Monthly Archives: May 2009

What’s in the next mobile PC?

In the mid-1990s, the laptop started to become the desktop-replacement: big and heavy, but becoming much easier to use than earlier laptops. Users valued them – particularly the nice big screens – and big laptops became the norm. Smaller beasts such as my 13″ MacBook (which would’ve been big in 1995) are unusual.

That left the demand for smaller laptops, like my 10″ machine from about ’93/’94, largely unsatisfied. So when the Asus Eee PC came out, it had a ready market, and spawned a new generation of mini-laptops. But today’s netbooks are no more than that: an updated generation of small laptops without major innovation.

Innovation has come elsewhere. Lots of it in smartphones, and more recently in e-book readers. But while useful, neither of these is a candidate to substitute for the macbook.

So what small/mobile computer would I buy? Top of the list on the market today is the Nokia N810 tablet, which is not too much smaller than the eee but an order of magnitude more portable. But a slightly bigger screen would be better still, and isn’t it time e-ink entered the mainstream?

Here’s a startingpoint shopping list for the device I’d like:

  • ARM processor. Anything from Intel implies such a huge weight of battery.
  • Solid-state storage. Surely we can dispense with moving parts, and save bulk/weight at the same time?
  • E-ink screen. I don’t care if it’s less pretty than the mac, too slow for videos and gaming, and even if it’s greyscale-only. But I do want low power consumption, and a screen I can read in full daylight would be a huge advantage.
  • Linux (or other *X) OS, so I have freedom over what I can run on it.

Apart from that a few more good-to-haves are builtin e-book support, applications like GPS and FM radio, and regular connectivity including USB, Wifi, SIP telephony, and GSM/mobile broadband phone support. And a solar power supply would be great! But some of these eat battery and/or space, and the ideal system is perhaps something modular where these can be slotted in.

So who’s going to be first to market with a device for me?

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Kleptocratic rule

I see little point in repeating here what the mainstream media are telling us daily, so I’ve not hitherto commented on MPs expenses.  But a couple of extremely important points seem to have escaped the mainstream discussion.  One is economic and has a bearing on the current crisis.  The other is political, and goes back centuries, demonstrating the institutional contempt our parliament has for the idea that MPs represent their constituents.

To start with the economic one: MPs are supposed to declare their interests, and may be required to take steps to avoid conflicts of interest.  For example, a minister trading in shares of companies likely to be affected by his/her decisions would be a clear conflict of interest.  I’m not sure how far the rules go, but you get the point.  Yet the parliamentary allowances encourages members to buy property at the taxpayer’s expense.  It appears unsurprisingly to have turned a majority of MPs into property speculators, with a vested interest in ever-rising house prices.  No wonder they cheered the bubble on, right to the point where it busted the banks!

The more fundamental point is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the story of Andrew Mackay and Julie Kirkbride.  The two are married to each other and have a family, so one might suppose they live together whilst not at work.  But he is MP for Bracknell, whereas she is MP for Bromsgrove.  That’s two towns in altogether different parts of the country: only in the alphabet are they neighbours!  We can infer that at least one (probably both) of them doesn’t live in or even near their constituency, and has no day-to-day contact with the people he/she purports to represent.  Yet nobody in the mainstream media or political establishment sees that as anything out of the ordinary.  Only their expenses have attracted outrage!

To my mind, anyone purporting to represent a constituency should, at the very least, live there.  How else can they expect to get a true feeling for the day-to-day concerns of people there, and represent them?  This implies that expenses for a second home should only ever be applicable to the MP spending time in London to attend Parliament: expenses for homes elsewhere are pure travesty.  Yet the system holds non-Londoners in such contempt that our so-called representatives are not merely expected but required to live primarily in a distant city, whose interests and concerns are often altogether different to ours.

My first reform would be to hook MPs up to conduct normal parliamentary duries, such as attending debates, from an office in their constituencies.  Business travel to London, as to other destinations, will of course be required a few times a year, but should be the exception rather than the rule.  Normal hotel expenses, whether receipted or per diem, would then be appropriate for their time in London, and we (taxpayers) could save maybe 70-80% of the second-homes money while still paying them an ample £200/day.

Oh, and in a mild told-you-so vein, I should perhaps point to the second paragraph of my article from 16 months ago.

Summer fruits!

Today I’ve spotted the first more-or-less ripe summer fruits of the season: wild strawberries, up on the viaduct!

Unfortunately there aren’t enough to be worth collecting to bring home. And they’re at a level to be sprayed by the many passing dogs. It’ll still be the best part of three months before the blackberries bring an abundance of goodness up there. But I expect the shops will very soon be carrying a seasonal abundance of delicious things that are fresh and local: we’re already getting summer fruit from Spain rather than shipped right round the world.

Hurdles to discussion

+1 to Ortwin Glück!

The greatest virtue of blogs is their support for discussion.  Putting silly barriers in the way of comments is counterproductive.

But Ortwin overlooks the worst case.  Sure, jumping through hoops is annoying.  But what’s altogether worse is sites that appear to accept comments, but when you’ve put the effort in require you to jump through hoops by stealth.  Worst: those whose hoops are insurmountable: one of those eye tests (aka captchas) which my client may not even display, or which I may be unable to solve.  Or blogs using blogger that expect you to send OpenID credentials, then throw up an error message when you do so.

For the record, no, this is not finger-pointing.  I made no attempt to comment on Ortwin’s blog.  Had I done so, I’m sure it would’ve been published with no problems.

Samson

Parliament got the speaker it deserved, and turned on him when the going got tough.

As the news breaks of speaker Martin’s resignation, let us think on the biblical suicide bomber Samson, and wonder how much of that rotten temple can now fall along with Mr Martin.

I fear further disappointment.  But we have at least a hint of interesting times.

Tax Office Misinformation

Having made some efforts last year to keep my tax liability down, I submitted my tax return (online) on May 6th. And recollecting last year, when nothing happened after submitting it until I returned to the system and asked for a rebate, this time I tried to ask for it straight away.

At first, it told me there was no rebate. OK, I guess it wasn’t yet in the relevant part of the system, a theory supported by its absence from the historical list of my tax returns. So I asked about it using their “ask us a question” form, which promises a reply within 48 hours.

After a couple of returns to the HMRC site, it appeared in the historical list earlier this week, and was also showing a refund had been sent on May 6th (the day I submitted). Great! So it’ll be in the bank account sometime this week, right?

Nope, no sign of it, nor any reply to my message a full week after the 48 hours. So today I tried phoning them. Was rather hoarse with a mild lurgy, but wanted to find out what was going on, and dreading what might happen if they insisted they’d paid it – as stated – on May 6th.

After spending a long time going through a menu of options with a long pause at each option, I eventually spoke to a lady. A barrage of security questions later – anyone listening in is now fully equipped to impersonate me – and she looked up my details. Apparently it’s been selected for some kind of security investigation, whatever that may mean. OK, kind-of nice to hear some kind of checks exist (at least for those of us who are neither bankers nor MPs), but I can’t see how they’d check up on most of it without asking me, which they haven’t done.

But this is where it starts to feel Kafkaesque. Could she give me any kind of ballpark figure for how long I can expect to wait? Nope, she stonewalled with a most infuriatingly meaningless when it’s issued. I tried different units – days? weeks? months? Within your or my lifetime? – but she was absolutely not going to be any more specific. And when confronted with why the website had told me wrongly that the rebate had been sent, and why they never replied to my message, she pleaded ignorance. OK that last one is credible, but infuriating when you’re talking to what is supposed to be the contact for it.

I did just get one piece of information from her: a (postal) address for complaints. That came only after I’d assured her my complaint wasn’t about her personally, and that I wasn’t going to ask her name.

OK, I can take the delay: it’s annoying, but that’s life. But I really do get seriously pissed off at the misinformation and stonewalling. The bloody system shouldn’t tell me it’s been paid when it hasn’t, and they should answer questions within the promised 48 hours.

Grrrrrr …..

On a philosophical note, I regard it as my strong duty to humanity and to my country to ensure my money goes to better places than HM treasury.

NHS Dentist

I last went to the dentist in 2002, when I was eligible for free treatment.  Since then I’ve been in what is probably the default state for Brits of working age: I’d go if I could get an NHS dentist.

There’s now one operating just a few minutes walk from home.  A year or two ago I tried to register, but was presented with a nightmare of red tape including having to contact a national phone number and get allocated something pseudo-random by the relevant secretariat, so I gave up the idea.  But a few weeks ago I bumped into John, who told me he’d just signed up and the process was painless.  So I tried again, and this time the process was indeed painless.

Today I went for my checkup.  It was a little less than luxurious, with a slightly-cramped waiting area, and running 10 minutes late.  But the dentist himself seemed just fine (not that my mouth presents the kind of challenge that would sort the sheep from the goats).  Happy to go back to him in future.

One difference to what I’ve experienced in the past: whereas he did scrape some tartar, he made no attempt to polish the general tea-staining from my teeth (I didn’t ask for it, but dentists in the past have done it “by default”).  He explained that the NHS makes a clear distinction between medical and cosmetic treatment.  Tea stains fall into the latter category, so I’d have to pay separately for that.

At £16.50 for a minimal (standard-fee) checkup, I wonder to what extent the NHS really is cheaper than going private?  Sure I’d’ve paid more, but if I’d wanted the basic polishing I expect that’d’ve been included in a single charge rather than an extra thirty-something quid.

1000 times more damage than Hitler could do

1942-1945: Operation Bernhard seeks to undermine the UK economy.

2009: Bank of England does likewise, but with 1000 times more money.  And that’s just a couple of months: how far will they go with another year before an election?

Of course that figure of 1000 times neglects the devaluation of money in the meantime, and therefore grossly exaggerates the difference.  But there’s a serious point: Germans in the 1940s remembered the devastation that printing money had brought to the Weimar Republic.  In more recent times we’ve seen it only from afar, in Zimbabwe.  While the Irish government pulled back from the brink with an austerity budget, we’re just plunging headlong forward from our budget for denial.

The irony now is that this is really no more (or little more) than a partial acknowledgement of inflation that has already happened.  The inflation took the form of banks printing money in the form of mortgages, driving up property prices and transferring massive wealth from the highly-taxed productive economy to rich and low-taxed property owners.

Oh lookee, is it time to start saying I told you so?

Recycling confusion

I regularly go to our nearest recycling centre with glass, plastics and metals. That is to say, mostly bottles and cans, which are well catered-for.

A little further away (at Morrisons) is a bigger recycling centre that accepts a lot more stuff. Today I packed up a big pile of old clothes and took them there. The condition of the clothes ranged from very tatty (well-worn) through to wearable for someone with the waistline I had 20 years ago.

Approaching the clothing receptacle, I saw it asked for good quality clothes! Does that mean it’s expecting them to be re-used as-is? That would put them in direct competition with the charity shops, begging the questions what’s the point? and the more pressing if not here, where do I go to recycle clothing materials?

As it happened, there was a man with a lorry loading/unloading bottle banks. Perhaps he’d know where the stuff goes and what they can really use? I asked, and he didn’t know, but suggested I put everything in anyway and leave it to “them” on the other end to sort through what they can use. So I did that, but I’d like to know for future reference what they do with recycled stuff beyond bottles, cans and papers.

Timeout connecting to localhost

Some of my mailinglists have been remarkably quiet of late.  And some specific mail I’ve been expecting has … also gone quiet.

That’s the kind of thing you furrow your brow at first time, and get increasingly concerned if it persists.  Today I reached a critical point: chased down the problem and sorted it.

Background: I run an IMAP server that manages most of my mail.  It’s on the server that receives mail for my most widely-used address, and it collects mail from from other servers with a cron job running fetchmail.  One of those servers is apache’s minotaur (people.apache.org), which collects all mail addressed to my @apache.org address.  And that had stopped working.  Not just an occasional failure (that’s usual), but persistently over several days.

I had already logged in to minotaur, and with a local mailer (alpine) verified that mail was arriving for that address.  So it’s the fetchmail that was failing.  I logged into the imap server, and tried running fetchmail from the commandline.  It timed out trying to connect to minotaur.

OK, that’s a POP3 connection tunneled over ssh.  What happens if I log in to minotaur and try to connect to POP3 directly from there?

minotaur% telnet localhost pop3
Trying ::1...
telnet: connect to address ::1: Operation timed out
Trying 127.0.0.1...
Connected to localhost.apache.org.

Right.  It’s trying an IPv6 connection.  But there’s none to be had, and evidently no TCP response.  So it’s timing out like a sticky firewall.  It stuck on “Trying ::1…” for a very long time – enough for fetchmail to time out.

Solution: change “localhost” to “127.0.0.1” in my .fetchmailrc.  Now to wade through all that newly-collected mail 😦