[CENSORED]

"Wikipedia censored"
Image via Wikipedia

Update: It gets worse. Our government has an “Irish SOPA” in the works. More or less draconian? It’s hard to say – they seem content to leave the scope and force of this legal power entirely up to (whisper it: technologically illiterate) judges.

Many websites, US-based ones especially, shut themselves down today. You probably know it’s about legislation before the US congress to block websites linking copyright material. Someone on RTÉ Radio 1 described it as “The entertainment industry versus the technology industry”, but that’s quite wrong. The fight is between the entertainment industry, and all of us. Hollywood and the record companies on one hand, freedom on the other.

Yet they’re winning. It’s an incredibly wealthy industry, and it will go to ever more desperate lengths to stay that way. Its advantage is vast economies of scale: You can make a record or film once and sell it to millions and millions of people – often several times.

Its disadvantage? Mainly, a business model that is as dead as the mastodon.

This industry arose out of the application of mass production technologies to the arts – the reproduction and rapid distribution of vast numbers of music and video recordings. It made sense to charge handsomely for this when it was a remarkable technical feat that you could not possibly accomplish yourself. Now however the reproduction and distribution of such things is, quite simply, trivial. And it is hard to persuade people to pay for something they can easily do for themselves.

So instead, the entertainment industry has resorted to threats. Continually it lobbies for more and more draconian legislation. And they are getting it, and they will continue to get it, because they are rich, and politicians are hungry. Plus they share an interest. When freedom of information can bring down governments in the Middle East, government may begin to think that the entertainment industry has a point.

So after only a few decades of freedom from literary censorship here in Ireland, there are now websites I cannot reach – not at least if I use Eircom as my ISP. In the UK, British Telecom set up a filter system expressly to block child pornography. As a child could have predicted, and despite every assurance to the contrary, this filter is now being used to uphold the interests of Big Entertainment. And in the US they’re debating whether to give that industry the right to take down websites at will, a power that can only be called commercial censorship. To quote Wikipedia:

SOPA and PIPA are badly drafted legislation that won’t be effective at their stated goal (to stop copyright infringement), and will cause serious damage to the free and open Internet. They put the burden on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the unnecessary blocking of entire sites. Small sites won’t have sufficient resources to defend themselves. Big media companies may seek to cut off funding sources for their foreign competitors, even if copyright isn’t being infringed. Foreign sites will be blacklisted, which means they won’t show up in major search engines. And, SOPA and PIPA build a framework for future restrictions and suppression.

Essentially the old medium is demanding the right to wreck the new.

But the world is not changing just for Big Entertainment. I make my living from creative work, I have had to adjust to reality. The publishing industry is transforming – not without pain, but at least without demanding protection. And it’s not like show business is going to disappear. People will always make money out of entertainment – just not the ludicrous fortune they make now.

The industry has had its day in the sun, the technology has moved on. Can it please just accept that gracefully, without further undermining the principle of freedom of thought and expression, without incarcerating any more teenagers?

Too Tired To Think Of A Headline

Windows Vista WOW - iBook?
Attention to detail is important

Oh God, I am now officially exhausted. That iBook proved more recalcitrant than expected. The fragile power connector came away from the logic board – again – requiring me to make a microscopic soldering iron out of the finest screwdriver in my kit. Even then though, the tiny soldered joint didn’t have enough physical strength. In the end nothing would work short of setting it in epoxy. Lots of epoxy.

So I didn’t get a lot of sleep – and I hadn’t recovered from the night I lost repairing someone’s PC. Or more probably, repairing the repairs somebody else did to someone’s PC. That was a weird one. It’s normally well hidden in Windows, but there’s a system of permissions telling it who can do what with every single file. So there was nothing much wrong with this computer – except for the fact that nobody had permission to do anything to anything. Thus while apparently running perfectly, it was utterly useless. You can guess how long it took to figure out what the hell was causing that.

So that’s two nights’ sleep missed in the last week. Meanwhile I have three cartoon commissions going on at once – about as many as I had in all of last year. The Christmas tree is still indoors. I have to seriously consider rewiring the kitchen. I need a shower badly. I haven’t seen my girlfriend in more than two weeks. Those last two are not connected. I’m not keeping up with this blog, I’ve had to put my play on hold, my website redesign on the hold that comes after hold, the other thing I really need to get done on too-depressing-to-even-clearly-recall.

You know what though? These are the good times.

OK, I’m going to bed.

No wait, wash dishes first. Then bed.

Once More Into The Mac

So Many Screws. So Many, Many Screws

Not for the first, not for the second, but for the third time, Niceol’s damn Mac has thrown its Airport card. I am now convinced that this¹ is the worst piece of shit that Apple ever made. Oh, it’s a fine design in some ways. More anonymous than the wild G3 generation, but more refined and cool – indeed the motif seems to be a 1960s fridge. But the attention to detail makes it all the more strange that there’s a huge flaw right at its heart – and getting into the heart means performing dangerous heart surgery.

Don't Try This At Home

Well never again. Not if a wooden splint and a load of impact adhesive have anything to do with it. That WiFi card is staying put.

It’s that grey rectangular thing on the left side there. The white stripe at the front of it is the wood I put in. To be honest, it’s a match – well, a section cut from a kitchen match, much chunkier than the usual kind. It turned out to be the precise thickness to fit between the card and a convenient ledge in the chassis above it. Held both by glue and the original clamp, it should keep this end of the card – the end with the connector that continually worked loose – pressed firmly against the motherboard for ever and ever.

Again.

  1. iBook G4 12″ 1.33GHz Model M9846LL/A, if you need to know.

More Fun With High Voltages

That can't be good

Or maybe the day after that. I’m sorry. I have so much to catch up on after Christmas, which basically punched a gaping hole in my time. People are clamouring for cartoons to be drawn and computers to be fixed. Some of them may even pay me. Various parts of my mother’s house have to be mended. Bills need to be ignored. The calendar therefore can wait. It’s what it’s good at.

For now, just a brief anecdote: I had to replace a venerable fluorescent light fitting in the kitchen which had taken to sticking at the flickering-to-come-on stage. Pretty sure it’s been in the family since the 70s, maybe longer. While I had little hope of being able to repair the thing – I barely understand how they work – it was easy to open it up in situ so I thought I’d have a look first.

Naturally I isolated it at the circuit breaker. To do that though, I had to establish which circuit it was on. As you may have seen in the photograph I took when our main breaker melted down the other week, almost none of them are marked. And as this place is an old cottage that my father spent decades gradually restoring, I could not depend on there being any rigorous scheme. It was time for adventures in ad-hoc wiring. Off goes every electrical device in the whole house.

The kitchen lights, it turns out, are on the same circuit as the immersion heater. Weird, if not quite as strange as the oven being wired to the outside light. And one breaker controlled… Nothing at all, apparently. Which is a little creepy. That one can stay switched off.

But having isolated the light (and the water heater) I undid the nuts and lowered its works down on the integral chains. Cool. Immediately I found that the ‘choke’, or ballast, was surprisingly hot. Have a look at the picture – that’s the mains wiring, which was run next to the ballast. It has very rubbery insulation which seems to have perished where it was exposed to extreme heat. It crumbled away as soon as I moved the wire. So, pretty lucky I disconnected the power before I went poking then.

It seems likely therefore that the ballast was not designed to get so hot, and that it was failing. It plays a vital – and slightly scary – role in a fluorescent. As you may be aware, these things work by applying a big voltage to a tiny amount of mercury vapour, which then glows not unlike the wire filament in an ordinary bulb. One thing that makes a vapour different though is that as soon as it starts glowing, it actually offers less resistance to the flow of current. Left to itself, it would keep getting brighter and brighter until something went horribly wrong.

Well this is AC electricity, so current flow is being reversed fifty times a second. That prevents a runaway situation occurring, Nevertheless the choke is necessary to prevent damage being done even in that brief time. Its role is to be a sort of anti-tube; the more current flows through it, the more it resists. If it’s not doing its job properly then the tube is probably getting too much juice and overheating – fifty times every second. Which would explain why two tubes had failed in fairly quick succession.

(This is at least my understanding of the situation. Perhaps Droog will be along later to tell me why I’m wrong.)

As the huge magnetic ballast was something out of electricity’s iron age, the whole device would need to be replaced. Not such bad news – fluorescent fittings are cheap enough now. I would hang the fitting back up and go to town for one.

And then I remembered the other main component of a fluorescent lamp – the capacitor. Which must be this thing about the size of an old milk bottle. Its function is to store electric charge. It was all very well turning off the power – this still probably held enough to kick me through the kitchen window.

Gingerly, I withdrew my screwdriver and backed away.

The New Calendar Starts Here

17th century lubok calendar of moon phases, Russia
There's gotta be an easier way

So nature has provided us with a year and a month that refuse to divide evenly into each other. To make it worse, neither is a whole number of days. At the same time it has given us the unquenchable desire to find order and symmetry in this mess. How are we to square the wobbly ellipse?

Well I thought long and hard about this a couple of years ago, and something struck me. The real lunar month is very close to being 29.5 days long. If we had 29.5-day months, every other one would begin at midday rather than at midnight. And while that would be kind of cool, I predict it would quickly drive people nuts.

So why not have alternating calendar months of 29 and 30 days? That way they’ll stay in step with the real ones – starting when the moon is new, ending as it fades out – without being too different from our current system.

But twelve of those only add up to 354 days, falling short of a full solar year. That would leave us with a situation not unlike the Muslim lunar-only calendar, with annual events coming around eleven days earlier every time. Which may be all right in climates without a lot of weather, but we want a calendar that stays in time with the seasons.

For this, we need an extra month. Not a silly mini-month like February, but a full-length one so that we stay in sync with the lunar cycle. What will we call it? Well, modesty forbids I suggest you name it after me. So until someone else suggests that, let’s just call it Etc. As in November, December, Etc. The trick is that this month doesn’t occur every year, but only as necessary – which will be almost (though not always) every third year. Its insertion will make sure that the other months keep falling at the same time of year, and so have the same weather, as we’re used to. Not precisely of course, but weather is not precise.

Thus we get all the advantages of our current solar calendar, plus the natural rhythms of the moon, and everything stays in tune. Quite brilliant, eh? More details tomorrow.

Or the day after.

And Why Not A Tax On Age?

Tax
Generic Tax Illustration

But first…

Desperate times call for desperately unfair measures. A popular one is cutting back on public overindulgences like health and education. Another is increasing flat taxes like VAT rates, because they at least seem fair. Indeed the richer you are, the fairer they seem.

Basically, it’s all about finding ways to squeeze those who can least resist the squeezing.What’s the point of trying to tax the richest after all? They’ll always find ways to bribe you not to. So it’s the poor that get it.

But mammies are sacrosanct. That’s the rule, or so we thought. It’s not worth the political risk. Make life hard for the elderly, and you make the whole country angry. They already have enough to worry about – i.e., everything you ever do or might do. The last thing they need is a vaguely threatening letter, apparently designed to sow the maximum amount of fear and confusion.

Yet that’s what mothers and grandmothers all over the country have just received. Statements, to be exact, of their revised tax credits. Now I am self-employed. I do my own accounts, make my own tax returns, so on. But I have read one of these letters, several times, and I have no shrieking idea what it means.

Many retirees have a work pension as well as their state one, both of which they paid towards of course, and neither – they were given to understand – liable to tax. But now the worry is that between them they create a tax liability. This means people with zero hope of ever increasing their incomes are now in fear that the money they budgeted for is going to be suddenly reduced. By how much? Will they still be able to feed themselves, still afford fuel? They have absolutely no idea. All the have is a document covered with the calculations of bureaucrats, that might or might not represent an end to any security.

This is wanton cruelty.

Rip Up That Calendar

Our Wobbly Sky Clock

It’s easy to think up alternative calendars. The hard part is inventing one that people might actually bother to adopt. For this it must be a significant improvement over our current system – not as simple as it may sound. For though the Gregorian calendar is a bit of a mess, it is a good-enough solution to a surprisingly difficult question.

Think of how it evolved. Nature provides us with a rich system of clocks. Our orbit around the sun gives us our year, divided into days by the turning of the Earth, months and weeks by the phases of the moon. All very balanced and tidy and comforting – the universe is clearly organised.

I say ‘divided’ deliberately though. Imagine the feelings of the Babylonians and other early civilisations when they looked at this more closely. They were already beginning to discover the strange beauty of mathematics. Though devised to share out food and other supplies in communities that were becoming more complex than ever before, early mathematics was showing us that strange and alluring symmetries permeate creation.

And also, jarring asymmetries. Sixty, for example, was a great number because you can divide sixty things fairly between two, three, four, five or six people. But what if you have to divide sixty things between seven? Frustratingly, you cannot. Some mathematical relationships were troubling and unattractive.

You might expect that the heavens at least would be the realm of perfection, but the Babylonians were in for a shock. The number of days from one full moon to another was neither a round thirty nor a reasonable twenty-eight, but a just gratuitously annoying twenty-nine and a half. (A little more in fact, as we know now.) Nor was the number of months in a year a nice neat twelve, but a wholly unjustifiable twelve-and-slightly-more-than-one-third.

Well, that’s the moon. Why should we expect it to divide evenly into the cycles of the sun? At least the two solar cycles, day and year, would surely harmonise. But no; the year, to their immense frustration, was 365 and one quarter days long. And a bit. The heavens it seemed were not symmetrical and elegant, but a godawful mess. How did the ancient Babylonians respond? Like typical people. They ignored the ugly facts and went with the beautiful theory, declaring the year to be an eminently divisible 360 days in length, with twelve tidy months of thirty days each. It was harmonious, it was profound, it was utter bollocks. But it defended the idea of transcendental perfection.

While that may have been good enough for religion and philosophy, it was useless for agriculture or any sort of long-range planning. Pretty soon, as people found themselves going out to harvest corn on a mid-winter night in April, it was obvious that things were adrift. Their embarrassment lives on to this day, haunting your protractor, but with the missing five days restored, plus a quarter-day via the leap year and one or two other minor adjustments, Babylon’s calendar was made practical.

That surprisingly difficult question then was “Can the cycles of the sun and moon be harmonised?” The good-enough answer: “Absolutely. If you leave out the moon”. We abandoned any attempt to stay in time with the lunar cycle. Our calendar has things we still call months, but they’re too long and, unlike any actual orbit, they’re irregular. The advantage though is that unlike real months these stay locked in time with the seasons. July stays in summer, December stays in winter, and some years you can even tell the difference. This is of great practical value for farming and booking holidays.

But it’s sad that we lost the moon.

I believe the calendar can be reformed to include the lunar cycle, and that this will bring rewards. Rather unspecific rewards I admit, but getting back in sync with the lamp that lit the nights of our ancestors since the very beginning of life certainly sounds healthy. And I can promise that it will be spiritually very satisfying, if you consider it to be. At the least, we’d be able to say we found a solution to the issue the ancient Babylonians fudged.

How? Tomorrow!

I Need Less Time

English: Chronological diagram of the date of ...
This calendar is for working out fits of pique. I think.

Well it seems today doesn’t exist. Either that, or I don’t have time to go into my plans for radical calendar reform. I’ll just say this for now: Several readers have pointed out that there are tidier ways to organise a calendar, such as having six five-day weeks to a month, or five 73-day months as the Discordians want, or Azijn’s… interesting two-days-in-one idea. But making the calendar neater was not my objective. Rather, I wanted to make it better.

But more on that anon. Right now, the calendrical reform I most desire is one that would give me fewer hours in the day. I know people are supposed to wish for more, but I figure that’s the last thing I need. My mother is down with a flu so I’m doing all the house stuff, plus keeping two fires on the go so that the place is toasty, plus assembling the media centre PC I bought the parts for this Christmas, plus, you know, my job.

I’m… quite tired. The media centre is coming out good though. That too I’ll have to tell you about some other day. Right now, my sole objective is to stay awake for a few more minutes so I can

Happy Same Year

World Calendar
All the calendar you'll ever need

More calendar bollocks. I linked to this a couple of days ago but it’s been picked up by Time, so now it’s real.

Some people think we should change the calendar so that each date falls on the same day of the week ever year. It’s one of those ideas that’s so brilliantly simple you wonder why no one’s ever done it. Until you realise the reason why no one’s ever done it is that there’s no bloody point in doing it.

The chief stumbling block to the enterprise is that 365 is not divisible by 7. But while others might give up at that point, these two have a simple solution: Adding a day that has no name. It ain’t a Tuesday or a Sunday or nothin’, it’s just “Worldsday”.

The advantages of this? Well, you wouldn’t need to buy a new calendar every year. If you still buy calendars. And you’ll be able to work out which day of the week every date is, forever. Instead of asking a computer to.

Any disadvantages? Well, we’ll have to memorise a different set of month lengths. Thirty days hath… November? And there’s the little detail that it puts an end to a seven-day cycle that has been unbroken for thousands of years. That… seems a shame.

I believe we have a seven day week simply because it divides evenly into both a 364-day solar year and a 28-day lunar month. Of course we know now that the year and month are both a little longer than that, but when the ancients came up with it I bet they thought it was really cool. It isn’t sacred though. Well, not any more. We don’t have to stick with their mistake. Indeed throughout history, people have tried to clear that mess up. What bugs me most about this attempt though is that it is so much change to achieve so little. The sixteenth of May will be a Thursday, forever. So ****ing what? If we’re going to rip it up and start again, let’s replace it with something that will be worth the trouble, something that will really blow the doors off calendrical conformity.

They tried to decimalise it after the French revolution. Unfortunately, ten divides into 365 even less well than seven does and the system was ridiculed. Merely being revolutionary for its own sake doesn’t cut it. For a new system to catch on, it will need to have real benefits. I’ve had a go at this myself, spending weeks on a radical but no doubt ultimately doomed scheme to harmonise the rhythms of the firmament. I’ll tell you how it works if there’s time – and such a thing as – tomorrow.

The End Of The World As Someone Else Knows It

A modern pictogram of the Mayan god Ahau, afte...
My Mayan star sign is Chthulu, apparently

In passing, let’s have a kick at this notion the world is about to end because the Mayans are running out of calendar. Could doomsaying get any sillier? As someone said, if the Mayans were so good at foreseeing catastrophe how come they missed out on 1492?

We’ve gotten the idea that the Mayan calendar runs through a system of cycles that completes this year. This seems strange to us, with our one that can happily keep going forever. (Doubly strange, as it’s supposed to be our culture that believes in a coming End Of The World.) But there’s no reason that more numbers couldn’t be added to their system. It’s a lot like saying that because we never use years longer than four digits, we clearly think the world is going to end in 9999.

But hey, maybe we do. Now. You read it here first – only 7,987 years to go folks. Better start saying your prayers, and studying the arcane mysteries of the Romano-Christian calendar with its cryptically uneven months and mysterious week of seven sacred days. Who knows what other secrets it conceals.