Saturday, September 25, 2010

Missions to the middle kingdoms

Paul Smith 1Wolfson College sponsored a talk yesterday by Sir Anthony Brenton, a retired British diplomat and recent ambassador to Russia.  It’s always interesting to hear stories from people at the center of events, and Sir Anthony was eloquent about why the world needed diplomats, what ambassadors do, and how they flourished during the ‘Golden Age” of diplomacy in the late 1800’s.  A mathematician by training, he set out eleven traits of the good diplomat, including honesty, an ascetic private life, a love of good food and drink, ad a willingness to learn languages.  All good stories, as I’d expect from one who spends a lifetime in conversation and presentation.

I was most interested in his ‘Great Power’ view of the world: that diplomacy works best in a world dominated by a half-dozen major powers.  His Golden Age depended on a balance among major European powers; he views the coming decade as including BRIC / Asian as well as EU and US.  These powers, in turn, must be collectively vigilant about the smallest emerging and failed states, black holes that seem to breed the worst social and political abuses.

Paul Smith 2Lost in the middle are the many countries that aren’t strategic or big or ambitious.  Places like the Netherlands.

I think this is a general omission, and an unfortunate one. Graphs in the Economist and press releases from the EU regularly wring hands over the the  statistics of the UK, Germany, Italy, France and Spain.  They fret about politics and voting in eastern Europe and the Balkans.  They are generally silent about the broad middle kingdoms in between.

OECD statistics suggest that many of these countries, far from dull or uninteresting,  are succeeding. where larger and smaller ones are not.  Economically, they didn’t suffer as bad a downturn and most are dealing effectively with financial reform and budget-balancing. PSocially, they are preserving a good standard of living and innovative business growth.  Politically, they seem civil at the center.  It seems like there are lessons to learn in their variety successes and failures coming from the things each is doing differently from the others. 

Paul Smith 3It’s much the same in the US: Federal policy and the politics of large states like Texas and California dominate the news, while strugggling states like West Virginia and Louisiana lap up headlines. In between, middle states like Wisconsin, Hawaii, and even South Dakota are seldom covered, although they are the ones trying innovative social and economic policies.

Sir Anthony noted that the purpose of diplomacy was to project national interests and to collect foreign information.  It seems like there should also be a role for watching and learning from successful, non-troublesome countries.  There might even be a role for diplomatic exchanges at home, giving states access to one another’s experiences and ideas.

Sculptures by Paul Smith, exhibiting at Cambridge Contemporary Gallery.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Struggling to contain Utility Bills

electric utilityIt’s a fact that utility bills are higher in Europe than in the US.  It seems the same in the Netherlands or the UK: water, gas, heat, phone service can take a big bite out of monthly budgets.
For example, electric rates:
  • UK Residential: 22.187 p per kWh  (.35 per kWh)  (2010 e-On Standard rate)
  • US Residential: 11.3¢ per kWh  (2008)
I’ve struggled for years to try to manage them properly, but it has been a really frustrating few months.
e-on, my UK electricity provider, started out with charges of around ₤25 per month.  The bill bounced around a bit in midsummer, creeping up towards ₤40.  The issue for me was that the bill went up even when I spent more time in the Netherlands.  Part of the problem was with their method for meter estimations, which I now read myself.
Then this month’s bill hit at ₤90, outrageous for late-summer when light and heat are still lightly used.  I can’t even imagine where that kind of consumption is going in a 900 sq ft flat. Is it the immersion heater in the water tank?  The wind through the mail slot?  Leaving my laptop lit at night?
gas utilityI generally believe that things that generate heat are the biggest consumers of electricity, so I’m focusing my efforts there.  Certainly the storage heaters  (a completely unfamiliar concept to an American) cost money to heat and discharge.  I suspect that the electric range is slurping power to heat the slabs of iron that make up the ancient cooking surfaces.  The walls are likely well insulated because I abut units to either side, but the windows and doors certainly have gaps that may cause issues.
And, yes, I’ve considered whether I’m just a thoughtless, profligate American in my usage habits.
My best solution in the Netherlands has always been to get the utility bills included under the monthly apartment charge (Maastricht). 
The second-best is to negotiate a flat-fee arrangement with the utility (Arnhem).  Water companies seem to prefer this sort of payment scheme, and landline/internet telecoms like KPN or BT often provide ‘’all you can eat’ flat-fee arrangements.  Gas, and especially electric, bills are very difficult to negotiate, and I’ve found that the many different pricing and usage schemes are hard to compare..
Third, I’ve been working with the landlords to improve insulation and to install energy-efficient heating in anticipation of the cold months to come.  It’s a win-win and most see the long-term value to tenants, taxes, and property value.
Finally, I’m turning things on and off and running to check their impact on the meter.   The worst offenders are going to be the least used, no matter what.
The goal is to get this stabilized back at a reasonable level (‘comparable to what the neighbors pay) before things really spiral in December.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Swarms and flocks


A University attracts Names, each seeking a public forum for their Ideas, creating a steady current of speakers through the lecture halls of Cambridge.  The schedule is published online and I’ve decided to make the most of the chance to stir my thoughts and challenge my mind.

So I arrived at Adaptive Networks and Bio-Inspired Cognition.

Prof Sayed, an engineer from UCLA, explained his interest in flocks and swarms, how starlings and fish flowed through space together.  Birds, for example, form characteristic V-shaped lines when migrating because each was able to V-flockride the pressure lift created by the bird’s wing in front of it.  This illustrated how order and complexity emerged from local interactions among members who each follow simple rules.

Researchers had long thought that the rule was ‘Gossip and Consensus”, each broadcasting information to their neighbors, and then changing behavior based on the average of what they hear from others.  It reminded me of the polder model.  But Dr. Sayed pointed out that it takes time to achieve consensus, and that a single solution was unlikely to be best for the majority of individuals.

flock simInstead, he proposed a Diffuse and Process alternative, where individuals listen to their neighbors, then compare what they heard to what they already knew and believed before changing their behavior.  He showed several pleasing simulations of how this created more realistic flocks on his computer, foraging for food and avoiding predators.

It was interesting, but I suspect that he was only able to mimic behavior rather than truly explain it.  He also failed to address a lot of really interesting questions that he asked in his introduction: Why do birds form flocks while humans form crowds?  How often and how much do birds listen to their neighbors? Is movement a necessary part of the exchange of information?  Are flocks intentional? What about tipping points, where people follow the herd once it starts to move?

DSC00285In any case, it gave me lots to think about, and I took a long walk through the city to mull it over.  And, passing Trinity College, I noticed behavior that makes me think maybe it’s not so uncommon in humans as we think.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Monday, September 20, 2010

Locking down Adobe Flash

who-watchesAn article in the New York Times today revealed that Adobe Flash maintains separate storage for Flash, creating a rabbit hole for third party trackers to hide.

The cache holds Flash browsing cookies and third-party applications, separate from the public cache used by IE and Firefox.  Clearing the browser cache and cookies from your computer doesn’t touch the Adobe area, creating a big privacy hole.  Third party vendors have been using this as a back-door way to re-insert their tracking cookies and applications.

Tech sites advise that simply finding and deleting the storage contents also disables Flash.  Adobe says this is normal: the area was intended to store user settings and not for third party use (although they don’t prohibit it).  I did some reading at Macromedia, and it’s unsettling: Flash also determines whether third-parties can activate your camera and microphone without permission

Yike: that’s a case where I’ve been telling folks that they are being too paranoid.  Who would want to (or could) access your laptop camera without your knowledge?  Now it turns out that people could.

It’s always discouraging to see what the companies are doing behind the scenes to get information about you and access to your computer that they can sell to others.  Free-market libertarians should take note of the abuses.

Unfortunately, it’s not practical to avoid these applications entirely: the best you can do is lock them down so that they don’t do more mischief.

Adobe globalAdobe has a description of the issue here , and a Global Settings Manager that can be used to adjust privacy and security for your computer.  The options include denying use of your camera and microphone to applications, clearing third party cookies, and preventing storage of third-party applications.

It’s worth taking a couple of minutes to close this privacy hole if you are a Flash user.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Cambridge county fair

Okay, it’s got Lardy Cakes and Perry Drinks instead of fried beer and cider, but there’s still lots that’s familiar in the fall festival now sprawled across Parker’s Piece in Cambridge.

When the kids were growing up, we’d attend the big Puyallup or Evergreen State Fairs each fall.  The animal barns were always their favorites, lines of immaculately groomed cows, pigs, chickens, and rabbits.  The UK equivalent has smaller cages with bunnies and hens, but still fascinating to the toddlers.

The local 4H clubs would judge of everything from canned goods to baked items, flower arrangements to photographs.  A smaller array, just as earnestly judged, fills a nearby tent.  The judges taste, poke, and issue certificates: as in the US, everyone is a winner.

There are vendors selling all sorts of handicrafts and foods, the decorations have more flair here and the bottles and jars come from more exotic locations.  However, it doesn’t make up for the loss of the guys with the kitchen knives, carving vegetables and creating salads to the rhythm of his own voice.


And, of course, rides for the kids.  I really like this new variant.

…and Cambridge being Cambridge, there have to be some geek-friendly spaces as well.