would need alternative therapies.

Healing is not something a doctor does to your passive body like a kind of mechanic, but it’s not a thing the body can entirely do for itself either. Medicine is a social interaction, between your body and the community it belongs to. Those around you influence your health in countless ways, from pooling their resources to care for you, to simply making you feel cared about.

Few things are more conducive to health and happiness than the assurance that you matter to other people. Why does fake medicine work so often? Because it makes you feel like someone actually wants you to get better. That’s why it’s called the placebo effect, meaning “I’ll please”, not the “take this pill and go away now you walking talking irritation” effect.