Saturday, 22 October 2016

no spark with this card

Most loyalty schemes don't work properly. A well-known motoring organisation, various well known insurance organisations and well-known energy companies have all decided it would be worth a punt to fleece me at renewal time. I understand the selling model, get 'em, don't annoy 'em and quietly increase their charges.

You'd think the loyalty shopper schemes would be on to this in some way, but I can't help thinking that if inertia sellers are calculated in their actions to extract cash from time-poor people, the loyalty card schemes struggle with their different model.

Like about half of the UK shopping population, I've somehow joined M&S Sparks, although I must admit don't keep the card in my wallet. I hardly ever look at it, although this weekend there's supposed to be a special big discount, which I idly clicked through to browse. And yes, I thought it was funnier to adjust the aspect ratio slightly on this picture.

Well, aside from the unexplained * on the offer (which didn't appear anywhere in the small print on the rest of the page), the clickthrough took me to 'the offer'.

Guess what? It was for discount on ice cream, or hand cooked crisps. The phrase 'Epic Fail' sparks in my mind.

I assume the brief is to stop anyone from ever using these cards for anything.

Although I must admit that I do use that Stocard app to keep track of various membership and related cards that don't automatically turn up in Wallet.

It's also handy for saving things things like copies of driving licences and some of those hotel schemes.

Not forgetting to also save a copy of passport and driving license information into Evernote.

Update: M&S just sent me another message to say they were hasty pressing send and the bonus mow ends midnight Monday! It still clicks through to the ice cream offer though.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

occupied with parallels

I've been watching Occupied, which is the show about Norway attempting to cease oil production and move to Thorium power.

In the story, adjacent nations don't care so much for the Norwegian idea and Russia intervenes with what starts out as an undercover occupation.

In this Jo Nesbø version of a near future the Americans have left NATO and the EU and adjoining Sweden can see the benefits of keeping the oil flowing.

The series shows the beautiful scenery of Norway and the sleek modernity of its architecture and infrastructure, much built from the taxation proceeds of the natural resources it found. Curiously less so with the Norwegian military, who send a couple of Orion propeller planes (based on a 1957 commercial design) to look at what is happening around the oil rigs.

Not long ago, the plot line for this could all seem quite improbable, but already the power moves of the series seem less far fetched. Maybe Thorium power plants aren't in vogue, but the potential noises off from Trumpton already talk of NATO exit and pay-as-you-go security systems.

The biggest American reactor (Palo Verde, AZ) is cooled by evaporating the water from treated sewage. Having watched yesterday's 'Presidential' debate from Las Vegas, the trip from Vegas along Route 93 to the reactors easily serves up several poignant metaphors.

Russia wasn't best pleased with the Occupied show either, although recent Crimean, east Ukrainian and Syrian situations starkly demonstrate Putin's post cold war attitude. And right now the Russians have a Kirov battlecruiser, Sierra attack submarine, Udaloy destroyer and their flagship Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier dispatched from Severomorsk travelling straight down the British coastline towards the English Channel on their route to the Mediterranean. Presumably to Syria.

Nesbø didn't make this bit up, it's happening right now.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

the kind of westworlds i have visited

I've been watching the Westworld series, which is based on a Michael Crichton story about robots in a closed system that go wrong. Crichton had form with that plot line, having used variants in The Andromeda Strain (microorganisms in the desert), Jurassic Park (dinosaurs in a theme park) and Congo (a closed gorilla world).

Inevitably there's some Disney-esque aspects to the Westworld approach, with the notable exception that Disney is family friendly and uses people instead of robots for most of the characters.

I've visited the Magic Kingdom many times with its monorail or steamship entrance to the park. So many times that I know my way around many of the service back roads and have even shown taxi drivers shortcuts.
Inside there's that steamship that circles the small island inside the park. I don't think its even listed as a ride, yet its a full sized steamboat.
There's the full sized railway to get quickly to Tomorrowland. Everything looks realistic. Even the street scenes that change suddenly around a corner from Manhattan to San Francisco.
Of course, like in the movie sets, they want you to know that its done with tricks.
Across in the Animal Kingdom there's a battered locomotive that picks you up from Harambe to journey through the savannah.
And wherever you are, every so often there's a character or sudden parade to remind you that it's all great fun.
I've had a different experience with the Punchdrunk shows. They have a more limited universe, contained within a single building. The whole of the Battersea Arts Centre was used for Red Masque and an entire dilapidated Post Office Sorting Office was used for The Drowned Man. These shows are more like what Crichton envisages in Westworld. If Disney plays external, the Punchdrunk experience internalises much of what happens.

To begin with, every 'guest' wears a mask. A cloak as well for the Red Masque.

Then it's free format to browse the entire huge set. Arrived with others? You'll get split up. It's inevitable- maybe even on the way in through dark and winding corridors or through mis-functioning elevators or stagger unexpectedly through black curtains.

Stumble across desert hotels, cowboy camp sites, the middle of arguments by jilted lovers. Find altogether freaky moments, crazy science experiments and still wonder how much you are missing.

Know that sometimes the fastes way to a new experience might really be by walking into the back of a cupboard filled with clothes or even into a fireplace chimney. I missed a whole bar filled with people the first time I visited Drowned Man, and in another area could only watch a show from on the stage itself.

And then, sometimes get picked out by a "host" for an unexpected one-to-one interaction.

Be stopped from entering areas by the police, and then wonder why others get through.
It's an altogether different experience from the lightheartedness of Disney, and designed to play with your head as much as Disney plays with your heart.

And what about Westworld? I remember the original movie, which maybe at the time had some of the effects that others have copied.

It was made back in 1973 and dreamed of robot snakes, a combustible crazy robot gunslinger, pixellated night vision scopes and the exterior of a monorail that still looks cool in 2016.

Other aspects were sometimes a bit Benny Hill meets Up Pompeii meets Monty Python and no-one in it was given more than haphazard styling, but there was some underlying design that has been revamped to a modern future history world with its 3D printing and nano-tech.

Me? I'm wondering how to get into the McKittrick.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Friday, 14 October 2016

designated survivors of campaign trail

I’ve been watching Designated Survivor (24 meets The West Wing meets House of Cards - I don’t have time to explain etc.) and that dark 2015 German movie 'Er ist wieder da’ which both, in different ways, play out alternative politically motivated futures and the effects on the political class, media class and the populace.

One is set in America, the other in Germany. They both explore the reactions of ordinary people when pushed into unusual situations. We now have an unusual situation here in the UK, with the Brexit process running, based upon ordinary peoples’ votes. We’ll soon be able to see how the Americans handle their next unusual situation after their General Election.

What does voting for Trump now achieve? Large areas of the US will automatically vote for him in any case.

However, if the Republican Party has more-or-less rejected him, and he already hints at running vendettas against people who don’t agree, then the US could conceivably get someone without a party.

An independent loose cannon in charge of the United States? Maybe it's an Apprentice reality TV show trait to keep loose cannons in the team?

The US result is mainly down to a few states too, Florida (29 seats), Ohio (18 seats), Georgia (16 seats) and North Carolina (15 seats). The candidates consider there’s no point in visiting the dead-cert states nor the unchangeable ones. It seems almost bonkers that the whole political machine slows to a crawl for 25% of the time (one year in every four) whilst this strangely distracting process takes place.

It’s also interesting to look at the mainly central casting-like range of Republicans that have been seen off by Trump in his journey. Trump has passed 25 Republican competitors including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina.

Does this mean there were 25 less-suitable Republican candidates? It’s legally unchallengeable for the next month, but may re-appear when the results are known.

Using current Politico poll positioning, I offer a few unscientific percentages.
  • Trump wins and the Republicans regroup around him 5%.
  • Trump wins and the Republicans disown him 10%.
  • Trump wins and the Republican Party splits 10%.
  • Trump wins and somehow gets deposed 10%.
  • Hillary wins and Trump declares the results rigged 35%.
  • Hillary wins and Trump somehow goes quietly 5%?
  • Hillary wins and something else happens 5%?

That's me interpreting the swing state Politico battleground percentages, which still leave about 15% unaccounted.

And I'm wondering who will be the designated survivors after the results are in.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

subterranean homesick blues

Bob Dylan gets a Nobel literature prize.

Here he is in an alley alongside the Savoy Hotel in London, with Allen Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth in the background. Card graphics by Donovan, Neuwirth and Dylan. Packing it all in to 2 minutes 18 seconds

"Subterranean Homesick Blues"

Johnny's in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I'm on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in a trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he's got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off

Look out kid
It's somethin' you did
God knows when
But you're doin' it again
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin' for a new friend
A man in a 'coon-skin cap
In a pig pen
Wants eleven dollar bills
You only got ten.

Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin' that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone's tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the DA

Look out kid
Don't matter what you did
Walk on your tip toes
Don't tie no bows
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Wash the plain clothes
You don't need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows.

Get sick, get well
Hang around an ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything's gonna sell
Try hard, get barred
Get back, write Braille
Get jailed, jump bail Join the army, if you fail

Look out kid
You're gonna get hit
But losers, cheaters
Six-time users
Hang around the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool is
Lookin' for a new fool
Don't follow leaders
Watch the parkin' meters.

Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don't steal, don't lift
Twenty years of schoolin'
And they put you on the day shift

Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don't wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don't wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don't work
'Cause the vandals took the handles.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

i can't believe it's not stocked

If Unilever really ask for an extra 10% for all of their products, based upon the Brexit affected GBP to Euro rate change, then it will be interesting to see how many supermarket chains beyond Tesco refuse to stock the many household name brands.

Marmite already seems to be in short supply, although I thought it was made in the UK. At least we are past the main ice cream season.

Monday, 10 October 2016

the football with switches

Like many, I knew I was being lied to in the referendum debate. It illustrated a next level of division between the politicians and the people, where there was ever smaller regard paid to giving truthful renderings of what was happening.

I'm sure there's plenty of good and well-meaning folk in the Palace of Westminster, but when the primary spokespeople are diffident to accuracy, then it brings everyone down with it.

Politicians in America seem to have a more advanced form of the malaise. Not just peddling fibs and half truths, but instead just saying whatever is considered will appeal to the particular voter cross-section being targeted.

Since I watched the Republican and Democrat conventions back in July, Sunday evening's town hall debate showed how far the whole thing could rumble in a couple of months.

To me, it comes across as about picking the least worst of two questionable choices. An insider with some track record but a wide range of unanswered questions about past behaviours or an amateur political bragging billionaire. It's surprising that the dollar is holding up, given what could happen in about a month.

Come to think of it, when I say the least worst I suppose it goes further and becomes about the least scary. Now where is that nuclear football?

Sunday, 9 October 2016

news flash as flash boys flash crash with flashy excuses

The recent dollar to pound situation causes me to muse further on the rise of robots and control systems. Like when I asked a speech recognition system about service stops on the A1M between London and Newcastle, it gave me a fishing shop in North America.

Alexa (Amazon) still can't provide coffee house music and when I asked it (as a deliberate test) to play "Set the controls for the heart of the sun by Pink Floyd", it responded in all its dust gathering finesse with "I cannot find Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun (Remastered 2011)", like an echo taunting me.

So it's little surprise that apparently the Flash Boys on the FX desks can't tame the algorithms used by their trading systems to keep the pound/dollar at a sensible level.

What it hides is a kind of economic destruction which is taking place in the microseconds whilst currencies are all over the place. It's years since the 'wars of the wires' when traders used to institutionally rely on shorter path lengths to exploit the microseconds to intercept and fiddle the value of stock trades.

It intrigues me that this recent pound drop was even referred to by our Chancellor as a flash crash, which is the terminology of those rogues from the days of the intercepted stock trades. High Frequency Trading, bought and sold (or sold and bought) in milliseconds.

Nowadays it's the 'algos' which get the blame. Algorithms which reputedly trade on the back of news sites and Twitter. It's all very convenient as a form of excuse. Like saying it doesn't work with Apple, the van's broken down, or it's an effect of Brexit uncertainty.

But behind it I can't help thinking there's someone making a very fast buck. Or billion bucks.

Friday, 7 October 2016

kicked snug together

I received one of those emails from HM Treasury today explaining that the Lloyds Bank retail share sale was off. That's another of the Osborne agenda items biting the dust.

I must admit to buying a few shares around the time of the original Osborne announcement. After all, Lloyds were quite low-priced at the time and the now defunct Osborne statement implied that they would add about 20% to their value.

The revised Hammond plan is to quietly sell off the shares via Morgan Stanley to larger organisations. Re-privitisation by stealth. I suppose it keeps the potential gains in the hands of the institutional investors.

At the time of the Osborne announcement, 73.6p was the point at which to sell to make a profit for a retail sell-off. My oops diagram below shows that it has slipped somewhat from that point, this afternoon at around 51p.

Philip Hammond's revised calculation conveniently makes the necessary selling point around early today's 53p, to be sure of breaking even at £20.3bn after all the shares have been passed back into the private sector. In effect it bundles prior sell-off gains into the equation to make a break-even point.

The currently achieved £16.9bn needs just another £3.4bn to get back to the original figure. It's like Hammond giving away £1.34bn compared with Osborne's statement.

This revision gives the Chancellor something to talk about at the IMF.

For me, I'll hang on to my low-priced Lloyds shares, take the dividends and predict that the 53p price is really much undervalued for this equity.

"Kicked snug together, precious home solutions. Excited breathe confident calm breeze."

As the branding agency might say.

Monday, 3 October 2016

in which I try DMX lighting with a MacBook Air

For the last of the current series of FANS shows it looked as if we'd have no lights. Everywhere else we'd had proper lighting rigs, including 8 metre motorised gantries and movable LED systems. For the last show, we'd maybe have a few house lights. On wall switches. In a cupboard.

I decided to see whether it would be possible to create a small DMX rig from scratch, using a few LED fixtures and my MacBook Air. There wasn't really time to get to grips with a portable DMX console, and I really wanted something that would provide drag-and-drop user definable lighting.

Fortunately, there's a few programs around for this and the one I hastily selected is called Lightkey. It does the job in pretty much the way I'd want it to. You define the fixtures, set them up on a 512 channel DMX grid, define presets for them and then drag the presets onto buttons to control the lights. It even gives a usable pictorial representation of the design.

For this show, it was all about inexpensive fixtures, so I hit up Amazon and got most of the bits based upon the comments in the reviews of the cheapest LED PAR style lighting.

The front four PAR64 individually addressable lights were about £16 each and to that I added a couple of budget LED PAR partybars, which even included the full tripod. This was definitely a case of reading the specs carefully before buying anything to sure that they would do what was required.

Add a few bulk purchased 2 metre DMX connector cables, a couple of 20m DMX cables, some 5 metre kettle leads and the various adapters to go from 5 pin (stage)to 3 pin (domestic) DMX and it was almost ready for business. Oh yes, and a USB to DMX converter.

I could then sketch out a lighting design on the Mac, before we even got to the venue. We honestly set up the whole rig in about 20 minutes, including around 45 lighting cues I'd pre-programmed in, including some fancy loop sequences.

If I'd had more time to learn the software, we could have done even better, but the first time we'd connected the software, USB-DMX dongle and lights together was the evening before the show. It still worked fantastically well, creating lighting that was well beyond the switch-on switch-off level. Note to self to bring a bigger power adapter for the MacBook though.

I've been idly looking at proper DMX consoles, but honestly think a Midi-style button set such as a Novation LaunchPad might be a better and kind of more modern option.

And going forward, a couple of inexpensive moving head lights would really add something creating a complete kit for smaller and pop-up venues.

Now, about the next show?

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Hey Alexa, play set the controls for the heart of the sun, No Alexa- don't fly there, Hey Alexa Pause #blooper

It's entirely possible that a certain well-known blonde Belgian beer had a part to play in a recent conversation. Would the choice of operating system affect a house purchase in the future? Kind of Mac vs Android.

At our place we already have different areas of the house running on different systems. The hallway has the Google Nest thermostat and if we ever upgrade it, then it would probably also get speech recognition.

The lounge has Apple Home, mainly because of the Apple television with its speech recognition. But come to think of it, there's also an Amazon Fire device, which also has speech recognition.

But no, we don't use the speech because it is generally too random in its responses. As an example, when I recently asked about a lunch stop on the A1M, it gave me a fishing shop location 4,600 miles away in America.

Recent new gadgets for all of this are the cascaded set of Amazon things; Echo, Tap and Dot, one of which arrived through the post today. Unlike Siri, Cortana, the enigmatic Facebook M and even Google MSA, the Amazon system uses a real name, Alexa, to trigger the voice input.

We shouldn't forget the French invoxia system, gamely trying to sell the toy-like Triby to the Americans although now with Alexa input. Although, I must admit I'm not too sure about their main advert strip.

That's not to say that speech can't work. If I go all comic-book Dick Tracy and talk to my watch, such as to make an Evernote reminder, then the speech is almost entirely well-rendered. I suppose I'm using my carphone voice for this, which isn't quite like natural speech. Yes, it gets remarked upon.
It's still easy to fool Siri on the Mac though. If I want music Siri will happily play 'Pop' 'Jazz' 'Ed Sheeran' etc. but if I ask for 'Coffee House' or 'Start the Week' it will get somewhat more haphazard. Maybe I need to update the genres?

The biggest recent change has been the Apple IOS 10, which has started to pull all of the systems together on the iPhone. To my surprise, this latest version has somehow integrated the Hue lights, the fire, the Nest and all the Harmony TV controls including Sky, Apple, Netflix, Amazon so that they are now accessible mainly from a 'card swipe' on the phone. Pretty good actually and I didn't even need to install anything other than the IOS for all of this to start working.

So I guess that's going to be the basis of my theory. It won't be the domestic operating system that dictates; it will be the protocol that somehow binds the disparate systems together to give a single interface, whether its phone, voice or gesture-based.

Not that gesture, Alexa.