Britain. What Is They? Who Are It?

640px-Nations_of_the_UK

The final result of the Scottish Independence Referendum is still some hours off, so I will avail of this last chance to speculate. What will happen to Great Britain if Scotland really does leave?

Well nothing. Great Britain is the name of an island, not a country. Not even the proper name for it in fact – the more historical one is simply Britain.

So where did the “Great” come out of? I get the impression that a lot of British people vaguely think of it as a title their country was awarded somehow. At a country show, presumably. I have even heard people who should know better espouse the folk etymology that Britain refers to the combination of England and Wales, which became Great Britain with the addition of Scotland. That is of course completely made up.

Great Britain is simply the English for the French name for Britain - Grande Bretagne - and might be more accurately if prosaically rendered “Big Britain”.

Little Britain in this instance being Bretagne – or as we call it, Brittany - a province of France that was settled by people from Britain and where a language closely related to Welsh is still spoken today, now and again. Somewhat ironically perhaps, these British colonists were actually refugees, fleeing from the foreign invader we now know as the English.

Well partly, them – to be honest they were being invaded from Ireland too. After the Romans withdrew from Britain it was basically a warrior’s free-for-all.

So Britain was called Great Britain merely to avoid confusion with the French name for a Welsh colony. It’s like an irony layer cake. But French was the dominant language of much of Europe – and indeed, of Britain – for many centuries, so the “Great” stuck.

And still sticks today, and becomes ever more sticky. It is now kind of embarrassing, used when they can’t think of an idea for a cooking programme, or for politicians to clutch when they have reached the absolute nadir of rhetorical inspiration. It is high time a way was found to retire the term. And if Scotland does ever leave, that would be the moment. To refer to what remained as Great Britain after that would sound like sarcasm.

But what else could the remaining country be called? Well the answer is obvious, and I’m surprised it didn’t come up more in the debate. It would of course be the United Kingdom of Southern Britain and Northern Ireland.

I think it has a ring to it, no?

The Vultures Come Home To Roost

Chart of inequality levels around the world.
The gap between rich and poor has expanded nearly everywhere in the last few years, but nowhere more than here in Ireland. (Source: International Business Times)

Yesterday the UN voted to introduce a protective framework for insolvent nations. The motion was sponsored by Argentina, a bankrupt country currently under attack from ‘vulture funds‘ that bought portions of its debt and are now blocking any restructuring deal on the grounds that it might reduce expected profits.

The resolution was carried with 124 in favour and only eleven nations against. By and large these are home to powerful financial sectors that might lose out from restructuring poorer countries’ debts: the US, Germany, UK, Canada, Japan. There was one weird exception: Ireland.

Government will keep playing this down, but we are one of the most indebted nations on the planet. More than a quarter of our revenues go straight to servicing borrowings. Only Greece and Panama spend more. Only Greece, Portugal and Papua New Guinea have bigger debts as a proportion of their economies (source). And yet our alleged representative votes to protect not the national finances or the wealth and health of the citizen, but our corrupt and corrupting financial services sector.

Ladies and Gentlemen, do you see what we have become? A debtor nation, with a creditor leadership.

Chart showing the ever-increasing wealth of the richest few.
The global crash that brought never-ending austerity to the rest of has left the richest richer than ever before. (Source: International Business Times)

Scenes From The Meat Store

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Ooh. Something I’ve never seen before in the Polish section of the supermarket.

Some national delicacy that immigrants crave no doubt, on sale for probably ten times what it costs back home.

“Konserwa” means preserved or tinned I guess. But what the heck is “turystyczna”?

Turkey? Turtle? Turbines?

Probably turkey.

Hey maybe it says on the back

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That’s not turkey.

Music From The Doll’s House

Jenny Downie

I like this shot. Somehow the stage came out looking like a tiny doll’s house theatre.

The doll on it by the way is my friend Jenny, doing what I think may be her first ever public performance of her own composition, at the AMP end-of-year showcase gig in Kelly’s Bar.

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A New Look

This is just here to be decorative really - or prove that I do occasionally take walks

A redesign!

Well, more a redecoration. I happened on a nice-looking WordPress theme and tried it out. I like that it’s distinctly more modern in feel. I’m not totally gone on the current trend to areas of dead flat colour, but it’s healthy to experiment. Expect it to change again, as I try on themes like frocks.

And in the ripe plumpness of time I will give this place a theme of my own. The design itself is not the problem – I’m practically specialising in WordPress sites these days. But with these free hosted blogs they actually charge you to use your own code. I’m already paying them to use a custom URL, so it’s beginning to seem more sensible to host the thing myself. I’d learn more too, and have a lot more flexibility.

But first I have far more important websites to build. And as I am doing them for money now I will have to make a site about making sites – a pretty darn good one, needless to say. Plus my cartoon site is so technically outdated as to be an embarrassment – HTML 4.01. It doesn’t sound like it should be so different from the latest HTML 5, but between those two versions fifteen years elapsed! The practice of Web design has undergone a sea change – from static files to dynamic databases, crude table layouts to complex cascading style sheets. Using HTML 4.01 on my own site now is like being a cordon bleu chef while secretly living on pie and chips.

So I guess this is will stay a hosted WordPress blog for a while to come… But then there hasn’t exactly been a lot of posts in the last year, has there? Or for that matter, the year before. This is a good thing, in that it means I was doing something more useful than writing without being paid. As regular(!) readers will know, that thing was an MSc. That’s all done of course (bar, excruciatingly, my final grade), so perhaps I’ll be writing a bit more often now while I decide my next move.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 – Unpacked Event

S Pen Sensitivity Diagram

OK I’ll buy one.

Best to be clear about that from the start. After viewing today’s IFA Berlin presentation, I’m already planning to push substantial amounts of money onto the nice Korean people. So anything I say from here on cannot be regarded as truly neutral. Spectacles set to rose.

That being acknowledged, let me tell you why I want to spend excessive money on this excessive device.

The Galaxy Note has quite literally been my constant companion for the last three years. I bought the original one the day it went on sale in Ireland, used it in countless ways for both work and play. I’ve watched it grow year on year – the more refined Note II, the seriously powerful Note III - and with each new model, I have…

Stuck with the original. Though every iteration was more desirable than the last, it would not have been genuinely more useful. Not enough to justify starting another long and expensive contract anyway. The industry may love conspicuous consumers, but for most real customers a phone of this quality is a long-term investment.

And with the Note 4, the time may have come to begin again.

I don’t claim to be overwhelmed. Not a single one of the wilder rumours panned out. The Note 4 has a powerful 3GB of RAM, but not a revolutionary 4GB. Standard storage is still only 32GB instead of 64. Even the S4′s weatherproofing, considered almost a given by the rumour mill and greatly to be desired on such an expensive device, doesn’t seem to have materialised. On the other hand, we can be glad that some of the legends did not come to pass. Foldable AMOLED screens are an exciting technology with many possible applications, but would you really want to write on one? And though part of me would love to see the screen size creep up to 6” and beyond, it’s probably best to call a halt at 5.7”. A phone has to fit in pockets.

Rumours and wishful thinking aside, the Note 4 lives up to expectations. Specifications have been enhanced by respectable margins pretty much across the board, and there are a few highly significant improvements like high-speed charging and an ultra-low power mode that can keep it ticking over for a fortnight. Also the ghost of plasticky tackiness seems finally to be exorcised, with a slender metal rim and grippy leather-look back (now without the questionable faux stitching) lending it the air of a precision instrument like a classic SLR camera. At last the looks live up to its cost and quality.

If the Note 4 lacks anything it is one knock-down new feature to get excited about, but perhaps this is not surprising considering the nature of the beast. We’re long past the early days of the iPhone when each year’s model brought another feature that had obviously been missing. The Note already does about everything any other phone does, plus a lot of other things as well, all while pushing the form factor to its limits. Therefore Samsung tends to add its most experimental technology not to the flagship device itself, but to a special edition.

That bill is consummately filled this time by the Edge version with its cute auxiliary interface down one side. It’s an interesting and useful enhancement, but I’m not sure if this special-model strategy is paying off for Samsung. No doubt they worry that adding a controversial feature could raise costs while actually reducing the phone’s potential market, but I think if they’d been daring enough to put the edge display on the standard version it would have made the phone grab attention everywhere it was seen in use. Though it’s a cool extra, I can’t see myself paying extra for a version that has it. Indeed I’ll be a little surprised if any carrier even gives me the option.

The other way Samsung “adds” features of course is by offering new peripherals to integrate with. This time we see a bigger and better Gear watch, which I like but am neither rich nor ostentatious enough to buy. More excitingly, collaboration with Oculus brings a Gear VR headset – simply slot the Note 4 into a pair of goggles and you’re in another world. A technological tour de force by any standard and a sure headline-grabber, but not a reason for me to buy.

What does it for me is the solid improvements to the features I use regularly. More than once I’ve upgraded a phone basically to get a better camera, and with 16MP and real optical image stabilization, the Note 4’s is streets ahead of the original’s (already excellent) 8MP offering. And with a resolution breaking 500 pixels per inch and super AMOLED colour and contrast, its screen outclasses not just the fine precedent of the original, but every display available today.

Of most importance to me though are the enhancements to the Note’s core differentiation – the S Pen. This may mean little to anyone except artists, but there will now be interchangeable tips to adjust the pen-on-paper feel. Best of all the new pen will have 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity, the equal of professional graphics tablets. Do you really need that many levels to draw and annotate? No – but on the other hand you can never get too much sensitivity. The more nuance a pen is alive to, the more realistic the feel and the results.

I can’t see owners of the Note III rushing out to buy this, unless they are either blessed with excess wealth or cursed to own the most expensive phone available at any given moment. To them it would be only an incremental upgrade. For those of us who still have the Note or Note II however, decision time has come. And maybe it’s time for you too, if you haven’t yet sampled the delights of a device that, besides being everything a smartphone can be, is also a fine notebook and sketchpad.

The original Galaxy Note was a hard act to follow, so much so that it has taken three generations of enhancement to truly leave clear water. But a significantly better pen and camera make the Note 4 a significantly more useful tool.

My Ballot Paper

Remember, under our STV system your vote is never “wasted”, so don’t be afraid to put outside-chance candidates before safer ones.

Let’s get some angry people elected!

While there are some great protest / grassroots candidates running in constituencies across the country, here in Ireland Mid-West-North-Central-Areyoukiddingme we are not well served for misfits. More nutjobs, I’m afraid. In fact it’s almost shocking, looking at the list below, to think that three of these people will be elected no matter what we do.

Here’s how I think we can can make the best of it:

 

2014 European Parliament election

Midlands–North-West

Party

Candidate

Description

Vote I’m Giving

Fianna Fáil Thomas Byrne FF somehow have the temerity to offer us not one but two candidates, when what we actually want is no more FF candidates. Ever. God no
Sinn Féin Matt Carthy Perhaps the ultimate protest vote, in that it’s the one the main parties genuinely fear. Could actually win. Something, but probably last
Green Party Mark Dearey I think it is time to let the Greens back in from the cold. While their support for FF in government was a betrayal, it was more idiotic than evil. Around Four of Five
Independent T.J. Fay He’s a little bit… eccentric. I don’t agree with all his ideas. But at this point, slightly oddball openness is infinitely preferable to another well-managed, professional politician. Infinitely. Number One! To signal that there is a vote for change
Independent Mark Fitzsimons We have not one but two cannabis campaigners on the ballot! It’s not an issue I feel strongly about, but I’ll vote for him for the sake of his honesty. Three or maybe even Two
Independent Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan The original cannabis candidate. And best?  Unfortunately Ming plunged in my estimation recently when he chose to speak up for climate-change deniers. Has just a few hours left to deny the deniers. Otherwise, nothing
Fianna Fáil Pat the Cope Gallagher That someone could serve FF under Haughey, Ahern and Cowen and then go to the people for re-election is just beyond me. I’d write 0, but a FF party worker would swear it was a 9
Direct Democracy Ben Gilroy Mad, bad, right-wing anarchists, treating selfishness like it was a sacred mission. And I’d still vote for them sooner than the major parties. But not really. Nothing
Independent Marian Harkin A sitting independent and noted community worker. Unfortunately, she believes in giving our money to people who sell pretend medicine. I can’t vote for that. Nope
Fine Gael Jim Higgins I will not vote for FG now – not even to keep FF out. Which, let’s face it, was basically the only reason to vote for them. That dance is over. Nada
Labour Party Lorraine Higgins And for the first time since I began voting, many years ago now, I will have nothing at all for Labour. Nil
Fine Gael Mairead McGuinness Even FG aren’t deluded enough to believe they have a chance of electing two MEPs. This is just a political machine exercising its cold metal limbs. Nothing
Independent Rónán Mullen Religious nut. No thanks
Fís Nua Cordelia Níc Fhearraigh Greens who were too idealistic – or perhaps to realistic – to go into government with FF. I like that! They will be my highest party vote. So about Third? Before the “official” Greens anyway.

Keeping XP

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Windows XP caught frolicking on its last day of freedom

So goodbye Windows XP. You know, I’m actually sad. Since it came out in 2001 I’ve grown from being indifferent (“Windows 2000 in a dress”), through slightly awed (when Tablet PC edition introduced handwriting recognition that actually worked), to comfortable and complacent. For a long time there, XP was just the way things were, an everyday ubiquitous tool. After using it for over ten years there was very little about it I couldn’t mend, maintain, or make better. And now Microsoft have declared those skills redundant.

You can see their argument: They haven’t made anything out of XP for years now. Well yes but…

The thing is, there’s a big secret about IT. In the terms I’ll be using in the exam I should be studying for right now, information technology cannot provide a strategic advantage (Carr, Harvard Business Review 2003).

In lay terms: IT is for suckers.

When it all began, people thought that computerising a business would mean radically improved efficiency and so lead to greater profits. That seems to make sense, yet somehow it never did. You do increase efficiency, sure. But that almost never translates into more money. This is because very quickly everybody was able to invest in the same technology, levelling the playing field again.

Only now to keep up with your competitors you have to keep on investing in your system, on a hamster wheel of hardware and software upgrades. That was never such a problem with filing cabinets. So bizarrely the technology may actually cost you more than you’ll ever save through improved efficiency - but you need it now just to stay in business. Nobody makes money directly from IT except the people who sell you the IT; Microsoft in particular have made billions and billions and billions and billions.

So I think they kind of owe us one.

It’s not that I don’t want to upgrade. I have a Windows 7 computer too and I quite like it. It seems fussy compared to XP, but it has some good points. I actually like a lot about Windows 8, despite its cool reception. Though Microsoft seem to have lost all sense of direction, their stuff has never looked better.

No, upgrading is just out of the question. Between my own devices and ones I administer for my family I am looking after four XP computers. At over €100 each, that’s far more money than I am either able or willing to give to Microsoft just now. And even if these computers can run Windows 7 or 8, they will not run it well. So I’d be paying them money to convert PCs that are fine into ones that are annoying.

Is there another way? Well yes. In a word: Linux. Two, possibly three of these computers will become Linux boxes now. High time too. But that is not for everyone, and I will want at least one of them to be able to run non-Linux applications like Photoshop. Can that be done?

I’m going to see, I guess… While continuing to use an unsupported operating system is not a course of action I’d recommend to anyone who doesn’t want to get their computer invaded, held to ransom by criminal gangs and used as a spam-vomiting zombie, how would you go about it?

Well there’s one safe way…

PLAN A

Don’t go online. It sounds a bit crazy now I know, but some of us still remember how computers were actually quite useful even before the Internet. If there’s a job you need to do that doesn’t actually require a live data stream it is perfectly feasible to disconnect. Your XP computer will be perfectly secure – forever!

(Well, you’ll still have the problem of moving your files onto and off it without getting it infected the old fashioned way.)

But if you really have to go online – say, you have no other computer – there’s…

PLAN B [>>>Not Recommended!<<<]

1. Stop being an administrator. Ridiculously, every account on an XP computer is an administrator by default. That means you can do pretty much what you like to the system. Unfortunately it also means that if you catch a virus while logged in as administrator, it can do pretty much what it likes too. It is far, far more secure to use a Limited Account. You may have to log in as admin to install software or other such tasks at times, but the security will be worth it. And if this is a family member’s computer that you mind for them, there’s a good chance that they won’t see any difference. Simply go to the User Accounts section of Control Panel and change the account type.

Unfortunately though there is some software that doesn’t like running without complete privileges, Adobe Photoshop being a particularly egregious example. If – like me – you need to work in Photoshop and then email the results, seriously consider logging out of your admin account and into a limited one before you go online. Ridiculous I know – Adobe and Microsoft really need to share the blame for that one – but far safer.

2. Tool up. When XP support goes, updates for Microsoft Security Essentials go with it. So if this is all you have in the way of antivirus you’ll need to upgrade. Currently I’m testing the different free options that are out there, and I’m really liking Bitdefender. This because it scores almost if not as well as the best available when it comes to detecting viruses, but demands very little of your system’s resources. In fact it seems significantly lighter than even Microsoft’s minimalistic solution, despite offering far better protection. Wish I’d used it years ago now…

3. If the OS can’t be updated, at least keep all your application software patched. A great tool to help with this is Secunia’s Personal Software Inspector, which checks the versions of what you have installed against its database of the latest ones, and lets you know when there’s an update you need. Sometimes it can even do the updating for you.

Apart from that, the usual rules still apply - just more so. Never use Internet Explorer (the version XP has is hopeless outdated now anyway), use Firefox or Chrome or… anything else. Make sure the device you use to connect to the Internet has some level of inbuilt protection like an NAT firewall. Only connect to known secure networks, not random Wi-Fi signals. Avoid visiting criminal corners of the Internet. Don’t install anything, ever, unless you’re absolute sure it’s safe. Be careful out there.

The Fire-Engine of Castlerea

Roscommon. After driving for an hour we stopped at a garage to ask directions, and I noticed this. It dates from 1937. Chassis and V8 engine by Ford. Coachwork by… a blind guy with a headache, apparently. It’s long retired of course, but the garage owner said they still take it out for runs occasionally. Only short ones though, as it does about four miles to the gallon. The thing must’ve had to carry more petrol than water. Which is sub-optimal.

PHP For Very Beginners

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I’ve been talking about PHP a lot recently, but so far I’ve said little about what it is and how it works.

So, What is PHP?

It’s a programming language, used to greatly increase the capabilities of a website. In this way it’s very comparable to JavaScript, and can even be seen as its complement. Both are ‘scripting’ languages. Unlike ordinary programs which are written in human-readable code and then ‘compiled’ to the binary instructions that computers can execute, scripts stay human-readable. Their code is executed by an interpreter program. With JavaScript, that program is your Web browser – any script in a web page you view actually runs as a program on your own computer. PHP however is interpreted by the PHP program, and this must be installed on the computer where the web page is held – the web server. For this reason it’s described as a ‘server-side scripting language’.

PHP files are a lot like HTML web pages, but also contain these PHP instructions or ‘scripts’. In normal Web browsing, the user requests a file by clicking on a link to it. If this is HTML it is sent directly to them, to be rendered on the screen as text and images by their browser. If it’s a PHP file however it is sent first to the PHP interpreter on the server. Here the scripts it contains are executed and the results – which are always HTML – inserted into the document where the script used to be. Now entirely HTML, it is sent to the user’s browser to be rendered in the usual manner.

So What Can They Do There, These Scripts?

It’s really just a programming language like any other. If you already know one of the more popular ones – C++, JavaScript, Perl – it will all look pretty familiar.¹ So you could use it for any computational purpose imaginable (it is ‘Turing complete’, as the theorists say). I wouldn’t though. What makes PHP special is not so much what it is as where it is: Sitting between the HTML and a database on a web server, allowing one to talk to the other.

In this way PHP can take requests from a website user, turn them into SQL or some other database query language, and format the results of the query as HTML to send back to the user’s browser where they can be displayed. As I mentioned in the previous post (and the one before that), this is a hugely powerful and flexible technique that can be used for untold purposes. While pages of search results would seem an obvious example, that’s just the nursery slopes. Systems as complex as Facebook are built in PHP. And systems that are good too.

¹Don’t worry if you don’t, there is much you can do with PHP without knowing any programming at all. Thanks to the likes of WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and many more, you can install and run a PHP-based site without speaking a word of the language.