Monthly Archives: June 2007

Clean air?

From today, we are smoke-free.  Yay!

Smoke is just nasty: I suffer from it at home when the neighbours smoke, in the street when it’s too crowded or narrow to get past the smoker, at the railway station when three or four smokers spaced out along the platform can leave nowhere free of it, or in the bus shelter where it only takes one to drive me out into the rain.

But wait a minute!  The smoking ban doesn’t affect any of those smokers.  They’re all in their own homes or outdoors.  It might even make it worse, if smokers who would otherwise be indoors are instead fouling the street.

Is there anywhere it will help?  Smokers have been a major blight on my life, from the misery of the school bus, to the three of my jobs that they’ve made a misery (one involved smokers in the same open-plan office, the other two involved it drifting from the smokers’ own).  A pub or restaurant meal can be ruined by them.  And I haven’t been to the cinema in a quarter century, after a very nasty experience in my teens.

But that’s really a battle that’s already won, in the UK at least.  Some pubs and restaurants are still foul, but others are smoke-free and perfectly pleasant.  The station or bus stop may still be grotty, but where it really matters, on the bus or train itself, isn’t.  Places of entertainment are free of it.  Whereas in my youth, avoiding smokers meant severely cramping the social life, nowadays there are ample choices to accommodate both smokers and decent people.

On the other hand, I really would like to get rid of some of the other pollution that afflicts our air.  It was back in the ’80s – when smoking was still a very serious problem in many places – that I first concluded that motor vehicle emissions were actually a worse problem than tobacco smoke.  In the intervening 20 years, that’s just got worse while smokers have retreated.  It seems absurd to ban the minor problem of tobacco smoke while leaving drivers free to pollute on a global scale.  And don’t get me started on bonfires and wood smoke, which in afflicted places are an order of magnitude worse than any of the other nuisances.

Now, if they’d ban it from the home, that would be much more useful.  If I could sue the neighbours every time they make my flat stink, I’d …. lead a life blighted by petty conflict.  Yeah, great.  Smokers rights are not something I’m about to make a stand for, but this ban seems to lack a sense of proportion, as well as being near-useless.

A sense of proportion

A week of ‘terrorist’ incidents: two cars in London (not exactly car bombs) that didn’t go off, and one driven into Glasgow airport. Now we’re on “critical” terrorist alert.

Three incidents. Not ‘professional’ terrorist incidents, but bumbling, ineffectual homebrew attacks: more Inspector Clouseau than anything else. Incidents on a level of sophistication (and danger) more akin to teenage ‘joyriders’ than to a serious terrorist organisation like the IRA or Al Qaeda[1].

Contrast the “nothing to worry about” attitude to equally (if not more) serious incidents such as this, which I find altogether more scary. And contrast the attitude to killer drivers, who are commonly given no more than a slap on the wrist, no matter how dangerous they are (and in this country, drivers kill more people in a week than terrorists have in total since the IRA stopped).

If there are serious terrorists out there, how likely are they to announce their intention to attack with a round of buffoonery like this?

Much more worrying: these were apparently completely off the police’s radar. At a guess, they really are just saddo kids, and have no affiliation at all to anyone the security forces are watching. Smells like the seeds of fear and distrust that The Liar has so abundantly scattered in recent years, coming home to roost.

[1] That is to say, the Al Qaeda of “9/11”. Nowadays the term seems to have become a general-purpose bogeyman for anything islamic and bad. Or indeed anyone we happen to kill in the occupied countries.

The Liar moves on

The Liar is going to be peace envoy to the middle east. Well, its somewhere the skills of a fluent and easy liar could be extremely valuable. If, that is to say, he’s credible to the parties.

So, what’s (almost) the last thing he does as British prime minister? He sticks up two fingers at Islam, by knighting Salman Rushdie[1]. This must surely be a calculated gesture: Rushdie’s claim to merit is as a novelist, and novelists don’t get knighthoods. If the intention was to set a new precedent, I’d expect to start with an author with a decent claim to britishness, not one who has rejected this country and now lives and works in another continent (not to mention being born in yet another).

If he’s going to make any progress, he’s going to have to talk seriously to the people he calls enemies. Like Hamas. That’ll enrage the powers-that-be in Israel, and many who control the purse-strings of elected politicians in the USA. But it’s unlikely that just talking will be enough: he’ll have to go right out on a limb and cause serious offence to some of his friends if he’s to win any kind of trust amongst people who see him as a leading figure in a conspiracy against them. Will he do that? Or will he just pursue the current line?

Or is there a Third Way, in which he acts as fall guy for someone conducting real negotiations behind the scenes, leading to something like the 1993 Oslo agreement? And if so, will the international community stand behind it this time, and stop another Netanyahu just tearing it up again and expanding Israel’s Lebensraum – and sending a clear signal to palestinians that peace does not pay?

Oh, and good riddance.

[1] Just to be clear: I firmly support free speech, and Rushdie’s right to publish his satanic verses. It’s the artist’s rôle to challenge, and even offend. But a national leader acting in an official capacity should be much more sensitive.

The Scottish Empire

From today, we are officially a colony in the Scottish empire.

I’ve nothing against foreigners. Nor even necessarily against foreign rulers. But our new PM comes from the government that was fully warned about the Westlothian problem, yet went right ahead and created a deep democratic deficit.

Mr Brown has got a couple of assets: the first brain since Thatcher, and an aversion to the outright lie. He also has hands deeply stained with the blood of The Liar’s crimes. Let’s hope he can be a bit less of a charlatan than his predecessor. Fixing this particular bit of constitutional nonsense would be a useful start.

Mr Brown, so long as the Westlothian problem persists, every English vote you get is a negation of democracy.

Web sites that suck: UK Gov carbon calculator

I just tried the UK govt’s “carbon calculator” (as reported here). In brief, it’s horribly broken, at the taxpayer’s expense. So I found the feedback link to email them a little rant.

I have three comments on this site. First, about the calculation itself, and secondly about the presentation.

The calculation makes no sense to me. First, it asks questions about the house, including energy bills, and tells me:

Your CO2 Result for your home is 0.42 tonnes per year.

It then proceeds to ask about appliances, and tells me:

Your CO2 Result for your appliances is 0.82 tonnes per year.

(Minor comment at this point: it completely excludes the effects of my shopping or working habits).

Now, my usage of all those appliances is *included* in the electricity bills, which were *already* part of the first calculation. Since the appliances in question are clearly domestic (e.g. fridge, cooker, telly, computers), it makes no sense at all to separate them from the total gas and electricity consumption figures.

This leads to my second point: your “FAQ” is hard to read. Firstly, it lacks an index or quick overview. Secondly, its author has failed utterly to grasp the basic principles of HTML markup, and consequently has produced text that is a strain to read – at least for my middle-aged eyes (though I expect it looks good on the author’s own PC).

In support of the above assertion, and before moving to my third point, I should perhaps briefly present my credentials to criticise the site at a technical level. I am widely acknowledged as an expert in a range of web technologies. I am a published author, developer of the “Site Valet” suite of QA and Accessibility evaluation tools, and for several years served as Invited Expert with the Worldwide Web Consortium in their Quality Assurance and Accessibility activities.

Having thus introduced myself, let me introduce the first principle of developing a website: follow the basic standards!

Analogy: If the electrician who wired my house had installed a system that would work with a Hoover but not with an Electrolux appliance, I would be rightly aggrieved. But of course, the electrician follows basic interoperability standards, so there’s no question of that kind of incompatibility.

Developing a website is exactly the same. But your calculator fails so badly as to make it completely unusable in at least two of my browsers, including my first choice (Konqueror; also known as Safari in Apple’s own-badge packaging). Even in Firefox it is extremely rude, messing about with my browser window.

This level of brokenness does not happen merely due to time and budgetary limitations. It takes an order of magnitude more effort to mess it up so badly than to produce a simple, working site (the calculator itself is very simple). Furthermore, there is a *separate* flash 8 version for those who might prefer to treat it as entertainment. The so-called HTML version I used is supposedly the simple fallback.

In brief, please get a competent web developer for a day, and stop pouring taxpayers money into some entertainment-industry wannabe’s self-indulgence.

A new-look government?

Gordon Brown is preparing a new government, for when he officially gets the top job in a few days time. And we hear he’s discussed offering government jobs to members of the libdems, but they’ve turned him down. Noone seems quite sure who suffers or benefits from this.

Looking up from an unedifying narrow view of the parties, what would be good for the country? Here the answer looks much clearer: if Brown can move away from the traditional notion of a government entirely from within one party, we stand to benefit. But he needs to be transparent and honest about it: giving power to “special advisors” through the back door has a bad press that’s not about to go away (even if it’s really just a modern variant of “Sir Humphrey” of the 1980s and earlier).

If Brown can appoint ministers from outside his own party, I for one will be well pleased. They won’t be libdems (at least in the short term), but they could still be Tories, other parties, or (probably best) no party. As is indeed fairly widespread practice in many other countries. Not only will he move away from traditional tribalism; he’ll also set a good precedent for future governments. It’s a natural followup to the ending of the class war that gave rise to the original Labour party.

And it’s a precedent I strongly suspect David Cameron will be happy to follow, if and when he gets the top job.

Next: do away with this absurd system where so much power vests in any one person. Regardless of who it is, or what party they lead. That includes leaders of opposition parties, too.

mod_proxy_html again

Another day, another bugfix in the dev version. This one manifests when it encounters bogus markup but makes no attempt to fix it (i.e. ProxyHTMLDoctype is not set, or is set using the alternative syntax). It looks up the definition of the element in libxml2, but gets a null pointer. I … erm … had thought it dealt with that case, but missed a vital use case.

Fixed in svn r90.

mod_proxy_html fix

If anyone read my yesterdays post and downloaded mod_proxy_html 3, please scrap it and download the new teensy-weensy bugfix in svn r89. The previous version fixed the original crash, but introduced another stupid bug.

mod_proxy_html 3

It’s close to 6 months since I announced a first dev-version of mod_proxy_html 3.0.  In that time, my attention has been elsewhere, as most users stick with the stable version 2.5.

I’ve also had a handful of reports of 3.0 segfaulting.  Hitherto none of the reporters has responded to my requests for a test case, and I wasn’t able to reproduce it.  So no fix.

Yesterday evening when I was out, I got the email that nailed it.  My client on a mostly-different job is using mod_proxy_html 3, and reported a URL that returned a blank browser screen through the proxy.  Today I tested it myself, and finally traced what is almost certainly the bug.  And it’s one of those “duh” moments: I’d already had to fix the same bug in other modules including mod_proxy_html 2.5.

So anyone using mod_proxy_html and prepared to test-drive an update, please download the update (svn r87 or up) and give it a try!

Another bike

I just test-rode John’s bike[1]. It’s got figure-of-eight handlebars, with the brakes and gears on the near part of them. I was keen to see how they felt to ride on.

Result: the far side (front) of the bars were quite pleasant to ride on, and it was a good ride on the uphill. But the near side of the bars were incredibly close, and riding on them was less fun. In fact, braking on the downhill was rather scary: the arms were so vertical it was a little challenging to hold my weight back. And pushing the weight backwards in the normal way by sticking the bum out wasn’t so easy.

OK, so the bike isn’t my size (I had to raise the saddle a couple of inches, but left the bars in place). Even so, I think I’ve answered my question: I don’t want bars that put the brake levers so close to the body.

[1] That is, his ‘normal’ bike – he’s also got a shiny new brompton from work.