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Isn’t PageRank marvellous?

by Tom on December 6, 2003

Given that the result of a Google query consisting solely of the string ‘miserable failure’ is this, I think it truly is.

(Via Atrios.)

Diebold (partially) de-fanged

by Tom on December 3, 2003

It seems that those whacky funsters over at Diebold have given up on their attempts to use the DMCA to prevent ISP’s from hosting copies of the stash of hugely embarrassing internal emails which has found its way onto servers all over the place.

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News for Nerds? Some of it matters

by Tom on October 21, 2003

Mark Kleiman picks up an important story that I’d half-noticed on Slashdot a little while back, but had given little thought to. Fortunately, Professor K has a better attention-span than I do. While it could well be true that this stuff has had broader coverage in the US than it has in the UK, in which case my apologies to American readers for repeating the backstory, still…

The meat of the issue is that the fair and balanced and impeccably competent voting-machine company Diebold is doing its damn best to suppress the web-publication of leaked internal memos revealing some absolutely shocking security holes in their product.

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Fifteen Great Jazz Albums

by Tom on October 4, 2003

Norman Geras is running another of his music-related polls, this one on readers’ nominations for their top 15 jazz albums.

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There’s a scathing piece about the competence of MI6 in today’s Guardian by Sir Peter Heap, once our (main) man in Brazil. Heap’s distinguished career in the Foreign Office has evidently exposed him to some bits of prime silliness by the spooks.

A taster:

As a diplomat who worked in nine overseas posts over 36 years, I saw quite a lot of MI6 at work. They were represented in almost all of those diplomatic missions. They presented themselves as normal career diplomats, but often, indeed usually, they were a breed apart. And it normally only took the local British community a few weeks to spot them. “That’s one of your spies,” they would say at an embassy social function. “Spies, what spies?” we would reply. “You’ve been watching too much television.” But they were usually spot on.

In one capital, the MI6 officers rarely wore suits to the office while the rest of us did. “Why?” we asked. “Because we would stand out when we go outside the capital to meet our contacts,” they would reply. Maybe they scarcely noticed that they already stood out pretty distinctly in the city. If the local expatriates could identify them in weeks, it presumably only took hours for a hostile intelligence service to spot them, even if they did not know them by name already.

Sexing up Spaghetti

by Tom on October 2, 2003

I’m moving from one software job to another, and during the period of my notice (just ended, thanks for asking) I was placed on documentation duty. It has been my proud responsibility over the last month or so to attempt to capture, in flowing English prose and naturally UML, the state of the pile of mouldering spaghetti that my erstwhile employers like to call their ‘system’. Feh.

I’m pleased but quite surprised to be able to say that I managed to avoid the temptation to get all Borgesian on their asses by making the whole thing up. That would have been much more fun than what I ended up doing, but a bit too cruel to my successor.

Anyway, I particularly enjoyed a conversation on my last day with a colleague who is Spanish, and whose written English is excellent, but who relies a bit too much on the free newspaper ‘Metro’, given away on the tube in the morning, for his education in the vernacular.

He asked me if one particular document I had prepared had been ‘sexed up’. When I’d picked myself up off the floor and wiped away my tears, I denied the charge indignantly. (It is impossible to sex up a description of spaghetti.)

BBC journalists really do need to show more care about introducing this kind of thing into the language. They just don’t know how much trouble they end up causing.

Calpundit Interviews Paul Krugman

by Tom on September 16, 2003

I suppose lots of people will have seen it anyway, but for those who didn’t it’s worth pointing out that Kevin Drum has an excellent but thoroughly terrifying interview with Paul Krugman.

An appropriately spine-chilling taster:

Train wreck is a way overused metaphor, but we’re headed for some kind of collision, and there are three things that can happen. Just by the arithmetic, you can either have big tax increases, roll back the whole Bush program plus some; or you can sharply cut Medicare and Social Security, because that’s where the money is; or the U.S. just tootles along until we actually have a financial crisis where the marginal buyer of U.S. treasury bills, which is actually the Reserve Bank of China, says, we don’t trust these guys anymore — and we turn into Argentina. All three of those are clearly impossible, and yet one of them has to happen, so, your choice. Which one?

I’m almost certainly spending too much time reading lefty American blogs, but I now have far more emotional investment in the result of the US Presidential Election in 2004 than I have in that of the next electoral flurry in the UK. offers various quizzes which aim to tell you what your political position is and how it maps onto the work of various recent political philosophers. Have a go, you know you want to.

I turned out to be both a Communist and a follower of Ronald Dworkin. I’m somewhat puzzled but, I have to admit, rather pleased by this result.

(Found via the ever-readable MaxSpeak.)

Evidently was not a domain name for which there was fierce competition during the tech boom. I wonder why that was?

Update: Blush. Micah has already posted on this, I now see. Oh, the perils of group blogging. Assume I’ve just written myself an appropriately harsh memo about the importance of checking for duplication before sharing my, er, thoughts with the world.

Ian Macdonald

by Tom on September 8, 2003

It’s sad to read that Ian Macdonald, the music critic, has died.

Macdonald deserves the description ‘music critic’ rather than the more workaday ‘rock journalist’, in my view, simply on the strength of his extraordinary book Revolution in the Head: The Beatles and The Sixties.

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A brief follow-up to Henry’s post covering the link between the nuttier strains of Ulster Unionism and the UK Conservative Party.

On reading Henry’s piece, I happened to remember that last year, the Conservative member for Basingstoke, one Andrew Hunter, decided to resign from the party and join the Democratic Unionists with a view to standing for the Stormont assembly in that interest.

There are two facts to which I’d draw attention:

  1. Hunter was a member of the Commons’ Northern Ireland Select Committee from 1994 until 2001.
  2. Ian Paisley, the leader of the DUP, is a fruitcake. Dr Paisley, whose doctorate, US readers will perhaps not be shocked to learn, was awarded by Bob Jones University, believes that the Pope is the Anti-Christ; has devoted his entire political life to fighting against the cause of equal rights for Northern Ireland’s Catholic population; and is a staunch (the very staunchest?) opponent of the Good Friday Agreement.

Clearly, Hunter’s choice to jump ship doesn’t really reflect a deep strain of Paisleyite madness in the modern Tory party. He’s pretty much on his own in that particular decision.

But still: did the voters of Basingstoke know that was what they were getting?

Rorty Sporty

by Tom on August 25, 2003

If you’ve ever put in hard time trying to make sense of the writings of Richard Rorty, you’ll probably get some harmless giggles out of this deliciously silly poem that Norman Geras has managed to acquire, Bob Woodward-style, from a poet who wishes to remain anonymous. Here’s a taste:

Richie Rorty, Richie Rorty,
Naught he hadn’t read, it seems.
Heidegger and Nietzsche brought he,
Both, to feature in his schemes,

Next to others not so warty:
Caught he Dickens, Proust and Yeats,
Kundera and Orwell. Sought he
To cavort with them as mates.

Since I’m at it, I recall that the Philosophical Lexicon provided us with this useful definition:

a rortiori, adj. For even more obscure and fashionable Continental reasons.

Drive Carefully, Pop-Pickers…

by Tom on August 9, 2003

You must have noticed a particularly irritating rock’n’pop tactic to which certain songwriters resort when forced into a desperate compositional corner: having flogged every last bit of life from their tune but being unable think of any natural way of killing the damn thing off, a last-ditch decision is made to shift everything up a semi-tone and just keep going, in the hope (i) that this will provide the dirge with an extra dose of energy, and (ii) that the listener won’t notice the awful jarring effect as the musical gears screech protestingly.

It usually sounds absolutely horrible, but that hasn’t stopped Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and many others from indulging in this reckless musical practice as repeat offenders.

It just won’t do, and now there’s a website, the Truck Driver’s Gear Change Hall of Fame, dedicated to keeping track of the list of musicians who have been tempted by the dark side in this way. When the revolution comes, this kind of behaviour should be punishable with at least a stern ticking-off by the musicological authorities, so it’s important to maintain a list of the principal perpetrators to date.

The FAQ gives this high-minded description of the site’s purpose:

This site functions as an educational resource with the aim of ensuring that in a better future world, our children, our children’s children, and ideally also our children’s children’s children, avoid this musical crime. Equally, there is an element of name-and-shame involved, to help prevent those who may already have offended from doing so again in their career. Although frankly I think it’s too late for Westlife.

I especially enjoyed Dominic Pedler’s essay on the musical theory of the Truck Driver’s Gear Change, which includes a discussion of some cases in which it appears at first sight that even the Beatles couldn’t resist. Quite rightly, Paul McCartney is released without a stain on his character for the modulations in ‘Good Day Sunshine’ and ‘Penny Lane’, but Pedler is a bit less sure about ‘Octopus’s Garden’ and a few others, deciding to nominate the moptops for an honorable Yorkie in recognition of these lapses in ingenuity.

Update: Non-British readers will most likely have no idea what a Yorkie is and what its relevance might be. Fair enough: the Yorkie is a perfectly ordinary chocolate bar which was advertised in the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties as being so extraordinarily chunky (I believe that was the adjective chosen) that the biggest baddest trucker could subsist on nothing but as he drove up and down the nation’s motorways during the night. Personally, I’ve always preferred a bag of wine gums.

Walzer vs Philosophy

by Tom on August 6, 2003

That link that Chris posted to his ‘Imprints’ interview with Michael Walzer was well worth following. Walzer has done some work that I admire the hell out of, (‘Just and Unjust Wars’ especially), and his thoughts about Iraq shoud probably be required reading for those of us who ended up on the other side of the argument.

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Babel, Software, Work

by Tom on July 29, 2003

Here’s a bit I rather liked in Fred Brooks’ classic essay on the management of software engineering projects, The Mythical Man-Month:

According to the Genesis account, the tower of Babel was man’s second major engineering undertaking, after Noah’s ark. Babel was the first engineering fiasco.

The story is deep and instructive on several levels. Let us, however, examine it purely as an engineering project, and see what management lessons can be learned. How well was their project equipped with the prerequisites for success? Did they have:

A clear mission? Yes although naively impossible. The project failed long before it ran into this fundamental limitation.

Manpower? Plenty of it.

Materials? Clay and asphalt are abundant in Mesopotamia.

Enough time? Yes, there is no hint of any time constraint.

Adequate technology? Yes, the pyramidal or conical structure is inherently stable and spreads the compressive load well. Clearly masonry was well understood. The project failed before it hit technological limitations.

Well, if they had all of these things, why did the project fail? Where did they lack? In two respects – communication, and its consequent, organization. They were unable to talk to each other; hence they could not coordinate. When coordination failed, work ground to a halt. Reading between the lines we gather that lack of communication led to disputes, bad feelings, and group jealousies. Shortly the clans began to move apart, preferring isolation to wrangling.

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