Sunday, December 01, 2013

Open letter to Regina Spektor

Dear Regina,

I hope you don't mind me calling you Regina but as I listen to a fair amount of your music I do feel as though I know you even though you don't know me.

Your song “Laughing with” on the album “far” refers to how people always turn to God in times of crisis. It is a delightfully catchy tune and a little thought provoking. It starts...

No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God
When they’re starving or freezing or so very poor

No one laughs at God
When the doctor calls after some routine tests
No one’s laughing at God
When it’s gotten real late
And their kid’s not back from the party yet

No one laughs at God
When their airplane start to uncontrollably shake
No one’s laughing at God
When they see the one they love, hand in hand with someone else
And they hope that they’re mistaken

The full lyrics can be found on AZLyrics although you know them off-by-heart I am sure. I write because I think the underlying sentiment is one often heard but seldom rebutted. We are irrational creatures, we grasp at straws when hope fades, we see patterns in pareidolia, and we find cause and effect in coincidences. 

Can I suggest that in the interests of balance the following verses are added?

No one trusts in God when approaching a red light
No one believes in God enough to throw away their armour
No one thinks first responders should cast aside the jaws-of-life 
and be equipped instead with holy verse
No one laughs with God in a Tsunami

No one challenges God when faced with stoning or amputation
No one thinks the airplane can fly only on the wings of prayer
No one is an unbeliever when faced by crusaders
No one turns first to God when an intruder enters their home

No one laughs at science when seeing the ultrasound of tiny beating heart
No one follows God when falling in love for the very first time
No one mocks the laws the physics when crossing the Golden Gate Bridge
No one clamours for the holy book when starving or freezing
unless it is to light a fire 

While I appreciate that the music industry is notoriously dogmatic about copyright enforcement I offer these verses under the Creative Commons License (BY). Thus feel free to use adapt these in any manner you see fit.

I trust you won't find it presumptuous for me to write to you in this manner and hope that you will consider the proposed revision. I accept that I have very little chance of being a songwriter but in this case I have plenty of experience of the subject matter at hand as I am human.

Yours sincerely

Bobby Abraham

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Food budgets - an accidental lesson in diet

Nearly two months ago the confluence of two events led me on a journey of  discovery about myself I didn't even know I was embarking on.  These two events included; being asked what I had eaten for breakfast at the start of a course I was attending - I had had nothing but felt it easier to lie to fend off the "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" rejoinder  and the serendipitous introduction of a smart phone calorie counter application in my life.  These two independent events initiated a series of lifestyle changes I wasn't looking for, didn't think I needed yet have had a profound impact on my life.

In a nut shell I have lost 8 kg (17.6lbs) in 8 weeks, cured myself of chronic heartburn and developed an ability to run between 5 to 10 km daily.  This has been encouraged and fostered by measurement and feedback - not unlike how the consumption graph on your car's dashboard encourages more fuel efficient driving.

Let me get something out the way before I begin to explain myself - for much of my life I have typically eaten anything I wanted with the only consideration being cost.  Over the last two years I have moved to the top of my BMI range from somewhere in the middle.  I would have been oblivious to this except that I  had also changed from the 32" waist to a 34" waist.  This all occurs slowly, with stealth and in a manner that leads one to suspect that clothes are shrinking, that clothing manufacturers are changing their designs and sizing templates.  With such naivety I can hardly describe myself as a life coach or nutritionist so feel free to ignore or dismiss my lessons as not applying to your particular circumstances.  I also would not be surprised is my lessons are already outlined in numerous dietary books and self help programs but if so I haven't read them - ironically I am not that interested.

So Lesson one:  "We generally are rubbish at predicting calorie counts for the food we eat"

Using MyFitnessPal I either scanned various products bar codes, or read the nutritional information, to see how accurately I could predict how many calories it contained.  I was rubbish at this - so rubbish that I might as well have just picked a random number.  

So Lesson two:  "Know what your food calorie budget is" 

This is where the accidental lesson began.  I set a target to loose 7kg (13lbs).  I wasn't particularly concerned with how quickly this happened just that it would eventually happen.  Based on a weight loss of 1lbs (0.45Kg) per week I set myself a target of of 1700 calories a day.  Not only had I never before been on any diet of any kind, I had no idea how much food this was. 

So Lesson three:  "Know what many calories are burnt when exercising"

Now if one is typically eating in excess of 2000 calories a day you will be hungry if you cut back.  When living off a financial budget you don't just have to limit what you buy, you can also find ways to earn more.  Equally with calorific budgets - the secret is exercise.  If you want to eat 2300 calories a day then ensure that you exercise for 600 calories.  In my case this equates to 40 minute run.

So Lesson four:  "Weight change is related to calories consumed less calories burned"

We typically perform financial budgets on a monthly basis but food budgets are best done on a daily basis.  The amount you exercise today effects the amount to can eat today.  Using this approach you can increase or decrease your exercise on a daily basis to account for the meal out or drinks you are having after work.

I believe the Atkins and Paleo diets are short sighted for the following reasons:
  • They tell you what to eat instead of equipping you with the knowledge needed to modify your lifestyle.
  • Saying you must NOT eat some foods but can eat as much as you want of other foods is not sustainable in the long term.  It is like deciding you will save money by only buying "yellow or red" items.  You will save money briefly on some impulse purchases but ultimately you will fold and abandon this crazy, illogical approach to economy.
  • Palaeolithic people spent lots of time and effort gathering food and surviving.   They had shorter lives and spent much of their time in an urgent quest for food.
  • They are diet fads, followed by purveyors of pseudo science and those who care more to make a quick buck on a diet program than your health.  
  • Any diet fad that denies lesson four is a pseudo science.
There is no magic involved in loosing weight - you either eat fewer calories, exercise more or better yet both.  Why waste time and often money on crazy diet plans that are not designed to modify your eating and exercising habits for life?  It is not a healthy strategy to adopt these high protein, low carbohydrate diets over an extended period of time so why adopt them for even a short period of time.   

So Lesson five:  "Eat what you like most and is healthy BUT stay within your calorific budget"

When forced to eat within a caloric limit I became very discerning about what I ate.  Was the fudge brownie ice-cream (260 calories)  preferable to a chocolate fudge cake (270 calories) or indeed a 2 finger Kit-Kat (107 calories).  My choice might change on a daily basis but as I control what I eat I can weigh up pleasure and impact on my limited budget.

So Lesson six: "Eat breakfast"

Over a number of days I noticed that on days that I had larger breakfast I would eat less at lunch time and less in the evening.  For many years I have skipped both lunch and breakfast and then had a large evening meal.  This meal is typically equivalent to all the calories I eat spread over the entire day.   However when you are really, really hungry you don't make rational choices about what you eat and thus eat the easiest and quickest food.  This is usually not conducive to healthy eating.

Since eating breakfast and hence less in the evening I no longer suffer heart burn, a problem that has plagued me for the last couple of  years.  This was sometimes so bad that I would wake up in the night in absolute agony.  I haven't experienced this once in the last 8 weeks.

So Lesson seven: "Abandon foods that can be avoided with only short term discomfort but with long term benefits"

When making financial savings it is better to reduce your ongoing costs instead of once off costs.  Likewise it is better to give up full cream milk or sugar in coffee instead of a rejecting a slice of Xmas cake.  The former choice will save you calories for the rest of your life while the later can be offset by either exercise or another once off food sacrifice - you decide.

Lastly Lesson eight: "Use geeky tools to make it fun - the data doesn't lie"

With smart phones it is easier than ever to monitor what you eat.  It is often as simple as scanning the bar code of the snack or food you have eaten see MyFitnessPal .  It is also easy to automatically log your exercise using applications such as RunKeeper.  This will map your route, distance and calories burned based on the speed, distance and elevation.  Using these tools has been been informative, relatively easy and resulted in me loosing 8 kg (17.6lbs) in 8 weeks that has included Xmas and new year.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Unintended Consequences of Moving Into the Cloud

One of my new year’s resolutions was to become more virtual and less tangible - both concepts I am afraid I’ll need to explain. For several years I have purchased newspapers several times a week, most recently from the corner store, but for long periods delivered to our door if we could be assured that it would arrive before we left for work. Morning news is old news by the evening.  

We have previously bought music on iTunes, at least until we as a family fell out of love with Apple. We have bought music and books from Amazon, even relying on Amazon prime for cheap and fast physical delivery. We have received two DVDs, and later blu-ray discs, on a weekly basis from LoveFilm and somewhat less frequently when we were busy or the disc selection was, in retrospect a horrible mistake. There were many of these mistakes and they would sit under the TV taunting us to either watch them or admit defeat and return them unwatched.

This has all changed. Some of the changes are good, some bad and some of the consequences are surprising and unintended.

My to-do/resolution list included the following;

  1. subscribe to digital editions of newspapers only
  2. throw out all my music collection, it was not that big anyway and it was to much work to collate it, music was lost between devices.
  3. cancel the dvd/blu-ray by post deal. Those return envelopes drive me crazy.

This list has given rise the following actions:

  1. Upgraded the broadband connection from 30Mb to 100Mb - cost £10 more per month
  2. Subscribed to Kindle edition of Guardian - cost £9.99 per month - savings of about £19 per month.
  3. Upgraded to Spotify Premium - free for six months with broadband upgrade deal - thereafter £9.99.
  4. Subscribed to Netflix streaming and cancelled LoveFilm postal subscription - a saving of £2.00 per month.
  5. Moved to a cloud backup solution - perpetual backup of new and modified files - no cost, included with the broadband package

A savings of £11 per month.

Although we have been doing this for less than a month it is clear that there are some distinct advantages. Notably Annalise and I each get to read the paper on the kindle and tablet devices as early as we can open our eyes each morning. Reading the "paper" (will the term have any meaning in the future?) on these devices at the breakfast table amongst the coffee, bagels and cereal bowls is much easier as it takes up little space and the cat appears to be less inclined to pounce on it.

The side effects are surprising - I visit the corner store less often - in fact I have yet to visit them this year. There is no negotiation with others for the various sections of the paper. There are thus no impulse purchases resulting in healthier eating and fewer arguments, at least about who gets which section of the paper. I do however feel less connected to the local community as we have previously interacted with the people working in the corner store. Also, in a twisted sense of logic, because our recycling bin is half empty at the end of week it actually feels less green.

Two of our kids have had jobs delivering papers. Is this one job, open to 13 year olds, destined to go they way of the chimney sweep?

The use of Spotify has increased the extent to which we listen to music. We share the account within the family and thus share and exchange play lists. The music no longer resides on individual iPhone, Android or computers but is cloud based and accessible by everyone. We do make offline play-lists an these are downloaded to the device, so that when we are going on car trips or holiday we don’t need to stream music over expensive or non-existent mobile data streams. This whole experience has been extremely successful. The only negative is that the Spotify premium only allows one device on-line and active at a time and this means that when Annalise and I are jogging I usually need to put my phone in "airplane" mode.

The LoveFilm operating model allows for several queues to be managed by different members of the family. While we see movies in the theatre about one or twice a month we add current movies to the LoveFilm queue and then, surprise surprise, they arrive several months later when they are released on DVD. We often received discs we no longer wanted or had seen in the interim. Having two discs in the house meant that these were chosen by at most two people and invariably they were Shrek 2 and Shrek 3, actually this only occurred once after which we banned Sophie from going near the disc queues.  

Worse was when one started the movie and then decided it wasn’t worth continuing we had nothing else to watch. I am a great believer that time is far to precious to waste watching a poor movie. So how does changing to a “watch instantly” model alter the dynamics? For one there is less to watch. Netflix doesn't have my favourite movie “Amelie” nor many others. It does has lots to watch though and one chooses them as you sit down to watch with everyone present. This is much more democratic and spontaneous. It is also cheaper and better yet we share it with Emily while she is at University. It also streams to our phones, tablets, computers and of course the TV. We get less post and we never visit the post box any more. Of course this is Royal Mail's loss.

I have been struck by the implications for society if everyone were to do what we have done. The postal service would carry less post and the postman visit us less. Corner stores would do less business and may well go out of business. We would see less of others in our street. I should note that we always do our grocery shopping on line and it is very seldom that we visit a physical supermarket.

We have a wall in the lounge devoted to books, we love books. However the reading experience of electronic books on the kindle is very good and in some way preferable to a physical book. But what about the book shelves? Are they destined to carry books from a special era seen as quaint by future generations?

We are not throwing out the paper books and in fact over Christmas we gave each other more paper books than e-books but the tide is turning and we are spending less and less on paper and more money on e-books. It worries me that these books in kindle format and they are propriety and non-transferable though. Again each e-book purchased is one less parcel delivered through the post.

Is it inevitable that we while becoming more connected with people on the virtual world we will become less connected with those within our physical community?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

O2 Wifi Hotspot Insanity

I have been frustrated on each occasion over the last three months that I have visited a public wifi hotspot. Frustrated because while I have been paying O2 for wifi access it hasn't worked ever since I upgraded my iPhone for an Android HTC Desire (see the backstory).

More generally my problems have been, the inability to "merge" two or more calls into a single conference and more significantly an error message each time I attempted to access to a BT Openzone hotspot or a Cloud hotspot.

I have had a complaint with O2 for many weeks and have provided details to numerous people but received little help.

A few weeks ago I did resolve the merge call problem. The solution to this is that O2 only provide this on their iPhone tariff. Changing back to the iPhone tariff, from a same priced smartphone tariff, resolved this immediately. They don't admit this anywhere but this was the only change required. Suffice to say that an iPhone is not required but the standard iPhone "bolt on" tariff includes the merge call feature and other tariffs do not. No-one I ever spoke to at O2 understands this. Hopefully this will save some-one else some grief.

Regarding the wifi access, my fix is to change the the user agent string so that the browser reports itself as an iPhone.

The default user agent reports

"Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; U; Android 2.2; en-gb; HTC Desire Build/FRF91) AppleWebKit/533.1 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/4.0 Mobile Safari/533.1"

This clearly identifies the phone as an Android HTC Desire. Changing the user agent string to the same as the iPhone gives

"Mozilla/5.0 (iPhone; U; CPU iPhone OS 3_0 like Mac OS X; en-us) AppleWebKit/528.18 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/4.0 Mobile/7A341 Safari/528.16"

This can be trivially changed under Android Froyo version by typing in "about:debug" in the location bar of the stock browser and then selecting menu -> Settings -> UAString and then selecting iPhone.

This works for both the Cloud and BT Openzone hotspots. This is only required to register the device for the first time. Thereafter the MAC address is recorded and access is automatically granted to future connections. This problem has cost me many hours of phone calls and numerous cups of coffee in various hotspots to resolve. It is good that the solution is so simple but annoying that O2 themselves were never able to resolve it.

Using the iPhone user agent string is likely to be only appropriate for customers on the iPhone tariff but I believe that O2 checks for only a small, exact, set of user agent strings during the hotspot registration process. Thus if you get an error across all hotspots then it may be that the user agent reported is not one that O2 is looking for. This is a system that is so brittle and error prone that they should at least have the appropriate logging in place to diagnose these problems but alas they don't.

I hope this helps someone avoid some of the frustration I went through.

update - 4 Nov 2010
O2 has offered a £30 goodwill credit for my trouble.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

On Book Burning and a World Gone Mad

The on-off plan to burn a bunch of copies of the Koran on 9/11 by members of the misnamed "Dove World Outreach Center" led by pastor Terry Jones has sparked almost universal condemnation.

The act is provocative, arrogant and naive and I have little respect for the right wing, religious fanatics behind this. Various responses have been proposed for dealing with this act and the inevitable backlash including; banning it, stopping media coverage of it and protesting against it.

What I don't understand is this medieval belief that burning any book can somehow threaten any religion. Books contains ideas and a narrative that cannot be destroyed by burning a copy. Burning copies of the Koran, the Bible, the Talmud or Darwin's Origin of the Species can only have a impact when people are denied or prevented from studying these texts for themselves. Clearly this is not the case here.

Imagine a very different response to the current crisis, one occurring in a parallel universe. One in which Bibles, the Talmud and other "sacred" texts are all burnt alongside the Koran. The burning ceases to be a sectarian act and becomes as impotent as the burning of the catholic Guy Fawkes on the 5th November each year. The burning of a book is so much less a sanction than the Fatwā issued against Salman Rushdie and others and should thus be preferable.

So while tolerance should be encouraged let's not lose sight of what matters and what should not matter. Material possessions, including books, can be replaced. Religious hatred, a willingness and eagerness to take offence and spoiling for a fight do no favours to society. These small minded people must have a god or many gods with very insecure egos. They must lack faith that the ideas and ideals contained within the pages of these books are strong enough to survive not just modern scrutiny but even the incineration of a minuscule number of books.

We don't view it as a national outrage when a copy of the Oxford dictionary or a French dictionary are burnt. In fact I can't recall a public case of such dictionary burning occurring because such an act is futile. If it were not then Al-Qaeda would be focused on the printing and subsequent burning of copies of the American Heritage Dictionary as the easiest way to bring about the collapse of the Great Satan.

Live and let live, read as much as possible, as widely as possible but don't be offended if someone, somewhere burns a copy of your favourite book.

Now where is my copy of the iPhone developers guide and a box of matches ....

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Apple I{Pad/Pod/Phone}

So today Apple announced that 8.75 million iPhones were sold in the last quarter since the start of the year. This is around 95 000 each day. The iTunes market place for applications has grown making it the largest platform for smart phone applications and I have a habit of checking, or stroking, my iPhone several times an hours during the day. From Twitter feeds and FB to news, weather, SMS and email it seems difficult to remember an existence untethered from the internet. So what is the problem? Is Apple the new Microsoft?

Well maybe, except that confidence breeds arrogance and contempt and us customers are fickle creatures. On Thursday 25 March I tweeted the following -

"Have fallen out of love with my iPhone, this happened on Tuesday but I've been in denial since. Will keep it next while for sake of children"

followed by

"It is it's lack of multi-tasking, inflexibility and I lust after and android phone. Curses on google and their evil plot to rule the world."


"OMG just realised how insensitive it is to breakup via twitter/fb and from the handset in question. Sometimes I can be a real jerk."

Ignore the inappropriate apostrophe and focus on the content. The phone that did everything I wanted had, over the course of 12 months, begun to grate. Just as the missing toothpaste lid begins to sour a relationship the following began to niggle at me:

  1. The Lack of Multi-tasking. This prevented the download of news feeds in the background, the streaming of music while tweeting, the ability to map my bike rides or runs while taking a picture.
  2. The need to have a mac in-order to develop applications for the platform. In this day of multi-platform development, to limit to development tools to a single development platform might make marketing sense for Apple but it is just not cool.
  3. The Google Android OS was released on the HTC Hero, Desire, Legend and Nexus One phones, along with several other models from Motorola, Samsung and others.
  4. The Android OS is open-source, multitasking and exposes much more of the phone functionality to the developer. While Apple is creating a walled garden Google is sowing wild flowers that are starting to bloom.
There is reason to believe that Apple is worried. At the same time as Steve Jobs announced the iPhone OS 4.0 upgrade Apple also made a change to their developer agreement that controls 3rd party development of applications for the iTunes marketplace. This change enforces the constraint that applications must be developed using the tools developed by Apple - the same ones that only run on the mac. This is very unusual in that typically a software company will simply publish "look & feel" constraints and APIs that must be used and satisfied but this is much more controlling and I can't think of a precedent. Almost, but not quite unlike, dictating that your novel must be written with a HB pencil.

So why would they do this? One reason is that it kills a large piece of Adobe's business of producing applications that run across various platforms including the iPhone. There appears to be no love lost between Apple and Adobe and this supposes a school ground squabble between a bully and slightly weird kid that has spiralled out of control.

I believe a more significant reason is that this precludes the porting of applications developed for the Android to the iPhone and iPad. Given that the Android is an open platform it is much more tempting for developers to target this platform. Especially if they can port their applications to the iPhone and its many millions of users.

Will this work? Well according to Eric Schmidt, Google partners are shipping 60 000 phones a day and with new Android phones being released each month this is likely to increase. The hardware specifications of the new Android phones exceed to the specifications of the iPhone and with the intense competition there is likely to always be at least one manufacturer bringing out a new model ahead of Apple's one a year release date.

GetCliky gives provides some trend data for mobile operating systems. Although this varies from country to country.

I still have my iPhone, but I am developing for Android and conducting serial adultery with several Android phones before easing into stable, long-term relationship.

Monday, March 01, 2010


42 is the "the answer to life the universe and everything", the atomic number of molybdenum, the angle in degrees for which a rainbow appears, the number of minutes taken to fall through the earth. It is found repeated 3 times at place 242,422 in pi.

This is the first day of the next week of my life and each will be spent dwelling on the significance, the wonder and doom associated with the the number 42. Now, despite the sunshine, the quiet house, the fresh day, the week long holiday taken in anticipation of this event I kind of prefer the number 41.