Stealth Debit

Last January I gave my dad a gift subscription to The Economist for his birthday.  He had been a subscriber for many years, but somehow lost it when his life was dominated by an altogether more serious problem.  It’s the ideal birthday present for someone who’s never been easy to buy for: not merely absolutely right for him, but also something that can be repeated each year thereafter.

A week ago he ‘phoned me, having noticed that the end date of his subscription had moved a year, to January 2017.  Great, that’s exactly as intended, but he wondered if I’d renewed.  In fact I hadn’t: I’d been awaiting contact from The Economist about renewal.  Hmm … if they haven’t asked either of us to pay, who do they suppose is paying?  Or do they have one of those billing departments that gets into a terrible mess?

Checking my bank accounts, I find I had indeed set up a direct debit, and yesterday it was debited for another year’s subscription.  OK, fine, but isn’t it customary to send at least a courtesy email notifying me ahead of a direct debit?  Not a big issue: I’d intended the payment anyway and had ample funds in the account.  But I’m mildly p***ed off not to have been warned.

Perhaps they fear losing a subscription?  That would put them in the same game as scammers who seek to sign you up by stealth to something you don’t want.  Not a happy thought.

GWR

I made my first longer journey of the year a week ago (Saturday).  All very smooth, and at this time of year the number of people travelling is relatively modest, so there’s ample space to spread out a bit on the train.  Unlike a few years ago when Saturdays were more expensive and at risk of disruption, it’s now the ideal day to travel, as it’s the only day the 10:44 from Plymouth stops at Westbury and makes a relatively decent connection for the south coast line.

As soon as the train pulled in, something was different.  The livery has changed!  Getting on, everything’s been reupholstered in a new colour scheme.  The seats seem a little harder than before.  It’s neither better nor worse than before (hmm, OK, the new headrests may be a tiny improvement), just different.  As if the franchise on the line had changed without me hearing of it and a new operator had re-branded it.  Looking for branding, I find “GWR”, the common name of Brunel’s original railway between London, west and southwest England, and Wales (being an abbreviation of Great Western Railway).

I get out the ‘phone to google for what’s going on.  Turns out it is indeed still FirstGroup, and they’re carrying out a major rebranding exercise.  It’s  a work in progress: the other train (Westbury-Brighton) still sported the old FGW colours, as did both trains on my return journey on Wednesday.

Alas, whoever is responsible for the rebranding is evidently not a user of the service.  For surely no actual user would have failed to take the opportunity to fix the huge, glaring defect on these trains: namely, the critical shortage of luggage space.  The overhead racks are far too small for anything beyond a coat or commuter’s briefcase, and the rack provided at the end of the carriage is inevitably overfilled by the time there are enough passengers to occupy just 20% of the seats.

Until fairly recently, much of the seating was in groups of four around a table (trains are still like that on some lines).  That left lots of spaces for luggage such as my backpack between pairs of back-to-back seats.  Rearranging the seats and losing the back-to-backs lost the vast majority of the luggage space we used to enjoy.  We desperately need a replacement!

Idiots.

Weather (again)

It’s been the longest daylight for a while.  Not so much because we’re just past the longest night (and further past the earliest dusk), but because we’ve had mostly-clear skies and bright sunshine.  A refreshing change after a very dull month with a fair bit of wind and rain.

We’ve had it easy.  Yes, a fair bit of wind and rain, but nothing out of the ordinary for the season (except the ridiculously warm temperatures[1]).  Parts of northern England and Scotland have had some serious flooding.  And with it, the Chattering Classes are at last starting to question our customary “business as usual” approach to flood risk and defences.

We’ve heard a few stories of why these floods are in large measure caused by man’s actions.  Loss of trees and intensive agriculture; engineering (including dredging) of rivers, and the concreting over of vast  areas around where most of the houses are, all create the conditions for serious flooding.  And whereas these stories have been heard before, what seems different this time is that the non-solution of building ever more flood defences is finally coming under critical scrutiny.

And I’m pleased to note that one of the ideas I’ve floated on this blog has finally been aired in the meeja.  We can, as our forefathers did, reduce the impact of flooding from a major disaster to a moderate inconvenience by building resilience into our houses.  Apparently some business owners are already doing that.

Having said that, I expect the reality will be back to business-as-usual once the floods subside.  As it was with our railway, whose problems and solution I also described in this blog just a year before it was washed out to sea in the storms of two years ago.

[1] It’s hardly dropped below 10° even at night.  A minor news story is of retailers suffering from inability to sell their stocks of winter clothes and the like.

Concert

Our next concert is Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, which we’re performing at the Guildhall, Plymouth on Sunday, December 6th.

This work tells the biblical story of the prophet Elijah, a tale of extreme violence, opening with a genocide and featuring a classic massacre in the middle, as well as a euphemistically-violent ending.  Elijah himself is surely the greatest of all role models for, among others, the bloodiest of modern Islamic terrorists  (indeed, everything we know about Bin Laden echoes Elijah’s story).  For added cognitive dissonance, the bloody tales are interlaced with gentle and serene proclamations of God’s goodness and boundless mercy: war was peace long before Orwell and Newspeak!

As for the music, Mendelssohn was of course one of the master tunesmiths of all time.  There’s a lot that’s lovely, scenes that are quite exciting, and a fair few tunes that listeners will find familiar.  Set for soloists, a substantial chorus and middling-sized orchestra.  I think I can recommend it to readers within evening-out distance of Plymouth.

Identity and Trust

Folks who know me will know that I’ve been taking an interest for some time in the problems of online identity and trust:

  • Passwords (as we know them today) are a sick joke.
  • Monolithic certificate authorities (and browser trust lists) are a serious weakness in web trust.
  • PGP and the Web of Trust remain the preserve of geekdom.
  • People distrust and even fear centralised databases.  At issue are both the motivations of those who run them, and security against intruders.
  • Complexity and poor practice opens doors for phishing and identity theft.
  • Establishing identity and trust can be a nightmare, to the extent that a competent fraudster might find it easier than the real person to establish an identity.

I’m not a cryptographer.  But as mathematician, software developer, and old cynic, I have the essential ingredients.  I can see that things are wrong and could so easily be a whole lot better at many levels.  It’s not even a hard problem: merely a more rational deployment of existing technology!  Some time back I thought about setting myself up in the business of making it happen, but was put off by the ghost of what happened last time I tried (and failed) to launch an innovative startup.

Recently – starting this summer – I’ve embarked on another mission towards improving the status quo.  Instead of trying to run my own business, I’ve sought out an existing business doing good work in the field, to which I can hope to make a significant contribution.  So the project’s fortunes tap into my strengths as techie rather than my weaknesses as a Suit.

I should add that the project does rather more than just improve the deployment of existing technology, as it significantly advances the underlying cryptographic framework.  Most importantly it introduces a Distributed Trust Authority model, as an alternative to the flawed monolithic Certificate Authority and its single point of failure.  The distributed model also makes it particularly well-suited to “cloud” applications and to securing the “Internet of Things”.

And it turns out, I arrived at an opportune moment.  The project has been single-company open source for some time and generated some interest at github.  Now it’s expanding beyond that: a second corporate team is joining development and I understand there are further prospects.  So it could really use a higher-level development model than github: one that will actively foster the community and offer mutual assurance and protection to all participants.  So we’ve put it forward as a candidate for incubation at Apache.  The proposal is here.

If all goes well, this could be the core of my work for some time to come.  Here’s hoping for a big success and a better, safer online world.

Sweet and Earthy

Since getting the juicer, I’ve made a few interesting discoveries.  New flavours – some better than others – and some interesting rules of thumb.  Perhaps the most interesting revelation is what it can do with roots.  Both the general-purpose mixer (the carrot), and the strong flavours (like ginger, radishes, turmeric).  Why do we not see more roots in the range of juices sold by our supermarkets?

I have observed when shopping for juice that apple is treated as a pretty-universal mixer.  Both when explicitly named (apple-and-[pear|mango|elderflower|etc] and in the blends with labels like “exotic”, “garden”, or “tropical” (hmm, bit of a mismatch there).  Basically it just works with everything.  The only substantial exception is citrus fruits, which rarely blend much with anything non-citrus.

But trying it at home, I find the carrot to be pretty-much just as good and universal a mixer.  For example, I was sure apple-pear-ginger would be delicious, and now I find carrot-pear-ginger works just as well.  It’s a little less sweet, but the pears bring ample sweetness, and the main flavours are still the pear and ginger.  The only time I wouldn’t want to use carrots in place of apples is when I really want the extra sweetness: for example, while apple-cucumber-mint work nicely, I’ve no burning desire to try that with carrot.

Another case was today’s brew, when I tried another root in there for the first time.  Taking the view that the earthiness of turmeric would want to be offset by something sweet, I blended it into apples and grapes.  It worked nicely, but I suspect would be an acquired taste with less sweetness.

One more flavoursome root that works nicely in small amounts is radishes.  And though I have yet to try them, I expect I might get something interesting with horseradish or wasabi.

Actually, the one strong flavour that has disappointed is chillies.  As with today’s turmeric, I thought they’d need to go in something sweet, so I tried back in the summer in an apple/strawberry blend.  The heat of the chilli didn’t really make it into the drink: I guess it must’ve ended up in the pulp and gone to waste.

One other minor revelation: things one doesn’t much like in their normal form can work well in a drink.  Specifically celery: some time back I had some spare after using it in a tomato-and-basil soup, so I tried blending it into a drink.  Given that I’ve never much liked it raw, I was pleasantly surprised by that flavour.

Alas, washing up is quite a chore.  Now the novelty has worn off, I’m not using the machine more than once or twice a week, and drinking supermarket juices the rest of the time.

Walking and Working vs Living, Learning, Breathing

Since my change of principal job, my use of the treadmill desk has changed, and not in a good way.

Having acquired the desk at a time when I’d been a couple of years in the job already, my work was development and maintenance, without having to tackle the steeper parts of any new learning curve.  Regular development work worked well at the treadmill.

When the job ended, I had to return the less-than-fully-functional Macbook to my ex-employer, and after a brief spell hooking up the ultrabook there, I bought a cheapo new desktop to use at the treadmill.  Unfortunately I’m now finding I rarely use it, and when I do I often feel the need to sit down with the problem at hand.  At first that was due to getting the new box up to speed sometimes standing in the way of a task, so doing it on the ultrabook became a line of least resistance.  But now I think I see another issue: struggling on the steep part of the learning curve for a new project is hard, and I don’t seem to give it adequate concentration while walking.

Or it might just be that the evenings, when I walk/work best, are blighted by wood smoke coming from a neighbour.  In the interest of not unnecessarily raising my carcinogen intake (not to mention inducing heavy coughing) I have to avoid any kind of (physical) exercise in the evenings.

I need another house move, and while I’m here I need to rearrange my computers to have a dev machine I can sit at.

Light Show

The new bridge across the estuary has re-opened.  And being our northern-hemisphere season of gloom, I first crossed it in darkness.

I should explain.  This new bridge was once a railway bridge, and has now been resurrected for cyclists and pedestrians.  It’s just north of Laira Bridge, a busy main road bridge and the lowest crossing point on the Plym estuary: both bridges were built where the estuary narrows somewhat.  The new bridge opened about six months ago in the season of daylight, but then closed a couple of months later for further works on the Eastern end.

I had thought they were extending that along course of the old railway as far as the Plymstock bypass, which would’ve saved me as a cyclist from having to move out into the right hand lane of the dual carriageway to turn right off it – in both directions.  But no, they built a new bridge across The Ride (a road), but then it goes no further: a fence blocks off the line of the track.  Before the works, access to the bridge was from The Ride.  Now, after them, access is still from The Ride.  Since The Ride is neither big nor busy, there’s no advantage to being able to come down on the far side.

Anyway, coming to it at night, I see it’s all lit up.  Not as in regular streetlights, but on the outside.  A show of coloured lights that move gradually through the spectrum like a screensaver.  There is a view from the approach, although it comes out better on camera from the Saltram side – as I discovered the following evening when I returned on foot with the ‘phone to take some snaps.

saltram-viewThat actually looks more impressive in the picture than in real life, where viewpoints like this one are few and far between.  The best view other than from on the water (or mudflats at low tide) must be from the road bridge, where its effect is sadly lessened by traffic and street lighting.

But all those coloured lights are on the outside of the bridge, and so scarcely visible from on the bridge itself, where strips of harsh (tending to painful) white LED lights dominate.  Especially where the bridge is straight.  The ‘photos actually look rather better than the reality:

bridge-1bridge-2bridge-3

Won and Lost

A distant acquaintance bet good money on a Corbyn victory, back in the days when he was a distant outsider at very long odds.  She now stands to celebrate.

Thought experiment: suppose she had instead bet, at huge odds, on his becoming Prime Minister in 2020.  And let’s also suppose it was a substantial bet.  Corbyn becomes Prime Minister, and she wins a million.  Far-fetched, OK, but not too far-fetched to be the basis of a story.

What kind of a story?  Rags to riches?  Not really – this is Blighty.  Even if it hadn’t already been done, slumdog millionaire fits better in a country where the rags half of the story is genuinely all-too-plausible.  But as a “what if” comedy, it has lots of potential.  Or indeed, an episodic sitcom: each week a different attempt to benefit from her riches is tried and thwarted.

Thwarted?

Well, our scenario is a very socialist Prime Minister.  He bears a passing resemblance to Mr Corbyn, but could also take inspiration from other populist socialists, and from the imaginations of our scriptwriters.  As a socialist, he’s in the business of taking millions from millionaires.  Maybe (at least for the benefit of our plot) even doubly so those whose millions are demonstrably unearned.  Our lucky winner has suddenly found herself on the wrong side of the Class War, and turns out to be worse off than she had been before winning the million.  Oh dear.

Could a populist lefty nut get elected?  Well, there are precedents.  Hugo Chavez was repeatedly re-elected in Venezuela, though he may have been boosted by Uncle Sam’s botched attempts to interfere.  On a slightly similar note, we’ve just seen (Comedian) Jimmy Morales top the presidential polls in Guatemala to go one up on Beppe Grillo’s achievement in Italy.  In the UK we have a range of populists standing in spite of the main political parties, and some of them have won not inconsiderable posts up to and including London Mayor.  And Corbyn’s new deputy Tom Watson may prove a formidable force.

Looking at electorates, we’re just p***ed off with the status quo.  And now half of us are too young to remember how bad things really were in the pre-Thatcher socialist UK, and are being fed alluring messages about a mythical golden age.  However far-fetched it may or may not be, Corbyn PM is at the very least good for comedy scenaria and thought experiments.

And (sorry, different story) we even have George Osborne trying to help.  His recent announcement of a major development programme for the submarine base at Faslane is surely an attempt to hand Scottish parliamentary seats back from the Scots Nats to Corbyn’s Labour.  Osbourne rather fancies an opposition that’s busy tearing itself apart, as opposed to a united party with a strong claim to speak for Scotland.  And the Faslane project will serve to focus Scots voters’ attention on an issue where Corbyn is strongly at one with the SNP and the only UK chance to reverse Osborne’s decision (vote for him to stop it), yet much of whose party takes the opposite view (vote for him to keep it).

Bizarre and interesting times.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Once upon a time, there was an archetype.  The young lad who leaves his home and braves all to seek his fortune.  We could call him Dick Whittington.

Today there are millions (or should that be billions?) with dreams of betterment.  For many in the poorer parts of the world, one such dream is of the streets of Europe or America, paved with gold.  No doubt a few will make their fortunes, while many will be disappointed.  Many will risk life and limb in the pursuit of a Dick Whittington dream.  Our meeja and public opinion will swing between being swamped by immigrants and being outraged by their plight.

What should we in destination-countries do?  I have no intention of addressing issues of immigration policy here, but one thing is clear: we should not be sending out misleading signals, leading people on with a deception.  Even when it’s also self-deception.  If we’re not going to welcome the millions, we should send out the signal loud and clear and without ambiguity.  And above all, we should be consistent, not chop and change policy on the whims of meeja and public opinion.

Yesterday’s scenes of refugees reaching a true fairytale conclusion to their long ordeal is no doubt a happy one for the individuals concerned.  But it begs the question: how many million impoverished Africans who may have idly dreamed of seeking their fortune in Europe, just saw yesterday’s scenes and made their minds up to set out on a perilous quest?  Unless we welcome them all (which of course we can’t – not even those who survive and make it as far as pick-up points such as those off the Libyan coast), we’ve just perpetrated a cruel deception on them.  For a change, our own Prime Minister appears to be behaving better than what either our meeja or some of our European colleagues are trying to pressure him into.

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