Saturday, February 28, 2004

My digital camera does not do well in unusual or poor light conditions, I know.

It is one of the basic facts of being a technically savvy person that you end up doing lots of unpaid tech support for your friends and family. This is fine. I actually find locating and solving technical problems to be kind of satisfying, so a lot of the time I don't actually mind. (I am not sure how I feel about Perry de Havilland's home ethernet though. Debugging this is sort of like entering an intellectual cavern of death) And anyway, if nothing else your friendds and family end up buying you lunch quite frequently.

But this appears to be a new one. A campaign appears to be underway to ensure that I ultimately obtain the same model of digital camera as lots of other bloggers, so that I will then solve their problems as well as mine. This is, shall we say, an interesting development.
Further evidence that there is no reason for leaving the basement.

Yesterday, I realised that I wanted the DVD of Richard Linklater's semi-animated film Waking Life. I am not really prepared to pay any more for it that I would pay to see an ordinary film in the cinema, but lots of new DVDs can now be bought for less than that these days, so no huge obstacle, one would think. However, the deep discounting occurs on more mainstream films, and the more arty films are often harder to find cheap (although it can be done). I thought that today I might wander down to central Croydon, perhaps stop for a pint at my local, and look in the Virgin Megastore to see if they have the DVD cheap.

However, I was a little slow to get going, and browsed around on the internet. As it happened, I ended up buying the DVD from a place in Canada for £5.59 including postage. That's right. I just bought a DVD from a store in Canada to save myself a short walk. God bless the internet.

Update: Actually I went for the walk anywhere, and saw a movie while I was at it. The Virgin Megastore wanted £9.95 for the DVD, so I saved money by buying it from Canada, although the picture quality would have been marginally better on the British DVD.
Last observation on the Lomborg evening

Fellow Samizdatista Andy Duncan felt the need to introduce me to a few people that he knew, and in response, a couple of people (separately) came up out of the audience and said things like. "So you're Michael Jennings. I like your stuff. It's very nice to meet you". I seem to be developing a little bit of a reputation. This is interesting.

Thursday, February 26, 2004


I have a report on Bjørn Lomborg's lecture at the Adam Smith Institude this evening at Samizdata.

I am going out to hear a lecture by Bjørn Lomborg. A report on that (probably at Samizdata) later today or tomorrow some time.

I have posted a quote about whether governments should be paying for asteroid protection over at Samizdata. (The comments discussion that follows it is a fun one, too).

Wednesday, February 25, 2004


Well, this Flipstart handheld is the smallest full function PC I have ever seen, although we apparently have to wait until the end of the year to see it, which means it is really just vaporware. Still, at one pound it is amazingly small and light. As I see it, though, the two problems are (a) that the keyboard is so small that I wouldn't be able to touch type, and (b) that although the machine is described as having an optional DVD/CD-RW drive, this is clearly an external drive. And if it is external I might as well just buy a bigger laptop. A DVD player is one thing I do want on a machine that I carry with me when I travel, because it allows me to watch DVDs and VCDs. And a CD writer is worth having too. (For instance, I can back up my photographs and send myself the CD). So it might actually be better to use something like this Sony instead. This one has the advantage of not being vaporware and of being a mass market product, and I could probably have one of my own within half an hour if I was willing to spend the money). It is interesting that the size of CDs and DVDs is becoming a limiting factor. 7cm CDs and DVDs have always been supported by the DVD and CD standards bodies (and conventional players can play them as well as 12cm discs) but they have only ever gained (extremely small) niche markets and all commercially produced CDs and DVDs use the standard 12cm size. One option would be to put a drive that only supports the 7cm format on handheld computers like this - that way it would fit in the form factor. The trouble with that is that the principal reason I want a DVD drive on my computer is to allow me to play conventional DVDs with movies on them, and these are all in 12cm format. I am not sure that the Hollywood studios have any desire to release future formats with 7cm discs. There has been some discussion as to whether the future high-definition DVD should use the existing laser wavelength and codecs with higher compression ratios or whether it should use a shorter wavelength and the same MPEG-2 codec as conventional DVDs. A third option might be to use both these things, and then sell discs with movies on them to consumers in 7cm format.

But I don't think this will happen. The libraries of 12cm CDs and DVDs that we have already are too big. There is still too much to be gained from the higher capacity of a larger disc. The better option would be to make it easy for us to take our existing DVDs, rip the contents and recompress them with higher compression ratio codecs, and burn them onto 7cm DVDs ourselves, just as people do with the music on their CDs. And of course hard discs will be large enough before too long to store a good number of movies anyway. At that point it will be possible to store movies on our hard drive before going on a trip, and watching them along the way. (iMovies anyone?) Still, this will still deny us the option of buying a DVD from a shop when we are travelling and then playing it on our PC. (And of course the MPAA may well attempt to prevent us doing many of these things because of "piracy" concerns. Or it may not. We will see if it learns any lessons from the demise of the music industry).

And of course it may be that these ultra-small PCs remain a niche product anywhere, or that they merge with whatever our mobile phones are evolving into.

And of course the keyboard may reamain the limiting factor. I want to be able to touch-type, and these new machines are too small for this. It may be that machines the size of the Sony are about as small as wew are going to go. If so, a 12cm optical drive is going to fit. Additional advances may be in weight and thickness rather than size. It would be nice if a machine that size could be got down to 1.5 pounds or so.

Update Sony and Fujitsu have miniature computers without optical drives, too, although neither are quite as small as the FlipStart, although both seem too have more manageable keyboards.

People who have come here from Catthy Seipp's Front Page Magazine piece might like to know that the post she referred to is here, although there isn't much more to it than Cathy quoted. There are some nice pictures of Parc Guell in Barcelona in the post immediately above it though.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

More magic

Eugene Volokh also taught me one other clever trick. Unfortunately it won't tell my readers the number of trackbacks. It's easy enough to get technorati to send me an e-mail when someone leaves one though, so it is reasonably good. However, one must pay for it, and the whole point of using blogspot is not paying for it. Still, this trackbacks via technorati feature is clearly something that has been there in a feature sense for a while, but which has not been widely publicised in the blogosphere. It will be interesting to see how fast it spreads (at least amongst people using blogger) now that one of the big blogs is using it.
Revelation of the Day

Most of the nonanonymous cobloggers on the [Volokh] Conspiracy are Jewish.

Oooh. Scary.
This post is intended to offend all Belgians equally

I am with Natalie Solent. I have a certain fondness for Belgium, too. She is quite right about the attraction of ending up in a cafe chair with croque monsieur and an amusingly shaped glass of the best beer in the world. The real question is whether Mark Steyn's Belgian half is Flemish or Walloon. If the former, then he is really Dutch and an heir to the culture that invented modern liberalism. If not, well, he is really sort of French, and that is kind of perplexing.

I address the important philosophical question of when a cricket match actually becomes a cricket match over at ubersportingpundit.

Monday, February 23, 2004

My mantra

I have one basic rule with respect to computer problems. And this is, do not ever under any circumstances call tech support. Figure out how to fix the problem myself, good. Google for a fix, good. Ask friends for help, good. Call tech support, no, because they are all idiots. (This rule also may or may not apply to calling your employer's IT helpdesk depending on circumstances). However, this hysterically funny Salon article (irritating click through advertisement before you can read the full article) explains that things are far, far worse than I thought.
Men and their urge to fiddle with cars and/or computers, and more discussion of my own computer needs

When I was a kid, there was a certain sort of young man who you would see with his car on his driveway, and he would have the bonnet up (or he would be underneath the car) and he would be constantly fiddling with the endine, or he would have much of the engine disassembled next to the car. In those days cars were relatively simple devices, and it was possible to figure out how they worked, do their own maintenance, and tweak their performance largely by doing so. And of course there was lots of empty space under the bonnet. It was possible to actually reach in and get at the components of your engine.

Improvements in engineering and the computer revolution have largely killed this. Cars are now full of complicated electronics and sealed box components. Many simple devices (eg a carburetor), have been replaced by more complicated equivalents (fuel injection). There is little empty space, and everything is pushed so close together that it is hard to take apart and put together again. While men still love their cars, car maintenance has become a far more specialised task.

However, something else has come into being, which is the standardisation and compatibility of computer parts. Many men now are frequently to be found with the side of their computer's case open, fiddling with the insides, changing boards and cards, and in extreme cases doing things live overclocking the CPU to tweak it and make it run better. Once again, the insides of desktop computers have lots of open spaces, and lots of places where it is possible to fiddle.

This attitude seems very similar to the old fiddling with the engine of your car business. There is something very male about it. I am not sure if it is the same people who would once have done one who now do the other, however. I would have never bothered with car engines and the like - they are just too dirty and require too much physical effort - but the urge to fiddle around inside computers is for me a strong one.

But perhaps this is going away, too. The percentage of computers sold that are laptops is increasing. Whereas they were once largely just a business tool, they are becoming a major consumer product as well. The growth in readily available wireless networking is making them more attractive as a product too, even if you don't take them out of your house. (Being able to take your computer out the back garden with you is more valuable than you realise until you try it). And laptops are like modern cars. The parts are squashed very close together and there is no space. There are fewer parts that are interchangeable between different brands. You can't get inside and fiddle.

As regular readers know, my only computer is a laptop, and I like this and find it tremendously useful. Fiddling inside computers is largely something I do to the computers of my friends. There is a certain risk in this (for 20 minutes or so last week, this computer would not boot and it was my fault because I had bumped an IDE cable while removing a PCI card. Fortunately, it was easily fixed) but one does also earn kudos after fixing something that does not work. When I have a larger place to live and more money, I think I will build myself a desktop machine from scratch so that I have something to play with / run my entertainment system, and I can use the laptop after that mainly for portability purposes. But the desktop machine will be largely an indulgence. The present laptop on steroids does satisfy all my computing needs for now.

The thing that is a minor irritant is the amount of plugging in that is necessary when I place my laptop on my desk. Power, USB devices (via a single cable that goes into a hub), speakers, Firewire devices (if I had any) all have to be plugged in. Connecting printers, speakers and the like via WiFi is still a nuisance and quite expensive, although it can be done. Wireless USB is thought of but not quite there. Bluetooth has been promised a lot, but Bluetooth devices are not ubiquitous. What I want is wireless of some sort to more or less come as standard with all hardware, so I never have to plug anything in except to the power. We are not there yet, but we are tantalisingly close.

Update: I have just been playing around on my old laptop not on steroids, which was my only computer until December. It has an 550 MHz Intel Celeron, an 800x600 screen, 64Mbytes of RAM, a 5GByte hard disk, CD-ROM only, no ethernet or wireless (although I did run a USB ADSL modem off it, so a fast internet connection was something I did have, although only 64Mbytes of RAM meant that the computer was constantly swapping stuff in and out of RAM and the connection thus was not optimised, shall we say). How did I ever live with this? The new machine has a 1.4GHz Pentium M, a 1920x1200 screen, 512MBytes of RAM, a 60GByte hard disk, a DVD-ROM/CR-RW combo drive, 10/100 ethernet, and 802.11b/g wireless, amongst other things. I continue to be deeply happy with the new machine.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

This is a crumby photo.....

but I bet George Orwell didn't anticipate this.

Hmmm. I'm not quite sure what Orwell would make of there being downloadable for free copyright violating versions of his books available from websites in Russia, either.

It's not a new observation, but Norman Borlaug is an extraordinarily great man. That the bulk of the so called "green movement" hates his achievements and the green revolution in general makes their colours very clear I think. Here is one more. They are luddites and romantics, and I do not mean the second word as a compliment. None the less, I think the number of people who understand Borlaug's achievement (and perhaps more importantly who appreciate his mindset, which is if anything a greater thing that what he has achieved with it) is steadily getting greater. Here is Here is one more, anyway.

(Link via Jackie D)
It is a small world after all

Yesterday evening, for slightly peculiar reasons I missed a train at Stockport railway station. I blogged about it, and via the miracle of comments I discovered that one of my readers was on the same railway station at the same time.

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