Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Social Not-Working

I never really "got" Social Networking. I'm not on MySpace, Bebo or Facebook and I don't feel at all disenfranchised as a result. It's not that I'm a fuddy-duddy technophobe : I have my own blog for heavens sake.

Now it seems the bubble is bursting and people are bailing out. I'm sure the tide turned a long time ago, and a lot of so-called active accounts are owned by people who can't work out how to close the accounts. I have heard tell that the process is purposefully made excruciating difficult. And you just know it's like Gym Membership - a load of people sign up for the year and stop coming after a week.

People are finally working out that the pain of membership outweighs the rewards. Your details are pimped to advertisers, your potential employers and journalists
can dig up dirt on you and your family, and identity thieves can have a field-day. And for what ?

It constantly surprises me how little I.T civilians understand about how exposed they are online. Forgive me if I don't go into detail, but you should always assume that all of your online movements are an open book to the government and to too many people inside your Internet Service Provider's I.T department. It gets worse if you use the likes of Facebook - your movements within that site will be available to whoever they fancy. And they don't seem to be particularly fussy who they share that information with.

Even with respectable sites like Google there are issues. There have been cases where Google China has shopped dissidents to the government. Of course that couldn't happen here, right ?

Wrong - they're a commercial organisation that is likely to cave in to an American or British government request. Why would they make a stand for you ? You're just one of a billion customers to them - you're not even paying them any money ! Balance that against upsetting the government that could stop them operating in a particular jurisdiction. Never, ever believe that you are protected and anonymous.

So what do I recommend ?

(1) Act as though you are being watched online. It's similar to assuming that you are on CCTV when you're walking down the street or shopping.

(2) Think about what information you give online. People who shred their bank statements before disposing of them at home will quite freely give their name, date of birth and address and to a faceless organisation online. At the extreme, I recommend inventing an alter-ego for online use. It's a lot of fun - everyone should try it at least once.

(3) Don't be a sheep - quit the social networking sites today and start your own blog. You get to control the look and feel of the site, no details are sold to advertisers and you're not a clone of a million other sites. Start with the blog publishing systems like blogger.com and either stay there (like me) or learn HTML and PHP and move into the world of build-your-own (like m'colleague Kenny). I can't guarantee you'll make more online friends that way - but it'll be a better quality of online friend.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Invasion of Stanistan

I've just been out for lunch with the parental units. It involved invading Stanistan (okay, the next town away, Knutsford). The restaurant is extremely good but a little (cough, under-exaggeration) on the expensive side. It's part of a chain of restaurants called Loch Fyne which specialise in fish of all descriptions (but not Sashimi -- mumble, bugger etc.). Six oysters, a bream filet with seared scallops, a crème broulé and several Americanos later, I stumbled back to the car stuffed to the gills (no pun intended).

From 'oop 'norf, take the M6 South. Exit at junction 19 and take a right at the roundabout at the top of the slip-road. About half a mile down, turn left towards Knutsford center. Pass the green on your left and at the roundabout, take a right. Take the first left that you can and park in the carpark on your right. From the parking lot, turn right on the main street and walk up about 50 yards. It's on your left.

Mrs Stan, Stan informs me that he has never been to said establishment. I suggest that you harangue him into a trip there as soon as his hectic social calendar (sic) permits. Hint: on March 13th, they are having an anniversary special where one of the starter options is Sashimi; if their Sashimi is selected as well as their cooked fish are, it should be something to behold.

Nota Bene: Stan, apparently there was one of these on Verulam St in St Albans -- how did we miss it?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Crime Without Time

History has taught us that for a totalitarian state to develop, it is necessary for the State to take control of the legislature, the press and the judiciary. That's why I'm very sensitive when a government start interfering in any one of these.

Take Jack Straw's comment that Magistrates should send fewer people to jail. Here we have the government attempting to hassle the judiciary into making decisions that will take the political heat out of the scandal surrounding the government's inability to build enough prisons to lock up all the people deserving of being locked up.

In a perfect country (heck, even in the US) it would never be tolerable that the executive branch of government should have the nerve to tell the judiciary how to do their jobs.

Let's get this straight : It is Jack Straw's government's job to build and maintain enough prisons to meet the country's need. It is the Magistrates' job to sentence offenders depending on the seriousness of their crime.

Or to put it anyother way : it should NOT be Jack Straw's government's job to interfere in sentencing and it should NOT be down to Magistrates to worry about whether there will be a prison place available for a convicted criminal that they sentence to prison.

The public are already convinced that the courts are "too soft". Plus, the Probation Service is as swamped as the Prison Service and wouldn't be able to take on the extra load of community sentences given to people who by rights should be prison.

So we'll either have to cross-fingers and hope that people stop committing crime (current government policy by the looks of it) or go out and build enough prisons.

There should not be a third option that involves browbeating Magistrates. I hope Magistrates ignore this (and any future) politically motivated diktat from central government.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

60 Second News

I love the way that BBC3 manage to summarise 24 hours in the world's history in a space one fifth the size of a single commercial break on the Dave channel.

In similar vein, here's tonight's 60 second news from Radio Free Stan.

* My Stanetta's alien friend has got her/his/its blogging shoes/gloves on again after six months off - cracks me up.

* The head of MI6 claims that no-one has been killed by his department at least since the 1960s. I want my tax money back ! Have the government never given these people performance targets to meet ?!

* Problem gambler sues the bookmakers. Don't make me puke - if you take a risk and lose, you lose. Take your lumps like a man and stop whingeing. You wouldn't be complaining if you had kept winning.

* Ditto for Northern Rock Shareholders who want compensation for their loss. Shares are a risk - you took a risk - you lost - so you lose. Take your lumps like a man/woman and stop whingeing. You wouldn't be complaining if you had kept winning.

* Leona Naess - her song "Ballerina" is on the "Weeds" soundtrack . How is it possible I've never come across her before? Music that'll rip out your heart and use it as a chew-toy.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Widow's Weeds

Because I'm too cheap to get a Sky subscription, I need to join the queue at Blockbuster to get the DVD box sets for good new TV series. The advantage of this is that I get to devour episode after episode in a binge. No adverts and no waiting for next week's exciting episode - just a pure drama fix.

The downside is that I'm usually a few years off the leading edge, which is why I'm just now getting round to series 1 of "Weeds".

Nancy Botwin (played by the excellent Mary-Louise Parker) is a suburban Californian mother whose husband died jogging and who now makes ends meet by dealing marijuana to her uptight suburban neighbours and spoiled brat kids.

It's funny, but dark in a very British way. Dialogue is sharp, characters are cartoon-ish but amusing, and the plot is compelling. Very, very rude too - every single one of my favourite quotations has a swear-word in it, so I won't share them here.

The bits that don't ring true with me are the premise that a professional man, married for 17 years with two kids did not have life insurance. Also that the drug industry characters are way too genteel and lack menace. Very unlike "The Wire" in fact.

Otherwise, an excellent way to lose yourself for a few hours. Very er .. addictive.

Warning : a known side-effect of watching a box-set in a single sitting is that you'll be singing the theme song to yourself for days afterwards : "Little Boxes" by Malvina Reynolds
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there's doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Browser Wars

This morning I got sick fed-up with Internet Explorer's annoying habit of doing stuff I didn't ask it to. There were also times when it didn't do stuff I explicitly asked it to, but mainly it's the feeling that I'm not in control of my computer that hacked me off in the end.

You would hope that Microsoft never have a crack developing software for Life Support systems or Nuclear Power Stations. Sometimes you just want a machine to do what it's told to and not get ideas above its station.

So, as of this morning, the Stan Clan's three computers are all Firefox'ed up. There's no simple way to uninstall Internal Explorer, but you can take it off the Start Menu, and set Firefox to be the default browser, and this is what we've done.

And the difference is amazing. No unexpected actions from the browser, more reliable pop-up control, fewer hard-to-find settings (never did work out to get Java working properly on IE).

And also the ease with which the browser can be customised - I have a high-tech masculine skin on my laptop's browser (RedShift v2), Stanetta is experimenting with the "Simpson's Movie" skin where all the icons are donuts on her laptop, and in honour of Mrs. Stan, we are having a mad Hawaiian rainbow theme on the main PC upstairs ("The Computer in the Sky").

All of this, plus the ability to set multiple "Home" pages and probably a whole host of cool stuff I haven't worked out yet.

There's also something pleasing about not using a Microsoft product, in much the same way as it's pleasing to not buy your groceries from Tesco and to get your coffee from a local independent and not from Starbucks.

And how much did all this cost me ? Well, exactly the same "Nothing" that Internet Explorer cost me. It just took ten minutes to make the changes (and then as long as you feel like clowning around with the new features).

I don't know why I've stuck with IE so long. Sheer blooming laziness I'm sure. I hope there's nothing else in my life that I'm persevering with for that reason - although not everything in life is as simple as changing web browsers.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Confirm Your Price !!

Last month I posted the username and password of one my yahoo accounts stan_project@yahoo.com on the blog, in the spirit of experiment.

In that month I have :-

* Won the Irish Lottery 11 times
* Won the British/UK National Lottery a disappointing twice
* Won a Euro Lottery twice more

The fact that I haven't bought a lottery ticket anywhere in the world wasn't an obstacle to this.

I have also been approached by 6 different people to help them get a combined total of over $1bn out of various accounts in Africa.

If that isn't enough money, a bank with a hotmail email account have also invited me to borrow "within therange of $5,000 to $100,000,000 USD" at only 3% interest.

Result of the experiment ... er, nothing much really. I only received 25 pieces of spam mail - less than one a day. And the level of sophistication of the spam was laughable. In fact the title of one of my Irish Lottery winning emails was "Confirm Your Price!!", which contained the following passage, which has the highest density of geographical and typographical errors I've seen
The Irish National Lottery is approved by the Uk Gaming Board. In other to claim your won Amount (Four Hundred and fifty thousand pounds
sterling).prize from the lottery board you are required to contact our
Claims Agent here in the UK with the details below:

... and then a hotmail email address and a UK mobile phone number.

And the African ones were even less convincing.

Just how insane, stupid, gullible or just blinded by desperation would you have to be to fall for one of these ? I do read that people do get suckered and the mails wouldn't keep coming if no-one took the bait.

Some people use junk mail as fuel for their fires - I wonder if it will ever be possible to use spam email as a power source - it is plentiful, free and shows no signs of running out anytime soon.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Love in a Cold Shed

How did you spend the early hours of Valentine's Day ?

The Stan Clan went indoor snowboarding at a place near The Trafford Centre. Some would wonder why we would pay good money to stand on a plank in a big cold shed, but we enjoyed it.

I had to bow out before the end of the taster lesson because my foot arches caught fire after ten minutes. Well, that's what it felt like. Shame - because I was getting there. A long way from looking cool obviously. It's a sport you really should take up a long time before your fortieth birthday.

Still, we saved the price of a ski-ing holiday and I'd never have lasted a whole week with my arches on fire, no matter how much I self-medicated with Glühwein.

Valentine's Day is under a lot of pressure at the moment :-

(a) WKLC-FM in West Virginia is today giving away a free divorce to the most deserving couple.

(b)The Saudi religious police are cracking down on any symbols encouraging "mingling" between unmarried people. St. Valentine's Day is considered a "pagan Christian holiday" [sic] through a fatwa (religious edict) issued seven years ago by its grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh.

(c) Ditto hard-core Hindus in India.

(d) Political Correctness states that some people get more cards than others and it's all a bit hetero-sexist isn't it? There are reports of it being replaced with "Friendship Day"

(e) Computer Virus Armageddon

Seem harmless enough to me. If there's love in your life it's important to express it. Although I'm sure there are better ways than with triple-priced roses, a tacky card and a disappoining meal at the only restaurant in town with a spare table.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

G7 Unplugged

As a service to my readers, I have translated some of the language used in previous speeches to the G7.

UPDATE : No I haven't got it wrong - the meeting that is occuring at the moment in Tokyo is of the FINANCE MINISTERS of the G7 countries (the United States, Japan, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Italy and Canada). Russia is not involved in this one - but they are a part of the more important G8 meetings when the Finance Ministers' bosses get together.

10 Geek points to anyone who can name the Russian Finance Minister without looking it up (answer at the bottom)

(1) "Serious downside impact" - Sell ! Sell !

(2) "A heightened risk of very bad outcomes" - certain death

(3) "Tangible need of stabilisation" - as steady as Oliver Reed on a skateboard on New Year's Eve

(4) "Remarkable slowdown indicators" - diamante traffic lights

(5) "Deepening jitters on fundamentals" - brown trousers time

(6) "An incoming stressful period" - economic tsunami on a Biblical scale

(7) "A need to strengthen the economy's demand components" - Tax Cuts ! Get your lovely Tax Cuts !

(8) "Incoming data confirmation that the risks surrounding the outlook for economic activity lie on the downside" - form an orderly queue to throw yourself off a ledge - we're all going broke.

* The Russian Finance Minister is Aleksey Leonidovich KUDRIN - Thanks to the CIA for the information.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Don't vote Stan - he's not ready yet

Could you send someone to prison if they had been found guilty of a crime deserving that sentence?

How about if that person were a woman and as a result her children had to be taken into care ?

How would you react if the press got hold of the story and splashed your name across the papers ?

How would your wife react ?

How about your daughter ?
Today was my first interview on the way to becoming a Magistrate. The interviewers were experienced and friendly but it was quite a grilling. I am used to being the most knowledgeable person in the room when I'm being interviewed in a work context. This brings easy confidence. Here I was a long way off the pace and I waffled and umm'ed and ah'ed in a way I've not done for a long time.

Do you have any prejudices ?

Do you think the sentences being handed down by the courts are too soft ?

What are the issues in the Criminal Justice system just now ?

What makes you angry ?

What are the signs that you are angry ?
My head hurts - I finished the interview and went home to sleep off a piledriver migraine that only lifted in the evening.

The issues confronting Magistrates are so complex and intractible and require oodles of wisdom and compassion and commitment. I've always fancied I had something of a Mind, but I've seen today just how much I have to learn. And also that I am some way short of being able to construct a coherent train-of-thought under pressure. I even forgot the legal term for releasing someone pending trial - it's "bail" for heavens sake - my brain just went walkabout for way too much of the proceedings.

I just hope I gave the interviewers enough so that they can see beyond my stuttering, meandering performance and that maybe with some training and some experience I might be safely let loose on a court.

What skills and experience make you suited to being a Magistrate ?

What are the crime issues in your local area ?

Is it safe to walk through your town at night ?

How would you react if you disagreed with a majority decision to send someone to prison?

Would you be likely to take your feeling home with you and dwell on it ?

Magistrates are unpaid, do a difficult job and open themselves up to a kicking from the media and the public. If nothing else this experience has given me a new respect for the work they do. Like most people I've taken the "rule of law" for granted - it's something you hardly notice - and only when it goes wrong for you or someone you care for. The truth is that a whole lot of dedicated public servants work hard to make it possible.

I've also had a wake-up call that maybe I'm not as competent, clever and articulate as I thought I was. Maybe I'm a bit smug and limited and haven't seriously pushed myself for really quite a long time.

Don't vote Stan - he's not ready yet.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Do not commit adulthood.- A Jedi approach to the Law

There are two kinds of law in the UK. Civil law relates to disputes between individuals (Contracts & Obligations) and Criminal law relates to disputes between The State and an Individual.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said today that it "seems unavoidable" that parts of Islamic Sharia law will be adopted in the UK.

Oh please tell me that he means "only for Civil cases and only on a purely voluntary basis".

Personally, if two Muslims want their Imam to settle a business dispute between themselves then I'm all for it. If they wanted to settle it by playing Scissors-Paper-Stone this would be equally fine - as long as it was a voluntary agreement on both sides and related only to Civil issues.

Although my gut-instinct is to keep a Kryptonite wall between Religion and the Law. And that applies to all Religions - Christian, Jewish or Jedi alike. Especially not the Jedi - you could never trust them not to use the Dark Side.

Here are some examples of the kind of laws we might have were the Jedis to take over.

Update : On reflection, I have decided that this whole thing is a Beardy conspiracy. This Bearded archbishop wants his equally Beardy Muslim friends to help him take control. Far fetched ? Well you give me a logical reason why this man would say these things and I'll take it back.

"One Law For All" is a comforting idea, not a "barrier to social cohesion". I want this man's buns on a plate. I'm sure my tax money is paying for him to some degree, so I should get a say. Ideally I'd also want to ensure that his successor and the leaders of the other religious sects are removed from the House of Lords in case they ever have a mind to inflict their beliefs on the British legal system.

Vote Stan.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

All United Today

Anyone who knows me will have known that there was little chance that I'd miss the opportunity to comment on the 50th Anniversary of the Munich air disaster.

Why ? Well I'm a fan of Football. Not a Bolton fan, not a Partick Thistle fan but a fan of the whole Beautiful Game. And when some young talented lads die before their potential is realised it hurts me deeply. Not to mention the waste of those injured so badly that they never played again. What really hurts me most is that I'll never know whether Duncan Edwards was really as good as the old-timers say he was.

Some Bolton fans like to wind up United fans by singing sick songs about the disaster. To the United fans I say "Sorry". To them I say "Grow up, you sick f**ks". Duncan Edwards lingered in pain for 15 days after the crash - really : this is not a fit subject for humour.

There is not enough talent in the world. Not nearly enough. Not enough great Physicists, not enough influential teachers, not enough gifted Comedians. What little talent there is needs to be encouraged, protected and cherished.

And when it is lost, it should be mourned.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Totally Wired

I am trailing woefully behind everyone else but I have finally found HBO's series "The Wire" (thanks to a rented Box Set of Series 3) and I am now as hooked as any junkie in the Baltimore projects.

Such a wonderful way to tell a story - watching the cops, then watching the gangstas, then watching the politicians, then watching the junkies. A totally immersive experience - none of the characters seems ever to be having a good day but by means of consolation they do all seem to be getting copious amounts of sex, drink and drugs. Think "Hill Street Blues" meets "The Sopranos" meets "Grand Theft Auto".

Like in "Deadwood" the goodies are not totally good and the baddies not totally bad. Except that is for the guy that's running for mayor - some brother should put a cap in that mo/fo's ass.... See : that's how immersive it is - an hour after you switch it off and you're still thinking like a foul-mouthed ice-cold killa.

Also taking up my TV time these days are :-

* "Damages" the excellent legal drama with the awesome Glenn Close
* "Torchwood" the Dr. Who spin-off. Totally atrocious acting but excellent plots and dialogue make it a totally worthwhile investment of your time.

Monday, February 04, 2008

(Tom) Cruise Missile

There is a war going on (according to The Guardian) between Hackers and The Church of Scientology.

It seems the weapon of choice is the new science of Adversarial Information Retrieval which includes a concept called Google Bombing in which the Internet's premier search engine is enticed into returning the Scientologists' Home Page when ever anyone searches on "dangerous cult".

I stopped this posting to do exactly that Google search, and YES http://www.scientology.org/ is what comes up first at the time I'm typing this.

The exact mechanism to make this happen is complex and is constantly evolving as Google work out ways to stop it. However, a simple way is to create a site that ties the phrase "dangerous cult" and Scientology together multiple times in the text and also uses either the labels of a blog like this one, or the tags in the HTML of a custom webpage.

Scientology is a dangerous cult - I think only its initiates believe otherwise. Money is sucked from the suckers and reinvested to suck in more suckers. Tom Cruise is involved. And er ... do you really need any more reasons ?

It seems to me though that although Adversarial Information Retrieval appeals to my sense of humour, I can't believe it would actually convince anyone who isn't already convinced. Still, it seems to annoy the Scientologists - and I can't see how that's a bad thing.