Thursday, 8 October 2009

Pirates ahoy! Care for some tea?

A group of Somali pirates has been captured after attacking a French navy ship by mistake, apparently thinking it was a harmless cargo vessel. (BBC)

Captured? Wouldn't it have been simpler to blow them out of the water and leave no survivors? I don't know what modern navies are coming to...

I mean, those people actually opened fire on a naval ship. They could hardly claim to be anything but pirates; and the penalty for piracy was always death. But these days it seems that taxpayers must pay for the feeding and guarding of these people, and probably for lawyers to prosecute and defend them; and they will probably go free in the end to attempt more piracy. It's a mad world.

Friday, 2 October 2009

What is a liberal?

Noticing on Facebook that a number of my friends classify themselves as politically liberal, I tried to look up what this is supposed to mean.

My 1983 Chambers Dictionary offers only vague generalities: “befitting a freeman or a gentleman, directed towards the cultivation of the mind for its own sake, disinterested, generous, noble-minded, broad-minded, ...”

The Oxford English Dictionary says, “Favourable to constitutional changes and legal or administrative reforms tending in the direction of freedom or democracy.”

Wikipedia describes liberalism as “the belief in the importance of individual freedom.”

The American Heritage Dictionary is the most specific, giving two politically relevant definitions:

  • “A political theory founded on the natural goodness of humans and the autonomy of the individual and favoring civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority.”
  • “An economic theory in favor of laissez-faire, the free market, and the gold standard.”

Taking all this into consideration, it seems to me that a lot of people these days could describe themselves as liberal in at least some senses, including me. I have doubts mainly about the natural goodness of humans and the gold standard; but in other respects I'm probably more liberal than most of the people who describe themselves as such.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009


Having gone to school in the West Country, I encountered cider fairly early on, and I've often been willing to drink it over the years, though I haven't specialized in it. The problem is that the available ciders tend not to be good.

Over in England for a short time recently, I stayed at the Coach & Horses pub/hotel in Kew (which I can recommend, incidentally), and tried the draught Blackthorn cider they had at the bar. I liked it, and went on drinking it while I was there.

Now I look on the Web and find that apparently it's not a real cider made in the approved way, so I shouldn't really like it. Hm. Nevertheless, I found it preferable to the other ciders in the shops—which I suppose aren't real ciders either, by the same criteria.

Back home, I can find two Spanish ciders on sale within walking distance: El Gaitero, which looks like cheap champagne and is soft and bland and a bit sweet; and Zapiain, a Basque cider that tastes like apple vinegar. Neither is really what I'm after. In a spirit of experiment, I tried mixing the two. The mixture is perhaps an improvement on either one by itself, but still leaves something to be desired.

Is it really difficult to produce a cider that's neither sweet nor vinegary?

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Windows Vista and old fonts

I've come rather late to Windows Vista, but I'm now using it at last. One of the problems I find is that its font installer doesn't recognize my old Type 1 PostScript fonts, which was rather a shock. I paid good money for these fonts once upon a time, and see no reason why I shouldn't go on using them.

I discovered a solution that doesn't involve spending any money. The Vista font installer recognizes Type 1 fonts if you supply them in the form of PFM files. These were not originally supplied with the fonts, but are created automatically by the Windows XP font installer.

So, while I still have a functioning Windows XP system, I'll have to install all my old Type 1 fonts on it, and save all the PFM files for use under Windows Vista. A bit of a hassle, but things could be worse.

I wait to find out whether the Windows 7 font installer will accept PFM files...

Monday, 27 April 2009

Health care: still in the Dark Ages

I was struck by the following extract from The Economist's special report on health care and technology:

A report by the Institute of Medicine estimated that up to 100,000 Americans are killed each year by preventable mishaps such as wrong-side surgery, medication errors and hospital-acquired infections—a larger number than die from breast cancer or AIDS.

Sometimes such errors can be prevented without fancy technology. It helps to write “not this leg” on a patient's left leg before surgery on his right leg.

What a sad comment on the state of modern health care. And in the country that spends the most money on it, too.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Bigger and better tax havens

An article in The Economist (see original article) describes how an Australian researcher named Jason Sharman tried to register anonymous companies and open bank accounts for them in 45 places around the world. He was successful in 17 cases, 13 of which were OECD countries, including the USA and the UK.

In these cases, the bank can't reveal the owner of an account to any inquisitive government, because the bank doesn't know. So these accounts are safer from investigation than those in a traditional tax haven, where personal identification is normally required.

The USA is particularly attractive in this respect because there you can apparently get tax-free interest on your untraceable riches.

I pass on this useful tip to any of you who may be wealthy enough to consider taking advantage of it. However, bear in mind that you shouldn't believe everything you read, even in The Economist. There may be hidden snags.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Read it again, Sam

I'm a habitual rereader of fiction. Now that I have a reasonable stock of books in the house, I'm frankly more likely to reread an old book than to pick up a new one. I have some books that I've reread dozens of times in the course of my life.

For me, it's the same as replaying recorded music. Everyone replays favourite music, but some people seem to read novels only once. Apparently the attitude is that they want to be surprised by the story, and after the first time they're not surprised any more.

I read fiction to enjoy the images, the scenes, the characters. On the whole, I feel more comfortable not being surprised by the story; though in any case I'm unlikely to remember all the details of the plot from one reading to another.

The memory of a book that I've read soon fades. My memory of it is like listening to someone whistling a tune, compared with playing the record; or watching a blurred image of disjointed parts of a film dubbed into another language, compared with watching the DVD in English. Every now and then I want to re-experience the original in high fidelity.

When I think of reading a book, I don't usually want to read just any book; more commonly, I want to reread a particular book, because that's what I'm in the mood for. If I pick up some book I haven't read before, I'm unlikely to be in the mood for it; I may not even like it at all.

Nevertheless, I do read new books every now and then, when I feel willing to experiment. It helps if I've read other books by the same author, because then I know roughly what to expect.

If I feel doubtful about reading a new book, I find a good way to evaluate it is to read the beginning, read the end, and dip into the middle—though I've noticed when doing this that it tends to horrify other people.

Um, don't read anything into the date of this post: it's not intended as April foolery.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

What is liberty?

I've been calling myself a libertarian since the early 1980s, but you may not know what that means. Of course you can read about it elsewhere, but here's my personal take on it in case you're interested.

It means, of course, that I'm in favour of liberty; but what is liberty? To me, liberty is what you have when no-one else is using force on you. So I'm in favour of a society in which people don't use force on each other. This is a theoretical ideal: I recognize that such a perfect society doesn't exist and isn't going to exist.

From a moral point of view, I believe it's wrong to use force on inoffensive people (people who don't use force themselves). However, I'm not a pacifist: if someone goes around murdering people, he's an offensive person, he's forfeited his right to liberty, and it's OK to use force on him.

From a political point of view, both left-wing and right-wing politicians believe in using force on inoffensive people to achieve their objectives, so I don't support either wing. In fact, using force on inoffensive people is basically what politicians do, so I'm not a supporter of politicians in general.

I see libertarianism as a moral position, with political implications.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Has science fiction lost its way?

There seems to be a feeling in some quarters that modern sf is not what it was; indeed, I suppose I feel it myself to some extent, although there are still good books being written in the field.

I reckon the main problem is a general loss of optimism about the future. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the future was seen as a fairly simple place, in which humanity was destined to go out and dominate the galaxy as it had already dominated the Earth. Eric Frank Russell wrote stories in which lone human scouts baffled and outwitted hordes of aliens unfortunate enough to lack human intelligence. These stories were a bit childish, but fun to read; people enjoyed reading them and came back for more.

These days, most people seem to suspect that the future will be complex and threatening, and sf authors struggle diligently to give a convincing sense of just how complex and threatening it will be. This is a worthy effort, but I wonder how many casual readers want to spend their spare time reading about a future that's even more complex and threatening than the present. Some readers doubtless appreciate it, but will sf retain a mass audience this way?

I'm not sure what the solution is to this problem, but in the meantime I see authors and readers (myself included) increasingly turning to alternate-history stories, in which we can read about societies other than our own without needing to venture into the unappealing future.

I hope this is merely a cyclical phenomenon, and that people will become cheerful about the future again in due course.