Monthly Archives: October 2006

Trick or Beet

This evening I cooked up a large volume of a somewhat Borscht-like soup, involving lots of beetroot. A slightly messy job cooking it.

Not so delicious, but much more fun, is the effect on halloween children of a manic grin, and a quiet but hammed up over-eager come in, dears, when delivered with hands heavily stained by dark, sticky beetroot juice.

Hehehe.

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Green taxes (revised)?

Green taxes are all over the meeja again. But this time it seems a little different: it’s not just negative ranting.

For those of us who have wanted this for a long time, this could be good news. Especially if they make it tax-neutral, so that increased taxes on destruction are offset by reduced taxes on productive activity. And they’re even talking about that now: the Tories have said in principle that’s what they want, and the libdems have made specific proposals involving a modest reduction in income tax.

Alas, it’s still all very timid. So here’s a better proposal. First, lets set primary targets not on the increases, but on the reductions: giving us back our hard-earned money. Then move boldly towards them.

My candidate target: move towards the total abolition of that part of income tax known as “National Insurance”. That gives money back both to business and to people. Adding up both employers and employees “contributions”, it’s about half the total tax on earned income for most of us. That leaves deficits both in personal and corporate taxes, which the treasury now has a reasonable case toplug with additional taxes on destructive activities. As an added bonus, it makes the tax system more transparent, and it takes out one of the the most regressive components of it (national insurance falls hardest on middle-earners, with the rich paying proportionally less).

Now, what realistically might happen? It is perhaps instructive to look at the only serious attempt at a green tax we’ve had in this country: John Major’s “fuel price escalator”.

That was accepted at the time, and survived the beginning of Brown’s stewardship of the economy. But in 2000, someone set up a website, and a huge meeja campaign grew up against the escalator, now labelled one of Gordon Brown’s “stealth taxes”.

First there was a campaign, supported with millions worth of free publicity from the likes of the BBC, called “dump the pump”: motorists were exhorted to boycott petrol stations every Monday in protest at “high” prices. Come the first boycott Monday, the petrol stations reported no difference: if anything a slight increase in trade. After the second week, they abandoned the campaign: the silent majority had decisively rejected it.

So, after a couple of months of quiet, they took a different tack. Instead of looking for public support, a few thugs took “direct action”, the kind of thing that would probably be described as terrorist today. But they had support from some prominent public figures: notably the Tory leader of the time: a raving demagogue who shortly afterwards took his party to their worst (but best-deserved) election defeat in … well, certainly in my time. And more importantly – indeed crucially – they again had the support of the meeja: if I might make a cheap jibe, London journalists want their cheap travel to their country cottages (having already priced local people out of the market)!

Having dispensed with the idea that the public (indeed, the motoring public) would support a peaceful campaign, the terrorist campaign was extraordinarily successful. Instead of standing up to the thugs and taking all necessary measures to ensure essential services were maintained (as Mrs Thatcher certainly would have done), the government cravenly capitulated. Green taxes were effectively abolished. I’m not sure, but I have a slight suspicion that retrospective shame at that capitulation may have influenced The Liar to play tough: to defy public opinion next time there was a campaign (supported by the biggest ever peace marches) against going to yet another war.

Major’s escalator was in fact an extremely good way to go. It signalled a change, but gave people and business ample time to adjust to it. What would seriously higher fuel prices really mean?

Well, if travel costs more, it shifts the economic balance in favour of local facilities. And, in our times, online. Those of us in rural areas like here (West Devon) have seen closures of village schools, shops, post offices, etc, as the affluent abandon them in favour of more distant facilities in the towns and cities. The carless (and there are many, especially among the old and infirm) are marginalised: this is social exclusion rural-style. we can bring back more local facilities.

Similarly, if the middle classes (as in the selfish part, as opposed to a liberal fringe) feel motivated to drive less, they’ll demand much better public transport facilities. With increased demand, bus operators will benefit, and can improve their services. I expect there will be some resistance at first from those who scorn the bus, but that won’t last more than a few years. Buses and cyclists are already resented by the arrogant.

In an information age, there’s no excuse for knowledge-workers to be trapped in the old office lifestyle of the 19th and 20th centuries. An economic incentive for more people to work at home or in smaller, decentralised offices will be a very strong benefit for all but the office tyrant.

And with fewer commuters on the road, there is less congestion getting in the way of those who really do need to travel. Our road haulage industry complains of congestion costing them billions a year. Yes they’ll pay more for their pollution, butby their own figures they also stand to make a lot of money back.

Of course, some services will cost more. When you need a plumber, his/her fuel costs will have to be reflected in what you pay. Unless of course that too can be offset by reduced congestion, and less time wasted on the roads.

Finally, of course, what better than good economic incentives to investment in R&D on improved technologies for supporting less-destructive lifestyles?

Firefox 2

Well, when I installed that there ubuntu, it gave me Firefox 2.  And for the first time in … I forget, but a matter of years, I have a firefox I can use to visit unknown/untrusted sites.

The big difference?  Just one small but vital change.  Disabling animated images works!  It’s been broken in 1.x, leaving me with Konqueror as the only modern graphical browser that was actually usable.  Now, finally, firefox makes the grade.  And since it has the advantage that I can use it without installing the whole KDEboodle, I think I might make it my regular browser.

Replacing the desktop box

No doubt hardened BOFHs will disagree, but I think a change of hardware should be something one can do at leisure. Install an operating system, sort out glitches, migrate stuff.

But when it’s a mission-critical machine that’s died, there’s a bit more pressure on the replacement. Such was my case on Thursday, when the desktop box, which crucially also receives my email and runs an imap server, died irredeemably.

I had already tinkered with the new machine, and installed a couple of operating systems on a new SATA disc. Gentoo got its knickers thoroughly in a twist and declined to emerge enough to install a working X11. FreeBSD installed fine, with a couple of issues. The worst problem there was that periodically (rather often) the whole thing would freeze for a few seconds. I think that’s associated with timeouts on nve0 appearing in syslog, and that a kernel rebuild should be able to fix it. But it’s not a chance one wants to take. Fine to figure it out when one isn’t under pressure, but not when mail is waiting. And unfortunately, I only noticed it when I attached the new machine to the monitor, mouse and keyboard and started trying to use it.

The disc from the old machine is fortunately fine, and booted OK in the new machine (once I’d repaired the boot sector and fscked it). That was running gentoo, but with a custom XFree build for the old hardware. After building the network driver for the new hardware, I unmerged the old xf86, and tried emerging Xorg, but that failed. So no GUI. Oh well.

One more thing to try before reverting to the FreeBSD install. Ubuntu has been getting a good press, and I’ve been meaning to test-drive it. So tried installing it. And, lo and behold, it’s working nicely! So without further ado, I’ve installed postfix, dovecot and a bunch of other packages, and turned it into my operational desktop box. Still some glitches – like messing up the clock (reminds me of windows there) and installing a badly broken Grub configuration (without the option). But no show-stoppers. So, it looks like this may be my regular workhorse for the forseeable.

And there’s still plenty of disc space to mess about with obscure things, like the OpenSolaris CD I picked up at OSCon. Haven’t had slowaris on my desktop since ’98, so I wonder how it’s changed …

Elevated Fiddling

I’ve just been to see Fiddler on the Roof at our local venue, The Wharf. It’s a local amateur production by the Tavistock Musical Theatre Company. And I’m much impressed: in fact I think it’s probably the best show I’ve ever seen at the Wharf (a typical “little theatre” that shows more films than anything else, but occasionally gets a real production).

The company was clearly stronger in theatre than in music: the acting impressed me pretty much throughout, and the production was excellent (apart from the view sometimes being problematic from the lower part of the auditorium). But few of the performers had singing voices that could compete with the (tiny) orchestra, and a few were sadly weak. Having said that, the MD and his musicians were not bad!

Visually it ranged from good to fantastic. Costumes, lighting and staging all worked well, and some of the scenes were particularly memorable. The lighting in the wedding scene. The nightmare scene – perhaps the #1 highlight of the production, with a real tour de force from the ghost!

In parts it was also startling and thought- provoking: a production for our times. The violence of Perchik and Hodel’s first dance made up for both of their singing voices being largely inaudible, and the point in the wedding scene where Perchik gets beaten up by the Russians was truly brutal. Motel’s cowering wimp was utterly credible, and impressively terrified as he put the question to Tevye.

Of course, the anchor for the whole show is Tevye. After a slightly suspect start, he got into his stride, and was well on top of the part – one of the most demanding and rewarding anywhere in the “light opera” repertoire! His relationships with his family (including his real-life wife, another nice performance) and his god all came across very well, drawing the story along.

Now, that leaves one question. Why wasn’t I in it? I’ve taken part in two productions of this show, but this is the first time I’ve seen it from an audience seat. I clearly haven’t been getting out enough. I blame the fact that my musical life was already centred in Plymouth before I moved in to Tavistock last year, but that’s no excuse. I must follow this up by making contact with the group!

Phew!

Well, I’ve just uploaded the last of my copyedited stuff for the book. With a bit of luck – if they don’t throw it back at me – that’s this phase done. They now do “composition”, after which my final task is to review their proofs.

Apart from any remaining glitches, the main issue now is how they’ll deal with things like line breaks in code examples. Those changed during the copyedit, for reasons that probably don’t matter. I’ve put notes in one or two places, but for the most part I can’t really do better than to bear in mind that these people publish lots of computing books, and must know about laying out code!

Bring back the boys

On the news today: we may be about to see a shift in emphasis from coursework to exams, in the UK national qualifications for 16 year olds. First, a few weeks ago, it was announced that coursework will be reduced in some subjects because of concerns about cheating. Second, and new today, there’s pressure for the government to allow an alternative “international” qualification, already popular in some private schools, in the state sector.

Here’s a prediction: a move from coursework assessment to exams will improve boys results relative to girls.

That calls for some context. The most widely reported context is that, for some years, published statistics have shown girls significantly outperforming boys at school.

The background to that, and what made it inevitable, is the Agenda of promoting womens issues, that has been dominant in this country’s culture since the middle of the last century. It’s one of those things that’s taken as an article of faith by our Powers That Be, and can’t be questioned. The move from exams to coursework was in part tied in with that agenda: at the time, boys were outperforming girls, and some commentators rightly predicted that the changes (of which coursework was an important part) would help close that gap.

reverse proxy article

Back in the summer, Mark Cox wrote to me about finding a new home for the ApacheWeek article on running a reverse proxy “sometime this year”. I’ve just dumped the apacheweek article as text and imported it in to apachetutor.

The article’s new home is here.

Affiliate Networks

Another long-awaited round tuit is to try and get Apache Tutor to cover its basic running costs by linking to relevant books: both mine and others (which I guess I ought to review for that).

That means joining some affiliate network. My first stop was Amazon, where I tried to sign up a week or two ago. But it’s too broken to use:

  • The amazon.com front page redirects me to amazon.co.uk. Actually it doesn’t – it’s too broken – but that’s what it tries to do.
  • amazon.co.uk lets me sign up as an affiliate, but won’t generate a link to my book, which rather defeats the point. That’s presumably because – unlike amazon.com – it isn’t accepting orders.
  • Most amazon.com pages away from the front page let me view them, but it won’t let me either sign up as an affiliate or log in using my amazon.co.uk ID. More brokenness.

So the next port of call was Barnes & Noble. That was a much smoother process: it let me sign up as an affiliate and generate links to my book (which I’ve now done). The fly in the ointment is that its tracking mechanism is going to break, and not give me a referral fee, on anyone whose browser declines to load images from their site whilst viewing my page, or whose browser or network use privacy settings. Since my audience is people who are already web-savvy techies, that probably loses most of them.

Bah, humbug

Half-open source

On October 17th, MySQL AB announced a new commercial offering, based of course on their renowned opensource database product. Apache folks Ian Holsman and Steve Loughran comment on the announcement.

But we have a very similar scenario even closer to home, with the acquisition by Breach Security of mod_security. I’ve actually been thinking about the possible implications of that one, with a view to featuring it in my column for El Reg, and my conclusion is that if Ristic and Breach play their cards right, this could be good news for everyone. Ristic’s interview with securityfocus is reassuring on this count.

One thing that may have profoundly affected the mod_security situation is the use of the GPL. Of course, Breach (like MySQL) can do exactly what they like with their product. But if AN Other bases a new product on it – and mod_security certainly has scope for that – it has a profound effect. In effect, Breach have bought themselves a monopoly on the right to release a closed-source enterprise edition.