There Goes The Pointer Guy

Douglas Engelbart
Douglas Engelbart (Photo credit: nilsohman)

Sad to relate the death of an Übergeek. Douglas Engelbart, who has just passed away at the age of 88, is referred to more often than not as the inventor of the mouse. It would be a great injustice though if that was how he was remembered, as creator of a once-iconic device now already beginning to seem dated.

The point is not the device itself but its purpose: To select and activate visual representations on a screen. Not just icons and menu items, in the fashion later made famous by Steve Jobs, but also links between bits of text – a vision he was promoting two decades before Tim Berners-Lee make the Web a practical reality. Working in the age of punchcards and paper tape, Engelbart sketched out a whole new way for humans to use computers.

This though was merely part of a wider vision, of a world where human intelligence was augmented by machines. We may not have achieved noticeably greater intelligence yet, it might be admitted, but it would take an effort not to see today’s instant access to information as a big step in that direction. We are living in a world that Engelbart helped create.

Abandoned Cathedral

Click to see the animal and plant carvings

I mentioned our historic local graveyard last summer, but didn’t have pictures at the time. Here’s the fantastic Thirteenth Century Romanesque window from its tiny ruined cathedral. Click image for embiggening, the mediaeval details are gorgeous.

This and the surrounding monastic settlement are associated with Saint Brendan, called The Navigator, who may have reached North America in the early Sixth Century, hundreds of years before even Leif Ericson. We can’t be sure of course, there’s nothing you could even laughingly call documentary evidence, but the legend that Brendan had found islands to the west was widely known through Europe and is thought to have been taken by Columbus as evidence for his “small world” theory.

Of course there may be no basis in fact for the legend at all. Saint Brendan’s journey may not have been a sea voyage, but a spiritual, metaphorical one. He may not even have existed, but like so many Irish saints have been the Christianisation of a Celtic god or superhero. The legend certainly seems to borrow from the pre-Christian Voyage of Bran (perhaps the world’s oldest story involving time-travel to the future).

On the other hand… He would certainly have had the motivation. Irish monks were in the habit of taking sea voyages at that time, though scholarly debate continues over whether the main purpose of the trips was missionary or to seek an ever greater degree of hermetic asceticism. And such a long voyage seems to have been technically feasible, even with the crude leather ships of the time. Yes, leather.

And one curiosity: Among all the stuff about lighting a fire on an island only to find that they were camping on a whale, or being encircled by a sea serpent that bites its own tail, it is mentioned that they found an “island of grapes” – pretty much what the Vikings thought they’d found when they set foot on North America.

Hmm…

A Day To Remember

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria d...
Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell' Accademia, Venice (1485-90) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Guess what happened in history today? I mean aside from the sinking of the Titanic.

The birth of Leonardo Da Vinci. And, the opening of the first McDonald’s.

1452: The last man to become both the greatest artist and the greatest scientist of his day was born.

1955: The enterprise that sought to squeeze the most possible cow into the most possible people began.

I propose that the United Nations declare the 15th of April world What The Hell Happened day.

11/11/11/11 – A Monument To Worthlessness

Serbian retreat through Albania in 1915.
Peace

The British seem to be going particularly overboard for poppies this year, presumably inspired by the calendrical happenstance of all those ones lining up in a row. But unthinkingly, they only emphasize the tragic aspect of this occasion.

Why eleven? The agreement to end hostilities had been signed more than five hours earlier. The war officially ceased only at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month because that seemed a suitably grand and historic way to end a ‘Great War’. So they kept on fighting, and they kept on killing, until that eleventh hour came.

How can one feel anything but contempt for that?

But this act of inhumanity was just the start. The victorious powers chose to accept no portion of blame for the hostilities. On the contrary, and despite the fact that a great deal of the credit for the war’s end belonged to the German people for rising up against their leaders, despite the fact that the Kaiser had abdicated and the empire been abolished, they chose to heap all blame – and punishment – onto the people of the new German democracy. The terms of this ‘armistice’ would lead directly to disaster on a previously unimagined scale.

This hour marks not the end of war, but the beginning of revenge.

The Passing Of Steve Jobs

Perhaps we should have expected it. Why would have Steve Jobs stopped doing the job he loved one moment before he had to? It is a great loss. I’ve never been an Apple fan, I liked to criticise him. But I liked to criticise *him*. Criticising lesser mortals will never be as much fun.

The image above is a detail of one posted by BoingBoing.net, of people leaving tributes at the San Francisco Apple Store. If you’re feeling particularly sad it’s a good size to use as your desktop.

Antiquations

Nice range, eh? My father got it out of an old house in Shantallagh about thirty years ago, when it was being replaced with a (then) modern heating system. We know it was made in Scotland and imported by Hynes of Galway just before the war. The First World War. By its design though it could easily be even older. It’s Victorian through and through, both in aspect and in its cast-iron ingenuity.

It’s brown now with rust, but when scrubbed and polished with black lead (graphite) it’ll be like an undertaker’s silk top hat. Dad intended it to be the centrepiece of our house, but first he had to build that. So it lay about in pieces for maybe twenty years. He was in the process of getting it reassembled and installed when he died, so some time after, to find how much remained to be done, I tried lighting it. The room filled immediately with smoke, pouring out of every joint and crack. I sighed at the thought of having to somehow finish this one day.

But at the moment my mother has a couple of lads in to do work on another room, and we got to talking about the range and what it would take to fix it. Could it be the chimney that was at fault? I hadn’t thought so, because it was new, wide, and had never been used. But we investigated anyway.

And extracted not one, nor even two, but three very dead crows. Don’t ask me how they got down there, but once they were out we lit the fire immediately.

It still smoked. There’s no avoiding that it has a vast number of unsealed joints. But at least now it could be controlled. The thing is incredibly adjustable. Even the grate can be raised and lowered with a strange ratcheted mechanism, and by starting high and dropping it as the fire grew you could keep the flow of gases just right. Also adjusting that hood device above the firebox – it folds open and closed like a bizarre iron tent – seemed to help.

The fire was soon (almost) smokeless and roaring and, once the right valves had been turned in Dad’s baroque plumbing system, sent scalding water thrumming through the pipes. It struck me then: This is Victorian steam technology. With its dampers and levers, all it needs more is a chain for the whistle. And rails.

Happy Bertie To You

Croke Park Dublin
Intimate Venue Available For Family Occasions

Talk Show host Joe Duffy just claimed “Nobody is saying Bertie Ahern¹ was corrupt.” Does he not know about the libel laws in this country? A person can pull shit like this and we are still not allowed to say they’re corrupt.

Let’s just put it this way: Nobody is saying his financial affairs were entirely above board either. Among the people who aren’t saying that are the tax office.

It’s hard to say if somebody personally received corrupt payments when that person seems to have no clear concept of a difference between personal, family or party money. But corruption isn’t just kickbacks and envelopes full of cash. Ahern, and the party he led, were closely involved with the property, construction and finance industries in two distinct but intertwined ways: On one hand the party came to associate its political fortunes with the runaway success of these sectors. On the other, a great many of them associated their personal fortunes with that success too. Virtually the whole party – and it must be said, a sizeable portion of the Irish political caste as a whole – were compromised by their involvement. Is compromised the same thing as corrupted?

Not if it won’t get me sued.

Ahern is in the news again now because it’s his 60th birthday this weekend. More specifically, because he’s having his party in the country’s most important stadium, Croke Park. Seriously. His immediate family don’t seem to see any problem with this. Sure it’s an entirely private matter. It’s just that it’s being done in the most public possible way.

I invite them to consider how this will be perceived from abroad. As our country depends for its day-to-day running on funding from the rest of Europe, the man who presided over its financial implosion is being fêted at our national stadium. It’s difficult to explain, isn’t it? Frankly it makes Berlusconi’s Italy look respectable.

 

  1. For late arrivals, the Taoiseach of Ireland during most of the boom years.

Steve Jobs – An Astonishing Career

Steve Jobs
The best technology CEO since Thomas Edison?

There would always have been more to do. This is a good time for Steve Jobs to depart. Apple is at its peak; both triumphantly successful and wealthy, yet simultaneously admired and even loved. Since the company returned Steve Jobs to his – there is a strong temptation to say ‘rightful’ – leadership role, it has been on an almost unparalleled tour de force.

It began so apparently simply, with products that looked more like quick fixes for the mess he found Apple in than parts of any masterplan. The iMac was in all respects except one an obvious stopgap, an almost desperate attempt to stem the flood of computer users away from the Mac to PC. Make them cheap and paint them bright colours. But stopgap products don’t normally become best-sellers. And more subtly, attractive design revitalised the idea that a computer could be a consumer product.

The diversification into media players too seemed like a quick way to bolster revenues, and yet it evolved into a product that utterly conquered the top end of the phone market. And kept evolving, into one that some say will replace the laptop and the desktop. How the hell does that happen? Whether it was a secret plan of astonishing foresight, or ‘merely’ an extended run of inspired improvisation, virtually everything Jobs touched turned to gold.

In one of those coincidences, I was joking on the phone with my girlfriend yesterday about the news that Apple’s stock was now worth more than that of all the banks in the eurozone combined. (This, on top of having more ready cash than the US government.) I said that gold and Apple shares were the only things people dared invest in now. But what if Steve Jobs resigns? It’ll be like if gold suddenly evaporated.

Will Apple stock plunge? I doubt it, but it will fall some. It has fallen a little already, even though the news only went public after Wall Street shut for the night. Markets are nervous animals. But share price means little to a company that has no need to raise money. What does matter is whether they will continue to be great.

One strongly suspects that the attention to detail in Apple products, the integration of the technical and the aesthetic, is a direct expression of Steve Jobs’ personality. Without that obsession actually in the driving seat, will Apple continue to make great, pioneering products?

For the foreseeable future, I think they will. But somehow it won’t be the same.

The Lusitania Mystery

A warning issued by the Imperial German Embass...
Don't say we didn't warn you

The Lusitania – remembered throughout the Western World as “you know, that other ship that sank”, but actually a disaster of virtually the same scale as the Titanic. And perhaps, far greater consequence.

Far greater, because its sinking in 1915 just off the Irish coast arguably brought the United States into the First World War, turning its tide and changing the course of history. Arguably, because if you say this historians will argue with you. And this is not the only aspect of the disaster that remains controversial. Hit by a single German torpedo, the ship was shocked by not one but two explosions. Was it secretly carrying munitions to Britain? If so, then sinking it wasn’t the mindless act of German aggression against civilians that the British made out in their propaganda, but a legitimate act of war. Right?

This rumour was exacerbated by the apparent fact that the British dropped depth charges on the wreck in the 1950s – presumably to destroy the evidence that the Germans were perfectly justified in sinking it. Because the Americans would be so pissed if they found out that they were tricked into joining a war they won by… by secretly smuggling weapons to the British unbeknownst to themselves.

Unfortunately for the theory it had been known since precisely all along that the Lusitania was carrying weapons. They’re in the cargo manifest. It’s just that it was rifle ammunition and the non-explosive parts of shell fuses, which wouldn’t explain the second explosion. There must therefore have been some other sort of weapon that they were keeping secret, but which would have justified the Germans sinking the ship if they did know about it – which they didn’t because otherwise they would have mentioned by now I think – if they needed any more justification, which they didn’t.

What I’m broadly saying here is that this is not a very good theory.

Besides, the Germans were trying to blockade Britain for Christ sake, they were going to make an exception for luxury liners? Just wave them on through? “Don’t mind us, we’re having a war.” They had even warned potential passengers that they considered the liners targets [See Illustration]. The Cunard shipping line just took a gamble, and it didn’t pay off. Not even a little.

It seems likely that the second explosion was merely the ship’s high-pressure steam turbine system rupturing. In all probability the US would have joined the war eventually. Even if they hadn’t the French and British should have won anyway, having access through their vast maritime empires to far greater resources than Germany and Austria-Hungary. So the sinking of the Lusitania is probably the greatest non-mystery in the history of disaster at sea. And it may soon be solved!

How The Hell Did We Get Here?

So the leaders of Fine Gael and Labour have begun the slow waltz that will lead, almost inevitably, to the closest thing to national government I believe the constitution allows. But is that what we need, or would an independent-supported Fine Gael minority administration be the best outcome for Ireland?

It is a faintly scary proposition. I argued earlier that Fine Gael was a more right-wing party even than Fianna Fáil, but I didn’t justify it. As German public radio’s correspondent said on Radio 1 yesterday, from abroad it’s hard to see any difference between [what until yesterday were] the two major parties. In what way is FG the further right?

It is very hard to nail these two parties to traditional axes. FF has – or rather, had – more of a working class vote, and seemed to be (or managed to cultivate the image of being) more generous with welfare. But many would call that populism rather than socialism, buying off the poorest so as to preserve privileges.

In some senses – certainly, in the American liberal sense – Fine Gael are on the left. They were far clearer about separating church and state, more keen to push for contraception, divorce and women’s rights. But then again, they are seen as the party of law and order, the favoured party of the Gardaí (police), by instinct ready – even eager – to introduce draconian measures.

Fine Gael were traditionally the party of business, the professions, farming. But in recent years Fianna Fáil have become closely identified with the finance industry and the property development and construction sectors. Who is the more lefty there?

It’s a conundrum, but an easily explained one. They don’t easily fit into a left-right mould because neither ever set out to. Unlike the Labour party, they weren’t founded to represent a segment of society. They were national movements. They wanted all of society. Or at least, that majority of society that did not identify with British administration.

Originally of course, the same national movement. To cut a very long story very short, it split over whether to compromise with the British and form a government, or to keep fighting. Almost inevitably therefore one faction would be characterised as more conservative and authoritarian, while the other managed to cling on to the mantle of national popular movement.

The seed of a left-right orientation can be seen there. However that very quickly became more a matter of image than ideology, as Fianna Fáil slipped into the dangerous role of ‘natural party of government’, and Fine Gael that of ‘only realistic alternative’. Though you – or an ancestor – may once have been on one side of a deep ideological divide, and though of course the rhetoric was still occasionally used, the predominant reason for voting for one over the other was that one was your crowd and the other was the other crowd.

Now that is a mould that this election seems to have broken. Traditional FF voters turned their back on their crowd’s politicos in unprecedented numbers. People are calling it the ‘end of Civil War politics’. But where are we now? Replacing a heavily pro-capitalist party that many will argue was actually too generous to the poor and influenced by the unions, with a heavily pro-capitalist party in partnership with a moderate socialist one. There seems to have been roughly zero change ideologically.

But what’s even worse is that we’re swapping a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach for a Fine Gael one, just as we have done every single time that we have changed administrations since these parties came into being, getting on for a century ago. Even in the direst of circumstances,. the election has changed nothing except the faces.

Will we ever change the “Your side is worse no your side is” political zero-sum game? Maybe the only way is for Labour to stay in opposition, until they are given the mandate to change it.

*          *          *

I’ll get back to this soon. Now though it’s time for the latest Galway West recount – the one we all hope will be the last count of the election.

Yeah, right.