Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!

What a letdown, Jock.  Your poet must be spinning in his grave.

Carry On up the Union

Today the Scottish referendum debate has turned to pure comedy, as the preserve-the-status-quo political and media Establishment turn to blind panic and run about like headless chickens. All the Westminster leaders are belatedly running off to campaign, and stressing that You can vote No, because No will mean Yes in all but name. Though each party still seems to have its own flavour of NoMeansYes, so that’ll be another confused and horrible compromise agreement to thrash out, or alternatively no agreement and kick the issue into the long grass (and try to blame the Scots Nats).  They’ve even dragged the Royal Family in, with a well-crafted Denial that the Queen might plead for the Union, and a big Feelgood announcement from her grandson and his missus.

As I’ve said before, our constitution since Blair is hopelessly broken.  Disappointingly, none of his successors at Westminster show any inclination to fix it, so the only proposal on the table is Scottish independence.  That will leave both parties with some interesting problems, but I think much more political will to deal with them than has hitherto been in evidence.

There are of course some glaring problems in the Scots Nats programme.  I don’t think that’s actually a problem: a Yes vote is just the start of a process of negotiation in which everyone can drop their sillier and more outlandish ideas in pursuit of a mutually-acceptable agreement.  Unlike a No vote, which just gives the headless chickens a mandate to sink straight back into complacency.

Now it’s Jocks’ Choice.  Say Yes to independence, force the issue, end the bad marriage, and let’s be good friends, just as we are with other neighbours such as the Dutch or the Irish.  Endure short-term pain – for there will surely be quite a hiatus and disruption on both sides – for long-term gain.  Or say No, succumb to the bullying of the political class, and condemn us all to another generation of brokenness.

A tea party in Boston and Skegness

A junior minister quits the government.

He takes a job in London while his family live elsewhere: what does he expect?  Did he not realise the job was in London?  OK, lots of people have to do that kind of thing, but in his case there’s a real difference: as a member of the legislature, his job is supposed to be about improving the way things work.  He could see the problem, he suffered from it himself: did he never think to DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT?  At least, use his position as a platform from which to campaign, even if he can’t persuade the government to do anything.

As reported, he seems to be saying that being an MP is incompatible with his family life.  WRONG: being an MP is just incompatible with NOT being a Londoner.  If you’re not a native Londoner, you become a adoptive one by taking the effing job.

That’s why those of us out in the sticks are constitutionally excluded from representation in parliament.  There can’t be many who are such complete idiots as to stand for parliament without wanting to live in London, or at the very least being indifferent to it.  This man with family in Lincolnshire probably represents the place better than anyone qualified to be an MP.  Or would have done, if only he hadn’t so totally wasted his opportunity to put our democratic deficitvoid onto the political agenda.

What a total idiot!

The other reshuffle

Baroness Warsi resigns over a matter of principle. Good to know there’s still a government minister not entirely without principles.  Oh .. erm .. hang on ….

But what took her so long?  It’s not as if Gaza is the first foreign problem in which our government has behaved disgracefully on her watch.  It’s not even as if this was one of the conflicts for which we bear the most substantial responsibility – at least not in our times. Not like those heavily provoked in the first place by western agents provocateurs (like Syria or Ukraine), or the legacy of actual military action (like Libya). Maybe she protests her principles just a tad too much?

How will history view her?  I guess precedents like Robin Cook show that a resignation can do a lot to redeem a reputation, even if it comes long after your hands are covered in blood.


The blackberry season is firmly upon us. Indeed, it’s come exceptionally early: I’ve been getting some good pickings for two weeks in the garden.

In the wild, brambles tend to live alongside nettles. In my garden there are no nettles, but in their accustomed place is is ivy climbing anything that’ll support it, including some of the brambles. It’s got some rather attractive white flowers right now!

As a gardener, the ivy can be a pain: if I try to trim the brambles (or other plants the ivy climbs) back I have two intertwined things to deal with, and they need very different treatment. But for picking the blackberries, I discovered today a bit of ivy can be a huge advantage. Something soft and thorn-free I can grab to pull the thorny bits out of the way and give comfortable access to the berries!


Kafka onna bike

From the Plym Valley trail.  I’ve been meaning to photograph this sculpture for a while, so I took the opportunity when I passed it today.

sculpture of a cycling insect

Did Gregor Samsa ride a bike?

4g broadband

OK, since my emergency I’ve had a little time with my new 4g mobile broadband service.  And my regular service with Virgin appears to be working again, though now with the redundancy of two networks I wouldn’t necessarily notice the kind of downtime that plagued me before.

The 4G router is an Alcatel “one-touch”, and is only slightly larger than a mobile phone, and runs cool – all very nice.  It also has a cradle-cum-power-supply, with micro-USB port for the power supply.  It’s not just the cradle that has a port, the router does too, so I thought this has got to be worth a try: yes, if I connect it to a USB port on the Mac, it recognises “mobile broadband” and is connected.  Great, that leaves only the (SIP) phones needing a regular ethernet port and therefore the Virgin router or other equipment I don’t have or can’t use with the 4G service.

How about performance?  It feels subjectively like a very decent broadband speed, but slower than Virgin during the working day – presumably peak congestion.  I tried a speed test on both connections with some of the online speed check services, using the ultrabook over wifi for all tests.  First try was early afternoon when the 4g seemed slower; second was in the wee hours when all ISPs in this and nearby timezones should have ample spare capacity.

http://www.speedtest.net/ http://www.broadbandspeedchecker.co.uk/
peak time off-peak peak time off-peak
Down Up Down Up Down Up Down Up
Virgin Cable 31.0 1.96 20.67 1.99 22.14 2.23 32.9 1.89
EE 4G 25.88 5.11 19.64 12.76 9.69 1.07 36.46 9.78

I tried a third speed check service which I’ve used before at http://www.uswitch.com/broadband/speedtest/, but it didn’t work.

What conclusions can I draw?  Not very much.  It somewhat supports my subjective impression that the 4g service is the more variable of the two.  But interesting that 4G upload speeds appear potentially much higher than cable.  I guess cable was developed originally just for telly, where only download matters.

Still evaluating what it feels like to live with.

Scripting with gpg

I have a build script that may, as a matter of convenience, download and build a third-party software package.  Before the build script goes into any release, I want to tighten up its security to ensure it verifies the PGP signature on the package.

OK, I can do that in a Makefile using two separate targets: the tarball, and the verified tarball.  I thought I could make the latter a link to the former, using something like:

gpg –verify $(TARBALL).asc $(TARBALL) \
|| (echo “### Please verify $(TARBALL) ###” && exit 1)

However, this is failing me, because gpg is too trusting:

$ gpg –verify nginx-1.7.3.tar.gz.asc nginx-1.7.3.tar.gz
gpg: Signature made Tue 8 Jul 14:22:56 2014 BST using RSA key ID A1C052F8
gpg: Good signature from “Maxim Dounin <email.suppressed>”
gpg: WARNING: This key is not certified with a trusted signature!
gpg: There is no indication that the signature belongs to the owner.
Primary key fingerprint: B0F4 2533 73F8 F6F5 10D4 2178 520A 9993 A1C0 52F8

$ echo $?

(OK, now you know the identity of $(TARBALL))

It has not verified that the signature is trusted, but it still thinks all’s well.  Ouch!  I can verify the signature manually (if rather weakly) but I’d rather not try to script that.  Nor do I want to concern myself with issues that might change with each new nginx release, or with changes of pgp keys.

A bit of googling finds this message, from which it appears this was a known bug but fixed in GnuPG version back in 2006 (and yes, my gpg version is more recent than that)!  Was that a non-fix that only tells you if it’s a BAD signature or no PGP data at all?  That would be no more useful than an MD5 or SHA checksum!

OK folks, what am I missing?  What do you use to script the verification of a package?

Cut off again

For some time now, my ‘net connection has been up and down like the proverbial whore’s drawers.  But for a succession of feeble reasons, I didn’t get around to doing anything about it until today.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  First time it happened I thought it could be a repeat of a recent nationwide cockup, and configured DNS to bypass Virgin.  But subsequent outages showed that it wasn’t DNS, it was overall connectivity that was disappearing, sometimes for hours at a time.  So although I did something, it wasn’t actually relevant to the problem.

I think last night was typical.  Connectivity vanished at about 10pm, returning at 12:26[1] for a tantalising 4 minutes before disappearing for another hour.  Bedtime obscures the record of what may have happened overnight, but in the morning it vanished again at 9:21[1].  It showed no sign of coming back anytime soon, so I finally got around to trying to contact Virgin and ask WTF is going on.

Easier said than done.  For some reason I don’t understand, my connection sharing app (joikuspot on symbian) was unable to acquire a connection either last night or this morning.  So I had just a hopelessly slow 3g connection and a 3-inch screen to try and wade through Virgin’s notoriously crap-filled website and make contact.  And since my home ‘phone uses VOIP, I had only the mobile on which to try and call them.  In other words, everything I do is challenging and very slow, and any ‘phone call going through endless menus and adverts has the add annoyance of mobile costs.

Anyway, I made it to Virgin’s status page, which told me my broadband was just fine – though there might be problems with cable telly.  Then I made it through various help/support options to run a test on my line.  Now it tells me the test was unable to run, and gives me a ‘phone number (hurrah)!

So I ‘phone them.  There’s no option to speak to a human, so I just have to go through lots of menus interspersed with adverts.  These include supplying my details and repeating the same test I’d just run online, which is at least mercifully quicker to fail on voice than on 3g.  After that it told me it was putting me through to an operator.  It didn’t: instead there was another caricature[2] of an advert for the telly and some more menus, before it again told me it was putting me through to an operator.  And finally a denouement so splendidly appropriate to the whole experience I transcribed it verbatim:

Sorry, this number is not in service.

All that call in vain.  No chance of getting through to a human.

OK, back to the 3-inch screen and the crap-filled webpages.  Find another ‘phone number, try it.  Soon converge with a horribly familiar sequence of menus and hang up.

The phone is getting uncomfortably hot to hold (due only in part to it being the hottest day of the year).  I’ve been struggling alone for long enough: time to try and enlist some moral support.  None of the neighbours are around, so I call John, who I expect probably has a decent-sized screen in front of him.  Enlist his help in finding the address of the Virgin shop in central Plymouth, with a view to getting on the bike and demanding to speak to someone who deals with broadband problems.  He also finds – with a lot of difficulty despite a full-size PC screen – another couple of ‘phone numbers.

I try the number for the shop, and after hearing opening hours and adverts, and declining to get directions for it, find myself back in the same menus I’ve learned go nowhere.

By now it’s past noon, and I see next door’s front door is open.  Knowing some of my neighbours use Virgin, I decide to ask.  Karen is just back from work, and confirms her internet is dead too.  So it’s not just me!  She also tells me the TV and phone – also supplied by Virgin in the same bundle – are working fine (so much for that status page)!!!  Using the Virgin ‘phone, a call to 150 is free to her, and takes her through the same rigmarole as my first call.  Only this time, it ends with her being put through to a human.  Hallelujah!

Turns out the human is, to take a charitable view, suffering from the time difference between the Uk and India, and has probably had a good night out or a rough night.  That ‘phone call must’ve broken all records for the number of times Karen, and later I, repeated our respective addresses to the same person.  But we got some information: yes there is a fault in the area, and they anticipate a fix on July 29th.  Aaargh!!!  YOUR WIFE IS A BIG HIPPO!!!!

This is the point where I ask Karen if I can have a word with them, to try and ask what they can do for me in the meantime.  A connection over oldfashioned copper?  A 4g dongle?  No use, and asking to speak to her supervisor doesn’t help. Well, actually he refers me on to Customer services when I ask about alternatives, but after several more minutes on hold I regret that.  Where can I send the bill for my time, and for finding an alternative?

At least now I know the Virgin shop in town would be a waste of time.  How soon can I get a connection from someone else?  Fibre broadband is now available here, so there should be alternatives.

Try plusnet.  I was their customer for over ten years, with fewer problems than other ISPs I’ve used.  And there I can get to speak to a human when necessary!  Their website is unusable from the ‘phone, but I have their number.  Dammit, they tell me there’s a 15 minute wait, and the muzak is utterly horrendous.  Guess that’s what happens when a medium-sized ISP gets borged by BT :(

Hmmm …

What about a 4G dongle?  Would Currys or PCWorld sell me one?  Do we have 4G coverage?  I just about manage to access EE’s coverage map, which tells me yes I should.  OK, worth a try.  So braving the early afternoon heat, I trundle over to Currys, who can indeed sell me one, and a subscription to EE.  Great!

Actually not a dongle.  It’s a gadget that gives me another wifi signal, but whose connection to the outside world is 4G.  But it’s an emergency, and beggars can’t be choosers.  Indeed, in principle it’s a rather good solution: my problem with it is just the wifi-less macbook.

Is 4g as good as its enthusiasts claim?  Maybe I can make it my regular connection and ditch Virgin?  Guess I’ll find out over the coming week, and thereafter if I continue to use it.  Interesting times.

[UPDATE] Composing this on the wifi-less macbook, I’m now disconnected again, so this post won’t appear today.  If I have no connection tomorrow I’ll cut&paste it to another machine and publish from there.  Grrrr …

[1] These times are approximate, taken from when an IRC client – configured to connect automatically – notes connection and loss of connection.  The computer, and with it the IRC client, sleep when I’m not at a computer with IRC (which includes when I’m at the ultrabook, where screen space is too limited to run IRC unless I have a specific reason).

[2] I suspect I’m being over-polite in describing it as a caricature, as that would imply some kind of self-awareness.  Virgin’s current owners “Liberty Global” seem more likely to be the kind of corporation that gives the ‘merkins a bad name for being utterly oblivious to irony.

Turkish WordPress?

OK, WTF has happened to WordPress?  Why does it suddenly think my blog is in Turkish?  Not of course the contents, but all the template stuff, and – far worse  – the settings and preferences that should (I guess, though I never actually tried it) enable me to switch to my choice of language.

Confirmed it’s not my browser playing sillybuggers by accessing it from three different browsers[1] on three different computers.  Chrome offers to translate this page, but that’s not going to help with a bunch of clientside-scripted menus!

OK, try another tack.  ssh in to a remote machine on another continent and check the blog with lynx.  Aha, it’s now in English!  Hmm, could that difference be because I’m not logged in?  Try to log in, but fail because Lynx rejects WordPress’s SSL certificate and refuses to talk to it.

OK, what happens if I fire up a spare browser that’s never logged in from a local desktop?  It’s in English.  And when I log in with Safari, it’s still in English.  This is getting silly!

Resolution: when I reload this composition page in Chrome, it’s reverted to English.  Someone or something was playing sillybuggers but got fixed.  Was WordPress hacked?  Did some sysop at WordPress screw up?

Or could it even have been some sysop at my ISP running a supposedly-transparent proxy that messed with browser preferences?  That’s the most worrisome: I got email from them recently inviting me to “protect” myself, and I suspect they’re implementing some Endarkenment.  A glitch in something more sinister?  My next test would’ve been to route my (turkish-infected) desktop browser through another network, but the return to English pre-empted that.

I don’t know when whatever caused the Turkish first appeared, only when I first saw it – which was a little before 09:00 UTC.  Anyone else see Turkish wordpress in recent hours?  Or even – if you’re a Virgin broadband user – other sites unexpectedly in Turkish?

[geek note: I could also have tested for a rogue browser preferences setting by visiting a multilingual site like Apache server docs that display in Turkish if your browser asks for it.  But that would've left open the possibility of misdiagnosing a glitch associated with an ISP-run database having different routing/rules for different sites].

[1] Iceweasel, Firefox and Chrome, in that order.


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