Sunday, 29 November 2015

I watch Black Souls and remember an Italian road trip

Sometimes when I watch a movie, I can't help having that 'been there' thing play in my mind. It was the case with a recent mafia-style movie which is set mainly in the toe bit of southern Italy.

We'd been on a road trip holiday which had somehow ended up deep down in Italy at an agro-tourism farmhouse. Vines and olives, that kind of thing. Multi national guests, sharing evenings with farmhouse food. The last few kilometres to the farmhouse and its converted barns were along one of those Italian white roads, which kick up dust and rightly give the impression of being in the middle of nowhere.

Our nearest village was similarly remote, up on a hill and with people who could have lived there for many generations. They'd be out sitting in groups on the pavements and the older folk chattered to one another with a kind of genial familiarity that could have gone right back to their schooldays.

My recollection of our time in the southern part was of sunshine, although this movie mainly reserves the sun for the north of Italy, with the southern home village giving a pervasive tone of darkness.

In Black Souls, the movie settings show sleek glassy business blocks in an opulent version of Milan. That's where the practicing gangsters operate. Then down south to the goatherding part of the same family in their small Calabrian hometown.

There's three brothers in this ‘Ndrangheta family. A mafia family, two of the brothers are involved with Columbian cocaine trafficking and the movie starts with them in Amsterdam doing a drug deal with a Spanish smuggler. There's the leather-jacketed action man hoodlum brother and the well-dressed crime syndicate book-keeper brother.

Hundreds of kilometres south in Calabria, it is rural to the extent that it's difficult to see how any of the crime money would have found its way back to the village. Indeed, the third brother has got out of the life and instead tends goats. Okay, he could buy half of the adjacent mountainside, but what would he want it for? He'll get along with this simple life.

His 20-year old son doesn't agree and wants to go north and get into the main family business. He'll need a suit and a scrub-up to impress in Milan.

Before he leaves the village he shoots up the signs on a bar close to home. It belongs to a rival family where a balance of peace exists but the machismo vandalism can only mean an old feud will reawaken.

There will be trouble.

The real ‘Ndrangheta is big business. Nowadays they reckon it turns over around 3% of Italy's GDP. It is reckoned to be bigger than McDonalds if its books were visible. As a part of the wider mafia, it probably represents around 1/3 of their circa €160bn annual turnover.

So, to lighten the tone a little, here's a piece by Andrea di Marco, explaining the background to that particular branch of the well-known crime syndicate.

personal cycling gold moment 2015


My own Gold cycling target just achieved.

I'll keep on until the end of the year although I know December can be somewhat troublesome.

In miles it would get me across all of Europe, most of North Africa, as far as Riyadh, Saudi Arabia maybe to Perm in Russia or to Hammerfest at the top of Norway. Except there's more gradients than I've actually covered.

Or I could fly to the edge places in about 6.5 hours. I'll keep on cycling though.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

in which my television doesn't understand me

I commented the other day about talking to my car and it generally getting the directions right.

It's the same with the dictation that I've tried for the NaNoWriMo this time. I'm up around 65,000 words at the moment and I'd honestly say that my spoken sections have better typing than the pieces I've tapped in manually. I've not been so good on rendering all the punctuation in my speaking version, but it's still made a decent job of finishing sentences and so on.

Less so when I've talked to Cortana in Windows 10. The party tricks all work fine and the Cortana Susan voice sings a mean 'man on the flying trapeze' as well as a few other out of copyright tunes and answers questions about Siri with aplomb. It even works with "what's the time?" and "what's the temperature?" type quizzing. But I've decided Cortana doesn't know about Essex. I've asked it things like 'How to get to Newcastle by road' and it will return maps and timings.

Then when I tried "Hey Cortana, How do I get to Upminster, Essex" it decided to go bonkers. Nothing useful although it was prepared to show me some American football games. I decided to try the near neighbourhood of Romford. Similar problems. When I just asked for "Essex" it gave me a route to a fishing tackle shop on the Suffolk border. No, I fear that piece of technology has a way to go.

What about Apple TV? I've given up on the voice controls at the moment. Even Skip Forward and Skip Backward jump it out of the movie and back to the iTunes Store. Perhaps I'm not buying enough.

I've also got one of those Amazon Fire systems. Slightly better luck if I'm hunting for movies, but it will still go all desperate on me and list a bunch of unrelated stuff if it's not sure. And that's even when it has managed to decode my speech properly.

At least the Amazon Fire aggregates the better versions of Amazon, Netflix, iPlayer, ITV Hub, UKTV, Curzon Home Cinema and even Plex. It still needs a proper version of Spotify and at that point it will be a pretty complete viewer.

Maybe I'll practice some more with the voice control although I'm not convinced that the Apple and Amazon boxes have any heuristics to improve their recognition.

Still, I've reprogrammed both of their nifty little handsets to work instead from the Logitech Harmony. Harmony seems to be the strong silent type.

Friday, 27 November 2015

you say you want an evolution

I like this little picture of the evolving desktop, although it raised a few questions (some might say points of view) as well.

It somehow reminds me of that Beatles Yellow Submarine/Nowhere Man sequence and lyric as the desktop reduces. With increasing miniaturisation I suppose the desktop ends virtually in the cloud. Blackburn potholes anyone?

Thursday, 26 November 2015

calculating how to shake dice

When working with big planning spreadsheets there is a fairly well known scenario along the lines of: "Big Chief needs to make a speech and show some efficiencies. What can we do?"

A related modelling spreadsheet technique boils down to 'slide to the right, change the gradient and backload the numbers'. I've picked a random graph related to the universal credit rollout which illustrates the principle.

It's also fairly intuitive to graph readers. Things get delayed - in this model we see something yielding a lower result after an approximately five year slip, which occurs at the rate of around a one year slip per year, generally introduced in two phases.

There's a similar technique used on the OBR (Office of Budget Responsibility) report ahead of George Osborne's Spending Review on Wednesday.

The new OBR chart shows it will all come level in five years' time, although with some dramatic stuff happening in 2017-18 when there's a big tax hike as well as increased spending on RDEL and CDEL (Resource and Capital Department Expenditure Limits). That's all just far enough away for the government to have time make something up. It also means that some of the future difficult actions don't have to be revealed at present.

The planned outcome in all of this is that the numbers are still shown to come right by the end of the graph. It's like pushing the lump along under the carpet and hoping that there's somewhere for it to go without anyone noticing. The OBR don't do this, of course. They are reporting on what appears to be happening rather than actually dictating policy.

I'm guessing that someone had to have a 'Big Chief' conversation before the Spending Review. The apparent spreadsheet result has given Osborne some theoretical money to play with, magicked out of revised planning assumptions. That's where another spreadsheet technique comes into play.

I'll call it 'smudging' and it's the effect when producing graphs of numbers that look similar enough but can be used to tell a different story. In the above example we see that tiny smudge width which is the difference between the July and November OBR forecast. The value of the gap between the lines is around £27bn, so not bad for a smudge.

Osborne hasn't really mentioned that the gap is an aggregate (i.e. it is the 5 year aggregate, not a one year figure). It means the figure of £27bn being bandied around in Osborne's Spending Review needs to be treated with some caution.

There's a further subtlety, that although he's dropped the tax credit cuts, the Universal Credit system will eventually have a similar effect. It's described in the OBR chart 1.1 above - The scale of the yellow area represents the dramatic increases in taxation that tapers at first and then dramatically steps in.

Hidden behind all of this are the much bigger spreadsheets that don't just show the £27 billion delta. Instead they show the underlying debt of nowadays around £1.6 trillion. That's £1.6E12 - yes it's large enough to refer to with scientific notation, because it won't all fit onto some calculators. And strangely enough, the steepest increases have been over the last few years...

In Osborne's post-speech interviews he said he wasn't gambling with the money. The OBR fan charts in the same report hint at otherwise.

I know these figures are really to protect the OBR's own forecasting, but they illustrate the potential volatility based upon use of high level modelling charts. The fan shows potential variance, banded with 20% probabilities. The message is that there's plenty of potential for things to change - risks one could say. The OBR is polite about some of the headline ones:
  • economic risks, including UK productivity growth and the implications of lower growth in China
  • uncertainties with the delivery of reforms to disability benefits and universal credit;
  • the implications of the decision to reclassify housing associations from the private sector to the public sector;
  • ongoing uncertainties around the large financial asset sales that are planned to take place over this Parliament; and
  • the Government has set out a number of ambitions that have not yet been confirmed as firm policy decisions.
In planning terms it might be prudent to start looking at which of these risks can be turned into contributory factors for the next series of 'adjustments'.

Time for another shake of the planning dice?

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

beyond #KYC and #AML - acronyms for modern times - CYA NKYC JKTTM UCFRC JBTST

I've been asked a few times recently to go through that KYC process - "Know Your Customer" - the one where you have to identify yourself formally with a passport, driving licence and utility bill. It wasn't for mobile phone contracts, although that is a typical usage example.

It seems to be another creeping part of security measures. Formally it's part of the 'Know Your Customer and Anti Money Laundering" processes from the Money Laundering Regulations 2007 and the related European Joint Money Laundering Steering Group recommendations. I suppose that if the process separates me from drug barons and mafioso then fair enough.

I suspect this process, as well as being KYC, is increasingly becoming a CYA (Cover your a***) manoeuvre, and no doubt one that can generate a new form of fee income based upon the taking of a couple of photocopies. I notice that the 'automated check' alternative seems to run at about £18 per use.

It's ironic that in these times of increased checks the same organisations are taking other steps to NKYC (Not Know Your Customer). That's my term and as the name suggests, it's all about trying to not get too cosy with an individual customer.

Around the turn of the millennium, a popular practice was to create loyalty cards and systems that allowed better apparent knowledge of a customer.

Behind the scenes the data crunchers worked to identify the customer lifecycle and the trigger points when new things might happen. Simplistically it was "Hey, the new dads buy the Pampers, let's put a stack of beer at the end of the nappy aisle." And apparently it worked, dads bought the beer and sometimes remembered the nappies as well.

Another aspect of lifecycle was prediction and segmentation. This could also deselect the people that were no longer desirable in the profile. Either offer them something 'more appropriate' or freeze their services until they go elsewhere. Financial services have been known to refer to this as private financial services vs bucket bank.

Alongside all of this was the slightly unintended consequence of customers actually wanting to contact the organisations with which they had these longer-term relationships. Insurance, banking, that type of thing. We all know how that has gone, with often dodgy script-based call-centres (in fairness, my current bank is fantastic).

And in amongst it has been hidden a special truth. The NKYC element and the related inertia selling of the product. I've heard people running things say to me that they want the customer to sign up and then to never hear from them again.

I get it. JKTTM (Just Keep Taking Their Money).

This is great for some forms of insurance, most utility bills and other forms of regular service contract.

The thing that's changed is the UCFRC (Up Charges for Regular Customers) manoeuvre. Sometimes people say 'Usual' instead of 'Regular" but that's the rude version.

The approach is simple enough. Have a regular customer?

Don't offer them more. No, no, offer them less.

Keep them on moribund tariffs, create a new increase that's higher than everyone else. Keep it JBTST (Just Below The Switching Trigger).

Of course, there's all of the brokerage organisations with friendly cuddly toy gifts to help manage this, if you have the time to rummage through comparison lists and reset everything.

So one last term...


Monday, 23 November 2015

Frost, then 5C but only 121 miles from 4000 remaining

Frost today, for the first time this year. I'm guessing it has arrived pretty late. It cleared by mid-morning although the outdoor temperature has been hovering around 5C.

That's absolutely the end of the cycling shorts for another year. Still, only 121 miles to reach my annual 'Gold' target.

I may just try for 22 miles today so I'll be down into double digits.

Today's target accomplished, despite the bike being very cold at the start. 89 miles to go.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

an early tip tap on the wind pane

It wasn't Abigail or even Barney that started the real temperature cool down around our way this year.

But before getting to that, who came up with the names? They said it was from voting.

I can go with Abigail as a possible choice. But Barney? Didn't anyone vote for the 'B's? or is there a special rule that the names can't be so well known? The only Barneys I can think of are Fred Flintstone's best friend and that colourful dinosaur. Maybe Brian wouldn't be a tough enough sounding name for a storm, and presumably Boris is a reserved word at the moment. I'll wait to see if we get Derek when it gets to D.

It was a day or so after Barney I first noticed the razor chill. Admittedly I was wearing a tee-shirt but the weather was properly cold.

The previous smell of autumn had suddenly changed. Instead of November's damp leaves and earth there was a smell that I can only really associate with coldness. It somehow just felt as if winter was beginning to scrape around the brickwork looking for the window panes.

Today it's different, like the seasonal change has somehow backed out again. Its supposed to be colder, but I've once again got that autumnal aroma of leaves, at least for a few more days.

Friday, 20 November 2015

excuse my polemic interlude

Now that we have power without proper ideas running the UK we'll get more destruction on Wednesday when Osborne opens his mouth. Between him and Cameron we are witnessing a spin-doctored accelerating reduction of the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding what could happen to Scotland and the European question, we're also seeing Osborne merrily chopping away via various ill-advised spreadsheets.

He wants to reduce public debt to below 80% of GDP without adding to income and property tax. Don't mention the Googles, Vodafones, Starbucks and Amazons that need somewhere for a tax-efficient base, nor the still in business casino bankers who have gained £375bn of bail-out from the money printed as a consequence of quantitative easing. It's jolly fun for this wunch of bankers to all swap jobs around every so often and that way to pick up even more golden handshakes and payoffs.

Even when Osborne provides advocacy, like with the northern powerhouse, he is hiding behind half truths in his statistics. The amount to spend is much less than the headlines after the share of the funding that goes to -er- London and other southern projects.

His dogma is about cuts to state spending and which which ultimately lead to private sector takeovers for his mates. Instead he could declare the cost of borrowing is at one of the lowest levels for centuries (it is) and use that to justify coherent spending on the services that need it. Health and education are the notable examples.

He's also playing a shell game with the money, one minute everything must be cut and he needs to find an extra £10 billion. Then he slows down the cuts. Then he finds an extra £2 billion to spend on security. I get that he is trying to balance the public sector spending over the current election cycle. But why? Perhaps a fanaticism to reduce the number of state-run systems.

Some of this looks like disposal at any price. Most people don't see or care enough as the big state or semi-state organisations go back into private ownership. It is not like the golden days of BT sell-offs where everyone is a winner. Oh no, it's selected organisations that get first dibs now. And Osborne is largely doing this all on the cheap - flogging most things at knock-down prices.

His spin on it all is clever enough. Most of the time he'll use the headline grabbing figure which sounds like a lot of money to show that he's done something. Selling a power station deal to the Chinese with another £2bn subsidy - not drawing undue attention to the highly hiked costs of the resultant power, perhaps at least double their current level and also index linked to rise.

Or maybe RBS? In August a small chunk was sold off, the majority to hedge funds, and around £3bn worth of the £45bn total amount we taxpayers put into it. In this case the loss during the sale was only £1bn. Osborne-math would call this a gain of £2bn. By the same logic if the rest is sold at the same 1/3 markdown George can call it a £28bn gain instead of a total £15bn loss.

Flogging the £3bn investment of Eurostar for £750m (i.e. a £2.25bn loss), when it would generate around the same £750m in dividends alone in the next ten years. Then there's that almost secretive sale of a remaining chunk of the Royal Mail to a group of institutional investors. Sure, it raised £750m but the investors were all smiling at their effective discounts.

Another one is the the weird fundraiser sale of the old Northern Rock UKAR book to the multi headed Cerberus private equity firm based in the USA. Look at the deal and it appears that Cerberus have had to pay £280m extra on just about one third of the book value. Then they get to offload another third to the now Spanish owned also re-privitised TSB. It's a fund sale at a knock-down price. Expect the dog guarding hell to start turning up in surprised UK mortgage holders' letterboxes, together with that American word "foreclosure".

There's a bundle of other things on the yard sale table too - housing associations and Channel 4 spring to mind. The main criteria seems to be be that there's a big-looking number that can be used in a headline; it doesn't really matter if the number is way less than the real value. Paraphrasing, he wants to know a discounted price for everything but the value of nothing.

Even with all the noises and protest, we'll expect the real effect of the protected spending on NHS, schools and defence to be just enough to keep the buying power the same as around ten years ago.

An effectively unopposed Osborne doesn't care. He can make the one-year figures look better by mortgaging the future. I should say 'our' future.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

using the Metabones Speedbooster with film OM Zuiko lens on OM-D

I've just started to play with a small addition to my camera gadgets. It's a Metabones Speedbooster that lets me use my old Olympus OM-1 and OM-2 lenses with modern Olympus OM-D cameras.

There's two versions of the Metabones adapter actually, one with a "light booster" lens included, which also changes the lens magnification down by 0.71 and another straight through version, without any other optical effect.

I found a chart on the 'Popular Photography' site which illustrates the various effects. As quick examples, the inexpensive OM 50mm standard f1.8 lens becomes a 71mm f1.2 using the converter and the OM 28mm f2.8 becomes a 40mm f2.0 (but shhh, don't tell anyone, these sort of lenses can be picked up on eBay for about £25 each)

These old Zuiko lenses are optically fine and some have quite special looks when used with 35mm film. I've used them before on a Canon full-frame camera, but to be honest I prefer something less bulky, more within the design aesthetic of the Olympus; note how many Olympus OMs fit into the same packing box as a Canon with a single zoom lens.
My early experiments show that the Metabones seems to do the job pretty well. It's also got good enough glass to not mess up the original optical designs. I've also realised that the lenses will work well in my budget movie camera project, which means I'll be trying them out on a Lumix GH-1 at some point, in movie mode where they become a handy set of primes.
It will take me a while to try out all the various combinations of lenses and cameras, so I have some fun times ahead. Until then, here's a quick test shot, using the venerable Zuiko OM 75-150mm zoom on an OM-D EM-5 I.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

carrier buster and crypto payloads

I thought it would be interesting to see how easy it is to put a hidden message into a photograph on the internet. The simple reason is because it is something I might want to do in my novel.

It is remarkably easy and I have done so with the above picture, without using any specialist software.

I have kept the main message 'clear' so that it can be read by anyone who wants to hack the photograph. I could have encrypted it as well, which I suspect would make it quite difficult to spot.

Today is the day that George Osborne presented the Investigatory Powers Bill at GCHQ, and through it HM Government will make sure it has the powers to access vital intelligence about the intentions and activities of those who wish us harm.

The challenge is whether the toolkits used by such enemies of the state become more sophisticated (as in the dark web) and whether the sheer amount of material to be processed rises exponentially.

When the internet was first created, the TCP/IP protocol on which it was based was designed explicitly to be rugged and to withstand attack or disruption. Because it was originally used for sharing limited government computing resource, the original trust mechanisms were sometimes simply paper memoranda.

As the internet progressed it became a vehicle for both good things and bad.

Hence the new national cyber plan being incorporated into the Spending Review with the message that we need to invest to keep up, although I can't help thinking that there will still be ways around the edges of many public systems.

My picture is of a Chinese Dong-Feng 12D carrier-buster missile and includes my friendly message payload. That missile is one step down from the WU-14 that I'm incorporating into the novel.

Monday, 16 November 2015

corner. paint. no door.

After my few day gap, I've restarted the novel writing and somehow managed to catch up with where I am supposed to be by this point in the process.

It means I've had to leave a few sections rather rough-and-ready on the way through, but I know if I start to revise anything then I'll burn up the available time and miss the end target.

I've got the makings of a plot, a small number of characters and a deliberately constrained environment. Now I need to take some time to think through how I can get my characters out of the rather difficult corner they have painted. I knew I was supposed to plan these things.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

NaNoWriMo Icelandic horse dream sequence

I've had to take a few days off from NaNoWriMo, but aim to restart today.

It means my word count will have stalled and that I'll need to accelerate to keep up. I did think of a few ideas including some whilst on a long drive.

I'm not sure that the 'Icelandic horse dream sequence' will add much to the story though.

My recreation of part of it in my above snapshot illustrates the kind of thing. I know, it doesn't obviously fit with the main Colder War theme and needs to go.

It looks as if not writing things down could have saved me after all.

Friday, 13 November 2015


PB110500 Hanging out of the window on the Quayside
Yes, I'm still hanging around in the north, and in this case hanging out of the window.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

we pop into City Hall to see @will_young31

Last night we were along to the City Hall to see Will Young's 85% Love tour.

Insiders will recognise that there's a certain devoted following of Mr Young close to me, so it was no surprise to notice that we'd got prime seats in about the 2nd and 4th rows.

Will Young played a blinder of a set, around a third of the way through his 25 or more venue tour.

A mix of older tunes and new material, he has an excellent selection to make a fun and varied evening, augmented with various imaginative effects and engaging chatter with the full and participative audience. Whether they were telling him off for getting caught smoking in his hotel, feeding him lines about the ugly sisters (two suspicious looking nuns in the audience) or simply singing along to some of the favourites, this was a fun and joyful event.

I've seen him perform any number of times, often when I get roped in to taking a few pictures as well. I'd judge this to be one of his strongest gigs that I can remember. He's a performer who maintains a durable and innovative way with his style of music and this latest tour sees a further refresh of his approach.

We'll be sticking around in Newcastle for a couple more days, although Mr Young and his cavalcade of black buses have already moved along to the next spot, in Glasgow.

Well worth getting hold of some tickets for somewhere on his route around the country, if still possible.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

slowly understood by machines

My speech pattern is consciously different when I'm talking to my car. Whether I'm on a hands-free phone call or asking the car to do something via the little Linguatronic button, I tend to speak slightly louder and for the car's system I also [NAVIGATION ON. DESTINATION HOME.]

It's the same this year for NaNoWriMo. I've been experimenting with a small dictation machine that came as part of a recent software update - a thing called Voice Tracer which is simply a digital recorder which can plug into the computer to offload the dictations. It has a speech start/stop feature too, so if I stop talking then the recording will stop until I start again. I notice the memory of the unit says its good for 49 days, although I expect the battery would run out before I reached that landmark.

I know that the iPhone has a recorder too, and my one probably has at least 3 recording type apps, but there is a simplicity to the single-purpose device which is quite appealing.
The connection to the USB works well too, straight into Dragon Dictate, which has a transcribe facility that takes my spoken words and with surprisingly few mistakes converts them into text. There's probably less typos than I make as well. I didn't even really teach this latest version of Dragon any of my speech either, so it must have clever processing. I tend to make 20-30 minute recordings, which take a few minutes each time to convert into pretty decently interpreted text.

It's another situation where I speak...slowly...when...I'm dictating. There's two reasons for this: I have to think about what I'm trying to put into the story and also to decide whether to use the ability to add in punctuation automatically. FULL STOP. NEW LINE. NEW LINE.

I'm not so good at those punctuation controls, and although I could use the same dictation directly into the computer (without the recorder, but with on-screen prompts), there's something about being able to get away from the screen completely. Some people will be using typewriters, pencils and paper, or glass writing pens with multi-coloured inks for their NaNoWriMo attempts.

I can understand that it's also about reducing the distractions from the technology. I'm hoping my own 'speak the story out loud' technique will work just as well.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

remember remember

PB070603.jpgYes, Guy Fawkes Night - a couple of days ago but mostly celebrated at the weekend. Here's a few snaps I took of our local fireworks which started tonight at about 6.15 pm.
The story commemorates a failed conspiracy by a group of provincial English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James I of England. It still gets told to all schoolchildren, although the message is somewhat diluted. I don't think the symbolic burning of the Pope is still condoned, for example.
There's still the effigy of Guy Fawkes, which burns on most bonfires, but I suspect that the real ceremony goes back even further to Samhain and the start of the dark half of the year.

Here's the blood-curdling children's verse:
Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England's overthrow.
But, by God's providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
A stick and a stake
For King James's sake!
If you won't give me one,
I'll take two,
The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn'orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.
Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!