Sunday 25 October 2009

My Opinions On Things That Happened A Week Ago

Well I feel very grand today, because we had the Lord Mayor in church this morning, and it's not every day that happens. To be precise, it happens about once a year, because our BB (Boys' Brigade) captain likes a bit of pomp, circumstance &etc for the enrolment, and while we do not always go so far as the Lord Mayor, we usually have a bit of a Someone.

Also, when the clocks go back, and you get an extra hour in bed but really just end up getting up an hour earlier than yesterday, doesn't it make the rest of the day feel like a fortnight and a half?

Anyway, I was asked by a commentator on my previous post to expound on my opinions on the Nelson McCausland/Sinn Fein row and the Jan Moir thing. So here are my opinions, with which you are free to disagree, but please don't shout:

1. The Nelson McCausland / Sinn Fein row. First, some background. Nelson McCausland is a DUP councillor/MP/something. He recently caused a row by saying that he will not attend any religious service in a Catholic church, although he will go to other things there as long as they're just for the craic. But also he will not go to any event on a Sunday, unless (and I promise I'm not making this up) 'it was an Orange Order parade that included a church service'. Sinn Fein (possibly amongst others) got Quite Cross about this, because they said that it means he cannot be fully representative of the people he serves if he is not prepared to go to a Catholic Church for a religious service.
Now, I do not agree with either of them. I would not, for instance, refuse to attend a religious service in a Catholic church, and indeed have even gone so far as to have done so in the past, oh yes. On the other hand, I do not see why my public representatives have to be prepared to go to church with me in order to represent me fully. To the extent that, at this point, I lose all understanding of what this is about.
However, I do find it oddly fascinating that anyone would be upset by this man not attending their church.

2. Jan Moir. This, you will remember, is the article which we all widely misinterpreted as being Homophobic, Nasty and A Bit Much Even For The Daily Mail. You will be glad to hear though, that we were wrong, and that Jan Moir is not at all homophobic, and that when she said that Stephen Gately's death "strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships", that she didn't mean it like that and is actually very supportive of civil partnerships and really she could have said the same thing about a heterosexual relationship. Which is concrete proof, although then you wonder whether it might have been worth not mentioning the whole gay thing in the article in the first place, given that we were all supposed to think that that bit was irrelevant.

Monday 19 October 2009

On Important Things, and Also Poodles

There are many things worth discussing at the moment: Nelson McCausland refusing to participate in Catholic services and Sinn Fein being outraged (an argument in which I can see neither's side, and yet still find myself getting quite worked up on everyone's behalf), that article by Jan Moir about Stephen Gately, a piece in the Belfast Telegraph about what age children should start school at (of particular interest, since Sister Smile is doing teacher training, and says (more or less) that they are currently operating a bizarre compromise whereby children start school at age 4 but don't actually do anything until they're aged 6 or 7). If you wish to know more on my thoughts on any of these, please indicate your interest in the comments section, and I'll see what I can do, but in the meantime, I direct your attention to 12 new dog breeds created by show groomers, which focusses on people who start with poodles and then turn them into better-looking things, like pandas, dinosaurs and chickens.

I have to confess that I really dislike poodles. I apologise to any poodle-lovers out there; I just can't stand them. I mean, I wouldn't be nasty to them, or cruel or anything, and if I found one in need of love and attention, I like to think I would take it in and treat it handsomely; it's just that if I was faced with a limited choice of dogs, I cannot forsee any line up in which the poodle would not be my final choice.

We used to have a dog called Glen, who agreed entirely with this. Glen was the best type of dog you could get: no stick or ball went unchased, no passer-by went unbarked at, and he was so terrified of vets that he used to sit on the table and shake, and then be scared of the rattling noise, and shake more, and so on and so forth in a never-ending vicious circle, until (a) the vet drugged him, (2) my dad lifted him off the table and spent the consultation holding him in his arms or (3) he wet himself and my dad resorted to a messier version of (2). He was also scared of Rice Krispies (honestly. We found this out one time my mum put them in his bowl to use up some leftover ones at the end of the packet. This was popular, but then she added milk (like the dog cared whether there was milk on them), and the ensuing snaps, crackles and pops transformed Glen into a cowering heap in the corner), most cats, and gunshots (despite being supposed to be a gundog - my uncle bought him for us, ostensibly as a present, with the proviso that he could borrow him for hunting. Hunting happened once, and ended with my uncle having to drag Glen home, quivering and shaking, to be forever scared of loud noises and fireworks. My uncle shortly afterward sold his shotgun and has never hunted since).

Anyway, Glen hated poodles, (particularly, incidentally, black ones (he wasn't that keen on black anythings)), but there was a lady we often used to meet when out for walks who had a little snow-white poodle called Snoopy, of which she was exceptionally proud. Snoopy had hair clips, was brushed to within an inch of its life, was dazzlingly clean, and wasn't allowed near anything dirty, particularly Glen. Frankly, I always thought it was asking for trouble to let Snoopy out onto the beach, but there you have it. I'm sure Snoopy was a perfectly nice dog, of course, but its owner was insufferable, and snobby.

So, on one particular day, I had taken Glen out for his customary walk on the beach, which had on this occasion involved a lot of being in the sea, rolling in seaweed, and generally enjoying all that the beach had to offer in the way of mess (on Glen's behalf I mean; I was just walking along watching him). Coming in the opposite direction, we spotted Snoopy and owner, and the dogs bounded over to each other. Snoopy's owner became apoplectic, shouting 'Snoopy, no! No, Snoopy! Don't go near that dog!! Snoopy!!! Come here!!!!' at increasing pitch and decibel levels. I vaguely called Glen, like I cared whether he got sand on Snoopy, and he ignored me, as always. Anyway, Glen had a little sniff around, and then realised that he was dealing with a poodle, and that no further interest was to be found. He also realised he needed to pee, lifted his leg, and did so, all over Snoopy's head. Which was unfortunate, but only slightly.

Sunday 18 October 2009

Belfast City Hall Reopens: WhyNotSmile Investigates

It might have been thought that the colder weather would keep Mama Smile and I at home a little more, but this is not the case, and we continue to investigate everything that's open to us, and some that isn't ('keep smiling, keep walking' as my dad would say).

This weekend saw the re-opening of Belfast City Hall, which has been closed for refurbishment for some time now, so of course we had to go along, as a journalistic endeavour. Not that we had the faintest idea what was on or whether we'd be allowed in or anything, but there had been rumours that something was going on (Alex had told me something about caterpillars, which I didn't really hear because the signal was weak where one of us was, and Mama Smile had heard a thing on the radio about 'people going up as caterpillars and coming down as butterflies', all of which sounded promising enough to warrant checking it out, especially as I needed to go to the bank anyway, and Mama Smile had to return something to WH Smith).

I tried doing some research online, but the website was geared up for the sort of people who are discerning about what they go to - events organised into 'Workshops', 'Music', 'Exhibitions' and so on - rather than for the likes of Mama Smile and I, who will go to anything as long as it's free. I had been hoping for a list of 'things happening on Saturday', but this eluded me, so the suspense continued.

Anyway, we went into town, went to the bank, and decided we'd have a look at the City Hall, find out what was happening, and Take It From There. So we ambled through the grounds, which seemed to be teeming with inflatable spiky things, and went up the steps, where a very lovely member of the entertainment staff told us that we couldn't come in. Apparently all the workshops and films were booked out, and we could only get in if we had tickets. This was not a terrible disappointment, since we had not, up to that point, realised there even were workshops and films (I think this may be the secret to our success and happiness: whatever you say about Mama Smile and I, we aim low, and always get better than we hoped for).

Anyway, she said we could go to the Coffee Shop (The Bobbin), so we did, and found an exhibition on Belfast, and people from Belfast, and things people from Belfast had invented, so we looked at that, and Mama Smile reminisced about the bakery (that there was a photo of) that used to be near the Holywood Arches and made Custard Creams, because my granda's shop was near there and when she was working in the shop she could smell the Custard Creams, and they always remind her of that. I should also mention that in the foyer there was a bloke in a vest and tie teaching a group of children to sing something about bugs, while being filmed by a TV camera, so if you see that on TV, keep an eye out for Mama Smile and I sneaking past looking anxious.

Then we formed an orderly queue for food, and were quite impressed by the menu; not that it is extensive (largely a paninis and soup, or tray bakes sort of place), but that it wasn't extortionately expensive, as that is the sort of thing we like. It's also nice and airy, with stools at the windows for loners, bigger tables for those eating paninis and soup, and small coffee table type things for... presumably... coffee. Having selected my piece of shortbread, I was dispatched to find a table, but this did not go well, as I came upon Alan in Belfast, Cheryl Wonders, and Littl'un (whom I had never met, but who was wearing spotty tights), and by the time I had finished talking to them, there were no free tables.

So we wandered around looking lost, until a table of 3 older ladies with 2 spare seats hailed us to join them, which we did. Two of them were sisters, and the other had joined them because she also could not find a table, so we all chatted at length about how nice that was and how nice the City Hall is, and had we been in it before, and isn't it terrible how much vandalism there is these days? Mama Smile suspected that one of them had been a teacher of hers at one point, but didn't like to ask. Anyway, the verdict was that The Bobbin is a very nice place to eat, and we'll go back another day when we can get a tour of the City Hall (Mondays-Fridays only), and perhaps visit the Ulster Museum while we're at it.

The ladies at our table had evidently done their research, and were able to tell us that there was a parade happening in the afternoon, at about 2.30 or thereabouts, so we had some time to kill and did so by going to WH Smith (where Mama Smile caused some sort of chaos whose exact details remain obscure to me, hiding as I was in the card-making section), having a look in Next (note to clothes makers: I am currently in the market for a v-neck tank top, in a range of colours which would match a sort of dark purple. Thanks.) and then Dunnes and Currys, pondering the new sculpture thing near Victoria Square and deciding we had never seen anything much wrong with the bandstand.

This was all much as any normal Saturday in Belfast might be, until we came out of TK Maxx, turned left and saw a giant caterpillar across the road. Further investigation proved that we had, with our usual habit of falling accidentally headlong into good fortune, found the start of the parade just as it was about to begin, and were in an excellent spot to see it all. Hence, I have plenty of photos.

This is the caterpillar:

There were lots of people dressed as butterfly-related things such as these:

There were also drummers:

people who looked... familiar:

and many other things, all very colourful. So we followed the parade to the City Hall, where there were now people dressed as butterflies perched on the roof:

In our bid to see the butterflies, we inadvertantly wheedled our way to another perfect viewing spot, from which we could see both the butterflies and the arrival of the parade.

Now, I have mentioned already about the theme being caterpillars and butterflies, and this is all to symbolise the regeneration of Belfast and the new lease of life of the City Hall and so on and so forth. This was then made more apparent, when some caterpillars started climbing up the walls of City Hall:

and then turned into butterflies half way up:

Then they turned into acrobats (I do not think this happens in nature, I think it was an example of artistic licence), and this happened:

which we liked.

Then we tried to go home, which proved difficult as all the buses were stuck behind the caterpillars and so on, but eventually several arrived and it was all fine.

So all in all we had a nice day out, and are looking forward to returning for a tour of the City Hall, and a visit to the Ulster Museum, which is re-opening this week some time.

Friday 16 October 2009

Things I Did Not Know About Friends

This is just a short post to record some Surprising Things I discovered recently. One of the many, many benefits* of having Sister Smile living with me is that she comes complete with the entire 10-season box set of Friends DVDs, and she goes out a lot. So I have been gradually working my way through them (currently on Season 8, Episode 13), and have realised that I did not know as much about Friends as I thought.

Now, admittedly, it hit our screens just as I went to university and I didn't have a TV; furthermore, it seemed like the sort of thing my sister enjoyed, which made me automatically Suspicious, but still, I thought I had seen at least 75% of the episodes. I mean, it's not like Channel 4 shows anything else, so when I go home at Christmas there's not a lot of options.

Anyway, here are the things I discovered:

1. There's a storyline which runs through each season, and from one season to the next. I never really knew this.

2. At one stage, Rachel moves in with Joey, because Chandler moves in with Monica. This happens quite early on, and lasts for several series, and yet I never knew that it had even happened.

3. Phoebe lives miles away, in a separate house, and not with Monica and Rachel.

4. Ross also has his own apartment, and does not live with Joey and Chandler (apart from a brief spell when he's between houses).

5. Rachel has a baby at the end of Series 8 (according to the box).

6. Ross and Rachel are not, in total, together for all that long, but at one point they accidentally get married.

7. Ross only owned a monkey for a short time, and not through most of the show as I previously believed. Joey and Chandler had the chick and the duck for much longer, and yet I thought they only appeared in one episode.

8. For a not entirely brief time, the guys and the girls swapped apartments.

I mention this simply because I seem to have seen countless episodes of Friends and had never known any of these things at all.

* Yeah, I sent her an email with the blog address at the bottom

Friday 9 October 2009

Dodgy Mathematics Exposed #4: The Difference Between Correlation and Causation

It has been said by one Father Larry Lorenzoni that birthdays are good for you, as those who have more of them tend to live longer. This is an excellent example of today's lesson: the line between correlation and causation, which is becoming so blurred by media outlets as to have become virtually indistinguishable from a sign saying 'Please cross here'.

First, we must explain our terms.

'Correlation' is what happens when two things go together. For instance, it is true that the number of birthdays you have had correlates directly with how old you are (one may have to make a separate category for those born on 29th February, but the principle still holds). It is true that how heavy you are tends to roughly correlate with how tall you are, although admittedly the is getting weaker. It is also probably true that during a flu epidemic the amount of Lemsip sold goes up, while the number of beach umbrellas probably goes down (the latter is called negative correlation).

Two things are 'uncorrelated' if they are unrelated, such as the number of spots on my dalmation (if I had one), and the frequency of buses on the Cregagh Road.

'Causation' is a different thing, and happens when one thing causes another to happen. For example, when people get colds and flus, they buy Lemsip to get rapid relief from their symptoms. I don't though, because I hate Lemsips, but this is not statistically significant. They are also less likely to go to the beach, and so do not need a beach umbrella.

From this you should be able to see that 'correlation' and 'causation' are not at all the same thing, and should not be confused. There are three Important Things to remember here:

1. Correlation may be coincidental

For instance, it has been pointed out that a decrease in piracy worldwide has correlated with an increase in global warming; this does not, of course, indicate that pirates were good for the environment.
Similarly, the rise of reality TV shows roughly corresponded with my own progression through university, but I think we can safely assume that they did not help me in any way and that I would probably have gone through university regardless.

2. Correlation may arise from a root cause
During a flu epidemic, we have seen that Lemsip sales will increase; it is also likely that more people will take time off work. This does not, however, imply that buying Lemsip makes you take a day off, or that having a sneaky day off makes us all so gleeful that we rush out to Boots and crack open the cold rememdies. It is merely that they are both caused by the same thing.
A similar effect happens when you give teenagers injections, and this leads to much suspicion about vaccines such as the cervical Cancer one. If you inject a teenage girl with anything at all, including water, or indeed nothing - if, in fact, you stick a needle in the arm of a teenage girl, you will find that very often you don't hear the end of it for days. This is not the same thing as a side effect of whatever you injected. Therefore it is not correct to assume that a rise in headaches in the days after a vaccination programme implies that the vaccination causes headaches; in reality, it may be that sticking a needle in the arm caused an excuse for a bit of drama in the mind of a 14-year old.

3. Causation may not work in the expected direction
This is where the birthday thing comes in, because Father Larry has extrapolated in the wrong direction: it is not so much that having more birthdays makes you live longer, but that living longer makes you have more birtdays. This phenomenon, which we will call 'Causation Direction Reversal' is a good source of potential humour.

I trust that everyone now understands the difference between correlation and causation, and that you will now be better equipped to make up jokes.

Thursday 8 October 2009

WhyNotSmile Guide To Choosing A Good Password

You know that WhyNotSmile is looking out for you all, all of the time, and so it was with a certain amount of concern that I read yesterday that the most common password among a load nicked from Gmail/Hotmail/Yahoo/or something was '123456'. Other frequently used passwords include 'password', 'hello' and 'secret'. I mean, seriously, people, you need to do better than this. This is your identity we're talking about here, your emails, your photos, your secure personal data and your bank details. It's about time you all started taking password selection with the appropriate gravity.

And so I am pleased to present the WhyNotSmile Guide To Choosing A Good Password.

Section 1: What makes a good password?
A good password has 2 elements:
1. It must be secure
Words are not secure. How it works, you see, if you're trying to hack into someone's account, you get a computer and a dictionary, and you get the computer to keep trying to log in with each word in the dictionary in turn. A surprising number of people use words only for their password. Or they use their children's names, but this can easily be hacked in a similar way.
Short passwords are not very secure. g5, for instance, is not a word, but it's hardly rocket science to guess.
Combinations of letters and numbers are more secure. And if you add in some punctuation, it becomes even more secure. But some things you might sign up to will not allow you to use punctuation. So a password like 'x5t67!h1' is quite secure.
This, however, brings us to point 2:
2. You must be able to remember it
There is no point in outwitting yourself. Nor is there a lot of point in having a password so complicated that you need to keep it written down beside your computer all the time. So it needs to be something you will remember.

Section 2: Methods for generating good passwords
You can get things that will generate a password for you; these tend to be good on security and poor on rememberability. Fortunately, WhyNotSmile has some suggestions. In this section, we will look at how you can generate a 9-character password. For most things, this will be secure enough, but if you work for the FBI, you want to treat it as an introduction and extrapolate a little.

Step one: get 6 random letters of the alphabet. These can be anything, as long as you remember where they came from. Suppose you choose a song you like, and take the first letter of each of the first 6 words: taenat, for instance. Or, choose your grandparents' and parents' first names and take the final letter of each: nmdass. It doesn't really matter, as long as you remember what you did.

Step two: choose 2 random numbers. For example, take the final 2 digits of your parents' phone number: 46. Perhaps reverse them.

Step 3: choose your favourite punctuation: _

Step 4: combine them in some way that you will remember: ta46en_at for instance.

Now you have generated your own password which you can remember, and which is more secure than 'welcome'.

So don't come crying to me if someone steals your identity.

Bhutan, And Why I Like It

I don't know how much you know about Bhutan, so I'll start from the beginning (so as to keep as many of you on board as possible), and then I will explain the awesome thing I found out about Bhutan.

Bhutan is a country in South East Asia, next to China, India, Nepal and so on. For today's purposes, that's already more than you really need to know.

Now for the awesome bit. A number of years ago, the King read something somewhere that people who live in democracies are happier than people who live in kingdoms. And then - get this - made the country a democracy by transferring most of his powers to the government*.

But this is not all. Most countries measure their success by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or some variation - so the country is doing well if it is making lots of stuff. Bhutan measures success by Gross National Happiness (GNH) - so it considers it a good year if people are happy, and it makes laws and policies with the aim of advancing the country's happiness levels as much as possible.

Is this not awesome?

* I don't fully grasp politics, so this may not be exactly true, but it's broadly in line with the general spirit of events

Monday 5 October 2009

Thank you and Please

Thank you to everyone who suggested things I could do to earn money. Some of the suggestions were even Quite Good.

I apologise for the lack of blogging of late; this is mainly due to Sister Smile being in need of a computer and using mine when I'm not. If anyone has a spare laptop they would like to donate to Sister Smile for the next year, blogging may become more frequent.

The good news is, Sister Smile and I have not thumped each other yet, and have not even had any arguments at all.