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Wed, 18 Mar 2015

Cricket World Cup 2015 awards

It is, of course, still not Real Cricket, but I've enjoyed this world cup so far. And I'm even enjoying it after England were knocked out and proved that ICC stands for Inter-Colonial Cup. I have a couple of awards to give out.

Best facial hair Virat Kohli of India
Worst facial hair Moeen Ali, for the sin of having a full beard but no moustache

I would have given Best Facial Hair to John Mooney of Ireland, but while he has more than Kohli, it's scruffy and looks like he just couldn't be arsed to shave. Kohli's may be a micro-beard, but it is at least deliberate. If Mooney wishes to be considered for this prestigious award in future he needs to man up and look like a tramp for a few weeks until his beard matures into a prodigious hedge, instead of just looking like a scruffy student.

Posted at 10:02 by David Cantrell
keywords: sport
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Fri, 16 Aug 2013

Today I Learned ...

When storing a past event, always convert it into UTC and store it that way (I knew that). But when storing a future event (esp. if it's more than a year in the future), store it in the local timezone and only convert to UTC on the given day. This way you can properly handle the changes to time zones and/or daylight savings that might happen in the meantime.

(via Domm's blog)

Posted at 15:00 by David Cantrell
keywords: geeky
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Sat, 29 Jun 2013

The Most Important Word in Publishing

Dustin Kurtz works for a publisher, and writes on their blog. His thesis is that authors do themselves a dis-service if they link to Amazon, and that they should instead link to some random small independent bookshop if they want to visitors to their websites to buy their wares.

In this piece, he omits the single most important word in the whole of the publishing industry. That word is "readers". He does mention customers twice, but only in the context of making sure that a bookshop is willing to post stuff to them and when he says "even if not a single customer finds them through you, [the bookshop] will be happy" - which is wrong. A bookshop to whom you direct no custom at all won't be happy. They won't be sad either, they just plain won't care, or even notice. Well, I suppose they might be pissed off if they made a special effort to stock your wares when you told them you'd be linking to them, and then didn't sell any. At no point does he consider even for a moment what readers, the people who are ultimately paying his salary, want.

Actually, the whole piece is confused. For example, he says that most people will go straight to Amazon in the first place and not visit author websites at all (which is probably true) but then thinks that that is a good reason for authors to not link to Amazon. Errm? The links to Amazon are for people who have visited the author's website and have not gone straight to Amazon. What people do who go straight to Amazon is irrelevant. Once someone has come to your website, they are, provided your site doesn't suck, yours, and they will keep coming back. Just like I keep going back to Charlie Stross and Hugh Howey's websites, via their RSS feeds.

But anyway, back to readers. What readers want is a combination of convenience and reliability. Amazon does both of those brilliantly, and with excellent customer service for the very few times that they screw up.

So, authors - please don't link to small local bookshops. It's far less convenient for your readers, who end up with a bazillion separate accounts with a bazillion separate online shops, and have to type all their details in a bazillion times, often fighting against idiotic web forms that simply won't accept their address* or phone number** or email address*** or whatever. Once the reader has fought through all that, he has to hope that your order fulfillment process works, that you know how to get stuff reliably to his door, and that if anything goes wrong you have heard of customer service.

Nah. Far better to just use Amazon.

In addition, I hear anecdotally that some authors make more money in Amazon Affiliates kickbacks than they do in royalties. If you don't link to 'em, I'll go there myself anyway if I want to buy your stuff.

* too many insist that all addresses have a state or a county, or don't have enough lines

** many won't accept phone numbers from other countries

*** many won't accept addresses with a + sign in them

Posted at 13:26 by David Cantrell
keywords: amazon | books | culture
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Fri, 14 Jun 2013

MathML browser extensions

It's really annoying that there still isn't universal support for MathML. Things have got better recently though, with Safari finally supporting it. Of the major browsers, though, there are still two that don't.

First, IE. It doesn't matter. It is only used for three things: first, to download a browser that doesn't suck; second, if it is chosen by someone who is stupid, ignorant or malicious; third, by people who need to compare browsers.

Second, Chrome. Despite its lack of MathML, Chrome is IMO the best browser out there. It works on multiple platforms, has lots of extensions available, and has very good support for synchronising things like bookmarks and open pages across devices.

And now there's a plugin for it to support MathML! And of course Chrome supports it without a plugin on iOS, because it uses the Safari rendering engine there.

update: Safari on the desktop still doesn't render it particularly well, despite it working just fine on my phone.


Posted at 11:04 by David Cantrell
keywords: geeky | maths | meta
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Wed, 12 Jun 2013

The Nicaragua Canal

I doubt it'll happen - just about every mega-project that flares up in the news never actually happens - but one thing in this article grabbed my attention.

" Many have been asking whether Central America needs two canals, even in an age of growing world trade. "

No-one who cared about free trade would ask that. Competition is Good. While there are other routes between the Atlantic and the Pacific, they are either very long (around south America) or not reliably open (Northwest Passage). The Panama canal is also not big enough for many modern ships, and still won't be even after the current upgrades are complete (see image to right). Broadly speaking, the larger your ship the cheaper it is to run per ton-mile of cargo, and it's less polluting too. And, of course, shorter routes between the same two ports are also cheaper.

Posted at 17:53 by David Cantrell
keywords: economics | engineering | transport
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Sat, 4 May 2013

Amazon efficiency, part 2

I recently ordered a Huawei 3G-to-wifi router thingy from Amazon. It's crap and doesn't work so, after ordering a replacement made by another manufacturer, I had to return the duff one.

Amazon make this really easy. All I had to do was fill in a form on their website, print out an address label with a barcode, stick that on an envelope, and take it to a Collect Plus franchise. There are bazillions of these, even in ruralistan. This is far more convenient than having to take something to a post office which is only open for a couple of hours a day because they want to go out of business.

And best of all, the newsagent I took it to could scan that barcode, and my refund arrived within the few minutes it took me to walk back home.

The mark of a business that knows about customer service is what they do when something goes wrong. When everything goes right it's easy to please your customer, but when it goes wrong, such as when you've sold something that doesn't work, it's much harder. By making returns so very quick, easy, and quibble-free, Amazon have done it. Bravo!

Posted at 18:57 by David Cantrell
keywords: amazon
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Mon, 18 Mar 2013

Six Nations Roundup 2013

Not a bad tournament this year, the stand-out game being the low-scoring match between Scotland and Ireland, and my man of the tournament was Ireland's Paddy Jackson.

As usual I'll bitch about scrums. Not a single scrum was fed straight, and despite the recent rule changes there were too many resets and infringements leading to free kicks and penalties. The IRB must instruct referees to apply the damned laws: to punish crooked feeds at the scrum. And if they can't come up with a formulation of the laws that will permit putting pressure on before the ball is fed without the possibility of moving the scrum, then they need to change the laws so that when the scrum is set it is without pressure. I'd hate to see scrummaging disappear from the game, as it has in the League game, but I fear for it if the IRB and referees don't get a grip.

Finally, a worrying development is players arguing with officials and trying to tell them what to do. This is supposed to be a gentleman's game, not Association football, and that behaviour Will Not Do. I'd like such dissent to result in a free kick or a penalty (as the laws already provide for), but realise that there are often players from both sides arguing. So I propose five minutes in the sin bin.

Posted at 21:16 by David Cantrell
keywords: sport
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Mon, 12 Nov 2012

Python is shit!

Apparently, perl is rubbish because <whine>the tools aren't friendly</whine>.

Well, if that's the case, then python is too:

$ git clone git://github.com/rg3/youtube-dl.git
Cloning into youtube-dl...
$ cd youtube-dl/
$ make
Could not find platform independent libraries <prefix>
Could not find platform dependent libraries <exec_prefix>
Consider setting $PYTHONHOME to <prefix>[:<exec_prefix>]
'import site' failed; use -v for traceback
Could not import runpy module
pandoc -s -w man README.md -o youtube-dl.1
make: pandoc: Command not found
make: *** [youtube-dl.1] Error 127
$ dpkg -l|grep python
ii python 2.6.6-3+squeeze7 interactive high-level object-oriented language (default version)

Posted at 13:30 by David Cantrell
keywords: geeky | rant
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Fri, 5 Oct 2012

Electric cars: the green threat

Finally, the media are realising that electric cars are not such a good idea.

I find the hoops they jump through with lifetime mileage assumptions interesting. They assume that electric and petrol/diesel cars have the same lifetime mileage, and then run the sums for different assumptions. Even with that bogus assumption, they struggle to show that electric cars are cleaner than normal ones. They can show that they emit less CO2, but that ain't the same as being clean. You also have to account for, as an example, the polluted run-off from the mines where the rare minerals that go into the batteries come from, and the waste products from processing those minerals into batteries.

I read some research a coupla years ago which took into account that hybrids' batteries (and I presume that this applies to all-electric cars too) give an expected lifetime mileage of only 100,000 miles, whereas yer typical diesel pickup has an expected lifetime mileage of 250,000. While the pickup may have a higher environmental cost over its entire lifetime, the environmental cost *per mile* was lower because manufacturing the hybrid took so much energy, produced so much nasty pollution, and involved the sacrifice of baby elephants and seals with ritual incantations to the Elder Gods.

But it's all a bit suspect, because none of this appears to take into account where they are driven and how they are driven. Not only are different vehicles and powerplants more suitable to different types of driving (eg motorways, low speed country roads, stop/start city traffic, carrying a heavy load, ...), they quite probably attract different kinds of people with different driving styles. You'd generally buy a Prius (for example) because you care passionately about polar bears, but you'd buy a normal car because you care more about making the best use of your time and money.

In summary, if you care about the environment, you should avoid electric cars, avoid hybrid cars (unless you live in a big city and expect to do most of your driving there; hybrid wins in stop/start and slow traffic), buy a small efficient diesel. There are useful data here and here.

Posted at 08:24 by David Cantrell
keywords: cars environment
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Sat, 8 Sep 2012

Kiva microfinance

I'm a loan shark. Through Kiva, I've been lending money every month for the past few months to people in the third world so that they can invest in their businesses or education. I feel that it's a far better way of being charitable than just giving money. When you give money, it often gets used and then ... it's gone. And even when it does go to something useful in the long term, there's still a lot of waste. When you make a loan to help someone start or expand a business, they have something tangible at the end of it, and will be less reliant on charity and loans in the future. They can employ people too, and build up a reserve themselves to get them through lean times. And finally, when they pay back the loan, that money can go straight into making another loan, helping another person.

Making small loans for well-defined capital projects where the borrower gets something tangible at the end of it is just so much more efficient than giving to charity, and it's very affordable. By putting lenders together into ad-hoc syndicates, very small amounts of money from many lenders come together to make substantial loans.

So far, I've lent to a Palestinian who wanted to buy mics and sound mixing equipment for his radio station; to a Colombian to buy tools and equipment to set up his own metal-working business; to a Kenyan so she could buy seed to expand her farm; and to a Tajikistani student to pay for university fees.

There are, however, lots of people looking for loans on the site who don't meet my criteria, and who won't gain from taking a loan. Take this example. She wants to borrow money to buy stock for her shop, which she will promptly sell, and then be left with a debt to be paid off over 14 months. She might make a very small profit, but once she's sold it all she'll need another loan to buy more stock, and so on, a never-ending cycle of debt and interest payments. No ma'am, not gonna "help" you with that.

This is even worse. He wants a loan to pay off a loan and to buy food. This chap seems to have taken on debts that he couldn't pay off in the first place, so how can we trust him to be able to pay off the loan he's asking for? And borrowing money for food? That's just about the worst thing you can buy on credit, as you will have absolutely nothing to show at the end of it.

I really recommend Kiva - or one of the other microfinance sites. They do good work, and I don't think that any other form of philanthropy comes even close to achieving their benefit to hassle ratio. Just be careful not to invest in dependency.

Posted at 13:10 by David Cantrell
keywords: money
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