Apologies for the long absence. I will try to blog more often in 2014, but I can’t promise a return to regular service. My MSc is becoming far too demanding now.

It’s not the workload exactly, though that is… not insubstantial. It’s more that as it continues, the course lays greater and greater emphasis on teamwork. We had a project to complete in every module last semester, and now we are facing into the most important one of all. Known, with unnerving simplicity, as the ”The Major Project”, it is effectively our Masters thesis.

Can you imagine that, those of you who have postgraduate degrees – thesis by team? Your group assessment of Sylvia Plath’s earlier work? Your collective opinion of mediaeval Italian prosody? Weird.

And for me, alien. I simply have no experience of working in teams. I am a loner – to the point at times of social dysfunctionality. I’ve always been self-employed, generally liaising only with an editor, often being left entirely alone to do my art thing.

I’ve never even played team games. Sure, they try to make you in school. But you notice what they forget? To tell you how. It’s like you’re meant to be born knowing the rules of soccer or whatever. So sport as I understood it largely meant standing in the cold, wondering what the hell was expected of me. Occasionally a crowd would thunder in my general direction and, yes, then there might be some instructions. But even these would tend to be lamentably short on detail and clarity.

Idea note_20140102_024447_02

While I’m here, can I mention something else to sport-obsessed educators? Children don’t learn teamwork from adult-size sides. Eleven or fifteen kids is not a team. lt’s a pack.

Thanks in part to this misguided introduction to cooperation I was a pretty hopeless team player at first – and especially, leader. You know the saying “I never ask my people to do something I couldn’t do myself”? My variation was to never ask anyone to do a thing I hadn’t done already. But I think I’ve learned to relax and trust people more.

Which leads me back to my point. Working for myself, I can justify taking a break in all sorts of ways. Maybe I need it, maybe I deserve it. Maybe I just feel like it – I’m the boss after all. Now compare that to a teamwork situation where not only my own degree, and hence my future, depends on the work I put in, but the futures of three or four other people. That’s a whole different standard of pressure.

So between now and the end of June, I guess I’m going to be keeping it pithy.

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.

Finally Fixing That Calendar

The phases of the moon: the golden part shows ...
An earlier, failed attempt at calendrical simplification

In many ways today is already the first day of a new year. Christmas is the de facto midwinter festival after all, and we’re already a week into the actual solar year. I wonder aloud, was December 25th chosen because it was the halfway point between the logical (but pagan-associated) solstice and the incorrect but well-established Roman new year?

So to start the year I will deal with some unfinished business. I’ve been promising to return to the topic of calendar reform since… January, gawd. As you’ll no doubt remember, I reached the conclusion that it would be nice if we could have one that keeps time with both the sun and the moon. The obvious problem here is that in reality, the periods of day, month and year just don’t divide into one another evenly. Why should they, after all? They’re just rocks spinning around in space.

The trick then is to find approximated versions of these periods that fit together neatly enough. Many civilisations have tried only to give up. Islam settled on a fully lunar calendar, which is why it is about 11 days shorter than the solar Christian one. That itself still has a vestigial lunar element; its months were originally in time with the moon, but various reforms have broken this almost beyond recognition.

Not though, beyond repair. They managed to square the solar cycle by adding an extra day every four years; we just need a similar idea to fix the months, so that the waxing and waning of one moon fits precisely into each. Because that would be cool. I put a lot of work into this, and figured out that it could be done quite easily. The real month is very close to being 29.5 days long, so we could simply have alternating calendar months of 29 and 30 days. No problem!

OK, months of that length don’t fit evenly into a year. There will be twelve and a bit between every winter solstice. But that’s the whole point – there aren’t an even twelve months in a real year, and trying to make it be that way has wrought a world where we all have to memorize a stupid rhyme. We just need to accept that and then we can move on.

But what we do want is for the months to stay, at least approximately, at the same time of the year; April will always be Spring, September Autumn, and so on. And as it turns out, just two “leap months” in every five years is sufficient to keep them aligned with better than 98% accuracy. Add a couple of minor rules and the cycles can be kept in time for thousands of years. I checked this out thoroughly, even using spreadsheets to painstakingly project the cycles centuries into the future. Incredibly, it stays in time. It seems almost too simple. Why had no one thought of this before?

Well of course, someone had – quite some time ago. After several days of calculations, I realised I’d basically just reinvented the Jewish calendar. It’s a fine piece of astronomical workmanship with roots going back to the very beginnings of civilization, and has been successfully keeping sun and moon in harmony for a very, very long time. Why don’t we use it, or something like it? I strongly suspect, simply because it is Jewish.

We should though.

Lunchtime Doubly So

English: Nabta Playa calendar in Aswan Nubia m...
Calendars. Useful for predicting the seasons. Visibly less effective at predicting climate.

Great start. The first day of the year, and I didn’t post until well after midnight. This is mostly due to the fact that I was up until all hours last night celebrating. But if we took this nonsense seriously, wouldn’t we have an early night on New Year’s Eve and start the thing right? Because we don’t, each new year begins in failure.

I’ve made many successful resolutions. I’ve given up more vices than a lot of people ever manage to cultivate. But not one of these vows was made on a New Year. They were made when I actually had a real desire to change my life, and the inner strength to make it happen. Which, funnily enough, didn’t often¹ occur on a set calendar date during the coldest, darkest, wettest time of the year.

Calendars were our first real computational devices, and helped our ancient ancestors herd and farm successfully. (The illustration is from Nabta Playa in southern Egypt, though the similarity to stone circles dotted all over Ireland is obvious.) Naturally they became endowed with religious significance; the cycle of the year as metaphor for the cycle of life, death, and birth. But the thing is, it is just a metaphor. The calendar is a way to predict the seasons, no more. The arbitrary start of the year is not sacred or mystical, there is absolutely nothing special about this day.

That’s my excuse anyway.


  1. Actually I did give up smoking in an early January, but that was pretty much a coincidence. Story for another day.


You Called That 2010?

You may (perhaps) have wondered why I didn’t do the usual year-end review in this column last week. The truth is, I just wanted one week after Christmas without having to be depressed again. But now, like pretty much everyone else, I have a stinking cold. Being in a foul mood anyway then, I might as well get on with it.

2010, the year the country was taken into receivership. The year we agreed to smash up our health and welfare systems in order pay for the mistakes of bankers. If overcrowding is any measure, our hospitals are now in the worst state that they have ever been. The year in which we found out that we are basically slaves to the whims of a financial market, in which our government became our pimps, offering out our services for the best terms they could get. One easy country, only slightly abused, willing to work into the next generation.

And it’s not going to get better soon. Beware a false dawn, as Fianna Fáil tries desperately to spin anything not immediately disastrous into ‘recovery’. Expect them to make complete asses out of the Green party as they continually put off the election in the desperate hope that some good news will arrive. Or, more depressing but more likely, that we will eventually come to see our current state of oppression as normal.

In the end we may have to hold a general strike or other mass protest to force them to stop harming the country. The fact that they have not already resigned out of sheer embarrassment tells us a lot about the kind of shower they are.

So 2011 is not shaping up to be a good year… The President has asked business to project a dynamic image of Ireland abroad but you know, I think if they could they’d be doing it already. How can they when the people responsible for this mess are still in charge? At best we look forward to a desperate endgame followed by a divisive election, our impossible financial situation growing worse all the while. It will be a year of damage but… Well, at least it won’t be dull.

I can’t finish though without a quick word about Ivan Yates and the collapse of his business. It is a sad situation of course when a company goes under, especially one with many employees. But I cannot find it in myself to feel sorry for the man. Recall what business he was in – gambling. It’s not exactly productive industry. Gambling is something we need a whole lot less of in this country. In the madness of the last few years, Ireland changed from a growing economy into a property casino. And yet, in a complete reversal of the norm in these things, it was the house that lost.

It must be said though, at least Ivan Yates doesn’t expect the rest of us to make good his losses. When banks could learn a lesson in socially responsible business and basic morality from a bookie, you know what they’re worth.

Ten Thousand Resolutions Per Minute

Having already given up smoking and drinking, I am somewhat stymied for a resolution this year. What’s a paragon of virtue to do? Well there’s one thing: I mean to get a driving license.

I can drive in theory – and did a theory test to prove it – I just haven’t since I was about twenty. I moved to the middle of town where parking is more aspiration than reality, and came to consider a rake of pints an essential part of my daily diet. A car seemed more a liability than a pleasure. Since my mother became a widow though, driving has changed again – into an irksome necessity, or so it seemed. I was deeply reluctant after all that time away. Who wouldn’t be, looking at the clogged roads of today? Yet the moment I started, I discovered that I still loved it. Even more surprising perhaps, that I could still do it.

It’s a bizarre feeling. Do you ever dream you can fly? I do, but every time it happens I think to myself “Damn – I forgot again! Why do I always forget that I can fly? I should do this all the time.” Well that’s what this was like. Getting into a car seemed like finding an old forgotten superpower. Like riding a bicycle I guess. Only, you know, a stupendously dangerous bicycle.

On the productive side, it’s given me an idea. I have been inspired to create a videogame, though I suppose a lot of the credit must go to the County Council. I will probably need a snappier title for international marketing, but for the time being I’m calling it “Death Village Corrandulla”.

Twice in the last two days I drove through Corrandulla, and the road was unbelievable. The ice seems not to have just cracked and crumbled the surface, but made it explode. There are potholes like shell craters. Getting through alive is a matter of dodging and weaving between the bastards, but inevitably – because the choice will be between this and driving into oncoming traffic – you will hit one with a mighty suspension-bending K-thunk. This is ridiculous.

But I must admit, great fun. You know maybe we went wholly the wrong way over the last decade or so with these hasty road improvements, especially when you consider that a major cause of accident and death is excessive speed. You’ll hear all sorts of reasons why people drive too fast, but the real one is this: Because they can. Give a person a fast car and an open road, nine times out of ten they’ll end up going hell for leather. Why wouldn’t you go fast? Not only is it quite enjoyable to move at speed – people pay to do it in funfairs after all – it also gets you there sooner.

So maybe we should have dug a few more potholes. And built some extra chicane bends too. And a few ramps. And a water jump. That would force people to really slow down and pay attention to the road. It would not only save lives, but also just be a hell of a lot more interesting.

And I guess I have a whole new addiction. Oh well.