Tuesday, February 23, 2010

No clever puns ... I can't stop laughing long enough

Thanks to @robertpopper, @jasonarnopp and @saliwho on Twitter who made me aware of it.

Enjoy this? Then you might also enjoy Whistlin' Jack Smith and a man who farts the hits of Aha with his hands. Oh yes, all human life is on this blog. Just click here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Never judge a spook by its coverage

You may have seen this image in the papers in the past day or so. It purports to be a ghost, caught on camera at Gwrych Castle in Wales. The man who took the shot, Kevin Horkin, told The Sun newspaper, 'I did feel a presence there. ' He now wants to investigate further with a ghost hunting team. Already, an expert has suggested that it is the ghost of Winifred, countess of Dundonald.
Photos like this turn up from time to time (The Sun actually prints their 'Top Ten' here) and, whenever they do, there's the inevitable flurry of speculation about the ghost's identity. Close behind these professional guessers come the hordes of so-called 'experts' who, having been raised on re-runs of Ghostbusters, come out of the shadows with their divining rods and weird electronic devices to try to convince us all that (a) there is an afterlife and (b) that those who have 'passed on' occasionally want to contact us. And, after all the furore and blather has died down, we are all left with exactly the same amount of proof of the existence of ghosts as before: Zero.

Undoubtedly some of you out there do believe in ghosts and similar phenomena. That's fine by me; I won't think anything bad of you. Everyone is entitled to believe whatever they want. But that's the point isn't it? It's 'belief' not 'fact'. And while I'm more than happy to open-mindedly look at any evidence, no matter how curious it may be, I do still require some proof. The only evidence put forward for the Gwrych ghost is that the floor in the upstairs room has long since disappeared so the 'wraith-like' figure is apparently floating on air. While that may sound compelling it does pre-suppose that the image is actually that of a girl standing there and not some curious double exposure. And while I have no cause to question Mr Horkin's honesty, a great many such shots have been proved to be fakes in the past - think Cottingley Fairies or the 'Doctor's Photo' of the Loch Ness Monster. In this age of a billion Photoshoppers I'd like that option to be explored long before calling out Derek Acorah.

Unfortunately, showbiz always trumps science these day and I suspect that Mr Horkin's specialist ghost hunting team will be unregulated, untrained and unscientific; the kinds of people who love to make all kinds of unsubstantiated claims and expect us all to accept their word as fact. For example, the idea that the ghost could be Countess Winifred sounds plausible when told to us by 'an expert'. But who is this expert? Upon what evidence are they basing this conclusion? Looking at extant portraits of the countess, she bears no similarity whatsoever to the Horkin photo, which shows a young woman looking remarkably contemporary.

Why does a photo like this become newsworthy? Surely it's because of rarity. Which is a real puzzle to me. Why aren't we inundated with high quality images of ghosts, demons, Bigfoots, the Loch Ness monster, aliens, UFOs and Chupacabras? As I discussed in a previous post (here), we are surrounded by digital cameras and phone cameras and webcams and our every twitch is being recorded on CCTV 24/7/365. We should be seeing millions of photos like Mr Horkin's shot. But we're not are we? Why not?

Surely it's not because such apparitions are rare; it's because, rarer still, our cameras occasionally go mechanically doolally and record something odd. It happens. I have two examples here myself:

This one turned up on my daughter's digital camera a couple of years ago and appears, if you choose to interpret it this way, to be a woman (some have said a skull) facing left and having long hair or a shroud or headscarf. Trust me, probably no ghosts involved.


This second one turned up on the end of a roll of film in 1999 and is maybe a woman in a blue dress? It's certainly no one I know and I don't remember taking any shot that would result in this picture. But I am pretty convinced that the dead weren't posing for me. For a start, it would have been taken in a house built in 1985. Hardly the venue for bloody murder and restless spirits.

I'd love to believe that when I pop my clogs, I'll get to go on to a new life. Wouldn't that be great? There's so much I'm going to miss if my death really is the end of my existence forever. But if the best evidence anyone's managed to produce in 5000 years of civilisation is a few dodgy photographs, I'm not holding out much hope for getting my wings.

I may just not bother with the harp lessons after all.

Friday, February 05, 2010

To de-bug or Not to de-bug? That was the question ...

Hello all you people over 10 years old. Remember the Millennium Bug? The Y2K Problem? Do you still recall the panic about what would happen at the stroke of Midnight on the 31st December 1999? Oh I do.

In researching my new book, I've been doing lots of reading. And I've interviewed a number of fascinating people, one of whom was Dr Adam Burgess, an expert on risk, who works at the University of Kent. We discussed all manner of subjects from the National Lottery to child abduction, drinks spiking to deep vein thrombosis. We also touched on the Millennium Bug and, since then, I've been doing some more in-depth research.

If you don't remember (or, sensibly, ignored the whole kerfuffle), the problem touted was that all of the world's computers would go gaga on January 1st 2000. You see, in the early days of computing, memory was at a premium. we think nothing of carrying around 1, 2, 4 even 8GB flash drives in our pockets. Yet in 1969, the computer that helped put man on the Moon filled a room and had a 32KB memory. When I bought my first IBM 286 PC in the mid 1980s, it had a 40MB hard drive and I wondered how I'd ever fill it up. One typed character equates to one bit or byte of memory. So 1GB of memory equates to one million characters or 1000MB. That's quite a lot of data storage. But back in the days when computers were 32KB or less, that only allowed for 32,000 characters and, in programming, that's not a lot to play with. Consequently, any saving was good. Back then, just as today, every file you create on a computer was automatically timed and dated. Therefore, the early programmers decided to format the date as YYMMDD with the year as only two digits. It saved oodles of memory ... but also created the Y2K problem.

What concerned people was how computers would interpret the date '00'. Would they see it as the year 2000? Or 1900? Or maybe even 19100? Would the computers cope with it at all? Almost immediately, the doomsayers came out of their caves waving 'The end is nigh' placards and predicting unplanned missile launches, planes falling from the skies, worldwide banking collapses, zombie hordes roaming the streets and the breakdown of civilisation as we know it.

American IT consultancy The Gartner Group stated that, ‘30% of companies worldwide will see some critical software fail because of the date problem [and that] the error could end up costing the world’s companies and governments $600 billion to fix.’ Technology Business Reports, a Californian market-research firm, went further with estimated costs of more than $2 trillion. But by factoring in lawsuits and loss of production and business, some companies suggested even higher losses; Boston’s Software Productivity Research suggested a staggering $3.6 trillion.

UK readers may remember Richard Branson and other luminaries imploring us to prepare for Y2K. Margaret Beckett was appointed as the government's Y2K Compliance Minister and said that she was leading 'the largest co-ordinated project since the Second World War.' In America, Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy hosted a 48 minute documentary called ‘Y2K – The Family Survival Guide’ that discussed, ‘the possible effects on the future of civilisation; effects that are so complex that perhaps only Chaos Theory can calculate the multiple ramifications of what could occur.’

Books were published with alarming titles like ‘The Y2K personal survival guide’ and ‘The Millennium Bug: How to survive the coming chaos’. This second book, by Michael S Hyatt (of which I have a much-prized copy - see above), is summed up in a review by Amazon’s David Wall: ‘Move to a small town with a volunteer fire department, stockpile food, secure access to a reliable source of fresh water, and buy a gun and ammunition for fending off looters. The winter of 1999-2000, Hyatt predicts, will be a hard one, and the crisis may last a long time indeed’. Insurance companies offered expensive packages to cover potential loss and lawyers geared themselves up for a tidal wave of litigation and reparation. Software engineers developed Y2K-friendly programmes and sold them by the millions. Companies invested in brand new servers and computer networks. Survivalist-related retailers reported big increases in sales of guns, dried foods and toilet paper.

How much we all spent in preparing for Y2K is hard to estimate but some figures put it at $300 billion in the USA alone. But it was worth it surely?

Well, things did happen on January 1st 2000 ... In Osaka, Japan, a telecommunications company reported that their date management system had broken down (They had it fixed by 3am). In Australia, the bus ticketing systems in two states stopped working properly. In Delaware, USA, 150 slot machines at a race track broke down. In France, the national weather forecasting system displayed the year as 19100 as did the website of the official US timekeeper, the Naval Observatory. In South Korea a district court summoned 170 people to court on the 4th of January 1900. In Italy Telecom Italia sent out bills for the first two months of 1900 and in the UK a small number of credit card transactions failed. And that, pretty much, was it. No chaos. No breakdown of society. No zombies. No problem. In fact, the only even vaguely serious issue appears to have been a failure in the radiation monitoring system at a nuclear power plant in Ishikawa, Japan. Even then, there was no leak, no danger to the public and the issue was swiftly resolved.

There has been much speculation ever since about what happened that day. On one side of the fence there are those who claim that all of the preparations that were made paid off handsomely. US Y2K trouble-shooter John Koskinen said that, ‘The remarkable lack of problems amazed even those who were confident of a successful date rollover into the new millennium. I would say I’m pleasantly surprised.’ Basil Logan, chair of the Y2K Readiness Commission in New Zealand, claimed that, ‘New Zealand's investment in planning and preparation has paid off.’ And the Gartner Group, who had predicted huge losses for non-compliant companies, agreed: ‘The reason we're in the position we're in is because we spent that money. Had we not spent this money, we would be facing worldwide calamity.’

But on the other side of the debate are those who point to countries like Italy and Korea that did virtually nothing to prepare and suffered no lasting ill effects whatsoever. The prestigious Wall Street Journal called Y2K ‘The hoax of the century’ and Gil Schwartz, writing as his columnist alter-ego Stanley Bing, commented in Fortune magazine: ‘It is clear by now that the nations, companies, and individuals that did nothing because they were too stupid to prepare for the Y2K global disaster fared exactly as well as AT&T, which reportedly spent more than $500 million on the problem. In Burkina Faso and Tasmania and Totowa, New Jersey, it was all the same. That is, it was nothing. Not even a small burp that could make us say, ‘Gee, it was a non-event, but at least we didn't have that little gas problem to contend with.’ In short, we were had. Our fear of numbers and cosmic occurrences was played masterfully by nuts of all varieties, and we fell, just as tonsured monks trembled before the end of the world that was coming at the turn of the year 1000. And now? Now, I'm afraid, I am not amused.’ In the UK, Peter Lilley MP asked: ‘How much was spent from the public purse on steps to (a) encourage UK businesses to prepare for the millennium date change and (b) prevent problems attributable to the millennium bug in the public sector.’ Cabinet office minister Tessa Jowell was non-committal in her answer: ‘The detailed information requested is not held centrally and could be obtained only at disproportionate cost.’

So was there a problem that was successfully solved? Or is it the case that there was never actually a problem in the first place and that a lot of time, money and hard work were wasted in preparing for nothing? The fact is, no one knows. And there has been a surprising lack of detailed analysis of the event, something that some conspiracy theorists claim is due a shame-faced joint cover-up between government and big business.

One wag on the BBC’s H2G2 website posted his own unique theory: ‘Perhaps the only machines affected were time machines, which would explain why nobody visited us from the future to allay our concerns.’

So what do you think? I'd be interested to hear. What I'd particularly like to know is ... what if we were told today that a similarly huge issue would affect us all in 2015? Would we invest so heavily again? Especially in the wake of so many 'non-event' potential catastrophes like heterosexual AIDS in the 1980s, Bird Flu, Salmonella in eggs, Mad Cow Disease, Swine Flu ...

Your comments are invited and, as always, will undoubtedly be a joy to read.