Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Looking back at the World Cup

And so the World Cup is now a fading memory and, let’s face it, it was a bit disappointing wasn’t it? For a number of reasons, it really didn’t sparkle, and not just because the English and French let us down.

FIFA spoilt the competition with the ball. Why on earth did they introduce such a different ball in their flagship competition? While I’m sure that every player there would have go the hang of it eventually (ok, maybe not Robert Green), where were all the spectacular long-shots or free kicks? How many freak, wildly swerving goals were there? Madness, utter madness which ruined the spectacle.

And then England. Oh we had such hopes, such expectations! This time, this time we had the players, the coach, the winning mentality and, best of all, we thought the Germans would be rubbish. Oops.

Were they tired? That was the official excuse, after all. Nonsense, don’t insult us with that. Many of the Germans and Brazilians played at least as many games.

Were they motivated? Well, we all saw the videos made by the chaps in Afghanistan willing them to win it and, if that that wasn’t motivation enough, they didn’t deserve to be there.

So, was it Capello’s fault? Partly, I think. True, his chosen formation was archaic and too rigid, and his decisions not to take Walcott was inexcusable. What worried me more was that he had no plan B. When it wasn’t working (ie all the time) he could only bring on like-for-like replacements. But, worryingly, I think Capello’s problem was deeper than that. Far deeper. Capello’s credibility and track record are outstanding, so I’m not convinced he would have chosen that formation without a reason. And that reason is that our players are simply not good enough to play the modern, free-flowing, passing game.

But surely, some of them are “world class”? Really, who says? If anything good comes out of England’s appalling showing, it has to be that English football is rotten. To the very core.

Let’s start at the top. Uniquely, as far as I can tell, English football is run by three organisations: The FA, the Premier League and the Football League. So, who is in charge? Someone recently described the FA as “unfit for purpose” and he may have a point. The top clubs are foreign owned and rather suspect that their business plans are simply to make as much money as possible (ok, nothing wrong with that) and win the Champions League at any cost.

While watching one of the early games involving Honduras, I was intrigued by a late Honduran substitute. So mediocre was he that I can’t remember his name, but the commentator announced, without any hint of incredulity, that he’d just signed for Wigan. What? Why would Wigan buy an unheard of Honduran substitute? There can only be three explanations:
  1. This Honduran substitute is a better player than any home-grown talent Wigan can either buy or develop from their own academy.
  2. He is cheaper than any home-grown talent
  3. The stakes are so high that Wigan dare not bring young talent through the ranks. Far better to buy mediocre, experienced journeyman from abroad.
Wow. In fact, I think all three of those are true. I’m convinced that there are some great, young English players out there, but top clubs only play them in the League Cup. Look at Walcott and Wilshire at Arsenal, Sturridge at Chelsea etc. Last summer, Germany beat England in the final of the European Under 21s. Five members of that German team played in the World Cup. Want to guess how many of the England team did? Not one of them even made the squad.

But, the fact remains that our top players simply do not measure up against the Germans, Spanish or Brazilians. Think about it - how may of our top players play in the Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga? None. They are just not as good as we thought they were.

But, think about this: how many of the really top players of the World Cup play in the Premier League? Very, very few, and those who we consider as Galacticos here – Fabregas, Torres, Drogba – either spent most of the competition keeping the bench warm or were hugely disappointing.

Look, it’s simple. England will never do well in competitions while the development of young players and coaches is so poor. The fact that we couldn’t find a competent national coach is a tragic indictment of the state of English football. While the top teams are allowed to buy young talent just for the minor competitions and play entire teams of foreigners, young players will not develop into true world-class players.

The short term solution? Well, Gerrard, Rooney et al proved they weren’t up to the task, so they’ve had their chance. Build a new young team around Walcott, Wilshire, Johnson, Agbonlahor, Bale, Hart etc. Forget the 2012 European Championships, we won’t qualify for them, build a new team for 2014.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

A propos du Coupe du Monde

Yay, it's nearly World Cup time!

I love the World Cup. I love that there are games every evening and I love the way the country seems to remember that it is a country. I love the way we're proud to be English rather than British and that we can be smug (but in a very repressed, English way) that we're there and the others aren't.

And we'll fly the cross and wear our t-shirts and dream that this time, just maybe, we won't lose on penalties.

But I have a problem. Not a big one and, if I'm honest, it's a nice problem to have. You see, I am very proud to be Anglo-French. It means I can be English in England and French when I'm in France (sadly, not often enough). It means I have two teams to support and thus twice the chances of winning. For me, you see, it's only been twelve years rather than forty-four, and that's great.


It doesn't happen often, and it may not happen this time, but if both win their groups and round-of-sixteen games, wanna guess what happens in the quarter finals? Yep.

Actually, the reality is much more simple. I live here. I follow the English game and can name my own choice of starting line-up (which, Mr Capello, if you happen to read this, you should take note of). If I'm honest, while I can pretty much name the '98 winning side, I know very few of the current French team. So I promise to sing both God Save the Queen and La Marseillaise and then get behind the English.

It's even possible that they'll meet in the final, so I couldn't really lose. Great.

Friday, 16 April 2010

On not being a Terrorist

Writing this, sat in my office, I’m pretty sure that I’m not being watched by ‘them’. Yeah, I realise that Google records every search I make, that all my e-mails are scanned and stored and that my ISP logs every site I visit, but I meant actually watched, you know video and stuff.

But, if I venture out of my front door, things are very different. As many people like to say, we are the world’s most watched citizens. The level of daily surveillance in our lives would shock George Orwell and make the Stasi throw in the towel.

Which is odd, because if we want to take photos, we have to watch our step. I remember, maybe twenty years ago, taking some photos at my nephew’s under-16, Sunday morning football game. If I tried that now, I’d be chased out the park by torches and pitchforks. Last August, at Worthing’s Bird Man event, a man was arrested and subsequently charged with photographing children. Think about it... in a public place, at a public event attended by tens of thousands amongst whom, surely, were thousands of cameras and camera phones, one man was pointed out and bundled away. For what? When did taking photos of children in a public place become a crime? OK, at the trial it became clear that the nature of the pictures were sick, but not in any way obscene or illegal. So this time, the Police caught a bad guy. Who’s going to be brave enough to take a camera to this year’s event?

Ok, fair enough, photographing children is now a crime. So, sorry Grandma, no more photos of the grandchildren, because anyone who would want to photograph a child must be a pervert.

At least we can still photograph Britain’s natural beauty and cultural heritage.

Err, no... because then we’d be terrorists. There is a worrying trend for amateur and pro photographers to be confronted by police under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for taking photos in public streets and public buildings. Some have had cameras seized or have been forced to delete images, neither of which the Police are allowed to do. Photography magazines recommend photographers carry “bust cards” explaining what they should do when their collar is felt and reminding the Police that there is no law against taking photographs in public places. Yet.

What worries me is that our society is becoming suspicious. Whatever we do, we are being watched and someone, somewhere is wondering what we are up to. Your average Joe, the perfect law-abiding citizen, fears prosecution for driving slightly too fast. We fear being suspected of being terrorists, paedophiles or racists for making an inadvertent comment or gesture. Or for taking photographs.

“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering” – Yoda

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

On Democracy and the Phoney Election

And so, as of today, the nation is officially on an election footing as Brown admits the worst-kept secret ever and announces the date of the election.

Now, I have no political affiliations - I belong to no party and I would never dream of supporting or endorsing a party, so I thought it would be fun to blog day-to-day on how the local candidates are doing in my estimation. Who will I vote for, did so-and-so have a good day on the campaign trail or did he commit political suicide?

Yeah, it would be fun. But it’s not gonna happen. No point, no point at all.

You see, for election purposes, I live in West Worthing. In 2005, the Conservative chappie got 47%, ahead of the Lib-Dem chap who got 26%. The result was exactly the same in 2001, but in 1997 it was very exciting because the Lib-dem guy got 31%! The ward was created in 1997, when Worthing was split into two. Up until then, the Conservatives had won every election going back to 1945.

So, quite honestly, if my Labrador was to somehow wake up as the Conservative’s prospective parliamentary candidate, she’d win. No problem.

So where is the incentive for new voters to vote? We talk about people’s democratic right to vote, but the tragic fact is that, if you live in Worthing and many, many other similar towns, you cannot influence the outcome of the national election.

The UK is world’s largest democracy in which the political head of state, and therefore the ruling administration, is not elected to that post. He or she is chosen by a mixture of the elected Members and un-elected committees – party members and Trade Unions. Brown has been Prime Minister for three years, but we have never been given the chance to elect him.

In a Country which likes to gloat about being the father of democracy, the electoral system is rotten to the core. At the last election, Labour won 35% of the overall vote, yet were rewarded with 55% of parliamentary seats. The Conservatives won only 3% less votes, yet only got 30% of seats while the Lib-dems got 22% of the vote and 9% of seats.

So will I vote? Yes, of course. Will it make a difference locally? Probably not. Will my vote have a bearing on who governs the country?

Sadly, no.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Please don't follow me...

I’ve said before that I like to do my own thing. That doesn’t mean that I’m anti-establishment, but I cherish my own views and opinions and don’t feel any need to impose them on anyone else. I’m not religious, don’t belong to any political movement and don’t even support a particular football team. In short, I’m not a follower and have no desire to be followed.

Maybe that’s why I don’t get Twitter?

Now don’t get me wrong… I quite like Twitter and have an account (@voisardparsons). As I write this, I have Tweetdeck open watching for Tweets about Worthing or from people who sometimes have interesting things to say or share.

When I first signed up, I was flattered to receive notifications that strangers were “following” me. Great. I had no idea who these people were, but they seemed interested in me. Err, no. They expected me, out of courtesy, to “follow” them and that was their thing – having as many followers as possible, irrespective of who they were. Eeek.

Now, Twitter is a one-to-many medium. For example, I write something deeply profound and all my “followers” see it as can anyone who watches for keywords which I may have included. Some use it brilliantly: Chris Evans asks questions during his show, Duncan Bannatyne found his wife’s dress and, of course, Stephen Fry shares his life online when he’s not hibernating. Others use it badly – the BBC spams out headlines at a machine-gun rate, others “Tweet” their entire day in minute, banal detail. Twitter can be a great way to rapidly spread a rumour, news (Iran, for example) or a viral video.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but Stephen Fry is, of course, a national treasure. He is genuinely interesting and passionate about technology but the idea of “following” him, or anyone else, bothers me and, if I’m honest, I don’t really want “followers”.

What I’d really like is somewhere where I can choose “friends” and share the odd thought, cool link or photo with them, maybe chat occasionally and read what they’re up to. Wait a minute, that’s Facebook isn’t it?

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Desert Island survival.

I suppose it’s the done thing for every writer or blogger to do their own “Desert Island” list of tracks, so I’ve been giving it some thought…

The easiest thing would be to write down your ten favourite tracks and be done with it but, actually, if this really were a desert island, and if you really only could ever listen to ten tracks, you’d want to choose tracks to cover every mood and every style you like.


Easy one to start with – Jacques Brel’s “La Chanson des vieux amants”. Rarely heard in English, but this wonderful lament to a lifelong lover and partner is so warm, so touching, so clever. Why isn’t Brel better known? I would choose Alison Moyet’s version every time.

Another easy one, the awesome “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd, preferably from “Pulse”. Simply the best rock track ever, with the two best guitar solos of all time.

Just occasionally, I need to relax to something choral. I’d struggle to choose between the 1st movement of Dvořák’s “Stabat Mater” and the “Sanctus” from Fauré’s Requiem. Go with the Fauré.

I’d also need some opera. Tough one this… could choose “Vesti la Giubba” from I, Pagliacci or Bizet’s Pearl Fisher’s duet but I think I’ll take “Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco.

Now, as a confirmed and proud prog-head, we need an epic. Nothing short of 20 minutes will do, subject matter may vary, but apocalypses are always popular. Choice is between “Close to the Edge” by Yes, “Supper’s Ready” by Genesis and Marillion’s “Grendel”. I think I’ll take the Yes.

Now a mini-epic or two. Many more to choose from: “Evergreen" or “Heroes Never Die” by the amazing Mostly Autumn, “The Awakening” by Mystery, Rainbow’s “Stargazer”, “Breathe it in” or “The Illusion is Freedom” by Darwin’s Radio. Decisions… Ok, “Passengers” by Mostly Autumn and Genesis's “Firth of Fifth”.

Another easy one, a song that I’ve loved since I was six years old, Simon & Garfukel’s wondrous “Bridge over Troubled Water”.

Quick count. We’re up to eight.

Actually, the last two are quite easy as well - Bowie’s “Word on a Wing” and Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky”.

Interestingly, only three of those chosen feature in my top twenty played tracks on Itunes.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Making sure my data is readable in a hundred years

Having spent some twenty years researching my family history, I obviously want to make sure that the fruits of my work are accessible to the generations that follow, so how do I ensure that it is all readable in a hundred years?

When I started my research, in the days before PCs, Macs etc, a colleague invested in a Philips Videowriter - basically a huge CRT-based box with built-in thermal printer. It could perform just one task - word processing - using a proprietary format and a 3.25" (yes, 3.25, not 3.5") drive. Within a couple of years, it died and could not be repaired. The disks were unreadable and, worst of all, all the hard copies had faded as thermal prints are wont to do. All the data - years of research - was lost. I am determined that this won't happen to me.

The first thing to do is define what sort of data I am talking about. I think it can be divided into two categories:

Hard copy media - printed copies of research, certificates, old photos, etc

Electronic media - scans and source files, photos, databases, research notes etc

Hard Copy Media
Preserving old documents is a science in itself, so apart from scanning, covered below under electronic media, I won't attempt to discuss that here.

However, I have produced a book containing biographies, research notes, images, photos and family trees - can I assume that it will survive? The problem is, modern toner-based laser prints on re-cycled, generic photo-copy paper are intended to be quick and cheap, not durable. No one really knows how long the toner will remain stable. Ten to twenty years shouldn't be a problem, but beyond that?

Electronic Media
This subject has two specific aspects: format and storage.

Twenty years ago, the standard word processor was Word Perfect and images were stored as 8-bit GIFs. Now, it's more likely to be Word and jpegs and, along with Adobe's PDF format, it is probably no exaggeration to say that there are literally billions of jpegs, pdfs and docs in existence, so even when the standards are superseded, it is likely that those files will be readable, even if only by libraries or specialists. Similarly, the family tree databases are also likely to be readable. Although each family tree program uses a different format and structure which can change from version to version, there is an industry standard specifically for family tree databases managed by the LDS(1). The format, GEDCOM, is ASCII-readable yet maintains names, facts and relationships.

The media on which it is stored, however, is a different matter.

A few years ago, 3.5" and 5.25" discs would have been the norm, but now few people could read either. Since there are probably billions of CDs and DVDs in existence, it is likely that readers for them will exist in the future (even if only in libraries etc), but dye-based CD and DVD ROMs were never intended to last beyond ten years and it is thus unlikely that they will readable in a hundred years - I have already had some fail after 12 years.

PATA and SATA hard drives are already being replaced and USB2-based drives will die off for USB3 which will, in turn, go the way of SCSI, PCMCIA and Firewire. I also doubt that flash memory such as Compact Flash, SD etc will survive as a mainstream format for more than 20 years. Online storage, either using cloud-based virtual drives or hosting research on resources such as Ancestry are great...for as long as you pay the subscription or as long as the hosting company exists. Even if Ancestry survives a hundred years or, more likely, some other online repository is created in its place, how will anyone know our data is there?

It is clear that there is no perfect solution. For data formats, sticking with widely used standards makes sense, and I would encourage genealogists to regularly back up their databases in the Gedcom format. However, the only solution that is truly future-proof is to continually port the data into the new formats and media as they emerge.

(1) LDS - (The Church of JC and the) Latter Day Saints - vast resources employed in genealogy making them a key mover in genealogy technology - perhaps less so since the introduction of paid-for services such as Ancestry etc.

Monday, 15 February 2010

No more Censuses... Censi?

There was an interesting article in some of yesterday’s papers which suggested that next year’s national census will be the last. There seemed to be three reasons given:

Firstly, Britain’s population is now highly dynamic, with economic migration perhaps likely to become more prevalent. Secondly, there seemed to be concern that, whether due to paranoia, deception or the great British sense of humour, there were too many false or joke responses in recent censuses. Remember back to the 1991 census at the height of the Poll Tax fiasco when we feared our census returns would be cross-checked against our tax declarations? Then, in 2001, we were asked for the first time to declare our religious beliefs – 390,000 of us (yep, I do mean “us”) declared ourselves as “Jedi”.

The third reason given was that there are now many better ways of judging the size and make up of the population. Simply asking Tesco’s for their Club Card data would be start (although I doubt the State could afford to buy it from them), while a bit of data mining on Facebook or the viewing figures for X Factor would help.

So, all this got me thinking about the implications of discontinuing the censuses on future genealogists. Censuses have been taken in the UK since 1811 but only those from 1841 were kept. 1941 didn’t happen because of the war and 1911 is the latest one to be released for public research. Online resources such as Ancestry and Find My Past have fully indexed searchable database of all the accessible censuses and they are the most fabulous window into our ancestors’ lives - telling us where they lived, their family structures as children were born, grew up and left home, their occupations and where they were born.

In a hundred years then, what will our descendents be able to find out about us after the 2011 census? Think about it, our medical records will soon be available on the NHS network, and will no doubt be published in a hundred years, as will criminal records and pretty much all public records on which we appear.

What about our online personas? Facebook already retains profiles for people who have died. While I doubt Facebook will be around in 20, much less 100 years, what will happen to the data? Even if it was taken offline, the data won’t (probably can’t) be destroyed. Will genealogists force its custodians to release the data under Freedom of Information? What about the other companies or agencies that hold databases on us – Tescos, Google, O2 et al, MI5? How about our blogs?

So, yeah it looks like future genealogists will have plenty of information on us with or without the national census. Scary, isn’t it?

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

What have Toyota done to upset the BBC?

So what exactly have Toyota done to upset the mighty BBC? I can’t help wondering whether one of the Trustees or Governors has had a falling out with their local service centre, because the Beeb are pulling no punches, are they?

Ok, Ok, there have been some issues with the sticking accelerator pedals which has caused “around 20” incidents in the US over the last few years. Alright, Toyota could have reacted sooner to invoke a simple re-call, but car manufacturers issue recalls all the time, often for more serious defects. So why have the BBC led on the story for at least three days, using words like “crisis” and even (I still cannot believe this) sending an outside broadcast crew this morning to a Toyota dealership to film – live!!!- one of the fixes being implemented.

And now, of course, we have the smug sniggering about the Prius, the car that the BBC, in the shape of Top Gear, put down at every opportunity. No, I don’t have one, but I can appreciate the technology behind it and the fact that, like it or not, if we want to carry on driving individual cars, then hybrids and electric cars are the future.

I await, with bated breath, what new angle the BBC will find for tommorow’s lead. A expense scandal by a Toyota exec?

Monday, 1 February 2010

On the Ipad

Now I don’t like to be part of a crowd. I don’t follow any trends, run with any packs or, I’d like to think, don’t fall for the hype.

And yet, I couldn’t ignore the Ipad completely, could I?

So, the first surprise is that it is a super-sized Ipod Touch or Iphone, depending on which you choose.

That’s it really.

It runs the same apps, it looks the same but bigger, and it runs the same operating thingy.

And, you know what? That’s why it will be a staggering success. Because 70 million (70 million!) of us already have the baby version, love it, know how to use it, and have wondered why our “proper” computers couldn’t be as good.

Think about it: web browsing, video watching, music, games – yep, that’s about 95% of the use my laptop gets, tethered to the charger. And then there’s the document reader. Oh, how wonderful to have a screen shaped like a sheet of paper on which I can read books, active news sheets, reports and hold it like I would a book!

Ok, like many people, I joined in the live event and was a little disappointed… until I thought about it and realised that Apple have got it just right.

Do I want one? Yes, oh yes.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

On “Postage & Packing”

I’ve been reading a lot of books, papers and blogs recently about online marketing. It’s probably true that many sites have really nailed the whole user experience thing. Sites such as Amazon are great at getting us to them – their reputation, our loyalty, high search rankings. And when we are on-site and we find what we want, there is plenty of reassurance that it is the right product – photos, descriptions and, especially, user reviews. We trust these sites. We trust them not to sell us fakes, or skim our credit card or sell our data to fraudsters.

But they are all rubbish when it comes to delivery.

I guess we all realise that “postage & packaging” is really a stealth mark-up. Somehow, we convince ourselves that if it isn’t included in the advertised price then we don’t need to include it in the cost of purchase. So, we get charged an extortionate price for them to put the goods in a cheap cardboard wrap and send it in the post. You want it in three days rather than five? Sure, that’s double. Overnight? Yippee, more profit.

And why can’t they be upfront about the dreaded p&p? Why wait until the very end of the buying process to add the delivery tax? Amazon have a particularly good scam: buy three things in the same basket, unwittingly from three different suppliers (when you thought you were buying from Amazon!) and pay three delivery taxes. Oh joy unbounded!!

And then comes the ritual of doorstep delivery. Despite the fact that they remain stuck in 1960s industrial relations, hell-bent on self destruction, the favourite deliverer remains the Royal Mail who now deliver once per day at noon.

When I’m not in.

So, armed with my “sorry I missed you” card, I have to wait until Saturday morning, drive to the central Post Office (ten miles round trip, say two quid in diesel), park (add another two quid for minimum of an hour) wait in line, show an ID and collect my goods.

What!!! I pay through the nose for postage and packing, then I have to pay more to go and collect it?

Look, if you’re reading this and you work for an online retailer:

- Show me the price inclusive of reasonable delivery – next-day great, day after ok, anything longer forget it.

- Delivery is not the same as dispatch. I don’t care when you dispatch it, I’m only interested in receiving it.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Dear Steve Jobs

Dear Steve Jobs

I’d like to say thank-you for my Iphone. No, it wasn’t a Christmas present, I’ve had it since January 2009 and I LOVE IT. I just haven’t gotten around to thanking you yet.

However, the thought occurs that my contract with O2 expires in July, so that would be the perfect time for you to bring out a new model, wouldn’t it?

I was wondering though, if you could see your way clear to adding a couple of things.

For instance:

- Customised e-mail and text alerts because, frankly, the current ones are pants

- Synching over wi-fi; my computer connects wirelessly to the same network as my Iphone, so why do I need a piece of wire to get them to talk to each other?

- A better camera because, frankly, the existing one just isn’t anything. A better lens, zoom and a bit more resolution would be a nice.

- Better battery life. Yes, I know that the 3GS is better but still not great.

- An SMS outbox when for when there is no reception and automatic re-send it when there is a good signal.

Yep, that just about covers it.