January 2008 Archives

If your heart stops beating for five or more minutes, you're dead. Right? Wrong! (Newsweek report.) Oxygen-deprived cells in cardiac muscle don't die after five minutes, or even an hour. But if they're deprived of oxygen for more than about five minutes, then when reperfusion begins, the presence of oxygen triggers apoptosis, a cell death mechanism (that usually defends us against cancer by causing cancer cells to self-destruct). More on reperfusion injury here (educated layperson level); if you really want to know more, start with the references on this page.

Is Alzheimers a type of diabetes? Insulin isn't just a hormone that modulates cellular uptake of glucose and uptake and conversion of blood lipids into cell-bound triglycerides — it's found in the brain, where it serves to stimulate choline acetyltransferase, a key enzyme in the synthesis of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter without which you're stuffed. And levels of insulin in the brains of Alzheimer's patients drop in step with the degree of dementia. There's nothing conclusive here yet, but if this is the root cause of Alzheimer's, then it suggests where researchers ought to be looking for new treatments.

(Anyone want to add anything to this list?)

(I'm on the road right now, visiting relatives, hence the lack of updates this week.)

And now, a question for the peanut gallery.

Let us suppose that I, or someone I know, is planning on buying a Macbook Air — the expensive, space-limited one with the 64Gb SSD. Their intended use for it is web, email, and running NeoOffice while on the road. The choice of machine is non-negotiable. (This is not an opportunity to plug the Vaio TZ or Lenovo X300; advocacy comments will be binned.)

Now, a 64Gb FLASH SSD does not, in fact, give you 64Gb of free space. It gives you about 62Gb. Then you lose another 2Gb (minimum) as swap space. And then you lose whatever the operating system takes up — 4-6Gb, or, in the case of an OS/X bloated by the addition of crapware such as GarageBand, iDVD, iMovie, and so on, about 12Gb — junk that doesn't contribute to web, email, and running NeoOffice.

How do you go about slimming down an OS/X installation?

I'm not talking about simply binning or de-installing unwanted applications; I'm wondering if there are frameworks, prefpanes, and other system components that can go in the trash can — and if so, how to do it safely? I'm aware of Windows apps that slim down XP or Vista by removing unwanted components; is there anything like that for OS/X? (I've already run across Monolingual. It's good insofar as the intended user doesn't need the ability to type Arabic, but what else is there out there? Are there any utilities for stripping PPC binaries out of Universal applications that are only ever going to run on an Intel Mac, for example?)

I've just changed mobile phone numbers. If I'd given you my old number and you want to stay in touch, send me a text message on the old one (within the next two weeks) or email me.

UK Halting State Cover

British readers of this blog might be interested to know that the UK edition of "Halting State" is officially published on the 24th, but Amazon are selling it as of today. If you're so inclined, you can buy a copy here.

I haven't done any Friday cat blogging entries for ages, so:

Today I took delivery of some furniture. Including a new sofa for my office, to replace the ten year old (and knackered) futon (on which I wrote "Iron Sunrise", "The Family Trade", "The Hidden Family", most of "Accelerando", and more stuff than I care to recall). Behold! Plush furniture, with feline overlords!

Before (Feline overlord: Frigg) ...

... And After! (Feline overlord: Mafdet)

The futon has not been cruelly and callously discarded, but has been relegated to the spare room, where doubtless their feline majesties will continue to shed fur upon it.

This, incidentally, is most of what my writing environment looks like. (The desk is just out of sight on the right of the upper photo — you can see the handle of my coffee mug perched at one edge of it.)

Over at the Prattle, Feorag has uncovered a rich vein of fundamentalist wisdom (strip-mined from internet chat sessions):

"I can sum it all up in three words: Evolution is a lie"

"One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn't possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it."

"Jesus is not a Jew. Jesus was Jewish."

"all the evolutionists, tell me something. i know how the big bang "has happened, but tell me, wouldnt an explosion, especially one that size, take away life instead of allow it? think about it. ex: the a-bomb, the h-bomb, grenades, cannon balls (when fired from a cannon of course), mines, rocket launchers, and anything and everything in between. they all have taken lives."

[Replying to 'as for not seeing evolution it takes several million years... incase you missed that memo...']

"several million years for a monkey to turn into a man. oh wait thats right. monkeys dont live several million years."

"Everyone knows scientists insist on using complex terminology to make it harder for True Christians to refute their claims. Deoxyribonucleic Acid, for example... sounds impressive, right? But have you ever seen what happens if you put something in acid? It dissolves! If we had all this acid in our cells, we'd all dissolve! So much for the Theory of Evolution, Check MATE!"

"A woman wants to abort a rape child? She should have thought of that before she walked down that dark alley without a male prescence, not to mention she should have thought before putting on revealing attire."

(No, this entry isn't meant to be funny or amusing.)

Despite having two heads, three arms, and writing science fiction for a living, I am — contrary to rumour — an ordinary human being with ordinary preoccupations. Such as buying mobile phones.

I am not happy with my current mobile phone account from T-Mobile. Perhaps it's an accident of my local coverage, but when half my incoming calls don't reach me, it's time to look for a more reliable network. It's widely reputed that Vodafone focus on network quality more than their cheaper rivals (and I've got a few other reasons for looking at them) so I decided to look into it in a bit more detail. I need a 3G (UMTS) phone, with tri- or quad-band GSM for overseas travel, wifi a nice extra. Bluetooth too, so I can use it with my laptop. I'm unreasoningly prejudiced in favour of the QWERTY keyboard layout and I text a lot more than I talk, so I decided to look at some high-end phones, notably the Nokia N95 (yes, I know it doesn't have a QWERTY keyboard, but it's the current high-end flagship phone and it makes a good benchmark), the Nokia E61i, and the one I hanker after, the Nokia E90 Communicator.

(You will notice the lack of Windows Mobile phones in this list. I've tried it, more than once, but it's quite simple: Windows Mobile makes me break out in hives. I will have no further truck with the spawn of Redmond in matters telephonic.)

(You will also notice a lack of Crackberries. I have an unreasoning prejudice against phones that I can't run a Python interpreter and a word processor on. I don't know why, it's just the way I came factory-configured — if it's got QWERTY and a screen then it is a computer, and I get deeply uneasy when confronted by computers that I can't, in an emergency, hack out a new operating system on: it's like buying a car with no steering wheel or brake pedal.)

(You will notice the lack of the Apple JesusiPhone on that list, too. It doesn't do UMTS, its bluetooth stack is so broken that you can't get an HID-compliant keyboard to talk to it, and the operating system is locked down by default and Apple keep pushing firmware updates that bork the jailbreak exploits. Also, it's only available in the UK on O2 and I still remember them from the bad old days when they were Cellnet. Sorry, but changing your name in the hope that people will forget how crap you are doesn't work on me. And I didn't buy an original Mac 128K either.)

Anyway, this left me with just one cellco to look at, and a choice of phones and tariffs. I favour monthly accounts aimed at small businesses/sole traders; but how to figure out what the best deal is?

It's funny, but the phone company web sites I've looked at all refuse to tell you how much a bloody phone costs until you select a tariff. It's fairly clear that they don't want you to go comparing their tariffs, because then you might learn something useful — such as the total cost of ownership (TCO) and running costs per unit of time/text message consumed. There is some interesting marketing theory behind all this ... and probably several PhDs in game theory. I'm not a marketing expert, but I know what to do. The first rule of looking at a phone company website is to realize they're trying to game you. And the second rule is to game them right back.

Being a bit obsessive, and annoyed at being bamboozled with pretty websites that don't tell you anything, yesterday I attacked Vodafone's online shop with a spreadsheet I went through the site a couple of dozen times, with different tariffs — 12 month and 18 month ones — and fixed combinations of phones, trying to figure out what the best options were.

The first obvious conclusion I reached is that if you look at the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a phone, including both the phone cost and the monthly tariff cost multiplied by the term of the contract, there's surprisingly little elasticity in the bottom line until you get into the eye-wateringly high usage tariffs. The TCO for a sample phone on 18 month contract varied by only £102 between the Talk 75 and Talk 500 tariffs (75 included minutes and 100 included texts per month, versus 500 minutes and 1000 texts per month). The same pattern held on 12 month contracts, with a £60 spread. Which is, frankly, ridiculous, because you get so few minutes and texts on Talk 75 that the actual cost per minute is nine times higher, and the cost per text is eight time higher than on Talk 500.

But it's not a good idea to go up a level to Talk 800. Do that, and suddenly there's a big price jump. You get more minutes (but no more texts), and the end result is that the cost is barely any cheaper per minute used (and no cheaper per text) than on Talk 500.

What I had discovered looked weirdly like a classic bathtub curve — only plotting price against contract time, rather than the more familiar failure rate against time. It's a familiar curve: airline seat price allocations often follow the same distribution. At one end of the curve, you've got the chancers who want a flashy phone but no commitment to use it. Typically they'll sign up for a short, cheap contract with an expensive phone. Fashion victims, in other words. The cellcos are set up to recognize and fleece them, however. At the other side of the curve you've got the gabby heavy users, and they're going to throw money at you whatever you do, so you might as well take it. In between, you've got a highly price sensitive market, which you want to encourage to use their phones more (and graduate into being heavy users), so you dangle some promising discounts in front of them, weighted towards the heavier tariffs.

(Airline seats for long-haul flights: if someone books a flight six months ahead of departure, it is a Big Deal to them, so they value it, so you can price it high. If they book at two day's notice to go to Aunt Irma's Funeral in New Zealand, it's a coercion purchase, so you can price it high. In-between, there's a trough where people have time to pick and choose which carrier to use ... so seat prices are at their lowest in the period 8-12 weeks before departure. It's the same bathtub-shaped curve.)

In fact, the sweet spot on Vodafone's tariff curve (in the Anytime business packages) seems to be Anytime 500 on a 18 month contract. (By the time you hit Anytime 500 on 12 month contract, costs are beginning to rise; and anything less than Anytime 500 on the 18 month contract is in the "soak the trend-follower" category.)

And there's my second point: 12 month tariffs are weighted on the assumption that you're a trend-follower and may be part of the general customer churn. They invariably have a much higher total cost of ownership than the 18 month tariffs. How much higher?

Cost for a Nokia E90 with Vodafone, 12 month contract, Anytime 500: £187.23. Cost per month: £34.04. Cost of phone plus twelve months: £595.71.

Cost for a Nokia E90 with Vodafone, 18 month contract, Anytime 500: £127.66. Cost per month: £29.79. Cost of phone plus eighteen months: £663.88.

Read that again: the total cost of a twelve month contract costs nearly 90% of the price of an eighteen month contract. If you take the twelve month contract and stay on it for eighteen months, you'd be paying a whisker under £800. The mark-up for going for a short contract is huge; they're counting on your natural reluctance to be locked in for an extra six months to lead you to pay hugely over the odds.

(Want a twelve month contract? You might as well buy an eighteen month contract — if you decide to switch telco, the break-even point is thirteen months. At that point you might as well buy a new phone, set call divert on your old number, take the old sim out and cut it up so you can't run up any additional charges, and get going: you're still ahead of the game. The system is loaded insofar as it relies on customers fixating on the contract lock-in period and not realizing that they can "buy themselves out" at any point by cutting up a SIM and making a note on their calendar to remind them to close the account when the lock-in expires. And on most people not running the total cost of ownership through a spreasheet before they buy.)

They're also counting on your natural reluctance to pay for a "fatter" sounding tariff than you need to drive you to pick a "cheap" one like Talk 75, which is disproportionately more expensive.

Anyway, the moral of the story is: if you're planning on buying a new phone, it pays to hit your phone company website with a spreadsheet before you sign anything. And don't take anything for granted until you've run the figures. The TCO per minute for a phone purchased on the superficially cheap-looking Talk 75 tariff turns out to be two and a half times higher than the TCO per minute for Talk 200, and a ridiculous seven times higher than on Talk 500. They're gaming us. You should game them right back.

A HALTING STATE moment is what happens to my head when another bit of the jigsaw of extrapolation that went into that novel falls into place. It's sort of the opposite of cognitive dissonance, only just as unwelcome.

Lumos are getting ready to bring some see-through VR glasses to market. (More here; press release here (PDF).)

And a run on a virtual bank just hit Second Life. From WIRED:

The recent collapse of Ginko Financial, a "virtual investment bank" in Second Life, has spurred calls for more oversight, transparency and accountability, especially when it comes to business practices in the metaverse.

Last week, Ginko Financial -- an unregulated bank that promised investors astronomical returns (in excess of 40 percent) and was run by a faceless owner whose identity is still a mystery -- announced it would no longer exist as a financial entity.

The declared insolvency meant the bank would be unable to repay approximately 200,000,000 Lindens (U.S. $750,000) to Second Life residents who had invested their money with the bank over the course of its three and a half years of existence.

(Click here for a discussion of legal issues surrounding fictional financial institutions.)

Finally, South Korea's military have been put on alert against foreign (presumed Chinese) hackers who are targeting soldiers' computers. (Although for all I know it could be RBN and/or their hangers-on getting up to their usual tricks again; they have some Chinese IP blocks, and are widely assumed to be the FSB's outsourced infoward capability, run on a profit-making basis during infopeacetime.)

Have you had any HALTING STATE moments recently?



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This page is an archive of entries from January 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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