Picture Puzzle

Sources: Left Irish Left Review, Right IMF

OK it’s way past my bedtime but I couldn’t resist showing you this. I was researching something when I was struck by the similarity between these two diagrams. On the left we have income inequality – roughly speaking, the difference between the richest and the poorest fifth of each society. On the right we have the amount of debt that countries across the EU have gotten into in the last few years.

Broadly speaking, it’s the most unequal countries that are also the most indebted. How does that happen? The ‘liberalisation’ of many economies in the past decades was ostensibly meant to make them richer. The effect though has been very different. Low-tax countries are having to borrow in order to meet expenditure, particularly when times get tough. Meanwhile their lack of redistribution means that citizens are encouraged to borrow in order to compete socially – sometimes even to meet basic expenses. This private indebtedness tends quickly to become public when lenders collapse.

In short, trickle-down economics is really trickle-away. Though a minority of individuals within them are of course better off, countries that cut back on tax and expenditure end up impoverished over all. People seem to vote for such policies in the optimistic hope that they will somehow get into that ever smaller, ever richer minority. The odds suggest that they should buy lottery tickets instead.

Checkout Desk

With little luggage for the journey, the Ryanair passenger has time to contemplate the many, many ways the have to die.
With little distracting luggage, the Ryanair passenger has time to contemplate the many, many ways they have to die.

Do you ever feel when you fly with Ryanair that check-in is really trying to prove your bag breaches some rule? Well, that might be because they’re being paid to do that. From Ryanair’s annual report (pdf), page 67:

As part of its non-flight scheduled and Internet-related services, Ryanair incentivizes ground service providers at many of the airports it serves to levy correct excess baggage charges for any baggage that exceeds Ryanair‘s published baggage allowances and to collect these charges in accordance with Ryanair‘s standard terms and conditions. Excess baggage charges are recorded as non-flight scheduled revenue.

So if you thought that because it’s airport staff doing it it must be the law or safety or something, it’s not. It’s a revenue stream.

Skin My Shed

BackWallYeah it looks pretty, but you don’t have to clean it.

The back-kitchen / laundry / scullery / workroom / conservatory / toolshed at my parents’ house hadn’t really been tidied since my father died – or indeed many years before. I was not looking forward to this.

But it’s a revelation, literally. The last time this wall was fully visible it was the 1990s. Ever since it’s been obscured by “temporary” shelves – and the crap that inevitably accumulated on them. Stuff in jars and tins, mostly. Nuts, screws, washers, and bolts. So many, many different sorts of nail.

I’m slightly amazed to see the stonework properly again. Ideally I’d take this opportunity to repoint it, but there’s only so much summer and a lot of jobs to do. So many, many jobs. I’ve a range and a washstand to restore, a home Ethernet/satellite network to complete, two websites to design, a laptop to refurbish and an entire programming language (JavaScript) to learn before college starts again in little more than a month. Hmm… To finish this job alone, I’m going to have to sort out all the tools. That may not sound too fearsome, until you realise how many, many kinds of tools there are. Two entire sets of spanners and sockets (my Dad’s old imperial and my metric one – there’s a generational change), plumbing tools, wood tools, electrical tools, car tools, power tools, gardening tools, broken tools. All these have to be separated out. And where do gas fittings go? Welding rods? We don’t even have an arc welder any more.

A lot has to go. Two generations of male “But it’s useful!” thinking has its consequences. If you click on the picture to zoom in you’ll see a thing that looks like a green raygun. That’s a car timing strobe. I don’t think anyone even makes a car with mechanical timing any more. It will be a wrench though. Each bit will be a wrench. I hauled out a fridge today, one that my father once cannily converted into a chest freezer by the simple expedient of laying it on its back. It’s a strange shade of pale blue-green inside, it was made in Italy, and it’s probably the first fridge I ever saw. And I’m going to send it to a dump.

I came across a pair of metal… things. Just matching stamped pieces of steel. I do not know what they are, what they were once part of. Beyond some educated guesswork based on their shape, I don’t know what they are meant to do. But I know they’re important. The one thing I do recall about them is that at some point they were the key to a problem I wrestled with. A long-forgotten problem. How can you throw away something like that?

OK, just me then.

But the space must be made. Firstly, so that there is some chance of ever finding a thing. Because at the moment it’s organised on the principle “A place for everything, and everything in that place”. Secondly, so that there’s some space in this space. Because this is actually a great space. (Now I’m an interior designer I’m forbidden to use the word “room”.) The light is extremely good. All right, the transparent roof makes it too hot to breathe in during summer, and the gap between that roof and the top of the wall makes it icy in winter. But for… the many, many days between this could be a good place. Not just for storage and drying laundry, but to work or relax in.

Wonder can I bring the Ethernet out here.

A Great Computer, Cheaply


Odd as it may seem, I don’t own a good computer. There are maybe a dozen of the things strewn about the place, in various states of obsolescence and/or disassembly. Some are essentially museum pieces now – an Amstrad, a Psion Organiser. Others were never new, but cobbled together from discarded parts. Even the best have long reached the limits of their upgrade potential, and show their age when threatened with recent software.

Considering that I’m doing a degree in information technology, this borders on the embarrassing.

My new year project then is to create a computer that is truly… good. Not only powerful by the standards of today, but with a potential for upgradability that will keep it current for years. What’s more, if I’m going to build a computer from scratch by hand I want it to be a piece of workmanship, satisfying both technologically and aesthetically. So the choice of components will be critical.

Only one small obstacle: I’m almost completely broke. An excellent computer then, at a bargain POS price.

Challenge accepted.

Three Billion In Change

Bank Dance

All This Needs Is a Soundtrack By Loituma

Are we not the sharpest-dressed protesters you have ever seen? We’re at the launch of a new commemorative coin – face value, €15 – an event we found more than ironic on the day that the Dáil debates a budget designed to exact from the poor the money promised by the rich to the rich. Unemployment benefit is being cut. Children’s allowance is being cut. Respite support for carers is being cut – this last so obscenely cruel to the vulnerable protectors of the even more vulnerable that I strongly suspect it was put in the budget just to make the other cuts seem politically acceptable.

All of this, basically so that we can make the latest €3.1 billion of payments to the people whose reckless lending destroyed our economy. Yes seriously, we continue to reward the rapacious, wilfully short-sighted, knowingly unsustainable lending that led to 2008. Though we cannot afford it, though we will never be able to pay back the enormous sums our banks went bust owing, we continue to try – by means of attacking the unemployed and impoverished. This is not the function and duty of a state.

Ours was a restrained, even polite protest today. The only real way to tell us from the people who were invited was that we wore less make-up. I’d come directly from an exam in project management. There my wearing a suit had been cause for comment, but I think it gave me a real psychological advantage. No one else did the management exam dressed like the manager.

Whether it was this or the intense preparation I put in, my least-favourite subject turned out be probably my best exam. If it had a fault it was that I spent more time than I really should have on a favourite question. This concerned people issues in “Agile programming”, a modern approach that requires the code-trolls to closely interact with clients. The people issues, they abounded; for the rest of the exam I kept going back to the answer to add new ones I’d thought of. Mixing people with coding skills and interpersonal skills together is not a business methodology, it’s the premise for The IT Crowd.

And that, incidentally, concluded my first semester. What a short strange trip it’s been. That in six months I could end up actually enjoying questions of personnel management theory… It’s some change all right.

We Submit

And you thought I never went inside a church.

Woah. Well we got our term assignment project in. I have to admit, it was a pretty messy last-minute rush. Which is funny because it’s about Project Management, and in it we go to great lengths to display our knowledge of all the techniques and methods you can use to make sure that your project is not a messy last-minute rush. The irony is intoxicating.

Kinda head-wrecking too. It’s a project, about doing a project. It’s our Project Management project management project… project? I can’t tell any more. To make it worse still, there is no real project involved. I mean, it is a real project. But our real project is to describe a project we had to make up – ours was installing a computer system into a retirement home.

We didn’t actually get to create a system that elderly people would be depending on, thankfully. But we did have to research and understand the obstacles we would face if we did. So we went around and asked questions to a lot of real retirement home owners and staff, who were all very helpful. That was a good exercise, but still it was weirdly detached from reality. In an actual job like this, what would you be spending most of your time thinking about? Your client of course. Trying to please the bastard. We had no client. One of the members of our team tried to pretend, but it’s just not the same. Her interests are our interests.

So our objective, in our project about our imaginary project, was to please ourselves. No wonder it was hard to keep focused.

Incidentally, the picture has nothing to do with the post – as far as I know. I just thought it was time I used it. It’s a lovely brass electric candle-offering machine from a church in Castlebar, Mayo. You put in money, press a button. and that’s lighting a candle for someone or something. Oddly un-prayerlike, but kind of beautiful nonetheless.

Doing Teamwork By Yourself

The Engineering Faculty has some fairly decent overhead projectors

For our first project, we have to work in teams. But how can we build them when as yet we have little idea of each other’s skills, talents, and weaknesses?

I thought Well, apply communications technology, and took it upon myself to create a message board. With this we could discuss stuff when we weren’t in college, get to know each other better. And as an adjunct I thought we might have a spreadsheet – online but closed to non-members – where we could volunteer skills information; easy enough to set up with Google Docs. This would be helpful to everybody, but it would also demonstrate the useful sort of stuff I can do. Why, people would be bidding to have me join their project teams.

I got quite into this for a couple of days. When I looked up, everyone had formed into groups without me.

Fortunately there were enough of us left over to form another group. Team Not So Savvy At Team Stuff, we could call ourselves. Though actually I think this unusual selection process has left us with a pretty good assortment.

Perhaps not the best organised though. We had our first team meeting today. Only two of us turned up, and one of those was an hour late. OK that was me. I’d been up far too late trying to catch up with my reading on the whole area of project management. I learned a lot in theory, but in the morning completely failed the practical.

I know it’s a terrible cliché, but as my alarm blared away, doggedly failing to wake me, I actually had one of those anxiety dreams where you find yourself in an exam you’re completely unprepared for. I know, someone whose been through an exam system gets those dreams for the rest of their life, even when the cause for anxiety is wholly unrelated.

Only here I actually was failing to prepare for something I’m soon going to be graded on. So really it was hardly a dream at all. More just my subconscious doing a sardonic voice-over.

Tuam Raider

Tuam. Not the worst for traffic

Well here I am in sunny Tuam, for the first time really since I passed my driving test. Yes I’m sorry Tuam, I admit it, I used you. People say it’s easier here than in Galway city. After the fact, I’m not so sure. Galway traffic is insane at rush hour it’s true, but Tuam was then going through an interminable process of roadworks, diversions, temporary traffic lights and tailbacks. And though Galway has imposing roundabouts, Tuam has far too many of those ridiculous mini-roundabouts that transform a simple honest junction into a revolving door. Also, some trick signage; my instructor introduced me to a way you could fail your test without even trying. At one junction there’s a yield sign, so naturally you stop if there’s oncoming traffic. If there is no oncoming traffic, you fail your test.

How come? Because there’s a STOP line marked on the road – presumably left there from a time before the junction was demoted to a mere yield. But the indicator of the greater hazard overrides the lesser, so if you went through without stopping you’re breaking a stop sign, an instant fail, even though there’s no stop sign there. OK, it’s not part of any known test route, they’re not actually out to trick you with legal ambiguities. But with all those diversions in place, you never know your luck.

I’ve just passed a restaurant called Cré na Cille. It’s named after quite a famous novel by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, sometimes called “The Irish language Ulysses“. One  problem though. Literally, the title means “Graveyard Soil”.

I wonder what their specials are.

Speaking of tests, we have our first one coming up on the MSc course already. Well it’s a project, for the Data Analysis and Project Management module, but we will be marked on it. We’ve two weeks to get a proposal together, which includes assembling a team, creating a proposal, even devising a contract to sign for ourselves. It’s not something I mind doing, it’s just that before I do I could probably use a few lessons in, you know, project management. And data analysis.

We’ve had just two so far. I only have the sketchiest idea of what the course is even about. Project management and data analysis – you might as well say “All that businessy-computery stuff.” So I literally don’t know where to begin. I have no idea at all of what would make a good project. Or even a feasible project.

And as a part-time student, I’ve very little idea about a team either. The full-timers meet much more, and many of them will have been undergraduates together. Us part-timers meet literally one day a week. Some of us might be able to get together socially, but most not. So I’ve volunteered to create a forum or bulletin board for us, so we at least have some level of virtual presence.

I’ve done forum admin before, but I’ve never actually set one up from scratch. It’s not hard though – not at least if you rent some web space that supports the necessary technologies. I set one up last night in fact. And in the light of what I learned by doing that, I’ll be setting it up all over again today. I’m also going to suggest we create a spreadsheet of our strengths, weaknesses, and other factors, centralising the information we need to assemble project teams. A database, if you will.

Huh. Maybe I have a project idea after all.

Or would that be a metaproject?

My Furst Day In Scoohl, Part 2

Fred Ott's Sneeze (film by William K.L. Dickson)
Fred Ott’s Sneeze (film by William K.L. Dickson) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Please excuse the flailing around. I’ve not been getting much time to keep up the blog. Bad enough that it’s the first week in college, with all that that entails. But – perhaps due to the sudden change in routine – I’ve come down with a nasty cold as well. I mean, really nasty. So much so that I wonder if it’s not actually mental illness brought on by the sudden increase in workload and stress. I feel depressed, have slowed reaction times, difficulty remembering what I’m supposed to be doing, constant tiredness, sneezing.

Well, I suppose the sneezing does remove any ambiguity.

It’s an oddly mental cold though. I find my sense of time is badly affected. Not timing, that would be bad enough, but time itself. I sometimes forget it’s the present. Which is unhelpful. It is important to be fully aware that the things one is experiencing are actually happening and not just a memory. Especially when driving.

My powers of concentration are, to put it mildly, impaired. To put it colourfully, I have the attention span of someone falling downstairs on fire. So it’s week one and I’m already behind in my work. I’ll tell you about the other two core elements of my first year’s courses – Database Systems, and Systems Development & Project Management – when I catch them and pin them down. All I really know so far is that they use the word “systems” quite a lot, and they are nothing I ever in the past for one moment envisaged myself studying.

My Furst Day In Scoohl

Old and New at the J.E. Cairnes School of Business & Economics. The chapel still has crosses on its roof, but it goes by “Lecture Hall 1” now

Well on Thursday morning I had my first ever lesson in programming. Weirdly, it was given in a disused chapel with stained glass windows. My course being multidisciplinary in nature, it’s taught in the business, the engineering and the arts faculties; the chapel is part of an old seminary the college bought and built into its school of business and economics. Where masses were once said, people are now taught advanced capitalism. I like to see that kind of continuity.

Surrounded by more impressive buildings constructed during the now almost legendary Age of Money, the chapel looks like it’s preserved in a museum. There are other curiosities kept here too. Do you see the wooden thing to the left of the picture? That’s a sculpture called Logos 1 by Michael Warren, transposed here when the prominent position it was actually commissioned for got built over. It was never exactly impressive I suppose, but it was at least dignified when it could be seen against the sky.

Though of course we made fun of it anyway. It was always a mystery how this timber was supposed to represent the concept of logos. Or indeed, how anything could. To quote Wikipedia:

The sophists used the term to mean discourse, and Aristotle applied the term to refer to “reasoned discourse”[4] or “the argument” in the field of rhetoric.[5] The Stoic philosophers identified the term with the divine animating principle pervading the Universe. After Judaism came under Hellenistic influence, Philo (ca. 20 BC–AD 50) adopted the term into Jewish philosophy.[6] The Gospel of John identifies the Logos, through which all things are made, as divine (theos),[7] and further identifies Jesus as the incarnation of the Logos. Although the term “Logos” is widely used in this Christian sense, in academic circles it often refers to the various ancient Greek uses, or to post-Christian uses within contemporary philosophy, Sufism, and the analytical psychology of Carl Jung.

Jesus Christ. One word can mean anything from an argument to… well, Jesus Christ. No wonder I’ve given up humanities for science.

So back to that first lesson – Business Applications Programming. Adding to the disorienting effect of the stained glass, the lecturer had close-cut steel grey hair, a tan and an American accent, lending the strange impression that I was being taught Visual Basic by a Marine sergeant. Well, I could use the discipline.

Somehow the lecture seemed simultaneously too slow and boring and too fast and unintelligible. Perhaps it was both, in rapid alternation. Not at all a gentle theoretical introduction, we got straight into the business of writing a program. But with a tool designed to be as simple to use as Visual Basic, that was little more than a matter of pushing buttons in the right order.

Yet at the same time there were a couple of tricky concepts introduced. In particular, the elusive one of Object Orientated Programming. I’m not really qualified to explain this to someone else yet, but I think in a nutshell programs used to be written with their functionality as the first priority, leaving the user interface as a bit of an afterthought. As they got more complex though, the interface would get more and more convoluted until it became practically unusable. So nowadays, you design the interface first and build everything around that.

Presumably the functionality goes to hell instead, but I guess that doesn’t show so much.

Another view of the Cairnes complex