Banff Film Festival

I was at the Banff film festival last night, which went on for much, much longer than I expected. Anyway it was very enjoyable, the fly fishing film Eastern Rises was really good.

Follow Me, a mountain bike movie, for which I had already seen a trailer, didn’t disappoint. It had some stunning footage, makes me want to mountain bike again.

The Swiss Machine covered Ueli Steck, the guy who done the North Face of the Eiger in less than 3 hrs. He’s amazing and almost by default so is the film.

Finally, I’ll also mention the short but humorous Parking Garage. For a full list of films see the Banff website.

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UK employment and government cuts

I rant quite often about how journalists and people just take the numbers and statistics given to them at face value. People rarely question them and very often conflicting numbers never get questioned nor does anyone inspect the detail. Even if someone does inspect the detail, such as the IFS, then the government either says their work is a ringing endorsement or shouts lots and says their figures fail to include important items and when included, this really is a good policy rather than a bad one. The nation is simply not mathematically literate enough. Thus I fully expect this to be completely ignored. There is no need to read on.

As we all know the UK economy  is in a bit of a pickle. We are running a budget deficit of around 11.4% per year which is quickly mounting up. Clearly the government has to take action as we can’t borrow that much every year indefinitely. The argument of course is about how much to cut and whether said cuts will cause the economy to fall over again. Even with the coalitions speedy and hefty cuts, government debt is not expected to be back to pre-recession levels until 2030! We are going to be paying for quite some time.

I’m not going to spend time discussing policy, instead I’m going to focus on one thing, employment. The government cuts will result in around 0.5 million public sector workers losing their jobs. That’s roughly 1 in every 60 people employed (and this ignores any related private sector job losses). The government has said that the private sector will create the necessary jobs to keep all these people employed. But can this be true? To try and find out I’ve been digging through some ONS numbers.

The graph above shows a couple of things, firstly employment has been growing pretty steadily since 1991 to 2008. This is partly through a greater percentage of the population working and partly via population growth. If we assume that we want to get back to the happy pre-recession period then we need employment to recover and continue to grow at the underlying rate. This is my first assumption, unfortunately there is a rather large blip in the mid-eighties which might lead you to question it but I think it is reasonable. Thus I am suggesting that we would like everyone who wants a job to be able to find one. Hence by 2015 we would like to see 31 million people employed in the UK (though this ignores the governments plans to try and get significant numbers off benefits and back to work).

The second thing to note is that the majority of this increase in the total number of employed has come from the private sector. Public sector employment has oscillated from 5.5 million to 5 million before climbing back up to 5.5 million it is today. I find that in itself quite amazing given how much of the public sector has be outsourced or sold of and privatised since the nineties. There is presumably a lot of public sector workers doing a lot less work or we have created a lot of additional beacurcy.

As we are concerned about what is going to happen to these 0.5 million public sector workers over the next five years it makes sense to look at the changes in employment over a 5 year time scale. Which is exactly what I have plotted up in the next graph including an extrapolation out to 2015 assuming we sack the previously mentioned number of public sector employes and bring employment up to trend again by 2015.

Thus we can see that the private sector will have to create 2.5 million jobs over the next 5 years. Is that possible? Well coming out of the recession in the nineties and into the dot com boom generated 2 million jobs. We’re looking for a 25 % improvement on this.

There does appear to be some correlation between public and private sector, notably when the public sector has been falling before, the private sector has appeared to increase at a greater rate.

Can it happen, well it is a difficult call, in the late nineties credit was becoming readily available and very cheap, it is unlikely we will see such availability of credit from the banks in the next five years. This will make it hard for companies to get hold of cash to expand/startup etc. Of course at some point I believe the Bank of England will have to increase interest rates to deal with inflation and to normalise rates, having them close to zero indefinitely is not a good idea. Hence the cost of borrowing is likely to go up in the next 5 years. On the other hand you have to account for the fact that people lost jobs during the recession so coming out of a recession will naturally result in a greater increase in jobs.

I think if a second significant dip in the economy can be avoided (which I’m not sure about at all) then 2-2.5 million jobs seems feasible given the depth of the recession and previous trends. I would be highly surprised if it came in over that, which probably spells trouble, either for some of those public sector workers or the governments plans to get people of benefits and back to work. Either way if the coalition lasts till 2015 there will be plenty of criticism for them going into the next election. If it doesn’t last till 2015 there will probably be even more criticism.

The one thing I’ve learnt from this little exercise is that it’s hard to find the numbers you want to use (probably because we didn’t record them) and this makes attempting to extrapolate them a complete hit and miss affair. Such is economics.

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Why do I get ads in software I’ve paid for?

An immensely annoying feature of iLife 09 and specifically iPhoto 09 is that it you don’t subscribe to MobileMe you get pop up adds for it as shown below. Why oh why oh why? This is driving me around the bend slightly. If I wanted to use MobileMe I would have subscribed long ago.. endless alert boxes asking me to is not going to encourage me.

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New Blog

Just to confuse people I’ve moved my blog to here. I’m playing around with a new blogging engine (Tumblr) that makes it easier to quickly post various things, but it is perhaps less good, than WordPress, at doing long boring detail.

Posted in Web Site Development | Leave a comment

First winter walk in Scotland

Last weekend I travelled up to Glen Coe to join some members of the Lomond Mountaineering Club for my first bit of proper winter mountaineering. The weather turned out to be much better than forecast with plenty of snow on the mountains. Overall it was a fairly short walk in the Mamores up Na Gruagaichean along the ridge, but the snow was quite soft underfoot making it fairly tiring work. Also got to make use of my crampons for the first time since getting them at Christmas.

Some pictures below.

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Samsung SyncMaster XL2370 Review

So post PhD I decided it was time to spend a bit of cash on myself, this involved buying a new monitor. That monitor was a Samsung XL2370, which is their first consumer LED monitor. Before I talk about the monitor let me explain my purchasing logic. I am a scientist by training, I’ve read a lot of peer reviewed papers over the years, I’ve even written and reviewed a couple. So I have a good grip of what the scientific process is and I know what it takes to get a paper published. It’s rare that people get to publish stuff that is completely unfounded, peer review generally kills this off. You can also work out what the current scientific consensus is on an issue by quickly surveying the literature. Thus to me, based on what I’ve read in the scientific press global warming is entirely real, and hence very much a problem. There is no question that the planet is getting warmer, and unless you are feeling particularly sick and twisted and decide to look at the data with one eye closed through a bottle of Smirnoff the temperature rise is due to us. This is the scientific consensus. Everything suggesting this is not the case is put forward by the media or lobby groups or other bodies who don’t bother with data, evidence and peer review.

Anyway global warming will be a problem. As such I have a simple rule. If I’m replacing an electrical item I replace it with something more energy efficient and environmentally friendly if at all possible. Thus when it came to deciding what to replace my 4 year old 19 inch Formac monitor with, an LED backlit monitor was the obvious choice. I also wanted to go widescreen and larger (in order to maintain a similar vertical height). There’s a lack of LED backlite monitors at the minute. Apple have one, but it’s glass covered and costs a fortune. Granted it’s based upon an IPS (In-Plane Switching) panel therefore guaranteeing excellent colour accuracy and the best viewing angle possible. It’s also at a tasty 1920×1200. In the end the cost and the glass ruled it out (I can’t stand the reflections). So that leaves LG, Dell and Samsung. Others are on their way, but as I sat and considered what to get these were the options. The LG got reviewed okay, the Dell did better and the Samsung seemed to be everyone’s favourite. Also I just didn’t like the look of the LG monitor. Thus I agonised over the Dell or the Samsung, unfortunately there isn’t a store that I could pop out to and have a look at the displays. I have a Dell UltraSharp in work and this is a brilliant monitor, but in the end I opted for the Samsung, slightly nervous about it’s TN (Twisted Nematic) panel. Tough to be fair the Dell and LG also use TN panels.

So I ordered it, it arrived and I was instantly disappointed. The tilt on the monitor is almost impossible to use. In order to tilt the screen you need someone to hold the base while the other person grabs the two corners and pulls the monitor upwards. You feel for certain that the thing is going to break. It also makes it impossible to set the angle with any sort of precision. This appears to be a common problem. On the upside when you have set the angle it’s not going to slip. The next downside is the weight, the monitor weighs next to nothing and the stand has no ballast so it’s quite easy for knocks on the table etc to make the monitor wobble. Even typing on my IKEA table makes it vibrate, though oddly I don’t find this annoying. The stand is sturdy enough that the monitor won’t fall over at least. Next up in is the OSD (On Screen Display) and touch sensitive buttons. A lot of people seem to complain about these. Personally I’d no real problem, the Formac had touch sensitive buttons, which perhaps responded better due to their larger size but it’s much of a muchness. Honestly, how often do you end up changing your monitor settings anyway? What does erk me though is the LED power light. It’s brightness is fine (and controllable) but the light is designed to line up with the power symbol when view directly. As you are always viewing it from above it simply doesn’t line up which I find slightly irritating.

See what I mean, it just doesn't line up..

And while I’m on the subject of sad things, Samsung seem to feel that I should assemble a European plug into a UK plug that looks like it has gained all the weight that the monitor lost during the LED transition. Ship a proper UK plug please.

For the money it should come with a proper UK plug.

Finally we get onto the display itself. Here my greatest fear came to fruition. Colour consistency is just a bit naff. The Formac had a MVA (Multi-domain Vertical Alignment) panel, which basically sits somewhere between TN and IPS in terms of performance. You could maybe question how true the colours are but at least they are consistent across the screen (with viewing angle). With the TN panel this just isn’t the case. Open a drawing program, draw a grey box at the top of the screen, copy it and move it to the bottom and you’ll see a different shade of grey. This was depressing. At this point I seriously considered sending the monitor back. Though the thing is, I rarely do much graphics work, unlike my brother I’m not an artist who cares about colour accuracy and consistency every day. Occasionally I knock up some stuff for a web page or presentation and of course there is the matter of tweaking photos, though it is much less noticeable here. I should also point out that TN panels don’t provide as many colours as an IPS panel, but what you can’t see doesn’t tend to bug you so much. In the end I didn’t feel I could justify spending much more for a better panel technology.

As you can see the grey boxes at the top are darker than those at the bottom despite being identical.

On the upside the monitor is very pretty, the LED backlight is very white and very bright. I have my brightness turned down to 45 %. It uses about 20-25 W with the settings I have, compared with the 38 W for the smaller Formac. The extra screen space was at first overwhelming, plus the change in aspect ratio felt uncomfortable. I’ve gone from 1280×1024 to 1920×1080. However, the main reason for the switch to wide screen was to enable me to read in one window while typing in another. It was either that or a two monitor setup. I have to say, I’ve gotten used to the extra space very quickly. Video play back is impressive with DVDs and HD content of the BBC iPlayer looking very crisp and clean. Plus blacks are that bit blacker. On the whole if I had to score the monitor out of 5 I’d give it 3.5. It loses half a point for the ridiculously stiff hinge that controls the tilt plus the cheap, assemble your own, UK plug. It looses another point between the TN panel, which does not provide consistent colour across the screen and the reasonable price premium for the LED backlight.

In summary then if you care about colour, avoid and spend more on an IPS panel. If you need height adjust or regularly change the angle of your screen, avoid as there is no height adjust and the hinge is rubbish. If you don’t care about these and want an efficient, bright, crisp and pretty monitor for use at home then the Samsung is probably a pretty good choice. If you are in no rush then I suspect the situation will be much better by the end of 2010. By then many more manufactures will offer LED models and the number of models available from each manufacturer will improve significantly. I would also expect that prices will fall a bit unless the global recession results in significant inflation. Hence by the end of the year you will probably be able to find the prefect LED monitor for your needs.

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A New Year

Well it’s been very silent from me on the web site/blog front for some time now. In fact, since I began writing up my PhD I’ve not posted anything. You’ll be glad to hear that I submitted my PhD at the stat of May last year, had my viva in September and then finally got my corrections all agreed in early November. There was a bit of faffing while I waited for the go-ahead to print. Eventually I was able to order up printed copies, they arrived in early December at which point the required printed and digital copy was submitted. I’m still waiting for some sort of official piece of paper to confirm the whole process. However for me the submission of the printed copied marked my PhD as being truly done and dusted. Rachel and I went out to celebrate.

If you are interested you can download and read my PhD from here.

So you may wonder if I submitted back in May why haven’t I been more in touch with the world. Well the simple answer is work, it’s been hectic. My plan had always been to try and finish my PhD in 3 years. So in the summer before last I started looking around for jobs and eventually accepted an offer to start work in November 2008. Unfortunately writing up took a bit longer than I hoped, possibly because I was writing too much and getting stuck trying to get simulations to agree nicely with my experimental results. Popping to Canada for Gus’s wedding didn’t help and then rather sadly my Granny Mary passed away in September. When I started work I had about 6 pages of one experimental chapter left to write along with another complete experimental chapter and my conclusion. At the rate I had been writing I knew there was probably about a months work, if I was doing my normal thesis writing i.e. all day, every day of the week. November was a write off as most of my stuff was still in London (Rachel moved up in December) and I lacked an internet connection. December and January were hectic in work and I think it was around February before I got those six pages written. What followed was months of working during the day at my job to come home and spend my nights and weekends writing that remaining chapter. That sucked and that chapter is by and far the weakest of my thesis and caused me the most grief in my viva. In the end I took a week off at the end of April to finish the whole thing off and get it submitted. I can only recommend that you should avoid trying to write up the end of a PhD whilst working. It drags the whole thing out and saps your will to live even more than normal.

Work was very busy for me in 2009. I’m now working for Coherent in Scotland which means I’m now living up in Glasgow rather than sunny warm London. You may think that London is not famed for being sunny and warm, this is true but compared to Glasgow it is. For instance the temperature has hardly crept much above zero in Glasgow for the last couple of weeks. Summer and most of the year consists mainly of rain. I didn’t think it would be so bad, after all I grew up in Northern Ireland, not exactly famed for being warm and dry. But Glasgow is definitely wetter and colder and if you don’t believe me have a look at the Met Office Data. Apart from the cold and wet weather, Glasgow is quite a pleasant place. It’s a fairly small city (though it is the 4th biggest city in the UK, there’s just such a big difference between London and everywhere else). The suburbs definitely sprawl and a lot of people in work seem to commute in from somewhere else, but the city centre is fairly compact and easy enough to walk across if you’re fit. The one big plus point of Glasgow is that it is close to some great mountains and easy to get out off.

Well that’s enough for this post. Hopefully I’ll start to post some more. I can’t be completely disconnected from the digital world:)

Posted in Home, Work | 1 Comment

Thesis tools

Not that anyone cares of course, but I’ve now started to write up my PhD. I spent a long time agonising over whether to use Word or LaTex. In the end the lack of decent reference management tools for Word persuaded me that I should just learn LaTex and get on with it.  Yes I know Endnote exists, I also know there’s citation available with in Word now and yes I’m also aware of Bookends and Zotero. I’ve not used Bookends in real anger nor Zotero and Word 2008’s reference management is rather limited and frustrating to use. 

So LaTex uses Bibtex for reference management and it’s fairly simple. Bibtex generates a flat text file with all you references formatted the way you want and then merges them into LaTex for you.. well it’s typeset LaTex, Bibtex, LaTex, LaTex. The nice thing about it is that unlike Endnote it’s simple and you don’t find the interface crashing or refusing to let you edit things. But still things aren’t idea. My workflow currently looks like this.

  • OS is Mac OS X 10.5.3 with MacTex 2007 installed
  • I’m currently using TexShop for editing my LaTex files because it’s nice and simple. Output is pdftex.
  • I’m managing all the journal papers I need with Papers, which is in essence iTunes for journal papers. I’m using it to export the references to Bibtex.
  • However papers doesn’t fully support all the features of Bibtex so I’m also using BibDesk. It’s be nice if you could use just papers.
  • I’ve also installed Skim to enable commenting on PDFs similar to what you can do with Zotero
  • I’m using VectorDesigner for my vector graphics, it’s not as powerful as Illustrator, but it is easier and quicker to use not to mention cheaper. Plus I’m not sure I want to spend ages drawing really beautiful figures.
  • Pixelmator is sitting in the sidelines for the odd bit of raster work. Again it’s a cut down version of Photoshop. So far I’ve not needed it.
  • Plotting is taking place in Origin 8 which means I also need Windows installed. This is under Virtual Box which unlike VMware and Parallels is free. The interface isn’t as refined though. Origin definitely isn’t the ideal plotting program but a lot of my data is already in Origin and it’s very quick to use.
  • MacPython with numpy, scipy, matplotlib and ipython is there for generating some plots and more importantly simulating various things. The output is often saved to text files and then plotted up in Origin. Partly because re-plotting all my data in matplotlib would be too time consuming.
  • I also have GraphClick there for lifting the odd bit of data from someone else’s paper.
  • Finally my entire set of thesis files is under version control using Mercurial. This allows me to commit regularly and revert if needed. It’s also pushed onto a web server so I can sync across my home machine and college machine.

So that’s it at the minute. I should note that everything was also under Time Machine, but due to a lack of spare hard drives currently isn’t. Though that will be resolved shortly. It’s quite a lot of software and that’s before you include the everyday tools such as the web browser, pdf viewer, mail client and of course Office as a lot of my older papers and conference presentations are in Word and Powerpoint.

Posted in Apple, Work | Tagged | 1 Comment

New Hat

Well I’ve had my hat for 12 years and it has to be said, it has perhaps, seen better days. Recently it has started to develop a hole in the top of it, at the point were I tend to grab it unsurprisingly. After all these years though, it’s still water proof (fur is a truly amazing thing) and still keeps the sun of me. However, Rachel got me a new one for my birthday which was very exciting. Not only does it fit better (having not shrunk with years of use in the wet British weather), but it looks much better. Just in case anyone is wondering, my hats are made by Akubra.

My new AkubraMy 12 year old Akubra

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Camden Crawl

I was at the Camden Crawl on Friday. We seen: The Black Tricks (a presumably unsigned band but really quite good.. very loud though), Lucy and the caterpillar (totally unimpressed so much so we left half way through her set), Agaskodo Teliverek (best described as weird looking. The vocal mix was awful so hard to say..), The Shortwave Set (who where really good and the sound was excellent), Sam Issac (can’t remember a single song), Fratellis (they didn’t seem to be that bothered.. or perhaps that was just me), and Robyn (who was probably better than the Fratellis but her songs aren’t as good).

There are several issues with the Camden Crawl though. One we had to queue for almost an hour in the cold just to get our wrist bands.. surely this can be dealt with more efficiently. That was annoying. The next thing is that the tickets are sold as day tickets, but not much happens, in fact pretty much nothing happens until 6.45 pm when the bands start to kick off. There’s a lot of venues and a lot of bands, starting at lunch time and having two sets in the day would a) allow people to see a lot more bands b) actually make it an all day long event. I’m torn as to whether I’d go again. I quite wanted to see SoKo but due to scheduling that just didn’t happen:( Oh well. 

I’m not really one for festivals so perhaps I’m just being to harsh on the Camden Crawl but I would recommend the Sundae on the Common to anyone who likes music and has kids.. or just really likes ice cream.

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