Psychics Didn't See That Coming


Did you see how TV3’s amazingly awful “Psychic Readings Live” reached the attention of leading cultural curiousity curator, Boing Boing? Not because the TV psychics are a bunch of lying charlatans taking advantage of the weak and ignorant – nothing new there – but because they aren’t even good at taking advantage of the weak and ignorant.

I think this show replaces the one where the woman pretends to be sexually aroused by drunk men on the phone. Maybe they got too many complaints about that. Superstition driving out sex – says a lot about this country really. Not that one is worse or better to my mind. It’s about the same level of sadness. Both consist of people willing to lie for money.

And of course it’s all OK, because it’s just entertainment. It says so clearly up there in the corner, just in case anyone should try to sue them for only pretending to have godlike supernatural powers.

Is it wrong? I’m not sure. But I wish I lived in a world where you couldn’t make a living by lying to people. Even – no, especially – when they want you to lie to them.

Whose Is The Moral Hazard?

If you’re wondering what the Irish debt crisis – and indeed the Euro crisis as a whole – is all about, you could do worse than read this opinion piece, a passionate but clear denunciation of how we are being exploited from independent TD Stephen Donnelly. I wouldn’t have put as much emphasis on the public pay deal, but that aside he puts it so well that it’s hardly worth my while writing about it.

I’ll quote him extensively instead… (Emphasis mine)

The bonds¹ were bought from Anglo and INBS in 2007, at the height of the property bubble. They offered higher profits than buying Government bonds, as they didn’t come with a Government guarantee. If the people buying these bonds did their homework, they would have noticed that Anglo and INBS were massively exposed to the Irish property market. They will have read the IMF‘s warning of the “possibility of an abrupt unwinding of the housing boom”. They would have known that the higher potential profits offered by Anglo and INBS came with the clear possibility of losses. Indeed, some of the bonds will have been sold on by the original purchasers at a loss. When this happened, the European financial system did not collapse, the ATMs did not stop working. This week their gamble pays off. Yet again the Ferrari showrooms in London, New York and Tokyo will toast the Irish.

A commemorative Ulster Bank note. The other si...
Looking back, perhaps there were signs

In a massive irony, the ATMs did stop working this week – though at Ulster Bank, the largest operator here the government didn’t have to buy. It turned out to be due to a software update cock-up and not a bank run, but you know what? People dealt with it. Screaming crowds didn’t surge down the streets, horses didn’t start eating each other. Yet that was the scenario the banks used to frighten ministers into nationalising the liabilities of their profit-drunk industry. They bluffed us.

Donnelly continues:

This comes at an enormous human cost. Recently, the HSE told the parents of disabled young adults in Wicklow that there was no longer any money to fund rehabilitative training for their children. […] But we’ll find the €1.1bn [to pay these investors], and we’ll pay the €40m every year in interest. As of last Monday, there were 19 young adults in this situation in the Dublin/Mid-Leinster region. The €40m would pay for their training for the next 150 years.

The Government has reduced welfare payments to single parents, cut support to the disabled, removed staff from Deis² schools and introduced regressive charges. At the same time it incurs enormous interest payments to cover the losses of private sector investors who knew they were betting on a risky venture.

And who knew, what is more, that their reckless lending was fuelling a destructive property bubble. In 2007, they were clearly out to grab a quick profit off a boom. To use a term from the housing market that you don’t hear so much anymore, they were out to “flip” our economy.

They flipped it all right. Those flippers flipped it good.

And this week we reward them for it, with a further €1.1 billion. Money that decent non-gambling taxpayers will work for years if not generations to repay, while the vulnerable in our country have their lives stolen. Whose exactly is the moral hazard here?

 

  1. Bonds which our government is paying this week, even though they were owed by private financial  institutions that went bankrupt.
  2. Equal-opportunity.

Chrome. Beautiful, Brittle

Good news if you’re using an Android phone or tablet. The mobile version of the Chrome browser, about which I have raved before, has finally been officially released. Chrome handles complex modern sites better than anything else available for mobile, a distinct advantage for the Android platform over iPhone. If you have a decently big screen you can enjoy an experience almost indistinguishable from a desktop browser, using real websites instead of over-simple mobile versions or apps. The illusion becomes perfect on the Galaxy Note, as hovering the pen near to the screen triggers “mouseover” events like dropdown menus, just as on a desktop computer – and just as I’d hoped.

All right, it doesn’t have Flash. This is Adobe’s (and ultimately, Apple’s) fault rather than Google’s though, and there should be a plug-in to fix it soon. It still seems to lack any full-screen mode too. But in every other respect it outclasses the competition, from Google’s own default mobile browser to even the likes of Dolphin HD. Naturally it still has that lovely playing-card interface, it’s as neat and simple as any Chrome variant, and it’s fast. Remember, this is coming from someone who vastly prefers Firefox on the desktop, both for its features and for its independence. Firefox for mobile is getting very good, but this leaves it standing.

Really just one thing stops me from telling you to go install Chrome for Android directly without passing Go or collecting two hundred euros. This would be its slight tendency to crash every five f***ing minutes. Seriously, it happened so many times while I was writing this that I’ve given up and am completing it in Jota. I’m enormously disappointed. I was hoping that the final release would fix the instability that plagued the beta. You know what? It’s actually worse.

I still suggest you download this, even try it as your default browser. It is that nice. I just wouldn’t recommend you use it to write anything longer than a Tweet.

Really Google, what the hell?

Beneath The Surface

Microsoft’s Surface initiative is, when you think about it, a sort of conjuring trick. I’d call it sleight of hand but that seems unduly negative. It is an attempt to make something vanish though: a distinction.

What’s on the table before the trick begins? Two tablet computers that could hardly be more different. They are examples of today’s two major “architectures”, rival ideas of how computers should work. One, as we saw before, has an ARM processor and is hardly distinguishable internally from an iPad or an Android tablet. The other has an Intel processor and is in all meaningful respects just an unusually-shaped PC.

Yet the wand is waved and voilà – these two entirely different things are both “Surface”.

Hence the name, perhaps. The two devices are remarkably similar – on the surface. They have the same touch-friendly interface and can run the same “Metro” apps. The major difference is that the Intel one will be able to run conventional Windows software too. Which will, let’s face it, be pretty confusing to the consumer. At some point Microsoft will have to clarify this distinction between the devices. But right now they want to emphasise the similarities, present them as a unified concept. Why?

The most crucial reason is to offer a response to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), the recent trend for allowing people to use their own computers in work. It’s very attractive to cash-strapped companies – why pay for hardware when workers might actually prefer to use their own? The savings may prove illusory though. Getting enterprise-wide computer networks to run well can be hard even when everyone’s using the same operating system on identical hardware. When you have a mix of Windows and iPad and Mac and Android and BlackBerry… It could make the lives of IT staff living hell. People will be carrying off classified documents on the same tablet that their kids play with, a device that doesn’t even ask for a password.¹ Fad or not though, BYOD poses a direct threat to Microsoft’s core market – because the Ds the people generally B are iPads.

So they’ve responded by offering a product that will – they hope – be as simple and likeable to use as an iPad, but can run enterprise software and be managed and secured by systems their clients already have. It might not be the same tablet that the kids use (though it might be too), but it could share the same apps, the same games, the same interface and even the same accessories as that cheaper device.

That is a creative response to the challenge. Will it work? It’s hard to say. A lot has to be right for this to come together. Being competitive with Android tablets will not be enough. The ARM version of Surface has to compare well to the iPad. That’s the reason Microsoft are making their own – to have the same advantages that Apple enjoys; the synergy of software and hardware developed in tandem, the single dominant design to attract an aftermarket of accessories and thus consumer buy-in. Other manufacturers can make Windows tablets that compete with Android; Microsoft will compete with Apple themselves.

I think they might be able to pull that one off. The greater challenge is actually the Intel version. The iPad works because its ARM chip demands far less power than an Intel one, so you can use it for a real working day without worrying about charge. Will an Intel device be frustratingly short on stamina, or have such a huge battery it will dislocate your arm? The danger is that it will fall between two stools, be a poor substitute for a laptop and for a tablet.

But if they can pull it off with some technical trick – if, for example, Surface can drastically reduce its power demands when only running “Metro” apps – then it could be a remarkable product.

  1. One security plus though – research has shown that when people bring their own devices, they’re a lot less likely to leave them in a taxi.

Beneath The Surface

Microsoft’s Surface initiative is, when you think about it, a sort of conjuring trick. I’d call it sleight of hand but that seems unduly negative. It is an attempt to make something vanish though: a distinction.

What’s on the table before the trick begins? Two tablet computers that could hardly be more different. They are examples of today’s two major “architectures”, rival ideas of how computers should work. One, as we saw before, has an ARM processor and is hardly distinguishable internally from an iPad or an Android tablet. The other has an Intel processor and is in all meaningful respects just an unusually-shaped PC.

Yet the wand is waved and voilà – these two entirely different things are both “Surface”.

Hence the name, perhaps. The two devices are remarkably similar – on the surface. They have the same touch-friendly interface and can run the same “Metro” apps. The major difference is that the Intel one will be able to run conventional Windows software too. Which will, let’s face it, be pretty confusing to the consumer. At some point Microsoft will have to clarify this distinction between the devices. But right now they want to emphasise the similarities, present them as a unified concept. Why?

The most crucial reason is to offer a response to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), the recent trend for allowing people to use their own computers in work. It’s very attractive to cash-strapped companies – why pay for hardware when workers might actually prefer to use their own? The savings may prove illusory though. Getting enterprise-wide computer networks to run well can be hard even when everyone’s using the same operating system on identical hardware. When you have a mix of Windows and iPad and Mac and Android and BlackBerry… It could make the lives of IT staff living hell. People will be carrying off classified documents on the same tablet that their kids play with, a device that doesn’t even ask for a password.¹ Fad or not though, BYOD poses a direct threat to Microsoft’s core market – because the Ds the people generally B are iPads.

So they’ve responded by offering a product that will – they hope – be as simple and likeable to use as an iPad, but can run enterprise software and be managed and secured by systems their clients already have. It might not be the same tablet that the kids use (though it might be too), but it could share the same apps, the same games, the same interface and even the same accessories as that cheaper device.

That is a creative response to the challenge. Will it work? It’s hard to say. A lot has to be right for this to come together. Being competitive with Android tablets will not be enough. The ARM version of Surface has to compare well to the iPad. That’s the reason Microsoft are making their own – to have the same advantages that Apple enjoys; the synergy of software and hardware developed in tandem, the single dominant design to attract an aftermarket of accessories and thus consumer buy-in. Other manufacturers can make Windows tablets that compete with Android; Microsoft will compete with Apple themselves.

I think they might be able to pull that one off. The greater challenge is actually the Intel version. The iPad works because its ARM chip demands far less power than an Intel one, so you can use it for a real working day without worrying about charge. Will an Intel device be frustratingly short on stamina, or have such a huge battery it will dislocate your arm? The danger is that it will fall between two stools, be a poor substitute for a laptop and for a tablet.

But if they can pull it off with some technical trick – if, for example, Surface can drastically reduce its power demands when only running “Metro” apps – then it could be a remarkable product.

  1. One security plus though – research has shown that when people bring their own devices, they’re a lot less likely to leave them in a taxi.

It's The Economy That's Stupid

Abie Philbin Bowman made a good point at the gig yesterday. Once, people believed in a mysterious, invisible force. They didn’t understand it, they could hardly even describe it, but they credited it with vast power, claimed it controlled just about every aspect of the world, and declared that whatever it wanted to happen was what must happen. They called it “God”.

Now, they call it “the economy”.

It’s so true. Nobody really understands the economy. We can’t even define it – is it the sum total of human transactions, or just the sum total of human transactions that involve things you can count? But nevertheless we positively invite it to take control of our lives. As someone else said, the problem with calling economics the “dismal science” is not that people think it’s dismal, but that people think it’s science. At best, it might aspire to being a branch of psychology. Yet people actually try to run the world according to its self-defeating prophecies.

A concept tossed around a lot in current economics is “competitiveness”, which sounds like it has to be a simple, positive good. Got to be lean and fit to make it in this world, don’tcha? It seems almost synonymous with efficiency. But when you look at it more closely you realise that there are a lot of assumptions involved here. “Competitive” is sometimes used as a synonym for “cheap”. When it comes to wage costs, it seems competitive always means cheap.

Competitiveness is at heart a sports metaphor, so let us imagine economic activity as a game like soccer or rugby. We – as a country – have to get out there and be competitive. Cool. Let’s go get ’em! We’ll show them who… costs less. We’ll give it 110% all the way through the first half, and right through the second, and on through the third, and… Hold on, three halves? When does this game end actually?

It doesn’t. We’ve taken the concept of competitiveness from sport, but overlooked the fact that a game is a brief interlude of peak performance. You can’t live your whole life like that. That would be, well, a desperate struggle. If democracy and civilisation exist for any reason at all, surely it is to free us from desperate struggle. And yet struggle is precisely what they’re telling us we need.

So it turns out that, like a lot of words used in economics, “competitiveness” translates most accurately as “whatever makes most money for the people who already have most money”.

Come To The Comedy Show

First I march in Germany, now I’ve helped organise an anti-capitalist comedy gig. I’ll be living in an Occupy tent next. If there are any left. As a cartoonist and columnist, I always felt that having political opinions was the day job and my spare time was my own. These days though I don’t know what the hell is happening.

Anyway, this looks like it’s going to be an excellent show. More than a show really, a kind of event. A tour of free gigs powered only by goodwill, cutting out the middle-oligarchy. Demonstrating that the way we’ve been doing things is not the only way.

3:00 this afternoon, at Kelly’s on Bridge St. It’s a great venue for comedy, they’re great comics, it’ll be a great gig. See you there I hope.

Free Comedy Gigs Versus The Banking Industry!

In or near Galway? Doing anything on Sunday afternoon? Like free entertainment? Enjoy comedy?

Good. Those are all nice things.

Wait, yeah. There’s a free comedy gig in Kelly’s Bar in Bridge Street at 3:00pm Sunday. Comics Abie Philbin Bowman and Aidan Killian are touring the country in protest against the bank bailout. You’ve got to do something.

Stand Up Against the Bankers is a show fuelled not by profit but goodwill; no accommodation has been booked in advance and tour dates are determined in large part by the willingness of a community to host the pair. The audience is invited to attend free of charge and get into the meitheal spirit by supporting however they can. Some will cook them dinner after the show, someone else will put them up in their spare room. Some will throw a few quid into the hat and some will help to publicise the next leg of the tour. Aidan Killian explains:

Touring like this creates a different kind of relationship with the audience. We’re not asking them to buy a ticket in advance. And we better make sure our jokes are damn funny. Otherwise, we’ll end up sleeping in the car, eating nettle soup.

Aidan Killian, a former banker with the once prestigious (now disgraced) Bear Stearns, saw the writing on the wall in 2007 and decided to do something he believed in. He left the job, still carrying a huge mortgage for a house in Florida he has never seen. With his understanding of how banks had cheated the system, Aidan turned the tables and forced the bank to accept their liability for the property. This story forms a key part of his comedy set.

Abie Philbin Bowman took the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe by storm with his debut, Jesus: The Guantanamo Years”. His one-man comedies have since toured from London’s West End to Hollywood LA to Lahore Pakistan (during a State of Emergency). His jokes have been taken seriously by everyone from the Ku Klux Klan to Al Qaeda.

Abie spent the Celtic Tiger era pursuing his comedy dreams. He couldn’t afford to buy or rent a house, so remained living at home with his parents. He recalls the day the financial crisis broke.

It was awful: people were in negative equity, losing their jobs, facing repossession… At some point, I realised: ‘Hang on. I don’t own a house. So I’m not in negative equity and nobody can outsource my job to China.’ Somehow, I had gone to bed, a textbook loser… and woken up, an economic genius.

The two stand-ups travelled to last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival with solo shows on Ireland’s financial crisis and won rave reviews. They wanted to tour Ireland, but realised the country was broke. Explains Abie:

The financial crisis makes us all feel powerless. Every time we spend money, we’re paying tax, which is used to bail out the banks and pay off the Troika. But the Troika can’t tax barter, or generosity, or laughter.

Admission is free as they say, but please give them some money anyway. Otherwise they may eat all my food.

 

The Galway dates in full:

  • Campbells Tavern, Cloughanover, Headford on Friday June 22nd at 8:30pm
  • The Hop Inn, Athenry on Saturday June 23rd at 8:30pm
  • Kelly’s Bar, Bridge St, Galway on Sunday June 24th at 3pm.

Microsoft Makes Its Move

Today, the final piece of Microsoft’s strategy slotted into place. They announced Windows Phone 8, their new OS for phones. It’ll still have that pretty tiled “Metro” interface, but to the consternation of those few people currently developing apps for Windows Phone 7, just about everything else is changed utterly. We’ll see why later.

And that’s not even the most unexpected part of the new strategy. Yesterday they tore up the playbook and actually made a thing. Of course the software giant has done hardware before, almost from the start indeed. They produced their own mice to make sure the peripheral vital to Windows would be standardised and cheap. There was the highly successful Xbox, and the highly unsuccessful Zune. But this is the first time Microsoft has made their own… Laptop? Tablet?

A little from column A and a little from column B. Microsoft have decided, reasonably I think, that somewhere between the tablet and the ultra-light notebook there’s a product waiting to happen. And they call it Surface.

Which is a little confusing, because up till now Microsoft Surface was an intelligent multi-user tabletop wholly unrelated to this device (and now renamed PixelSense). Maybe they envisage integrating the two technologies at some future date, but really it seems they decided Surface was too cool a name for anything except their coolest product. The nerds.

Even more confusingly, Surface comes in two versions. Both are slim 10.6″ tablets. Both have a light and attractive magnesium alloy chassis. Both have a neat kickstand that props it at a good viewing angle. Both can use intelligent covers that attach with magnets. Shades of the iPad’s Smart Cover perhaps, but these are also keyboards, instantly transforming tablet into laptop. They come in a thin touch version and a slightly thicker one with some key travel, and both can be used with either Surface model.

So how then do they differ? In a word, fundamentally. The slightly more svelte of the two uses a RISC processor from ARM, like just about every tablet or smartphone on the market, and runs only “Metro” apps. It does have a desktop, but only as an environment for editing multiple documents with a built-in, touch-friendly version of Office. No conventional desktop software runs on this, so it is very much to the PC as the iPad is to the Mac. And much as the the iPad has a special, much-reduced version of OS X called iOS, so the Surface has Windows RT, a stripped-down variant so named because it only runs apps written for WinRT.

That should make the confusion complete… I’ll go over this again because it’s going to come up a lot in the next few years and you won’t regret getting it straight now: Windows RT, Microsoft’s operating system for ARM processors, is called that because it only runs WinRT.

So what the hell is WinRT? It’s the new Windows “runtime”, a programming environment providing simplified access to the hardware’s resources – memory, camera, sensors, network and so on. Apps are created to run in this environment.

OK, what about the other model, sometimes referred to as Surface Pro? It looks very similar to the basic version. The only different dimension is thickness – the Pro has an extra 4.2mm to accommodate (among other things) an Intel Core i5 processor, just like you’d find on a good laptop or desktop PC. So it has a perfectly normal version of Windows 8 for its operating system and can run all traditional Windows programs. In many ways this incarnation of Surface is simply a reboot of the slate-style Tablet PC, such as those made by Motion.

Except of course that it also has WinRT, and so can run just the same apps as the ARM version in just the same Metro touch interface. This then is the key idea: WinRT works on both the Intel hardware architecture and on ARM. The same apps will run on tablets, laptops and desktops, no matter who makes the chips.

So have you guessed? Yes, Windows Phone 8 also has WinRT. That’s why they had to rebuild it from the ground up. Before, the phone and desktop versions of Windows had been pretty much completely incompatible. From this on they will share a lot in common. The very same apps – with suitable adjustment for screen size, etc. – will run on phones as well now.

But wait, there’s more!

Another of Microsoft’s recent flurry of announcements was SmartGlass, which helps integrate tablets and phones with the Xbox and so with your TV. The possibilities are intriguing, especially if – as I think is a completely safe prediction – WinRT comes to the Xbox as well. No one else can offer a single platform for developers like that – phones, tablets, laptops, desktops and perhaps game consoles, all running the same apps. For the first time in years, Microsoft look like a company with a vision.

Soccer Is Over. Finished. Done

And I’m doing that thing where I upload a completely unrelated picture again. This is a secluded inlet of Lough Corrib.

Is that enough for you now?

It’s time we admitted this; Ireland is not a soccer-playing country. We’re a top nation at rugby, we’re way ahead at boxing, we’re number one in the world at hurling – and second only to Australia at Gaelic football. But at soccer, we are best at losing. Hell, we do better at cricket, a game most Irish people freely admit they neither like nor understand. We like soccer, we’re just – and there is no kind way to put this – really, really very bad at it. We got lucky once in 1990, scraping through to the quarter finals on draws and penalties. That was the best we ever did. It is the best we’ll ever do. We are complete and utter cock at soccer. If I haven’t yet made this clear enough, we are not good at playing the association football. OK?

So we should stop. Nobody makes us enter these international competitions, and we only embarrass ourselves when we do. Like Costa Rica with their army, we should be the first nation on Earth to disband their international team. The world will thank us.

But what about the fans? We are at least a great soccer supporting nation. Though only, and this is weird, on the international level. At the club level we’re hopeless. Top league teams in Ireland find themselves playing matches in front of a man, a dog and a boy. The average Irish fan spends far more on the merchandise of one of the giant English corporate teams than they do on actual, you know, soccer. (And perhaps this is the root of our malaise as a soccer-playing nation but you know what? I don’t care.) Yet when it comes to international games, apparently seasoned fans turn out in hordes. And they can really sing. OK, they only ever seem to sing the bleeding awful faux-traditional Fields Of Athenry, but they do it with gusto.

They could take up following a sport we’re actually decent at of course, but soccer is the great game, when it comes to the game supporting game. If you follow. They will still want to compete at that level.

So I say, why not freelance? Ireland’s greatest export has always been people, but they haven’t always been labourers, or construction workers, or nurses, or bankrupts. Ireland was once famous for her mercenaries. During times of economic downturn when we didn’t have enough war at home, people made a good living in foreign armies. I see the soccer fans fulfilling a similar role, for countries in dire need of some pizazz in their fanbase. Ones with more money than people – Luxembourg, for example. Liechtenstein. Monaco. It could be both lucrative and fun.

And at least they’d have a chance of bloody winning occasionally.