Monday, 29 September 2014

Tesco's Nazi Checkout Guy

It's a goddamn Nazi, I cursed under my breath, but thinking about it now nearly five hours 'after the fact', I suppose that was something of a rush to judgement.

I mean: is somebody a Nazi simply because they have a swastika tattooed on the back of their hand?

Yet saying that, the more people I tell about this, the more uneasy I feel that I didn't spit in the guy's face the moment he'd scanned by club card and gave me green points for using my own plastic bags. The first person I told was about Tesco's Nazi Checkout Guy was as outraged as the second person I told. The third person I told was probably more outraged the first two and suggested a course of action that would have resulted in an upturned carton of milk, a misuse of nearly ripe fruit, and the unhygienic use of my Linda McCartney sausage rolls when they were still frozen (painful).

But for my part, I don't know how to feel. I glimpsed the tattoo as the checkout assistant slid me my crispy white baguette and there, for a moment, I saw a tableau of European history played out under the glare of the laser scanner.

'Your lot would refuse me that,' I might have said, pointing to the French bread. But I didn't and now I regret that I didn't.

Yet I can't even be sure which way the swastika was facing. Perhaps it was the Hindu or Buddhist swastika and the guy (white and middle aged) was a devoted follower of Eastern mysticism who had one day decided to tattoo the symbol of auspiciousness above his knuckles. What if he's a devoted pacifist who is now damned to be misjudged as some kind of fascist thug?

Yet, as people keep saying to me, in bold (dare I say capitalized letters): WHAT THE HELL ARE TESCO DOING HIRING A GUY WITH A SWASTIKA TATTOOED ON THE BACK OF HIS HAND?

Well, I glibly reply, at least it wasn't on his forehead, a la, Charles Manson.

That's one thing I always like to credit Tesco with: at least they don't hire mass murdering leaders of neo-fascist cults. I mean, they do have their standards...

The more I think about this, the harder it is to make a moral judgement even as I feel it should really become easier. Even if it was only a tiny swastika, it was still a swastika and probably not a Hindu swastika. How can I rationalise beyond that?

Well, I could point out that he was polite and very helpful. That's what my gentler, calmer self would say. Even Tesco, otherwise rapacious and uncaring as they've been in every dealing with me, probably wouldn't tolerate a baton- wielding jackbooted anti-Semite behind their tills.

Yet another part of me screams: but it's a Swastika!

So, should I contact The Guardian? The Anti Fascist League? Should I demand that everybody stop visiting Tesco until they promise to stop hiring aging members of the National Front?

It that an overreaction or is it an under-reaction?

I asked my friends: what if he's an reformed fascist being misjudged by a tattoo he now regrets? Would you want to lose the guy his job because of that? What if he's got kids?

Well, my friends tell me, he could have got the tattoo replaced with something else. And I suppose they're right. We have more tattoo parlors in town that we have book shops by a factor of approximately 1 to infinity. (5 tattoo parlors. 0 bookshops). How difficult would it be to get something less offensive tattooed there? And, frankly, anything would be less offensive. I mean, think of the sickest vilest thing you could imagine and picture it on the back of a hand. Even that would be less offensive than a swastika.

So I guess my friends are right and it leaves me with a moral problem.

What would you do if somebody unveiled a swastika whilst handling your low-fat cheese? Do I have an obligation to make something out of this? People tell me that I do and that I should. But why me? Other people must see the swastika and think the same. Does nobody really care?

And that, I suppose, is the real question. Not just of this story but of every story that's out there. People care when it's something as novel, fun, celebrity-based as an ice bucket challenge. How many people would look at the hand, fingering their Eat Me Keep Me bananas, and associate it with the death of six million Jews in concentration camps, approximately 60 million people across the world or 2.5% of the Earth's population?

People care when something impacts directly on their family or their way of life. People care about fuel duty and iPhones that bend in their pockets. Many people don't really care when local services are cut to people too poor to defend themselves. They don't really care about much that's not the shape of an icon or beyond the reach of their thumb. Would anybody really make a fuss about a symbol of a very human evil that occurred over half a century ago?

Should I care that my local Tesco have hired a Nazi sympathizer. Does the guy deserve to earn a living? Times are hard.  Would anybody want to see somebody lose their job?

But, hell... Even if it was tiny and badly self-tattooed. It was a swastika. And in the words of the great wartime academic, Dr. I. Jones: 'Nazis... I hate these guys.'

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Two Types of Unity

Unity. Unity. Unity...

Seems ironic that I've been thinking about Unity so much recently without actually giving much thought to the unity of the country, currently threatened by the incompetence of naive wasters in Westminster who gave the Scottish independence movement enough advantages to turn what should have been a straightforward referendum producing a resolute 'NO' into a full blown political crisis lest they decide 'YES'.

Not that I'm unsympathetic to the nationalist cause. It's hard to argue in favour of the status quo when the status quo is as unfashionable as the real Status Quo. I understand why some people's wish to break the Union. Living here in the north of England is (arguably) worse than living in Scotland. It sometimes feels like we're sitting in the middle ground, as political debate flies over our heads. Westminster does actually listen to Scotland whilst ignoring the rest of the country.

Yet clearly something does need to be done to change a situation in which, for example, arts funding for London is £21.90 per head, whilst here in the North West, our arts are funded to the value of £5.06 per head (2012/13 figures). I've joked in the past about Sky News and their paper reviews but, when so many in the media talk about representation, nobody seems to notice how the news agenda is often directed (and commented upon) by small coteries of people who all sound the same. Simply too much of our national identity is tied into a London identity. Being British is too often seen as being a Londoner, in the same way, I suppose, those of us who live close to the Mersey are assumed to be Scouse, instead of being part of the surrounding areas, such as Lancashire, Cheshire, Manchester, or even Wales.

I should imagine that many of us have some Scottish blood. My own grandmother was Scottish. Yet even if there isn't a blood tie, Scotland has given us so much of what we should collectively feel proud. It's hard to pick apart our country without cutting deep into ancestral flesh. Many of my favourite writers are Scottish, so I suppose my thought processes are deeply influenced by that culture. Are we suddenly meant to feel less proud of Andy Murray or Sean Connery because they're suddenly from foreign soil? None of this makes sense. We're being led into an unnecessary quagmire by people making decisions that might last centuries based on fads, cults of personality, and acts of sheer bloody-mindedness.

I genuinely think it will be disastrous for Scotland to vote yes but it's especially sad to see people voting for their own ruin simply because Alex Salmond has managed to turn this debate into a chance to give Tories a bloody nose. It seems as dumb (or perhaps even as profound) as the reason one guy gave for voting 'no' on Newsnight  last night, which was he didn't want to lose 'Match of the Day'.

Simply put, so much of our identity is tied up with the Union that I hate to think of this country divided after centuries of productive harmony. There'll be no more chances to wave the 'red, white, and blue' once we've stripped the blue from our flags.




Meanwhile, Unity in PC land still means that I'm teaching myself more C#.

About a week ago, I thought it would be a cheerful thing to quickly create a simple game I could play with a friend. It started out as a joke, a minor distraction from my procedural city project which had been exhausting me. Last week was also dominated by long days travelling with my sister so she could see consultants, so I wasn't going to get much concentrated time at my PC.

Now that simple game is almost finished, I've run up against a huge problem.

I wrote the game because I wanted to do something involving multiplayer, which means I had to learn how to get machines talking to each other over the network. That's relatively easy to do in Unity and it took only an hour before my PC was moving objects around on my Android tablet via Wi-Fi.

Without going into too much detail, the game is a very simple game not entirely unlike snooker, moving objects using Unity's physics engine. It looked pretty good until I noticed that the game's progress being played out on one machine gradually began to look quite different to the game's state as seen on the other machine.

It was then that I began to understand the non-deterministic nature of modern computers.

It's probably dumb of me not to realise this earlier but I've never done network coding before. I would assume (not so much naively but idealistically) that one set of input fed into code running on one machine would produce exactly the same result as the same input fed into the very same come running on a different machine. Common sense dictates that it would be true. 1 plus 1 always equals 2...

Except, that isn't always entirely true.

One of the bigger bugs I struggled with a few months ago (unrelated to networks but simple maths) involved a problem I saw with floating point numbers. Some numbers were getting calculated wrong for no obvious reason.

The reason had to do with floating point errors. Some numbers are impossible to accurately store insider a computer's memory. Numbers which have extremely long (or sometimes infinitely long) mantissa (the fractional part after the decimal point) cannot be stored given the finite number of bits available. Irrational numbers, for example, can't even be stored as a ratio. The value of Pi is often written as 22/7 but that's an approximation, and it's certainly impossible to write the entire value since it (probably) goes on forever. One of my favourite parts of science fiction occurs in Carl Sagan's novel, Contact, where Pi is calculated to such a length that they reach a point where our original creators had hidden a message.

But I digress.

Because floating maths require some degree of approximation, different processors (and, by extension, difference compilers that create the machine code ready by processors) have different ways of approximating those numbers.

Usually, we don't notice this but when a physics engine starts to do thousands of calculations, those small fluctuations begin to produce big differences. So, for example, the way my PC calculates the friction of an object moving across a surface might produce a different velocity than that calculated by my Android tablet's processor running the very same code. The values differ by very small amounts but it's enough to make large changes. I suppose it's the old simile of the butterfly flapping its wings in New York and producing a storm in Tokyo. My PC might show a ball rolling into a pocket whereas on the Android it just clips the edge and fails to roll in. Since the game is multiplayer and both players are meant to be playing the same game in the same virtual space, this causes big problems.

So, this is where I am today, with a nearly functioning game that I'll have to re-engineer to ensure that only one machine does the calculations whilst the other produces movements in all the game objects based on a hell of a load of numbers I'll have to send over the network.

I suppose, if I had time, I might explain how this is all an apt metaphor for the problems of devolution, nationalism, and our Westminster elite. However, I hope that my floating point errors will be much easier to fix.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Wednesday Quiz

Among the usual junk pushed through the letterbox this morning was a perennial favourite. It's a catalogue published by the good people of Brightlife, who certainly add a little brightness to my life. I'm a real sucker for these gadget catalogues which sell everything from (quickly thumbs randomly through tissue-like pages) stretchy belts to (thumbs again, avoiding the incontinent Wellington boots) remote control video drones. Everything they sell is a work of almost-genius, such as the woolly hat with inbuilt LED spotlight: precisely the kind of gadget you think would have made the inventor a fortune if the idea wasn't also batshit crazy.

Reading the catalogue made me pause over my morning Weetabix which, for some unknown reason, had attempted to detour down the wrong tube. I spluttering a bit and my eyes filled with tears. It was a strange kind of asphyxiation because I also found myself howling with laughter. However, it did give me a new idea for a quiz.

So, see if you can spot what's wrong in this genuine picture of a page taken from this morning's catalogue. You should be warned. If you're anything like me, it might make you choke on a Weetabix.

[If you need a clue, I'm looking for an object which is quite possibly being used incorrectly.]

[If you need another clue: it's not the socks.]

Mislabelled objects

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Explicit Stupidity

I keep writing things that I intend to post but get sidetracked, so I'm making a conscious decision to write something quickly, post it immediately, and only begin to regret it later. It might get me back into the habit of blogging again. I miss regular blogging.

Blogging is about the immediate response, so this is my immediate response to today's news but I suppose I also find myself writing because I feel confused in my thoughts and writing is a good way to see myself clear of that confusion. I'm confused about these naked photographs of some pretty famous (though, I admit, to me, insignificant) people that have been released onto the web by a hacker. The first thing I'm meant to say is that I think it's a terrible invasion of their privacy and that the hacker(s) need to be made to suffer. That is shorthand for all the hand wringing I'm meant to do before I can discuss anything more significant such as the fact that I can't help but feel bemused that people in such famous positions would put themselves in such positions, usually on their back, naked, and lit seductively from one side while not wearing their knickers.

It is, however, a perennial problem with technology that rich people buy (or are often given) expensive toys without fully understanding (or learning) what they really do. This, after all, was the reason why the phone hacking scandal started, as the rich and famous used expensive phones without learning to do something as simple and important as change their pin number. The current scandal is little more than an extension of that. Many gadgets are automatically connected to 'The Cloud' yet too few people actually bother to learn what that means: that their private data (including data of the knickerless variety) is being stored on a server somewhere where somebody with mastery of the technology can access it. Note to the rich and famous: if you do want to photograph your vulva(the reason isn't important though remains a mystery to me), go into the your phone's settings and deselect 'Backup photos to Cloud'. It seems self-evidently obvious once you put it into those terms.

The second thing to note about these photographs is how society has devolved (or evolved, depending on your point of view) into a culture where nothing seems to exist until it's photographed. I hate (and actively refuse) to have my photograph taken, even when I'm fully dressed and in a dark room. Not that I have a Victorian sensibility about anything, though I do begin to wonder if Victoria and Albert (notoriously active and open about their sexual life) would have posed in front of a bathroom mirror playing with each other's genitals. Probably they would. People say, of course, that these photographs (like so many sex tapes before them) were meant to be private between a couple, but it appears to be an extension of the 'selfie' syndrome, a psychological extension of the endless need for fame and celebrity in which the self doesn't really exist in any form (intellectually, sexually, or spiritually) unless it exists inside the memory of a mobile phone.

Do these stars really feel violated that their most intimate parts of their bodies are now visible to the world? Perhaps they do and I feel sorry for them, though perhaps they can rest easy knowing that one nipple looks pretty much the same as the next. There really are few parts of the body that the internet haven't made everyday and mundane. From hardcore pornography to beheadings, the body has lost so much of its mystery that really, in the grand scheme of things, we aren't seeing something that we haven't already seen before and usually larger and well oiled. These photographs will be forgotten tomorrow except by a few sad people who will always be excited by these things. The next evolutionary stage of our collective sexuality will be the internal organs and I suspect in the next ten years, some actor will be complaining that intimate photographs of his newly tattooed spleen have been leaked onto the internet. We have come a long way from the tantalising shots of Bo Derek running down a beach in '10' or a brief glimpse of Barbara Winsor's breasts circa 1965. There is a difference between explicit and erotic and we definitely live in an explicit age and I fear there's just no going back.