January 2009 Archives

Why we are all screwed

The best explanation of Big Shitpile I've seen yet.

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From Billmon’s latest diary

I’ve been spending much of my professional time lately studying what happened in the credit markets during the bubble years, so I think I have a slightly better grasp than I did at the time, when I only thought it would lead to a nasty financial crisis, as opposed to Great Depression II.

The broad story is well known, even to the cable TV pinheads: Housing Bubble + Subprime Mortgage Lending + Derivatives = Armageddon. […] But even now I’m not sure if many people fully understand just how insanely reckless the carnival was, to the point where future historians will speak of “structured finance” in much the same the way we talk about the bubonic plague.

Read the whole thing.

Unbricking your iPhone

What none of those bastards on the Internet told me about PwnageTool.

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Earlier this week I decided to upgrade my iPhone from 1.x to a newer version of the OS, hoping to use it as a tethered modem on the train down to London. I downloaded PwnageTool from a link I’d bookmarked months earlier, updated the iPhone to the latest firmware via iTunes, ran PwnageTool… and ended with an error message. I rummaged around on the Internet for alternate ways of jailbreaking my phone, and all I got was a variety of subtly different ways to end up with a bricked iPhone.

There are a shedload of blog posts and comment threads that say things like “Try downgrading to an earlier version of iTunes”, “When generating a new .ipsw in PwnageTool make sure your iPhone isn’t plugged in at first”, “Try using another machine” etc. etc.

Not one of them said “Make sure you’re using the latest version of PwnageTool” or suggested anything like checking the version number of the software you’re using.

After endless faffing about, I finally realised that I was running 2.0.3 and should really be running 2.2. I torrented the latest version, ran it, and everything worked fine.

So this is my salutary tale: particularly if you’re getting error 1600, check you’ve got the latest version of everything.

Return of the train

An elegant method of transport for a more civilised age.

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For a few years now, I’ve been going down to London once a month for three days to see work and remind them who I am, and remind myself who they are. (The perils of working from home.) And up until last month, I’ve flown down.

Now, the company’s paying for it, so I’ve flown with traditional airlines like British Midland (who, misunderstanding their market, have decided to charge you for food and drink) or BA (who know their market much better and often give you doubles when you ask for a gin and tonic flying out from City airport on a Friday evening). But it’s never been particularly nice - there’s all the faffing about with getting a taxi to the airport (there’s no rail link to Glasgow airport at the moment because a whole bunch of playing fields are in the way), checking in, going through security, waiting in the departure lounge, shuffling onto the plane, taxiing around, taking off, sitting around with nothing to look at but clouds, landing, taxiing around again (especially at Heathrow where it takes ages to get to Terminal 5), going through baggage reclaim, and then realising that you’re in the middle of godforsaken nowhere so you have to get on at least one train to get anywhere near anywhere you’d want to be. The only particularly good thing about all of this is that a) it’s pretty fast compared to the trains, and b) City Airport, since their renovations, now has free wi-fi and plenty of plugs to recharge your laptop while you drink your extortionate £5.50 Hoegaarden.

Sorry, did I say “is”? I meant “was”. Work on the West Coast line completed in mid-December last year; that, coupled with Virgin’s new Pendolino trains, makes the train suddenly not just a contender, but a veritable no-brainer.

First of all, the combination of improved track and better trains that tilt as they go round corners means that you can go from Glasgow city centre to London city centre in 4 and a half hours, if you choose an express train that doesn’t stop everywhere. Once you factor in taking taxis and/or trains at either end to get from to the airport and back, going through security and general waiting around, it turns out that it only takes half an hour or so to take the train from Glasgow rather than fly.

Secondly, there’s far less hassle and faffing about. Going down to London is now a matter of walking about 4 minutes to my local train station, taking a train into Glasgow Queen Street, walking through the city centre to Glasgow Central, getting on a train, getting off at London Euston 4 and a half hours later, taking a brief tube trip to Liverpool Street, then 10 minute’s walk and I’m at work. There is so much less nonsense: no traipsing through airport corridors with any or all of your bags, no airport to city centre rail links, shorter tube trips. This doesn’t matter so much now, but in the middle of summer when you’ve flown down from Glasgow in the morning and then end up navigating the London Underground at midday with a couple of bags, not having to walk all over the place sweating like a pig is a definite good thing.

And that’s before I’ve mentioned the killer third fact: the train is cheaper and better.

BA’s web site promises that it will match anyone’s prices, and for my standard Wednesday to Friday flights, it’s quoting me £148.40. As one of those flights is into Heathrow, and both involve Glasgow, add £15.50 (Heathrow Express - remember, this is for work) and roughly £18 (airport taxis) respectively, which ends up as something like £200. Virgin Trains, which I know can be undercut when e.g. thetrainline.com’s web site is working, quotes me £173 for the trip.

The kicker? This is what it costs for First Class. Where they feed you, douse you with tea/coffee and fruit juice/alcohol, and give you both ample legroom and enough desk space (and power outlets) to fit a 17 inch laptop. If you’ve got a 3G modem or otherwise a tethered phone, you can get at the Internet for most of the trip; or you can download TV shows or films to watch on the way down, without worrying that you’ll bother anyone (assuming you’ve got headphones and don’t listen to things like a metaller). And if somehow you get bored, you can look out of the window and see things, like the snow on the Pennines this past Wednesday.

And this is before even mentioning that taking the train, powered by electricity (which could easily be switched to more-renewable sources), rather than taking the plane, powered by petroleum derivatives, is far more environmentally-friendly.

But hang on, I hear you say: what if you just want to get somewhere cheaply and you haven’t convinced someone to pay for it? Well, as it turns out, Cleodhna and I are going down to London next week, and we’re taking the train, but this time in cattle class. It’s £34.50 per person per trip, or £138 total; looking at what it would have cost me to book such tickets a fortnight in advance, Ryanair would have quoted me £150 (before you add on train fares to and from Prestwick, and the Stansted Express into London), Easyjet £130 (again before getting-to-airport fares, plus probably a whole bunch of sneaky extra costs).

So yeah. If you’re just travelling down South, take the train. It’s better in every single way.

Including delay explanations. Most of the time when your flight is delayed, it’s because of the weather, which are tedious and boring. (Sitting in a plane for an hour or two because the captain wants to be able to take off at a moment’s notice because landing slots are both unpredictable and first-come, first-served, is not fun.) The train down from Glasgow to London was remarkably smooth, with no annoying interruptions or slow-downs. The train up from London was fine, until we got to Crewe (where we weren’t supposed to stop), and stopped because, er, there had been a fatality up ahead, and, it became quickly apparent (and kudos to the train manager for keeping us informed), the Police had declared it a crime scene.

Kudos also to the Virgin trains staff as they managed to shuffle trains around, get people from a cancelled train onto ours, then all of us onto a third train, switch around routes and stops, and eventually lay on taxis for people travelling onwards to Edinburgh when it became obvious that they wouldn’t make the last connecting train. For reasons of space they also opened up first class for everyone, which was a nice gesture. I couldn’t help noticing, though, that they only gave people first class space - for some reason, while first class was full of random plebs, they stopped serving endless free tea/coffee/alcohol. Only after we left Carlisle did they seem to remember that this was first class, once the numbers had dwindled to an acceptable a cheap level ;-).

Inauguration we can believe in

Visible from space

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Crowd watching Barack Obama's inaguration

From the comments in that entry, an even bigger picture.

Designing for rare occasions

There had better only ever be one possible answer to a security question.

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What is delicious

Work has decided to outsource some parts of HR to a random website, which, if it means I never have to faff about with emailing spreadsheets to claim holidays, is a very good thing. On signing up to said website, though, I was asked to pick a random security question and an answer. And all of the questions were bad. Here’s what I could pick from:

  • What is my favourite pet’s name?
  • What is my Mother’s maiden name?
  • What is my favourite movie?
  • What secondary school did I go to?
  • What is my ultimate dream car?
  • What is my favourite food?

Straight off we have to eliminate mother’s maiden name as amazingly insecure. Never mind that it’s a matter of public record if you care enough (hell, some people have their mother’s maiden name as their middle name), it’s a question that everyone uses. Now, I’ve heard of people who decide on a different maiden name each time, but that’s an explicit acknowledgement of how bad such a question is.

What secondary school you went to is also problematic because, in this age of social networks, this sort of thing is also very easy to find out. (A better choice is to name your primary school, because nobody lists that on their CV, and by the time you reach your 20s you’ve almost certainly lost track with everyone in your primary school.) Nonetheless, that’s the one I picked because all the others are even more problematic: while the bad guys might not be able to work them, chances are that in a year or two, neither will you.

Favourite pet? Favourite movie? Are you sure these won’t ever change? In an age of regular improvements in material sciences, propulsion techniques and design, can you be sure that your ultimate dream car will continue to be your ultimate dream car for the rest of your life? (If it’s not the DeLorean DMC-12 or Porsche 911, then you will change your mind.)

(“Name of first pet” is an improvement over “Favourite pet’s name”, but not by much, because it’s part of your porn star name.)

And, hell, how many people have a clear stand-out favourite food? That they’ll reliably remember and re-type?

Bear in mind, this is something you’re going to think about briefly when filling in a form, then not think about for ages - until suddenly you need to log in to a site, you’ve forgotten your password, it’s asking you for a security question and if you get this wrong more than a handful of times, you’re locked out forever. Your answer has to be intensely memorable, and yet private, and there has to be only one for you to type it.

Years ago I was in the pub with a few fellow IT geeks, and this topic came up, and someone mentioned the question “Where did you lose your virginity?” - on the grounds that presumably only two people know the answer in the vast majority of cases. Upon subsequent discussion, the flaw in this approach was revealed: too many people would have very similar answers, e.g. “my parents’ bedroom” etc.

Cahoot gets this right. It has a number of security questions, which are unequivocal. A memorable year can only be 4 digits (or, if you’ve decided it’s a date BC, or a geological date, or a Star Trek star date or something equally unusual, you presumably remember how it is that you’d type it). A memorable place can similarly only be spelled one way (again, if it could arguably be either Florence or Firenze, you presumably remember which spelling is most memorable to you). Best of all, by saying “memorable”, it gives you latitude in deciding what it is that you want to remember, which makes the answer more personal and therefore more difficult to crack.

I say, old boy

Did you hear that bounder Bush is finally on his way out?

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Friday critter-blogging

It it wasn't Friday I've just have fessed up to nicking stuff off the Internet.

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"Don't drink soap suds out of the toilet!"

Things you never thought you had to say until you got dogs.

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We had a Scottish Gas boiler guy come around and look at our increasingly temperamental 14-year-old boiler. He fixed a number of things (hooray!), but informed us that we’d need to rip up the entire central heating system if we wanted to fix things properly (boo!), as whichever previous owner put in the boiler etc. did it in a cack-handed way (small plastic pipes rather than proper large copper pipes).

It could have been worse. When we were buying this place, one estate agent told us he’d shown people around a flat where the owners had put in laminate flooring without taking out the carpet first. You may want the bouncy feel of being in the Barrowlands all the time, but most people don’t.

Anyway, to give the boiler guy some peace and quiet, we locked the dogs in the bedroom. They were not pleased.

Wide shot Close up

Dogs are pack animals. Separating them from the pack is torture.

Thankfully, dogs also have short memories.

Cleodhna and dogs

That was yesterday. Tonight, out of the blue, we realised that there were suddenly large bloody marks all over the floor. We tracked it down to Taji, and I held him by his collar to stop him tracking it all over the flat while Cleodhna found bandages and socks and the other paraphernalia you need when treating a dog’s footpad injuries. I don’t have photos of the significant quantities of blood that Taji spread around the flat because Habibi promptly went around licking most of it up. Not all of it (dogs are not in any way methodical), but enough that any photos would be astonishingly uninteresting.

Still, there was enough random blood left on the floor that Cleodhna had to go around with a bucket and mop and mop it all up. And then empty the bucket into the loo. And stop Taji from drinking out of said toilet.

(He also likes to eat the soil out of the rubber-tree plant’s pot; a departure from our previous big dog, Laszlo, who liked to eat the soil out of the dragon tree plant’s pot.)

Anyway, Taji is now patched up:

Taji with bandage, and Berkeley

And Habibi seems happy with a job well done.

Habibi attentive Habibi poses with the rubber-tree plant

Tomorrow I will wake up to Taji sleeping on the side of the bed where Cleodhna would normally be (the joys of working from home), and at some point Habibi will realise that I’m vaguely awake and rush in, wagging her tail, and a) jump up on the bed and burrow underneath the duvet, b) jump up on the bed, be stroked, and then jump off, c) jump up on the foot of the bed and settle down, or d) run out again. Berkeley may or may not come in at some point, get his head stroked for a perfunctory minute, and then crawl into his den underneath the bed.

I wouldn’t swap this for anything.

A sentence that could only have been written towards the end of this decade

Science fiction writers should aspire to something that is so much of our time

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It’s in a footnote in chapter 19 of the latest Oliver Sacks book, Musicophilia:

… Snowball, a sulphur-crested Eleonora cockatoo who had received some reknown on YouTube for his dancing to the Backstreet Boys

Here’s Snowball in action.

This being 2008 2009, Snowball’s owners have a blog.

We have a new Doctor

Now we only need to wait a year and a half to see if he's any good.

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Meanwhile, reaction around the Internet based on no more than 10 minutes of interview and a few publicity photos happens. My favourites so far: Chicken Yoghurt:

It’s a brave move to be sure, swapping the pasty skinny white guy with stupid hair for another pasty skinny white guy with stupid hair. Quite the departure.

and in the comments for the Escapist’s entry:

Ive never heard of this actor in my life. Why not Brian Blessed?


Making Light

An introduction, if you're not already a reader

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Making Light is an excellent blog, and has amazing comments to boot. If you’re not already a reader, this recap of 2008 is a good place to start.

Sometimes it seems like every single science-fiction author reads and comments on Making Light; a case in point is Jo Walton linking to her wonderful short story about Joseph back on Christmas Day. And of course the Name the two Hobbit films thread thread that I posted about earlier.

The next Doctor

And, possibly, his or her underpants.

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The BBC says we’ll find out who the next Doctor is tomorrow. Unfortunately they listed the various incarnations of the Doctor as follows:

  1. William Hartnell
  2. Patrick Troughton
  3. Jon Pertwee
  4. Tom Baker (pictured)
  5. Peter Davison
  6. Colin Baker
  7. Sylvester McCoy
  8. Paul McGann
  9. Christopher Eccleston
  10. David Tennant
  11. ???

…which made me want to add to the end

12. Profit!

That is all.

Nobody went broke underestimating the Christmas single market

Unintentionally, the second post in a row about philistinism.

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First, a recap.

Simon Fuller launched Pop Idol. It became popular. The US spin-off shortly followed. After various legal shenanigans, Simon Fuller ended up in charge of the X Factor in the UK, which was otherwise the same fundamental idea: get a whole bunch of hopefuls to try and win the ultimate prize of being the best singer in the land - and promptly record a single or two, managed by Simon Fuller, and earn them a boatload of cash.

The winner of season 1 (2002) of American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, recorded a single “A moment like this” that shot to the top of the US charts. When Leona Lewis won X Factor in 2006, Simon Fuller dusted off the cobwebs and had her sing the exact same song, complete with back-to-front empty theatre.

Now I learn that Hallelujah is the Christmas number one. Except that it’s the latest X Factor winner’s cover version. (Does that style of video promo look familiar?) The Truck driver’s gear shift appears traditional, it appears, and as soon as that happens, the lip service to the original ends and it all goes fantastically gospel and big hair etc.

Now, the late Jeff Buckley’s record company decided to re-issue his cover of the Leonard Cohen song, and I almost wish it hadn’t gone anywhere - then, at least, we could have been reassured that there’s a limit to musical ignorance and record company cynicism.

Unfortunately, the Jeff Buckley single did well. Just not well enough. It came second.

Please listen to the Jeff Buckley cover again, which Alexandra Burke’s version is crudely based upon. Listen in particular to the beautiful sparseness and elegance of the guitar (which is Buckley’s only accompaniment, albeit boosted by an echo / reverb effect), and the scratchiness, hesitation, artistry in the singing, which come together to produce an interpretation that is timeless, and, I would argue, folk - not gospel or pop. You could replace the guitar with piano or banjo or cello or whatever, and as long as you kept the expression - of vocals and instrument alike - you’d have the same effect. (I think you should keep the occasional delicate forays into the high octaves, though.) Starting with session musician’s guitar and then dumping it for strings and choirs and over-production once you’ve got to the key change and the interesting part has now started, is not quite the same.

Via Making Light’s Christmas disasters thread.