the hustler (i wish) …

Our new 6′ pool table was delivered on Monday, and it is lovely ;o) We managed to agree on some minor rearrangement of furniture to accommodate this little (actually, it’s pretty huge) addition to our home, thus avoiding more drastic measures like making the damp cellar hospitable – I can’t tell you what a relief that is … So why do I still feel so inadequate about my game [Ed: rhetorical question btw] Perhaps like most extraordinary talents, even something as mundane as pool playing is more about nature than nurture.

I’ve also been feeling quite washed out recently. Maybe it’s just the changing weather, and the inaugural meeting of our new team earlier in the week at the salubrious settings of the Ettington Park Hotel (outside Stratford-on-Avon) may have contributed to the demise of a few more brain cells, especially after the nth glass of wine! Anyway, the next team event should be fun: we are booked into the National Space Centre in Leicester where we will be engaged in simulated space missions. Our boss wants to assess how we cope with stress … allegedly. Which, curiously, reminded me of a quote from Jean-Luc Picard, the eponymous captain of the Enterprise … “Things are only impossible until they’re not.

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have your say …

I really don’t understand the nation’s apathy about the forthcoming elections – politics may be a spectator sport for some, but for the majority, I’d like to think it is a subject that should provoke feelings of ambivalence: like it … or hate, but do one or the other! The worst thing you as can do (in my most humble opinion) is to take our democracy for granted and not care!

Sure, there may be many reasons to think why your vote may not make a difference – the First Past the Post electoral system, for example, which the proponents of PR would describe politely as a ‘democratic deficit’ but conversely, a hung parliament would create a great talkshop in Westminster, but do little to set implementable national and foreign policies. Others living in the sticks may claim a different excuse for the feeling of impotence: faced with the option of the Lib Dems or Conservatives (sorry, Labour don’t have tickets to these posh balls!), both promising pretty much the same things that most people want, or worse agreeable policies that the Labour government have already started to put in place, for these country voters, it really is Hobson’s choice!

Then there are the neo-anarchists who think that withholding the right to vote is not a choice for apathy, but rather a signal to what Lord Hailsham called the “elected dictatorship” that we do not consent to be ruled. I have some sympathy for these idealisms, and idealisms are what they are unless accompanied by action, and action will probably lead to anarchy, and anarchy to tyranny, and tyranny to war, and war back to democracy again. Well, May 5th is only 13 days away and we really don’t have enough time to play out this vicious circle of strife ;o)

It is human nature to appreciate more those things that you have fought hard to get. Many countries (including the US) achieved democracy at the cost of war and human lives – we have not. British democracy was born in 1215 when the Magna Carta limited the powers of the monarch, albeit to the advantage of the aristocracy initially, but was extended later to benefit the common folk. Anyway, the point is this: you have been gifted with the freedom to exercise your voice (much like what I’m doing here with this increasingly tedious posting!) … As Plato, the father of democracy put it, “The penalty that good men pay for failing to participate in public affairs, is to be governed by others worse than themselves”.

So *do* vote, please … if you’re not doing it to make the statement that you are a better man (or woman) than those you have *chosen* to govern you, then do it for those who are still too young to exercise their democracy. One day is a long time in politics, but 4 years is an absolute age … oh, and if you can’t decide how you should vote, the Public Whip has a nifty tool to help make up your mind about the candidates in your own constituency.

Update:

Having looked at the manifestos of the front runners, I’m coming round to the Monster Raving Loony Party’s ideas. Here’s the abridged version of their manifesto:

  1. Our team of experts has decided that Income Tax has not proved
    popular with the public and will therefore be abolished. It was started
    in order to finance the Napoleonic war in 1799 and we now believe that
    the time is right to announce the cessation of hostilities with
    Napoleon. Some of the money left in the coffers will be used to fill in
    our part of the Channel Tunnel in case no one has mentioned it to the
    French. Any remaining money will be strategically placed on a horse at
    the 3-30 at Haydock Park at odds of at least 12/1 in order to see us
    through until the next election. Income Tax will be officially replaced
    by people lending the government a bob or two at the end of the week
    when we’re a bit skint.
  2. We will issue a 99p coin to save on change.
  3. We pledge to reduce class sizes by making the pupils sit closer to
    one another and issuing them with smaller desks. Any MP whose
    constituency sells off a school playing field for development will be
    required to relinquish their own back garden as a replacement sports
    facility for the school. All future Deputy Prime Ministers will be
    required to be fluent in at least one language to encourage the
    education system.
  4. All children will be given two birthdays like the Queen.
  5. The number 13 will be abolished due to its longstanding
    unpopularity. The bus to Acton North will now not have a number on it
    but not much else will be affected. Therefore if you see a bus with no
    number on it, it will be going to Acton North. Please remember this for
    future reference.
  6. Any student who says the word ‘Like’ when not grammatically called
    for, as in, “Hey, I’m .. Like, going down the like, pub”, or, “I was,
    like, don’t do that” will be made to go and stay with George Bush for a
    week in order to discourage them from other stupid Americanisms.
  7. Pram lanes will be created in all shopping centres.
  8. 4 wheel drive vehicles will only be allowed to drive off road,
    therefore stopping mothers picking up their children from school in them
    when they only live 100 yards down the road. They will also be wrapped
    in bubble wrap to make them safer.
  9. Immigration: everyone wanting to come and live in the UK will be
    made welcome, so long as they are over the age of 85 and accompanied by
    both parents.
  10. All foreign G.Ps in the UK will be taught the local dialect so they
    know when their patients feel Jiggered (Tired), Manky (Rough), Gipping
    (Vomiting) or have got somit rang with their Fizog (Face).

more google goodies …

P***ed off with expensive & ineffective 118 services? Google’s come up with an alternative that will only cost you a text message. Google SMS (currently in Beta) lets you get local business listings when you’re on the road and want to find a place to eat, obtain driving directions to get from point A to point B without having to ask for directions, compare online product prices with ones you find on the high street, look up dictionary definitions to expand your vocabulary or prove a point, solve maths problems such as converting to metric units. Just text your query to 64664 (or 6GOOG on most mobile phones) in the following example formats:

  • (business name)or(type).(location)or(postcode) … to get business information e.g. tesco.swindon or plumber.sn2 1bs
  • from (location) to (location) … for driving directions
  • price (product) … for price comparisons
  • define (word) … for definitions
  • g (keywords) … for web snippets (first few lines of matching webpages)
  • or calculator-like queries such as “5 miles in km”

However, if you are deskbound or have an internet-enabled PDA, Google Local UK is a Multimap-like local business locater service, and should provide directory listings in the familiar pin-headed mapping format.

to voip or not to voip …

I don’t think I’ve done a geeky blog on technical stuff to date, so here’s one I prepared earlier …

If like me, you have relatives & friends who live outside the UK and you need a better value service for telephony (i.e. anything from FREE to say 2p a minute to call the USA, Malaysia, etc etc) then read on – today’s blog is about Voice over IP (VoIP) and how someone in the UK can take advatage of something called ‘toll-bypass’. There’s a guy on eBay selling this info for 3.99 GBP – but if anyone wants to do something in return for my tips below, then feel free to go here and see what you can do to help …

OK there are 2 things to consider – the user and the equipment. If your Granny in Hong Kong only has access to a telephone and would be uncomfortable putting on a headset & talking into a computer, then it is unlikely (but not impossible) that you will be able to call her (or for her to call you) for FREE. The simple rule is this: if either end has to use a traditional telephone device (whether fixed or mobile) and is connected to the traditional PSTN or telephone network, then there will be a charge – the size of this charge will depend on the service provider and the options listed below. So, as a UK resident here are the services available to you:

If all you have is a telephone …

18866 – Registration for this service is by credit card. Requires a UK telephone fixed line but thereafter you can include other phone numbers (including mobiles) in your account, allowing you to use the service from these numbers. To use, simply prefix the number you want to call with ‘18866’ and enjoy silly tariffs to UK fixed numbers for ZERO pence per minute (i.e. FREE for as long as you can talk), 2p per minute to destinations such as the USA, Malaysia, New Zealand, etc etc. There is a standard connection charge for all calls of 2p. Billing is monthly and you will receive an invoice by email.

If you have a computer & you are on broadband …

You have a number of options, and these options will depend on the equipment of the people you are calling. If the majority of the people you call have access to a computer, then Skype offers very good quality audio conferencing facilities (plus other neat stuff like presence and chat). Both parties need to download and install the free Skype client/program and calls from one Skype user to another Skype user are absolutely FREE. However, if you need to call somone who only has access to a traditional telephone, you can also buy credits in 10 EURO chunks to ‘SkypeOut’ to say Granny in Hong Kong for 1.6p per minute.

In addition to using Skype (which uses proprietary technology), you can extend your options further by using standards-based VoIP service, based on something called SIP (Session Initiation Protocol). 18866 provides details of the configuration required to connect to their service using an IP Phone. An IP Phone can be a real device or it can be a bit of software (a Softphone) on your computer. Xten offers a FREE softphone called X-Lite and when configured to use with your 18866 account, you can still call UK fixed numbers from your computer for FREE and pay a lesser 1p connection charge. There are other marginal savings on some other destinations. Like Skype, SIP Softphone to another Softphone calls are FREE.

So far we’ve only looked at services where you are the initiator of a VoIP call, but what if you want to be called and for the call to arrive on your computer on a UK number? Sipgate offers a geographical (STD) number to any UK resident and registration is FREE. Once you have configured the X-Lite Softphone with your Sipgate account details (you can have multiple SIP configurations on a Softphone), your friends and family can call you on the personal number given to you by Sipgate, and the calls will be directed to the Softphone on your computer. There is also a Voicemail service for when you are not reachable i.e. when you’re offline – messages are taken and sent to you as an attachment in an email. Sipgate also offers a call plan to dial out to other global destinations, but the tariffs are not as competitive as 18866 or SkypeOut. I see that Skype are now offering a ‘SkypeIn’ service with Voicemail, but unlike Sipgate, this is subscription based and not FREE.

On a final note, there are devices available now to make the VoIP technology totally transparent to the telephone user. ATAs (Analogue Telephone Adapters) such as the B2K Skype adapter from MPlat lets you connect your home phone to Skype (yes, your computer running Skype will need to be on all the time!) and your home phone will ring when someone tries to Skype you. When you want to Skype another user (or SkypeOut to someone on a telephone device), just use your telephone and prefix the call with the ‘*’ button. For standards-based VoIP based on SIP, there is a great box, the Draytek Vigor 2100VG that is a broadband wireless router with a port to plug in your home phone and works in a similar way to the Skype ATA, but doesn’t require your computer to be on permanently. So when enough people have these sort of devices, you can see that FREE global calling would be a reality … even when Granny is still clinging on to her dear old telephone the other side of the world.

BT, watch out … !!!

stiff pontiff …

There were two significant deaths this week gone by – one was denied life (unnaturally, in my opinion) and the other fought till the bitter end when his frail body of 84 years finally succumbed to nature. The legal case of Terri Schiavo, who starved to death after her feeding tube was removed, will be debated long after white smoke appears from the Vatican chimney, heralding in the new Pope. This little excerpt from the Christian Medical Association said it all for me … “Terri’s death reflects a failure of a medical system that failed to insist on a definitive diagnosis consensus, a legal system that failed to deliver due process, and a culture that failed to distinguish between artificially prolonging life and deliberately ending life.” Anyway, if you feel strongly about this, I’m sure this organisation will appreciate your support …

yippie hippie …

Ok, I’ve just received the confirmation email … I’ve got a ticket to Glastonbury 2005 on June 24-26. If you don’t have a ticket, too late as they are already sold out. The aloud.com website was a tad flakey at 0900 this morning but through perseverance and some cunning multi-tasking on a remote server, I managed to submit my request after 20 nail-biting minutes. J didn’t fancy the camping/peeing in the bush thing, so it’s just me and the boys this year. Oh, if there are any Glasto ‘virgins’ out there, check out this informative forum which includes ideas about this year’s must-have fashion accessory – a string of toilet rolls worn around the neck, you know for those awkward emergency situations (e.g. scrumpy belly) when a sprint back to the tent would be a tissue too far. How delightfully clever! Anyway, you can follow the rumours and this year’s line-up here … … ummmm, just can’t wait!