Searching Out A Stranger

The Stranger (1946 film)
Image via Wikipedia

There are good days and there are bad days. Most are both. I was thinking this morning that it really wasn’t such a bad time to be Suddenly Single¹. My money problems of the last year or so seem pretty much behind me, work could be picking up, I’m in good health, I have I some clear goals. Life is actually pretty bright. The only thing really missing is…

Someone to share it with. And click, we’re back in the room.

The most depressing thing about the end of a relationship – no who am I kidding, among the many aspects competing for the title of most depressing thing about the end of a relationship – is the fact that you have to get to like someone new. It took me years to get to like my last girlfriend as much as I did. I’d hoped to keep on liking her more forever. But now I have to start over, from scratch.

What am I looking for? Complete intimacy with another human being. Where must I look for it? Among total strangers. It’s mindblowing if you think about it at all.

  1. The preferred term for ‘Dumped’.

Tax The Rich – Bill Gates

Historic Microsoft photo of Paul Allen (left) ...
Little known fact: Microsoft were raised by a pack of wild Commodore home computers

With deficits the way they are, the rich are going to have to pay more. Unfortunately, almost everyone’s going to have to pay more, and it should fall more heavily on the rich… Just raising taxes on the rich won’t solve the crisis, but it seems reasonable to people – and there’s plenty of room to do that without creating disincentives or distortions.Bill Gates

I always did like Bill Gates.

No I mean it. In fact I liked Microsoft  – at least, more than most people I know. Now OK, a lot of that was just my perverse nature. You were meant to hate Microsoft with the burning passion of a thousand suns, so I had to see the other side.

But there is another side. Yes it’s true that Microsoft took advantage of ideas pioneered by Apple (and others, including IBM). It’s true that they leveraged their strategic market position to gain ever greater dominance. But I’m convinced that the world would be a poorer place without Microsoft and its vision of getting a personal computer onto every office and home. Others thought big, but not that big.

Sure, I would have preferred if they’d never become a virtual monopoly. Monopolies are always unhealthy and unfair. But the need to easily transfer data between organisations, alongside huge economies of scale in manufacture, maintenance, and training, meant that office computing was a monopoly waiting to happen. We are fortunate I think that it was not won by a business like IBM or Apple, who would have wanted to make both hardware and software. That would have been a far more total and stultifying monopoly.

Microsoft’s approach was to make only the key software, and encourage an ecosystem of hardware makers, application developers and services around that. It was an innovative business model that Apple and others learned a lot from. And though the ‘Wintel treadmill’ of ever-more-capable hardware inspiring ever-more-demanding software seemed endless, it meant that powerful computers quickly became cheap and commonplace, laying the path that brought the Internet into our lives.

No one should ever have as much power in business as Bill Gates did, but somebody was going to. I’m glad at least he is that rarest of capitalists, one not afraid to admit he has too much money.

Private Profit, Public Punishment

loan shark... 218365
Image by paloetic via Flickr

Is it true, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny said at Davos, that Ireland went mad with borrowing?

Far from it. We went mad with lending. A very different thing.

No seriously. The Taoiseach’s choice of words suggest that it is right for the public as a whole to have to pick up the tab for this, because we bear a collective moral responsibility for it – by going a bit mad. Whether he intended it or not, this is insulting nonsense. For a start, many were too sensible to borrow more than they could afford. Others were too poor to be lent money at all, even with the lax standards of last decade.

Some of us were both.

People did not suddenly become extra-greedy last decade for no apparent reason. People were always greedy, and until recently banks made their money by exploiting these human desires – but exploiting them sustainably. This changed when they managed to convince themselves that they could turn a profit on less secure lending.

This is not to exonerate people who borrowed recklessly. It’s still foolish behaviour and people should not be rewarded for it. But neither should the rest of society be punished. The idea that this could all have been avoided if the public had, en masse, just budgeted more sensibly is patently ludicrous. It was the lenders who had their hands on the control valves; they precipitated the crisis.

They, and of course the people who encouraged these lending practices by investing in them. Bondholders, as we call them.

Newts In Space!

The large external gills of the crested newt
Space Newt

And as the special free-gift-inside part of his Presidential nomination bid, arch-conservative Newt Gingrich has decided that we can all go to the moon. There will, he says, be a permanent US base there – by the end of his second term.

It’s great to have ambitions, isn’t it? It’s great especially to invest in technology and humanity’s future, to discover, to spurn the surly bonds of Earth and so on. Yes, these are great things.

But what is also good is having a President who isn’t out of his ****ing mind.

Constructing a base on the moon would be, by far, the greatest material undertaking ever attempted by humans, requiring many lunar missions just to ferry up enough materials and equipment. Essentially it’s the same problem as building the International Space Station all over again. Remember how long that took? Only it will have to be considerably larger and safer because missions there will be many times more expensive and therefore infrequent. And before that construction can even begin, they need a spacecraft. Something capable of carrying a far greater payload than the Apollo/Saturn vehicle of the 60s will have to be designed, built and tested. All while America doesn’t appear to be drowning in unneeded cash.

And all, unless Gingrich has some secret plan to usurp the constitution – “My Presidency ends when I’m on the Moooooon!” – within eight years. That’s nuts. It’s just crazy stuff he’s saying because he’s getting desperate. Or possibly, desperate stuff he’s saying because he’s going crazy.

Yet I hope he wins the nomination. That way, the next US Presidential election will be between Obama and him – which is the closest we’re ever going to get to straight Good versus Evil. And as war between good and evil is a sign of the End Times, it will herald the return of Christ – whereupon all the Christian Fundamentalists will discover they’re on the wrong side. Which will be a laugh.

Stay Free

They’re coming for us – Image by okano via Flickr

Maybe all I need here is a good hug. Ideally, one that will last years.

But I must get it together. We’re under attack. Market forces should be making entertainment industry conglomerates less relevant these days. But why accept the market, when you have the influence and – despite all the protests of enormous theoretical losses – the wealth to get laws passed?

Laws that could make you richer than ever.

It is my view that, under the guise of desperately needing protection, the entertainment industry is trying to pull off an outrageous power-grab. What big businesses know better than anyone is that the secret of success is not making the best product, but controlling the marketplace. They know the Internet is their only future marketplace. They want it.

SOPA and PIPA, their US bills, have been pushed back for now, but there’s a new threat looming from an intergovernmental treaty called ACTA. Ostensibly to control the trade in counterfeit goods (including, it should be noted, generic medicines), it actually concerns all types of intellectual property – suggesting that governments (or their industry sponsors) wish us to think of copying a song or video as “counterfeiting” now – a serious crime of intentional deceit.

Among ACTA’s many negative effects, it appears that it would make your Internet service provider (ISP) liable for any illegal online activities, forcing them to monitor you. That is not different from requiring the postmistress to read your mail and report anything suspicious she finds, and I don’t think it’s acceptable in democracy.

If Big Entertainment gets its wish, the Internet will eventually cease to be a way for people to freely communicate with one another, becoming instead just a secure channel it can use to deliver its goods to us. And to keep us monitored, of course.

Breaking In Two

Joe Jackson at the El Macombo, Toronto, May 21...
Joe Jackson

Obviously I can’t keep using this space to go on about my personal feelings. There are issues to discuss, wrongs to right. I have made up my mind to be strong, put all this behind me, move on.

Only not yet. Not just yet.

It’s the little things. Problem is, life is made up almost entirely of little things. In the middle of the simplest task it will hit me – we’ll never do this together again. I will never spread butter with her, never dry the dishes. Loss is moments.

I should have seen it coming? I did see it coming. It’s funny, how one part of your mind can know perfectly well something is going to happen, but another part will refuse to be told. I know I knew, because for several days before the break-up I couldn’t get one song out of my head. Breaking Us In Two, by Joe Jackson. Remember it? “You and I could never live alone. But don’t you feel like breaking out just one day on your own?”

It had been haunting me. I even learned the lyrics, those lines that I had never been sure of. I wanted to sing it to her, though I didn’t think I would ever be able to do it justice. A beautiful song about a relationship slipping away. It said a lot, I realise, of what I was barely aware of myself. My fears. But it spoke about my hopes as well. That last verse is the killer.

In direct contravention of copyright law, I reproduce it here in its entirety:

Don’t you feel like trying something new
Don’t you feel like breaking out
Or breaking us in two
You don’t do the things that I do
You want to do things I can’t do
Always something breaking us in two

You and I could never live alone
But don’t you feel like breaking out
Just one day on your own
Why does what I’m saying hurt you
I didn’t say that we were through
Always something breaking us in two

They say two hearts should beat as one for us
We’ll fight it out to see it through
I say that won’t be too much fun for us
Though it’s oh so nice to get advice
It’s oh so hard to do

Could we be much closer if we tried
We could stay at home and stare
Into each other’s eyes
Maybe we could last an hour
Maybe then we’d see right through
Always something breaking us in two


©Joe Jackson

When It’s Over

Human skin structure

Now that she’s gone, I have lost my reason. I don’t mean I’m mad. I’m angry and bitter, sure, but not unbalanced. I mean that when we were together, life made more sense. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t living my life for her. Heaven forfend. Nor “our future together”, or anything so cute. But I was part of something that was better than myself alone, something that transcended my limitations.

I hate to call it “the relationship”. It seemed far more concrete to me than such a vague term can convey, even if it existed only in our heads (only in mine?). What I’m talking about is an emotional reassurance. The knowledge that someone knew you very, very well – and yet somehow wanted to be with you anyway. The simple touch of human skin coming between you and the abyss. To cross the frontiers of that skin, escape the bonds of individuality, discover the relief of trust.

It wasn’t all security. No. It was challenge too. But that’s a good combination. When someone smart thinks you’re smart, expects the best of you, criticizes you cogently, it brings out your best. It didn’t change my life overnight, no. But over a year it informed every decision in a positive way. Why not do this? Why not set that goal? I felt both motivated and secure enough to look at the future again.

So now. When I think of doing something, the unexpected question comes. What for? Wasn’t there a reason once? The logic of my life escapes me for a moment. I don’t know why I’m doing anything. I survive, of course. And I know objectively that things will be better one day. But right now I feel betrayed, abandoned, imprisoned. Condemned to the oubliette of memory, the echo chamber of self. The walls close in.

Tiny Wireless Device

No Bigger Than Your Thumb

Well we finally got the iBook done. Possibly due to its habit of regularly becoming misconnected, the AirPort (WiFi) card had well and truly failed. You could tell this because if you plugged it back in and switched on, the computer wouldn’t boot or even beep. Its fan would just start spinning at maximum speed, and the card would become too hot to touch.

Generally, not a good sign.

Buying a new internal card from Apple would have been expensive, time-consuming, or both, so we went looking for a USB WiFi adapter instead. I was surprised – the shops were full of very reasonably-priced stuff from Netgear, Belkin and Cisco, absolutely none of which seemed to be compatible with Macs. You’d think it would be worth the small cost of developing drivers. Sure, all Macs come with WiFi built in now, but so does virtually every PC laptop.

We found a nice one eventually though, from a maker called Edimax. It was a bit more expensive than the others, but it’s cute as a button. The same size as the smallest Bluetooth adapter, yet it seemed to have no problem receiving a signal throughout the house.

Any catch? Well yeah… The drivers come on a CD. But to save on packaging – laudable as that is – it’s one of those mini CDs, maybe half the diameter of the proper thing. Not a size you see much since the demise of the CD single, which was the same day as they came out. These work perfectly in most CD drives of course, but Macs have slot-loaders. So basically you slide that little disc on in there, and… you start figuring how the hell you’re going to get it out again.

Except possibly by sheer luck once in a while, a mini CD is not going to play in a slot-loading drive. But no matter, you can download the drivers instead. Just connect to the Wi… Oh right.

Where there’s a will; I happened to have a 3G modem with me, though I suppose we could’ve dug up an Ethernet cable too. After that it was relatively simple. Except that the download link required you to enter an email address despite clearly saying it was optional – a double irritation this time. Otherwise though, it seems a lovely little product. And not only does it come with drivers for most versions of OS X and Windows, it even has them for Linux. One to remember.

How Abject Can We Get?

The Dail Eireann
What is the opposite of social welfare?

A Dáil committee debate; someone yet again makes the point that if we selectively burn lenders now, they will remember it if we ever want to borrow again.

The government’s logic seems to be that the bank debts taken on – but not created – by the State are just like all public borrowing now. But they’re not the same. It was money lent into an overheated credit market by reckless lenders. Just as our banks made loans they should not have, those international institutions lent money they should not have lent to our banks. They took unreasonable risks, they stoked a boom, and they helped collapse the entire Irish banking industry.

We want them to remember not to do that.

Legal Loop

English: Mr. Justice Edmund Sheppard, ca. 1874...
A judge this morning

This is precious. A judge in Kerry has been summonsed – to appear before himself.

He had, it is alleged, failed to display an NCT disc. (This shows the vehicle has passed a roadworthiness test.) A Guard issued a summons to appear in the local court – the very court said vehicle was parked outside of. Little did the officer realise that in doing so he was creating not merely a minor court case, but a dangerous instance of philosophical feedback.

Sadly the worthy took the safe way out, recusing himself from sitting in judgement on himself – presumably on the grounds that he might be prejudiced. I feel though that he squandered a marvellous opportunity. Could he not have dashed quickly from one side of the bench to another, or perhaps set a full-length mirror up in the dock? Or best of all, learned ventriloquism and arraigned a “Little Justice” glove puppet.

Honestly, some judges aren’t even trying to be funny.