Friday, November 19, 2010

Deathly Hallows 1 - reactions

Well, I enjoyed this. I strongly suspect that even more than the other films, you might struggle with this if you've not read the books. However, it really brought the action of the book to life, and part 2 next summer seems a long way away.

Whilst the principal actors (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint) may not be the best, I feel (along with many other people, I have little doubt) that I have grown with them - they embody the characters they portray. The review in "The Times" was rather sniffy, particularly about Grint. However, they are more than sufficiently competent to allow me to suspend my disbelief - which should be the objective in a film.

A couple of really striking moments: the point right at the beginning where Hermione casts an "Obliviate" spell on her own parents - throughout, I felt Watson did a thoroughly good job of conveying the emotion of a young person comprehending the weight of what was happening to a greater extent, in some ways, than the boys; the way in which Hermione (again!) narrates the story of the Deathly Hallows, with a shadow-style animation; and, for good measure, the sequence with Harry and Ron on his return, and the horcrux.

There are plenty of shock moments - startling even when you know that they are coming - and even (considering the darkness of the story) a fair number of laughs.

Rowling Incorporated have done a very good job of bringing the books to life over the last 10 years or so, and whilst I am really looking forward to the final part, I will also be sorry to see the end of the Harry Potter era.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A sonnet - in honour of C******* H*****

A sonnet, Miss Jones said, I had to write
On any theme or subject, great or small.
I faced the mighty challenge without fright,
Determined not to write mere dogger-all.
I sat and sucked my pencil deep in thought,
As up the mud-filled footpath traipsed my mind,
In fast pursuit of muse, who me had taught
The rules of iambs, feet and all such kind.
But she had gone, long gone - my heart was broke -
To distant regions there to learn herself.
All talent left my mind, my words did choke,
I barely managed to preserve my helf.
So any sonnet slight and naff will seem
Compared to this outstanding, beauteous dream.

Christians and Slavery - another snippet

I blogged here about the fact that the accusation that Christianity should be regarded as somehow particularly complicit in the slave trade was unfair, tracing Christian opposition to abuse of slaves back to the 1600s, and Quaker opposition to the practice of keeping slaves to the mid 18th Century.

I discovered that Christian opposition to the slave trade goes back yet further. In "The Stories of English", by David Crystal, he quotes a sermon in Old English, by Bishop Wulfstan, composed in 1014:
It is also no wonder that things are going badly for us since we now know very well that many men of long ago did not care very often what they did in word or deed. And the people, as it can seem, became very corrupted through numerous sins and through many evil deeds: through deadly sins and through crimes, through greed and through gluttony; through theft and through robbery; through slave-trafficking and through pagan vices, through deceits and frauds ...
In actual fact, he wrote it in Old English - "mannsylena" is the word translated by Crystal as "slave-trafficking". However, in the 11th Century, at a point when the available documentary evidence is quite slight, it is worth noticing that even then slave-trafficking was clearly understood within the church to be worthy of reproach.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What website defines the letter?

Using the set-up as described above (Google UK, Instant Search, signed out from Google account), typing a single letter, what is first on the top of the list of automatically generated websites?

It turns out to be ...
Shop Argos
Broadcaster BBC
Shop Currys
Shop Debenhams
Web service ebay
Web service facebook
Web service google maps
Web service hotmail
Shop ikea
Shop john lewis
Airline klm
Um, broadcaster tie-in? lotto
Web service msn
Shop next
Telecomms o2
Shop pc world
Web service quidco
Web service rightmove
Web service skype
Shop tesco
Web service utube [sic]
Telecomms vodafone
Broadcaster/web service BBC Weather - with Google's guess at local weather first
Broadcaster tie-in x factor
Web service youtube
Shop zara

The labels are assigned in relation to the origins of the website - whilst all the shops listed evidently have a substantial internet presence, they were established as "real world" shops, rather than e-tailers. There are nine such shops, and a further seven websites which are based on "real world" activity, and just nine which are fundamentally web-based activity. Boundaries are blurred, of course - the presence of shops on this list shows a significant internet presence, whilst entities like ebay and Skype have acquired significance on the Internet by changing the way things are done in the non-virtual sphere.

New Google metrics

Using the Google UK page, and Instant Search, signed out from Google account, how many letters of the following words need to be typed before the target phrase appears in the automatically-generated list of options?
Target phrase# Letters requiredPosition in list
Lady Gaga32
van Gogh310
sagrada familia41

Untranslatable words

I only discovered Matador Network this morning, by virtue of a tweet from Lauren Beukes. I think this is probably the first time I've received a remote link (rather than an alert of new material) that I personally considered interesting from Twitter as well - I'm much more interested in people's original content; I know that I don't have time to keep abreast with the internet, and to try would lead to madness.

Anyway, this article is about untranslatable words. My Portuguese/Brazilian acquaintances will be pleased to know that saudades makes the list (I think this is probably the most promoted untranslatable word! - it almost seems to be a matter of pride for Portuguese speakers, in a way that d├ępaysement, say, simply isn't for French speakers). Welsh acquaintances will perhaps be sad that hiraeth doesn't make the list. There are 489 comments which I didn't read, but I suspect they are further suggested contributions.

Beyond the list, the point at the end of the article is a worthy one - that the hardest part of learning a language isn't learning the rules, but understanding - nay, grokking - the concepts involved -
developing an inner reflex that responds to words’ texture, not their translated “ingredients”. When you hear the word “criminal” you don’t think of “one who commits acts outside the law,” but rather the feeling and mental imagery that comes with that word.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Commercial flying - the downsides

Not a great deal needs to be said about the upside of flying as a career - those people that are considering it tend to be pretty driven, and I do think that I have a great way to earn a living. However, before you start thinking how lucky are the people who are doing it, it's worth considering some of the less positive aspects of it.

- It costs a lot to get into - tens of thousands of pounds. If you don't succeed, that money is written off. Unlike all but the silliest vocational university degrees, half a pilot's licence has little transferable value. Furthermore, being a professional pilot is not a transferable skill. I know; I've tried.

- Whilst the technical knowledge you need to absorb and reproduce is not that complicated, there is a LOT of it.

- At the wrong time in the economic cycle, it is almost impossible to get the first job. In fact, you can end up paying more to get a job than you will be earning from it. Seriously.

- If you want two weeks of summer holidays with the family, don't work for an airline. If you don't want to work on Sundays, do something else. If you have regular commitments during the week, give them up. If you want weekends, forget it. Don't underestimate the significance of this. "That Friday feeling" exists - but not generally on Fridays. When your friends are getting married one every couple of weeks, you are likely to miss half of them with work. If your friends are doing regular jobs, their social activities will be geared around Friday and Saturday nights. Yours won't.

- The flight simulator is not "wow! What fun!" You are defending your job, every six months. If you fail too badly, you won't have a licence, which means you won't have a job.

- You have a medical every year. If you fail your medical, you won't have a licence, which means you won't have a job. There aren't many jobs in which you are challenged about how much you are smoking, drinking and exercising every year.

- If you break your arm, you lose your medical, which means you can't work.

- Whilst you may average only around 35 hours work per week (see my earlier post) with some companies, this masks some serious variations. The legal limit is 55 hours duty in any 7 days, 95 hours in any 14 days and 190 hours in any 28 days. Furthermore, when you've got up at or before 4 am, or got in from work after midnight, four days in a row, you seriously wonder if there have really only been 168 hours in the last week.

- You can't turn up to work with a hangover, and in fact for most of the week, you basically can't drink. You can't take a day's holiday at short notice if something comes up. You will miss half the things your children do at school. If delays mean you're missing an appointment, you generally have to put up with it (or organise the appointment better). The work you expected to do will probably be rewritten - more or less often, depending upon the airline - entailing occasional substantial reorganisation of arrangements.

Um, well, that's some of the stuff that nobody told me before I committed myself to this career. I hope it's useful....

Ryanair spinning pilot salaries

The Times yesterday (there's no point in providing a link, because it now exists behind a paywall. In any case, the quality of the report was low - a couple of quick phone calls to airlines to get their opinions ...) offered a report based on a press release by BALPA.

The gist of the report was that BALPA claim that pilots are having to stump up tens of thousands of pounds to get onto the first rung of the professional pilot career ladder, denying access to all but the wealthiest. (Hmm, that seems a familiar concept.) Frequently the "first rung" is almost at the level of an internship, with the new pilot earning barely enough money to cover the cost of the loans he or she had to take to get that far.

There is a safety issue here - Wikipedia on the Colgan Air crash points out...
Safety issues examined during the accident investigation process, included pilot training, hiring, and fatigue problems, leading the FAA to issue a "Call to Action" for improvements in the practices of regional carriers.
All companies have a responsibility to recognise that their objective isn't simply to make money, but to extend a duty of care to their employees.

However, what particularly annoyed me was a quote from the representative of Ryanair. I can't find the exact words - it's behind the paywall!! - but they said something along the lines of "pilots earn £150,000 and do 900 hours flying a year, which equates to 18 hours per week." This was published without comment from The Times, as the last word in the article.

I would suggest that this is quite naughty of Ryanair, and pretty gullible of The Times to accept the claim as it stands. I simply don't know what it is based on. The proportion of pilots earning £150,000 is negligible. The salary for a captain of a medium-sized jet aeroplane, once all benefits are taken into account, might be of the order of £100,000 - this quote from Ryanair already exaggerates this figure by 50%.

This is still misleading. Only around half of pilots are captains. The other half - first officers - earn substantially less, probably at best half that. And this is based on medium-sized jet aeroplanes and bigger. For people working for regional airlines, or flying turboprop aircraft, take another 30% off.

But what about that "18 hours per week on average"? Again, this is misleading. Yes, if you divide the legal limit of 900 flying hours per year by 52, you come up with an average of 18 hours per week. This would be barely 2 days work, one assumes! However, the more significant measure for pilots is the amount of duty hours they work. They don't arrive at work, sit in an aeroplane and fly, and then go home. Typically, the amount of time spent on duty will be 1.5-2 times the number of hours flown. So that's now 27-36 hours duty per week, on average - still pretty good, by a lot of people's standards, but nothing like the eyewateringly generous figure suggested by Ryanair. Of course, had they said "Our pilots earn an average of £55000 per year and work an average of 30 hours per week", this would hardly have made for such a dramatic soundbite. I suspect it would have been a lot closer to the truth, though.

It is still fairly well rewarded, but before you rush to judgment, there's more that ought to be said about the nature of flying as a career ....

Monday, November 01, 2010

Bidrivals - caveat emptor

The latest variation of Telebid/Swipebids/Swoopo is now advertising on Facebook, called Bidrivals.

It's pretty much exactly the same as the others in the way it runs. You PAY for bids - 40p a pop, basically - whether you win the auction or not. This is the absolutely crucial difference with a proper auction. A quick look suggests that each bid that is received increases the price of the item bid for by just 1p, and increases the time available for the auction by 10 seconds. The effect of the price increment being just 1p means that the sale price stays lower for longer, encouraging more people to bid.

As with the other such websites, I would like to point out that this is NOT LIKE EBAY! Imagine a gadget - say a 21.5" iMac, as is at the top of their list at the moment - that eventually drops at £100. Assuming the starting price is £10 (for the sake of argument), that represents 9000 bids. At 40p each, that is £3600 in payment for bids. You may be the lucky winner and get the computer for the price of one bid plus £100. But there are a huge amount of losers who spent money and have nothing to show for it - and statistically, you are much more likely to be one of them. And the real winner is Bidrivals, who got loads more in payment for bids than the computer was actually worth. This is not an auction site! It's gambling. And as with all institutional gambling, the game is massively loaded in favour of the house.

One small concession Bidrivals have apparently made to real auction sites is a "Buy it now" option. This invites you to buy sell some of the items at what is roughly market price. However, it is also calculated to deceive. When you look at the auction price of (say) £100 creeping slowly upwards, and a "Buy it now" price of £999, the pressure to gamble on the lower auction price becomes even greater.