Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nostra Who?

My older desktop PC is back at Fast Micros in Westbrook for repair this morning, having: given up the ghost' at boot-up; a regular event you'll recall. I've lost track of the number of times Windows has crumbled over the years and has to be re-installed. It's a Pentium 4 but with so much on it, I'm reluctant to swap it out and simply back-up to the Dell Inspiron laptop I'm typing on now.

I know that Fast Micros will have it up and running again pretty quickly so I'm not overly worried. One day though, I'll have to bite the bullet and buy a new one but I'm dreading the hours of re-installing programs that this involves.

With the New Year just in front of us, I would like to look forward to an optimistic twelve months ahead but predictions for 2010 are far from encouraging. The bookmakers won't offer good odds on VAT not going up to 20% and petrol looks set to hit £1.35. The chances of Israel and or America bombing Iran's nuclear facilities remain dangerously high and you'll have noticed that China is flexing its muscles, now that it owns most of our debts. A General Election may bring a change of government but no end to the pain that has to be endured, for many years to come, if we are to climb out of the deep financial pit that we have been dropped-in by this Government and its policies.

Meanwhile, our armed forces are making daily sacrifices in Afghanistan, while Al Qaeda thrives in Yemen and Somalia, radicalising young men with impunity in a number of British Universities, sufficiently enough to persuade them that God rewards exploding underwear.

What strikes me when I speak with ordinary people on the streets on the doorstep, is when they commonly start a conversation with "I'm not supposed to say this but…" a sense that we live in a Police state where one is no longer able to freely express one's views in private conversation for fear of being overheard and arrested. Feelings and opinions run strong and Government appears to have few if any answers to the antagonism and the distrust felt by the general public. This has to change or the pressure cooker that now contains our society may one day find a channel to angrily express itself in the very manner that New Labour fears most.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In Another Ten Years

I can't remember a time when I read so many books over Christmas. This year, it's a consequence of having my Amazon Kindle reader and as I've written here before, the results are quite remarkable in terms of easy and immediate access to works of both fact and fiction. Not one for holidays, the Christmas break is a time when a can enjoy a a good book without the world outside intruding too much on a temporary truce from the reach of email and the telephone. I can even turn my Blackberry off!

For many of us, each decade is one of those periods in our lives that we can most easily recall. In 1970, I was in my mid-teens, in 1980, I was starting a new career and in 1990, I recall that Microsoft's Windows was starting to make its presence felt over IBM's OS/2 Operating System. That technology, still very much in its infancy, would be inconceivable to the teenagers of today, where even the lowest-end iPod Touch carries 8Gb of memory and computing is heading towards a virtualized existence in the 'The Cloud' dominated by the likes of Google and Amazon.

There's speculation this morning that unemployment may jump by another 250,000 this year to 3 million. There's also political talk of offering greater support for new skills to better empower our economy. It's a topic I've been looking at for some time now and I'm far from convinced by the rhetoric.

The fact is that the vast majority of our workers continue to be employed in traditional jobs. The new job types created by technology represent a relatively small fraction of employment and often tend not to last very long.

Even within high technology industries, the bulk of jobs are traditional jobs. Suppose you found a new technology company and it starts to grow. Who do you hire? Engineers, people to work in accounting, human resources, marketing and finance; administrative assistants and more: these are all traditional jobs. The people working at Google do not all have new-age jobs; by and large, they have the same types of jobs as people working in any technology-focused business. What needs to concern us is not just the number of new jobs created by technology, but the types of jobs or as I said in Spain this month, To suggest that technology is suddenly able to create completely new job categories capable of absorbing millions of workers being displaced from traditional jobs is hopelessly optimistic. In fact, what we are seeing is more and more job-types, such as cashiers and bank staff, being automated out of existence at the base of the work pyramid and towards its apex, automation is falling heavily on knowledge workers and in particular on highly paid workers as systems and processes become more intelligent and efficient. I see this all the time in the IT industry as more and more people I know lose their jobs as companies, driven by the effects of this last recession streamline and downsize to leverage every penny from their balance sheet.

As large numbers of workers are automated out of their jobs, the economy may eventually go into decline because each worker is also a consumer and as computers are advancing in capability they will increasingly invade the realm of the highly educated. We'll likely see evidence of this in the form of diminished opportunity and unemployment among recent graduates and also among older university-educated workers who lose jobs and are unable to find comparable positions. It's a complex picture, described by Martin Ford, in his book, 'The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future' but the evidence for this change exists all around us to see.

With Silicon-based digital computers expected to reach their physical limits in terms of increased computer power sometime after 2020, this coming decade, given the exponential doubling of computing power, is going to bring changes that most of us can't imagine, as the paradigm shift rate accelerates. It took 15 years of computing to DNA to sequence the HIV virus yet SARS was sequenced in only 31 days. For most of us the internet started after 1995 and it's taken fifteen years to become pervasive. That same kind of disruptive shift to our society can now be achieved in less than five years, given the molecular technologies that are starting to make an appearance and so the really big question and the one our economy hangs upon, is how on earth we plan for new skills and for new ideas that haven't been invented yet when as a society we have lost our agility and our competitiveness and become yet one more top-heavy, over-regulated European poltico-bureaucracy?

I wish I knew the answer!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Scattered About

Well, that's another Christmas Day, past. I've been out this morning and would personally like to express my personal 'thanks' to the occupants of the house which regularly dumps its household rubbish next to the council bin at the start of the St Mildred's Bay car park. I'm sure those responsible and I could read out the names from their Xmas present labels, will be delighted to know, that with help from the ever present and voracious seagulls, the remains of their Christmas dinner and gift wrappings, are now scattered as far down as the beach. Strangely enough, I see, even the gulls won't eat Brussel sprouts.

Further down in the recycling area, people either can't be bothered or are not strong enough to lift the cover on the skip and have dumped bags of wrapping paper and boxes next to it. Yesterday, I shoved a whole load of boxes and paper to the back which was blocking the opening. So what happens next, is when the wind picks up, all the paper will end-up decorating the putting-green and the sea front. It's a shame because up until now, the beaches and sea-front area were looking remarkably clean, with great credit to the council sweepers and this will soon change as the paper becomes sodden and scatters.

Today, I had considered changing the template on this weblog but if I do, I'll lose all the links down the sidebar and would have to type each one back in again, a rather long-winder process. Also, because I have a number of 'Blogs', such as Zentelligence, I can't easily include and move other code around on the later interface, whereas the old blogger code accepts HTML (however poor my scripting is) so I guess we're stuck with it for now.

With less than a week before the start of 2010, I need to think of a New Year's resolution. The more immediate priority is to get back into a personal fitness regime. With my travelling around this month, freezing weather and two colds, I have 'dropped' the ball and need to re-discover the willpower to get back into my regime. The problem I find, post-fifty, is dealing with the challenge of discomfort and fatigue when one re-starts and I can easily understand why people simply give-up on the gym as falling asleep in the arm chair is a far more attractive option than lifting weights in the cold.

What I would like to do is take a quick break in the New Year if the opportunity allows. I haven't had a holiday in over two years and it would be nice to go exploring again. It's a great way of losing weight as well! Places I've always wanted to visit include the oasis of Siwa in the western desert, Reigandou in Japan, the ancient city of Timbuktu and Hissarlik in Turkey, the site of ancient Troy. Maybe one day!

I did offer to take my daughter to Westwood Cross this morning but she gave me a pitying look and described the idea as 'madness.' I'm sure she's right. Has anyone else made the attempt?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

It Came from Outer Space

I was stunned, nay amazed, to read in this week's Thanet Times, the front-page story that ice from a passing aircraft 'may' have smashed the roof of the Councillor Greens in Ramsgate.
It was only last May, that the home of another Labour councillor and 99th most popular Party blogger, Cllr Nottingham of Northwood, was struck by lightning, in what appeared to be an act of divinely-inspired and passing  political comment from the Norse god Thor but for two Labour bloggers  to have their roofs damaged, is remarkable from a probability perspective, even more so, given Ramsgate Mayor, David Green's position on the future development of the airport.

I'm delighted that nobody was injured during the unfortunate incident but whether it was indeed ice that caused a gaping hole in the Green residence is open to speculation, as the expert opinion of the builder, quoted in the newspaper, isn't conclusive evidence. In my own opinion, it's just as likely to have been a small black hole, ball-lightning a photon-torpedo a micro-meteorite or indeed, another Act of God.

The popular proverb does of course claim that 'lightning never strikes twice in the same place' but clearly Ramsgate is an exception in a political sense and I'm now wondering which Labour councillor may be next in line to receive a passing politically-charged salvo from either the Almighty or ET? The Thanet Times account of what may have taken place in the town last week, is previewed in the attached video clip.

In fact, if it hadn't been the front-page story I can't think why anybody might have bought the newspaper in the first place! The next episode may even feature the alien abduction of some unlucky Labour councillor or member of the cabinet, just to keep this local interest story going.

Anyway, here's wishing you all untroubled and clear skies a Very Merry Christmas and A Happy 2010 ahead!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Re-booting The Economy

I've embedded a conference presentation from TED.COM by Juan Enriquez that I recommend watching, as it delivers considerable insight into the problems facing the global economy and the technologies that may soon shape our future.

Although he refers to the US recession, much of what he says in terms of leverage and debt applies to our own economy, as closely linked as it is, to the uncertain fortunes of the mighty dollar and a globalised financial system.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Winter Wonderland

It's a bit of a winter wonderland picture out there in the bright sunshine this afternoon.

With Rochester airport closed with the snow, I ran across to Lydd to take on fuel at lunchtime and the line of the snow appears to follow the main road from Canterbury to Dover with everywhere to the east, more or less clear and the covering thickening to the west and Ashford. Lydd, which has a hard runway is completely clear of the stuff but on the higher ground you can see where the roads are still under what must now be tough white ice.

Operation Stack is off towards Maidstone and there's no sign of any Eurostar activity as you might guess. Canterbury appeared quite busy with late shopping and I regret not taking a camera to capture the scene of Kent at its prettiest.

Other than one other light aircraft I saw depart at Lydd, it's pretty quiet in the air too. With these low temperatures and relatively high humidity, there's a risk of icing, both in the carburetor and on the airframe, which have to be monitored carefully and so not many pilots are up and about.

I've had to place my motorcycle battery on charge as last night effectively drained it, even though I have been starting it every day. It's something to do with the current drain from the alarm in cold weather, even on standby and no maintenance has ever been able to fix it, other than shrugging and me being told it's a BMW problem. Tonight, with clear skies, I expect to be even colder than last night and so if your own car or motorcycle battery is older than a couple of years, you may want to keep an eye on it.

For those readers who might want to keep a good eye on any weather coming our way, I recommend Meteox for a decent radar picture and projection of where the nasty stuff is.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Trains and Trains

Having once spent five hours trapped on a Eurostar train between Calais and Paris, I have some sympathy for the passengers stuck for thirteen hours yesterday, who discovered, like I did, that there was no food, little water and insufficient toilet capacity to last out such a tedious and claustrophobic ordeal.

On this side of the channel, be warned that the train timetable changed last Sunday and duly caught me out on Monday morning when I discovered that the regular  09:37 from Westgate had become the 09:20 to Victoria. Of course, I welcome the arrival of our high-speed link but from a practical perspective, it's cheaper and faster to catch the ordinary train to Victoria than try and battle one's way back to Westminster from St Pancras having arrived twenty minutes or so earlier.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Silent Movie

"All anybody wants from technology", wrote Douglas Adams, "is for it to work," and I did rather feel that way at tonight's full council meeting which was scheduled for an inaugural pilot webcast.

Councillors Campbell, Wells and Jarvis were wearing unusually bright and colourful ties, which could have been a contributory factor and even Cllr Nottingham wore a tie, a gesture worth noting in its own right. I was wearing my best suit, clearly displaying the logo of the local business acting as sponsor and several councillors were sporting new hair styles, including one who is normally quite bald. Better still, everyone was on their best behaviour to welcome Labour's councillor Sandra Hart to the chamber and there was a palpable sense of Christmas goodwill, reminiscent of that famous temporary truce on the Western Front in the First World War.

In fact, the problem that prevented the webcast had nothing to do with the internet and the cameras, which were both working as they should be. It was to do with the ageing and frayed wiring microphone system in the chamber, which performed properly during the dry run yesterday evening but simply declined to cooperate tonight. I put it down to Murphy's Law and some strange quantum probability effect, which causes technology to fail, when enough people are relying on it to work at a critical moment. Given the absence of sound, I authorised the "pulling of the plug" on the web cast rather than deliver a silent movie to the public. Naturally we'll have an inquest and look to have it working next time around but the chamber microphones will continue to present a problem because in the present economic climate the budget simply doesn't exist to completely rewire the council chamber.

Just a couple of points I would like to highlight from tonight's meeting. Councillor Wise reminded members of the opposition that the disabled facility grants come from capital funding rather than revenue funding. What this means is that unless councils sell assets as instructed by government, then they cannot raise the capital needed to fund such programmes the same is true for capital receipts for sports funding. The second point involves EuroKent and Cllr Ezekiel pointed out that Thanet is obliged to build 600 new homes somewhere and if the opposition can come-up with a better idea of where these should go then he would like to hear it.

Good news of course from tonight surrounds the £12.4million of funds allocated from different sources and grants for the regeneration of Dreamland and I'm sure many readers will welcome the sight of it reopening in two years time.

On a completely different not, I notice that Richard Eastcliff is accusing Thanet South's Laura Sandys of being out of touch with local information when he writes:

"Two two causes for celebration this week. First, the 'news', as brought to you by the Blue Rinse candidate for Thanet South, that 'the life saving air sea rescue service based at Manston is set to be relocated to the Midlands at the end of this month.' Er, 'what air sea rescue service based at Manston?', you may ask. Clearly, however, that was not a question the intrepid reporter at yourfannitinnit could be bothered with."

I know something about this subject having flown the Coastguard Islander aircraft out of Manston. (see photo-stream) The role at Manston is principally a reconnaissance task, monitoring the channel shipping lanes. However, the Islander is able to fly low and slow and carries infra-red cameras and rescue equipment that can be dropped into the sea to survivors and this includes a dinghy. Of late, I understand that a number of missions have involved the rescue capability although it is not the principal role.

This reconnaissance role is now being moved back to the Midlands and the Islander is to be replaced by the much faster Cessna 406, which does not carry rescue equipment and is a pure shipping lanes reconnaissance aircraft. As a result, we won't have a rescue capable aircraft within immediate reach and will have to wait on either the Belgian Coastguard helicopter or the RAF rescue helicopter out of Suffolk. That 30 minutes difference between climbing into a life raft dropped by the Islander from Manston or floating in the sea waiting for a helicopter, to arrive could prove critical and this was Laura's quite appropriate concern, which I'm sure many readers will share.

In fact, the Coastguard and the Home Office are now reportedly looking at a multi-agency approach to maritime surveillance and my information suggests that unmanned drones, a cut-down version of the US Predator, sitting above the South coast of England, 24-hours a day, will soon be on the cards.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Boxed In

After almost two weeks away, I see the battery life on my Amazon Kindle reader still shows half charge and that's after wading through Dan Simmons' novel, Ilium, and having started the sequel Olympos as well. If you can imagine, Homer's 'Iliad', Shakespeare's 'Tempest' and some advanced quantum physics, all shaken vigorously together, then you've the basis for a rather imaginative novel of both the distant past and far future. The great thing about the Kindle device is that I can also load for free, the complete Iliad, Herodotus' travels in ancient Egypt and a great deal more besides and so in a very short period, it's completely changed my reading habits.

I can see a near future where devices like this one actually have liquid crystal pages as the technology now exists. So you buy perhaps a six-page device or twelve-page device to suit your budget and the first page is wirelessly synchronized with your email, several more display word or PDF documents, another is the book you are reading and so on. Soon they will be as cheap as any other commodity device and with electronic paper cheaper than the real thing, children will carry them to school in the place of books and will have access to everything and anything mankind has ever published in their schoolbag as well as everything and anything they have ever written during their school years at their fingertips.

It was the kind of idea I was giving a talk on in Spain a week ago, with the rapid evolution of what is called virtualization or cloud computing, where technology is delivered as a utility, much like electricity, a model we are already seeing with the evolution of a number of products from Google and Amazon. Anyway, given the exponential growth in computing power, still doubling every two years, thanks to Moore's Law, Christmas in 2015 is going to have on display some quite remarkable technology in PC World and Comet that we haven't even thought of yet!

Back in the real world, I'm confronted by boxes of Christmas cards to sign and seal. One day, someone's going to come-up with a process that automates that too, I'm sure. Just supply the names and addresses and a scan of your signature(s) and season's greetings will become as magic as a Jamie Oliver Christmas. Me, I'll have to make do with inky fingers for now as my fountain pen leaks and I'm running short of stamps. Yesterday, visited Westwood Cross on my motorcycle to buy some presents. Given the frenzied seasonal madness that now surrounds it; I plan to avoid the roads around it now until the New Year if at all possible.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Passing 15,000 Feet

I haven't blogged for almost a week and so I'll start this entry as my Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi, flings itself over the desert coast and climbs away towards Bahrain and London Heathrow, several hours away.

I can't praise the quality of service on this airline enough. I'm sitting in economy and yet Etihad is superior to business class in most other airlines, such as Iberia, that I flew with last week to Madrid. The digital entertainment system, all touch screen, is quite remarkable with enough to keep me busy for hours; I watched 'Ice Age 3' and 'District 9' on the way out and I plan to start today with 'Dillinger' once I settle down after typing this.

The flight attendants on this new Airbus look as if they've freshly arrived from a beauty pageant. I suspect that if they were suddenly exposed to the harsh winter light and charms of Cecil Square, they might wither away instantly; like delicate tropical flowers. On the way out to the emirates, I was chatting to the young First Officer, also neatly pressed into his uniform, who had recently joined the company from Virgin Atlantic. Apparently he had been laid off at the start of the recession and fallen straight back on his feet with a job offer from Etihad and a change of lifestyle, living in Abu Dhabi. Given the legions of airline pilots who have also lost jobs recently, he considers himself very lucky indeed.

As one might expect, the place is spotlessly clean and tidy and no sign of even a single marauding 'Pit Bull' terrier to remind me of home. I did see one discarded water bottle during my time here but the local people take considerable pride in their city and litter just doesn't seem to happen in the way we understand it; the city authorities also being very efficient in removing it. No graffiti either but then I suspect that nobody has ever tried to test the law in this respect, given that the country is not a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights and anti-social behavior is treated very seriously indeed by the courts.

I've been staying at the Armed Forces Officers Club, which is unusual in having a mosque and a sophisticated, air-conditioned shooting range next door to each other in the complex. There's also a small bank tucked in between them. I imagine that if one applied for planning consent for the same layout, in say Manchester, there might be rather more difficulty in gaining approval from the city council once they saw what was on the plans. There's also which an Olympic size swimming pool and a gym to match with a very impressive Turkish bath should one get bored.

I toddled off to the indoor range with one of my young colleagues and was reminded of the scene in the first Terminator movie, when 'Arnie' visits the gun store and asks for a 'Gas Plasma rifle.'

"Have you shot before sir," asked the nice girl behind the reception desk.

I replied that I had and surrendered my passport and filled in the appropriate waiver. When this was done I selected what I wanted to shoot from the menu and opted for a semi-automatic SIG 226 and 50 rounds of 9mm ammunition. The SIG is a highly reliable piece of Swiss engineering and I've never had one experience a blockage. The range appeared to be used both by locals and the small groups of American advisors and it was clear that the country is spending a great deal of money on both military hardware and training, I assume because Iran is only a matter of miles away across the disputed waters that saw a racing yacht out of Bahrain impounded last month.

While Dubai's economy went rapidly down the tubes last month, it's clear from the short time I had in Abu Dhabi this week, that it's apparently unscathed by the financial turmoil that surrounds it. From the sheer size, ambition and opulence of the surroundings, it's clear that 'the winner is the one that finishes with the most toys' and I'm looking forward to a return visit in the not too distant future. It's hard not to wonder, for a fleeting moment, what some of that fabulous wealth could achieve around our own sea-front, here in Thanet, rather than around the cornice in Abu Dhabi.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Jolly Affair

Where was I? Between Friday and today I've been nursing a cold, the usual consequence of air travel today. Terminal 3 at Heathrow always seems to be the worst place to catch a virus of any kind and I suppose I should be grateful it wasn't H5N1. I'm sure that many readers can also map their trips by what they've bought home with them and flights to and from the Middle-East and the Indian subcontinent always seem to conjure up the more exotic illnesses, somewhat reminiscent of 'The Curse of the Claw', an 80's Ripping Yarns production with Michael Palin, which I've embedded for anyone who hasn't seen it.

Westgate's Christmas Lights was a jolly affair yesterday, marred only by the rain starting ten minutes before the illuminations were turned on. I don't think the Reindeer noticed but the covered pavement outside the shops in Station Rd provided welcome shelter for those of us without hats or umbrellas. Santa, I noticed, was doing a roaring trade at the Mad Potter, with a queue of small children reaching out into the road and as always, Angelo was lending vigorous support with pizzas, roasted chestnuts and other goodies outside his delicatessen. Children from St Saviours' entertained us by playing Christmas carols on their musical instruments and even the young Romanian selling the Big Issue outside Somerfield, was dressed as Father Christmas; a nice touch I thought.

As always and as one of the three Westgate councillors, I would like to thank everyone involved in making it such a success and for their hard work behind the scenes. In particular I would like to thank Darren Ellis and the Margate Charter Trustees, Mick Tomlinson and Cllrs Goodwin and King for ensuring the money could be found for the event this year and all the traders, children and entertainers that supported it with their own donations and acts.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Splitting Hairs

I didn't get back in from Heathrow and Madrid until close to Midnight yesterday and so hadn't been able to keep up with the Dane Valley by-election progress. However, I now understand from a number of sources that Labour's Sandra Hart was the winner and may I be among the first to welcome her as a councillor and congratulate her on her victory.

I do notice that Labour's own 'Lord Lucan of Northwood' is challenging the absence of any mention of my being a Conservative councillor on the weblog. I'm sure it's passed him by, following the earlier David Green debacle, that by blogging under one's elected title, one is immediately exposed to the public standards code in a way that a personal weblog, like this one, is not.

Now if you happen to be the kind of blogging councillor who has little or no regard for such public standards of behaviour and related guidelines then the high cost to local government in dealing with complaints under the code; such splitting of hairs, may appear quite irrelevant but in practical terms, it's a sensible measure.

More later, as I've some catching-up to do today.