05/08/03

Inefficient, uneconomic farming

I can understand why British farmers are in financial trouble. Everything conspires against them.

I have seen programmes about arable farmers in the States at harvest time. Harvest contractors work their way up from Mexico to the far northern counties over several months and the machines only stop to move from one farm to the next, and since all the farms have grain to harvest that isn't very far. The combine harvesters work in teams 24 hours a day, workers work in shifts supported by maintenance vehicles and a mobile kitchen and sleeping vans. If repairs are needed a firm of mechanics is on 24 hour standby.

In eastern European countries like Romania and Poland there are also vast prairies and cheap labour.

I have been watching the combine harvesters and baling machines around here recently. They have awkward shaped fields so that they often seem to be fiddling about in corners, turning around and so on. The number of times I have seen a machine stop for no apparent reason is amazing. A few seconds wasted would have been a few yards gained if they kept going.

I met one farmer and he commented on the fine weather so I said he could work all night. He replied that he wished he could but he couldn't. The three farmers I have seen near here seem to be using their own machines and staff so presumably overtime is either impossible or too expensive and hiring contractors also too expensive.

Planning restrictions mean they can't alter the shape of their fields (and I support that) so inefficiency is bound to occur.

It is just symptomatic of problems across all British industry - how to be competitive with the economies of scale in the States or cheap labour in third world countries. Either salaries increase in third world countries or our standard of living decreases - it looks as if the latter is happening.


10/08/03

Should Britain join the Euro?

Today's Sunday Times highlights the problems in Europe and compares the EU with other economic areas.

The economic importance of India is expected to overtake China and in our part of the world Germany, Italy and Spain are expected to shrink in importance relative to Britain and France.

Demographic trends and growth rates are different for different parts of the world and they change very slowly. Europe's trends do not look good.

The American birth rate is more than two per woman while in Spain, Italy and Greece it is now 1.1. Immigration is not expected to help this. The American population is expected to rise by 150 million by 2050 of which 50 million will be immigrants whereas Europe's population will increase by only 30 million immigrants. At present Europe's population is more than 100 million greater than America's but will be the same in 2040 and less by 40 million in 2050.

If Europe was to increase immigration by a large amount the immigrants would probably come from North Africa and the Middle East which have excess youthful populations and this could cause much friction in the EU.

Economic implications follow the demographic trends. A country's long-term growth rate is determined by the increase in its working population and the rise in productivity.

However, the working populations of Britain and France will not fall at all, whereas those of Germany, Italy and Spain are forecast to drop by as much as a third in the coming decades.

As a result, the European Commission calculates that the US economy will grow twice as fast as Europe for decades to come - averaging 2.5% a year compared with less than 1.5% a year in Europe.

Analyses by the United Nations, the World Bank and the European Commission all come to similar conclusions.

The American economy is currently about 20% bigger than the EU, but by the middle of this century it will be two-and-a-half times the size.

Other signs are against the EU. R & D spending is lower in Europe than America, and strong unions, muted competition and extensive regulation conspire against rapid change.

Do we want to be associated irretrievably with a failing economic area?

Britain has always had much more in common with the US, both politically and in business methods, although the Labour Party seems to be edging towards European style interference and regulation.

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Another hot day and record temperatures for Britain were achieved today, first at Heathrow airport of 100.2 F or 37.9 C, then at Gravesend 100.6 F or 38.1C.


13/08/03

Dangers of the virtual world

Many years ago there was concern that children watching violent films or playing computer games would be mentally affected. The experts thought that they would become violent, but I don't think that has come to pass to any great extent. My concern was that they would see someone laid unconscious or killed, only for that person to reappear seconds later totally well and with no headache. They would assume that this was how it was in real life.

Some of those children are now in managerial positions and I can see the result. Whereas many years ago any new development would be discussed thoroughly, designed and tested before implementation, today everything is rushed through to final application and if it goes wrong it is mended, time and again.

In other words, they act like actors in films or as people do in computer games; they get things done in a mad rush and if it doesn't work then they start again, like a game.

We see the effect mainly in practical situations where if something goes wrong even once there could be deaths, for instance the railways.

The managers always want the workers to work quicker, operational checks are reduced or done away with, staff cuts are made, etc, while the unions on behalf of the workers realise that cutting corners is likely to result in crashes. In their view everything has to be done methodically and checked because someone might die at the first problem or mistake. The "game" can't be restarted in real life.

Similarly, if a clerical mistake is made, it is just corrected, possibly without an apology and possibly without re-issuing the faulty document, just incorporating the amendment in the next routine report. The situation is totally different in industries where things have to be done right first time and every time.

Computer games aren't helping to create the correct mindset for these situations.


19/08/03

Males will be extinct soon

The male Y-chromosome is certain to be extinct soon; soon in geological time - 125,000 to 150,000 years.

The Y-chromosome which only males have is unstable and decaying. Whereas X-chromosomes in women have the capacity to repair themselves over time by pairing up and swapping genes to minimise bad mutations, Y-chromosomes have no partner and cannot do so. Mutations are gradually creating more and more defects.

1% to 2% of all male infertility is already caused by mutations on their Y-chromosomes and it will increase year by year.

There has been much speculation that our human race will be composed totally of females. If they just re-create themselves, their offspring will be identical to them and our race will never develop.

However, it is also possible that two women could transfer genes to create all-female children but consisting of a blend of their parent's genes as children are at present. These children, all female, would be perfectly normal and able to mate with the dwindling number of males that were left or in turn transfer genes with another female.

However, the process of transferring genes would always have to be artificial (similar to the current process of injecting sperm into an egg but instead injecting nuclear chromosomes from another female) and not by a normal sexual process.

There is a third alternative, though. Some animals have already learnt to by-pass the Y-chromosome. A small rodent has managed to transfer the sex-determining region of the Y-chromosome to another chromosome. The decaying Y-chromosome has been by-passed and disappeared and all its sexual information is safely stowed on genes that can be paired up and shared to minimise future mutations.

The offspring are either male or female as we would recognise them ie their sexual parts and functions, but the males have two X-chromosomes like the females and fertile XX sperm genes (unlike rare XX human males today that are infertile). The rodent can have sons or daughters in roughly equal numbers, their sexual makeup decided only by whether they received sperm from the father carrying the repackaged X-chromosome from him or the original from the mother.

So hurry up blokes, get yourselves sorted out before it's too late!


19/08/03

Will computers get more user-friendly?

Computers started by being hard to use (especially with no training), became easier with Windows 3.1, but have now got complicated again.

Most of my friends just use a computer, they don't update anything or don't know if updating is being done automatically. When they get a problem, they have to get an office IT man to sort it out. They will never learn enough to be able to do it themselves. Using a computer service company means a call-out charge then an hourly charge with the probability that the computer will be taken away so that you have no computer to use and no control over the costs.

In fact, if the problem looks like costing a fairly large sum to correct, it's better to buy a new computer with more up-to-date software. New computers with XP and Works 7.00 start at about 300 plus VAT, about the same as some repairs.

Consider my own experience. I started in 1985 using a shared office computer and DOS. I could never get the spaces, dots or slashes in the right place.

Then I got my own computer with W95. I never fiddled with the software and it worked perfectly. It had no internet browser or e-mail to introduce viruses, although it did have a direct dial-up to the office server for business mail which was very reliable. The printer never crashed.

I then got myself a W98 computer for personal use. It crashed occasionally but always because of the scanner and I learnt how to avoid it most of the time. Re-booting was always successful. I never bothered to update it and never got any viruses for a long time until my sister-in-law sent me one which was caught by the very out-of-date Norton AV. I installed AVG and that has dealt with viruses since. I never tampered with the software and that has been reliable too. I did once install Office 97 with the office's disk and just about managed it.

I then got a WXP computer. The automatic updating for Windows is almost impossible to use because some of the files are so large that they never get a chance to download in the limited time I am online, so I have decided to do it manually a bit at a time, at a time of my choosing.

Norton 2003 was also set to update automatically until I found that only the virus files were downloaded, so now I do that manually too which gets the programme updates as well.

I've read about problems encountered by others after downloading new programmes or an update that interfered with something else. Uninstalling, reinstalling, alterations in the registry, downloading other programmes like TweakUI to help sort the problem and so on are the complex result.

Recently there was the fuss over the MSBlaster worm. I've read countless methods of getting rid of it or protecting from it and they all seem to be slightly different. For instance, the one below gets rid of it by deleting files from the computer without downloading a removal tool, whereas most remedies involve turning off system restore, downloading a removal tool then downloading a patch for the OS.

Step 1
Break your computer's connection with the Internet. If you're on a dial-up, DSL, or cable connection, turn off the modem.
Step 2
Hold down Ctrl and Alt at the same time and press Delete with your other hand. Click Task Manager, then the Processes tab.
Step 3
Click the Image Name column to organize the items alphabetically. Look for MSBlast. Mouse down to highlight it, then click End Process. Close the Task Manager.
Step 4
From Windows Explorer, search for the file msblast.exe on the C: drive. Delete any copies of msblast.exe that you find.
Step 5
Reboot your computer and reconnect to the Internet by turning on your modem again.
Step 6
Download the RPC Interface Buffer Overrun Security Vulnerability Patch from www.windowsupdate.com. If that site is unavailable, get the file from another site, such as Download.com.

I'm not expecting a comment on the above, I'm using it to show how an ordinary computer user cannot cope now.

Some advances have been made, for instance when connecting a printer the OS looks around for a suitable driver in its memory files which is very useful.

However, there's a long way to go before computers automatically recognise problems and deal with them without human help.

A comparison with cars can be made. Years ago you had to service a car daily and needed to know how to adjust the carburettor or change a fuse. Repairs were costly. Now cars rarely need more than a routine service. I thought computers had reached that stage when I had W95, but modern computers need constant updating and newer versions of software such as Acrobat or Word in order to function at all.

Is the trend towards more automation to help inexperienced computer users, or more updating, uninstalling, reinstalling, registry alterations, etc?