The Ballards - Random Thoughts


Is Speeding always a Bad Thing?

The Government and some local Councils (note: I do not include the Police here) would like us to think so.

They would also like us to believe exceeding the speed limit to be as bad a habit as drinking and driving, and will use any argument to push their point.
And let us not be fooled, they are winning.

Let us examine the arguments:

- Speeding is dangerous. The faster you go the more likely you are to have an accident
The current driving test (Theory) has a question on this: "what percentage of accidents are caused by excessive speed?" The answer, I understand, is 30%.

But let us look at that statistic again.
That means 70% of accidents are not caused by excessive speed.

So what does cause them?
The ditherer.
The dodderer.
The one who pulls out without looking or indicating.
The one in the tweed hat with his wife in the back who drives along the crown of the road.
The one who sits in the overtaking lane doing precisely 69.9mph ("it's the Law and if it's good enough for me it's good enough for everyone").
The tailgating artics.
The bewildered old ladies, wondering how they got on to the Wiltshire section of the M4, and how they're ever going to get off again.
The drunk.
The half-blind.

The big issue is that it's very hard to find and get these people off the road.
Accidents occur when they meet alert, well-trained, well-informed drivers in powerful cars who are driving at a safe speed for the road, but not for their antics.
It is the conjunction of the fast and the idiotic that causes accidents.
To reduce accidents (who could argue with that, a worthy cause) you have to reduce one or the other. The minority is the speeder, so it's the line of least resistance.

- Speeding uses more fuel. It's environmentally unfriendly
This is true.
However, a speeding BMW uses about half the fuel of a non-speeding Toyota Landcruiser, so logically we should ban Landcruisers and Range Rovers first. And taken to it's logical conclusion, the speed limits should be 40-45mph everywhere, as that is the speed where cars are most fuel-efficient.
That means the motorways, all towns (you should remove all impediments to people attaining and retaining 45mph, like traffic-lights, pedestrian crossings, schools, narrow roads, parked cars to prevent fuel-guzzling traffic-jams), and especially around schools (so out will go those zebra crossings, zigzag lines and everything). Councils love to restrict speed, because it prevents them from having to mend roads and build expensive new ones, so they can use the money they asked us for originally to build and maintain the roads on other "pet" projects like twinning and new municipal sculptures.
And that is the key: the Councils support this errant nonsense because it suits their priorities.

- We're using too much fossil fuels, we should use our cars less
Actually, we don't use our cars that much. The average car does 12,000 miles a year, which is pretty low. It just looks like a lot because we are all squashed in to the South East.
Outside the South East, Britain is relatively uncongested, and where Councils have resisted the lure of the speed camera, good driving is still to be had.
Our fuel use is low compared to the Americans (but then, who's isn't?), and the big global pollution problems are going to be caused by mass-market motoring in China and India: we're a bit-player on the world stage.


What is "Sanity"?

I saw the film “The other Sister”, and it caused me to ponder on the nature of sanity. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a girl with learning difficulties who comes of age and meets a similar boy, and their travails.

When growing up, we measure ourselves against other children that we meet at school and in other social settings. Some of those, inevitably, will have, to a greater or lesser degree, what we now call quaintly “learning difficulties”. We look inwards and ask ourselves: are we mad? And if we are would we be the last to know? Is the world just humouring us and laughing at us behind our backs? In 1974 Brian Protheroe released Pinball containing the line and they say that you never know when you’re insane… which (quite apart from the fact that it was a minor hit, a fantastic track with a great sax solo and from a superb album) sums up how we all feel about ourselves.

The greatest fear of my childhood was to be locked up in a Home and labelled “mad” (these things really happened in the monochrome ‘60s) and I could well imagine the Kafkaesque desperation of trying to persuade an uncaring world I was sane. I’ve always had a vivid imagination and this led to the suggestion, at a very young age, of a visit to the child psychologist. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed, and I now choose to believe there is nothing wrong with me mentally, but this conclusion was only reached after many years of self-examination. I still have a vivid imagination, but like most I subsume it beneath the minutiae of making a living and raising a family. I chuckle at my wilder urges: perhaps I have mild Tourettes’. Doubtless a long (and expensive) session with a psychotherapist would uncover all sorts of unsavoury goodies, but the point is I can sympathise with failures of reality and mental dysfunction.

Look very carefully at what society thinks sanity is. The commonly held opinion is that it’s the acceptance of the social niceties necessary to ensure society grinds along together; the “Social Norm” (knives and forks, “please” and “thank you”, not urinating on the Tube, etc). Within that there is a wide range of acceptable activities, but the unstated rules are always there and never examined.

Rules that, in the light of recent medical advances, need some re-appraisal.
So what is wrong with incest? Provided genetic material is not shared to create inbred offspring, would society necessarily collapse if brother were allowed sex with sister (or brother?).
Sexual activity by children or with children is at the same state of social acceptability as homosexuality between young men was a century ago: society’s current exquisitely hardened stance against it will inevitably be followed by an acceptance within the next century. That’s not to say I condone it, but I can see the markers, and newspaper headlines like “14 year olds demand fertility treatment from the NHS” are merely symptomatic of the unstated fact that the younger generation are having sex earlier and earlier.
If we expose our genitals in public we are arrested. Why?
Why do we need to wear clothes indoors in our centrally heated houses?
Why does society still value lifelong monogamy when polygamy comes more naturally to 50% of the population?
Why the big outcry about GM foods and crops? It’s like trying to put the lid on electrical research a century ago
And why, oh why, do natives of hot countries insist on wearing black?

The current debate is on “pro-life” (fortunately not the big political issue in the UK it is in the US) and Eugenics. If we know a child will be handicapped to the point where they will be a drain upon society, why allow them to be born? To be a little more controversial, if we knew they would not be very bright/have dark skin/be homosexual/have a tendency towards obesity/have a predilection for criminal activity/[insert your prejudice here] should society allow them to be born? The Nazis gave eugenics a bad name (that may be the understatement of the last century) but maybe we should be weeding the gene pool?

There is a saying concerning acceptable activity: “it’s a wide table but a long drop”. So you can get away with an awful lot but reach the hard edge and it’s a long way to fall. Most of us have much to lose by being labelled “mental” and all of us will have had to make that choice at some point, whether we can consciously recall it or not.

The only time I have ever seen this explored by Hollywood, in what was a very brave effort, was in “Girl, interrupted”, where the heroine, played by Winona Ryder, ultimately has to choose whether to remain within society’s boundaries of acceptable behaviour, or stay within the institution. But the point here is that she realises she has the choice.

As late as the 1960s, in rural Catholic Ireland, women who fell foul of the law were routinely sent to the Magdalene laundries, labelled as “mad”, when they merely had the misfortune to be pregnant by their Parish priests or uncles. They didn’t have the choice.

Anyway, “The Other Sister” is a brave stab at handling learning difficulties and mental disability, a subject like racism and physical disability, routinely ignored by Hollywood. You could see the casting director and scriptwriter struggling to portray the hero and heroine as “almost normal” and not too disabled for the audience to think “she should be in a Home”.
Trying to make the film a comedy was a mistake: we felt we shouldn’t be laughing at the hero and heroine and realistically they were a little too squeaky clean. There were holes in the plot you could drive a coach and horses through (like how did her father have that nice Merc and that beautiful San Francisco house, and still be able to get home early enough to pick his daughter up from school?), and Diane Keaton was desperately miscast. But that would be to belittle the film and Juliette Lewis’ amazing acting (for a while I wasn’t sure it was acting). Hollywood makes too few controversial films like this, films that make you think, and challenge your beliefs.


Challenges for the next century and beyond

By the turn of the 21st Century humanity was beginning, with the help of global communications, to develop a sense of unity: a realisation that causes in one part of the globe led to effects in other parts. The first real effect of this has been the CFC ban to mend the ozone layer above the South Pole. Over the next few years, expect to see more global actions of this kind.

The first challenge for this Century is to end our dependence on CO2-emitting power sources (fossil fuels) to power our economies, without destroying those economies. The technology (solar, wind and nuclear fusion power) is around the corner; the challenge is getting from here to there. Fuel cells to create hydrogen from electricity, and to recombine that hydrogen with oxygen to generate power, are the answer to storage for motive power (the current vogue for Public Transport as an environment-improving device is short-sighted nonsense), oil tankers can move hydrogen between continents, we now just need gargantuam solar/wind-powered generating stations to bring the cost per KwH down to below oil. Unfortunately for the road-building community, just as this drives the economics back towards private motoring, we will begin to realise it's more effective to fly, computer-aided flying will become as endemic as private cars and we will have no need for roads.

The next challenge is to stop throwing non bio-degradable waste in to holes in the ground. The packaging industry has to be reshaped entirely to recycle all packaging in an economic fashion, motor cars/aeroplanes and computers need to be utterly recyclable. This takes much will from both Private and Public sectors.

The biggest challenge for this Century is the combined one of birth control in developing countries and giving the populations of those developing countries a standard of living equal to the 1st World without wrecking the planet. Without the first the second cannot happen. The Catholic Church will be instrumental in this, as they have been instrumental in preventing it. Perhaps if a Pope younger than retirement age was voted in (quite how "God's representative to the world" can be decided by vote is a vision worthy of Monty Python), perhaps it would restore a little credibility?

The most mind-boggling challenge is to realise that the Earth is inevitably going to be damaged by humanity's impact and so the only possible long-term future for humankind, to avoid meteor collisions, over population and environmental collapse is by expanding in to space. We must cease to be single planet-dwellers and become explorers, ubiquitous in the galaxy and cockroach-like in our ability to succeed against all setbacks. Ultimately, that is our only possible future and if we fail to grasp it this Century we may never have the resources to out-develop the above bottlenecks.

Our final challenge as a species is to overcome our own xeonophobia: we have enough trouble co-existing with homo sapiens of a different colour and religion (or even the same religion but a slightly different strand!), imagine what we will be like when we (inevitably) meet real, slimy, aliens. We must, at all costs, avoid going to war with them out of our own xenophobia, or we will be wiped out.


The day Mohammed Atta started the decline of Islam

The long-term effects of 11th September 2001 can only be that America will develop alternative sources of energy to fuel it's own economy to defend itself. What America does today, Europe and the Far East do tomorrow.

Once the major economies of the world are powered by solar/wind/wave power, oil will become less economically important (whilst still being a valuable raw material for plastics and lubricants it will not be the driving force it currently is). This will dry up the huge amounts of money flowing in to the Middle East and being used to buy arms and turn down the political heat considerably in places like Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

However, it will also reduce America's interest in keeping non-Jewish Arab nations friendly, so inevitably Israel's influence will expand as it's neighbours suffer from the twin influences of less money and less American interest. Israel's more dynamic and less corrupt economy will inevitably, perhaps by war but more likely by economics, come to dominate the Middle East. Culture follows economy, so Islam will decline in favour of Judaism. Within 100 years, Islam in the Middle East could cease to exist. And historians will look back and trace the decline to Mohammed Atta.


Solar power

My goal is to power my house and my car entirely from renewable energy, and thus to free myself from paying onerous and unnecessary taxes. Anything less is pointless.

Maya Solar (an excellent company) will sell you books on using solar power to reduce your energy costs. All these books start with a paragraph saying something like "first reduce your energy consumption by increasing the efficiency of the insulation in your home" before telling you, in great detail exactly how to do that. Well, I may be dim here, but if I did all that extra insulation, I wouldn't need the solar power in the first place!

Solar Century purports to be able to pay for your electricity by covering your roof in solar panels (a good idea, provided the Government doesn't tax it to death at birth.....). But here are the "real world" sums. You, too, can do yours at home.
The average 4-person family (that's us) uses 2000KwHrs @ 7.5p per KwHr per quarter, for which we pay £150 per quarter or £600 per year. And we have gas heating.
Solar panels for our roof to generate 25% of our electrical requirements will cost £25,000, so a Solar Century installation will take 167 years to pay for itself.
I can't see Mr and Mrs Average going for that.
The system needs to be 1/10th of the asking price and 4 times as powerful to be commercially viable at the household level.
The subtext here (and I note that Solar Century is getting good publicity at present) is that we will have to pay a lot more for our energy per KwH in order to save the environment. About 4 times as much.
I wrote to Solar Century challenging them to tell me where these figures were in error but they chose to ignore me.
I remain convinced they are either a) a laundering operation for organised crime, because they aren't going to make a profit, or b) a clever way to divert a Government grant of some sort in to the MD's pocket. Time will tell.....


Science screw-ups

At the end of the 19th Century there was a move afoot to drastically cut science funding on the grounds that everything had been explained: science no longer had a purpose, it was claimed.
It was, of course, entirely true from the Victorians' perspective; there were only a few very small questions that they were sure could easily be mopped up, such as "why do those rocks in the Australian desert glow in the dark?", "why does my father have blue eyes but I have brown eyes?", "why does this bit of sand sometimes conduct electricity and sometimes not?"and "what happens if we strap a firework to one of those glider-things Otto Lilienthal has been playing with?". The answers, of course, would shape the next Century and beyond. Lest we be tempted to believe there is no more to discover.........

At the time of the railway pioneers a certain Dr Dionysius Lardner claimed, very publicly, that the human body would be unable to withstand the stresses of travelling at any speed above 30mph. And many people believed him.
I'd love to bring him forward in time and take him up for some aerobatics in an F-16. Wheeeee.........


So you know, in the UK we pay 619% petrol tax. So if you're from any other country, think yourself lucky. It's criminal.
Since I left college in 1985 I've kept a chart of what Tax and NI I pay as a percentage of my gross salary. It makes an interesting graph, up from about 26% in 1985 to 34% in 2001. Don't tell me taxes haven't risen. They have.
Now I'm self-employed, I have spent a lot of time ensuring that I know, and have put in to action, every possible legal Tax avoidance scheme I can. This has reduced my Tax & NI burden to between 10% and 15%, a lot closer to where it should be. Remember, if you're PAYE, you're a sitting duck.....
If we must have a 40% band (and I fail to be convinced of the basic argument for progressive taxation rates), it should start well above what the average professional person earns, say at £100,000 or even higher.


The EU

We are the only country in Europe to take the EC seriously, which is sad because we would be far better served by being the 51st State of America:

Think of the advantages.....   Think of the disadvantages.....
A stable currency Guns (well, we are an island, as a US state we would have the right to legislate against arms ownership as we do now, and anyway our ludicrously over-restrictive gun laws haven't stopped the IRA/Jill Dando's killer etc etc)
A huge internal market with few internal trade barriers Abortion as a political issue (difficult to whip up much ire over here about that, really)
Low taxation The 65 mph speed limit (Montana refuses to set an upper limit, we could follow their example. Most Californians also drive at about 85mph, like they do here)
A more entrepreneurial spirit Having to deal with Europe as an outsider (well, we do that now)
They all speak English (well, after a fashion) DRL (Daylight Running Lights) (sorry, I do believe that one is a bit daft!)
A Freedom of Information Act that works (the Act being pushed reluctantly through the UK parliament has been utterly emasculated by the Security Services) No £ (well, we can't paddle our canoe for ever....)
Petrol at ¼ the price we pay  
No more contributions to Brussels for their junkets  
Less Government intervention  
A freer labour market  
A stable, sensible attitude towards use of the motor car  








Rap music

Why? It's not music, it's people talking over someone else's backing track.



Again, why? Surely, people have better things to do with their lives? Like watching paint dry? The best thing FIFA ever did was to give the Germans (nice people, actually, despite the UK press propaganda about their inability to laugh at themselves, and the white towelling socks and mullet haircuts they still favour) Euro 2006 or whatever.


Banks clearance time

Why do paid-in cheques still take 3 days to clear incoming to your account whereas on debit card outgoing payments the money goes out the same day? We have electronic reconciliation now, you know. We're not in the Bob Cratchett high-stools and ink-pens dark ages any more. This 3 days is technically Theft by the clearing banks whilst they put the funds on deposit and make interest from them, but somehow they manage to get away with it, and so we get "Free" banking. Ha ha.
Banks are free to make money on the difference between what they charge in interest on loans and what they pay out in interest on balances. Come on, Richard Branson (or First-E) - let's have a current account with same-day credit of deposits. This is just the sort of cosy cartel the Monopolies and Mergers Commission should be investigating.


Caged animals and fishing

If fox hunting is so cruel (whilst I agree with killing foxes, they aren't cute and cuddly, they are murderous and callous, we do have things called guns and night sights in this century, you know, we don't have to use 16th Century methods), why canít animal rights protesters fight for real animal rights?
Like the rights of all caged animals. Rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, snakes and so on should be released or put down.
Caging animals is horrendous.
The only thing more barbaric is fishing and putting them back. Fish can feel pain. By all means fish for the pot, but donít let fish suffer with barbed hook wounds in their mouths.
But of course, the whole anti-hunting thing is not about hunting; it's about Labour sticking it to the Landed gentry in the countryside in retaliation for Margaret Thatcher sticking it to the Unions in the early-80s. Grow up, you lot. The Landed gentry have been taxed out of existence, the people who do the hunting now are Insurance Brokers and marketing experts who happen to enjoy horse riding and live in the country. What a nonsense.


The transition to digital photography

After 22 years of analogue photography (and 22,000 negatives) using an Olympus OM-10 and a subsequent succession of OM-2's, I made the transition to digital photography.
As the price of sensible-quality (at least 5.2MPixels of non-interpolated CCD) digital cameras with real (non fixed-focus) lenses descended in to the realistic (sub-$1,000) arena I began the (sometimes painful) transition to providing a workable, high-quality digital workflow.
Starting with an Epson Perfection SCSI flat-bed scanner to scan existing prints and MS Photo Editor to edit (ugh...) I upgraded to a Canon FS2700 negative scanner, Canon software and JASC Paint Shop Pro (a little better), then again to a Canon FS4000 4000-dpi negative/slide scanner, Hamrick Vuescan and PhotoShop 6.0 (acceptable quality but a steep learning curve...) and finally to a Canoscan 8800F and Photoshop CS2. I burn the TIFs to DVD and produce index prints, so I have at least some hard drive space left. I print to an Epson R1800 on Epson premium Glossy photo paper and use a Spyder 2 to colour balance the screen and printer using .icm profiles.

It's changed the way I view my existing photographs: negatives that were previously unusable can be recropped, rotated, colour-adjusted, reduced to black and white, and otherwise manipulated in PhotoShop. Wires, posts, signs, errant fingers, drunken angles can be removed. The digital darkroom is a wonderful place, but cannot pull detail from a badly under-exposed original; it's not a miracle cure.
It's changed the way I take photographs - if a composition is perfect apart from an errant telegraph pole, pedestrian or overhead cable I can still take the shot, safe in the knowledge that I can remove the blemish later.

In the summer of 2002 the first affordable true 5.2MP digital camera arrived in the form of the Sony DSC-F717 and I made the final transition. The Olympuses were retired (and sold well). 18 months later I upgraded to an 8MP Sony DSC-F828 and swapped to using the RAW file format for greater flexibility, then 3 years later to a DSLR: the Sony A-100. From this I can conclude:

Advantages.....   Disadvantages.....
You can accurately assess the exposure of the picture you are about to take before pressing the shutter release Shutter noise
You can see the exposure histogram before and after shutter release Large (8GB) memory cards are still unnecessarily expensive
You get 1,275 8MPixel images on a 4Gb CompactFlash and a 1Gb Memory Stick before reloading. Compare that with 38 on a 35mm roll No split-prism focusing (but then auto-focus should remove that need)
You can view the images you've just taken and remove unworthy images on-site The camera runs out of memory after only a few motorwind shots
Auto-bracketing using RAW files then combining differently exposed results Printing is no cheaper than analogue minilabs because the printer manufacturers charge extortionate amounts for the cartridges and decent paper
You can take as many pictures as you like and they are all "free" until you print them  
No more battles with Airport Security over X-raying exposed or unexposed films  
No more buying expensive film in out-of-the-way places because you've run out  
Using an iPod photo adapter you can easily copy all of the pictures on your memory cards to your iPod, then clear the cards for more shootng. A 60Gb iPod will store tens of thousands of photos and a load of music as well!  
Many photo stores even in out of the way places will now copy memory card contents to CD-R for you  
The ability to edit and improve pictures in Adobe Photoshop without getting your hands dirty  

Are the pictures better?
Now I can view scans of my 35mm negatives side-by-side with my digital exposures it has highlighted imperfections in exposure, film quality, photo-processing and lenses. My decision from the start always to use low-speed Kodak or Fuji stock has been vindicated, but the change to 200ASA film from the standard 100ASA in 1998 I now regret: despite advances in film chemistry since 1981, the quality of the pictures is still not as good as the 100ASA examples.
I have greater control over the finished image, both on the screen and in printed form.
In terms of raw pixels, the early digital images will not withstand as much enlargement as their 60Mb 4000dpi analogue counterparts, however they are sharper and have better shadow detail. I regard a true, non-interpolated 5.2MPixel image as the absolute bare minimum quality acceptable to come anywhere near a 35mm print for the average 5"x7" or 10"x8" print. Of course, for web site use, we must whittle the resulting 2Mb JPG down a little!
Later images using the F828 and the A-100 are much better. The extra pixels allow almost unlimited enlargement. The largest I go is full-frame A4 for the walls but I could go A3 or even A2.
So, yes.