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Sony Alpha 350 – my review

I wrote the following in a response to a review of the Sony a350 camera that I have. Unfortunately, the response is limited to 250 characters… This is, for the record, my entire response/review.

Review on PhotoRadar.com

“I upgraded to a a350 once I decided that I was fairly competent with my Kodak point-and-shoot. The appeal of DSLR and having control over the main functionalities of shutter speed and focus made me choose this one, with advice from a salesperson, who stated the equivalent would have been an old Canon with a smaller number of Mega-pixels. The only drawback really was supposed to be that Sony is slightly behind the so-called leaders Nikon and Canon in terms of release dates for the latest lens technologies.

“The plastic does feel slightly cheap – the flap for accessing the memory card excessively so – but overall, the claim in this artucle that the switches etc are clumsy did not phase me. I was, as I say, upgrading from a compact, and such complexity was not unexpected. It does not take long to get used to, so long as you’re expecting some sort of learning curve any way. I don’t think I’d recommend getting it if you’ve already got more advanced cameras, as that would probably be a downgrade anyway, but from an upgrade point of view, all the dials and switches are reassuring…

“I have since bought a 50mm/f1.8 prime lens to accompany the kit 18-70mm/f.3.5-5.6 which does offer somewhat better images, and it (the prime) has become my preferred lens, the kit lens only coming in when I want to take shots al lengths shorter than 50mm.

“The mirror “snap” does sound very lunky compared to the Nikons I’ve heard and handled briefly. Most of the time though I do live music photography, so it’s pretty inaudible. But I don’t think a wildlife amateur would take to kindly to it. It *is* quite loud.

“All in all, anyone who’s upgrading directly from a compact will find this a very good buy. The only real thing is the necessity for some other lenses, but who’d stay satisfied with what they have anyway….?”

Correcting St Ives

Here’s an old riddle:

As I was going to St Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.

Each wife had seven sacks;
Each sack had seven cats;
Each cat had seven kittens.

Kittens, cats, sacks, wives,
How many were going to St Ives?

The standard riddle answer is “Only one, the narrator. They met eachother, so the rest were coming from St Ives.”

That argument, however, is invalid. If they were that loaded, they would have been pretty slow, so could have been overtaken. And even if they weren’t, they could have met when one of the two parties had stopped for a rest. And there may yet be a plethora of other reasons why they could have met.

Then there’s the wording of question: “how many were going to St Ives?” It seems clear enough at first, but for strict mathematical consideration, we have to subtract the narrator and the man he mentions he met – they’re not part of the list of the final question.

Calculative answers, considering all are going to St Ives:

Humans: 9 (1 narrator, 1 “man” and 7 wives)

Living beings:
9 humans
+ 7^3 cats = 343
+ 343*7 kittens = 2401

==> 343+2401+9 = 2753 living beings

Listed items (kittens, cats, sacks, wives):

7 wives + 7^2 sacks + 7^3 cats + 7^4 kittens

==> 2800 of the listed items

That’s a lot of stuff.

The only sure thing that we can conclude from this is:
The man with the seven wives is not Christian.

Principles of Curry

True to form, this installment of Tai’s cooking ramblings is about CURRY.

So I have gone over a number of curry recipes in my Asian Cookbook, scouring them for any patterns. The patterns for currying are fairly simple, and I think I have pretty much understood the why of most methods….

Note that I will only talk about meat-based curries, as these are all I have been able to read up on so far. And all I am interested in, to be quite honest.

0) Main concepts

Firstly, curry is basically about adding spices to your otherwise main ingredients.

Secondly, know there are two main ways of spicing your meat: marinated in a bowl for several hours (or even days), or using heat from the pan.

Thirdly, know that there are two main types of curry: dry curry and curry with sauce.

Fourthly, for sauce-based curries, know that you can add the meat you are currying to the pan before the liquid, after the liquid, or with the liquid.

And now for the general template…

1) Select the spices

There is a wide array of spices to choose from, and most of them are of the type that do not burn your mouth. When I say “spicy”, this does not necessarily imply “using paprika/chili/hot peppers”. Think of turmeric, saffron, cumin, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, the humble onion, coriander seed, etc etc. These are all spices. You can also include herbs in this list as well, along with usual seasonings such as salt and pepper, and even fragrant teas if you so want.

Some have more of a musty taste, some more sweet, some are simply colourful without being too strong in aroma, some are grassy… Use your nose and a bit of imagination. Think of the kind of meat you are going to use.

The combinations are limitless.

2) Chop the meat

In curries, the meat is cooked in bite-size chunks from the start. Most of the combining of the ingredients happens pretty quickly, so it is important that the meat be cut before anything else is done. At this point I should note that a little goes a long way. Say you would serve a quantity of two chicken breast fillets for one person. I would use two chicken breast fillets for a curry for four to five people. Especially when a sauce will be present.

In the same vein, any large/long vegetables you intend to use should be sliced and diced in advance, for the same reason, although this is less of a concern. Do as you see fit.

3) Spice the meat

Here’s where we start to make variations:

a) Marinate

Marinating meat is a matter of mixing the meat with a selection of the spices you are using. In a bowl, add the spices with a tablespoon or two of water, and stir to mix evenly. You can even use a blender for this, if you are using, say nuts or fragrant vegetables.

Then mix in the meat so that each piece is nicely coated. You can use your hands to do this, it is much more efficient than trying to play around with a ladle or spatula. Just remember to wash thoroughly before and after.

Leave this marinade in a bowl in ambient temperature for 2-3 hours, or covered in the fridge for a day or two. In the fridge, covering is important – otherwise all the contents of the fridge, especially the butter, will taste of curry thereon after…

b) Heated in the pan

You can simply heat oil in the pan and add all the spices immediately. You will need to ensure that everything you are going to use is at hand, because this is going to go pretty fast and you don’t want anything burning.

3 bis) The pan spices / softening the vegetables

This is basically like 3b), except that 3a) there will be a separate set of spices that you are heating in the pan, as opposed to the ones that you are marinating the meats in. They could actually be exactly the same, but there’s little point in that.

This applies especially when you are using vegetables as well as the meat, wherein you are softening them before proceeding to the rest of the cooking. If using onions or other vegetables, some recipes call for browning, some advise against.

The effect of browning onions and garlic is, beyond softening them, is also breaking down some of their more potent components into sweeter versions. Again, depending on what you are trying to achieve, do it or don’t do it, at leisure.

4) Add the liquid (optional)

A curry does not necessarily need to be a sauce. As a point of illustration, chicken tikka is (or so I am told) a dry curry, that was brought to the UK from India. Chicken tikka masala however was allegedly invented in Glasgow, when the autochtonous eaters wondered why the curry was so dry… No sauce to dip their chips in.

a) Nature of the liquid

i) The classic liquid is coconut milk. You can find this in cans or cartons in supermarkets, or in Asian food stores you can even find bags of dried coconut milk. The latter is better value for money, though you have to prepare it in advance of your cooking (takes two minutes).

ii) The other very popular liquid base is yoghurt or cream. Mild or sour, yours to decide which you use. I personally would go for the milder variety, as it interferes less with the spices I selected, but that’s simply a point of opinion.

b) Adding the liquid

i) Liquid first – If you add the liquid first, you are essentially allowing it to absorb the spices and the vegetables flavour in advance of adding the meat. In such a way, flavours are likely to bleed both ways, from sauce to meat and meat to sauce.

This is also useful if the meat is quick-cooking and you can’t allow it to be in cooking heat for too long, such as with some fish and most seafood.

ii) Meat first – In this case, you are not really adding much of the flavours to the meat, as when it hits the hot pan, searing will occur, sealing up the meat. Make sure you are stirring well so that none of the meat is burned, or end up unevenly cooked. Some juices might bleed out into the pan, but the meat will generally keep a relatively distinct flavour from the sauce.

Once searing is complete – the outside of the meat is cooked, but the inside is still pretty raw – you can add the liquid.

This technique is most advisable if you’ve marinated the meat with different flavours than those you heated in the pan.

iii) Meat and liquid together -You might also have been marinating the meat in spices in the liquid in advance. In which case, just add everything together. It becomes a bit like the situation described in 4bi), except that the liquid at this point is still cold, and everything will heat up together.

Quite frankly, I have no idea in what situations you would do this. It’s just that I’ve read it, so I include the idea.

5) Simmer for a while

In the case of sauce-based curries, you will need to leave time to simmer for the meat to cook. This is best based on your judgement, and how small your meat pieces are.

A rough bet is about ten/fifteen minutes simmering, whilst stirring from time to time to avoid the mixture burning to the bottom of the pan.

You can check the readiness by isolating a big chunk of meat and cutting it at its thickest to see if it is cooked all the way through.

6) Eat it :-)

And it’s done. Serve with white rice – Thai or Basmati are the classic types (please note that for best delectation there should be around two volumes of rice per volume of curry) – or couscous, or even simply on/with bread.

Enjoy!

Post Scriptum

To illustrate the limitless spice combination concept, I have a little anecdote.

When I was a child, I used to like the idea of potions – from comics like Asterix (and the Druid Competition story), through various fairy tales, and other alchemic stories, I just imagined myself concocting some miraculous potion.

Goodness knows why, but one day I raided my mother’s spice cabinet. I took a little bit of each spice powder in there and put it in a milkshake shaker I had got as a freebie somehow. The deed done, I proceeded to add a spoon of it to boiling water. To my dismay, it didn’t even dissolve into an interesting soup. I sealed the mixer and left it in my bathroom for years.

When cleaning out my room once I had left for uni, my mother chanced upon this magical mix and recognized the contents as spices. Having verified this with me, and I “not being able” (read: not willing) to detail the reason for its existence, multiple curries were made out of it.

They were each eminently palatable, even if I do say so myself. Pretty impressive for a completely random, unmeasured mix of spices… 😀

Next time on the Tai cooking channel: stir fry, or turning leftovers into feature meals.

Principles of Stir-Fry

I originally wrote this in an email to my cousin, and have kept it around as a reference should I need to give it to anyone. Since I have posted already two articles on the subject of cooking, I decided it was time I re-visited it at last…

And here’s the final installment in Tai’s cooking rants!

What’s the secret to a good stir fry? The answer: sesame oil, plenty of fragrant spices, thinly chopped ingredients and… a wok. Accept no substitutes.

Stir fry, like curry and risotto, is a concept dish. There’s a vague principle behind it, which is not ingredient-specific. It’s not as easy to pull off as a curry, but it remains fairly straightforward.

Here then are the key steps in the making of a stir fry…

1/ The four components

There are four principle components to a stir fry: the carbohydrates (or soy alternatives), the protein (not strictly necessary but highly advisable), the vegetables, and the spices.

a/ The rice

I’ll refer to “rice” out of practicality, although this could refer to egg noddles, rice noodles, rice, or even soy noodles if you need to cut down on carbohydrates.

As a general rule, you should use types that have as little of their own taste as possible, so as not to create a conflict later with your vegetables and spices. Once you are accustomed to doing your own stir fry, and know what effect each has, then you can start using such things as risotto rice or whole meal pasta.

I tend to prefer Thai or Basmati rice, although American long grain is also suitable. In noodles, I prefer thinner ones, egg or rice I don’t mind. Super fine noodles however tend to be destined for soups, but will do fine.

Without wanting to bash any brands in particular, there is one specific company that makes its noodles taste like cardboard. My advice is: cook a sample of whatever you intend to use and taste it. If it has little taste when plain (no soy, no sauces, no seasoning, no nothing), it is usable. If its taste is strong, good or bad, it will interfere with the rest of the cooking.

b/ The protein

I’ll refer to “meat” to designate whatever you choose as the protein: sea food, poultry, pork, beef, venison… If you’re cooking for vegetarians, use ground beans or tofu…. you can even use potatoes and a bit of cornflour if you swing that way, anything that holds together in chunks.

Tofu is the one vegetarian protein source. Please don’t make the mistake of seeing it as a meat substitute, whatever anyone says. It is a food in its own right, and I would gladly use tofu one day and pork the next. It absorbs the flavours around it and is especially well suited to this kind of cooking.

Chicken tends to work well with herbs and fruits. Turkey is a good replacement too if you are slightly tight on budget, noting that you can still get away with a good stir fry with about a half a chicken breast’s worth per person.

Duck and pork tend to be better with sweet marinades, and then grilled – I once had a marinade recipe for pork for 4 people requiring 5 table spoons of sugar. Delish. If you do use sugar in the marinade, I must caution you: sugar caramelizes under heat. Anyone who has tried using sugar in a pot will probably admit having had to throw the pot away. In this case, you’d be better off grilling – place a pan covered in tin foil under the grid to minimize cleaning requirements.

Beef tends to be more “earthy” and I would more likely use seasonings like cumin, ginger and garlic with it. If you’re thinking spicy, beef stands up to it better than other meats I find.

Avoid fish, as this kind of meat is too delicate for the purposes of a stir fry. Rather, make a vegetable stir fry to serve along side fish.

Sea food can also be the basis for stir fry, although not being a seafood fan, I cannot advise on it.

You can also use any leftover meat from previous meals, with gravy instead of stock – this would be added then only in the finalization stage. Trust me, this works wonders :-)

c/ Vegetables

Whilst vegetables are vegetables, include here any form of fruit, leaf or root you wish.

Note that cabbage (which is often used in Asian dishes) has a bitter taste so you may want to shallow boil that for about 5 min before doing anything with it. Same goes for courgettes and aubergines. The added work means I generally omit these.

d/ Seasoning

By “spices” I will be referring to spices, herbs and various other seasonings.

Also, there are a number of common sauces to be found in an Asian kitchen. They are all pretty potent – a little goes a long way. They include (and are in no way limited to):

-sesame oil: a must, gives a distinct smell of “Chinese restaurant” and a sweet background taste

-soy sauce: another must. This replaces salt entirely, and should be used sparingly

-oyster sauce: very sweet – but don’t treat it like sugar. Use for anything in the protein line when you’re going to fry.

-hoi sin sauce: generally for chicken and pork. Very sweet. And kinda fruity in its way. Great for marinating something that’ll be grilled.

-fish sauce: also known as “nuoc mam” (say nwok-mam). Very fishy and rather salty. Used in soups quite often, and not strictly sea food: I recall a recipe for chicken noodle soup that relied heavily on fish sauce. The raw smell is off-putting, but its effect if used wisely and once cooked is magnificent.

2/ The utensils

There are four essential tools when working the stir fry path:
-the round-edged wooden spoon or spatula, of strong build
-the non-stick wok, as large as your hob can handle
-the super sharp 6-inch knife, or cleaver
-the big wooden chopping board – and I mean *big*

Keep in mind that the wok is designed to distribute heat evenly. Don’t use any ordinary pan.

I insist that the spoon or spatula be wooden and round-edged – not plastic, and certainly not metal. You need to use a non-stick wok where the food will not stick to the sides – a lot of heat and frying means that without the non-stick property this will happen a lot if you don’t keep things in motion constantly.

You will damage your pan severely if you use anything but a round-edged wooden implement on this kind of wok. Use a metal implement here and after two or three meals, you might as well be cooking on a car bonnet.

Always keep your knife sharp. Lots of chopping and dicing is involved. To avoid dulling the edge, when you scrape stuff from the chopping board with the knife, use the blunt edge, not the sharp edge.

So yeah, a chopping board too. Doing it on the counter will only destroy the surface, not to mention that it’s hard to pick up the counter and bring your chopped ingredients to the wok.

3/ Prepare the rice

Prepare your rice (or equivalent) in advance, as this should ideally be cold when you add it finally to the stir fry. If you’re in a rush, having it ready an hour before you start cooking the vegetables is decent. There is no inherent problem in using the freshly made hot rice straight from the pot, but for reasons unknown, it’s better if it has been cooled for a while.

Note that if you are using noodles that are of the quick-cooking sort, you can add these when finalizing. Just pour some boiling water into the wok and add the noodles. Don’t be too enthusiastic on the water. If the noodles are not cooked by the time the water is absorbed/evaporated, you can add more water. The opposite will yield mush and a longer time to get the excess to evaporate.

4/ Prepare your meat

Chop the meat into pieces no more than about half an inch at its thickest point. If it’s seafood, you can generally leave it as is.

Generally, you’ll want to marinate by adding some seasoning to the meat an hour or so before you cook it. This can be anything, from something basic like rubbing some crushed garlic over it and sprinkling with coriander and a bit of soy, up to a complex marinade as done for satay or char siu.

I have been known to use an alcohol base for a number of my marinades, as they add a nice flavour (and gives me a good excuse to buy more up-market bottles). For example, letting the beef soak up some red wine and a couple of teaspoons of sugar.

A note about using alcohol in cooking: stewing and marinating in alcohol is fine and dandy on any day, in any style, but one rule is golden: If you wouldn’t drink it, Don’t cook with it. That’s absolute.

5/ Prepare the vegetables

a/ Fire up the wok

You’ve prepared your meat, good. Heat the wok to “pretty damn hot”, with some regular oil and a hint of sesame oil. If you want to use one of the above mentioned sauces, why not. Remember that they’re all potent, and a little goes a long way.

At this point, you can add any combination of spices you want. Cumin is strong and potent, giving a beefy punch, garam masala is sweet, coriander seed is nice and mellow. Choose what you like according to what is needed, if anything at all.

Now throw in the meat, stir well, and get at the greens. The finer you can chop them, the better. Stir the meat from time to time to keep it cooking and not charring.

b/ Get the greens in order

Ideally, you want all the vegetables to be soft when they reach the mouth. This is where emphasis really needs to be put on the dicing as small as possible.

Remember that things like leeks, celery and most roots like carrots and radishes are very fibrous and will take longer to cook. Other softer items like onions, spring onions, tomatoes and sweet pepper will take a lot less time.

I would advise to only use about three or four different vegetables in one go, but that’s entirely up to your taste in the end.

To minimize time spent on the whole, chop the tougher vegetables first, add them to the hot wok, and then chop the less tough ones whilst the others are cooking. Remember to give the wok a stir every minute or so.

6/ Finalize the taste

The meat should be completely cooked by now, and the vegetables all soft. At this point, if there is any liquid left from marinating, add it in. Wait for the liquid to start bubbling before proceeding any further.

If you have any stock at hand, use some; otherwise stock cubes or stock powder/granules are fine too when dissolved in a bit of boiling water.

Add your rice (or affiliate) to the mix and stir it all up so that the ingredients are evenly spread out. Here is where you add the dry noodles, as mentioned previously.

Taste it. If the flavour needs enhancing, add some stock, or a little bit of soy – but not too much. Use soy sparingly, taste your food, and add sparingly again. Many of my own dishes went wrong from my hand slipping on the soy.

7/ Done

Take the wok off the fire, grab some chop sticks (or if you are less dexterous, a fork) and a plate or tall bowl.

I like to eat my stir fry accompanied with a nice pot of green jasmine tea. Pu’er tea is not bad either. Both are recommended by doctors, dieticians, Buddhists, Taoists, yogis, and my mum and I. It’s probably the only medicine any normally constituted person would be hard put to overdose on, and just about the only thing I will accept to take for colds, headaches, stomach aches and weariness.

Chow time!

Versatile Food : Rice

Advice and rants from the kitchen.

For some reason it seems that people don’t quite know how to cook rice. It’s compounded by the fact that there are a number of products that are focused on delivering “easy to cook rice” in a bag or for microwave etc – as if it were hard in the first place.

There is a brand which I will not name who charge a premium for crap quality rice, sub-par vegetables, and mystery meat. And then suggest in their adverts that it makes a perfect tête-a-tête dinner.

So my blog contribution today will be about how to get rice truly perfect every time, and some ideas of what to make with it. It really is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

1) One essential item

I will not hide that to get rice done perfectly, there is a special tool you need if cooking with a gas hob, that you should be able to find in any home ware/cookware store: it’s called a heat diffuser.

See here: http://images.google.com/images?hl=en&q=heat+diffuser
Prices vary enormously. I bought mine for £2 and it works fine.

This item allows you too cook things over flame for extended periods of time, without burning the food to the base of the pot. It takes the heat from the central point on the gas ring, and spreads the heat evenly over the whole base.

If you use an electric hob, then it probably won’t matter so much, depending on how much control you have over the heat. It won’t hurt to have one anyway.

2) Two requirements for good rice

There are two conditions to meet to produce good rice:

a) For any given volume of rice, you need just under twice that volume of water. So for half a cup of rice, you need to add just under a cup of water. The rice will absorb it all.

b) You need to cook the rice covered, over low heat, using the heat diffuser. Check the cooking time on the packet. Rice is cooked when it is perfectly soft. If it’s al-dente, it needs a couple more minutes.

Anything else is superfluous. My mother insists it is heresy not to put salt in the rice water. Some people believe you must rinse the rice before cooking it. Others like to add butter to the finished produce. And all that jazz.

I generally use Jasmine, Thai or Basmati rice for my every-style cooking. I avoid American long-grain, it’s not my liking, nor is whole-wheat rice, but that’s just me. You really should use Arborio rice for risottos and paella, but the Rice Police won’t descend up on you for switching them. Just know that they have different textures and taste.

One thing however to note: there is a technique which consists in adding surplus water and, when the rice is cooked, getting rid of the excess. That’s like making a beef stew and throwing out the liquid part. Anything you cook by boiling has a vast amount of its nutrients and taste transferred into the water. So don’t use the excess water technique. Ever. (Unfortunately, the silly shapes and lengths of pasta force us to use the excess water technique. I’ll find a way around that one day…)

My method:
-boil enough water for the amount of rice you are going to cook – just under double the volume of water to the volume of rice
-put the rice in a pot with some cooking oil and turn on the heat
-stir the rice and the oil together whilst the pot heats up
-add the boiling water and some salt to the pot, stir so that the rice sits evenly
-cover fully, reduce the heat to lowest and place the heat diffuser under the pot
-check after the time indicated on the rice packet

3) Three ideas for variation

Rice is not just white bland stuff. Think of paellas (yellow for having lots of turmeric), risottos (rich with stock and wine), and stir-fry (augmented with sauces and spices).

a) Try cooking it with a different liquid. Say, chicken stock, or vegetable stock. Or coconut milk. Or part wine, part water. You choose. The rice will soak up whatever liquid it’s in. Just remember: one volume of rice, just under double volume of liquid.

b) Try putting whatever you are wanting to have with the rice in with it at the start. Vegetables are a good candidate, meat should be cut very small or thin as this is the only cooking they will get. Or even just add herbs and spices, mix at start and let cook thereafter.

c) Once cooked, fry it in a wok with stock liquid/cube, one or two seasonings (hoisin works marvels on pork; ginger and chilli with beef is fab, chicken with garlic and coriander is a classic… just try a combination – any combination…) with meat and/or 2 to 4 vegetables of your choice.
Note: add first the items that take longest to cook, for example meat and fibrous vegetables such as whole carrots, and the quicker to cook items last, for example peas, diced sweet peppers, or thinly cut carrots. The rice is already cooked, so add that last, just after any final seasonings.

You could even combine the above three, although I have never tried that myself…

4) Well eat it duh!

It’s as easy as that. Remember to transfer excess rice to a Tupperware and fill the cooking pot with water immediately. Rice starch is like glue once it has set.

Next time, on the Taikedz cooking channel: curries (and how to make it at home for nothing :-p).

The Cost of an Item

The truth that the internet is waiting for the mass market to finally understand is that information by its replicable nature cannot be made subject to a price. We will pay for hard goods and guarantees of service, but the information contained within cannot be taxed.

Objects derive their price from the resources and effort required to produce not one item, but many such items.

Question: how much resources does it take to produce 100 items? How much resources does it then take to produce 10,000 such items?

If the item is a shoe, it will take the resources to produce the fibres, plastic, cotton, process and transform them and make the shoes, along with labour and shipping (I discount advertising costs as this is not part of the production/delivery of the goods). A hundred shoes will cost X to produce; ten thousand will cost arithmetically more – say arbitrarily 100*X.

If the item is a space at a rock concert, that space is guaranteed for a certain time period. After that to replicate again, the band must be re-booked and the venue setup anew, with any energy, facilities and staffing costs being consumed again. If the venue takes one hundred people at N dollars per ticket, then two hundred tickets necessitate two concerts, at least doubling the resources required, and their associated costs come in.

If the item is a piece of information, then by its very nature it is able to be transferred without necessarily being damaged or consumed during that process. This was the marvel of the printing press – instead of months to make a copy of a book via scribes, the book could be printed a thousand times over, identical and cheap, in a day. The Internet is much the same, only that the copying does not remain in-house anymore, and concerns much more than just books. It has gone wild. The same amount of resources is required to produce one item as is to produce infinitely more. If you spread the cost of the resources over the number of items produced, this means that the shoe and the rock concert maintain a steady price over replication or repetition, whereas the digitizable information sees its cost go to zero.

We are consumers. Consumers of food, of gas, of natural resources, of time, of services, and of space in time, in performances. Once consumed, these cannot be retrieved and consumed again.

We are also users – users of music, of software, of books, of information in general. Once used it can be used again and again, over and over. The medium may be consumed in the end, but the information itself can be copied.

Information is never consumed, it is merely observed, used. The original copy of a piece of information is never lost when a copy is made, unless deliberately erased. Attempting to place market rules of the physical world on the digital world is, and will always be, futile. Information can generally retain its attribution, as a part of the information itself, but ownership is volatile and rejectable.

The costs for producing a digitizable piece of information must be re-distributed to associated goods or services/guarantees. Spending resources on anti-piracy measures and lawsuits will always be a drain on resources, not a revenue saver.

The truth that the Internet is waiting for the Mass Market to realize is that there is no such thing as “digital goods” to be mass-marketed.

A silly poem

My friend Tom told me a tale once, which I versify here.

I took a little toy that I had acquired
To setup on the lawn to be admired
It was beautifully sturdy
I got it up by seven-thirty
But was sad to learn I had to take it down

I was told that I had raised an illegal erection
Which I thought was rather odd upon reflexion:
There were no explicit directions
To forbid my splendid erection
On a delicate piece of turf by Sallie’s gate

Really, he set up a gazebo in St Salvator’s (“Sallie’s”) Quadrangle (St Andrew’s University, Scotland) and was promptly told by the staff that he could not leave it there, as it was an “illegal” (“unauthorized”?) erection.

For some strange reason I remembered it today whilst going to buy lunch and composed the two verses above on my return (well, the second one came first…)

Writing clearly in a plaintext world

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Writing clearly in a plain text world
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In my line of work, there are alot of emails flying around. We do tech
support, which involves writing to customers, writing to colleagues
with whom we're on friendly terms, and other people in the organization
with whom we are less familiar.

Every email sent is ideally logged against a case, in a system that
only manipulates plain text: so colours and formatting are always lost
in the archival version. Welcome to the world of plain text, where there
is no style, no formatting - only text. It is in plain text that I
write this blog post today.

Most of the time in these emails, the trail of thought can be picked up
easily enough. However, when taking over a case from a colleague, or
when for some reason someone switches the format to plain text, a lot
of the meaning is lost, as the meaning was closely tied to the
formatting (coulours, underlines, italics, indentation, tables, etc etc
etc) Email is not publishing, one *must* expect the look and flow of
the text to change frequently, and its structure and meaning must be
able to resist the most common changes.

So what practices guarantee that such information will not be lost
somewhere down the line, allowing email trails to remain readable?
Here's some tips:

===
Write clearly
===

Some things to NOT do in the world of email:

-do not write everything in one line. Make use of paragraphs: in plain
text, this means hitting the return key TWICE

-do not use colour to denote responses. Colour can be lost. One of my
pet hates is "my responses are below in [colour]", especially when I
receive it from someone else who forwarded that message in plain text.

-do not use abbreviations, other than "e.g.", "i.e." and "etc"

-do not use capitals unless there is call for it. There are other ways
of emphasizing text OTHER THAN LOOK LIKE YOU'RE SHOUTING AT YOUR
CORRESPONDENT
  -->tip: it's considered extremely rude in most Internet communities



Some other things to consider:

-make use of punctuation - properly placed commas, dashes, semi-colons
and colons are all helpful in the right context.

-do not fear using words slightly redundantly, especially when a
subject is getting complicated. Mention an item in your phrase, an if
afterwards you want to talk about the item, repeat the name of the item.
Only use "it" or "that" when there is absolutely no possible ambiguity.

-keep the phrases as simple as possible. Emails should not be treated
as epistles, but as technical documents, whatever the subject. They
must inform, and not say anything more than you intend

-rather than including an image in the flow of the text, save it as a
file and attach it to the mail, saying "see attachment picture.jpg" or
"c@ picture.jpg"


The following are some stylistic conventions harking back to the days
when plain text was the only option. It is still true today when
writing on a number internet forums, comments under blog posts, etc

===
Underlines, bold and italics
===

This is _underlined_ text

This is /italic/ text

This is *bold* text

So when you really, *really* want to emphasize something, use /special
characters/ to replace the formatting. Only use it to surround no more
than one or two words. Only emphasize what is _necessary_

===
Quoting
===

If you're going to quote more than a full sentence, it is better to
put the text in a block quote.

/==
This is a block quote. It is recommended to use it when there is a
significant amount of text.

There may even be several paragraphs.
==/

In this way you quote from documents and other exterior sources.

If you are going to quote from someone else who previously wrote in
the same thread, use ">" characters at the start
of each line

> These lines were forwarded
> from a previous message

In that way, it is possible to immediately identify quoted messages,
and it is not lost when the colour coding is gone.

===
Other structures
===

It is good practice to have well structured text, but some of the
structure tools used in rich text editors get
completely lost in plain text.

Use text-based bullet points instead of automatic ones.

# like so
# and so
# and so, too

Or maybe you prefer
-this kind
-the dash
-less garish

###
This is under a new section, separated from the above, but still under
the same title.

And finally, all the way through this note, I have been using the
encapsulating "===" around titles. You should do so too.

=============== Thank you for reading. Now start writing in a cleaner fashion with your new knowledge.

The film industry on aritifcial life support?

The film industry is soon going to go the way of the dinosaurs if they don’t adapt. With file sharing showing no signs of abating, especially not in a recession, it is clear the industry needs a new business model to be found and adopted – lest the remaining funds be constantly tied up in the courts.

So here’s an idea for them:

Back in the day when the internet was for scientists and the Compact Disc more or less accepted as a music distribution medium, films were making money through cinemas, retail stores, rent outlets and TV airtime.

This can still be exploited today: supposing these institutions keep their raison d’être, any individual film could have artificially limited “outlet credits”

For example, cinemas: depending on the number of seats per room a cinema has, it can purchase a license to show a film, that license being part of a class specified for that cinema size. So far, any cinema can do this. Now what if the license holder only makes a certain amount available for a given film, week on week?

Cinemas will need to pick and choose carefully for which films they bid for. Reviews and attendance will determine what kinds of prices people are willing to pay at which cinemas. Smaller cinemas can compete with eachother for the biddings due to the classification of licenses.

As a side note, cinemas may also want to think of giving movie goers added experiences and incentives to grace their screens, what with HD TV and home cinemas gradually entering more and more households…

I’d even go so far as to say that through this mechanism, more thought will be given to what films are allocated a budget – both at the pre-filming and screening stages. I believe that’s where the industry is bleeding the most money, to be quite frank: careless budget-giving, so billions are spent on movies with bad scripts, un-honed acting and tacky direction.

The same artificial life support can be applied to renting, retail, and TV airing.

So long as the institutions remain extant.

Privatized Public Services

I will talk politics, economics and society. All in one, with a touch of insanity, I’ll admit. This is a rarity, but expect to see more of it.

I was listening to Radio 4 today, news time, and the presenter was interviewing various Labour MPs about where the party should be going now, what it needs to do get back on its feet – and someone mentioned the “part privatization of the Royal Mail” should be scrapped and it should become, once more, nationally owned.

Specific politics and policies aside, this struck a chord with me.

Corporations vs State Services

The idea of the privatization of public services annoys me. I have an admittedly rather simplistic view of companies as opposed to nationally owned entities.

For me, a private company is first and foremost an organized means generating money, whilst a state run service is one that is deemed a fundamental part of the running of a very, very large community (id est, a country), focused on ensuring the provision of said service. In any sane world, both organizations would strive to make the lives of people better out the the conviction of their moral fibre (the kindness of their hearts might be a bit much to ask). I think we can all agree that most of the time, this is not so.

Private corporations are out to make money – that’s what they are set up for – to cater for the desires of the people by providing them with goods and services, in return for cash. State services should, ideally, be focused on providing the service, using the money taken in from fees to continue and expand the service.

In short: companies focus on earning money, the service or goods being a means towards it; whereas a state service should focus on providing the service, the fees perceived being strictly for maintenance and debt repayment. Does this mean that the growth of the state service should be set at zero, neither wavering upwards or downwards? No. But if the State starts behaving like a corporation, the we’re heading into very murky waters.

Privitzed Train System – Consequences

Privatization of public services, to me, is fundamentally a bad idea. I have long decried and will keep on moaning about the quality of public transport in the UK, and more recently about the state of the roads in Britain. Such services as the upkeep and the provision of transport and communication lines should not be assigned to privatized entities.

The mere model itself is that of money making, and if they find they need to cut corners, they will. The idea of a self-regulating market does not apply, for the simple reason of the fundamental necessity of serving the public. Also, privatization prevents competing corporations from sharing information and responsability: coordination of trains, upkeep of tracks in grey zones, ticket purchasing, etc etc are not services realized to their fullest potential.

Also, there’s what I will call director-bloat. Where under one organization (the State) there would be one set of directors, under several companies there will be as many more directors, each with their own differing visions of which direction the overall service should move, and thus getting nowhere (and I will not develop on the extra salary burdens each high position imposes).

Users of the service generally can’t pick and choose in this market – mostly for reasons of coverage in the transport sector, and in other sectors like postal services, private companies charge an arm and a leg; and sometimes even the Toothfairy’s due whilst they’re at it.

Moving public services over to the state would be a good bet – it works very well in France – but some people voice concern over the control the state would have – especially in Britain, with its ever growing surveillance culture. Move too many fundamental services into the hands of the state and some fear some Dawn of the Kafka Courts, and an unsavoury Brave New World.

And yet, I still think centralization of the public services is necessary and desireable.

State-Guided Private Monopoly

Now I get wacky. I conjured this up this morning. But there’s method in the madness.

A centralized state run service is, in essence, the corporate equivalent of a monopoly. It is an organization that is the main or sole provider of a service, nation-wide, and backed by government money – whose information is probably accessible to the government as well. Scary, right?

But how about this: a corporate monopoly (not state run), with government trading rules specifying how much the company can charge for any given service, and explicitly guidelining a limit growth rate of the company, monitored monthly. The rules and rates are revised yearly, adherence to data protection and privacy law enforced by an independant body.

You’re quite probably asking: what on Earth for?

Centralization As I have been arguing/ranting previously, I believe the centralization of public services is desireable and necessary. These services form the back bone of how a country is run, and if competition is let free in this base system, we all suffer from it

Privatization I intentionally specify a corporate monopoly, so that the service provider and the government do not pool resources. The last thing we want is to give an already surveillance-power-hungry state more ammo.

Controlled growth In state run services, growth can be controlled from the fact that resources can be allocated and de-allocated, whereas in corporate climates the resources must continue growing if the company is to survive. Combining Centralization with Privitzation can introduce the worst of both worlds, (widespread reach and cash seeking), so a special programme would need to be introduced – check and balance. The organization needs to grow, but this cannot be left at the cost of service guarantee, quality, and affordability.

So which services do I think would be candidate for such a programme?

  • Road and rail infrastructure maintenance
  • Public rail and wheel vehicle transport
  • Medical treatment centres – this one can be difficult, given the sometimes high costs of certain treatments
  • national postal services
  • landline telephony and basic broadband provision
  • education and child care

Charities

One sector I can also see benefiting is charity. There are so many charities, each with their own agendas. In principle, this is fine, but again, there is duplication: Save The Children and Barnardos are working for the same cause. MacMillan Cancer Care is running alongside British Heart Foundation. Water Aid and Just A Drop probably run very similar programmes.

Did I mention Director Bloat previously? Surely this is not helping maximize the potential of what we give.

But what do you think?