Monthly Archives: April 2007

Amsterdam and Queens Day

About two years ago I was in Amsterdam, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Beautiful city, lots to do, a wide range of superb restaurants, etc.

This time it’s Queen’s day, a big public holiday with lots of festivities, and overwhelming crowds. It looks like a very good time to be somewhere else. Which, alas, I am not.

I went out today with a view to doing some touristing. To a limited extent I succeeded, but the crowds put me off doing anything very much. The queue for the Rijksmuseum was like the Vatican museums (and Sistine Chapel) on the one day a month they have free entry. The activities in the park outside the Concertgebouw strongly suggest a level of noise that’ll make it a waste of time to go to a concert there. And so it goes. I hope we’ll at least find somewhere nice to eat this evening.

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Flight-free Travel

I’m now in Amsterdam for ApacheCon next week. I set out late Friday evening, and arrived later than expected on Saturday, having successfully avoided flying. The experience was mixed, but mostly positive.

To begin at the beginning, waiting for the bus to Plymouth onna Friday night was ‘interesting’. The bus station is a regular spot for all our local underage drinkers, and there were also two other mature men with character catching my bus. All in all, a little more lively than usual. Thankfully there wasn’t anyone inflicting mobile-phone-ghetto-blaster or similar noise on the bus.

Next the overnight train to London. This was my first time on a sleeper train in the UK, and I had little idea what to expect. I got a tiny compartment to myself, so privacy was a definite plus. The bed was made up, but was very narrow, and the mattress was lumpy – ugh. On the plus side, it remained surprisingly quiet as the train travelled. On the minus side, I couldn’t open the window, but had to rely on their ventilation system (which at least worked).

They served me a complimentary cuppa just before five, after which I took the tube to Liverpool Street. It’s many years since I used Liverpool street. It’s changed, and not entirely for the better. The main departures board is incredibly high up, and set against blindingly bright lights in the roof. I couldn’t read the b***** thing at all! Other departures information was hard to read, too. But eventually I got the train I needed, the 06:18 to Harwich.

Checkin at Harwich involved queueing, made 1000% worse by the bloody muzak. Still, at least we no longer have smokers making such queues a misery. Another very stupid thing: there are no gangways for foot passengers, so at both ends they packed us onto a ghastly bus and drove us on/off. At the Dutch end, this meant waiting until everyone else had gone.

I had three options for my big backpack:

  1. Check it in airport-style.
  2. Keep it with me throughout.
  3. Carry it on, but leave it in the secure (locked) room by reception during the voyage.

I chose the third option. That was great but for the fact we were late setting off, and they were therefore late coming to lock it. I waited around, which was tedious.

The boat was very big, and clearly a mainstay of European trade, having a large area devoted to huge ro-ro containers. The truckers are clearly valued regulars, and have some dedicated facilities such as a fast-track reception desk separate from the riff-raff. But it was a pretty decent experience even for mere plebs, with ample, comfortable space inside, and the opportunity to go up on deck (though alas no decent outdoor seating). Lunch on board was very nice indeed, apart from the ripoff price and miserly portions of anything to drink (even a glass of water or cup of tea). Overall, I liked it.

I already mentioned the stupid wait at the dutch end. But that was only the start of it. There were no trains running from Hook of Holland to anywhere, and the only information available was by asking around. Eventually we ended up taking a coach to some station with a train service, then a train to Rotterdam, and finally a train from there to Amsterdam. Instead of arriving at about six, we made it to Amsterdam at eight.

Just to round off the story, a tale of hotel overbooking and a very long and tedious checkin process. But I’ll leave that for now.

RIP UK

What is, above all else, the defining characteristic of a monarch?  Of course, it’s that he leads his armies into war  That’s how he (or more commonly his ancestors) attained the position in the first place, and how he maintains it.  Our monarchy has a long history of it.

Of course, monarchy has degraded with the rise of parliament.  W.S. Gilbert poked fun at cowardly aristocracy in the person of the Duke of Plaza Toro:

In enterprise of martial kind, when there was any fighting. / He led his regiment from behind, he found it less exciting.

Now, it’s degraded to the point where the Queen’s grandson, being of prime fighting age and a soldier by choice and training, has to be kept out of any possible danger, while his subjects continue to suffer casualties.  Despicable cowardice by any standard!

Of course, the cowardice isn’t really his.  If the decision were his own and he, as a prince, put himself anywhere but on the front line, that would make him a total and utter coward.  But it isn’t, and the cowardice is coming from elsewhere.  The ultimate coward is The Liar, from whose crimes this stems.

Let’s have done with this anachronism the “United Kingdom”.  The “united” part is looking fragile, with Scotland likely to increase support for their nationalist party (Good luck to them – our countries can and should be friends without this unwanted union.  Just as we are friends with our neighbours to the south, east and west).  And now the “kingdom” part is a laughing stock.  At least, insofar as it was supposed to mean anything.

Preparing for ApacheCon

My ApacheCon talk remains in preparation. But under pressure from the organisers, I’ve put together a collection of thirtysomething slides (including one from someone kind enough to send me the quick overview of his project last week) and submitted it, with caveats. Trying hard to avoid “death by powerpoint” and restricting the slides to reminders to myself as speaker, but I’d do a better job of that if it were material from the book (and, therefore, material whose presentation I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking through).

My conference presentations tend to be oriented to new developments: from technical stuff for developers to technology overview stuff for IT managers. This one is a departure: it’s for system administrators. Largely it’s stuff I keep finding myself explaining in the various support fora I frequent.

See you in Amsterdam (FSVO “you”:-)

Cause and effect and jobs

I got another request to join someone’s linkedin network.  I seem to be registered there: some time in the past, in a moment of weakness, I went and signed up on receiving an invite from someone I know to be genuine.

At the bottom of the invite is a one-line carrot: “Fact: Adding 5 connections makes you 3.7x more likely to receive a job offer“.  I guess they have some stats to support the assertion.

Of course they can’t know every job offer anyone receives.  Maybe they can come somewhere near to knowing every offer that goes through some process they facilitate.  Perhaps the “fact” taken with appropriate qualifiers is reasonably well supported.

So that’ll be “people who are more active on linkedin are more likely to find a job through linkedin”.  Sounds reasonable.

But now they’re using “find a job” as a carrot.  So that’ll be self-fulfilling: people in the jobs market are more likely to take the carrot and become more active there, while others are more likely to ignore it.  How is that better than (or even as good as) signing up at a jobs site?  Ah, right, it’s somewhere you can look without admitting (maybe even to yourself) you’re on that game?

But maybe there’s a real advantage: ‘normal’ jobs boards are overwhelmingly dominated by recruiters who lack techie knowledge of their market, and work on buzzwords of random relevance.  That kind of thing is a complete waste of time if you’ve rejected the ratrace career in the Dilbertian office.

Another blast from the past

Last night I heard a voice from the past on the wireless.  Phil Green, who was my project leader whilst doing research at Sheffield, was on Radio 4’s Word of Mouth.  This was in connection with a new device to give people with severe speech impairments a  fairly normal voice.  And even an appropriate accent: they demoed a synthesized voice that was identifiable as Barnsley poet and project member Ian MacMillan (and Barnsley is quite an accent)!

Congratulations to Phil and his team for what sounds like a really worthwhile project (more so than the stuff I worked on).  And on your elevation to full Professor, having been (IIRC) a mere Senior Lecturer when I was a researcher in your team.

Apache Training

In the last two years ApacheCon (Stuttgart 2005 and Dublin 2006) I’ve given a tutorial in Apache Module development. The first one I presented jointly with Paul Querna, and my performance was not good (Paul’s was clearly better). The second one was basically solo (though Will Rowe made a contribution), and my own performance was much better, helped by the fact that I could use substantially-complete material from The Book as tutorial notes, as well as by my experience from the previous year. The Dublin tutorial was rated excellent in the attendee feedback sent after the conference by the ApacheCon organisers.

This year, I’ve just heard it seems to be dead, due to insufficient numbers of attendees. Actually I only heard I was giving it a couple of weeks ago when I signed up for ApacheCon and saw it listed amongst the courses available: I wonder if that has anything to do with it?

I’m not sure what’s changed. This year it’s had no publicity from me(!), but I’ve no idea how much it had from the organisers in each of the three years. I’m not aware of any great macroeconomic trends or major changes in the popularity of Apache likely to have had this effect. Could being earlier in the year have an effect? The biggest change is that the book is now in print (and has been favourably reviewed). Can it be that prospective attendees are buying the book instead of signing up for the tutorial?

The merits of bumbling incompetence.

Sometime around when Mrs Thatcher first came to power, a caricature of her husband Denis as a right-wing buffoon appeared in the press (possibly first in Private Eye, though I couldn’t say for sure). The image stuck, and that’s how we saw him for the rest of his life.

More recently, Carol Thatcher (daughter of the ex-PM) has let it be known that the family instantly liked the caricature, and positively encouraged the image. It worked to the prime minister’s advantage, because it meant that if her husband did or said anything likely to be politically damaging, it would be attributed to his buffoonery and discounted. In fact of course he was a successful high-flyer in his own right, just as the present prime minister’s wife is.

Now the Iran prisoner story has blown up in the government and navy’s face, and they’re readily admitting to utter incompetence. All the meeja are feasting on the carcass of their credibility.

And the media, well-satisfied with what they’ve got, have lost all interest in looking into anything more sinister than gross stupidity ….

Where’s my server? (sequel)

Last week my server lost its networking for several hours. It appears the route to it is being permanently decommissioned.

So late last night its networking was updated. This included assigning it a new IP number. The DNS update appears now to have propagated around much but not all of the ‘net. So if you’ve tried and failed to get through to anything I host in the past (or next) few hours, that’s why.

For the non-techies out there, DNS is the ‘net’s addressing database, and DNS update is analagous to changing address. If your letter is in the post to my old address, it’ll have to be re-routed, and that can only happen when the post office have my new address. Some local post office branches take a while to update.

Oh, and also for non-techies, I need to add that nothing has changed in the human-readable forms of my addresses. Anything with a domain name (such as webthing.com) in is exactly as before. It’s your computer that needs to know about the changes, not you.

One for the spooks! [Updated – From the horse’s mouth!]

As we all know, a group of British servicepeople was captured by Iranian forces in disputed circumstances, and released after two weeks. Both sides have now used them in propaganda exercises in their respective media: the Iranians extracted apologies and admissions of possible transgressions; the Brits extracted a story of abuse. Both stories are no doubt true up to a point, but heavily spun.

The UK press conference of course took place after debriefing, in which the presentation of the story was obviously prepared. Tellingly, only six of the fifteen took part: these people are not natural spin-doctors. Also tellingly, the story was a bit of a damp squib: the worst abuse described was a pale shadow of what’s being inflicted by the US and its allies in Iraq. The British side comes out with egg on its face. Again.

So far, no surprises. What is more surprising is that the servicepeople are now to sell their stories to the press. That must mean the spooks have assessed them carefully, and concluded that the press will turn the stories to their advantage. It’s a high-risk strategy, so they must presumably see high returns.

But how high-risk is it really? They can make some pretty good guesses about important aspects of the story. It’s easy to enumerate the newspapers with the biggest chequebooks to buy an “exclusive” on this kind of story, and they’re jingoistic rags who will want to tell a story of British heroism and Iranian villainy: James Bond rather than George Smiley. They’ve presumably gone as far as to enumerate the journalists and editors who might take on the stories. And the task is simplified further by the fact that just one of the fifteen is overwhelmingly the most important: the sole woman in the party is expected to be far and away the biggest story. Of course that could be a mistake, if one of the men proves particularly interesting – all part of the gamble that any of them will come across right.

So the risk comes not so much from the direct stories, but rather from indirect commentators. And that’s happening anyway! So this is really about deflecting attention.

And in the precedent it sets. That’s sure to come back to bite. But it’ll be the successors to the people who took this decision getting bitten, so that’s OK.

If anyone from the mainstream media is reading this, please get some well-informed comment from outside the official line. I want to hear what John Le Carré may have to say on this subject!

[UPDATE] One of them has just been on the radio saying “I’m not doing it for the money, just to set the record straight”. Also seemed to say the money would be given away, but his words left some ambiguity. Should’ve foreseen that gambit! BUT … that just highlights the suspect premise underlying those words, the assumption that he’s going to sell his story in the first place, all the more starkly.

[UPDATE 2 – Monday Morning] They’ve just had Kelvin Mackenzie on the radio confirming my speculation.  Not so long ago, he was editor of “The Sun” (a very big name in trash chequebook journalism), so he should know!  And he adds that last week, someone from MoD PR was indeed sniffing around the relevant newspapers, doing the research on how they’d play this.