Monthly Archives: June 2008

Lidl coming to Tavistock

About a week ago, a circular came through the door. Not quite junkmail: this was from Lidl, who are consulting us (the people of Tavistock) about plans to open a new shop here. Open day yesterday and today at the Bedford Hotel – our local venue for corporate functions.

It’s a slightly out-of-town site, next door to the existing Morrisons (our big supermarket). Being a small town, it’s walking distance to everywhere for an able-bodied person, but unfortunately that won’t stop it attracting cars. The site is currently derelict, as other retailers have closed there, so it’s not paving over anything green, which is a Good Thing.

I’m not familiar enough with Lidl to have any clear idea what to expect. But I think I’m in favour:

  • With the vast amount of new housing being built, the town could use more retail capacity.
  • I’m optimistic that Lidl will complement more than it competes with our market and the smaller in-town shops.
  • Above all, Lidl are promising no muzak (halleluja!). So at last, we’ll be able to shop in peace for supermarket staples without having to travel an additional 10 miles (each way) to Tescos in Roborough.

That last one alone will get them my custom!

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Unequal Opportunities.

’twas in 1992 I went for this job interview. I know because that’s the year my (fixed-term) research job at Sheffield ended, and I was some months “between jobs”. It was a tough time in academia: a report in the torygraph the following year said that the number of academic research jobs in UK universities declined by 11% that year. So for a geek who liked academia, a sysop job at another UK university looked like an attractive prospect.

It was a long journey, so I traveled up the day before my interview and stayed overnight in university accommodation. There I met another candidate. Only for a couple of minutes, but it was enough to tell me I couldn’t be offered the job.

No, of course I couldn’t possibly say in that time who was the better candidate for the job. But the other candidate was female and black. So the only way they could offer it to a white male was if she was a total no-hoper. Which she wasn’t: a couple of minutes was ample to tell me that. Our respective technical merits – our abilities to do the job – was going to be moot.

Sixteen years on from that clear memory, they’re now apparently going to make it law. It’s just fine to discriminate, provided victims are white and male. Maybe that’s no bad thing: it just formalises the de-facto insidious pressure that’s always[1] been there, in the form of practices like “ethnic monitoring”, and being deemed evil if you fail to meet unofficial quotas of bums-on-seats. At least we officially know where we stand (and more to the point, so do those ‘disadvantaged’ people at the core of Old Labour or the BNP).

I’m glad my current employer was so genuinely non-discriminatory they didn’t even ask my ethnicity until after offering me the job.

[1] for values of ‘always’ in my working life, at least.

Here be dragons!

The dragon in our mythology is characterised by many things.  But perhaps most interesting is that they’ll sit on a hoard of gold, jealously guarding it but gaining no benefit from it.  Tolkien’s Smaug is one of my earliest memories: my parents read me The Hobbit when I was just three[1].  Wagner’s Fafner, even more tellingly, turns himself into a dragon only when he has the ill-gotten hoard and his life turns to the sole task of possessing it.

The housing crash has revealed dragons in our society.  People who might’ve sold their house in a rising market, but resolutely refuse to accept less than some hypothetical peak price when it’s falling.  Fair enough when someone has no reason to move, but as sad as any dragon when they have a good reason to move, and would even be buying in the same market conditions.  For example, the true dragon is revealed in comments like:

Paul’s comment explains why so few decent houses are on the market. I would never accept 25% less than what I know my house is worth in a normal market, so it will stay off the market until it picks up again.

Many such dragons will retreat in the face of reality.  But perhaps not for some time.

[1] They refused to read me Lord of the Rings.  So I had no choice: I had to learn to read.

mod_proxy_html 3.1-dev

I’ve just started hacking a new mod_proxy_html update.

The rationale is that all the internationalisation support in 3.0 should be shared by other filter modules, without having to replicate lots of code.  That’s why I wrote mod_xml2enc, which does a better job of it.

That left me with the job of converting mod_proxy_html to use mod_xml2enc as an inevitable corollary.  That’s what I’ve just started on.  The outcome, when it’s ready, will be a mod_proxy_html 3.1 that’s delegated its i18n support, and is thus quite a bit smaller and simpler than 3.0.

Sometime soon I’ll be packaging these and other modules for Sun’s webstack.

Power consumption trends.

I just looked at my latest electricity bill.  EDF (the supplier) appears to have introduced a usage measure, showing my comparative consumption now vs the last quarter and a year ago:

My electricity consumption

That’s a small reduction, which is entirely explained by the fact that I was away from home for 3 of the 14 weeks covered, as against 1 of (probably) 13 last year. No surprise there: I haven’t changed my lifestyle, and much of my usage is dictated by the fact that I work full-time from home (which means 100+ hours/week of computer time, and corresponding kitchen usage). In other words, no real change.

I don’t know what their units are, but good on EDF for including this information. If it helps some users to “slim”, then it can’t be a bad thing! At least, until it induces complacency. Have other suppliers introduced anything like that?

Wrong question, right answer?

The Irish rejection of the Lisbon treaty is a serious problem for the EU. It should never have happened, on multiple levels, and for different reasons.

First, as I’ve already said, it was a stupid question to hold a referendum on. The vast majority of voters had little clue of what they were voting on. That’s no criticism of the Irish people, it’s the fault of the politicians who put the wrong question to them. In the context of such a question, “no” is indeed the rational answer.

Should there have been ratification of the treaty without any referendum? On the narrow issue of a single treaty, that would have been the most sensible course: we (the countries of the EU) elect governments to represent us, and take decisions on technical matters.

But on the broader issue of the cumulative weight of EU treaties over the 1990s and 2000s, the case is different. Clearly there are aspects of the EU that lack popular support, and if the Irish No vote can deliver a shock to the system where it is needed, that could be a Good Thing, despite leaving us in a deeply unsatisfactory state.

The EU’s problems are, at least in part, not of its own making. There’s a vicious circle around it and some members, notably the UK, tend to criticise its institutional failings but veto any attempt to fix it.

As for what they should do now, I don’t know. I’m no expert in anything relevant. But here are a few thoughts coming from ignorance:

  • The European Parliament is the one government institution with real democratic credentials, and with a track record that looks pretty good compared to national parliaments. It should be in charge of those matters of government that are legitimately the business of the EU (whatever they may be – that’s another question).
  • The Commission is a horribly politicised executive whose legitimacy is highly questionable. It should be replaced by officers appointed by, and accountable to, the elected parliament.
  • The Council of Ministers should be taken out of the EU altogether. Ministers of the different governments involved can meet up as and when they have cause, just as they do with their counterparts outside the EU.
  • As for the presidency, how about calling it a chairmanship? Political roles should come from the elected parliament.

Apache 2.2.9

Just a heads-up to anyone who hasn’t seen it elsewhere. Apache 2.2.9 is now an official release, and should be available from the mirrors by the time you read this, if it isn’t already.

There’s nothing earth-shattering in this release (for most users, at any rate). There’s a security fix for an issue that probably affects noone in real life: a possible DoS attack not from a client, but from a backend server being proxied by apache. There are a number of minor bugfixes and enhancements, documented in the CHANGES file. Users will probably find the biggest difference is some improvement and rationalisation of the configuration. That’ll manifest itself in some irritating niggles going away, rather than in any radical change.

The most serious bug fixed is probably a race condition that could cause segfaults under load in the worker and event MPMs. That, together with the minor bugfixes and configuration improvements make a worthwhile upgrade, but not one of great urgency.

Davis for Freedom!

Shadow home secretary David Davis has resigned, and will fight a by-election.

I’m not sure I agree 100% with the catalyst, which is an incremental change and probably largely symbolic (people will work around whatever the system notionally is). But that’s not really the point. What really matters is our rapid slide towards an Orwellian society – the next generation police state. If Davis is taking a stand on that, then he has my full support.

Davis’s own record is very significant here. He’s no liberal. Quite the opposite: he’s a hard tory from a tough background, commonly spoken of as right-wing, and (under normal circumstances, at least) no friend of the “civil liberties” brigade. So for him to take a stand is really significant[1].

Dear Mr Davis, please use your position and reputation well, to highlight all aspects of the rapid advance of the Thought Police into our lives, as well as the slower and more limited encroachment of more traditional totalitarian measures such as six weeks detention without charge. A platform for someone like Naomi Klein on primetime TV, for instance? OK, I expect that may not be quite your taste, but you get the point.

I fear this is an uphill struggle, and it will take a great national trauma to shock us back into valuing freedom. Pastor Niemoller’s fame was, after all, posthumous.  Nevertheless, kudos to Davis for trying.

[1] I can really see where he’s coming from here, because I’ve taken a similar path myself: I had little time for things done in the name of ‘civil liberties’ or ‘human rights’ until The Liar’s fascist government started to attack our more basic freedoms.

You know it’s summer when …

… the gooseberries appear in one of my regular shops (mmm).

So many delicious summer fruits and berries have artificially-extended seasons that the presence of raspberries and strawberries has become meaningless. Not to mention those that are already in the shops though not yet in season, like blueberries and even blackberries. But the gooseberry season is still genuine, and availability has become woefully intermittent in recent years.

Today I have the first gooseberries of the year, along with other seasonal delicacies. Need some cream to make a fool with them, so I went to Somerfield and bought it, along with a couple of other things. Cash running low, so I ask for cashback, only to find my debitcard declined without explanation. OK, no panic, paid by other means and tried a building society cash machine: also refused.

Good thing it’s lunchtime, then, and the local agency for my bank is open. They tell me the card should’ve been replaced for (nonspecific) security reasons, and I should’ve received a new one back in February. Ahem … noone told me, and my existing card is only one year old and has another two years on it! Anyway, I took out fifty quid cash and they ordered a new card.

So a minor annoyance. But if that had happened when I was away from home (even out of the country), or even just at the wrong time of day/week, it could’ve been seriously annoying. I don’t want to use the creditcard for cash[1], and there are very few people I could borrow from without huge embarrassment even if they happen to be around.

[1] Cash withdrawals by UK debitcard are free, but the same thing with a creditcard incurs high charges.

Inflation!

‘Absolutely horrendous’? Or absolutely predictable?

The first is an economist quoted by the BBC, on the subject of today’s producer price figures – one element in our rising inflation. The second is, well, me (e.g. here, here) and anyone else with basic numeracy.

In basic commodities (though not yet in manufactured goods, thanks to China), we have regression to the mean: the return of something closer to normality after a period in which prices were artificially low. In the case of food and energy, that’s no mere economic cycle but a generational period. As of now, rising food and energy prices are getting the lions share of the blame. International factors make a good scapegoat when the more important factors are what the late Douglas Adams called Somebody Else’s Problem.

But we’re missing the monetarists’ basic lesson. Printing more money doesn’t create more value, and increasing the money supply will fuel inflation, unless there’s something real and new to spend that extra money on. Pouring billions into subsidised housing, Northern Rock, and now the banking system at large, doesn’t create extra value, so it can only fuel inflation.

And then there’s the housing crash, which has finally begun in spite of yet more government money to prop up prices. Real-world interest rates are rising in spite of the Bank of England, and have a long way to go before they re-align with debt levels (after all, it was Gordon Brown paying off the national debt in the Prudence years that enabled rates to come down from double-digits to their boom-years values).

No government dares not bail out their articulate, well-represented middle classes. So there will be more tax, more downward pressure on the pound, and much more inflation, to help shift the great bulk of the burden from the established powerful but over-borrowed to the hapless hard-working.

Here’s an easy solution, if they’d dare be honest about it. Include house prices in inflation figures. That gives a measure of inflation as it affects those of us who are not so rich as to own property. And the good news is that after years of hyperinflation, it’s finally falling!