Details still to be finalised, but I have a sponsor for a new task that’ll help improve security on the Web for all of us.  All to be open-source.  I expect I’ll blog details about it in the not-too-distant.

This has helped me feel more motivated than I have done for quite a while: even before covid and lockdown I was far from my most productive.  This week I’ve been updating infrastructure for the work, with a new raspberry pi on order, and many hours of huge dist-upgrade on my desktop box (running Debian).

The update appears to have run smoothly, though at one point the box wouldn’t wake from suspend (or from screen-blank) correctly and needed a hard power-cycle followed by recovery.  Touch wood: apart from that transient glitch, nothing worse happened (yet) than my (utterly unimportant) desktop background going away (now replaced).

What struck me though was the sheer bloat of a modern system, that bit me before the update.  In preparation I made a much more complete backup than my usual (which is, only data that matters and where mine is an original – so excluding huge areas like working git and svn repos that get committed upstream).  This time I tried to backup the whole of /home, and came a cropper: the compressed tar archive exceeded the 4Gb maximum file size on the USB stick I was using!

OK, how to reduce it?  There’s a fair bit of low-hanging fruit: for example, build directories where “make clean” removes much, and the Downloads directory whose contents are always dispensible.  But the real eye-opener was the caches for various applications – and not just obvious suspects like web browsers!  Some of it years old: for instance, an RSS reader I haven’t used for at least two or three years.  And in mailers, a huge discrepancy between Evolution and Claws mail: the former being many times larger, and appears to keep not just a copy of my archives but even long-deleted spam.  I cleaned a lot of cache, and removed some caches (including Evolution – which is in any case far too sluggish) entirely.

We’re spoiled rotten by the size of even the smallest modern storage, and get sloppy in accumulating junk.  df now (after big cleanup and dist-upgrade) shows my disc 18% full, so I’m under absolutely no pressure, but I shall nevertheless take this as a wakeup call to configure caches to limit their size and lifetimes for ancient entries.

Is it only us greybeards who ever give a thought to our digital hygiene?

Food Wasteland

The hummus in my fridge smells bad.  There’s visible mould on the remaining custard-like sauce, that was so good on various fruit, particularly the apricots I had to stew because they were rock-hard (not a hardship, but I rarely cook desserts and intended to eat the apricots raw).  Last week, three food items had to be thrown out, including fresh blueberries.

This is disturbing.  I occasionally hear stories of food waste, and shake my head in disbelief.  How and why do people waste so much?  OK, some inevitably goes astray when you’re feeding an infant, and cooking accidents happen once in a while.  But just going off through inadequate inventory management?  Inexcusable!

I’ve never been a particularly organised shopper: I’ve spent a lifetime (successfully) relying on memory of what I have and what I need, and pick much of my food on spec.  What’s available?  What looks good today (would you choose which tomatoes to pick up without seeing them?)  What’s on at an attractive price?  What simply takes my fancy?  It’s always worked well for me.

Until now.  The new rules about wearing a muzzle means I’m no longer alert or capable of thought when shopping.  And online shopping takes planning: if I have to order fresh food for a delivery slot several days away (hoping for the best – not the rock-hard apricots I had to stew, let alone the irredeemably tasteless and tough-skinned tomatoes) I can no longer do that in the context of what’s left now in the fridge.  And can I change my diet to make do with a single weekly shop?  That means half the week deprived of short-shelf-life food like green salad items 😮

I expect I’ll get the hang of it.  Others who stopped physical shopping back in March/April are doubtless ahead of me on the delivery-juggling learning curve, though only those who like me eat fresh and don’t plan to the level of shopping lists will be starting from a similar point.  But it’s a bleak prospect 😦  On the upside, I guess I’ll be marginally less helpless facing brexit-chaos in four months.


For reasons too arcane to explain (aka “you have to have been there”), I recently wanted to post an upside-down photo in a forum I frequent.  I found a rather good subject in a couple of snaps I recently got of our canal in the early evening sunlight.


(Click photo for a better version of the image – wordpress’s editor loses something by scaling it down further than I had done).

The reflection in the water gives the illusion of a photo the right way up, with something just slightly unnatural about it – impressionist art comes to mind.  Also reminded me slightly of playing with xv’s filters – like the “oil painting” option – back in the early days of colour displays for ‘puters, before “photoshop” became a generic term for that and other kinds of manipulation.  But this photo is completely natural: the only filter applied is reflection in dark water.

Here’s a more conventional (right way up) snap that shows the general scene:


Lies, damn lies, and misinformation

What do you do if you’re the powers-that-be, you’ve bungled something badly, and you judge that trying to lie your way out of it will only make things worse?

Why of course, you muddy the waters: cast doubt on everything the public know about it.  That way you don’t have to tell any porkies, you just let your natural supporters infer it for themselves and argue the case for you.  Turn the whole subject into an argument noone can win in the court of public opinion – at least, not until you (or your successor) can say that things are different now.

Hence the abrupt change in England’s covid death count.  It serves to highlight the (true) fact that all statistical measures of that have problems – there are obvious issues with both the old and the new measures – and hence cast doubt on covid statistics in general.  Including the (also true) fact that the UK in general, and England in particular, has an exceptionally poor track record compared to our peers.  The most reliable measure – overall deaths in excess of average, encompassing both the disease itself and ill-considered responses to it – shows our track record as (to date) the worst of anywhere.  Turns out even Belgium’s higher headline count was no more than an artifact of different counting methodology.

But now we have doubt, and scope for argument, not just over the genuine shortcomings of our data, but equally over clear and stark facts.  And of course, people have a natural suspicion of statistics to reinforce the doubt.

Talking of which, I should clarify my prediction.  My end-of-August timescale was for death count, being much more reliable than case count, but which is of course a trailing statistic and subject to the artifacts we’ve seen highlighted by the change in methodology.

And on another troubling story in the news ….

The bizarre (and rather tragic) story of how our powers-that-be have awarded results to young people in A-level and other exams is surely a travesty on every level.   The statistical exercise used went to elaborate lengths to be more-or-less fair to schools (though even that is in some doubt), but is unquestionably monstrously unfair to individual students!  Those responsible – everywhere that’s done this – should be unceremoniously fired.

It’s been many years since I sat any such exams (and I expect I’d have got the same results either way) but I’d still have been mightily p***ed off to be lumped with such meaningless results[1]!  For those who have lost a university (or other) place they believe (rightly or wrongly) they deserve, and will now either lose a year of their young lives or go through life labelled as mediocre, it seems to me about as devastating as a wrongful criminal conviction!  My suggested solution: give every candidate an A-level, but ungraded.  All the legitimate inputs to an assessed grade – such as GCSE and mock exam results – are there to be assessed by whomsoever it may concern.

[1] To be honest, I was mightily p***ed off when I learned that top grades were devalued by being awarded for marks so low as to be utterly unthinkable!  Then as now, A-levels were hopelessly inadequate to distinguish the sheep from the goats.

Time to install Uber?

My musical life has been nonexistent since cancellations – and that in what should have been a big and exciting season with lots of Mayflower 400 celebrations.  Not least, both my big Plymouth-based choirs have commissioned major new works for the event!  My social life (a large element of which is the music) has been woefully absent too.  Meeting by Zoom isn’t the same!

So it was a lifeline when Jane, the driving force and first-among-equals of a small singing ensemble (usually six of us), organised us to get together in their garden.  A little sing, a cuppa, a good natter.  I should be there now.

It’s maybe 10km from here to Jane and Robert, with a lot of uphill (they’re properly within the Dartmoor national park), so I set off on the bike in good time.  Only to find my back tyre utterly flat, and remaining flat when I tried to pump it.  I was out on the bike only yesterday and it was fine.  Clearly I’m jinxed. 😦

OK, not to worry.  Put the bike away, change to my most comfortable walking sandals.  No, I wasn’t about to walk there: I’d’ve needed to set out maybe an hour and a half earlier for that.  But time to wander down to town, to the taxi rank.  The walking was for the return home: a pleasant walk when there’s no time pressure.

At the taxi rank, there are zero taxis.  I wait there 15 minutes, still none.  I phone Jane, who mentions she was in town this morning and saw one at the bus station (there’s no bus route to Jane – though it’ll get me to just a half-hour walk).  Wander down to the bus station on the off-chance: there is indeed a taxi, but it’s parked with no driver in sight.  Not useful.

On the way home, I pass the taxi rank, now there’s a taxi (by now I’ll be 20 minutes late, but better than nothing)!  I ask if he accepts card payments: surprisingly he doesn’t.  So I go to the cash machine for the first time since (I think) February.  By the time I get back, he’s picked up another passenger and is setting off.

I guess it’s time to install Uber if I ever want to travel …

Badge of the Leper

Shortly before government lockdown, I wrote a post here titled “unclean“, after the social exclusion of lepers in the distant past.  Now that covering our faces has become the headline law, perhaps it’s time to revisit that subject.

I can’t comment on treatment of people with a regular cough or sniffles, because I haven’t seen any.  Either we’ve rid ourselves of the common cold and had a particularly mild hay fever season, or sufferers have avoided going out.  Though it could also be down to my own loss of social life and narrowed horizons (my life feels like something from Iain Banks).  Only data point I have was when I myself went down with a mild lurgy just after that blog piece, and removed myself voluntarily from social life for … well, until government lockdown.

But we have come closer to a literal leper’s badge than even that post envisaged.  Badges for people with medical exemptions (whose definition seems unclear) from hiding their faces.  Seems my use of the analogy was indeed prophetic!

In that post, I wrote:

Latest advice is to self-isolate if you show even mild symptoms of a lurgy, and government moves to help avoid penalising people for doing the right thing.  Splendid: it seems they can at least do something right!

Seems I jumped the gun re: government help, and the Right Thing is more-or-less exactly what they didn’t do.  Specifically that was about sick pay for workers in the gig economy taking time to self-isolate when possibly unwell.  Yet despite the staggering levels of handouts to some in a cruel lottery, that hasn’t happened, and people of very limited means – some of them in the care sector – still can’t afford to take time off work for possible covid.

Regarding facemasks, I’m going to stick my neck out with another contrarian prediction.  As from late July they’re the law in shops.  By the end of August, this will have lead to a rise in the coronavirus spread rate.  The overall numbers may (or may not) still be declining, but the rate of decline will at least be reduced.

Why?  Well, here are a few reasons:

  • Make it harder to breathe, and people will breathe harder.  Including those with germs.  Not to mention breathing hard is the last thing I want to do if someone in the seat behind me has a lurgy and I can’t move!
  • The school tie problem.  As you reach your teens and rebel against some of the sillier rules imposed on you – like school uniforms – you also realise that a tie worn sufficiently badly is worse than no tie at all.  It becomes a protest!
  • I’ve already seen face masks discarded to ensure maximum spread of infection, like in a supermarket trolley in the row outside the shop.

UK Government: America First

Trump is explicit: America First.  His country has form, though rarely quite so explicitly.

Now it appears more pervasive than we (or at least I) ever realised in the UK parliament.  It’s being trailed that our own industry will be held back (indeed, has already lost over a year in uncertainty), to give American companies the best-possible start in the Intellectual Property land-grab arising from 5G.   For we can be sure that 5G will give rise to an explosion of new technology and applications.  An explosion accompanied by patents which will give their owners licence to nobble the competition for a generation.

As with the Web in the late 1990s, most of it will be pure dross, but there will be nuggets of gold among it.  The US had widely-available decent-quality internet[1] at several years ahead of us, which is no doubt one reason the most successful of those 1990s companies – think Google or Amazon – are American.  They had the environment to be first.

With 5G, Europe appeared to have the edge over the US.  Facing the risk of America Third (worst case, behind both Europe and Asia, not necessarily in that order) something had to be done.  Trump’s weapon of choice was an ill-founded[2] attack on market-leading technology provider Huawei: attack China directly, and at the same time attack European companies – like BT and Vodafone here in Blighty – through an evolving level of uncertainty over a vendor widely used here but not in the US.  And crucially, by holding back deployment here, reduce or delay development of new technology and intellectual property in America’s potential rivals: not (mainly) the big telcos, but the next generation of Unicorns.

Can’t blame Trump: he’s always been explicit about America First.  But how did he get quite so many Fifth Columnists into our Parliament?  And why is he making not merely UK foreign policy, but now also domestic policy?

[1] Like DSL broadband at home-user prices, when a UK customer would have to pay £3k/year for a 64K leased line.

[2] April 2019, I wrote “… against the competitive threat of 5G rollout giving Europe and Asia a big edge over the US.”.  Though I’m not sure if I realised until later how central that was to what looked at the time like just another incoherent Trump rant.

Just fancy that

What should society do to people who insult things of some minor importance?  Not damage – we’re not talking statues, whether Churchill or Colston!  Just disrespect, in a way society finds distasteful?

Blighty applies its usual monstrous double-standards:

June 15th: Drunk jailed for pissing next to a memorial to a recent hero.  He had unreservedly apologised, and it would seem reasonable to suppose the apology was genuine.  He doesn’t look to me as if he realises what the column to his left is!

Today (latest in an ongoing story): Government/Foreign secretary again posture over new law for Hong Kong.  Apparently on the grounds that it could criminalise disrespect for such things as the Chinese national anthem, and thus inhibit free expression.

For the record, yes I find the drunk disgusting (though many drunks do worse things), and have spent a lifetime not pissing in such public places.  And yes, I think we should be allowed to disrespect things like flags and national anthems.  I wonder if the HK authorities would indeed take action against a Hendrix (or indeed, which Western countries would still tolerate his modern equivalent)?  When campaigners for freedom around the world express concern, that’s entirely legitimate.  But coming from the UK government, it stinks of hypocrisy.

Avian Guests

I took delivery last week of a pair of blinds for a Velux window.  Specifically, the large south-facing window, one of three in my loft room and the one through which the morning sun shines in on the ‘puter, making it a problem trying to work there in the mornings at this time of year, and also contributing to making it uncomfortably hot when the weather is hot and sunny.  The loft room is my working-from-home office, so that’s a situation that needed fixing.

I first thought just a regular blind, to replace the broken one that was there when I moved in (there’s a similar and intact blind on the north-facing Velux window – presumably much less-used).  But searching online, I find I can get not just what they describe as a blackout blind (a somewhat-enhanced update on traditional roller blinds), but also an awning blind for outside the window.  The awning doesn’t block the light, but does reduce the sun’s heat on the window, so should keep the room a little cooler.

With the very sharp showers we were having last week (first real rain after an incredibly dry and sunny spring), I wasn’t about to risk putting up the awning.  But today I took advantage of more settled weather and put it up, starting with a liberal application of bucket-and-mop to accumulated crap.  A very simple job, and I was impressed by the condition of the window – particularly the outside – after the years of exposure to the elements.  But made a bit tricky by standing on the desk and working through an awkward hole in the roof while also having to hold the window at an angle it was reluctant to adopt and naturally swung back from, and using the screwdriver at an impossible angle to attach hooks.

No sooner was I done and admiring the awning than I heard a tremendous clattering from various points on the roof.  Damn, is the house falling down?  A couple of minutes later a pigeon comes and perches on the brand new awning.  Hmm, they claim it serves to reduce the noise of heavy rain, but how robust is it against the wildlife?  This was the first time I’ve had either the noise or the pigeon perching on the window.  Coincidence, or have I just supplied it a nice place to sit?

The plan is to leave the awning in place all summer, and open the blind sometime in the autumn – maybe October – when hot weather ceases to be a risk and whatever heat I can get becomes welcome (the loft was naturally the warmest room last winter – and the winter sun was never a problem there).  The blackout blind inside the window can respond to day-by-day conditions: I expect I’ll just draw it when necessary, and keep it open in dull weather and afternoons after about 2pm when the sun’s angle is away from me.

The other recent avian visitor was in the living room, a couple of weeks ago.  I was sitting there with the balcony door fully open when I heard a commotion.  A bird had entered, realised this was not its comfort zone, and made a rapid turn, happily retaining sufficient presence of mind to leave the way it had entered.  That all happened too quickly to get a proper look, and I’m sure the effect of being indoors made it sound bigger than it was.

Barriers to Recycling

I’m recycling quite a lot less of my plastic than I used to.  And metal, though there was never so much of that.  It’s become too impractical.

Specifically, while I am still recycling bottles (milk and fruit juices) and some miscellaneous stuff, most food packaging is going straight in the general waste.

The background to this is twofold.  First, a bit of idiocy from West Devon’s recycling services.  Plastic and metal don’t go into a sensible/practical recycling bin, but instead into an unwieldy bag similar to those more commonly used for gardening waste.  Second, I have a problem with rodents getting into the kitchen.

West Devon’s overall recycling is quite a pain.  In addition to the silly bag for plastic and metal and the general waste, there’s separate food waste (fairy nuff) and two separate plastic boxes that are scarcely used.  Fine if you have something like a utility room with lots of spare space, but out of all proportion for a house with no dedicated space.

OK, the general waste is fine: I have a general bin.  The food waste is fine: a little caddy is provided.  Two robust plastic boxes stack in an under-the-worktop space.  But there’s nothing to do with the ridiculous plastics bag, other than to fold it and stash it away during the week.

So plastic waste either goes straight in the general waste or accumulates through the week.  And if the latter, it attracts rodents to come and get any food remnants that may have survived a rinse.  So only robust bottles with robust lids can be allowed to remain around when empty.

There must be many households blighted by these recycling arrangements, including houses quite a lot smaller than mine.  Aren’t we long overdue an upgrade to communal waste and recycling facilities, as are common in (at least some) continental countries, and now Brighton in Blighty?

I wonder what the waste services would do if I abandoned the bag and put the plastics into one of the robust nearly-unused boxes instead?  At least there they could be shut away until collection day.