Tuesday, 15 February 2005

Front Page Photograph

Just before Christmas, people at ConsciousChoice found a photograph on DHD Multimedia Gallery that I had taken a few years ago and that they felt they could use for their February issue. It took a bit of work to get the scan done and it also made me discover an undocumented feature of Windows XP Home Edition but the result is great. What I didn't realise is that they wanted this photo for the front page, not for the feature inside. Fantastic!

Tuesday, 8 February 2005

Well Done Ellen!

Tonight saw the final act of an amazing sporting achievement. Ellen MacArthur has just come home after 71 days at sea on a racing yacht. She is now the fastest person ever to have sailed solo around the world, beating the previous record by slightly more than a day. What it takes to achieve such a feat is unbelievable. She is now one of the great British champions, having achieved the ultimate in her sport. She wrote a book a few years back, Taking On The World, which is an amazingly motivating read and I am sure that every ounce of courage and determination that is visible in those pages was with her on the boat over the last 10 weeks. Well done Ellen!

Sunday, 6 February 2005

Spell Checking

Blogger offers a spell checker that you can run before you post. However, it sometimes makes weird suggestions when it finds a word it doesn't know. In particular, it is incapable of recognising words that are missing letters. For instance, in the previous post, I had forgotten the 'r' in 'strength', thus writing 'stength'. The only suggestion the Blogger spell checker came up with was 'Satanist'. How it found that, I don't know. I would have expected it to suggest 'strength' and 'stench' for instance, but definitely not 'Satanist' and definitely not as the one and only suggestion. Interestingly enough, it also doesn't know about the words 'Blogger', 'Google', 'blog' and 'weblog'.

Books and More Books

I went to the Borders bookshop on Oxford Street yesterday as there were a few books I wanted to buy. Of course, as I usually do in such a situation, I bought about twice as many books as I originally wanted to. That is the problem of being free to browse in a large store, you always end up seeing stuff you hadn't planned to buy but really want to. Out of my impulsive buys, there was a manga book, Chobits, volume 1, and The Prophet from Kahlil Gibran. The only common thing between those two books is that they are both very quick to read and very enjoyable, for different reasons.

Chobits is a story that could be summarised as a broke teenager finds a girl android with unusual abilities in a rubbish bin and revives her. The story sounds a bit cheesy at first but develops in an interesting way. Of course, this first volume finishes just at a point where some of the aspects of the story unfold in an unexpected way and you close it with the urge to open volume 2, which of course I don't have. Nor did the Borders store incidentally so I'll have to go shopping online.

The Prophet, on the other hand, is one of the most moving books I have ever read, one of the best advocates of tolerance and open-mindedness (I'm not sure this word exists but you get my meaning). It takes the form of the answers a prophet called Al-Mustafa gives to the questions of the people of a city called Orphalese, on the day he leaves that city. Using this simple setup, Kahlil Gibran discusses many philosophical subjects from Love to Death, via Knowledge, Time, Good and Evil, Pleasure and Religion. In fact, I had read this book before but it is one of those works I could read again and again. Its strength is in being concise, simple and very easy to understand while dealing with the most complex questions. A couple of hours is enough to read the 124 pages of this small volume but years are needed to fully understand all the implications and meanings of it, if at all possible.

Learning Arabic

I've tried to learn some basics of Arabic for some time, in fact since I first went to the Middle East for work. I tried doing it through books first and then language software but haven't managed to go much further than شكرأ [shukran], which means thank you. Part of the problem, I think, is that I have a better visual than auditive memory. So to remember things I need to see them written. Of course, with Arabic, it meant I had to learn the alphabet first. Now, in theory, the Arabic alphabet is not that difficult to learn, it only has 28 letters. What makes it a challenge is:

  • Some letters like ب [ba] or ث [tha] only differ by the location and number of dots.
  • Letters in a word are linked together, which makes it more difficult to identify where a letter stops and the next one starts. And of course, to confuse the student even more there are some letters that don't follow this rule and can't be linked to the next letters, such as ر [ra] or و [wa]
  • Letters change shape depending on where they are in the word, in most cases a letter inside a word has a different shape than the same one at the end of a word, a bit like if you were writing with the Latin script and use lowercase letters inside the words and uppercase letters at the end of each word, such as thE quicK browN foX jumpeD oveR thE lazY sleepinG doG.
  • Vowels are not written, except for two long vowels, or are written as diacritic in children books and elaborate scripts.
  • The combination ل [lam] followed by ا [alif] is always written as a ligature, لا.
  • Finally, I nearly forgot, Arabic, of course, is written right to left.

So I've now mastered maybe half the alphabet, mainly the letters that have an obvious equivalent in English. I'm now left with all the letters that have no equivalent in English: the dark letters, such as ض [dad], and the ones that you say from the throat, such as غ [ghain]. For Western vocal chords, most of them make the Scottish ch, as in loch sound simple and easy to pronounce.

So, in an attempt to improve my Arabic faster than a couple of new words every year, I recently bought yet another language software, following online recommendations. It's not cheap but I thought that if it worked, it was worth buying the Rosetta Stone package for Arabic. I tried it out on Friday evening and it looks good so far. At first sight, it is not as boring and academic as the Transparent Language equivalent and it has more depth than the EuroTalk equivalent. So we'll see. Of course the optimal solution would probably be to go and do a total immersion in Cairo or Amman and I might still do this one day. But in the meantime, I'll try my best at home, or in the office after hours, where I have a real Arabic keyboard.

Thursday, 3 February 2005

History of Computing

Eric Lévénez has 3 amazing charts, the UNIX History, Windows History and Computer Languages History. All three are amazing pieces of work and give perspective on the technology we use today.

New Passport

I have my new passport. I went back to the consulate this morning to pick it up. It's one of the new types of EU standard passports, valid for 10 years (instead of 5 previously). The photo page is now oriented landscape rather than portrait with the machine readable strip at the bottom. It also has some interesting background designs on the visa and stamp pages. It has only 4 more pages than my previous one even though it is valid for twice the amount of time so I have a good chance of filling it up before it expires this time.

Cricket in the Toilets

I've just come back from Porterhouse where I had a drink with friends. This pub is on three floors and has a big screen in the basement, where they show important things like rugby matches. However, because it also is a micro-brewery and a nice pub, it caters for trendy crowds and, as a result, has trendy toilets that include a small TV screen.

Tonight was a reasonably quiet night, with a live band playing some U2 songs and other well known stuff. However, there was also what looked like a rather important cricket match, which was not shown on the big screen, only on the small screens in the toilets. As a result, you had half a dozen geezers stuck in front said small TV screen in the toilets, watching the cricket. Now, why would you ever consider going to a pub and spend your time in the loo, watching the cricket? Fair enough, being French, I don't understand cricket anyway. But still, standing in the gents watching TV is not my interpretation of a good night out, whether what's shown on TV is cricket, football or Big Brother. It's all very weird.

Wednesday, 2 February 2005

French Consulate

I went to the French Consulate this morning. I needed to renew my passport that has less than six month validity left because I am going to go to the USA for a week or so very soon, for work. I got there before opening time and there was already a queue round the bloc, although not as long as the queue for the visa section. All in all, I spent 2 hours waiting in order to do 5 minutes worth of paperwork. I can then come back tomorrow morning to pick up my brand new passport. It did feel like a real waste of time. I could have booked an appointment on the web site to avoid the queue, I must admit, except that there were no slot free for another week or so and the booking system doesn't work in Firefox, they must be using Internet Explorer specific JavaScript code.

the good thing though is that I'll now have a brand new passport so going through customs in the US should be easier than last time. Last time I went, they didn't fail to ask why I had so many Middle Eastern stamps in my passport, namely Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt. I had been there for work, as I told the officers, which seemed to satisfy them. They gave me dark looks though. Good thing I didn't get my passport stamped when I went to Cuba. I'd have had to explain that I had been to Cuba because it is a beautiful place with great people and fantastic beaches.

The new passport should also be valid 10 years rather than 5 like my old one so I might have a chance to fill it up before it expires.

Tuesday, 1 February 2005

Baghdad Burning

I just came across this weblog, Baghdad Burning. It is described by its author as Girl Blog from Iraq... let's talk war, politics and occupation. So if you want to really understand what life is like in Baghdad, without the spin and bias of any news channel, go and read it. I started reading and I couldn't stop.

Here are a few quotes from this blog:

Water is like peace- you never really know just how valuable it is until someone takes it away.

Terror isn't just worrying about a plane hitting a skyscraper... terrorism is being caught in traffic and hearing the crack of an AK-47 a few meters away because the National Guard want to let an American humvee or Iraqi official through. Terror is watching your house being raided and knowing that the silliest thing might get you dragged away to Abu Ghraib where soldiers can torture, beat and kill. Terror is that first moment after a series of machine-gun shots, when you lift your head frantically to make sure your loved ones are still in one piece. Terror is trying to pick the shards of glass resulting from a nearby explosion out of the living-room couch and trying not to imagine what would have happened if a person had been sitting there.