Sunday, 27 March 2011

Still a Procession

A few years ago there was an advert for the BBC coverage of MotoGP. It took a dig at the complexity of the Formula 1 rules, showing a pit stop where the driver had to get out of the car and spin around three times before continuing. Well, this year's new F1 rules actually feel a bit like that. And they still don't seem to work.

F1 has had many attempts at improving the amount of overtaking over the years. A couple of years ago they brought in bigger front wings and smaller rear wings. This was supposed to reduce the aerodynamic disadvantage of following a car and to increase the chance of a pass. It didn't work. They brought in KERS, essentially an electric motor with batteries charged during breaking. It didn't work, primarily because they had to introduce a host of petty rules about where it could be used. Not every one could afford to use it and they didn't want to disadvantage them too much.

Now we have DRS, a movable rear wing that should make slipstreaming more of an advantage, and KERS is back. Both these features have a host of ridiculous restrictions that make basketball rules look trivial. And on the basis of today's Australian GP, these don't work either. In 58 laps around the Melbourne circuit there was only one pass that seemed to involve the new features. And there were plenty of failed attempts.

Once again, a grand prix was processional. That's not to take anything away from Vettel, who made winning look so easy. But you do have to wonder if F1 has lost its way.

It's not as if the other rules, supposed to reduce the cost and allow more teams to compete, are working either. There were just 22 entries for the first grand prix of the season, and two of those didn't even make it to the grid, being too slow in practice to be allowed to compete. Were they, I wonder, a victim of the rules about restricting testing time, which were introduced to reduce cost?

The regulations look like legislation from a New Labour government. They are trying to control the details of how the teams build a car, instead of controlling the broader parameters. For example, if F1 is too expensive, cap the team's budget instead of limiting test time or stipulating the technology. That way you don't stifle innovation. There is an obvious parallel with MotoGP, of course. There are few rules in MotoGP, yet the racing is always close, with places changing hands every lap and fuel consumption and tyre wear being a major factor of each race.

Maybe it's time for a major rethink in F1. The nanny state approach to rules doesn't seem to be working. Bring back the free for all.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Do they Actually Listen?

I'm an atheist. But I was brought up as a Christian, in fact as a Methodist. We went to church on Sundays. I even went to Sunday School for a while. It was at least a way to avoid boring sermons! We learned the simple stories from the bible, or at least from the new testament. It was all good, humanist stuff and a fine basis for dealing with people. It really boils down to the fact that most people are pretty reasonable, and that it's a good idea for everyone if we try and treat each other fairly and to be helpful. While keeping an eye out for rogues, of course. A lot of basic Christian teaching is like that. Good common sense. It matters little to me whether Jesus Christ actually existed. If he did, the one thing we can be confident of is that he was not the son of any god. That's one thing about which Muslims are correct.

While I was young, the words of the stories and hymns drifted by as comfortable, well known companions. The 'softly spoken magic spell', as Pink Floyd would later term it. But as I got older, I actually started to listen to what was being said, or sung in church. And then the questions started, and then the whole ediface fell apart.

Lets take a simple example. Is it the revenge-based 'eye for an eye', or the placating 'turn the other cheek'? They can't both be right, yet they're both in the bible, and it is supposed to be the word of god. At least, that's what Christians say whenever they read it out in church. And the more I listened, the worse it became. Take the virgin birth. What a bizzare way for an omnipotent god to appear on Earth? If god created everything, why would he take such an arcane route as impregnating a virgin? Apart from the time involved, what about the risk that the population might not buy the story, preferring to believe the, frankly, much more likely alternative. Surely, a god capable of bulding the entire universe could just create whatever he wanted, with a virtual snap of the fingers. The story simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. And spare me the post rationalisation about how this process demonstrates his love for humanity. Piffle.

Also, if god created everything, in what sense is being crucified any real sacrifice, even if it happened? An omnipotent god could surely arrange things however he wanted to get the desired effect without any personal harm. He even rose from the dead, according to Christians. While the story of the crucifiction would be a real sacrifice for a human, the same cannot be claimed for a god. And that, for me, is the key to making sense of religion, or at least of Christianity.

For me, the bible only makes sense when viewed as a work of human inginuity, written to try and control an illiterate population and to get them to behave in what today we'd recognize as a basically civilised manner. And, in addition, to fund a very expensive church hierarchy. Man created God in his own image, not the other way around. That neatly explains why he's such a nasty piece of work in the old testament, by the way.

The bible is very out of date, of course, which is continuing source of tension for Christian churches of every denomination. The history of Chrisitanity over the centuries has been one of gradual abandonnment of so-called 'truths' from the bible as they become socially unacceptable. Homosexuality is following hot on the heels of women bishops as just the most recent issue that has required the liberal wing of the faith to gloss over the now politically incorrect words in the bible in order to placate the congregation and to keep bums on pews. Any other kind of organization would already have been the subject of multiple lawsuits for discrimination.But if you call yourself a religion, it's amazing what you can get away with. Just ask the American tele-evangelists.

Churches really are organizations built on the shifting sands of ignorance. As populations understand more and more about the world, they find less and less need for the superstition disseminated by their faiths. They vote with their feet, which is why congregation sizes, in truly enlightened countries, continue to fall. To counter this, inconvenient 'truths' from so-called holy texts are quietly dropped, post rationalised out of existence by tthe church hierarchy apparently without a second thought for the incredible hypocrisy that is involved. The cracks are papered over for the believers by pretending that the texts need 'interpretation' by scholars. A helpful side effect is a healthy job market for scholars to help believers over these difficulties.It also provides a handy way for the church elite to assert themselves more directly over the faithful.

And so I'm forced to wonder about believers. The ones I know strike me as reasonably well balanced, sane and thoughtful individuals. Have they never asked the sort of questions that make me an atheist? Are they really satisfied with the hypocritical weasel words spouted by their priests to worm their way around the unacceptable messages within their outdated holy texts?

Or is it simply that they don't actually listen to the words?

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Stalinist iPhone is Second Best

Recently, my old problem has returned. Actually, it turns out to be the same as Alan Coren's old problem. Those of you who are paying attention will remember that I'm re-reading his "Waiting for Jeffery". What is this problem of which I speak? It's the problem of what happens when someone you regard as a reliable source of information discusses something you actually know about. And they get it wrong!

The most recent example, for me, was a Gadget Show review of smart phones, which appeared to deliberately omit the best of the current Android crop. That's the HTC Desire HD, naturally! Even without the Desire HD in the test, they still had to arrange the tests carefully to avoid an embarrassing iPhone loss. As well as the criteria, carefully crafted to allow the iPhone to scrape a win, the order of the tests was very telling. For example, they had to arrange to remove the Windows 7 phone from the running before the test of applications from the phone's app store. For Windows 7, there aren't any!

So why would the Desire HD have carried off the crown? Because all the things that they criticised about the Nexus are fixed in HTC's superb Sense package. It's a winning combination because it has both useful applications and a great UI. The Jobsian Empire really does have some catching up to do! Not that that will stop the Fanbois queuing for the latest phones and fondle slabs, of course.

The iPhone has always been a non-starter for me. I can't take Apple's Stalinist approach to hardware and software. Their view is that you can do anything you like with your phone as long as they have decreed that its good for you. Of course, what they really mean is that it's good for Apple. It's very close to restraint of trade, though none of Apple's competitors have made that stick yet.

I've always preferred the more egalitarian approach typified by Android. Yes, it's a free for all, and yes, you do need to be a bit careful about what you download, but at least it treats me as a grown up. And by employing the 'wisdom of crowds', Android Market gives guidance about what others think, just like eBay does.

And as for my old problem? Well I'll be a bit more circumspect about anything that the Gadget Show tells me about products in future.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Too Much Wireless?

A decade ago, when broadband finally made it as far as the deepest, darkest reaches of rural Hampshire, an entire 5 miles from the centre of Winchester, I had to pull Ethernet cables around the house to get connectivty. These days, of course, that sounds so 20th century! I don't suppose it is possible to buy a brodband router without wireless, these days.

Wireless connectivity is very convenient, of course. But that very convenience is becoming a problem. More and more domestic appliances are crowding into the available band at 2.4 GHz. And the issue is not just the equipment in your own home. Wireless signals penetrate walls, so the environment in which your equipment has to operate includes that of your neighbours.

I've recently been struggling with interference problems that have been so bad they've limited our broadband speed, which is not great to begin with. First, our old land line phone had wireless hansdsets that caused problems for our router. Then, the wireless mice and keyboards on two of our systems also caused interference. In both cases, the interference affected broadband speed because it caused interference on the ADSL line.

I suppose the take away from this is that if you think you're getting less bandwidth than you should, see if you might be suffering wireless interference.

The Little Island with Big Ideas

I've been re-reading Alan Coren's hysterically funny 'Waiting for Jeffery', a collection of writings taken from his column in the Times. One of the articles is about Coleman's mustard. Typically, Coren approaches the topic from way out in left field, listing all of the public facilities that we enjoy in the UK that are the worst in Europe, before pointing out that Mr Coleman's comestible is the one and only British food product that the French recognize officially as good.

This got me thinking. Why is it that the nation that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution, and that headed one of the largest empires in history, now finds itself at the foot of most league tables of European nations? Our roads, railways, education and health services languish behind those of our neighbours. And this is despite Tony and Gordon, in an orgy of profligate spending (prudence my ar*e!), throwing all our money at the problem. It's not as if we have low taxation.

I wonder if the problem is that our major public institutions suffer from the echoes of past glories. They certainly suffer from delusions of adequacy. Government and Whitehall continue to behave as though the UK is important in world terms. They've just not woken up to the reality. The Ministry of Defence is a prime example. The scandal of the Eurofighter is well documented. Depressingly, this is not an isolated incident.

The truth is that we muddle grumpily along with our generally poor roads, railways, health services and education. Our national sporting teams are mediocre at best, but do extraordinary things occasionally. Our leaders are usually well behaved, but shove their snouts into the trough from time to time. And our television increasingly focuses on the celebrity of celebrity.

What does that make us? It makes us a pretty average, European country. And yet, our leaders still seem to think that when a crisis like the one in Libya erupts, we need to act like the world's policeman. It is apparently our responsibility to lead the charge at the UN, demanding regime change and no-fly zones. Now don't get me wrong, the current Libyan situation is an affront to anyone with an ounce of humanity. I just don't see why the UK has to be at the front of the queue of people telling the rest of the world how to behave. After the debacle surrounding Tony's war in Iraq, we don't have much credibility in any case.

We're not a world power any more. We're a small country on the north western edge of Europe. It's time we started behaving like one.

And those services that we love to grumble about? In Europe they may be mediocre. In many places in the world, they'd be regarded as miraculous.