Monday, 21 October 2013

The need for approval

I'm older now.  I've reached the age where I look at the younger generation and realise that I don't fully understand them.  Yes, it is true that I was once that age myself, though it was in another time.  As much as I resist the thought, the world around us has not really changed very much; I am the one who has changed.

I've seen many commentators label the current generation of teenagers and twenty-somethings as "the me generation", because they are apparently self-absorbed and use new technologies to take "selfies" (narcissistic photos of self) and post them on the internet for all to see.  What we must question, however, is whether this is a change from how previous generations would have acted.

Yes, I find the focus on image as distasteful as anyone, and I blame the broadcast and print media for the current obsession with image.  In its most damaging form, it has invaded the music industry: a business which thrives on capturing the youth market.  At the same time, I know that I, and friends of my generation, would have been just as keen to post "selfies" at a similar age, if the technology had been so developed.  What has changed is that we no longer feel the need.

I remember the transition from childhood to being an adult clearly.  There was an almost constant need for approval, to be told that I was doing things right on the way to becoming a young adult.  Conversely, there was the need to rebel against the previous generation and do things my own way, but that's a whole other story.

Now, I see the damage that was wrought by that need for approval, and I feel a great deal of sympathy for those who still seek that approval.  If there is one piece of wisdom I have gained from being older (and I hoped there would be at least one), it is simply that winning the approval of everyone you come into contact with is impossible, and it is not in anyone's interests to seek universal approval.  Our self-esteem takes a battering in the process, and we hide who we truly are in order to mould ourselves to some idealised "acceptable" persona which we wear as a disguise.  This, in turn, leads to unhappiness, and the feeling that the person we are inside must never be shown, unless we wish to be ridiculed or rejected.

We are seeing another generation who are doing all they can to "fit in" with their peers, in their attempts to establish an identity that is deemed acceptable.  The familiar pattern of liking the same music, films, TV programmes and celebrities as their friends, regardless of their actual thoughts and feelings on these subjects, plays out once again.  Later in life, they may look back and realise they actually had little in common with the friends of their youth, and should have sought friends who accepted them for who they were, no matter how "different" they were.

Sadly, I was always the nerdy kid: the one who never quite "fitted in".  As a result, I had few friends.  No matter how much I tried to integrate, I found myself on the fringes.  To me, this says I remained individual enough to be unacceptable to those who chose conformity.

So, if there is one piece of wisdom I would pass on to the young, it would be to stop seeking approval.  Look at those who have gained widespread respect throughout history, and you will see that they were non-conformists, who challenged the accepted views of their time.  Be yourself, and force the world to accept you for who you are.  It is impossible to please everyone.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Relax. It's only a training drill.

This week, I have been questioning whether I am suited to martial arts training.  During the Wing Chun class, I was useless at Chi Sau.  Me being rubbish during Chi Sau is not a surprise: it is a weak area of my Wing Chun.  The question it raises is how I can be good at free fighting, when I am shockingly bad during a training drill.

I recently added Eskrima to my martial arts repertoire, and the class has been useful in a few ways.  First and foremost, I get to test my three years' Wing Chun training against another art.  It also gives me the chance to think about weapons, and how I will deal with weapons in a combat situation.  Sometimes, though, it is useful in ways that could not have been predicted.

The Eskrima instructor was going through a flow drill with me, when he stopped and said that training with me was like coming up against a wall.  In both Eskrima and Wing Chun, there is a relaxed flow to movements, so tension is counter productive during any training drill.  In short, I need to relax during flow drills and during Chi Sau.

It's funny how your background in martial arts affects the way you fight.  Like a lot of British children at the time, I started with Judo and, being small for my age, had to use a lot of strength to perform throws and overcome some opponents.  When the school bullies took their chances, again it was strength that I used to avoid becoming a victim.  To be fair, Judo had taught me nothing about how to punch, and I did not have much time to read the boxing manuals in my local library: I picked up what I could, but my modus operandi became hitting as hard as possible, punctuated by brief spells of the grappling I had learned.  It was all about using what little strength I had.  It didn't help that I was a particularly placid child, so fighting only really happened when I was already angry, meaning adrenaline played its part.  Picture a young boy getting through a fight due to sheer determination, and you have the idea.

Years later, I came to Japanese Jujitsu.  Once more, I found myself using my strength, only this time I had become something of a man-mountain (I weighed 230lbs/104kg at the time).  Lifting my training partners off their feet, slamming them into the ground, putting on a powerful lock or choke hold all came too easily to me.  My technique may not have been the best, but I could simply power my way through.  It all became too clear to me during my white belt grading: my training partner was in a position where he could not tap out a submission, so he screamed at me that I was about to rip his arms out of their sockets.  I felt strong, I felt powerful, but I didn't feel good about it.  I realised that, rather than learning effective technique, I was using brute force as a substitute.

If you are not familiar with psychology, you may not have heard of a programmed conditioned response.  In essence, a programmed conditioned response is a learned behaviour that is triggered by certain external stimuli.  In my case, the response to a perceived physical threat, or anything that resembles a physical threat, is to keep it at bay using force.  When training against people who know Wing Chun, or Eskrima, it is not good.  It speaks well of my skill level that I can often recover, but the strength which served to keep me safe in my younger years can now be used against me.

Let's also consider self defence.  If my conditioned response is to load my system with adrenaline and blast through an adversary, I will have a hard time claiming I used reasonable force.  Worse, a reliance on strength quickly unravels when you are up against someone stronger, and there is always someone stronger.

So, maybe learning to relax will mean I actually get better with Chi Sau.  Essentially, I must change my reaction to training drills.  The irony is that I must undertake a course of strength training, because I am somewhat out of shape right now.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Night

Charles Dickens, in a piece with the title Night Walks, describes being out in London when most people are sleeping.  It's one of my favourite pieces of writing: a fact which is surprising when you realise I am not a fan of Dickens' other work.

This part of the day is the most difficult for me.  It seems like the whole world is asleep, and all its bars and restaurants are closed.  At times, the overpowering sense of loneliness and isolation, which is the curse of the insomniac, is almost too much to endure.  The darkness envelops all, only to be chased away by the dreariness of electric light.  Sleep comes easily to some, but not to others.

Maybe it's just my interpretation but, in Dickens' account, he seems to be seeking the company of another human.  There is a passage where he comes across a toll booth operator, with a fire roaring in his booth, and wistfully contemplates the chance of passing some of the night in his company.

Perhaps the night is the time when our desire for company is at its most strong.  You may have someone lying beside you, but they are likely to be asleep, so all you have is their warmth, if you wish to risk waking them.  We can only hope that sleep comes quickly, and that our dreams may supply us, in our slumber, the company we crave in our wakeful state.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

What your vote means

I am becoming increasingly concerned by what is happening in British politics, and there is a general election in two years' time, so I thought I would share an unbiased appraisal of where UK political parties stand ideologically.  The linked document shows where they could have been placed in the political spectrum at the time of the 2010 general election.

If your browser is not good with hyperlinks, or you missed it:

The reason I posted a link to an external page is so that my own political bias does not creep into proceedings.  Worse, I could dissuade someone from voting, and that would be the worst thing I could imagine.  Even if we were to make a protest vote in large numbers, it would be something, and would show whichever party we get in government that the people are at least prepared to turn out and vote.

It's two years away, at the time of writing.  Whichever way you plan to vote, please do vote.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

How to learn absolutely nothing

If I were to write about anger, where would I start?  It's a question that has occupied my thoughts lately, and it's not an easy one to answer.  Anger, you see, is a very personal thing.  Much like our response to loss, it is something we deal with in our own individual way.  More importantly, few things have a greater capacity to cause embarrassment, ill feeling, resentment and lasting damage to relationships than unrestrained anger.

We seem unwilling to understand, or even acknowledge, our anger.  It is a valid human emotion that is common to all of us, and yet we tend to see it as something shameful: we even go as far as to say that someone giving in to their anger has "lost it".

It is understandable that most people do not want to deal with the anger of another person.  Dealing with aggression is not pleasant, and anger, by it's very nature, is usually expressed in an aggressive manner.

I'm not immune to the feeling myself.  When my illness was first diagnosed, when I discovered that it was likely to become progressively worse, when all the possible associated future complications were revealed, I was angry.  I felt that it was grossly unfair, that the whole universe was conspiring against me.  The most damaging aspect of my anger, at that time, was that it was turned inward towards myself, leading to an extended period of severe depression, the severity of which I never wish to experience again.

For the first time in my life, I became a bully, and the victim of my own bullying behaviour.  I labelled myself as worthless, thoroughly deserving of whatever pain and misery was yet to come.  Surely, I reasoned, I must have done something terribly wrong to deserve this.  It was a truly awful time, but I learned a lot about anger, because I was both the aggressor and the recipient of my rage.  So, what did I learn?  It's no surprise that anger can be extremely damaging; however, it can also be transformed into a vehicle for positive change.

One of the first things any good anger management course will teach is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling angry.  Trying to repress anger can lead to it being turned inward, as previously described.  The goal, as any good anger management course will go on to say, is to express your anger appropriately.

In my case, my anger was turned away from my own perceived shortcomings towards the correct target: my illness.  An acceptance of my condition enabled me to change the way I thought about it.  As I saw it, this illness had decided to pick a fight with me, and it was not going to win.  I lost no opportunity to discover more about my condition, or to strengthen what had already been weakened by my new found adversary.  Once I stopped bullying myself, the illness became the bully, and therefore the target of my anger.

So, how do we express our anger appropriately?  I would suggest that we should find the absolute source of our anger, direct our attention there, and there only.  We should work from the premise that we are upset about the actions of another person, not the person themselves.  It is far too easy to say things we don't mean, and turn a wish to prevent a certain behaviour repeating into an assassination of character.

If we are on the receiving end, the tendency is to fight fire with fire, as it were, or to defuse the situation quickly.  The most helpful thing would be to pinpoint the root cause, by encouraging the person to talk about what they are feeling.  If we react in anger ourselves, we just escalate a situation where neither party is able to think clearly, due to the "red mist" which descends.

In the end, seeing anger as something shameful, which must be repressed, serves no one's interests.  If the feeling is allowed to build up inside, with no release, it will eventually be released explosively.  Assertive behaviour means saying how we feel about things, whether that feeling is positive or negative.  If we feel something is wrong, and do nothing to correct it, isn't that more shameful?

Saturday, 15 June 2013

You will never understand another person

Today started strange, and continued in that respect.  I passed my final exam in Microsoft Networking Fundamentals this week, which means no more study until September.  I have more free time now, and that proved valuable today.

I was woken at roughly 7:45am by a text message arriving on my phone.  A friend of mine wanted to contact me before his shift at work, to tell me that he is thinking about abandoning his involvement with Samaritans.  It's strange, because we met just over 18 months ago, as volunteers.  I recently turned my back on that part of my life, and now he is thinking about doing the same.

One thing that comes from serving as a listening volunteer is the realisation that you can not judge anyone.  You are not that person.  The best you can achieve is to develop some empathy for others by imagining what it would be like to be them, in their situation, though it is unlikely you will ever truly understand them.  All we have is what we are told and, unless we truly listen, we may not even have that.

I don't know if my friend will want to discuss his dilemma with me, but the worst thing I could do is to offer any kind of advice.  Apart from what he tells me, I have no idea what factors may be involved in any decision he makes.  Often, advice is unwanted, and has an unfortunate habit of being the wrong advice.  Again, we can never fully know or understand a person.

The day continued with me getting a text message from one of my very best friends, on a visit to the area with her new man.  It's always good to see her, but the other side of that is feeling sad when she has to leave again.  The message was a surprise.  Going to a café to meet my friend had also not been something I was planning, but my day was all the better for it.

The joy of never truly understanding someone is that they can still surprise you.  Put simply, it is our differences which make us interesting.  When you fully comprehend the implications of this, bigotry, intolerance and even anger do not come easily, nor is it possible to be judgemental.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

There are no advanced forms in Wing Chun

I occasionally take inspiration for what I write from misunderstandings which arise on martial arts forums, because they are often a reflection of widely held misconceptions.  Unfortunately, such discussions have a habit of descending into juvenile name calling and finger pointing: the result is that no one comes out of it looking good.

In this particular instance, an argument over how much Wing Chun was actually taught to Bruce Lee led to someone - claiming to be a Wing Chun student - arguing that second form Chum Kiu is a more advanced form than the third form of Biu Jee.  As in any other martial art where forms/taolu/kata/hyung/jurus/anyo are taught, such an argument is nonsensical.

If we were to consider the whole system of Wing Chun as a jigsaw, each form, whether empty hand, dummy or weapon, gives us a certain number of pieces of that jigsaw.  Sil Lum Tao, in this respect, could be said to give us the first pieces and, if those pieces were missing, we could never see the finished picture.  The same can be said of the other forms: if those pieces are missing, you do not have the full picture.  So, rather than the form itself being advanced, it is the progress of the student which has advanced, when they are ready to learn another series of movements.

As for Bruce Lee, he did not have all the pieces of the jigsaw, as far as Wing Chun was concerned.  Instead, he used those pieces he already had to create a new jigsaw - a concept he called Jeet Kune Do.  The analogy is getting rather thin now but, put simply, he recognised the gaps in his knowledge and went outside of Wing Chun to fill those gaps.  I'm not here to comment on how successful he was in completing his knowledge from other sources, and certainly have no interest in art A versus art B conversations.

It is only through learning a system that you can know which pieces of it are useful to you.  If you do not have all those pieces, it is easy to think that what you have is worthless, whereas those pieces may actually be of utmost importance to someone else.

So, there are no advanced forms, no advanced techniques: it must all work together.  Each set of pieces must join with those by which they were preceded.

Monday, 20 May 2013

The ideal job

I recently visited a website which promised to tell me what I should do as a career.  I figured this out long ago, but was still interested in what the result would be.  I'll leave it to the reader's imagination as to whether the result is accurate...

This description is a generalisation. If it rings true, you've found your career type.

You would be very happy in a career that utilised your level-headedness, and allowed you to work mainly on your own. You want a career that allows you to be creative, without having to be involved with lots of people. Some careers that would be perfect for you are:

    University Professor
    Graphic Designer
    Online Content Developer
    Managing Director

You like working and being alone. You like to avoid attention at all costs. You tend to keep to yourself, and not interact much with the people around you. You enjoy spending time with a few a close friends. You like to listen to others, but don't like sharing much about yourself. You are very quiet and private.

You are very practical, and only act after thinking things through. You don't like being forced to answer quickly. You have to evaluate the situation completely. You make decisions based on what you can verify with your senses.

You like to be deeply involved in one or two special projects. You like to be behind the scenes. You are very logical and fair. You feel you should be honest with others and protect their feelings.

You trust your gut instincts. You are easily inspired and trust that inspiration. You are very innovative.  You analyse things by looking at the big picture. You are concerned about how what you do affects others. You worry about your actions and the future. You tend to use a lot of metaphors and are very descriptive and colourful in your choice of language.

You are very creative, and get bored easily if you don't get to express yourself. You like to learn new things. You don't like the same old routine. You like to leave your options open.

Finding a career that is right for you isn't always an easy thing. However, if you secure a job that is suited to your personality type you will enjoy going to work, feel great about yourself, feel appreciated and look forward to what's ahead.

This test was adapted from C. G. Jung's famous personality types.

Read more: What career will suit your personality? | iVillage UK
Parenting: Information & advice

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

A punch to the stomach, a palm to the head

Two things stood out from tonight's Wing Chun class:

1. Forget all notion of a martial art if you need to fight.
2. It is better to use an open palm to the head of an opponent than a punch.

Both concepts were things that I had already assumed, so it was quite satisfying to have them confirmed by someone with many more years of experience in martial arts.  Through uneven numbers, I had the chance to train with the instructor (Sifu in Chinese, but we never use that term).  Being told that he trusted my level of control enough for me to target his centre was high praise indeed.

The principle of forgetting knowledge of a martial art was something I overheard.  One of the relatively new members was discussing sparring, to which the instructor replied that the movements of Wing Chun must be practised as often as possible, so they are an automatic response to a threat, but concentrating on correct form and rigidly sticking to Wing Chun will cause momentary brain freeze.  It is true.  It's one thing I have always believed.  Worrying about correct technique will probably cost someone a fight, and the potential consequences of that are permanent injury or death.  Anything which removes the threat is good.

It wasn't until the end of the class that I got to ask a question about the Wing Chun forms.  I noticed that I have a tendency to strike with my palm if I am striking anything above the height of my own shoulder, and that particular idiosyncrasy seems to be unique in the class.  My training regime, as far as Wing Chun is concerned, concentrates on the first two empty hand forms, and I had noticed that the forms tend to follow my tendency to hit low with the fist and high with an open hand.  Apparently, my impression that all high strikes are open handed is correct, and that is by design.  I will leave it to the reader to form their own opinion on why the forms are designed in such a way.

If you practise any other martial art, I hope this has been useful to you too.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

I know nothing

I tend not to comment on YouTube or any martial arts sites now.  In the past, when I have, a reply has come from someone who casts doubt on my experience in Wing Chun, though they helpfully go on to show that it is they who know nothing of Wing Chun.

It's something I have been contemplating recently.  Using the principle that the most effective weapon is that which remains concealed until needed, I'm actually happy when my Wing Chun experience is doubted.  Furthermore, those who feel free to comment on Wing Chun, having only read briefly about the art or watched videos online, are doing the art a service indirectly: those who are foolish enough to take their word will never understand Wing Chun.  Here is a good example of what I am talking about...

"Chi Sau is one of the very few ways to beat an opponent that is faster than you besides blind luck. Just because you dont know how to slow your opponents down using it doesnt mean its wrong. Someone who doesnt believe in touch sensitivity (which is much faster and accurate than eye) reaction probably doesn't know what it is even if they claim to be a student."

First of all, it contains the loaded "just because you don't know" and "claim to be a student", which hint at the work of an internet troll trying to provoke a reaction - an evaluation given further credence by the fact that I said nothing about "touch sensitivity" in the comment which prompted the reaction.  What he is referring to is the contact reflex, a term with which he would be familiar, if he were a student of Wing Chun.

It starts badly and continues from there, really.  Chi Sau is not a way to beat an opponent that is faster than you.  Actually, you will never directly use Chi Sau in a combat situation: it is simply a way of training responses which have been developed using the aforementioned contact reflex.  Reaction times amongst humans also vary little so, if you are truly faced with someone who is faster than you are, they are superhuman and you should have run away while you had the chance.

I don't know how to slow down an opponent using Chi Sau?  I hold my hands up on this one.  If anyone can show me a clip of someone being slowed down by Chi Sau, I will say that some supernatural power is at work.  Again, Chi Sau is not fighting: it trains responses through the use of developing a contact reflex.  The only sure way to slow down an opponent, apart from compliant training partners in a martial arts class, is to hit them repeatedly in order to effect functional impairment.  My own take on this is that a responsible human being will use only the force that is necessary.

"Someone who doesn't believe in touch sensitivity"?  It's the wrong terminology.  If I didn't believe in the sensitivity of my touch, I would constantly be knocking things over or dropping them.  What he means is the contact reflex, which is so fundamental to Wing Chun that it would be lunacy to train Wing Chun if I really did not believe in it.  It is faster and more accurate than the eye?  No, it isn't.  We react more slowly to what we see.  If our hand was on fire, it would take us a while to connect the sight of our hand on fire to the concept of our hand being on fire, whereas our brain is wired to recognise pain instantly.  The eye is not slower, but our reaction to what we see is slower than our reaction to what we feel.

As for me "claiming" to be a student of Wing Chun, there is no effective way to prove my experience as a student over the internet.  Given all the problems with my accuser's comment, however, I would venture that he has never taken part in a genuine Wing Chun class or, if he has, clearly it has not been understood by him or explained in a way he understands.  To think that I am wrong about his lack of experience, even for one moment, is truly horrifying.  The reply came a year after my original comment, so was rendered unnecessary by the passing of time, and also shows a lack of respect that is truly unwelcome within the martial arts community (but is disappointingly common on YouTube).

The best comment I ever saw on a YouTube video stated that some people on YouTube believe themselves to be an expert in every martial art on the planet.  I can't remember who originally made that comment, but full credit to them.  The teenage boys, hyped up from watching UFC in their bedrooms or on their phones, usually lack the courage to actually attend a martial arts class, so insulting genuine martial artists from a safe distance passes for courage in their minds.

So, if I am being judged against the Wing Chun that these people know, I am happy to say that I know nothing of it.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013


When something troubles me, I go for a walk.  I don't know whether it is the exercise, being outside or something deeper and more spiritual, but it enables me to think more clearly about what is troubling me.  A friend of mine recently asked about the connection between Zen Buddhism and martial arts.  With the best will in the world, it is not an easy connection to explain.  However, I started to think about the link for the first time in a while, and that is what is troubling me right now.

This weekend, there is a Wing Chun seminar, hosted by the head of our Wing Chun organisation.  The knowledge he is imparting there - techniques in chi sau and the wooden dummy - are valuable to understanding Wing Chun.  With this in mind, it's somewhat surprising that I decided not to go.

Within some branches of the combat arts, there is a hidden agenda.  Many of these arts were developed by Zen masters and, besides teaching skills in armed and unarmed combat, there is the subtext of a philosophical element.  Some practitioners will spend years perfecting physical techniques, and never understand the spiritual side of what they practise: others will grasp it almost immediately.

In most of the martial arts classes I have attended, there has been something of a macho attitude, somewhat out of step with the Zen underpinnings of the art being taught.  In the Wing Chun class, I have detected such an attitude beginning to creep in.  The students discuss fights they have had in the outside world; some spar (wearing protective pads, of course) and hit each other too hard.  Most disturbingly for me, even the relatively new students are now exaggerating, in their own minds, the knowledge they have of the art they practise, and becoming somewhat arrogant in their manner.

Unfortunately,Wing Chun is certainly not alone in this, though the nature of Wing Chun certainly makes it more vulnerable to the macho attitude.  That which came originally from another culture is necessarily influenced by the culture within which it is practised.  The martial arts, particularly in the age of cage fighting, are losing their connection with Zen.  In a culture that is gradually losing its connection with all that is sacred and spiritual, it is hardly surprising.  Due to the efforts of Ip Man and his students throughout the world in making it a practical fighting art, Wing Chun already had a very loose connection with its spiritual past.  Maybe Wing Chun is better for that.

I can't pinpoint the moment where Zen entered my perspective on the martial arts, or life in general.  I have a feeling it was when I was reading martial arts magazines some years ago, looking at various arts and the philosophy behind them.

So, what am I left with now?  When I attend my Wing Chun class, I am simply learning to fight.  There may be brief moments when a deeper understanding comes, but they are few and far between.  Rather than the physical techniques leading me to Zen, it is Zen that is now leading me to physical techniques.  I believe that is what they call having come full circle.  Is it necessary for me to learn more physical techniques?  That is what I am struggling with right now, along with the thought that maybe arts with no spiritual subtext teach more in the way of pure combative skill.  If I am now able to bring Zen to everything I do, surely I can bring it to any form of art?

It may take time, but an answer will come.

To the trolls

“The difference between genius and stupidity is genius has its limits.” ~Albert Einstein

Much as I would like to say I hate internet trolls, I feel sorry for them.  I really do.  I'm not suggesting for a moment that they are not a nuisance, but that is also all they will ever be - a minor irritation.  Of more concern is their apparent lack of self-awareness.  If you dare to point out that they are a troll, you will find that they appear to take a great deal of offence at what they see as an unwarranted slur on their character.  The truth is that awareness of what they are wounds them deeply, as it would be too awful to acknowledge the depths to which they have sunk.  The likelihood is that they will already have said far worse things to many people, so let's try to understand where they are coming from.

Internet trolls tend to be teenage boys, or anyone who has the mindset of a teenage boy.  Worse, they are often so isolated and lonely that an argument on an online forum, or comment stream is, to them, the only meaningful social interaction they have during their day.  Yes, they probably have family, but we must question whether these are the kind of people who would fit well into a family unit, let alone be loved and wanted by their families.  Imagine how empty your life would have to be before you would consider spending your days sitting by your computer, endlessly searching the forums and comments for a chance to say something deliberately contentious or, more often, to insult someone by calling them an idiot or some deeply offensive euphemism for male homosexuality.

The internet, you see, is something of a safe haven.  Safe from the playground bullies, wilfully ignoring all reasonable admonishment, they feel able to express views that, often, they don't actually hold.  Strange though it may seem, going against their core beliefs is a small price to pay for gaining some reply from an actual living person.  Sadly, it is possible that they have no core beliefs, and believe in nothing, so they have to pretend.  Remember, most of these people are male, and spend a great deal of their time visiting pornographic web sites, sitting by their computers with a box of tissues at the ready: they can only dream about getting physically intimate with a real woman, or man, or farmyard animal.  The assumed persona of internet troll gives these individuals a temporary release from their own existence, from the depressing reality of who they truly are.

Some have replied to the comments of the trolls.  Much as I think it's wrong, I also understand it.  They may feel ashamed to be insulted by someone of such inferior intelligence, and may be all too aware that the trolls feel each "win" validates their existence.  It must be kept in mind, however, that these poor unfortunates are only acting out what they only wish they could do in reality.  We all know that doing it within the relatively safe confines of the internet is cowardly beyond contempt, but we must refrain from reacting to them.  The worst thing we can do is allow them to feel like the righteous crusaders of their fantasies, keeping the internet free of all intelligent discourse and opinion, bringing it down to the level of pre-school jibes and counter jibes, with which they are more comfortable.  Just as it is often impossible to reason with pre-school children, it is also impossible to reason with internet trolls.  Their sense of reason and logic has become warped by the internet being their only source of social interaction.

Wider society has been unfair to the internet troll.  Their meaningless existence, devoid of friendship, love or respect, has embittered them.  The rest of the world becomes, in their tiny minds, the enemy.  It is all too easy for them to blame their situation on those with more fulfilling lives.  Maybe if we stop giving them what they want on the forums and comment streams, they will leave their computers and find that there is another world outside of their limited experience.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Making an MP3 CD in Linux

Sometimes it is difficult to be an open source enthusiast.  Alongside my enthusiasm for free and open source software, I am also a fan of high quality audio.  To me, it makes little sense to store my music in any format other than ogg vorbis files: apart from FLAC and other lossless formats, which consume too much hard disk space for a music collection as vast as mine, vorbis has, to my ears, the best sound quality.

The problem is that my portable music player does not recognise vorbis files, nor does the CD player in my car.  The common thread between them (the portable music player recognises FLAC and MP3, the car CD player WMA and MP3) is support for MP3 files.

The way I chose to do this is to create a directory/folder into which I place ogg files, so that they may be converted to MP3.  This folder is then maintained by deleting songs with which I am bored, and adding new songs that I would want to take wherever I go.

The important thing is not to cut and paste the songs into the folder, because we want to delete the original vorbis files, as our player does not support them.  So, we want to copy the files into the folder, rather than move them, and delete vorbis files that take up space unnecessarily.  Please bear this in mind when using the BASH script below, as I can't take any responsibility for losses arising from the use of this script.  I merely share this here because it works for me.  If you can make it work better, please feel free to create your own modified version.

With that in mind, here is the BASH script...

mp3encoder=$(lame --version | grep "(")

chmod +w *.ogg
chmod +w *.flac
for f in *.flac; do
    oggenc -q10 "$f" && rm "$f"
for f in *.ogg; do
    songartist=$(vorbiscomment -l "$f" | grep -i '\<ARTIST=' | head --lines=1 - | cut --delimiter="=" --fields=2- | iconv --from-code=UTF-8)
    songtitle=$(vorbiscomment -l "$f" | grep -i '\<TITLE=' | cut --delimiter="=" --fields=2- | iconv --from-code=UTF-8)
    songalbum=$(vorbiscomment -l "$f" | grep -i '\<ALBUM=' | head --lines=1 - | cut --delimiter="=" --fields=2- | iconv --from-code=UTF-8)
    songnumber=$(vorbiscomment -l "$f" | grep -i '\<TRACKNUMBER=' | cut --delimiter="=" --fields=2-)
    songyear=$(vorbiscomment -l "$f" | grep -i '\<DATE=' | cut --delimiter="=" --fields=2-)
    songgenre=$(vorbiscomment -l "$f" | grep -i '\<GENRE=' | cut --delimiter="=" --fields=2- | iconv --from-code=UTF-8)
    albumartist=$(vorbiscomment -l "$f" | grep -i '\<ALBUMARTIST=' | head --lines=1 - | cut --delimiter="=" --fields=2- | iconv --from-code=UTF-8)
    #decode the ogg to a wav file
    sox -S --norm "$f" -r 44100 "${f%%ogg}wav"
    #normalize, while keeping as much dynamic range as possible
    normalize-audio -a -12dBFS -l -6dBFS "${f%%ogg}wav"
    normalize-audio -a -12dBFS -l -6dBFS "${f%%ogg}wav"
    normalize-audio -a -12dBFS -l -6dBFS "${f%%ogg}wav"
    #show the vorbis tags
    vorbiscomment -l "$f" && rm "$f"

#create the MP3 with optimal settings for listening in car

    echo ""
    echo "Encoding $songtitle, by $songartist from $songalbum ($albumartist)"
    echo ""

    lame -q 0 -V 5 --strictly-enforce-ISO --add-id3v2 --clipdetect --ta "$songartist" --tt "$songtitle" --tl "$songalbum" --tn "$songnumber" --ty "$songyear" --tv "TENC=$mp3encoder" --tv "TPE2=$albumartist" --tg "$songgenre" "${f%%ogg}wav" "${f%%ogg}mp3" && rm "${f%%ogg}wav"

    #clean up
newname=$(echo "$songartist - $songtitle" | tr '/?: .' '-_-__')
mv -f "${f%%ogg}mp3" "$newname.mp3"
    unset songartist
    unset songtitle
    unset songalbum
    unset songnumber
    unset songyear
    unset songgenre
    unset albumartist
mp3gain -r -k -p -s i *.mp3
for f in *.mp3; do
songtitle=$(soxi "$f" | grep "\<Title=" | cut --delimiter="=" --fields=2- | iconv --from-code=UTF-8)
songartist=$(soxi "$f" | grep "\<Artist=" | cut --delimiter="=" --fields=2- | iconv --from-code=UTF-8)
mv "$f" "$songartist - $songtitle.mp3"
for f in *.mp3; do
mp3total=`echo $(($mp3total+1))`

echo ""
echo "This directory contains $mp3total MP3s, making a total of "$(ls -l -h | grep total | cut --characters 7-)""
echo "Brasero says our target size is 702M for a CD-R"
echo "Smallest file in this directory is "$(ls -S | tail --lines=1)""
echo "Largest file in this directory is "$(ls -S | head --lines=1)""
echo ""

Let's go through what's happening here.  First of all, we copy the string identifying our version of LAME into a variable, for pasting into an ID3 field later.  I've noticed that MP3 files created with iTunes have this field set, so why not our files created with LAME?  We then "chmod +w" our files, just in case some of them have the read only flag set.  Next, we convert any FLAC files, if we have them, into ogg vorbis format, so that the script can work on one type of file from this point.

The FOR loop in the next section steps through every ogg file in the folder, and performs the conversion, starting with a bunch of statements which obtain vorbis tags, via vorbiscomment, format them correctly, and store them in variables that we will use later to tag our MP3 file.  Next, we decode the ogg file to a WAV file, so that any modifications can be performed losslessly at this stage.  You will notice that the SOX line contains a normalisation filter and sets the sample frequency to 44100Hz (CD quality).  Sometimes, the conversion process creates clipping artefacts, which we don't want, so the --norm filter checks the file during conversion and sets a limiter to ensure this isn't happening.  Setting each file to a sample rate of 44100Hz is also sensible, because I have downloaded files in the past which have strange sample rates and 44.1kHz files are likely to play on just about any device.

Next, we come to something which is very important for collections of this nature.  We don't want to be adjusting the volume level between songs, especially while driving, so we need a way of getting them to a similar volume.  A setting of -12dB from full scale, and a hard limit of -6dB from full scale is the default for the normalize-audio program, and it's a sensible setting.  Modern CDs, from those I have tested, have an average setting of -8dBFS and a limiter of -3dBFS, if one is used at all!  Apparently, this phenomenon is known as the "loudness wars", where each record label is trying to produce louder and louder discs.  It's idiotic, because it requires the heavy-handed use of a compression filter, so each part of the music is at a similar volume - distortion creeps in, sound quality suffers, and the listening experience is generally unpleasant, especially when listening for prolonged periods.  Until record companies and studios can be convinced to go back to a time when dynamic range (the difference between the soft and loud parts of a recording) was more important than outright loudness, at least reducing the overall volume of the recording will help matters a little.

It is arguable that adding a low pass and high pass filter to the earlier SOX command is acceptable, and perhaps desirable, for portable listening or in-car environments.  In theory, this would lead to the volume being more level between recordings, as the frequency response is more uniform.  My personal thought on this, as an audio enthusiast, is that I want to modify the audio characteristics of the recording as little as possible, and the normalisation process seems to work to an acceptable standard without low pass or high pass filters being used.

After printing a string which contains the name of the song, artist and album, so that we know the tags have been transferred correctly, we get onto the business of encoding the MP3.  I have used a variable bit rate setting of 5, which equates to around 128kbps, but you can set a constant bit rate of 128kbps by changing "-V 5" to "-b 128" or any other of the allowable bit rates.  Variable bit rate will render an MP3 file of better quality than a constant bit rate file, though there are still players which do not correctly decode VBR MP3s.  When this process is complete, we remove the WAV file.

To finish, we rename the MP3 to a sensible standard format, unset variables in preparation for the next file and run every MP3 file in the folder through mp3gain (just in case we added files which were already in MP3 format, or we need replaygain information to be added).  When our files are converted, the script displays a total size for the MP3s in the folder, so that we know whether they will fill our device or go beyond the storage space we have available.

I hope this script may prove useful, if only to introduce the reader to some principles of BASH scripting.  If you can improve upon it, or want to modify it to your own requirements, please do so.  When I have the time to improve upon my BASH skills, I will probably make my own modifications.

Friday, 15 March 2013


It's difficult to define friendship. Maybe a friend is simply someone who sees your value as a human being - who values you not for what you can do for them, but for who you are with them. They will have the courage to tell you when you have done wrong, but will forgive you for it. Likewise, they will take great pleasure in hearing about the things that have gone well for you.

Of course, there is also your best friend. You may be lucky enough to have more than one best friend. This is someone who knows you better than anyone, because you would trust them not to reveal your secrets. For many of us involved in a romantic love, this is our chosen partner.

It is often said that friends made over the internet and social networking sites are not true friends. Is physical proximity the best measure of friendship? No. The measure of friendship is its ability to stand the test of time and the numerous problems that will affect any close relationship, even those with family members. A true friend may not always be there when you need them - they may have other demands on their time - but, when they are able to help, there is no one better placed to do so.

If you have good friends, take a moment each day to think of what that means. It means that you are valued, and that people take pleasure in your company. Let them know that they are appreciated. Be quick to settle any differences. To lose a friend is to lose something very valuable indeed.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Helping a friend (counselling service in North Wales)

There are few greater joys in life than helping a friend.  Recently, a friend of mine has started a counselling practice and, though I see less of him now, because he is so busy, I am happy for his success.  With that in mind, however, I must also help him to greater success, if I am able to do so.

His name is Karl Pegg, and he runs a counselling service from - by phone, email, instant messaging or in person.  He is very good at what he does.  Actually, the adage that a stranger is a friend you just haven't met yet is appropriate here.  My friend can help people, and I am also helping, indirectly, by publicising his service.

That's my good deed for the day.  I feel a warm glow now, and it's not just because I've had the heating on for too long.


I had the idea of increasing my (already impressive) knowledge of operating systems by using virtual machines.  Unfortunately, the version of Virtualbox that comes as standard on the Debian edition of Linux Mint will not allow me to get past this stage...
In both cases, the GRUB boot loader obviously works fine, but the virtual machine freezes when it should load the Linux kernel.  Yes, I'm familiar with Linux already, but I thought it would be a great way to test the technology first.  If I were to have problems installing NetBSD or OpenBSD, for example, I might believe that it was due to my inexperience with those operating systems.

I also tried Debian and CentOS because, if I were to use Linux in a business setting, my choice would be between those two distributions.  Those of you in the know will notice that I was testing Debian wheezy.  Well, it is currently in "feature freeze", so is pretty close to release right now.  When learning about operating systems, it is best to stay ahead of the curve, as it were.

As for not being able to get past the boot loader, I'll figure it out.  I always figure it out.

Update: I figured it out.  My CPU does not have the Intel virtualisation extensions, so Virtualbox will not allow me to virtualise 64-bit operating systems.  32-bit OS images should work fine.  I'll try this out when I have more time.

Here is the i386 version of FreeBSD installing ...

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Thought for the day: acquired wisdom

 I saw a set of five personal guidelines, written by someone else and, given my own experience, I rewrote them as the following...
  1. Bring something of yourself to what you do - make it your own
  2. Recognise opportunities and take them
  3. No matter how busy your life, find some quiet time for yourself 
  4. It is okay not to know everything
  5. Don't put things off until later
 They are not a million miles from what was originally written, but I modified them in accordance with guideline number 1.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

LMDE and printers

After a regrettable moment of madness, which involved installing xubuntu on my laptop, I had to reinstall Linux Mint Debian Edition.  To my horror, my Brother laser printer would no longer print.  According to the GUI configuration program, my printer was recognised, but any job sent to the printer, though listed as completed, never actually printed onto paper.

Searching the forums led nowhere.  Many people had experienced the problem, but no one was offering a solution, except to say that the problem was an "upstream" bug (i.e. from the testing branch of Debian).  Having used Debian testing for a long period of time, I didn't accept that explanation.  I reasoned that the bug had probably been fixed in the testing branch since the LMDE update pack was released.  So I made some additions to /etc/apt/sources.list...

#default LMDE repos
deb debian main upstream import
deb testing main contrib non-free
deb testing/updates main contrib non-free
deb testing main non-free

#Debian repos
deb stable main contrib non-free
deb-src stable main contrib non-free
deb stable-updates main contrib non-free
deb-src stable-updates main contrib non-free
deb stable/updates main contrib non-free
deb-src stable/updates main contrib non-free

Why did I point my sources.list towards debian stable?  Unbelievable as it may sound, some core packages of debian stable are more recent than in LMDE, and possibly newer than debian testing packages.  After making the changes, I did sudo apt-get update, sudo apt-get upgrade and sudo apt-get dist-upgrade.  After all the upgrades to the base packages from the stable branch, it was time to edit my sources.list to point to debian testing...

#Debian repos
deb testing main contrib non-free
deb-src testing main contrib non-free
deb testing-updates main contrib non-free
deb-src testing-updates main contrib non-free
deb testing/updates main contrib non-free
deb-src testing/updates main contrib non-free

After that, the same old apt-get routine.  If you don't want the LMDE repositories to clash with debian testing repos, comment out the debian lines with a hash at the start of each line, or delete them altogether.  I'm pretty sure that the next update pack won't be arriving for quite a while, so obtaining upgrades from debian is pretty safe right now.  More importantly, my printer now works as it should.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Why all the hatred towards England?

"Anyone but England" seems to be the cry.  In any sporting fixture (it's a rugby tournament between England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy right now), the people of other nations of the United Kingdom will seemingly support any team that is playing against England.

Maybe there are historical reasons for this.  The problem I have is that, if it were practically any other nation on Earth, it would be labelled as unacceptable.  Certainly, I have seen a worrying attitude towards anyone English in Ireland and Scotland; in Wales, thankfully, it is at a much lower level.

The effect it has is probably the reverse of what is intended.  Though I live in Wales, I am English by birth.  Over the course of my life, I have faced a torrent of abuse, simply for being English - mainly during my time in Ireland, but also in my adopted home of Wales.  The problem is that, if you draw the attention of the perpetrators to the problem, the attitude is "If you don't like it, **** off back to where you came from."  Welsh, Scottish and Irish inhabitants of England are not subject to the same bigotry.

I don't know the reason for this, but the effect of it all, as I was saying, is to make me steadfastly proud to be English.  You see, all that hatred causes a reaction which makes me identify more closely with the country of my birth.  I am, have always been, and will always be, English.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Wing Chun and Arnis/Eskrima/Kali

It's a great source of irritation that some of my fellow Wing Chun students are already training at a local Eskrima club, whereas I don't have any spare time to do that until June.  The club I'm talking about is Warriors Eskrima at Rhyl, North Wales.
To compound my misery, at least one of the class is taking lessons at a Jeet Kune Do class in Wrexham -

I realised that this actually worries me more than my upcoming grading on Sunday.  The JKD class will include elements of Kali (Danny Inosanto's preferred term for Filipino martial arts), though it is questionable how much Kali it will include.  The Eskrima class will teach more distinctly Filipino martial arts, though I know the instructor has also studied Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (not a concern, because my Wing Chun instructor also studies Five Pattern Hung Kuen).

I should explain some differences in terminology.  Very few people in the Philippines will call their martial arts Kali, though the influence of Danny Inosanto is changing that.  In Manila, and the whole island of Luzon, as far as I know, it is known as Arnis.  In Cebu, they have a tendency to call it Eskrima.

Why am I concerned about other students learning Filipino martial arts?  Well, this goes to my whole motivation for learning Wing Chun.  The grading is not so important because my grade is of secondary importance; my main motivation for learning Wing Chun is for self protection.  Ever since the two were first combined, it has been known that Wing Chun and Arnis/Eskrima go well together as an effective combat art.  I'm more than a little concerned that this knowledge is becoming more widespread.

In every martial arts class, you get the testosterone-fuelled macho idiots.  Contrary to popular belief, it is not always the younger members of a class who feel the need to prove themselves.  When you are learning a martial art for self-protection, the level of skill you may come up against in an opponent is obviously more of a concern.  I was already troubled by the rise in popularity in cage fighting.  Now, let us not get caught up in the argument over whether MMA is more effective in any situation than traditional martial arts.  The point is that, regardless of my beliefs regarding MMA, a trained cage fighter will be more skilled than the average untrained trouble causer.  It is more of a worry, because MMA classes tend to downplay, or totally omit, any philosophical context of what they teach.

Traditional arts like Wing Chun have had centuries to develop.  The Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and other arts which may comprise an MMA class also have a philosophical basis, but this tends to get lost in the bias towards competitiveness engendered in that environment.  Yes, the technical aim of Wing Chun is to incapacitate an opponent, but the philosophical context modifies that aim to a point where we only do what is necessary to assure our safety.  As my instructor has said many times, the only guaranteed method of self-defence is to run faster than an attacker can chase you.  It certainly sidesteps the issue of explaining your actions to a court.

What it all adds up to is that I have to start learning Arnis/Eskrima, even if I just get the basic concepts from a book.  When learning a martial art for self-protection, especially one that is constantly evolving, it is not wise to fall behind.

Sunday, 20 January 2013


It's hard to believe that I only got to visit Intramuros on my third visit to Manila, but then, my main focus in going to the Philippines is visiting the woman I love.

As luck would have it, we visited Intramuros on Rizal Day.  For those of you who don't know, José Rizal was a Filipino revolutionary and is apparently the national hero of the Philippines.  That information came from our tour guide, who managed to keep a large party of people, including us, entertained for well over an hour (the tour was meant to last for an hour; no one seemed to mind that it lasted longer).

It was my fiancée's idea to have a guide.  Though Intramuros is a beautiful and interesting place, it's fair to say that being there would not have been the experience it was without the tour guide.  We were shown around this old part of Manila, told the history of the place and the Philippines in general, and treated to a humorous take on the role of various foreign influences on the country.  There were odd moments where the narrative was in danger of becoming a political rant, especially during an interval where we were treated to a thoroughly disturbing account of what happened to Manila during World War 2.  The scars of that conflict affect Manila to this day.  Most of the old city was lost under a blanket of bombs, and many lives were lost to those bombs and also to Japanese swords.  An old city now looks very modern, and some would say soulless, because it had to be rebuilt largely from nothing.

I should stop right there.  If you want to know more about Intramuros and Manila, I highly recommend a visit.  Do your research before you go and, if possible, visit the Ayala Museum in Makati as well.  If you have a day to spare, the boat ride from Manila Bay to the island of Corregidor (a US military stronghold during the war; now a tourist attraction) is well worth the effort.  As the tour guide said, many just pass through Manila on their way to the white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters of islands like Boracay and Palawan.  Those islands are no doubt very beautiful, but it is wrong to write off Manila.  There is much more to the capital than meets the eye.  Yes, it is noisy, overcrowded and polluted in the main, but also home to many hidden treasures.

I'll let the pictures I took in Intramuros speak for themselves...

Thought for the day: cheating

As a follow up to my piece on the rise of psychopathic tendencies, I offer a link to an article on The Guardian website, which continues the theme -

Maybe we should rethink the old maxim which says that cheats never prosper.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Thought for the day: rise of the psychopath

Thanks to a certain Hitchcock film, most people don't have a good understanding of what it means for someone to be a psychopath so, when I tell you that I see more people exhibiting psychopathic tendencies than ever before, I have to explain what I mean.

A psychopath is not necessarily a cold-blooded killer.  What we are talking about, when we use the word psychopath, is someone suffering from a personality disorder.  If we consider the developmental theory of Jean Piaget, we could say these are individuals who continue to display the egocentrism inherent in the preoperational stage of development (2 to 7 years) throughout their lives.  There will be a lack of remorse, empathy or fear.  Instead, the psychopath manipulates and breaks rules to get what they want.  They may have an inflated sense of their worth and a low threshold of boredom, together with an inability to accept responsibility for their actions.

What I see is a general lack of consideration for others, or how others will be affected by the actions of the individual, and it is more widespread than ever before.  Of course, I can only speak for the small part of the UK where I live, but it is still troubling.  In people across the age spectrum (not just youths, as the media would have us believe), there seems to be a belief that a person must always put themselves first, no matter if getting what they want inconveniences, or even hurts, others in some way.

More troubling is that seeing someone wilfully cause distress to someone else is not uncommon now, and it's easy to believe it is done for amusement.

Any evidence I provide will be anecdotal, so there is no reason for you to take what I say at face value.  Therefore, I simply put the thought out there: maybe there are more psychopaths than there ever were before.  Of course, the definition, or the very existence, of psychopathic behaviour is contested within psychiatry.  If we are becoming generally more self-centred and less empathic, could there be something driving this change?

A few nights ago, I saw a TV programme where a young child was demanding protection money from an adult, so that his car would not get scratched.  It was not a documentary, it was supposedly a comedy.  The clear message was that this child would scratch the car if he was not paid the sum demanded.  This is clearly anti-social behaviour, and the programme was passing it off as something approaching normal, or commonplace, and mildly comical.

Since the Thatcher/Reagan era, I have noticed a gradual desensitisation to things like this.  TV programmes, films, music and even the printed media have become ever more eager to push the boundaries of what is acceptable and seem to aim to shock the viewer/listener/reader.  Is it a coincidence that all of this ties in with the influence of neoliberalism under Reagan and Thatcher?  The very cornerstone of neoliberalism is the belief that people are inherently selfish, and protecting their own interests is the only thing that will regulate their behaviour.  Such cynicism, and desensitisation to increasingly shocking imagery, language and written words could, in my opinion, be the driving factors behind this change in behaviour.

We have also seen the steady decline of Christianity in the United Kingdom.  Even if you are not religious, surely you must see the value of the ethical guidelines of organised religion?

I don't believe there is any will to keep the problem in check, or even a recognition of the problem.  Our modern cynicism tells us that people are self-centred, they will put their own interests ahead of any other considerations, and that is just the way things are.

I don't have an answer to any of this.  My hope is that the problem is recognised for what it is, so an answer may come from someone with the intelligence to develop a solution.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The iPad effect, or the future of the desktop

Over the past few days, the latest release of Fedora Linux ( went live.  As someone who doesn't use Fedora, you would think it would be a non-event for me.  However, it is significant because this release includes the MATE and Cinnamon desktops in the official repositories.

There are many reasons why I believe the IT industry has taken a few wrong turns over the years.  Don't get me started on the failure of OS/2 or BeOS, much less the failure of landmark machines like the Acorn Archimedes or DEC Alpha.  While we're at it, I wasn't happy when Apple abandoned the POWER architecture.  At this very moment, the industry stands on the brink of taking the wrong direction once again, and with arguably the most important aspect of an operating system: the user interface.

For years, various manufacturers have been trying to make tablet PCs viable.  Apple is by no means the first company to give it a shot, though they were the first to have the level of success necessary to sustain a market.  In retrospect, they took a gradual approach to the release of the iPad: it came to us via the iPod and, later, the iPhone.  I can't fault Apple for the way they brought these products to market: in marketing terms, it was a stroke of genius.

I also have to admire Android, and the myriad devices it has spawned.  It's arguable that I should wholeheartedly support Android, being an open source advocate, but the whole subject of tablet PCs leaves me cold.  Of course, the open source model will mean that Android quickly surpasses iOS in terms of features, usability and stability, but that's just my opinion.

My interest is in the desktop, or laptop, if you prefer.  Unfortunately, the industry took the success of the iPad and Android to mean that users are in love with the touch screen interface and wish to use it on every device they own.  On a tablet, it works well.  On the desktop, I'm less sure.

Microsoft have a long history of deciding how we, the users, should use our computers.  It is not up for consultation.  With Windows 8, the user interface has changed to one which is geared towards touch screen computing.  If I was the CEO of a large, or even a small, company, I would be absolutely furious right now.  Many businesses held on to their copies of Windows XP, forcing Microsoft to support that version long after the date of its planned withdrawal.  Why?  Well, the user interface is familiar, and it works.  Why change that?  Windows 8 completely changes the way a user accesses their applications and documents.  Staff will need to be trained in the use of this new system.  That will cost time and money.  In other words, it affects productivity.  I heard a nasty rumour that Apple intends to make OS-X more like iOS too.

In the open source world, we have the controversy over GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's Unity taking the same path as Windows 8.  On a personal note, I abandoned the mainstream Debian distribution for Linux Mint Debian Edition, so that I didn't have to "upgrade" to GNOME 3.  In theory, I am using the GNOME 3 platform, but it has the much better (for me, anyway) Cinnamon user interface.  The fact that Cinnamon is a Linux Mint project tied those wishing to use it to that distribution initially but, as usually happens in open source, enough people thought Cinnamon was a worthy project, and the work of porting it to other distributions began fairly swiftly.

MATE is a continuation of GNOME 2.  Whether this rules it out as the future of the desktop is debatable.  The reason why the inclusion of MATE and Cinnamon in mainstream distributions is a good thing is one of open source and Linux's major selling points: choice.  If you don't like the change to an interface more geared towards touch screen interaction, and I would count myself amongst that number, you have the choice to choose another way.

Upon searching this morning, there was even more good news.  The Debian project has included Cinnamon in their unstable release - - meaning that, one day, I may well be able to switch back to my favourite distribution.  Of course, it will take time.  Currently, we are waiting for Debian Wheezy to be released, and the current unstable branch will eventually form the release following Wheezy.  Debian have a noble, though sometimes irritating, habit of making releases only when everything meets their very high standards, so releases are not made very often.  However, when Wheezy is released, Cinnamon will become a part of the Debian testing distribution.  The implication of this is that the many distributions based on Debian testing (and there are quite a few) will have Cinnamon available to them as an official Debian package.

As it stands, the Debian version of Cinnamon is already looking pretty good...

The final version is likely to look very different.  In the time it takes for the stable distribution to be released, Cinnamon will change, as will Debian.  However, Debian forms the basis of so many other distributions, so maybe this is the future of the desktop after all.

Now, I wonder when Microsoft will admit, as I believe they should have with Vista, that Windows 8 was a mistake.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Thought for the day: policy vs ideology

There was a time when allegiance to a political party, at least in the UK, was held for life.  Now, if people choose to vote at all, it seems that the political allegiance of the country alternates between the two main parties.

What is the reason for this?  What is the reason for large scale voter apathy?  Well, I don't claim to know everything, but I would argue that it is a focus on policy.  In an age where politicians are more accessible than ever - too accessible, some would argue - we hear countless promises about what they will do if they are elected.

Unfortunately, the nature of parliament means that election promises are rarely implemented.  The uncomfortable truth about politics is that those promises made during the election can easily be voted down or, worse, given up as unrealistic when faced with the reality of governing a country.  As a result, the population get the idea that politicians are inherently untrustworthy and casting a vote in the election will make no difference to how the country is run.

The great shame is that, if you were to ask people to which political ideology they subscribe, it is likely that most would not understand the question.  Can you, reader, explain whether you are left-wing, right-wing, centrist, centre-left or centre-right?  Given the perpetual shift between left-wing Labour and right-wing Conservative governments in the UK, it would seem that a growing number of people either don't know or don't care about their political ideology.  At the time of writing, our government is a coalition between right-wing Conservatives and centrist Liberal Democrats.

We have free access to more information, thanks to the internet, than ever before.  If you're reading this, and are unaware of your ideological leaning, you owe it to yourself to do some research...

So, short term policy (which may not be implemented within the term of a parliament) or long term ideology?  Please feel free to comment.