Christmas Day With Me

Lovely little funky Christmas tune by Laura Vane and the Vipertones:

Today’s nugget of wisdom

He was a very good bullshitter, by which he meant a very bad one.

Wallander’s second

The Dogs of Riga

I know I haven’t been blogging for a while, but I just do not have the time, so I will keep it short.

People pay money for this?

It’s not that Henning Mankell’s police procedural The Dogs of Riga is badly written, indeed for most of the time, and especially the beginning it is quite entertaining. The end though is very weak. You don’t believe the author for a second. You can see the denouement coming from miles ahead, and the only thing that keeps you reading is the thought that goes continuously through your head: “Surely, Mankell would not end the book like that?”

It’s only his second book in the Wallander series, from what I understand, so I’m going to assume that the author will perhaps master copying Sjöwall and Wahlöö with some proficiency later on.

My rating: 2.0 stars
**

My Firefox plug-ins

They say that where Firefox really shines is its ability to extend its functionality through plug-ins. It is not why I use that web browser the most. Below are the plug-ins I use:

British English Dictionary, Woordenboek Nederlands. Because if left to my own devices, I would call the first plug-in “Brittish English Dictionary.”

DownloadHelper. I finally decided I wanted to save a Youtube video to my hard disk, and this plug-in lets you do exactly that. Add an encoder, and you extract the MP3 from a music video. Works with every site that has embedded videos, not just Youtube. Seems to have gotten pretty popular, because now that I know what they are there for I see the familiar coloured balls on many computers I come across.

Exif Viewer lets you see the data that photo cameras and photographers add to online photos, such as exposure, copyright information, and so on. Handy to find out with which brand camera a picture was taken, or if a journalist lies about when a photo was taken. It is possible for photographers to remove that sort of information, but so far most people seem to leave it in.

Leet Key decodes (and encodes) text from (and to) ROT13, which is sort of a standard way for posting spoilers. That is to say, if you want to write about a movie, but do not wish to spoil plot details for those who haven’t seen it yet, you can opt to encode the spoiler text with ROT13. This method is very little used on the internet, but does seem to have some kind of following, so this plug-in comes in handy every few months or so.

Leet Key encodes and decodes between many more formats, but even though a format like Base64 is popular, you will hardly ever find it on the World Wide Web. Base64 is what is used by e-mail to transport photos and other files over networks, even though the user typically doesn’t get to see the encoding that is used.

FEBE is a back-up tool for Firefox. I use it mainly to make sure that a fresh Firefox installation on another computer still has all my bookmarks and plug-ins. It is said to be buggy, but the one time I used it, it caused no problems, so maybe they got the bugs out.

Of the plug-ins (or extensions as the Firefox community calls them) mentioned above, I use the dictionaries almost every day, and the Exif viewer regularly.

I also a bunch of the many Firefox plug-ins for web developers (I work as a freelance web developer). These days I would be slowed down considerably if I had to make my money without them. But I won’t bore you with those—as they are business related—except to quickly mention their names: Web Developer, Firebug, Javascript Debugger, Tamper Data, Dom Inspector.

Are there any must-have plug-ins I missed?

The introverted side of Battlestar Galactica

I just downloaded the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica from the internet video recorder, and something I noticed while spot checking the files was that they changed the text overlay of the trailer.

In the previous seasons you would get a quick recap of the back story, A-Team style, so that even if you weren’t a fan of the series you would be up to speed before you even started watching.

The Cylons were created by man. They rebelled. [picture of robot firing his gun-hand here] They evolved. [woman coming out of her peptide bath] There are many copies. And they have a plan.

With the fourth season a new introductory text was chosen:

Twelve Cylon models. Seven are known. Four live in secret. One will be revealed.

That text assumes two things: one, that you already know the back story (not such a strange assumption), and two, that you care about who the Cylon models are. Without having seen a single frame of season four the series is already trying to tell me what it is going to be about. And I do not know if I care.

The producers of the A-Team also changed the intro, in the fifth series, but in that altered trailer they did not change the promise of its makers to the viewers (namely: Shichinin no Samurai set in the US). Battlestar Galactica seems to be saying it has changed into Lost, a series that has so far failed to hold my attention for longer than it takes to press Next on the remote control.

What is more, if BG really is going to cater for its current viewer base (not to mention only that part of the base that is most interested in the mystery behind the Cylons), there is also a hint of lowering standards. After all, why make the effort when you are not trying to woo anyone any more.

I am afraid, I am very afraid.

How does a market of free goods work?

Cory Doctorow in his review of Free, Chris Anderson’s latest book:

Information that can be freely reproduced at no marginal cost may not want, need or benefit from markets as a way of organising them.

Considering that markets organise themselves by exchanging information about costs and goods/services, and that there is a price attached in the sense of so-called transactional costs, that is not such a bad idea. Transactional costs are the price (usually in time and energy, not actual money) you pay for gathering information about the market and the product, and for making the actual purchase.

Often, these costs are a negligible part of the purchase price, but with free information they tower largely over it.

Cory Doctorow then goes on (and off the rails as far as I am concerned) suggesting that the distribution of free products may take place along the lines of ‘socialist’ organisations such as families and offices. Let us not go there, it is where madness lies.

The question is an interesting one and takes place at a micro-level—and indeed Doctorow has written much more wisely about the topic. How does a consumer decide which free information product to select? As with all products in a free market, a consumer needs information about the product. But gathering that information has a cost!

The micropayments movement has been racking its brains over how to lower this cost, as transactional costs are what has kept micropayments still-born so far. If you are unfamiliar with micropayments: very small payments for products of little (but not: no) value, such as comics you read on the web. The worth of an individual strip may be a few cents, maybe even less than a cent. It turns out that consumers who are in principal willing to pay half a cent for such a comic, aren’t willing to spend the time of paying half a cent. In other words, they value their time higher than the price of the product.

Models that seem to be getting money to producers of both cheap and free information are subscriptions, patronage, jar tips and so on, and the reason they work is that they either reduce the cost of figuring out how to pay to almost nil, or they increase the value of what is being bought.

There might even be some kind of sweet spot where the actual cost of (many instances of) the product is equal to the perceived monetary value of the transactional costs. If the producer would set the price at that sweet spot, you would get the interesting situation that the buyer would basically be handing over money so that he (or she) won’t have to bother with figuring out the payment details for a while—he will essentially get the product thrown in the bargain for free—, whereas the producer will see the money coming in as a payment for the product. You could get interesting misunderstandings that way, for instance if that producer lowered his price he might see his market collapse without ever understanding what just happened. (Just speculating there.)

That leaves the question of what happens when the producers do not want any money.

Zoetermeer railway station

A law should be passed that prohibits people from entering Dutch cities through their main railway stations, because more often than not your first impression will be of a barren wasteland where horrid things go to die. (Which, by the way, really fantastic! if you are into that sort of thing.)

This, for instance, is Zoetermeer, a name that translates to Sweeter Lake.

zoetermeer-station.jpg

(“Kantoor te huur” means “office for rent.”)

DSLR photography workshop

NIDF Canon EOS 1000D workshop

nidf-workshop.jpg

When I bought my Canon EOS 1000D camera earlier this year I got a coupon that allowed me to participate in a photography workshop (EOS is their range of so-called Single Lens Reflexes, the D stands for digital, and the large number signifies the entry level model).

For 25 euro, a man told us everything about using this camera model during about 5 hours. As the workshop started at 10 am, and there were several breaks including one for lunch, the workshop almost spanned an entire working day.

Since it’s been awhile, I’ll just list what I thought was good and what was not so good.

The Good:

– Information filled: I actually learned quite a bit.

– The price? I would probably not have signed up if the workshop had cost four times more.

– There were a number of sessions where we got to put the things we had just learned into practice.

– The institute provided drinks and a simple lunch, which made the whole affair seem just that much more thought out. During the breaks, the instructor was available for questions.

The Not-so-good:

– Read the manual out loud: the bulk of the workshop consisted of going over almost the complete feature set of the camera. This turned out to be necessary: some of the students hadn’t bothered reading the manual. But since I myself had bothered to read the manual, I could have done with more of ‘how to use these features to make great photos.’

– The teacher sometimes reverted to sarcasm; it sounded like he needed a vacation. If you cannot treat your customers with civility, why bother showing up? (Then again, this was at the end of the day, perhaps he was getting tired.)

– Large chunks of the presentation were accompanied by bog standard Powerpoint presentation, i.e. reams of text on an overhead projector. Good presentations involve powerful imagery to make an emotional connection with what the presenter is trying to stay. It strikes me that if anything is suited for good Powerpoint, it would be a photography workshop. I want to be able to see what I can achieve by using the camera in a certain way.

– The price? Especially at the end of the day the crowd started getting noisy and restless, making it difficult to follow what the instructor was saying. I figured people would have been more attentive if they had had to pay more. But perhaps it wasn’t the price of the exercise, but the duration and nature that caused a restless audience.

If I could have changed one thing about the underlying idea of this course, it would have been to offer two workshops, one for people who already had read the manual, and one for people who had not.

Summing up, the workshop was worth the money, but it could have been much more vibrant. Whether it’s worth it for you depends largely on the amount of time you can spare; the price is hardly an object.

My rating: 3.0 stars
***

Naarden – Muiden

A 20 kilometre hike today from Naarden, a town known better for the way it looks from the air than from the ground, to Muiden, where count Floris V had a castle built, only to see it used as a prison for himself by his enemies. The finish line was in Weesp, an unassuming town known to historians for the quality of its drinking water, and to me for having a railway station.

In case you are wondering, I did take photos of the fortifications of Naarden but, as I said, from the ground… And I also took pictures of Floris V’s castle, but those just did not make the cut. Here are the ones that did:

naarden_muiden_01.jpg

naarden_muiden_02.jpg

naarden_muiden_03.jpg

naarden_muiden_04.jpg

What you see in the last picture is the entrance to the harbour of Muiden.

Nice refresher course in biology

Life Ascending, The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution

What little I remember about the organization of life from my few high school biology classes in the early 1980s is that the realm of the living was divided into animals and plants.

The world of biology has not, it seems from this book, stood still in the intervening years. Animals and plants are still there, but they make up an ever dwindling part of the taxonomic tree of life, hidden somewhere on a branch behind amoebæ together with fungi.

The ten great inventions of evolution are, according to Lane:

  • The origin of life
  • DNA
  • Photosynthesis
  • The complex cell
  • Sex
  • Movement
  • Sight
  • Hot blood
  • Consciousness
  • Death

Of each of these things he discusses where they came from and how they got where they are now, mostly by looking at the genetic record.

I had two problems with Life Ascending. The first was Lane’s insistence on talking about religion. I have attended a Catholic elementary school, grammar school and university for more than 24 years combined, and the only time ever teachers talked about religion was during the bible readings at the start of the school days, and during the weekly religious lessons. Biology classes were blissfully spared from any religious intrusions, and the reason is obvious. When talking about science, you should not be going to give any attention, not even a little bit, to the rantings of kooks.

Religion simply doesn’t live on the same plane as science, so why even discuss it in a book that purports to be about science? Lane weakly argues that religion tries to come up with answers to questions about where life came from, but so do all kinds of crazy people who are not inspired by faith, and Lane doesn’t take a single of their theories seriously.

What is more, Lane doesn’t seem to like religion very much, which makes him come across like those hordes of American priests who publicly condemn homosexuality in the strongest of words, but then get found out as both lovers and connoisseurs of smoking the meat cigar.

Spending three, now four paragraphs to talk about Lane’s love of discussing religion’s crazy antics makes it seem the book is full of such talk, and there I can gladly put your mind at ease. For the full length of the book, the author takes about as much space talking about religion as the reviewer takes here berating him for it. The reason I mention it at all is the same as the reason you might mention catching a short glimpse of the waiter scratching his balls in your review of an excellent meal at the world’s finest restaurant—it still grates.

My other qualm with Life Ascending is that Lane often declares certain evolutionary paths to have been inevitable (the evolution of eyes and the cell wall), and others to have been sheer coincidence, without giving more of an explanation than “the DNA done it.”

Let me explain this for a second. If you see evolution as a tree where some features have come into existence repeatedly, and other features have only come into existence once, this would suggest that some things are evolutionary inevitable, and others are the opposite.

Take eyes. There are some 13 different branches of eyes that have all evolved separately. You can discover these things by comparing DNA of living and dead creatures and determining if they are similar or distinct. If the DNA for a single feature, no matter how far it has further developed, is strikingly similar across species, you may assume that all these species had at one point a single ancestor, the thin part of the hour glass they crawled through.

But Lane only mentions the “one or many ancestors” bit, and then blithely ignores the exploration of the much and much harder issue of why a certain feature would be likely to happen or not.

I only mention this because I am completely incompetent in judging a book about biology on its biological merits, and therefore have to judge it on its methodological merits, and a scientist who shows not much curiousity is just a tell-tale sign for all kinds of trouble.

But then again, as a result I spent a lot of time simply checking Lane’s facts, and I guess that is a positive thing. Although, once you have found out there are plants with eyes, you will contemplate giving up all food for a while, before becoming more omnivorous than ever.

Lane’s own prime concern with his work appears to be that his selection of the ten great inventions of evolution are perhaps not the best he could have made, and I tend to agree with that. But that is probably the wrong way to view this book. Life Ascending is instead a solid, accessible refresher course for people like me (the arts ‘n’ humanities crowd), people who got a few sprinklings of biology classes a couple of lifetimes ago and weren’t really aware that the world of biology has decidedly moved on since then. It is an excellent spring board for further exploration, and I really recommend you buy it just to get your facts about Life (and that interesting feature, Death) re-aligned.

My rating: 4.0 stars
****