I Qualify To Be American

The passing grade is just 58. I could be an American! I hadn’t been planning to apply, but maybe they do an honorary membership.

Just sad it’s not a perfect score. I need to bone up on the achievements of James Madison. Sure we’ve all heard of him, but what exactly did he do? No idea.

Easiest one I got wrong: What is the national anthem? You see I knew it was a trick question – The Star Spangled Banner is not officially the US anthem!

Or it wasn’t in 1929, when my copy of the collected Ripley’s Believe it or Not was published. Important lesson there: Weird and interesting facts may be subject to change. When the thing that everyone knows is actually wrong, sometimes people alter reality to make it conform to their misconceptions.

You can take the “Test of Americanness that many actual Americans would probably fail” test here.

Attack Of The Spider-Attacking Spiders

Urgh. Suffering from advanced brain death, and a mild cold. The weather’s been so heavy recently. Feels like I have feet of clay, and legs of logs.

I’m actually only just very, very slightly sick. But with the weather and a long day on the conveyor belt of other people’s problems, looking for small pieces of necessary equipment, checking every place twice and then checking them twice again in case I’d only checked once, up in the attic inhaling the dust and soot and cutting myself on the cheesewire threads of cellar spiders, it has built up into general malaise.

What about those cellar spiders? These are the beasties that are all legs and almost no body –  one of the three unrelated species that get called Daddy Longlegs, though I think that’s mostly in America. (In Ireland it seems to be the crane fly that gets to use the sobriquet most commonly, in Britain I think probably the harvestman.) It weaves – if weaves is the word – messy, patternless webs of quite amazingly tough and elastic (but thankfully not very sticky) threads which it seems to use less as trap than as a defence mechanism. Bother one, and it will set itself vibrating in its elastic cradle so rapidly that it becomes a blur. Quite disturbing the first time you encounter it.

Its victims include other spiders, so if you live in a place where many species are dangerous – or where people just think they are, as in much of the US – it’s often thought to be poisonous itself, a sort of serious spider badass. It’s not; it’s entirely safe to pick them up and throw them out – if you can catch them. It’s been claimed that they’re capable of a small, essentially harmless bite, but I’ve handled them without feeling anything.

I do suspect them though of endangering the cute little house spider, which they seem to be ousting as most common indoor species. I would swear the cellar spider was rare in this country even twenty years ago. They need a place that doesn’t get too cold in winter, apparently because they’re subtropical in origin and only spread as humans thoughtfully built them nice warm shelters. (Who knows, perhaps this is our true purpose in the ecosystem.) Is it climate change, or have I simply never lived in a house warm enough until now?

It’s being a weird summer for insects too. I saw my first wasp today! Seriously, first I’d seen all year. No bad thing in some ways, but a little worrying. You think of wasps as a tough species, but this summer seems to have been too harsh even for them.

On the other hand, it’s being an amazing year for dragonflies, a species I once thought of as endangered. Now the beautiful monsters are back, bigger and more iridescent than ever, and it’s the all-too-common wasps that seems to be waning.

Hey, maybe dragonflies are eating the wasps. That would be cool.

The Last Refuge

English: Julian Assange, photo ("sunny co...

What is the difference between Julian Assange and Roman Polanski, two men on the run from accusations that could reasonably be described as rape? Well, there is an obvious one: Polanski is avoiding imprisonment for the sex crime, no two ways about it. There’s no question mark over his guilt.

Assange on the other hand claims the accusations were trumped up to render him into American hands and turn supporters against him. His decision to avoid investigation is not an admission of guilt at all therefore, but necessary to protect himself.

The question is whether we believe him.

I have no trouble believing that the US government is out to get Assange, by fair means or foul. America seems to hardly do anything these days except unlawfully imprison foreign nationals. Certainly they’d like to charge Assange with something, even if all he really did was act contrary to America’s interests. Call me an anti-Imperialist radical but I’d like to live in a world where it’s still legal to act contrary to America’s interests, so I am unequivocally opposed to him being extradited to the US.

But for these charges in Sweden to be such a stratagem would take what could only be described as mind-boggling, breathtaking, evil. It would require them to somehow bribe or blackmail two erstwhile supporters into bringing extremely serious accusations against an innocent man. Or, infiltrate his network with agents provocateur who presumably seduced him before accusing him of rape. That’s nightmare stuff.

The US – or if you prefer, its security services – is capable of immensely evil acts I have no doubt. What I have difficulty believing is that they would be capable of such terrible PR. To use false accusations of rape against a public figure? If the truth ever came out – which seems likely enough, as such a plan would have needed considerable arrangement – it would do more damage to the US than Assange could ever have.

And along with this we have to believe that Assange would be at greater risk of extradition/rendition from Sweden than he was from the UK – or will be from Ecuador. It is easier to think that he doesn’t want to face investigation in Sweden because he did what he’s been accused of in Sweden.

The Right To Kill

There’s a campaign on here to put cigarettes into featureless generic cartons, just as was recently done in Australia. Rather than the maker’s livery and logo they will be an unglamorous colour, uniform across all brands, and be covered in prominent and graphic health warnings.

I’m against this. It’s quite ridiculous, banning all the traditional iconography of smoking, celebrated in film and glossy magazine for over a century. No; cigarettes packets should be smeared in canine excrement and fired at the purchaser from a powerful air cannon while the vendor screams “Children can see you doing this, you pig-rimming imbecile!” Once the excrement has been wiped off, the packaging must clearly state the health warning “Why not just kill yourself now you bag of pus? In the long run it’ll be easiest for all of us.”

Giving up smoking is hard, and one of the things that makes it so is the easy availability of failure. You can walk into a shop on nearly every street and get failure handed to you, no questions asked. It wouldn’t work to ban cigarettes outright, but we could make it harder to fail.

It’s not always failure, because not all smokers are trying to give up? Wrong; not trying to give up is also failure. The only conceivable success when it comes to tobacco is to be as far away from it as possible; anything else makes you sicken and age and lose money.

Giving up is difficult because of the insidious nature of the drug, and up-givers need all the help they can get. The tobacco industry however is determined to give them every hindrance, and one way they can do that is by flashing images associated with the addiction at their victims as often as possible, igniting their reflexive cravings. Their branding, their logos, are weapons in their war against those trying to kick the habit. It’s cruel, and it kills. But it makes them money.

Representatives of the industry argue that banning their logos and liveries “effectively extinguished their intellectual property rights“. Why is it that bastards always cry infringement of intellectual property? Perhaps because it’s a sufficiently vague concept to be abused every which way. Whatever was intended by IP though, it was surely not the right to advertise no matter what is being advertised.

A branch of the UK industry lobby meanwhile, operating here under the unconvincing title “Forest Éireann“, says that there’s no evidence this packaging will discourage children from taking up smoking. Maybe so, it’s early days, but clearly it’s stopping someone smoking. Otherwise why would they be against it?

Repackaging cigarettes to better represent just how nasty they really are is a good idea. It may not have a huge impact, no. But even a small discouragement to smoke could save thousands of lives, and improve thousands of others.

By the same token, I think “Forest Éireann” should also be repackaged – under the name “We Want You To Die”.

Browser Wars: Firefox Fights Back

Have you heard of Aurora? This is basically Future Firefox, an experimental version of the great independent browser from Mozilla. Not a beta, because it’s not a test version of a coming product; more a testbed for ideas that might be included soon.

So you can’t say every feature it displays will end up in Firefox. Some though I’m pretty certain will – at least when it comes to the Android version. Particularly the way Aurora now responds to hover events, so things like dropdown menus work when you pass a mouse pointer over them.

What should I care, you may ask, when my phone doesn’t have a mouse pointer? Actually it probably could… A lot of Androids will let you plug in a mouse (and indeed a keyboard, external drive, or other peripherals) if you use a USB host adapter, and there are Bluetooth mice too. More importantly though, it helps Android adapt to a greater variety of hardware: tablets with and without pens, laptops, even desktop devices. I have no doubt that in a couple of years Android will be seen as a serious alternative to Windows for a lot of work situations.

Another good thing about this desktop-like ability in a browser is that it helps close a gap threatening to open between the desktop and mobile Web. Sure, mobile sites have their uses, especially on smaller screens. But they will nearly always be simplified versions offering less control, and it would be hugely frustrating if your browser wasn’t capable of switching to the full version when needed.

And certainly, no one should ever be forced into using an app just because their phone can’t handle a website.

My new default browser then? Nope. Aurora is in no way intended for primetime. It has some really weird bugs, a predictable consequence of throwing in new features to see what happens, and quickly becomes frustrating to use. But proper Firefox for mobile is pretty good. It has perhaps the most attractive look of any Android browser, and it’s been very stable. Certainly try this. Or if you want to be a bit brave, there’s a good beta version that has some of the more stable of the new features.

Aurora also test-runs a “reader mode”, for when you don’t care about the fancy bits of a website

But if I praise Mozilla here, it’s with faint damns. The reason I’m so certain this feature will make it into Firefox for Android is that every single major rival has it already. The standard Android browser, Chrome for Android, Dolphin HD, even Opera Mobile.

All of them have their own foibles and bugs too; desktop-class browsing on a phone is obviously no walkover. Opera I regard as too eccentric to be really usable now. Try to upload an image with it, for example, and it will use its own non-graphical file explorer instead of Android’s image gallery. How many of your photographs do you know by name? Dolphin is a browser designed exclusively for mobile devices and there is a lot to recommend it, but it feels more orientated to smaller screens. The Android native browser gets better all the time, and now features a full screen mode and a thumb-friendly menu system, but can seem a little flaky.

The leader still though is Google’s Chrome for Android. I’ve raved about it before, so I’ll restrict myself to happily reporting that its chief weakness – a regrettable tendency to crash if you look at it sideways – does seem to have been fixed in Android 4.0.4.

It’s maybe not surprising that Google’s product is doing well. It’s got Google’s money behind it after all, and Google’s ambition. But Mozilla have their own ambition now, and though it’s been taking them far too long, they do look to be on their way to producing a serious mobile contender.

Writing On An All-Screen Phone

What’s the best way to enter text on an all-screen phone? Some would say there is no good way, that nothing remotely compares to physical keys and screens are no good for anything much longer than a Tweet. I don’t agree, but it has to be admitted that on-screen keyboards like the default ones on iPhone and Android are no pleasure to use. Simply put, you’re never going to touch-type on keys you can’t feel, and the addition of “haptic feedback” – the fancy name for a buzzer that goes off when a key is pressed – does little to help. The old T9 predictive texting was faster.

Prediction can be used here too of course; a system like autocorrect on the iPhone helps – just not much. (And it can go famously wrong.) It’s very much a band-aid for a flawed approach. Far faster, because they play to a screen’s strengths, are systems that work by drawing a line through letters instead of tapping each one, like Swype.

So effective is it unfortunately that Swype has some exclusive deals with phone makers, meaning it comes pre-installed on certain better Androids but is unobtainable for the rest (though you can get a beta version). It’s not yet available for iPhone either, though curiously it is for Symbian.

But why write with one finger? Typing with both thumbs is much quicker, especially if you have a big screen. And there are some nice keyboards designed especially for it, split in the middle to be more literally under your thumb. Again though the lack of feel slows things down. Logically a good combination should be a thumboard and prediction – Swiftkey is probably the most famous example – but I’ve yet to find one that I really enjoy using.

So what about handwriting recognition? Writing with a pen is never as fast as typing of course, but that’s comparing it to real keys. The great thing about a pen (or stylus) for a screen is that it doesn’t require tactile feedback. So it’s a perfect fit? In theory, I think so.

In practise, not always. Decent recognition of cursive handwriting was only achieved on desktop computers a few years ago, so it’s a lot to expect from a phone. Users of Samsung Galaxy phones will probably have tried the inbuilt handwriting recognition – and given up again sharply. It’s tedious to use, thanks to low accuracy and an overcomplicated interface. There are other apps in the marketplace of course, but some of them are pretty expensive.

And then there’s 7notes with Mazec. Let’s face it, the name could’ve been more informative. A lot of people will overlook this because it’s presented as a note-taking app, and there are countless note-taking apps on Google Play and iTunes. 7notes doesn’t even seem a particularly good one – though it has the unusual ability to store handwritten notes and convert them to type later. Its ‘secret’ however is the Mazec text entry system. This installs like a keyboard and so can be used to write with any app, not just 7notes. Only it takes pen strokes instead of key presses.

Perfect it’s not – could handwriting recognition ever be? – but it can convert scrawl to type with impressive speed and accuracy, comparing well to the pen input in Windows. Obviously it’s ideal for use with a stylus, (and to any other owners of the Galaxy Note out there I say simply: Get this now), but it works very well with a finger.

And it’s cheap. Despite its Japanese-language sibling costing an astonishing (for an app) €9.70, the English version is only 99c for Android and Kindle Fire, and free for the iPhone and iPad. Best cost-to-usage ratio I’ve ever found in an app. It’s my default ‘keyboard’ now.

I just wrote this with it.

The Return Of The Google Stalker

Sebastian Thrun, Associate Professor of Comput...
Sebastian Thrun, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been an extraordinary day here at I Doubt It. An article I wrote eleven months ago was mentioned in comments on The Atlantic. I stared fuzzily at the hit counter for several seconds this morning, thinking that somehow the decimal point was in the wrong place.

Then someone followed up with a post to Reddit, and all hell broke loose. So far today there have been more than 6,000 visitors to the blog. I won’t lie, that’s better than average.

The article in question concerned the – let’s be clear from the start about this – apparently deranged accusations being levelled against Eric Schmidt and Sebastian Thrun, both of whom have held leading positions at Google and at Stanford University, by a man calling himself Peter Cao. (Posts that seem to be by the same hand have appeared under the names M Cao, PeterCaoFruit, and Cao Ming.)

He does this by a strange form of stalking: Whenever these men are mentioned in a forum open to comments, Cao will turn up to make his accusations. Search on his name and either of the others and you will see it, again and again, relentlessly. Often he’s the first to comment, giving a distinct impression that he spends a great deal of time on this. His claim, or at least the most specific claim among vaguer accusations of crime, is that Thrun and Schmidt are somehow implicated in the murder of a Stanford student.

What some people have asked – have had to ask – on comments here and on those other forums, is whether there could be anything in this, though I don’t think anyone who actually reads Cao’s words entertains that idea for long. It would be wrong however to dismiss him as a raving madman simply because he writes like a raving madman. Perhaps he sounds less coherent than he really is because of poor English skills. Even if he is unbalanced, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that he is telling truth.

And if it were true, well, what a story. The man notorious for saying “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place” caught in a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice! And who could better orchestrate a cover-up than the CEO of Google? It would be easy to ridicule such a Perfect Crime, but we can’t dismiss it purely on the grounds of being dramatic. The unlikely may happen less often than the likely, but it happens.

And on the face of it there are questionable aspects to the official story. As briefly as possible: The dead person is Mengyao Zhou, an apparently excellent young Stanford doctoral student who suddenly disappeared in 2007. Some days later her car was found almost a hundred miles away, in Santa Rosa. They found her in the boot (trunk).

Now one’s automatic assumption in those circumstances would be murder, but with more detail the picture changes. Her head was resting on a garment folded up for a pillow (paywall protected, full text here). With her were several empty bottles of a sleeping pill; receipts and CCTV showed her to have purchased the pills. The coroner described the level of the drug in her system as potentially fatal, and an email that Zhou sent to her 16-year-old sister as “consistent with a goodbye note.” A coroner’s verdict of suicide was reached in 2008.

It remains puzzling that Mengyao Zhou should lock herself in the boot of her car, so far from home, to commit suicide by overdose. But then you can’t expect someone killing themselves to make choices that appear rational to others. If it’s not tasteless to speculate, perhaps she felt ashamed and wanted to hide herself.

The only evidence of foul play that has been offered by anyone is a second autopsy, commissioned by her father two months after the death. He claims that it found signs of blunt force trauma. This hasn’t been made public as far as I can find, but the original examiner, Dr. Kelly Arthur of the Sonoma County coroner’s office, reviewed it and said she stood by her original finding that there were no signs of trauma.

So the only interpretations really possible are (a) a suicide, and a father who, quite understandably, refuses to accept that, or (b) a murder and elaborate cover-up, involving two police departments and a coroner. While the latter isn’t impossible, what makes it unconvincing is the absence of any motive or a credible suspect. No one seems to have suggested who would want to kill Mengyao Zhou, or why.

Except Peter Cao. He asserts that Mengyao Zhou was murdered by or with the help of Schmidt and Thrun of Google, or by people “on their side”.

Why? Well Cao claims that in 2004, while a Stanford student, he was assaulted by a female colleague. There is a detailed account of his side of the story in what appears to  be a statement to college authorities or campus police, here. It seems that later she accused him of sexual assault, though again I must emphasise that I can find no account except his to go on (and yes, I’ve tried search engines other than Google…). That could mean anything from a perfect cover-up to the whole thing being a fantasy of Cao’s, but I assume the most likely explanation is that the matter was dealt with on campus and no formal charges were ever brought.

So we have no way to judge who was in the right here, but perhaps that’s not relevant. The important point is that Cao asserts that Thrun, or a faction he believes to exist in the faculty supporting Thrun, took her side because they are both German. While it sounds highly unprofessional, there’s nothing impossible about that. There can certainly be groups that work within institutions to discriminate against non-members. It is plausible that Cao was a victim of injustice, discrimination or even blatant racism.

What Cao goes on to allege is that this group forms part of a Mafia-like collaboration of fascists which had Mengyao Zhou murdered as a personal demonstration to him that they could get away with killing any Chinese Stanford student they liked.

I leave the reader to decide how probable they think that is.

Dive, Dive, Dive

From a book by Oscar Wilde's dad
From a book by Oscar Wilde’s dad

Maybe it was Katie Taylor‘s victory, making me feel like doing something physical. Maybe it was the weather; sunny after days of mugginess. (Yesterday I broke into a sweat adjusting the phone holder in the car – and I had the blower on cold.) But for whatever reason, I knew it was time to jump in the lake.

Every day I should thank my lucky geography that I live near Lough Corrib. It is not every day I can jump in it mind; far from that. But knowing it is there waiting for when the sun comes out adds greatly to the sum of reasons to get up in the morning.

It’s strange to make a fuss about one of the few lakes in Ireland when I’m not long back from Finland, a country that is mostly lake, but the Corrib is a good one. It’s pretty, dotted with islands covered in trees. It’s vast – with the exception of Lough Neagh in the North, larger than any other lake off the coasts of Europe. But it’s not very deep. Consequently, it can get remarkably warm, even in a summer that’s threatening to drown us all.

I didn’t dive straight in off Annaghdown pier. The water was very clear, and thankfully I could see that it had fallen to dangerously-close-to-large-boulder level. So I sort of gently fell in.

And I couldn’t believe how warm it was. Well all right, more not-cold than positively warm. But after the “It’s OK once you’re used to it” warmth of the Baltic this was almost amniotic. Great for doing some actual swimming practice.

I’m working on the legs. I was never properly taught how to swim with my legs as a kid. “Kick,” they’d tell me, “kick harder!” Well I kicked the living shit out of that water, but I didn’t move anywhere.

The problem is I was quite a literal kid. Hell, all kids are literal. We make the naive assumption that adults actually mean what they say, and are not just blurting out some vague impressionistic nonsense that we’re expected to decode. Adults are very lazy in the way they talk.

Kicking water doesn’t work. Waving your legs up and down, that seems to get you moving forward.

Rain Of Blows For Equality

What The Hairy F**k?

Hmm. You know, I don’t think I should have eaten that leftover chicken. It’s a long time since Sunday, it hasn’t been in the fridge, and the weather has been heavy and humid. Bad for humans, great for bacteria. I had maybe better get to bed here. First have to congratulate Katie Taylor though, on looking set to be one of the first tranche of women to win Olympic gold for boxing.

I don’t like boxing. Sure, I loved to fight as a kid. Hell in the school yard having a fight was a way to get to know people. Talking for boys. But children aren’t strong enough to really hurt each other – adults are very different. A huge part of growing up is learning how to restrain yourself from resorting to violence. And most sports are exercises in this, diverting energy away from conflict and into competition. But in boxing, you just go at it. It’s like they took the basic idea of a ritualised substitute for conflict and said “Hey, let’s try taking out the ritualised substitute bit.” Yes it is a highly formalised, restrained version of fighting, but it still involves a lot of smashing your opponent repeatedly in the face.

Nonetheless it was ridiculous that women were not allowed to smash each other in the face, should they so choose, at the Olympics. You wonder what tortured logic was used to ban them from this when they were allowed to fight with swords and do distinctly more dangerous things. Boxing was just not ladylike. I’ll never understand how they could use that argument with a straight face and still let men figure skate.

The Medium Is The Extra Large

I’m applying for some college courses. After I fill out the online form and pay my money, one springs me with a surprise: They also want an idea for a “digital media project”. Huh. If I had an idea for digital media project I wouldn’t be applying for college.

So I’m staring at this, trying to figure out what they mean. What is a digital medium anyway. Someone who signs seances?

OK, seriously. Seriouslish. A medium is any means of communication more complicated than direct conversation. A telegraph, a town crier, a tombstone, a talking drum, a cardboard tube if sufficiently long. If you’re speaking through it, it’s a medium, and so the vast majority of human communication is via some medium or another.

What is digital? People use the word to mean “Things on the Internet and… stuff”, but it’s really anything that can be encoded as numbers. An analogue recording is a model of one physical thing (say a sound) made in another physical thing (say a groove), and so a copy of an analogue recording is a model of a model. Digital recording models the physical thing purely as an abstract number, which is why it can be copied forever without any loss of detail. That’s a huge boost in efficiency, so not only is most music and television digital now, but digital technologies also play vital roles in apparently analogue media like newspapers and radio. Really, a better question is what isn’t digital media now.

Which gives me my idea. What, indeed, has yet to be made digital? I should make some outrageous proposal to digitise a thing that everybody thinks of as quintessentially analogue. A digital… cloud? No that’s already a thing. A digital aeroplane! What could be less like a string of numbers than a solid object flying through the air?

Except, even planes are digital already. The joystick connects to a computer now, not to the wings and tail. It’s like they’re playing a flight simulation game and the game is flying the plane. But they’re in the plane, so they’re in the game… All a little head-wrecking when you think about it.

So I turn my attention to that third word. What constitutes a “project”? Any plan of action, really. That being the case I have a number of digital media projects lined up – first thing tomorrow morning in fact. Turning off the digital alarm on my phone and checking my digital email. Getting up and turning on the digital TV. Seen this way, pretty much my whole life is a digital media project.

Ladies and gentlemen of the admissions committee, I submit: Myself.