Saturday, 31 December 2005

Al Stewart biography

While we were in Madrid I managed to read Neville Judd's biography of Al Stewart, which arrived from Amazon not long ago. Judd isn't a brilliant writer, but he had Al Stewart's cooperation and access to his family, friends, and associates, and I think he's made a good job of the book, which even has a useful-looking index. A pity about the rather silly-looking late-1960s cover photo; the man doesn't photograph well, but I think some better photograph could have been found, perhaps from his peak period of around 1977.

I'm certainly not Al Stewart's greatest fan, but I have most of his albums and I've been listening to his music for about 35 years, so it's interesting to find out more about his private and professional lives, and more background information about the songs than I knew already.

Night train to Madrid

After Christmas we spent four days in Madrid visiting Ana's friends and brother, who lives in Madrid and has just become a father for the first time.

We travelled to Madrid and back by the night train, in a sleeper carriage, which I've never tried before and don't plan to try ever again. We found ourselves trying to sleep in an ordinary railway compartment which had six rather narrow bunk beds (three on each side) in place of the usual seats. There wasn't enough headroom to sit up in bed, and the only bedding provided per bed was a sheet, a rather small blanket, and a tiny pillow. The bed was probably full of house mites as it gave me an allergic reaction.

Night train to Madrid

We were travelling with Ana's sister's family, so we had the compartment to ourselves, but it was rather crowded with four adults and three children, and none of us slept well; the children seemed to survive the experience best.

We'd have been much more comfortable travelling by day, seated, in the normal way.

Sunday, 11 September 2005

In praise of iTunes

I suppose there are various programs that could do it, but I chose to use iTunes, and I find it more wonderful than I ever expected to have all my favourite music on tap and playable in random order at the press of a button.

Currently I have more than 1500 tracks in my iTunes library, and they're quite carefully selected: in most cases I don't include whole albums but weed out the tracks I'm not so keen on. If a track comes up that I'm just not in the mood for at the time, I can easily skip to another one, but I don't need to do it very often.

I've gone off the whole idea of playing music an album at a time in the old-fashioned way. I prefer my own private radio station, which gives me constant variety but never plays a duff track. It sounds great. I haven't enjoyed music so much for a long time.

Thursday, 8 September 2005

Floods and tornadoes

Yesterday afternoon we had a bout of heavy rain. It didn't cause us any trouble. But in nearby Sitges there was serious flooding; in some streets, parked cars were swept away and piled on top of each other. Underground garages and car parks were flooded, plus the estate agency in which Ana works, although it's not underground.

This sort of thing has happened to Sitges more than once before in the years I've been here. It seems exceptionally vulnerable to flooding and I wonder why nothing seems to have been done to correct that vulnerability.

The area was also visited by a number of tornadoes, which did some damage to buildings and vehicles, though we didn't see anything of them. Aircraft were damaged at Barcelona Airport.

Sunday, 14 August 2005

Buy your sword here

My brother-in-law Juan Carlos is a mediƦvalist in his spare time. He makes his own chain mail; and yesterday he showed me a brochure from Albion Swords, a company that makes swords designed to look and function like authentic period swords.

I was quite impressed. Before looking at the photos, I never fully appreciated what a terrible weapon a sword can be. It's limited by very short range, of course, but within that range it's a killer.

He told me that Americans can buy such things without restriction, but within Europe it's not that easy. He has his eye on one of the blunted sparring swords, designed to handle like a real sword but not to kill quite so easily. Apparently these can be bought without problems.

Sunday, 24 July 2005

iTunes tip

Although I still don't have an iPod, I use the free iTunes program quite a lot to play music while I work. But I've been a bit troubled by its apparent tendency to favour certain songs over others. I realize this is probably just the luck of the draw, but I'd prefer to avoid it, and now I can.

I found a tip somewhere on the Web that seems so obvious once it's pointed out. Just set up a smart playlist that excludes any songs played recently. I chose to exclude any songs played in the last month.

Wednesday, 13 July 2005

London bombers on video

I read that the police reckon they've identified the London bombers as young men born in England to Pakistani families.

I don't think it makes much difference whether this was an attack by foreign enemies or by British enemy sympathizers. What interests me more is that the four bombers were apparently recorded on video as they assembled at King's Cross. I think this will happen more and more in the future: we'll be constantly watched and recorded everywhere, so that whenever any criminal incident occurs, police can just rewind the tape to see exactly what happened.

Initially the surveillance is mostly of urban public places and commercial premises, but already some security-conscious people are starting to monitor their own homes, and this will become routine in time. In the end I suppose even wild areas of countryside will be monitored somehow, perhaps by satellites.

It's believed that at least three of the bombers blew themselves up along with their victims — which seems remarkably unnecessary. All they had to do was to leave the explosives on a short fuse and jump out at a station as the doors were closing. Either they were very stupid, or they valued their own lives no more than they valued other people's.

Friday, 8 July 2005

London under attack

So far only the perpetrators seem to know the reasoning behind the London bombings yesterday. But the main candidate explanation so far seems to be that this was intended as revenge for the war in Iraq.

If so, among the expressions of shock and accusations of barbarism, it might be well to reflect that various supposedly civilized countries have been guilty of such barbarism at times, as a matter of official policy. The indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians in the course of a conflict isn't nice; arguably it is indeed immoral and uncivilized. But, in the Second World War (for instance), the Germans did it when they bombed British cities; the British and Americans did it when they bombed German cities; and the Americans did it most memorably when they atom-bombed Japanese cities.

If Saddam Hussein had been able to mount an air strike on London, it would have counted as a normal act of war by modern standards. When a non-governmental organization such as Al Qaeda bombs cities, it's doing exactly the same thing but on a lower budget. An objective observer would condemn all such behaviour no matter who does it.

When the British government decided to go to war in Iraq, it exposed both its soldiers and its civilians to possible retaliation by the enemy. It hardly ever happens in war that all the casualties are suffered by the other side.

The most guilty person in Iraq was and is Saddam Hussein, a mass murderer and warmonger. It would have been a good result if the Americans could have eliminated him and perhaps some of his accomplices without harming anyone else and without setting foot in Iraq. Perhaps in future they'll be capable of such operations. They should have enough motivation to consider it: the Iraq operation has been a horrible mess, killing lots of innocent people, leaving the country in chaos, and spending vast amounts of money; and Saddam Hussein still sits in comfortable captivity while all this goes on.

Tuesday, 28 June 2005

Worlds apart

I've just been rereading Worlds apart by Richard Cowper, a delightful book that sadly seems to have been out of print since it was first published in 1974. I managed to get hold of a second-hand copy in 2002, having read a library copy many years before.

It tells the story of George Herbert Cringe, "parent, breadwinner, and Junior Science teacher at Bagshot Road Comprehensive School", who cherishes two fantasies in his miserable life: one is relatively modest, realistic, and achievable; the other is totally fantastic but very charming. Both fantasies unexpectedly come true for him, though only rather briefly.

The book paints a vivid picture of how a certain type of downtrodden Englishman lived in the late twentieth century, and an equally vivid picture of life on the remarkable and wonderful planet of Chnas — which is a figment of George's imagination, but refuses to stay that way.

In a sense, this is a minor book; but it's a great minor book. I come out of it with much sympathy for poor George and a wistful regret that I'll see no more of Chnas and the Chnassians.

I also feel much sympathy for Richard Cowper, who wrote this lovely book and probably earned next to nothing from it.

Saturday, 18 June 2005

The salmon of doubt

I've rather belatedly got around to buying and reading The salmon of doubt (2002), an assortment of writings found on Douglas Adams's computer after his unfortunately early death in 2001. There are eleven chapters of an unfinished Dirk Gently novel and a considerable collection of short non-fiction articles on various subjects.

For anyone who likes Adams it's well worth reading. The extra fragments of Dirk Gently's life are sometimes funny, while the non-fiction articles are pleasantly readable and tell you more about Adams than you can get from his fiction.

I'm glad to have the book. But it's a pity he's dead. He wasn't very prolific, as authors go, but he was a memorable character and a nice guy. And only a couple of years older than me.

The world mostly thinks that his best work was The hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy. He thought his best work was Last chance to see, a non-fiction book about endangered species. I think his best work was Dirk Gently's holistic detective agency.

EU budget blues

As a Spanish taxpayer, I have no personal interest in preserving the "British rebate", but I think the British government is right in principle to refuse to give it up until EU budget contributions are calculated using a fairer system.

I'm surprised that the German government doesn't agree with this: it seems to be the biggest net contributor, so it would have the most to gain from a fairer system.

Chirac's hypocritical posturings merely confirm that he's a cretin who represents France at its worst.

All subsidies are foolish and wasteful, and the Common Agricultural Policy in particular should have been terminated a long time ago. Any countries that want to subsidize their own farmers (or any other industry) should pay the cost themselves.

Friday, 10 June 2005

Drug bust in Bali

Recently a young Australian woman (Schapelle Corby) entered Bali with marijuana in her luggage and was sentenced to 20 years in jail. She said it was planted there without her knowledge. Maybe, maybe not. Whether she's innocent or guilty isn't really the point as far as I'm concerned. Consider instead:

  • Even if her story isn't true, it could have been. Would you want to get 20 years in an Indonesian jail because someone planted stuff in your luggage?
  • A 20-year jail sentence is way over the top for an amateurish attempt to smuggle marijuana (and other drug smugglers have got death sentences!). I'm not a marijuana user, but as far as I know the stuff's no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco.

Seems to me it's quite rational to avoid taking holidays in places like Indonesia because of this kind of story. Sure, it probably won't happen to you; but if it does happen to you, you'll regret it powerfully.

Speaking as a libertarian, I don't believe that buying, selling, or using drugs should be illegal in any case. It's your life: what you do with it should be up to you. It should be illegal to force people to take addictive drugs, and it should be illegal to give them to children. That's all.

As The Economist has repeatedly pointed out, criminalizing the drugs trade has been a disaster, just as criminalizing alcohol was a disaster when it was tried in the USA. It just becomes a tremendous boost for organized crime.

Thursday, 9 June 2005

Bye-bye Norton Antivirus

When I bought a new computer last year it came with Symantec's Norton Antivirus, which I've continued to use since then. However, as it's now coming up for renewal, and as reviews suggest that I could do better, I decided to try the ZoneAlarm Security Suite, which CNET is quite enthusiastic about.

So far ZoneAlarm seems to be working fine, and I suppose I'll pay for it when the 15-day free trial runs out.

As with Norton Antivirus, it offers the (recommended) option of scanning files whenever they're run or opened, but this seems excessive to me and I always turn it off. I scan incoming e-mail and every now and then I scan the whole hard disk. That should be enough, and so far it has been enough.

ZoneAlarm's junk mail filter works only with Outlook or Outlook Express, but I use Eudora and it has its own junk mail filter, so that's OK.

Tuesday, 7 June 2005

The crucifix fetish

Not long ago I attended a wedding, in a nice little white-painted church on a wooded hilltop. The sun shone from a clear sky, and far below, sailing boats moved slowly over the blue sea. A perfect day for a wedding, and all went well.

Inside, the church was cosy, but as I looked around I saw one thing that didn't seem right for the occasion. Here we were celebrating a happy event, and all around the walls were paintings and carvings of someone being tortured to death.

Doesn't it seem odd to you that Christians are so obsessed with The Crucifixion that they need to remind themselves (and the rest of us) of it constantly? There was nothing unusual about it in that time and place: many other people must have died in the same way.

If Jesus returned today, wouldn't he be disconcerted that his modern-day followers remain fixated on the manner of his execution? "Hey, folks, there was nothing special about it, really. Why don't you focus on the positive things I did and said during life? Why surround yourselves with images of pain and death?"

Fortunately I don't often have occasion to go into a church. When I do, I must say that the decoration strikes me as bizarre. What would you think if you went into someone's house and found it all clean and neat but decorated with paintings of people dying in pain?

Wednesday, 1 June 2005

The computer that won't wake up

Recently I've been having trouble with my computer's on button. I started having to press it about six times to get a reaction. This increased to more than twenty times.

The computer is in warranty. I called Dell, and yesterday someone came to fix it. He replaced the power supply unit. All seems well now.

So, just in case it happens to you: it's the power supply.

Monday, 30 May 2005

Plan B for the EU Constitution

Although I'm not keen on the EU Constitution in its present form, I agree that the EU should have a constitution.

The next step should be to recognize that every paragraph added to the Constitution makes more people fail to read it, fail to understand it, or fail to agree with it.

Therefore, whoever is responsible for the document in future should look at every paragraph in it and ask, "Is this paragraph vital for the future of the EU?" If not, take it out.

The resulting minimal document can then be resubmitted to the people of Europe with more hope of success.

It's perhaps unlikely that any conceivable Constitution would be approved by every EU country. Therefore, it's necessary to plan ahead and stipulate how to proceed with a Constitution without unanimous agreement. The obvious method is to say in advance that, if a large majority of Europeans approve the Constitution, any dissenting countries will be required to accept it or leave the EU.

If this seems too drastic, perhaps dissenting countries could be offered some kind of associate membership of the EU. But this status would be awkward to define, and would presumably have to be defined in the Constitution itself (an unwelcome complication).

Sunday, 29 May 2005

The French say no

It seems the French have, as forecast, rejected the EU Constitution; and I'm rather pleased about that, for several reasons.

  • A constitution of more than 300 pages full of messy compromises never deserved to succeed. Give us something clear and concise next time.
  • The EU strategy was to create this unappealing document and then demand that we vote for it or face some unspecified disaster. "There is no Plan B." There should have been a Plan B. Now the idiots who failed to prepare a Plan B will have to create one anyway.
  • It was never likely that all countries would vote Yes. In particular, Britain would probably vote No. However, speaking as a Brit, I'm pleased that fans of the Constitution (there are some) will now have to blame the French for its demise.
  • It's particularly amusing that the French voted against it because it seems too British, while the British will probably vote against it (if given the chance) because it seems too French. So much for compromise.

As for me: when Spain voted, I wasn't offered the opportunity to take part. I don't know whether this was a mistake or a matter of policy.

Wednesday, 25 May 2005

No taxation without representation

I'm British, but I didn't vote in the recent British general election, for the very good reason that I'm not allowed to. Anyone who lives outside the UK for more than 15 years loses the right to vote, and I've been away for 19 years.

I live in Spain, but I'm not Spanish, so I don't have a vote in Spanish national elections either. I do, in fact, have a right to vote in local and European elections here, but these are not very important, and they sometimes forget to send me an invitation even though I have a right to take part.

If there were no taxation without representation, I'd be delighted. Like any sane person, I'd gladly trade my vote for a tax exemption. One person's vote makes no difference at all to any election result: I'm sure you're more likely to be struck by lightning on your way to vote than you are to have any effect on the composition of the government. However, to pay no taxes would have a very significant and tangible effect on my financial situation.

The dismayed invaders

The BBC reports from the Gaza Strip:

The settlers are appalled by the possibility that their homes may be taken over by Palestinian militants who have been attacking Gush Katif for years. To prevent that happening, the Israelis may demolish all their property before they leave.

"You don't want to destroy what you built," says Debbie Rosen, who raised her six children in Gush Katif. "It's home with all the memories that you grew up with... It's my kids, it's my garden, my flowers that I just planted. It's home."

"On the other hand, it is too hard to think that they are going to give it to terrorists. Terrorists that killed my best friends — and they are going to celebrate in my home. It's too hard."

Well, I'm sorry, Mrs Rosen, but if you try to steal another people's country, they will try to kill you and your friends. Two wrongs don't make a right, and terrorism is always wrong; but people always defend their own country violently, it's a fact of life. You knew in advance what you were getting into; if you don't like it, you shouldn't have decided to live in a place where you definitely weren't welcome.

I myself live far from where I was born, but my situation is entirely different from Mrs Rosen's. I live at peace with the Spanish people and obey their laws. I even pay their taxes, albeit reluctantly. I don't have British troops here protecting me, bulldozing Spanish homes, and killing Spanish men, women, and children. If I needed that sort of protection to live here, I would never have come here.

Monday, 23 May 2005

Starting point

Today I registered with Blogger in order to produce this thing, which I call an interactive diary ('blog' is an ugly word). Whatever it's called, it seems worth trying.

In order to fill it up with something quickly, I'll start copying in chunks of my existing non-interactive Web diary (below).

Sunday, 22 May 2005

A small step for a Web site

This weekend I've been moving my Web site from Burlee's servers to Interland's. Burlee was taken over by Interland two years ago, so this should have been a simple internal matter, but my Web site and e-mail have been down for 48 hours during the transition.

Last night I finally put a query on Interland's support site, and someone has now fixed the problem. But I still don't know what the problem was. I'm on Interland's cheapest hosting plan, and the company doesn't seem to think I'm paying enough to deserve explanations.

Saturday, 21 May 2005

Els castellers

This evening we wandered over to the town square for a children's party and a castles exhibition from two teams from Vilanova (a nearby larger town).

This is a Catalan team sport in which people try to get as high as possible by climbing onto each other's shoulders. It seems to be non-competitive, and quite often a display is given by only one team. Unfortunately we forgot to take a camera on this occasion.

It provides a role for most family members: the heaviest at the bottom, the lightest at the top. Typically, the first level is taken by older men, the second by younger men, the third by boys or girls in their late teens, and subsequent levels by boys or girls in their early teens or pre-teens.

Often the display is accompanied by the shrilling of the gralla, a traditional Catalan wind instrument.

A simple display features just one person at each level: an older man supporting a younger man supporting a teenage girl supporting a pre-teenage girl (who stands up straight and waves at the crowd before descending).

The most ambitious we saw today featured three people at most levels and reached a total of six levels, a height attained rather precariously by a girl perhaps eight or nine years old, who waved very briefly from a crouching position before descending.

The whole team is quite numerous and not all of them form part of the castle: some just cluster around closely to act as human cushions in case the castle collapses.

Sunday, 15 May 2005

World at War (2)

This morning I managed to finish my first game of Gary Grigsby's World at War, having started yesterday.

Playing as the Western Allies at Easy level, I scored a marginal defeat: when the game ended at the end of 1946, Germany was on the verge of complete defeat (mostly overrun by the Soviet Union) but Japan was still flourishing in the Far East, because I never really figured out how to attack it. My only achievements were to liberate North Africa, France, Italy, and the Netherlands.

Although the game is simpler and quicker than most games set in this period, it's still not as quick nor as easy to play as I'd like. The manual runs to 115 pages. As with most computer games, you can see only a small portion of the map at a time, and you can't see the disposition of forces at a glance: you have to mouse over a particular area to see in detail what units are in that area. The units are shown only as pictures, not all of which are easy to distinguish (a heavy fleet is shown as a ship just slightly bigger than a light fleet).

But my main problem with this game is that I don't really enjoy playing it, and this is a subjective matter that may defy analysis. I think the Second World War probably just doesn't suit me as a subject: for game purposes, I prefer the wars of earlier centuries.

Friday, 6 May 2005

It's Blair again

The British general election has come and gone. As I like none of the parties, I'm reasonably content to see that one of them has lost 47 seats and the others have failed to gain power. Not a good result, but perhaps the least bad result available.