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Sat, 30 Mar 2013
Vim Power
# 16:53 in ./tech

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.

If you use vim inside a terminal multiplexer like screen, you will need to watch out for its default command key ... Ctrl-a! Changing this is a good idea because it also gets in the way in other environments (e.g. the Bash shell).

Fri, 29 Mar 2013
Nice Country You've Got There ...
# 07:44 in ./general

.. 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?

Wed, 27 Mar 2013
Code Academy
# 20:45 in ./tech

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.

Code Academy run various courses (tracks) on (generally) web oriented technologies like HTML authoring, the Javascript and Python programming languages and various other things.

I joined up a few weeks ago to take a look and, over a couple of weeks, worked through their Javascript track.

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.

For the code editing, the web pages have a built in Javascript editor with syntax highlighting and basic error checking. You can run the code immediately and see the results in a console beside the editor. In addition, there are question and answer forums for each section so you can read what others are saying (and help out if you can).

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 ... :-)

I still have some way to go before I'm a Javascript Ninja though!

Mon, 25 Mar 2013
# 20:43 in ./tech
online learning

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.

Sat, 16 Mar 2013
Goodbye Google Reader
# 14:52 in ./general

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.

I've considered some of the self-hosted options (e.g. Fever, Tiny Tiny RSS) but I'm not sure I want to run a public PHP application just now).

Sun, 10 Mar 2013
Picasso in Place
# 14:10 in ./general

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.

Dwarf-Dancer, 1901

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.

Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-2

Pesellino, The Annunciation, 1450-55

They also have some real masterpieces in their collection of Gothic and Medieval work.

Including an Annunciation by Pesellino, from the 15th Century.

Sun, 03 Mar 2013
Important Haggling
# 07:35 in ./general

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".

Sat, 02 Mar 2013
Too Little "Skin in the Game"
# 15:09 in ./general

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.

© Alastair Sherringham 2023
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