I worked round the corner from Spitalfields market near London Liverpool Street ten or so years ago. A lot of history in this area, some of it notorious. I made a return visit at the weekend and saw a lot of changes.
For one thing, it now has a goat ...
Christ Church, designed by Hawksmoor and built between 1714 and 1729, is still there and still striking.
SpitalFields Market was bustling and full of fashionable and trendy stalls and shops. Many seem to sell very similar things though, as if there's a "craft" factory somewhere churning out the usual stuff. Still worth a visit because there's almost always something interesting and/or different to see or find. Compared to some high streets now, whether of the delapidated variety (e.g. Oxford Street, East) or the mundane standard variety (many towns), a market like this is much more stimulating.
Good to see that Debian 7.0 Wheezy was released last week after a 10 month release freeze. Some people think this is far too long, myself included.
Russ Allbery and Lars Wirzenius have written up a proposal to improve the Debian release process, with much inspiration from the agile development method. In short, they want to promote the Testing distribution to a state that it is always releasable, at least to the extent that the entire release process takes only 2 weeks to a month (or so, at most).
In brief, the proposal covers :
- Keep the Testing distribution as close to releasable as possible, with more constant attention to bug fixing (especially release critical bugs).
- More constant and automated testing done of the distribution.
- Focus on ensuring the right core packages are ready and releasable, being less concerned with those packages deemed of secondary importance.
The idea that Testing be changed to either a rolling release or to some form of constantly releasable distribution comes up regularly e.g. see Tanglu and CUT. Allbery and Wirzenius are very well known Debian "old-hands" though, so may be able to make more of a impression on the project. I hope so, but Debian is a very democratic and distributed organisation and consensus is hard to build on this type of question. Debian is also well known for its focus on stability rather than freshness, and stability is an admirable goal. I think the process Allbery and Wirzenius describe can speed a release without sacrificing this by optimising and focusing resource better though. Automation may be the key.
Finally, I really appreciate all the hard work done by all the Debian developers and contributors - I've been running Debian Linux on all my machines for a few years now, a very satisfied user. Like many, I installed Testing many months ago but the long stabilisation period is a bit of a drawback. Right now, it's fine but fairly soon it will start to seem slightly stale. This is less of a problem for a server but more of one for a desktop. A way of optimising the release and update process would be very welcome.
The current banner photograph was taken from a moving train between Edinburgh and Inverness in October last year. I always loved the wild beauty of the landscape in the highlands and the mist here captures some of its chilly but beautiful and awe-inspiring nature.
Very Old Jigsaw
The British Museum has a room devoted to the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon ship burial discovered in Suffolk in the late 1930's. Dating from the 7th Century, many beautiful artifacts were found and have been restored over the years. One of the most famous is the Sutton Hoo Helmet.
On the left, a reconstruction of the helmet. On the right, how it looked when it was found.
The reconstruction is described here and it is clear how hard, and how much skill is required when rebuilding such an old and decayed artifact. The original attempt was dismantled in 1968 after further research determined it was inaccurate.
This is just one part of a lot more to see here, including some intricate and beautiful jewellery.
More detail about Sutton Hoo can be found in a good article at Current Archaeology.
Luckily, I've only ever been on "stage" back in the mists of time in the school nativity play, where I might have been a shepherd. I think "shepherd" is the role little boys get placed in when they're obviously not star material.
I've not had to do much talking to groups, let alone audiences, but enough to know that I'm not good at it. I tend to clam up and have a severe attack of stage fright with pretty much everything getting thrown out the window: memory, speech capability and heart rate. It's a thoroughly unpleasant experience not sought after!
However, I know that many people overcome this fear, and I'd love to manage to do that myself. Mikael Cho's wriiten about his experiences and how he tried (and succeeded) in fixing his own stage fright. There is hope if you try: small steps first I think with very good preparation.
-- Rousseau, via the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
I'd already finished reading Hilary Mantel's Place of Greater Safety before discovering it was the first book she wrote (but not the first published). In the interview that accompanies the e-book, she says it took her five years to write: the tremendous amount of research and detail would attest to this.
Although it has quite a slow start, and a fair number of characters and places to follow, the pace quickened as the "revolutions" happened. As the book neared its climax, I was sad it was ending.
A few years ago, I discovered how great a well researched and written historical novel could be when I read First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough. This book was not only a pleasure to read, it taught me more about life, death and customs of ancient Rome than any school class or textbook. Like McCullough's book, Mantel's close research immerses you in the events. The story is of three friends experiencing the upheaval of the French Revolution: no ordinary people these however, but Robespierre, Danton and Camille Desmoulins. These three are at the heart of the book as they sat at the heart of the revolutionary drama.
I was unfamiliar with Desmoulins and he is perhaps the main character in the book. Complex, funny and good looking but also a hateful figure, his journalism and speech writing play a large part in stirring things up. A radical: but someone more radical always comes along. A childhood friend of Robespierre, their dynamic creates a massive central tension resolved through destruction.
Although not quite as polished as her latest books, the writing is concise and sharp. It can be hard reading a book where many, if not most, of the main characters are not only unlikeable but quite nasty as events roll forward. However, this can be seen as the mark of a great writer. It is also chilling to enter a world where justification for mass murder, industrial extermination and casual brutality is so easily expounded. Each of the main characters arrives at such a place, some trying to extricate themselves from the consequences at the end. Like them or not, you do care about what happens to them in the end, even though the tragedy's end is clear.
Revolutions then and since have had woeful consequences and you can trace some of the calamitous ideologies of the present back to these times. The triumph of reason can lead to horror and reasonable men lead us all to hell.
An article in The Telegraph on Friday covered a familiar topic: just how bad sugar can be for us. It's called Sweet Poison to drive home the message.
Emphasis here was on addiction as the driver, so nothing completely new to people familiar with recent research and articles about food reward and brain/body chemistry. Sugar's in almost everything, and one of the worst aspects is that it can be hard to avoid because it's hidden (that is, not clearly stated on the label).
Dr Robert Lustig, famous for his YouTube hit, Sugar: The Bitter Truth has a book out and is quoted here :
Lustig explains that instead of helping to sate us, some scientists believe that fructose fools our brains into thinking we are not full, so we overeat. Moreover, excess fructose cannot be converted into energy by the mitochondria inside our cells (which perform this function). “Instead,” he explains, “they turn excess fructose into liver fat. That starts a cascade of insulin resistance (insulin promotes sugar uptake from blood) which leads to chronic metabolic disease, including diabetes and heart disease.”
Regarding High Frustose Corn Syrup, an especially egregious ingredient in some "food" :
As a liquid, it is also easier to blend and transport. In particular, it is used in low-fat foods (which would otherwise taste, says Lustig, “like cardboard”). His theory goes a long way to explaining why the low-fat diets which rose to popularity in the Seventies have coincided with a rise in obesity and related illnesses.
From David Gillespie, author of a book called Sweet Poison, we hear :
The average Briton is consuming more than a kilo – 238 teaspoonfuls – a week"
Really? So can you account for this? Where is it all coming from? Hidden sugar.
And as far as an addiction :
The more he learnt, the more Gillespie was determined to do something about his own eating habits. “I stopped eating sugar and immediately started losing weight – without adjusting anything else about how I lived.”
For Gillespie, the weight started dropping straight away, but the sense of addiction took a little longer to go: “At the two-four week mark I noticed I was no longer craving food and in particular I could leave things which I would have found difficult to bypass before.
Like any addiction, to break free requires discipline and it is easy to lapse and fall back into the same habits as before. A modern supermarket is well designed to tempt you into breaking any vows you've made ....
So, here I am messing (again) with the blog fonts, wondering about sans versus serif and legibility and look. There are so many clients now, and different resolutions, that it's hard to take them all into account.
I was using a Google web font called PT. Now I've actually switched to basic Times New Roman and feel like I'm some sort of web neanderthal! But playing with CSS (size, height etc.) makes it seem very clear and legible to me. Let me know if not.
I pencilled this into my calendar ages ago but only got around to visiting last Thursday. I'm very glad I did. I was tempted to queue for the new exhibition Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum before the crowds get overwhelming, but in the end didn't feel like it and went to Room 90 instead.
The smaller and quieter exhibition in Room 90 is In Search of Classical Greece.
In Search of Classical Greece displays the drawings and paintings of Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi from their trip through Greece at the start of the 19th Century.
Their trip took place well before the Greek War of Independence from Turkey (between 1821 and 1832) and shows a Greece that has now changed almost beyond recognition. From the Britsh Museum's web page :
Some beautifully detailed paintings in the display, shown with other artifacts (such as some ceramics, final bound volumes) alongside interesting descriptions and history. In some way you can thank Napoleon for this, since the closure of the usual Grand Tour routes in Italy forced people like Dodwell to look elsewhere. Greece proved a very stimulating substitute and the rest of the century can really be described as "sensational" when one considers the finds at Troy, Mycenae and Crete. It's hard getting too much of this stuff sometimes.
Now for the Pompeii show ... once I find a decent spare slot ...
Zach thinks CA is a less optimal way to learn because it's all done inside a web browser and doesn't teach you how to set up a real development environment i.e. the tools and resources you need to program properly standalone.
Learning some basics using a simple browser based environment can definitely be a useful start though.
If you're interested in learning to code, the post is worth reading.
Vim is a great text editor and I'm constantly surprised (and amazed) by the sort of things I discover you can do with it.
The latest surprise was :
if you place your cursor on a number and press Ctrl-a, the number is incremented by one. Ctrl-x on a number will decrement it by one. Further, modify the command with a count to increment or decrement by count i.e. 6 Ctrl-x decrements 6 from the number under the cursor.
Vim is full of odd little features like this.
.. shame if anything happened to it ...
The table below is data taken from the European Central Bank via the blog Tax Research (who in turn got it from Bill Mitchell's blog). It essentially shows the size of a country's financial industry as a percentage of GDP. I've annotated the most oversized with red dots :
Well, there's something wrong here isn't there. Cyprus has crashed and the EU has not dealt with the situation well. Cyprus has a financial sector over 8x the size of it's GDP and is also the largest outside investor in Russia. As Richard Murphy says, the situation is absurd on the face of it.
Leaving aside Luxembourg with a massive 20x finance to GDP ratio, next up might be tiny Malta, with 7x.
And the UK also has a big problem, at 6x.
These are worrying numbers and I don't think I'm alone in worrying. Some might say that to call this situation an "existential threat" would be a big exaggeration, and I would have agreed a few years ago. But now? The problems in Cyprus are not a bolt out of the blue but have been known for a long time. Even I have been aware of the it for at least six months. So what does the last minute panic and mess tell us?
And this morning, a business news story on the BBC about trouble brewing in Slovenia, a country that does not figure too badly in the table above. Turns out bad loans and a shaky financial sector. Who knows what is in store this year?
Speaking of online education, as you might imagine the field has been particularly attractive to people in the computing industry. Those that build and design the internet and all the various programs and services that run on it have been early adopters of the technology. Podcast style videos for instruction, demo and training are fairly common and are often very good. They're much easier to create nowadays as well.
One of these new companies is called Code Academy.
The course starts as a very basic introduction to computer programming itself but builds up to decent coverage of topics like functions and objects. What makes these courses good is the interaction and encouragement the system gives the student. This is all programmed into the web site code ofcourse but makes the experience much more engaging.
Every track is broken down into sections, further sub-divided. A key here might be that the exercises make up a great deal of the instruction: a short introduction and explanation of a concept leading very quickly to hands-on coding.
To keep you interested, encouragement is given by earning "badges" and you get emails praising certain accomplishments. These might be completing a section or working on the course for multiple days in a row. This sort of immediate feedback is one of the key elements of a course like this.
So I earned a few badges ... :-)
MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course, a bit of a mouthful and not a particularly nice word, but something that will be a very important component of the education landscape in the future. Students, teachers and parents should be watching developments here very closely.
In translation: teaching over the internet. Courses covering everything from maths to art and using all the latest multimedia and web-based technology.
From the Khan Academy to a multitude of universities and colleges putting courses online (often free), things are taking off. In the USA, prestigious institutions like Stanford, Harvard and MIT have blazed the trail but there are many more, all over the world.
Open Culture has a list of 700 free online courses. Everything from Ancient Greek History at Yale with Donald Kagan to Reading Marx’s Capital by David Harvey at City University of New York.
Also check out Coursera - "Take the world's best courses, online, for free".
The modern web environment is an increasingly rich one but there are many challenges ahead of a non-technical nature. These will include how grading and certification will work. To see proper recognition of online qualifications we will need to ensure some sort of reliable quality standard and a way to properly compare grades from very different institutions, perhaps across continents.
In the future, the hope is that the cost of education will fall significantly and quality rise. Great teachers will no longer be available to only a privileged few but can, if allowed, reach huge (massive online) audiences: education can be interesting and exciting in the right hands.
This will all take some time to shake out and there are many vested interests that might work to obstruct online education. Like with a lot of things the internet touches, some wrenching change is on the horizon.
Lots of people moaning about this and I have to add my voice.
Like many people, I was very disappointed this week when Google announced that their Reader RSS feed reader app will be killed in a few months. I use it on a daily basis, both on my desktop and on my Nexus7 tablet.
I like the fact that it has a simple, plain web interface and it syncs to all my devices (desktop and tablet). There are few glitzy features, and the "social" aspects are easily ignored or hidden.
I don't think much of the reasons Google state on their official blog :
usage of Google Reader has declined, and as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience
I hear talk of a "declining" usage but I've never seen numbers. Are there any? Usage seems pretty high given the strength of the reaction to the closure. I also can't see why "resource" would play a big part. How much resource did Reader cost? Not much as far as I understand, and if they mean a recommendations team then why not just reassign and remove this part of the product? According to Chris Wetherell, an "early creator of Google Reader" interviewed at GigaOm :
In addition, Google had a separate recommendations team fine-tuning Google Reader, and those people don’t come in cheap.
This decision has highlighted the problem of "cloud" based apps and services again. Whoever provides them can change or delete them unilaterally. This is especially true of the free apps and services like Reader. Can this sort of thing be considered a little bit evil?
Reader is vanishing at the start of July, so to try and figure out a half-way decent replacement, I'm going to try and live without it from now. It will be hard getting used to something new so I might as well get started.
At the moment, I'm trying the Firefox extension Brief. It's very promising.
On the tablet, things are harder. Firefox does not have/use the same extensions. I have not used it much yet, but will try RSS Demon.
The Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House has a small exhibition on at the moment called Becoming Picasso. It's small but perfectly formed, and a wonderful way to spend some time, for not too much money.
The exhibition covers the year 1901 alone: the year Picasso had his first exhibition in his new home Paris.
You can clearly see the many influences on his painting here, influences that place him right at the heart of the same Parisian milieu portrayed by familiar artists like Degas, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. We see similar scenes in the music halls and familiar characters, from the dancer to the ansinthe drinker.
Picasso was a very productive artist and lived a long time, so there's a lot of art to look at. For those that care less for some of the later, more abstract work, these paintings are a very good reminder of what a genius he was. There are some really beautiful paintings here, colourful and impressionistic.
Not only is the gallery cheap (£6), it has a superb permanent collection of some of the greatest paintings in the country, including Gauguin, Rubens and Van Gogh. The paintings are only a small part of a much larger collection that includes ceramics and furniture.
They also have some real masterpieces in their collection of Gothic and Medieval work.
Including an Annunciation by Pesellino, from the 15th Century.
A week or so ago, I wrote about the terrible cost of health care in the US. An article on CNN describes a way some might be able to mitigate this by haggling.
The article is called Haggling for health care: Ways to lower your bills and describes how some people have managed to knock a lot of money off their bills :
"If you go in and ask a doctor or hospital how much something costs, they are going to tell you their highest price," Santa said. To negotiate a much lower price "you have to ask."
If you are uninsured or your insurance doesn't cover a procedure, ask if the medical provider would be willing to do it for the same price they would get reimbursed for from an insurance company or Medicare. That could knock about 30% to 40% off of the cost and most doctors and hospitals are open to doing that, he said.
Medical costs can be so high, anything that reduces them is important. Unlike some countries, people in the US and Europe generally don't haggle in shops or markets, and many probably feel uncomfotable doing it. I think this is probably a hang over from times past when people generally felt more a sense of community and trust. A trust that the price is fair and you are not being taken advantage of. Things are slightly different now. Perhaps people need to get used to "asking".
An article at Scientific American,Why It’s Smart to Be Reckless on Wall Street, considers the reward structure in Wall Street banks and concludes that, to many bankers, it makes sense to take very large risks. As Taleb would note, there's no downside.
So, an unhealthy amount of risk, both for the long term future of the bank itself, and unhealthy for all of us if a banking crisis ensues.
Join a business that has an established track record. Start small, building up a few solid years of making decent profits. Do this for six or seven years. It’s called “milking the franchise.” Soon you will have respect and, most of all, expanded limits on what you can trade. Wait for a year when everyone is bullish. Then swing big. Really big. Don’t take judicious risk; take the most risk the firm will allow you. Follow the momentum, piling into trades others are doing.
If you win, since you followed the herd, Wall Street will be flush with cash and you will get paid well, tens of millions well. If you lose you may get fired, but since everyone lost they will understand.
This strategy is certainly not in the long-term interest of the firm, but it’s the smartest strategy to benefit the trader.
We have to make sure that there is a downside when a bank takes big risks, and to the individual gambler/banker making the bet. The risk should be taken by the bank with their own money, not the retail client or tax payer. As the author says, most bankers are doing nothing wrong, let alone illegal, but a minority are. They need to be reined in and the best way of doing that is to make sure the banks themselves have enough skin in the game.
It needs to be greatly in their interest to be more prudent.
I might have bought Time magazine once in my life (maybe). It always struck me as a magazine with too many adverts and too little content, even if some of it was good. However, an article on their web site investigating the US health care system is extremely good, perhaps of the prize winning category.
The article is called Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us and is written by Steven Brill. It is well worth a read.
There are very hard, very troubling issues raised by Mr Brill about the US Health Care system. This has been in the news a lot of course, not only because Obama's health care bill goes into effect next year but because the economics and costs have been seen in stark relief due to the large financial problems facing the country. As Brill says about the "$5.36 billion" spent since 1998 :
That’s right: the health-care-industrial complex spends more than three times what the military-industrial complex spends in Washington.
And before people jump on the idea that this is just "Big Pharma", it's not. This is "pharmaceutical and health-care-product industries, combined with organizations representing doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, health services and HMOs".
These supposed non-profits are run as very large and extremely profitable businesses.
There's a great deal wrong with our own NHS in the UK, as recent troubles have shown (many more where that comes from) but the fundamental structure is right I think. The NHS is a very large organisation and with size comes negotiating power to keep costs down. Everyone is covered. However, in the USA :
According to one of a series of exhaustive studies done by the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm, we spend more on health care than the next 10 biggest spenders combined: Japan, Germany, France, China, the U.K., Italy, Canada, Brazil, Spain and Australia. We may be shocked at the $60 billion price tag for cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy. We spent almost that much last week on health care. We spend more every year on artificial knees and hips than what Hollywood collects at the box office. We spend two or three times that much on durable medical devices like canes and wheelchairs, in part because a heavily lobbied Congress forces Medicare to pay 25% to 75% more for this equipment than it would cost at Walmart.
And this is fundamentally the problem built in to the system. Using some real life people as examples, Brill goes through the medical bill they receive and shows how inflated the costs are - if you are not on medicare or medicaid. Even the insured have to pay massively greater costs. Something that would cost 11¢ from Amazon costs $18 from a hospital (Accu-chek diabetes test strips).
America has to fix this, and from what I understand, "Obamacare" won't do it: I'm glad we have something like the NHS here. If I ever want to travel to the USA in the future, I'll have to be very careful when sorting out health insurance and take good advice. I don't have any health problems just now, but who knows? Chest pains that turn out to be indigestion can lead to a bill for $21,000.
Lovely morning, blue sky if a little cold. I thought I'd bike up to Buckingham Palace and use my Northern Renaissance ticket again (free re-entry).
But once up there, I couldn't see anywhere to lock up the bike and the staff wouldn't let me carry it folded, or put it in the cloakroom. They said there were some bike rails further up and round the next road but I couldn't find them.
What a shame. Apparently the "police don't like bikes locked up nearby" (no doubt due to some sort of "anti-terrorism" fear). This is similar to Whitehall when I visited the Banqueting House last year. Then however, a sympathetic staff member let me fold and stick the bike behind a table inside. I think I might write to the gallery and ask them to see if they can sort something out.
Instead, I went up to the National Gallery (entrance stairway shown above) and looked at some early renaissance altar pieces, with bike locked up directly outside on a bike rail. It's a pity they don't allow photographs inside though.
Definitely worth a visit because I found a room devoted to the artist Carlo Crivelli. Painting at the end of the 15th Century, his paintings are very colourful, very beautiful and (apparently primarily) painted in egg tempera. They have quite an individual style.