Friday, 15 April 2016


During the two cold Winters of 2009, we were snowed in on our "mountain".  At 230m above sea-level, this is a mountain in the Netherlandish rather the Andean sense.  Nevertheless there were 10cm of snow between the farm and the railhead in Enniscorthy 15km away. For Irieland, 10cm is a LOT for snow. There are only 5 snow-ploughs in the country and three of them are within the perimeter fence of Dublin Airport [I exaggerate only slightly]. I had been working in Dublin as the snow fell but was expecting to get picked up from the station by The Beloved when I was heading home.  It wasn't going to happen as our antient car had bald tyres without snow-studs. We arranged for a near neighbour who works in Enniscorthy to pause at a convenience store on the edge of town to pick me up and whisk me home.  Well Irish Rail wasn't able to deal with snow and my train ground to halt in Bray and arrived 3 hours late in full dark at Enniscorthy, so I missed my lift. I set off through town prepared to walk home [I'm well 'ard me] if that's what it took.  At the last roundabout, I put out my thumb under the last streetlight and said I'd hitch until 100 cars had passed.

I've written before that, since the epidemic of axe-murderers [both driver AMs and passenger AMs], hitch-hiking has ceased to be part of Irish culture; so I wasn't hopeful.  Nevertheless, at about car 75 a friend and neighbour half-recognised me out of context, picked me up and delivered me to the bottom of our lane.  He had been doing some engineering work in one of the small factories and was heading home a little later than planned, so it was providential.  As we drove out chatting, I imagined how handy it would be to know who in your mobile-phone-book was in town at the same time you were. He glanced at me with an incredulous are you having a game with me? look and said "Haven't you heard about Foursquare?" which had launched earlier that year.  Foursquare is dead handy for the apped-up because it means they can meet any of their pals for coffee if they're both in TriBeCa, NY, NY at the same time: social media indeed. The interweb elf in one phone must be talking to the elf in the other or they are both sending petal-messages to the fairy-cloud.

If you're in the business of persuading people to buy things that they don't need - possibly because those folks didn't know such things existed - it's handy to know where people live. If I want to know what's on at the cinema, I don't care much ado about theatres in Dublin, New Hampshire.  Same with hearing aids; vendors might be happy to drive 250km from Cork to Dublin to secure a €2500 sale but don't want to be directed to a potential customer the other side of the pond. If the advertisers know where the IP address of my computer is, they can save me hassle and save themselves money. If they're smart, the way some sections of the interweb are smart, they'll also want to know whether I'm pregnant, or a pensioner or deeply into paragliding.  They can infer this information from what my IP address has been interested in: it's the paracord or the incontinence-pads, stupid.  That's how I had a month of being badgered to buy a toaster that cost more than my car.

Here is an interesting story [via Metafilter] about the downside of these linkings of people and computers; especially when you set a robot to create your database. MaxMind is a number-crunching company in Massachusetts, they were set up to do the math-grunt for Advertisers matching physical location with IP numbers.  Each computer has a unique IP, so the USA must have a well over 1 billion to allocate a GPS location.  Sometimes, MaxMind just had to throw up their hands: they knew the computer was in the USA but couldn't zero nearer than that . . . so they assigned it to a latitude and longitude more or less in the middle of Kansas which is in the middle of the USA. Formally, this is the centre of the contiguous 48 states.  When you throw in enormous Alaska and diminutive Hawaii, the centre shifts nearly 1000km NNW to the edge of S.Dakota. I've looked at the difficulty of deciding which centre is The Centre for the UK. It turns out that 38oN, 97oW is in the middle of somebody's farm. MaxMind didn't care, they just assigned more and more IPs [eventually 600 million of them!] to this as-close-as-we-can-be-bothered-to-get-it field outside of Wichita.

Their easy solution created a huge headache for the family who lived at Centroid, USA because lots of people used the MaxMind data in ways [often foolish and unconsidered] that hadn't been anticipated. The law of unintended consequences played out as police agencies came looking for the computer which had sent a drug cartel's assassination order or the computer which had sent a suicides cry for help. MaxMind were wholly unaware of the effect of their cavalier decision; just as the Kansas farmers were unable to explain why they were being criminalised. MaxMind are changing their name to RedFace reassigning all these (there are other similar problems) generic addresses to the nearest substantive body of water. That way, agencies who act before they think can demand back-up from the US Coastguard. The discussion/ comments at the Metafilter link are worth reading. The story provides an interesting insight in how our universe is tunnel-visioned by the extent to which we can imagine it.

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