Sunday 31 January 2016

#139 Exposure

Yesterday evening, I was stood at Kemsing station, waiting for a delayed train to go visit my dad. It was about five degrees and some of the other travellers had decided they'd rather wait in the cafe than outside. I contemplated doing the same. In fact, I walked into the cafe and took a look at their wares. 

I felt guilty doing that. Had I thought more about my needs before entering the cafe, I might have been able to save the employee the trouble of wondering, as I suspect she might have, whether or not I realistically intended to buy something. I didn't. I returned to the platform.

It's not that I was completely uncomfortable using the warmth of the cafe despite not buying anything. Rather, I couldn't be bothered to weigh up the ethics of the situation. It was easier just to wait outside. After all, it was a typical English winter, not an ice age. Waiting for a train for fifteen minutes at a temperature above zero was hardly going to do me any harm. There were times when it seemed our house wasn't all that much warmer.

I am fascinated by the extent to which adults can become defensively accustomed to their living situations. I noticed it recently when I was tasked with helping to organise a large conference. I was got to observe the reactions of my colleagues when told that some of the accommodation had shared bathrooms.

The scenarios that my workmates were able to imagine and vocalise in response to the message were quite thought-provoking. By their thirties and forties, for many people, it's been a while since they shared any kind of living quarters with someone other than their immediate family.

Thursday 21 January 2016

#138 Vice

I got greeted by a street walker earlier this week. I didn't really think there were any in this city. I mean, have you ever seen one?

She waved at me first, smiling and then called "hey baby". I waved back but carried on up the road. I'm not always so courteous to strangers, especially when they try and sell me something.

Red lights in windows aren't particularly hard to find if you know where to look. Red sites on Windows Internet Explorer are more accessible and more legal. Red tights standing on corners? It's not as warm or as safe. I wonder what the rate would've been.

My parents don't own smartphones. There are banks that still use fax machines. Wimpy still exists. In a fictitious sort of way, a part of me found it quite quaint to be touted by a whore on the way from the barber's to the tube station.

We might be reassured by what the world's oldest profession has in common with the world's most overpaid profession. Past a certain age, most of them will be naturally be moving on to other careers.

Saturday 16 January 2016

#137 A review of... blockchain?

"By 2025, instead of burying their nuts in the ground, the squirrels will be encrypting them so cleverly that they can just leave them out in the open. They'll know exactly where they are, how many there are and nobody will be able to steal them."

To break down the word itself, we might start by thinking of blockchain as a chain of blocks. That's a good starting point.

Now imagine a chain of blocks of data. The data hasn't just been put into blocks, it's been encoded into blocks. Inside each block is four pieces of data: a transaction (eg. a banking payment where person A owes person B £10), a time stamp of when the transaction was created, a proof of work code (an intricate code used for validation of the legitimacy of the transaction and the way it was encoded or, if you like, a digital signature) and a reference to the previous block in the chain, because these blocks are chained up sequentially, just like invoices are numbered sequentially in general accounting.

So why go through the hassle of grouping transactions into these so-called "blocks" at all? Why not just have them in a traditional list or database? Well, the first thing to note about these blocks is that they are very cleverly referenced and encrypted. They're made by people called "miners", whose function is to create lots of intelligent codes using specialist hardware, running specialist software, all specifically designed to create the blocks. This means that the database is very difficult to hack or manipulate. So much so, that the transactions can exist, be traded and get authorised all within the blockchain itself. So you can forget printing out share certificates, signing them and mailing them to people. You can forget transaction receipts.

You can also forget having to own and take responsibility for the place where your securities are stored. A blockchain database is decentralised and saved on a network of computers that can be owned by more than one company. Any computer connected to the blockchain network is called a "node" but particular nodes, owned by the owners of the network, help with the validation of all transactions by downloading a copy of the entire blockchain, affirming it and relaying it onto other nodes. This creates consensus among participants around the accuracy of the blockchain.

Bitcoin, the virtual currency, built its entire ledger, all of its transactions, in this way. The miners that built the Bitcoin blocks were remunerated using Bitcoins. Now, regardless of the popularity of Bitcoin, it is being recognised that blockchain potentially has much wider applications. This is because it's so secure, easy to share securely, self-validating and entirely digital, which makes it efficient.

Last year, most large companies in the financial services industry began putting significant research into the possibility of using blockchain technology for their data and their clients' data.

Lloyd's of London held a seminar in November 2015 which included blockchain in a talk about its overall modernisation plan. UBS has been carrying out test runs of trading transactions on their own internal blockchain, to get to grips with the technology. Last year, HM Treasury announced its intention to regulate and fund research into digital currencies.

The technology is still in the research and development stage at the moment. Critics have expressed concern over limitations of processing capacity and power usage when it comes to the long-term scaling-up of something like the Bitcoin network but blockchain is being discussed and researched by enough of the right organisations to appear on "top ten predictions" lists for the next ten years. If you know someone who's naturally quite techy or futuristic, try and drop it into the conversation. They'll probably buy you a drink.

Saturday 9 January 2016

#136 A review of The Force Awakens

Boy was I excited. The last film I'd seen at the cinema was the Deathly Hallows Part Deux in 2011. I'm not a big fan of popcorn, or almost any situation where I have to spend more than two hours without the internet. I'd just finished work for the holidays and was walking back to the station when I noticed that one of my friends had changed her profile pic to one of her with a lightsaber beam in it. I stopped, lent against a pillar and got a ticket to a screening that started in a couple of hours, which would be enough time to get to Marble Arch and eat a pizza.

It's difficult reviewing a film when you can't really remember it. It's not that it was boring or anything, I just have a sucky memory.

Kylo Ren doesn't have Vader's majesty, only his fashion sense. He's like some futuristic hipster. It's not because he hasn't matured into his totally evil self yet, it's just who he is. Anakin was seriously charming even when he was younger. How did Han and Leia manage to produce such a wretch of a being? He makes me nautious. This wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing but I'm struggling to find a character in the whole film that has the type of quality that he lacks.

Rey seems very strong but she hasn't fully found her power yet. Plus she's a workaholic. It's understandable because she has always been impoverished but it's unfortunate because neither her, not that noob of a Stormtrooper have any sexual orientation whatsoever. I mean I get it, the film is about the force awakening and probably in the next film, it'll be a bit more awake. My problem is that I can't see any of the characters turning into someone that I could see myself going for a beer with and that bothers me.

Don't get me started on the droid that is basically a football, he even ended up in a net at one point, which is enough to keep the majority of Britons entertained for at least 90 minutes.

I'm not saying it was a bad movie. It was dark and gritty although part of that might be because I watched it in an old cinema. Sometimes in life, two hours pass and you don't meet anyone you really like. That's realistic. I generally enjoyed it because I was eager throughout, to find out what would happen next, even though it all occurred a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. I'm looking forward to the next one.

A lot of my enthusiasm comes from the fact that I love StarWars in general. I'd probably give it eight out of ten. For context, I wouldn't have given Episode One less than seven.

Friday 1 January 2016

#135 New Year’s Eve

“Hello. Yes, I’d like to buy some cheese”. I was feeling a lot like Michael McIntyre yesterday afternoon, ie. a bit of a twat. “Yes I’m going to a dinner party tonight and I need to bring the cheese course for ten people - I’ve never done this before. How much cheese do you think I need?”

“Oh, erm... I don’t know...” said the lady at the cheese counter. “I suppose it depends what you’re eating first”. I squinted at her. I mean, for all I knew, it might very well depend on what we were eating but her hesitancy seemed to scream bullshit so load that I had trouble believing it. I tried another question. “Would you say four or five cheeses is about right?” She nodded, helpfully. We were getting somewhere. The guy with the trolley next to me smiled and commented “ten people? That’s a lot of cheese.” I smiled back, delighted that he was taking an interest.

I’d Googled the types that I might ask for and so pretty much just reeled off the descriptions that I’d found. A soft goat’s cheese, a cheddar, a Camembert or Brie and a blue cheese. About 300g of each. It was easy enough. I’m sure there are other ways to pick cheeses than Googling it but I was a cheese board virgin and had a party to get to.

I wanted to add a bonus cheese and was eyeing up the Double Chocolate Fudge Brownie Wensleydale. “I wasn’t so keen on that one” she commented. “Is it a bit shit?” I asked “yeah I wasn’t so keen but you can try a bit. All the other Wensleydales are good though”. She started to cut it. “What about the Toffee Wensleydale then?” I asked. “I haven’t tried that one”. “The Plum Wensleydale?” “Actually I haven’t tried that one either. The cranberry one’s nice”. I tried the chocolate brownie piece and then asked for some as I quite liked it. Plus, she didn't.

Cooking and serving a full roast for ten people on New Year’s Eve is pretty ambitious, especially when you don’t have a dining table. Tom and Liz aren’t the type to shy away from a challenge though, in fact it was their idea. Some credit goes to the two or three guests who helped with the peeling and chopping while Rob and I stood in the hallway drinking beer. Eventually we were all sat on cushions in the lounge, stuffing ourselves and listening to Fake Robot.

Due to the considerable supply of all kinds of food throughout the evening, we didn't get onto the cheeses until gone 1am. As a sort of grotesque illustration of the suburban excess, there was an entire chocolate caterpillar cake that didn't get touched. I'm sure he'll get eaten tomorrow though. 

By 2am, the cheese board was competing for floor space with the Articulate! game board but it seemed to have gone down ok. I found myself wondering whether my days of being invited to parties where people stood around and drank a lot were being replaced with the sort where people sit down, eat a lot and maybe drink a lot too. It seemed quite possible. All the better for starting the new year well fed.