Category Archives: Technology

The Boeing Comet is still on sale

The first jetliner was Boeing’s square-windowed 707; it was grounded after a few months following tragic incidents which wiped out a fair proportion of elite Americans. The money flowing to De Havilland to create a civilian airliner progamme to promote their non-murderous plane trumped nationalist concerns.

Despite the fact that the 707 is a finer airliner than the Comet, nobody trusts it, and even Pan-Am and TWA are acquiring Comets. The fact that nobody had really understood pressurisation before Boeing’s painful lesson ensures that De Havilland’s planes became the narrow-body airliner to beat all airliners.

Fantasy world: #2: the first supersonic jetliner is Boeing’s supersonic 7NN7. While it made a bit of noise, the need to beat the Comet – because, despite the technical superiority of the Comet, the sheer cash of the US government and the fact that we all need to make up for America’s humiliation  has ensured that nonsense about ‘supersonic booms’ was defeated by the allegiances of the civilised world.

With its Rolls-Royce/Pratt & Whitney engines, it has been allowed to fly supersonic over all territories outside of the USSR. New York-London-Singapore-Sydney-Los Angeles-New York on Pan-Am was do-able in under a day. Fashionistas signed up, in the hope it would make them sexy and youthful. The conception that transatlantic flight takes more than 4 hours became ludicrous, like the concept of taking four days in a flying boat before WWII,

This little thing? Oh, it doesn’t matter; here you go

Via Tim, I find a very cool article on the Aussies who worked in Melbourne under Bletchley Park’s command, breaking the Pacific Axis’s codes during WWII [*]. Very cool, and – unlike the (shamefully underfunded, GIVE THEM MONEY) museum at Bletchley, not even remembered at all. Should be.

This obviously gets me onto the history of the computer: so the calculator invented by a Victorian lady and her partner; was ignored. Almost a hundred years later, a very hardcore calculator invented by Polish geniuses to try and not be invaded by the Germans AGAIN was the genesis of the proper modern computer.

So we set up Bletchley for Polish, UK and general Commonwealth geniuses and a supporting cast to work together on similar grounds. And it was aces, and we cracked a bunch of codes, and a vast quantity of moral dilemmas were created for governments (‘do we save the people of Coventry when doing so would risk blowing the D-Day landings, as it would let the Germans know that we know their codes?’ – while there are some aspects of the conduct of Mr Churchill and Mr Harris that I question, anyone who could answer that question with the correct answer, rather than turning into a blubbing wreck at the horribleness of the thing they’d just chosen, is a better man than me), and we started turning the direction of the war, and it was the first time ELECTRONICS WAS FUCKING ACES.

At roughly this point, a gay English genius invented the first electronic computer. Which was even better at doing sums than the electro-mechanical ones that had been going down before. At roughly the same point, the war was won. This was not a coincidence: it’s how WWII went down: we lost at actual battles, then we broke the Nazi and Japanese codes, then we stopped losing, because we knew where they were going to be, and they didn’t always know that we knew this. Both sides had highly skilled coders. Well, the Commonwealth, Germany and Japan had highly skilled coders [**]. But the Commonwealth chaps did better, largely thanks to Poles, geeks and queers. Meanwhile, the USSR won its battles for for, erm, nastier reasons.

Then the war ended, following the USA’s scientific contribution and the USSR’s entry into the War in the East. The USA’s manpower and materiel contribution to the war was unequivocal and without it, the outcome would have been terrible. Its scientific contribution meant that the USSR was scared off occupying Japan, which probably worked out best for even the people of Japan. Hurrah! Brief John & Yoko moment.

So. To recap, the Commonwealth diverted her finest scientific brains and vast resources to Bletchley and its satellites. This secured an extra advantage in close-matched battles, that made the Normandy landings feasible and won the Pacific naval war. After that, everything was bloody, grinding and attrition-y, but history, and WE INVENTED THE FUCKING ELECTRONIC COMPUTER.

You might assume, at this point, as an impartial sane reader from Mars, that you’d be reading this on a computer that ran on Turing-OS, or perhaps on something cutely named for Oxfordshire.

As if. Guess what the British government did at the end of WWII? Set up an endowment of millions of pounds to develop computers for civilian ends? Said to the brilliant scientists who won the war ‘sorry, we’re broke, but why don’t you develop these for civilian ends and you’ll share the money’? Probably the latter, right? The British government was fucking broke at the end of WWII, and it might be a struggle to show the benefits of new technology, so pass on the rights to the folks who sorted it out and let them make money…?


So the USA took this in the intended spirit, right? (fuck knows what the UK’s intended spirit here was, other than the spirit of ‘technological & industrial suicide’) Well, guess which company which was THE KEY TECHNOLOGICAL ENABLER OF THE FUCKING HOLOCAUST they passed the details onto, almost straight away, so they could market their Business Machines Internationally [CHALLENGING ANAGRAMS]. Whilst, just as a reminder, anyone in the UK would have been jailed or hanged for using any of the Bletchley computer secrets in any kind of industrial work.

I don’t blame the US government for this. If I were PM of anywhere, and someone gave me blueprints to THE MOST AMAZING TECHNOLOGY THERE WAS, then I’d immediately give it to every industrial company in my territory. But fuck, it changes one’s take on Attlee somewhat, doesn’t it? Yes, land fit for heroes, NHS, pensions, great, it is well fair. But you didn’t really need to TAKE THE MOST IMPORTANT INVENTION OF THE FOLLOWING 100 YEARS AND FUCKING GIVE IT TO THE AMERICANS AND THEN FUCKING MAKE IT ILLEGAL FOR YOUR OWN CITIZENS TO DO ANYTHING WITH IT AT ALL, did you? I mean, really, that wasn’t necessary.

So yeah. End of UK as anything important is exactly equal to the point when the idiots in charge decided that the computer was so irrelevant we might as well give it to the colonial cousins, they understand that sort of thing don’t you know. And the miserable, horrific hounding to death of the one man who did the most to save civilisation in WWII, Mr Turing, was hardly a surprise after that – once the computer had gone to America, what use is someone who invents something that nobody in your own land believes to be worth the square root of fuck all?

[*] That quite good war, before we returned to the pre-1939 model of only fighting wars that were pointless and stupid (apart from the one in 1982, which is only opposed by scumbags who hate democratic self-determination. And yes, I otherwise hate Madame T).

[**] The only USA code that remained unbroken during the war was the Navajo code. This is unsurprising, given the tale of the US Senator who toured the Melbourne coding facilities and then “went back home and told American newspapers how American ingenuity had cracked the Japanese codes”. Whichever member of the Australian government let a FOREIGN BLOODY POLITICIAN tour the facilities really should have been horsewhipped.

Have Google ever met any foreigners?

The World’s Unsurprisingly Fastest-Growing Networking Platform, Google+, is getting stick from various corners for its naming policy. This formally restricts you to “Use your full first and last name in a single language“.

The idea behind it is sensible. G+ aims to be a combination of a professional network like LinkedIn, and a personal network like Facebook, with ‘circles’ ensuring your clients can’t see your Tequila Night photos and that your girlfriend’s mates don’t get spammed with your articles on social media marketing.

In both those cases, the connections and relationships that people have become meaningful *because* they use their real names. It’s one of the reasons why Facebook, despite now having 750 million users encompassing many utter idiots, hasn’t descended into the kind of horrible pseudonymous anarchy found on MySpace or Bebo. So banning people from calling themselves thinks like HotBloke1988 or BieberFan1997 is probably a good thing.

Similarly, and also sensibly, Google wants to have proper segmentation between users, interests, brands. This is a model which Facebook took some years to implement properly, leading to the occasional whinge and/or viral petition from silly people when their inappropriately-set-up page gets taken down because it’s using a personal profile to advertise a product or political cause. Part of the reason for Google to be so hardcore about enforcing real names in the initial roll-out is to make sure that people understand from Day 1 that You Can’t Do That, and need to set up the proper sort of page for whatever you’re trying to spruik.

While I understand that this annoys some pseudonymous writers, I think they’re a sacrifice worth making in the short term to ensure that Google+ starts and continues as a place based around actual relationships and trust, like Facebook and LinkedIn. In the long term, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t adopt brand identities and share in G+ that way – there’s no real difference between ‘Skud’ and ‘TechCrunch’, in the sense that they’re both content sources defined entirely by what they publish online.

However, the real problem with this part of the G+ roll-out is the massively ham-fisted way in which it deals with anyone whose name doesn’t fit the Anglo-Saxon convention of Firstname Middlename1 Middlename2 Familyname. Which accounts for, erm, almost everyone in China, a sizeable proportion of the population of India, and everyone in Spanish-speaking and Russian-speaking countries. And would have been completely avoidable if even *one* developer from *one* of these countries had worked on the G+ project.

If you’re starting a new social network, it’s straightforward to build a database that has 12 name fields instead of 2. This allows you to account for any combination of names in any language, while also allowing your users to select which of those names are displayed in the default profile, and in which order.

So a Chinese person with a Western nickname could write their name as Lee (Familyname) Wan-Wing (Firstname) Robert (Nickname), and then choose to display their name as “Lee Wan-Wing” or “Robert Lee” depending on their preferred convention. The default to display would be Firstname Familyname, but any others would count. Similarly, a Spanish person could enter their name as Javier (Firstname) Garcia (Familyname) Lopez (Matronymic), while a Russian would be Mikhail (Firstname) Sergeyevich (Patronymic), and a South Indian would be Prashant (Name) Kumar (Patronymic). This would make all names traceable and transparent, while also ensuring that everyone gets the opportunity to pick something that’s culturally appropriate.

Given that Google employs 10,000 staff outside of the US, including many Indians and many Chinese people, it seems bizarre that this concern doesn’t appear to even have arisen during the G+ roll-out. Differences in database design formed by the use of English versus non-English users have been a massive concern in Internet circles for decades, as highlighted most obviously by the time taken to allow non-ASCII characters for domain names. Any multinational company has to deal with the “names don’t map onto English names” problem for its own staff, even if its customers are largely based in the west (surely there can’t be a software company in the world that doesn’t employ South Indians?).

The only explanation I can think of is that it simply didn’t occur to the senior managers in charge of Google+ that different people worldwide might have different naming concepts. And that none of the less senior foreigners raised the concept. God Bless America!

Mac, and back, with knobs on

I believe it’s a popular cliche among serious enthusiasts for Mr Jobs’s products to say “once you go Mac, you’ll never go back”.

Here’s a datapoint to the contrary.

I bought a MacBook Air at the end of 2008. At the time, the GBP was at an entertaining 2:1 exchange rate with the dollar. Naturally, Apple being a bunch of thieves, the UK list price in pounds was more or less the same as the US list price in dollars. Luckily, I happened to be on a trip to the US at the time, and therefore only had to pay about GBP1000 for the thing.

It was pretty. It still is pretty. If anyone ever asks me whether or not Apple’s products are pretty, you’ll get a 100% unequivocal ‘yes’ from me.

It did various fun things that the assorted work laptops I’d owned before it couldn’t, like having an inbuilt video camera. Exciting! It’s a pity the bloody thing was so processor-intensive on the machine’s pathetic processor that Skype rarely worked, but hey – videos!

It didn’t run much software, but that’s OK – all you really need is Office and Creative Suite, which I had. And a decent browser, which admittedly wasn’t available at the time of purchase, but Chrome didn’t take too long to come out afterwards. And it’s not Apple’s fault that Office 2007 for Mac is completely unusable for anything serious (*doesn’t support macros*? ARE YOU ON DRUGS?)

Anyway. It had a very quiet life for 14 months as a personal laptop, to go alongside my personal desktop and work laptop, and occasionally being used for design work. Then it came to Australia with me to become my main computer.

ERROR. Apparently, if you go Apple, your year-old GBP1000 (or GBP1750, if I’d bought it in the Apple Shop) laptop isn’t actually up to the challenge of working as a main computer. Running an external monitor as a second desktop made it sad. Running Excel, Word, Powerpoint and Chrome at the same time made it very sad. Trying to run Skype, or anything else, on top of the above… well, it wasn’t a great success.

Around this time, it started emitting evil squealing noises whenever it’d been in operation for more than a couple of hours. I dismantled it and cleaned out the fans, which stopped the problem temporarily – but of course it recurred.

Eventually, about last October, I had no alternative but to go to the local computer shop and pay the equivalent GBP550 for a real computer. So I did. And I’m extremely happy with it – it does everything I could conceivably want, and it does it fast.

The plan was to keep the Air as a backup machine / actual notebook when lugging the Samsung wasn’t ideal (example of why lugging the Samsung isn’t ideal: it has an inbuilt numeric keypad. Awesome for Excel; not so good for fitting in luggage…). Which worked for about six weeks, until the Air developed a screen malfunction whereby about a quarter of the screen was incomprehensibly scrambled all the time. Oh, and the evil wheezing got worse, too. And the battery life had fallen to under an hour.

So I tolerated that, for a while. And then today, I saw this chap for the equivalent of GBP200. No slower than the Air at its best for basic tasks, easily portable, compatible with things – nothing not to like.

And that was it, for me and Apple. The day I realised their markups are so enormous that you can buy an excellent luggable and a decent netbook for less than the cost of their compromise machine. The day I finally decided to let the pretty go, and accept that everything else about Macs is just annoying.

I should also say – the decision was made easier because Windows 7 and Office 2010 (unlike Vista, and unlike Office XP) are *actually quite good*. I’d have considered staying with Apple for longer if the alternative were a Vista machine.

…which is all partly a long-winded way of saying:
1) No, I’m never going to buy a fucking iPhone.
2) I have quite high hopes for the Nokia/Microsoft smartphone alliance that’s just been announced. Nokia makes good hardware (and still has the best phones for use as phones), and Windows 7 shows that Microsoft is capable of making good software. That’s got to be a start.

Small company woes

The office manager/PA/secretary at my current workplace is a thoroughly excellent sort, and is absolutely aces at office managing, PA-ing, etc. However, an IT procurement expert she is not – and listening to her on the phone to IT vendors is more than a little painful. The *headdesks* and *facepalms* on the other end of the phone are pretty much audible from here…

‘Newspapers are doomed’ forecast of the day

From a media expert:

The future of national newspapers is in doubt […]: the purveying of ‘news’ (which is only one of a newspaper’s functions) is in several respects more interesting, more immediate and more dramatic on-screen. The greater part of all newspapers is given over to advertising […] which keeps them alive, and to features of comment, information and entertainment which might just as well be found in magazines.

If national newspapers succumb […] it may be a serious, even a tragic loss; but it is probable that local newspapers will continue to lead a healthy, useful and profitable existence for many years to come […]

The astute reader will have guessed the prediction is from Some Time Ago.

It’s actually from the excellent, late Ruari McLean‘s Thames & Hudson Manual of Typography, published in 1980.

On the local press, he basically wins the prediction – it thrived, more profitably than the national press, right up to the point where localised Internet small ads nicked its main revenue stream. Expecting a 63-year-old print media expert writing in 1980 to predict Craigslist,, Monster and eBay would be a bit unreasonable.

But it’s interesting that someone so close to the trade (he was lead designer around this time for both the Observer and the Economist) called the outlook for national dailies so wrongly. While 2008 and 2009 weren’t great years for the print press, there’ll be a large selection of printed national papers on offer for many years to come, and the intervening 28 years were all ones that featured a thriving, albeit flawed, national daily print culture.

The rest of the book is also interesting. Obviously, in its own right, because of its excellent examples and advice on how to lay out words (of whatever sort), and descriptions of current and historical printing methods.

But also, because it was published by a near-retirement designer right in the middle of the time when hot metal typesetting was being replaced with computer-based phototypesetting, and before the advent of desktop publishing, it’s a strange mixture of things which are still absolutely relevant and things which are absolutely obsolete (my favourite example of the latter is the advice for every jobbing designer to buy a telex machine to allow instant written communication with clients).

This may be partly why Mr McLean got the national newspaper story so wrong.

In 1980, the newspaper industry was still based on hot metal typesetting, despite it being the most obvious example of a business that would’ve benefited from instant computer-based phototypesetting and offset litho printing, because of the utterly malign influence of the print unions [*]. Magazines, meanwhile, were printed in sensible places using modern technology.

It was only Rupert Murdoch’s willingness to fight a sustained battle to avoid printing his papers using Victorian technology that broke the influence of the print unions. This allowed the other papers to move over to computer-based offset litho, and hence the colour-based, photo-based, rapid-layout format we see them in today.

Without a proprietor who was pretty much an evil bastard willing to lose far more money than he had to gain to prove a point, the UK national newspaper industry would have ended up stuck on black and white Linotype letterpress at an insane cost right up until it died. At which point, Mr McLean’s thesis would’ve been proven.

Update: the Guardian’s Peter Robins comments. Well worth a read.

[*] I suspect this is one of the reasons the press in the UK trends right-wing, despite being made up largely of natural liberal-y media folk. At the time today’s editors were junior reporters, the print unions lived up to absolutely every change-and-efficiency-hating, restrictive-practices-loving, company-bankrupting, general-utter-bastard stereotype of 1970s and early 1980s trade unionism.

Legal guidelines for photographers in England and Wales

In the wake of the Guardian newspaper’s treacherous attempts to photograph the secret, hitherto unseen building at 1 St Mary Axe, everyone considering taking photographs in public places in England and Wales should really ensure they’re aware of the complex legal situation surrounding photography.

A conventional reading of the law can be seen in this memo from Chief Constable Andy Trotter, head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, where he reiterates many times that “there are no powers prohibiting the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place“.

However, layman as he is, Constable Trotter has failed to consider three very important legal concepts in this matter: the doctrines of ‘jobbious worthious’, ‘soulibus stealibus’, and ‘facina nonce’. Respectively:

1) Jobbious worthious highlights the long-established precedent that any arsehole in a uniform [*] has the absolute right to tell you what to do, demand respect at all times, pretend that he’s a policeman, and be backed up by the real police when they arrive, despite the fact that the closest he’s come to an understanding of the law is the time he got cautioned for beating up some bleedin’ liberty- taker after 12 Stellas on a Saturday night.

2) Soulibus stealibus relates to the fact that the fact that if you take a photograph of someone in any context in a public place you are, ipse facto, guilty of ‘infringing their bleedin’ human rights’. The harm done to the victim reflects the fact that your camera captures a proportion of their soul with each click (proportion captured depends on size of camera, which is why cameraphones are viewed as less serious and tripods as worst of all), and hence the social concern that with sufficient photographs you’ll start to own the person in a voodoo-slavemaster capacity.

3) Facina nonce takes precedence over soulibus stealibus in the event that there is anyone who is, resembles, or has ever been, a child in any part of the
photograph. In this context, you are automatically guilty of making and distributing child pornography (which is defined as anything that a person who is sexually excited by photographs of children, irrespective of context or content, might be sexually excited by), and hence will be summarily hanged.

[*] applies to: security guard uniforms; PCSO uniforms; railway staff uniforms. Does not apply to: school uniforms, although see point 3.