A choice of poisons

How have I failed all this time to post a good rant about the election and its participants?  A plague on all their houses, including the media reporting them and staging silly events.

Well, I have to report, our beloved Prime Minister and his colleagues have accomplished something quite stupendous with their headless chicken act forever aping whatever party is flavour-of-the-month, and their pork-barrelwarehouse blank cheques[1].  They’ve convinced me Miliband is the lesser of two evils!  And that’s despite some of the horrors that surround him (Balls and Harman spring to mind, though they have strong competition from the likes of Pickles, Shapps and Osborne).

Looking to the future, whoever loses will probably have a change of leadership.  Since the worst imaginable outcome is Balls as PM in five years, there’s another reason to consider Miliband now.   Ugh.

As against that, Cameron has one thing going for him.  He’s no leader[2], but his record of holding an uneasy coalition more-or-less together speaks well of his managerial skills.  And his announcement that he won’t serve more than two terms speaks of unusual commonsense.  Blair/Brown, and previously the thoroughly-nasties who undermined Major, might prove mere foreshadowings of how bad things could get within a governing group.

So who can I support?  Well, amongst the parties it’s a clear None of the Above.  They all have some good things to say, but on the overwhelming balance I can only wish a plague on all their houses – including the aspiring minor parties (Green and UKIP) as well as the more established ones.  However, I can look at my local candidates and decide who appears least objectionable.  I’ve done that, and decided my vote is going to a man with a decent background of hard work in a real job, including starting his own company.  But since this is a marginal constituency, and my candidate doesn’t belong to either of the parties with a hope of winning it, he’ll be squeezed and my vote wasted.

[1] Dammit, when the NHS asks for an extra £8billion, that’s supposed to be a bloomin’ negotiating position to start from.  And that’s not even the worst of the wildly reckless pledges: it’s looking increasingly like I’ll reach retirement age with my taxes paying ever more to price me out of housing!  And look at the number of things I didn’t have to mention!
[2] Boris (or Other) might just be.  That remains to be seen.

Der Prozess

Although the title of Franz Kafka’s story of out-of-control nightmare bureaucracy is translated into English as “The Trial”, the original German does it altogether more justice.  A process that turns its practitioners into cogs in a diabolical machine, and plunges victims into helpless limbo.

I had a medical incident last week.  My eyesight vanished very suddenly, and then came back in bits, with times when I could see half a room or a small area of screen or page while the rest was blank nothingness.  It came with a moderate headache, that was unusual in that it took several days to go away.

I’ve suffered a somewhat similar episode before now.  Back in about November 2007 the loss was a little less sudden, but sufficiently similar that I thought I recognised it.  Back then I was alarmed by it and sought urgent medical attention, only to be told I’d have to wait more than two weeks for a GP appointment – the gatekeeper to our medical system.  No amount of protesting urgency would affect that, but they told me to see an optician instead.  I did, and the optician reassured me there was no immediate need for treatment.  So I left it, and indeed my sight returned over a few weeks.

So it was that this time I was not as alarmed as I might have been, and had no expectations of our NHS.

Rather than repeat last time, I posted a “anyone familiar with these symptoms” question to a forum where I had a hope of good answers.  I got some good responses, but the overwhelming message was to get urgent medical attention.  There was even a suggestion of how to bypass the GP.  So with some trepidation I approached our medical establishment.

The contrast with last time couldn’t have been more stark.  NHS 111 told me to get an urgent appointment.  My GP gave me a same-day appointment, and then an urgent referral to the main regional hospital (which is just half an hour by bus from here).

At this point I made my big mistake.  I went straight to the hospital without even returning home to pack for a spell away from home.  So when they kept me in, I found myself without basic personal stuff, and particularly unhappy in pants and a shirt ever-longer past their wash-by date, and not loose enough for long periods of enforced idleness.  My only little luxury was my ‘phone, and earphones that enabled me listen to radio and (largely) block out the many other noises.  Though with that in such heavy use I was faced with an eternal quest to borrow a charger.

Arriving at the hospital with my GP referral, I was received rapidly, and a man came within minutes to run a couple of routine tests (hey, this is great!)  Once he’d come and gone a couple of times I spotted something of a pattern: attention to me was time-sliced with other things, though I know not whether that might involve another patient, paperwork and red tape, or no more than a cuppa and break.  I needed a drink myself, so after checking with him that I had five minutes to spare, I went to one of the shops near the hospital entrance and got something from the chiller.

So far, so good (though the drink wasn’t).  But that was the end of my being attended to.  As five minutes became five hours and more, I made some vain attempts to find out what the **** was going on.  I checked the time of buses home on my ‘phone, and made a particular effort as the penultimate bus time approached, and again an hour later for the last one.  This pattern of waiting in limbo with ever-rising stress levels turned out to be a foretaste of what was to come, and is overwhelmingly the dominant theme of NHS hospital treatment.  I made a semi-successful effort to get comfy enough to doze in a space too small to lie down: dammit, this is like a night on a bench at a station or airport, only with less luxury and space and more noise.

Sometime around 3 a.m. I was desperate for water and to get up and stretch, so I looked around for anyone I could ask about drinking water.  My first attempt failed: he asked what bed I was in and he’d bring me some, and couldn’t understand when I replied that I didn’t have a bed.  So was I visiting someone?  No, I’m waiting to be attended to, and just need some water.  Aaaargh!  Find another member of nursing staff, one who understands and fills a disposable cup with tapwater from the kitchen.  So now I know where I can get water, and it’s not locked – phew!  I also ask about a bite to eat (having missed my main meal), and get a cheese salad whose fresh (though bland) ingredients made it probably the best food I encountered throughout my stay.

Not long after that, things finally start to happen.  They’ve found me “a bed” (seemingly the NHS’s unit of treatment), and a nurse asks me a bunch of questions and fills a form.  They’re admitting me as a patient.  But the bed is in a ward whose atmosphere is not merely hot and stuffy, it’s positively miasmic.  Ten minutes and I’m sweating and panting, so I get up to reclaim my previous limbo-space in preference.  Only now the ward receptionist denies me that space: it has to be cleaned before morning!  I try to escape outside, but find the ward doors locked against me.  Fortunately a nurse is more sympathetic, and finds me another unofficial (and rather nicer) space where I can curl up on a trolley by an open window.  Sometime between four and five I’m seen there by an actual doctor.

After a couple of hours decent sleep they call me to return to my bed for breakfast.  It’s become quite stormy outside, and the wind is sufficient to provide some air flow even in the ward, so it’s now more bearable.  A bowl of cornflakes and a cup of tea, followed by a lot of sitting around doing nothing.  Lunch, and another moment of tension as not a single meat-free (or even non-meat-centred) option is offered!  Eventually they come back and offer cauliflower cheese, which I accept, with a yoghurt for dessert.  It turned out to be something a little different, and reasonably acceptable (for basic institutional food), though the yoghurt was fearsomely sugary.

After lunch they take me off for a scan.  They want to put me in a bloomin’ wheelchair (gotta make work for porters), but I decline, and eventually they let me walk, accompanied by a nurse[*].  Getting back I’m just in time to listen to the last of Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquest plays, which I’ve been enjoying on the radio over the past couple of weeks.  But the storm outside has abated and it’s getting impossibly stuffy again, so once again I go to complain about being detained in such a place.  I badly need a change of clothes, and a charger for the ‘phone, and my toothbrush, etcetera.  Plus, I have strong reasons to want to be back home.  Can’t I just come back by appointment for further tests they want to do?  No chance, we don’t do that.  Well, at least go home to pack a few changes of clothes?  Nope.  But there’s news: they’re moving me to another ward.  The Short Stay Ward should be a bit nicer and more peaceful for me.

It is indeed an improvement.  This time I get a bed by the window, and they’re happy for me to open it.  I wonder about my fellow-inmates, and am immensely encouraged when the patient in the next bed enthusiastically says yes please to opening the window.  So it’s gone from being a place of active torment to a mere place of detention.  I negotiate some time off: I can’t go home, but I can walk around the outside of the hospital for some fresh air and activity, and they’ll ‘phone me if I’m wanted for any more tests.  Outside is a great maze of roads with no green space, and every promising-looking path just brings me to another car park after a few metres, yet it’s still a lot better than being stuck inside doing nothing.  Even food is more relaxed in this ward: there’s a menu, whose options are the same as before, with a few more.  That evening my comfort is further improved by a “patient kit” with toothbrush, soap and towel so I can shower and clean up, and NHS one-size-fits-none pyjamas.

So now my life is the life of the ward, and I’m talking to staff and other patients.  I can see how all the staff are cogs in a huge machine, with their various responses to it and to patients who don’t see themselves as mere widgets on a production line.  Most of them try hard to introduce an element of humanity where possible, and some are very good at it.  I can actually feel marginally useful myself when I’m able to do some small thing for patients less able than myself (of whom there are several).  I have a twinge of regret when I can see I’m not qualified to help when one of the nurses is struggling through a bad headache.

The highlights of the next day are a session with the eye specialist and an MRI scan[*].  And another futile argument about going home, with a glimmer of hope when they tell me just one more test and it’ll be … soon … about ten next morning … aaargh, another night!  I take the plunge and buy Private Eye to see how the eyes will fare[*] and to give myself some entertainment other than just the ‘phone.  It’s too hard to read in the ward light, but next morning I have bright daylight and can read it cover-to-cover.

I’ve been getting into a routine with the catering staff: what do you want for (next meal) … nothing, I’m going home …  Turns out I’m in a pattern the caterers know all-too-well from thousands of patients caught up in this limbo, so they get used to this exchange and generally know best.  I try the only other veggie option, but the so-called curry is utterly disgusting.  And amongst the sweets, only the fresh fruit isn’t smothered in ten times more sugar than a supermarket equivalent.  So that’s a lot of cauliflower&broccoli meals.  They’re smaller than I’d eat at home, but with ***-all physical or mental activity I feel quite full on them.

Next day, ten o’clock passes, the whole morning passes, the whole day passes, my rage and blood pressure are rising.  WTF are they keeping me in for?  This total limbo is truly Kafkaesque, and of course the ward staff I have contact with are not the people who can influence anything.  It’s not just my time, either: they’re supposed to be short of those precious beds, so why are they tying one up with a patient who could perfectly well go home and come back in the morning, or some other time by appointment?  Talking to other patients, I’m far from the only one!

The following morning they finally send me for that test I was expecting.  For a bit of ritual humiliation, a jobsworth porter insists on putting me in a wheelchair: aaargh!  But the test itself is somewhat interesting to a technologist: that’s some impressive medical imaging kit!  I comment on it and mention having worked as a developer on scientific imaging systems, and get into a brief chat that might even have been interesting over a pint if I’d met the man socially.

Afterwards they tell me there’s one more test … aaargh, still in limbo!  But that happens in the early afternoon, so now I can finally await my discharge (the caterers of course know better).  This time, at last, I’m right, though the caterers are also right in that it isn’t until after hospital evening mealtime I’m released.  Four days to the hour after my arrival I wish my ward-mates good luck, and bid farewell to them and to the staff who are around.  It’s a bit late to walk home, so I overcome my embarrassment at clothes so far past their wash-by date and get on the bus home.

Phew!

[*] Errata are marked thus.  The time I was accompanied by a nurse was when I went to the eye specialist, and that was probably because she put some quite painful stuff in my eyes which might have left me wanting nursing attention.  I had completely forgotten the eye specialist when I first wrote the piece.  There may be more errors, as my memory of the timing and order of some of the tests is unclear.

Verdi Requiem

A week today – Sunday March 22nd – we’re performing the Verdi Requiem at the Guildhall, Plymouth.

This is of course a big work, often described as operatic.  It is deservedly one of the most popular in the choral-orchestral repertoire, and ideally suited to a big orchestra and chorus such as the Plymouth Philharmonic.  Even the non-musical will surely have encountered highlights of it, notably the Dies Irae which is an archetype for terrifying music.  Yet despite all that it’s an easy sing, and – not least – we basses get more than our usual share of the best lines!

This is one of those concerts that is going to be tremendously exciting for performers and audience alike, and I have no hesitation recommending it to readers within evening-out distance of Plymouth.

Saved from Visa

I’ve written before about the Fraudster’s Friend misleadingly named “Verified by Visa”.  Most directly in my post Phished by Visa, though Bullied by Visa perhaps also deserves a mention.

Today I went to place an order with Argos, who I’ve used several times before and who have always – in contrast to some of their competitors – delivered very efficiently.  This time alas the shopping process has become significantly more hassle, and they’ve introduce the VBV cuckoo into the process.  But I was pleased to note that, when I came to the VBV attack, Firefox flagged it up as precisely what it is: an XSS attack, and in the context of secure data (as in creditcard numbers) a serious security issue.

I hope Firefox does that by default, rather than just with my settings.  Though it would be courageous, to take the blame from the unwashed masses who might think VBV serves their interests when it doesn’t work.  Doing the Right Thing against an enemy with ignorance on its side has a very bad history in web browsers, as Microsoft in the late 1990s killed off the opposition by exposing their users to a whole family of “viruses” in a move designed to make correct behaviour a loser in the market (specifically, violation of MIME standards documented since 1992 as security-critical).

Alas, while Firefox saved me from the evil phishing attack, the combination of that and other Argos website trouble pushed me to a thoroughly insecure and less than convenient medium: the telephone.  Bah, Humbug.

Mac vs Open Source

I develop software.

The kind of software I work on rarely concerns itself with details of the platforms it runs on, and is therefore inherently platform-neutral.  Of course complete cross-platform compatibility is elusive, but one does one’s best to adhere to widely-supported standards, libraries known to be cross-platform, etc.  And if something non-standard is unavoidable, try to package it so that switching it out will be clean and straightforward as and when someone has the need.

So it’s with some concern that I see the Mac platform apparently moving to distance itself from the open source world I inhabit.  I’ve got used to the idea that I sometimes have to use clang instead of gcc, and that that gives rise to annoying gotchas when autoconf stuff picks up gcc/g++ in spite of the standard names cc, c++ et al all being the clang versions!  Still, I guess it’s not the platform’s fault if
CC=cc CXX=c++ ./configure –options
behaves inconsistently.

Now it’s OpenSSL that’s been giving me grief.  Working with it on Mac for the first time, I see all the OpenSSL APIs I’m using appear to be deprecated.  Huh?  Googling finds that the whole of OpenSSL is deprecated on Mac.  Thou shalt use CC_crypto(3cc) instead!  Damn!!

OK, what’s CC_crypto?  Given that lots of software I work on uses OpenSSL, it’s only going to be of interest if it emulates OpenSSL (well, if for example it was an OpenSSL fork then that would be a reasonable expectation).  There’s a CC_crypto manpage, and google finds similar information at Apple’s developer site, but therein lies nothing more enlightening than cryptic hints:

To use the digest functions with existing code which uses the corresponding openssl functions, #define the symbol COMMON_DIGEST_FOR_OPENSSL in your client code (BEFORE including <CommonCrypto/CommonDigest.h>).

and

The interfaces to the encryption and HMAC algorithms have a calling interface that is different from that provided by OpenSSL.

Well, if that means it’s mostly OpenSSL-dropin-compatible, why not say so?  Even googling “CC_crypto openssl emulation” doesn’t turn up anything that looks promising, so I haven’t found any relevant documentation.  And since the header files are different, it will at the very least require some preprocessor crap.  OK, ignore it, stick to OpenSSL, kill off the -Werror compiler option, and maybe revisit the issue at some later date.

Not good enough.  The build bombs out when something (not my code, and I’d rather not have to hack it) uses HMAC functions, whose signature on Mac is different to other platforms.  So openssl on Mac – specifically /usr/include/openssl/hmac.h – is nonstandard!  Grrr …  In fact it appears to be some bastardised hybrid: OpenSSL function names with CCHmac-like declarations.  Is this OpenSSL in fact a wrapper for CC_crypto?  If so, why is it all deprecated?  Or if not, who has mutilated the API?

Well OK, that’ll be what Homebrew was talking about when it flashed up some message about installing OpenSSL only under Cellar, and not as a standard/system-wide lib.  So I have another OpenSSL.  Perhaps more?  locate hmac.h finds a whole bunch of versions (ignoring duplicates and glib’s ghmac.h):

/Applications/Xcode.app/Contents/Developer/Platforms/MacOSX.platform/Developer/SDKs/MacOSX10.7.sdk/usr/include/openssl/hmac.h
/private/var/Developer/Platforms/MacOSX.platform/Developer/SDKs/MacOSX10.7.sdk/usr/include/openssl/hmac.h
/usr/include/openssl/hmac.h
/usr/local/Cellar/openssl/1.0.2/include/openssl/hmac.h

Of those, only the Cellar version is compatible with the canonical OpenSSL.  A –with-openssl configure option fixes my immediate problem, but throws up a bunch of questions:

  • Why have I had to jump through these hoops?
  • Where would I start if I want to use CC_crypto as advised in existing OpenSSL-using code?
  • What do I need to keep up-to-date on my system?  Presumably standard apps use the version in /usr , but is anything keeping that updated if homebrew isn’t touching it?

Dammit, looks like this Mac may be vulnerable!  Everything in /usr/include/openssl is dated 2011 (when the macbook was new).  The libssl in /usr/lib is dated September 2014 – which suggests it has been updated by some package manager.  But it identifies itself as libssl.0.9.8, which is not exactly current.  Maybe it’s a Good Thing the macbook’s wifi died, so it no longer travels with me outside the house.

WTF is Apple doing to us?

Roots

I recently visited my father for a few days.

That doesn’t mean I revisited a childhood house, or even town: neither he nor I has done that for many years.  But one thing somehow took me back: hearing the cooing of pigeons outside.  That’s not even a very nice sound: it can be quite infuriating when it goes on incessantly, and I have some recollections of them being an annoying pest.  Yet that sound gave me a faintly Proustian nostalgia.  Followed of course by the realisation that there aren’t any around here, and faintly wondering why not: it can’t be just the neighbourhood cats!

During my visit I went to an event in London, and stayed on for a concert in the evening.  It was the RPO, at the Royal Festival Hall.  I got a great seat, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  But a little more than that: the orchestral sound was somehow ultimately “right”: the canonical orchestral sound.  What I was actually hearing (apart from a fine orchestra playing great music) was the Festival Hall’s acoustic, and I think that “rightness” must’ve been because that’s where I first ever heard an orchestra when my parents took me to see The Nutcracker there as a small child!

Hmmm ….

I, for one, welcome our new foreign masters

Today the Scottish Nationalists – who might possibly hold the balance of power after this year’s UK election – have explicitly announced what they’ve been strongly hinting since the referendum.  They will come down from the moral high ground they have hitherto occupied, and start to exercise their constitutional right to a share in the rule of England.  That is, in addition to their legitimate minority share in the rule of the UK (and indeed EU), of which England and Scotland are both parts.

Let’s be clear.  I don’t want to be ruled by the SNP.  I particularly don’t want to be ruled by their socialist economic policies (though the alternatives look pretty bleak, too).  But I have applauded the SNP for taking the moral high ground in the past, unlike the utterly corrupt Labour party who first created our constitutional brokenness and have always abused it.  I applauded the SNP for their heroic efforts to rid us of this brokenness (e.g. here and here).

Now I applaud them once again.  The moral high ground is in practice ambiguous and impractical: that is all part of Blair’s terrible legacy.  And it is far too broken to apply sticking plaster as the Tories now seem to want, or to kick back into the long grass as Labour are desperate to do.  How better to try and combat those things than by provoking the constitutional crisis that’s been inevitable since Blair?  How better to do that than for Scottish MPs to highlight unfairness to the English?

And their choice of issue looks like a stroke of genius, encompassing not just (inevitably) the Westlothian Question, but also the Barnett Formula.  The latter is of course one of the complexities that renders both their former moral high ground and the Tories sticking plaster hopelessly impractical.

Dodgy Data

Oxfam grabs a headline with a report telling us the richest 1% will own half the world’s wealth in 2016.

As with many reports coming from lobbying organisations, this one provokes scepticism.  Not outright dismissal, but a “really“, and a need to know what they’re actually measuring before I can treat it as meaningful.  It also provokes mild curiosity: how rich do you have to be to be in that 1% (not least because I have a sneaking suspicion it includes a great many people who our chattering classes don’t consider at all rich).

The Oxfam report itself is a mere twelve pages and disappointingly light on data.  If there’s any attempt to substantiate the headline claim then I missed it.  But googling “World Wealth” finds this report, which tells me total world wealth is projected to be $64.3 trillion in 2016.  OK, that’ll do for a ballpark calculation.  $64.3 trillion between 7 billion people is an average of about $9k per head.  If the top 1% own half of it, that’s $32.15 trillion between 70 million people: an average of $459k per head within that top 1%.

That’s £300k.  There must be a millions in Blighty with that much in housing wealth alone (and others correspondingly locked out).  Not to mention in other high-cost countries around Europe, America, Asia, and I expect even a few in the third world.  All above the average of that fabled top 1%.

But of course housing isn’t our only asset.  In Blighty and around the developed world, a big chunk of our wealth takes the form of Entitlements.  One such in the UK is the Basic State Pension, which is worth £200k, and even the poorest Brit is entitled to it.  It seems you can be in that top 1% without being rich enough to buy a house in Blighty!

Hmmm.  Oh dear.  Maybe Oxfam’s spin isn’t really very meaningful at all.  Except perhaps to highlight how incredibly egalitarian we are within Blighty – and probably all developed countries – once you include the effect of government actions.

I won’t be going to FOSDEM

Belgian cities full of trigger-happy armed troops, with orders to shoot to kill, and a recent track record of doing so.

In reality, probably a lower risk than regular vehicular traffic, even for those of us with an ample beard and a big backpack.  Though surely a far higher risk than the supposed terrorist threat.  But that level of security theatre is hardly welcoming to visitors.  Since I have the choice, I’m staying away, and withholding the support that might be inferred from my travelling to Brussels for a weekend in the near future.

It’s a bit of a shame: I missed last year’s FOSDEM too due to family commitments.  Maybe next year?

[edit] That last sentence is a bit disingenuous, insofar as it suggests this is a big change of plan.  In reality I hadn’t decided one way or the other.  I’ve been doing that of late: I only got around to signing up for ApacheCon in Budapest the day before it started!

Je suis Voltaire

David Cameron

You disgusting hypocrite

It should go without saying, but let’s say it anyway: I join the rest of the world in condemning the terrorist attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

I’m not familiar with the publication, and all I know is what’s been reported in the media coverage of the attack.  I’m sure they’ve published offensive things, no doubt often for very good reasons.  Maybe sometimes also gratuitously so, which would be indefensible unless with an apology for poor judgement.  But even if they were completely wrong, nothing justifies gunning them down!

Here in Blighty we were treated to a clip of our beloved Prime Minister expressing sentiments with which we can all agree.  Alas, some of his fine words sit uneasily with his government’s less-than-fine actions.  What I found utterly jarring and what prompts me to comment were his words: “… and we stand squarely for free speech …“.

Ahem …

No you don’t: you have demonstrated that you stand squarely against free speech.  On your government’s watch, people have been imprisoned for having the wrong book, or for being an arse on twitter (the latter looks like a close analogy to the very Free Speech you claim to defend).  Your government shows no signs of rolling back Blair’s police state, but rather looks to extend it, and our culture has moved so far into totalitarianism that a supposedly-serious documentary programme this week on the BBC can be outraged by free speech where it exists elsewhere in the world!

OK, dragging some poor sod through our courts isn’t the same as gunning them down.  That more genteel and sophisticated option isn’t available to private individuals, so while the difference is real, it isn’t a simple case of civilisation vs barbarity.

What a hypocrite!

p.s. There’s another case been in the news recently.  Some footballer who’s been to prison, and whose attempts to return to work have been thwarted by a successful campaign of terror.  That is, real terror: it seems prospective employers have been scared off by credible threats of extreme violence.  Now that situation (of credible threats) is precisely where the State should have a legitimate interest in taking action against the culprit(s).  Will they?

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