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 revenue goes directly to service borrowings. Only Greece and Panama spend more. Only Greece, Portugal and Papua New Guinea have greater international debt 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.

A New Look

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

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.