Monthly Archives: February 2009

Is gov.uk going open-source?

Via webmink’s blog, I see the UK government is joining the big boys (like Obama and Medvedev) in embracing open-source. Or at least talking of it: you never know with this lot.

Anyway, Tom Watson, an MP with the splendidly Orwellian title of “Minister for Digital Engagement” has published a note on the subject. What’s more, he seems to appreciate some of the real advantages. Take for example:

The licensing policies of software suppliers, particularly where government is not treated as a single entity, and the lack of cost transparency in the supply chain, have created issues in the progress towards greater cost reduction and joining-up of services across government.

    Those bland words look like a massive understatement of one of the fundamental problems of proprietary software. But then, on the next page:

    ensure that systems integrators and proprietary software suppliers demonstrate the same flexibility and ability to re–use their solutions and products as is inherent in open source.

      That sounds like someone who’s been-there-done-that, with a proprietary system that let him down and no way to adapt or fix it. And he knows the solution. References to concepts such as “open source culture” reinforce this impression! At the same time, it’s full of weasel-words for whomsoever may be looking for a get-out.

      The actual policy states an other-things-being-equal preference for open source, and the two clauses dealing with non-open source software suggest an awareness of the dangers of being held to ransom. Well, I guess it’s happened to them often enough! Whether the civil servants responsible for implementation of the policy (IT procurement) have a clue is another matter: the sharp-suited salesmen from the Usual Suspects will no doubt get the training to run rings around them. And budgets for rather more than just a free lunch!

      An enlightened policy like this isn’t on its own a recipe for success. But it’s a very significant forward step from government IT project inevitably being an expensive disaster. And what’s more, shadow chancellor George Osborne recently commissioned a somewhat-similar note, so there’s reason to hope this policy has cross-party support.

      Naming and shaming spammers

      Time to name and shame a couple of should-know-better spammers who have afflicted me recently.

      1. dabs.com. I bought a couple of e-book readers from them, carefully selecting every “don’t spam me” option. Nevertheless, they started sending regular spam. That’s a shame: I’ve had good service from dabs over the years, and I really didn’t want to have to blacklist them.
      2. Google. Specifically, googlemail.com, but that’s google’s mailservers. In this case, it’s not actually them spamming, but they’re just (unexpectedly) one of the clueless admins sending backscatter from a (thankfully, not large) joe-job.

      Bah, Humbug :(

      Sir PTerry

      Congratulations to one of my favourite authors on his nite-hood[1].  Terry Pratchett is certainly a fine author, albeit a lightweight one.  Sir PTerry’s zany nonsense combines very easy reading with some fine commentary and insights on the human condition.  All set in a fantasy world with a delightful logic of its own, in the tradition of Lewis Carroll.

      But can that really justify a knighthood?  Looking at the great majority of our best authors who don’t get one, it could be considered to be stretching a point.  Perhaps his diagnosis with early onset Alzheimers, and decision to go public and use his fame to campaign for it, has something to do with his recognition, too.

      What deserves more recognition?  A fine author, or a tragic hero?  Sir PTerry is undoubtedly both of those.  I’d like to think the former counts for something, but in a society where a sporting medal seems to mean more than a great work of art, I fear the latter may be what really counts.

      [1] © the Fools Guild of Ankh-Morpork.

      Saving tax, the environment, and the economy!

      Traditionally in the UK, one of the biggest aids to starting or growing a business is to own your own house. That’s because in our upside-down economy, you can borrow money on much more favourable terms for an unproductive mortgage than to invest in productive business. So you would use that to finance your startup, or be at a disadvantage.

      With house prices crashing and mortgage lending turned suddenly more cautious, that’s no longer the case.  Indeed, if you want to finance a business, you might (almost) just as well tell the bank manager the truth and present a business plan.  Or maybe not the bank manager at all: there are other sources of funding.  With unfair competition[1] from the banks taking a knock, suddenly there’s a whole new niche for venture capital and other such investors.

      In the UK, that include Venture Capital Trusts (VCTs), which offer significant tax advantages to investors, in return for investing in unlisted smaller businesses.  The tax breaks reflect the fact that they’re traditionally higher-risk than big PLCs, and that they have low liquidity.  But a VCT, like a unit trust, serves to spread the risk.  I decided some time ago to invest some money in VCTs, towards the end of the tax year.

      For those of us who care about “green” issues, a VCT that stands out is Foresight, which specialises in environmental businesses.  I just wrote the cheque to subscribe to their current offer.  That’s three boxes ticked: save tax, save the environment, help small business.  And hopefully a fourth: make good money for me.

      I expect I shall subscribe to one more VCT within the current tax year, but I have yet to decide which amongst those with current offers open.

      [1] Fractional reserve banking – the bank lends money that doesn’t actually exist, on the premise that it comes into existence as repayments are made.  Works until bad money drives out good and it becomes a pyramid.

      Bike as invalid carriage

      A week ago, as I left FOSDEM, I managed to injure my left foot in a stupid accident.  I’ve been limping all week, and in intermittent moderate pain.  This afternoon I was out on the moors, and limping less than before as the foot gradually mends.

      This evening I had arranged to meet friends at a pub.  The pub is about one mile from home, and normally I’d never consider anything other than walking to get there.  But setting out, within a couple of minutes I had quite a lot of pain up the whole left leg.  The idea of walking any further lacked appeal.

      Could I phone my friends and cancel?  They’ll be on the way already, and I’ll need to find a phone number.  Better if I can make it.  So as a second try, I got the bike out, and took it along the main road to avoid any significant uphill.  Result: I was able to pedal with both legs, and no pain at all in the bad foot!

      Well, I’ve heard of the bike as invalid carriage for people who have difficulty walking.  Now, on a very minor scale, I’ve experienced it at first hand!  Just returned home, and the bad foot feels better than it did before I set out.

      Great service, and a new toy

      A couple of weeks back, I lost my phone handset. Treating this as an opportunity, I decided nice-to-haves on a replacement include wifi networking (for VOIP), GPS+maps, and an FM radio receiver. I had already homed in on the Nokia E71 as a nice-looking phone with all those capabilities. But that has one drawback: it’s rather wider than most phones, and thus a little less comfortable to hold (the tradeoff for a QWERTY keyboard). Could I do better?

      I discussed this with a very helpful man at O2 customer support, and ended up with an N78 on a two-week trial. I fairly quickly concluded that the N78′s tiny non-keys and other controls were not something I could live with, but I kept it until my return from FOSDEM rather than travel without anything.

      Yesterday I phoned O2 again, and discussed returning it. I said I’d revert to my original idea of the E71. Customer services were again extremely helpful, and arranged to exchange it, so I wouldn’t have to be without a phone. The courier duly called today, delivered the E71 and took the N78 (which they’ll presumably sell on as “reconditioned”).

      Now that’s what I call service!

      I’m happy to say the E71 is indeed all I’d expected, with none of the annoyances of the N78. It’s not entirely without drawbacks: it’s a little on the heavy side due mostly to a bigger-than-average battery, and the metal case is cold on the hand. But the display and controls are lovely, the operating system works better than the N78 (where the GPS/maps app had a bad habit of forcing me to exit), and I’m looking forward to playing with its more advanced capabilities.

      Glassfish Portfolio

      As of today, we (Sun Glassfish Webstack, hitherto just WebStack) are part of the Sun Glassfish Portfolio. That’s a lot of application server and infrastructure under one roof!

      From a techie point of view, it’s not clear that it’ll make much difference. We’re still different products and different teams, with not too much overlap. But for customers, it’s a one-stop shop for a wide range of needs, and pretty comprehensive in the core area of web applications. Let’s just hope it doesn’t get confusing to the customer who wants [S|L]AMP and no Java, or vice versa!

      I guess it also demonstrates a true heavyweight presence in this space (as if that were needed)! Sun is of course the provider for Glassfish and MySQL (among other things) by virtue of owning them – albeit by acquisition in the latter case. Beyond that, Sun has built a formidable base of expertise in other opensource products in the web application space by hiring key developers in the main projects (yours truly included), so we are in a position to offer both breadth and depth of support to users.

      Final FOSDEM

      OK, highlight of the afternoon seems to have been Neil Williams on emdebian (well, I had to support our local man from the southwest).  Unfortunately it was two talks in one (long) slot, and I had to leave to go elsewhere before the end of the second, the more interesting talk.  Tailored small distros for embedded devices, while maintaining the benefits of debian package and update compatibility and management.

      The talk I had to go on to was caldav: wearing my Apache hat, I thought that could be directly relevant.  Having seen it, I now think that’s unlikely: it was mainly a call to clientside developers – even if I find myself revisiting Apache’s (ugly) mod_dav.

      Finally, closing keynote from Leslie Hawthorn, on Google’s SOC.  She’s an entertainer, as befits someone whose job is program manager for some huge people-focussed thing like SOC.  I’ll stop blogging now, and enjoy :-)

      [update] Quote of the day: Our lawyers are paid to say yes. Just one group she has to work with, alongside geeks, beancounters, security staff (“paid to say no”), … Oh dear, sounds better when she tells it.

      Commonality

      I wouldn’t normally go to a talk on a games engine.  But I have a gap between 2 and 3 in ‘serious’ talks, so I’m back in the lightning talks.  There’s a possibly-interesting one just coming up, on music notation/composition software.

      So Steve Goodwin’s talk on the subject came as a pleasant surprise.  He’s a brilliant and entertaining speaker, and what he had to say was a lesson in Good Practice for most if not all of us involved in software development.  It’s the kind of principles you know at one level, but don’t necessarily always put into practice.

      What really struck me was the strong relevance to my work in web accessibility.  He stressed that in a cross-platform environment, you cannot rely on particular devices, even at the basic level such as graphics or audio.  That’s the same problem we battle with when we ask that websites should work well in a text-only presentation, at least up to the point where the contents themselves are inherently visual, or that they shouldn’t make Granny Arthritic chase a vanishing menu option with a mouse she can’t operate.

      selinux

      Just attended a talk by Ralph Angenendt on selinux.  Most of what he said concerned selinux with apache, and much of it was negative: error messages are unhelpful, it’s under-documented, and he’s not aware of anyone working to make apache selinux-aware.  Furthermore, a lot of selinux policies duplicate the functionality of apache’s own configuration directives: for example, selinux can be used to disable whole features such as userdirs, CGI execution, and SSI.

      Add the fact that the room was horrible, and some idiots were chatting away so I had to strain to hear the speaker, and it was a sadly unproductive talk.  I fear selinux will continue to be seen as the enemy for the forseeable future.

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