All entries for December 2004

December 31, 2004

New Year's Eve – A Plea To Think

New Year’s Eve – A time for lamenting the end of the overindulgence in eating, drinking and spending that the Christmas period inevitably brings, and planning for the dreary world of lectures and classes.

By now everyone has learned that New Year Resolutions are rarely still in operation 3 months down the line and probably can’t even be recalled a further 3 months later. Still, there is value in avoiding the computer/television/ [insert distraction here] and thinking. Think about the past year, accomplishments of note, challenges that have been overcome and commitments you’ve made. Think about stuff that’s gone wrong and lessons that can be drawn from them. Think about issues you’d like to change in this coming year.

Once that’s done, consider the physical actions you’d need to take in order to put any changes you’ve come up with into operation. I reckon so few ‘resolutions’ become reality because:

a) People set arbitrary and grandiose goals
b) Little thought is given to planning or the development of some strategy.

This process of reflection is something that could be executed at any point during the year. By doing so, you’re bound to avoid “American Beauty syndrome where after a long period of not thinking seriously about where life is heading you look back, realising you’ve wasted a big chunk of it on stuff that is of little importance.

My New Year’s resolution? Stop sounding like a self-help cheerleader.


December 30, 2004

Lemmings

Here is a pretty cool story regarding group behaviour. It’s slightly random in nature, but is definitely food for thought if you’re in the right sort of mood. I remembered it after reading the following quote from Bridget Jones' blog: “Why, in a world when we're programmed to find different traits attractive, do we feel compelled to conform to some sort of 'norm' that doesnt exist?” The story has no well defined moral, but that just makes it more interesting:
__

It is in the nature of the lemming, a small, furry vole-like creature found in the northern reaches of Europe, Asia and America, to make hay whilst the sun shines. That is to say that when food is in abundance, these gregarious creatures breed at an extraordinary rate, their consequent over-population causing them to have to migrate in search of new food supplies. Migration, normally in a southerly direction, takes place en-masse, and is not without the hazards that are often tobe found accompanying mass movements in all species. In particular, aswarm of lemmings – seemingly seized by some group insanity – will attempt to cross almost any obstacle in their frenzied struggle to
survive.

It was during one such migration that Leonard Lemming found himself alongside the group leader, William, at the head of a swarm of five-hundred thousand approaching the north bank of the river Rhine. The swarm had been on the move almost continuously for six days and they were all panting heavily and close to exhaustion.

"Forward!" urged William, "We're nearly there. Soon we'll be across the river and there'll be grass and roots and bulbs enough for everyone. Join me in our chant! All together now brave brothers and sisters: 'We are lemmings, lemmings all, All together we won't fall.'"

The group nearest William took up the chant; soon it spread through the entire swarm, the members seeming to run faster and with more determination as they took up the call.

"We're never going to get across that river William," said Leonora Lemming, Leonard's partner, surveying the vast expanse of The Rhine. "Look at it. It's huge, deep, fast-flowing and probably freezing cold as well."

"We have no option but to try," retorted the leader urgently. "We are lemmings, and lemmings have evolved specifically to be able to face such circumstances. This is what it's all about. We are brave, we have a tremendous group cohesion and will to survive. We need food, so we have to go forward. I'm not saying that all of us are going to get
across the river, but one or two might and that will be enough for the continuation of this branch of the lemming tribe."

"None of us is going to get over that," chipped in Leonard. "It's stupid to even try, and I'm not. If we hadn't been so foolish overpopulating in the Spring, so profligate, we wouldn't be caught in this situation now. There would have been plenty of food for everyone and no need to face almost certain death."

Leonora nodded her head, but William scowled angrily and spat. "We are lemmings. That's what lemmings do, and this now is what lemmings do. Do you not understand?"
"Oh we understand all right," offered Leonard quietly, "we just don't see the point."

"The point is that every step in our history, our evolution, our individual and collective consciousness and traditions have brought us here to this riverbank. And you turn your backs upon it. So be it. If you are real lemmings, you are with us; if you are against us, you are no longer worthy of the name of a lemming and, as leader, I banish you forever from our clan. Stand aside you cowardly non-conformists." William turned and addressed the waiting multitude.

"Are we lemmings?" he exhorted?
"Yes," roared the crowd, almost as one.
"And do we stand together?"
"Yes!"
"And what is our call?"
"We are lemmings, lemmings all," the crowd began, "all together we won't fall. We are lemmings, lemmings all. All together we won't fall. We are lemmings, lemmings all. All together we won't fall." the noise rose to a deafening volume. William climbed atop a small knoll adjacent to the edge of the embankment and raised his paw to urge quiet.

"Brothers and sisters," he began in a commanding voice, "we stand here before our destiny. It is our duty to cross this river. It may look formidable, but our ancestors encountered and conquered equally daunting obstacles. We are the living evidence!"
The crowd cheered. "We will prevail!"

The crowd roared in approval and spontaneously began to chant, hypnotising themselves with the persistent pulse of the rhythm. William turned towards the river and lifted his paw in readiness to command the forward movement. The swarm formed up behind him chanting excitedly and insanely. This was it.

Leonard and Leonora drew to the side, and were surprised to find they were joined by a group of about twenty others who had listened carefully to their debate with the leader. Soon, the chanting reached a crescendo with William's strident voice clearly audible above that of the mob as his second in command beat out the rhythm on an empty drum. Suddenly, he dropped his paw and plunged forwards with a scream. The members of Leonard's group held on to the grass for dear life such as to prevent themselves being carried away by the rush of bodies surging forward over the edge. Harold, a younger member of the dissident group watched his fellows plunging into the cold river and dying in their droves. Some just drowned, others froze, a few struck out for the far side but became exhausted before they had swum a quarter of the way across; he looked for William, but couldn't recognise him in the carnage – hardly surprising since William and his friends had sneaked away on a ledge hidden below the edge of the precipice.
Harold's evolutionary conditioning, his group loyalty – fired by the chanting – and ingrained habitual behaviour drew him forward towards the edge of the embankment and beyond to almost certain doom: he wanted to offer his support and join his comrades, yet his natural intelligence and deepest survival instincts urged him to turn back, to fundamentally review his ways.

He stood, poised on the edge, caught in the lemming's dilemma.


December 28, 2004

Disasters & Grief

My Fragile Contradiction talks about the wave of sympathy that tends to sweep a nation following disasters akin to that occurring in Asia.

When tragedies like this happen, you always hear people chirping around you about how blessed they are and crap like you know the typical “It makes me appreciate my family and what I have more" What pisses me off is this kind of sympathy last for like maybe a hot second…its all bull crap, because the next day they are complaining about not being able to buy the latest Vutton travel bag.

The scale of the damage done is immense and will be felt for many years to come. At such times, I feel particularly thankful that neither myself nor anybody I know is involved, but no real, genuine sense of grief. Without meaning to seem heartless, the headache I'm currently experiencing is of much greater concern, than any event abroad; regardless of the numbers involved. It's more immediate. It's something I may have had a hand in causing. It's something I have the power to cure.

Unless one has some real-world link to such events as opposed to simply newspapers and 24 hour news coverage, such disasters won't have any significant, long term effect on feelings, behaviour or future actions. You probably won't become a dedicated charitable giver, nor will you suddenly adopt 'carpe diem' as your life's motto after realising the tenuous nature of human life.

We all care about what's happening. It's just better to take whatever practical steps are possible to help, rather than constantly affirming the sadness and tragedy of these events, trying to conjure up feelings which aren't really there.

To contribute to the British Red Cross appeal, click here.


December 27, 2004

Bloc Party

Allmusic.com is certainly on a roll with regards to the ‘New Artist Spotlight’ feature on its homepage. In the recent past, mentions have gone out to Joanna Newsom, Aberfeldy, and 90 Day Men with the most recent recepient being Bloc Party.

Equally inspired by Sonic Youth, Joy Division, Gang of Four and the Cure, South London art-punkers Bloc Party mix angular sonics with pop structures. Consisting of singer/guitarist Kele Okereke, guitarist Russell Lissack, bassist/singer Gordon Moakes, and drummer Matt Tong, the band was formerly known as Angel Range and Union before settling on Bloc Party.

Amazon.co.uk states that the debut album, Silent Alarm will be released on Feburary 14th 2005. The debut was looking particularly promising after their September release of the Bloc Party EP and preliminary listening via non-official channels confirms expectations.


December 26, 2004

The Apprentice

What better to do on Boxing Day before taking care of leftover food, than to watch a few television shows or films. As such, I’ve just finished watching the second series of the Apprentice, arguably the only reality show ever created with any real substance.

For the uninitiated, here is the NBC blurb:

"The Apprentice," [features] 18 candidates from all walks of life, including both Ivy League MBA graduates and street entrepreneurs with no college education. Each week, they will endure rigorous business tasks while living together in a hip Manhattan loft apartment. Prominent Fortune 500 companies were enlisted to participate in many of the tasks. The tasks will test their intelligence, chutzpah and street-smarts. They will face the challenges of living in close quarters and must complete sometimes humorous, but always difficult, job assignments and will be forced to think outside the box in order to outshine each other to get to the top…And, each week, one person will hear those dreaded words — "You're Fired!"

So basically, it’s vaguely akin to Big Brother, only in a business environment with candidates who have qualifications. For each assignment, the players were split into two teams with the losing team entering business mogul Donald Trump’s boardroom where one player would be fired. All the participants were smart people but at times made what seem to be pretty basic errors; clear even without the benefit of hindsight.

I’ve just jotted down some general lessons one could draw from the show; some of which are applicable to real world situations.

General:

  • Education is great, but experience in the application of knowledge is far more important.

  • One can progress by blending in with the crowd, free riding on the efforts of others but consistent effort over time is preferable. This gives one a pool of achievements to draw on in future, allows one to gain hands-on experience and gains you respect.

  • Good performance, in absolute terms or relative to others acts to reduce the importance of flaws which are present in every organisation and every individual.

In the boardroom:

  • Maintain a good relationship with others on and off tasks but be prepared to exaggerate your abilities and to bring out recent and past accomplishments whenever possible.

  • Always be prepared to disparage the efforts of others and highlight the faults of others.

On leadership:

  • When in a position of leadership, delegation of responsibility and reliance on others is critical, but be sure to check the progress of others on a regular basis.

  • Collective wisdom is valuable, but be prepared to override group consensus if the collective view is clearly at odds with common sense.

  • Don't entrust valuable decisions to those with clear character flaws. Leave creative decisions to the creative minded, operations decisions to the practical minded and mundane tasks to whose who are unstable in some way.

December 24, 2004

Stockings!

I'm 20 years old, but still put up stockings each year. Santa's definition of a child is wide indeed.

Have a good day everyone :)


Del.icio.us: Changing the way you use bookmarks

Del.icio.us is a tool that improves the way in which you handle bookmarks. Despite becoming something of an underground phenomenon, the attention it has received on the web is well deserved.

If your browsing sessions are anything like mine, a single browser tab (or window for you IE users) quickly becomes 5 or more tabs full of information/links that will no doubt spawn another 5 new tabs before long.

Traditional bookmark tools are useful for earmarking sites for later viewing, but without care, such lists can become particularly unwieldy. Even the use of folders creates problems when the category under which a link should reside is ambiguous, or the link spans a range of categories. Additionally, it’s hard to remember at a glance what information was held at a given site a few weeks down the line.

Del.icio.us solves such problems by allowing you to add tags and extended descriptions to websites you wish to read later, or archive for future reference. Multiple tags can be added for any given site. As with folders, you can browse the pages you have added under different tags as well and a search function allows you to find bookmarked pages. Being a web based service, bookmarks can be accessed whatever your location.

Not only can you manage your own links (by going to "http://del.icio.us/yourusername"), you can also view what sites others have chosen to place under your categories/tags. The public nature of the bookmarks held by Del.icio.us allows it to potentially alert users of innovative/informative sites and important news long before such things are reported on by more mainstream sources of information.

Firefox users can make use of the del.icio.us plugin for rapid bookmarking of sites.

Del.icio.us is a great tool for managing information and the active development of tools to enhance its functionality ensure it will only get better. Well worth a look.


December 23, 2004

Headphones & MP3 Players

I picked up some lovely new headphones today (Koss KSC-50s) for my ipod which has been used only a handful of times over the course of the year. The ipod, being a 3rd Generation model with a meagre 10GB is almost retro by todays standards. Armed with these tools my occasional trips to the library should be slightly more bearable. Anyone in the market for an MP3 player is definately spoilt for choice at the moment. Apple, iRiver, Sony and Creative have all released good looking highly functional models.


Yukos Saga

The nationalisation of Yuganskneftegas, an arm of the Russian oil giant Yukos, is well underway. Yuganskneftegas was recently bought at a two party, one bidder auction for $9.35bn by the hitherto unknown Baikal Finance Group which was subsequently taken over by Rosneft, a state owned energy company. Observers had expected the bid to be won by another state owned company called Gazprom despite a last minute US ruling which claimed a bid by the company would be illegal. The merger of Gazprom and Rosneft is now underway, a move that will create a monolithic state owned monopoly reminiscent of the period before the country's bodged privatizations.

From the Financial Times:
"Rosneft, which made the announcement through the Interfax news agency, said its acquisition was part of a plan to turn the company into a “balanced, national energy corporation”. This acquisition also appears to be part of Russia’s move towards greater state control over the commanding heights of the economy, particularly in the energy sector."

Does this all sound just a little too convenient? Not so according to Vladimir Putin who at a recent press conference said, "Everything was done by market methods."

Yup. Obviously. The whole saga has been driven by the greed and fear of the current government as well as by accusations of fraudulent activity and tax evasion; activities hardly rare in Russia. As a result of such claims, former head of Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is currently being detained by the authorities. Coincidentally, Mr Khodokovsky was and active on the political scene and made use of his wealth by contributing to the accounts of rival parties. The acquisition of Yuganskneftegas and eventual disintegration of Yukos eliminates a potent political threat and provides the government with substantial funds. A select few stand to make substantial gains from the process at the expense of Russian citizens and the Russian economy.

This fiasco sends a clear message to foreign firms operating in the region or those engaging in any other form of investment. The Russian government has no qualms about appropriating assets of even the most powerful of companies for the most tenuous of reasons.


December 22, 2004

The top 10 albums of 2004

It's that time of year again. On television, magazines, websites and blogs worldwide, writers and presenters reflect on the best of the year's books, music, and films. It would be rude not to include my own opinions.

Sufjan Stevens - Seven Swans
– Lush vocals and guitar playing from this multi-instrumentalist.

The Arcade Fire – Funeral
– A grandiose release from a band I’m struggling to categorise.

Interpol - Antics
– A solid second album, though not as good as TOTBL which was an incredibly hard act to follow.

Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand
– Catchy pop/rock songs. One can't ask for much more.

Sonic Youth - Sonic Nurse
– They continue to create great music despite their age.

The Go! Team - Thunder, Lightning, Strike
– Great instrumental tracks with interesting samples.

65 Days of Static - The Fall of Math
– Original fusion of post rock and IDM.

Blonde Redhead - Misery Is a Butterfly
– Haunting female vocals, dark melodies.

Aberfeldy – Young Forever
– Upbeat debut album from this highly promising Scottish indie pop ensemble.

The Dears – No Cities Left
– The Smiths reincarnated have released a brilliant albeit slightly long album.

I don't find it easy to rank albums on a scale of one to ten, nor do I think it’s a particularly useful undertaking. The appeal of a given album changes day by day, hour by hour. Don’t be put off by my less than eloquent descriptions; the above albums are essential listening for indie rock/pop and electronic music enthusiasts.


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