Monthly Archives: December 2009

Interesting Times

2009 is ending.  In some places it’s already 2010; here we have between five and six hours to go.  And we live in interesting times.

Featuring large on the 2010 calendar is our election, and what the new government will do with the economic disaster and the legacy of fiscal incontinence on a mindblowing scale.  The current government is more bankrupt even than the country (and I don’t just mean financially).  The only real alternative – the Tories – don’t look promising.  Neither does the third party, the libdems.  I expect the small parties to benefit, and alas the xenophobic [BN|UKI]P may well outperform the greens among the minor parties, as they’re seen as a more powerful protest vote.

Nationally I have to support the tories, as the best chance to end thirteen years of the most blatently corrupt government in our history (no, this has nothing to do with MPs expenses). Not, I hasten to add, with any enthusiasm: rather with my nose firmly held and screaming “none of the above“, but alas, that’s not an option.

But they’re setting themselves up for a huge fall.  By being far too timid on the economy, they’re walking right into a whirlwind of blame for the coming collapse.  Four years of cold turkey followed by another Labour government is a truly ghastly prospect.  I want to hear a credible plan now!  Don’t pretend it’ll be painless for the majority.  Don’t pretend a bloated NHS can be ringfenced.  Don’t pretend all that debt can be swept under the carpet indefinitely.  Tell us the worst now, so you have a mandate for what you have to do!  Because if you play labour’s game and downplay the problem, you’ll deserve (as well as get) the blame for killing off “the recovery” and plunging us into a deeper recession.

The most interesting prospect I can see to tackle the broken economy is Philip Hammond, though that’s based on very little knowledge.  Perhaps a higher-profile role for him (who needs Osborne?) would be a good start.  Googling him for a link, I see the Adam Smith Institute have another interesting idea.

Bullied by Visa

I’ve banked with Nationwide for over 20 years.  During that time, I’ve been generally well-pleased with the service they offer.  From time to time the ‘industry’ has ganged up to impose new charges on customers: for example, annual charges to hold a creditcard, charges to withdraw money from each other’s cashpoint machines, or charges to use your card outside the UK.  Nationwide has always remained resolutely free of such things.  Furthermore, they don’t seem to cock up, and they’re the biggest UK bank to have escaped the crisis of the last couple of years without having to recapitalise (or much worse).  All in all, a huge relief compared to other banks I’ve used.

So when they messed up yesterday, my first inclination was to blame the merchant I was trying to use (Nokia).  This is part of shopping before VAT rises, and I was ordering some new kit to the value of over £500.  I wanted to query a couple of points, so I placed the order by ‘phone.  There followed an email confirming my order.  Five minutes later another email from billing@nokia:

Your order (No. 900937209) has been cancelled because we were unable to process your payment on the credit card that you provided.  We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. Please visit our online store at http://shop.nokia.co.uk/nokia-uk to replace this order. Prior to re-attempting the order, we recommend that you contact your credit card company.

Sounds like a maxed out creditcard or something?  Nope, it’s about £5000 short of my limit, and is paid in full by direct debit every month.  Thinking the man who took my order might’ve cocked up, I went online and retried.

Same again.

OK, there’s a local Nationwide agency.  Not a full branch, but a little room in an estate agent.  They know me there.  I marched down there intending to give them a hard time until they’d sorted it.

They were closed.  Harumph!

Leaving a message is most likely going to miss the boat for 15% VAT.  Nothing for it, have to use the published ‘phone numbers and hope someone replies.  They did, and they were able to sort it out.  They also told me the Nokia purchase had put a security block on my card, which is what they had to remove!  After that I was able to place the order last night.

But hang on!  This is a purchase of physical goods.  That means there’s a shipping address.  The fact it’s the same as the billing address (which hasn’t changed recently) should be a pretty good indicator that it’s really me, not a fraudster.  What happens next time I need to settle a £500 hotel bill somewhere abroad, and perhaps in a remote timezone when there’s noone there to answer the phone.   Am I at risk of the same thing happening?  What’s the use of a creditcard if I can’t rely on being able to use it?

My strong suspicion is that this is because Nokia isn’t using phished by visa.  To me that’s a plus: I’m placing an order with them, and all is transparent and open (the quirks of Nokia’s system are another story, but no showstopper).  I’m guessing this kind of block might be becoming routine for online retailers who decline to be bullied into it.  Grrr :(

Postscript: as I write, I just had a phone call from the man I originally placed the phone order with, to tell me the order had failed.  Of course I already knew, but it’s good that he took the trouble.

Bah, Humbug.

New toy

I have a new toy: an Acer Revo box, which I’m using as a desktop.  Ideally I’d’ve liked something ARM-powered (for low power consumption), but the Acer has an Atom processor, which seems to be the best available in the real world without having to DIY hardware.

It’s a lovely box: tiny size (smaller than a laptop, due to the latter having a screen), sleek to look at, and blissfully quiet.  And Acer evidently believe in people who dual-boot: the machine was supplied with three disc partitions, of which one was formatted but unused by the inevitable windows installation.  So that’s somewhere to install a real OS without losing the windoze games supplied (I have yet to play them, but …).

I’ve now got around to installing Linux on it.  This required a bit of reading TFM, as it has neither a floppy nor a CDROM drive, so I had to figure out making a bootable installation image on a USB stick.  I selected a kubuntu image, and after some faff with the install (the installer wanted to do something strange with the partitions, so I ran fdisk by hand instead) I have a working kubuntu.  Some more faff getting the display to work correctly (cursing the absence of xorg.conf, and installing a non-free nvidia driver), and it’s up and running.  Wow, it’s been quite a few years since a linux install didn’t “just work” without my having to do anything!

And I´m reminded just how long it is since I used KDE: I’ve run gnome on both linux and solaris variants for some years.  It seems really strange now, and I’m missing gnome’s nice little dock for my favourite apps.  Time will tell if I stick with it or switch!

Bugfix

I just fixed a regression in Apache that invalidated not only the project documentation, but also my long-standing tutorial on reverse proxying.

I don’t know how long it’s been broken: in fact I’ve no certain recollection of testing any 2.2.x version.  But it appears to be connected with the introduction of the proxy balancer, leaving some code ‘orphaned’ for proxies not using the balancer.

Oops!  Guess I should check the cookie stuff for anything similar!

Snow!

After hearing of great disruption due to snow in other parts of the country, we’ve got some today.  Weather warmed up as the snow arrived!  This is a rare thing in England, doubly so in the southwest, so we’re not equipped for it, even a tiny sprinkling like today.

Kiddies of all ages on improvised toboggans on Whitchurch Down.  Cars doing the same where the roads are untreated on a hill, only not intentionally.  I’ve just wimped out of making the journey into Plymouth for a christmas party, but that’s as much an excuse as a genuine inability to travel: I was already in two minds about going, and when I was invited to a meal out locally instead it became a no-brainer.

Joke or in-joke?

My littlebig[1] brother has just blogged about christmas.

Well, not exactly about christmas.  Rather about explaining christmas to his missus, who grew up in a culture that doesn’t have it.  And what he explained wasn’t christmas in general, but christmas day in our family.  Even more particular than that, the circumstances as he describes them can’t’ve existed in full for more than a couple of years, though much of what he describes is perennial.

As ever, his narrative is superb, and in this instance it’s also very funny: I can’t recollect when I last laughed that much!  But a moment’s reflection leads me to wonder: is it objectively that funny, or is it also (or even just) because what he describes is, like an in-joke, something he and I know all about, but the outside world can only infer?

[1] He’s the youngest of the family, but also the tallest.

Convergence?

Convergence between the ‘puter and the mobile ‘phone is coming.  My existing phone (E71) is a step along the way, and arguably skype on the laptop is approaching from the other direction.

Now Nokia have released the N900, and I’m thinking this looks interesting.  Have they bridged the gap to the point of being worth buying as a converged device, or is this still no more than an interesting device that nearly makes it?

On the plus side, it’s a Linux box, with builtin display but also the capability of plugging in to a monitor, keyboard and mouse when at a desk, all in a unit that’ll fit in a pocket, and can be used in a smaller space than a conventional laptop/netbook.  And with a SIM card it offers builtin connectivity.

As against that, it’s on the bulky side for a mobile ‘phone, and lacks the battery life of the E71 or a simpler device.  One wouldn’t want it to replace the phone.

And the crux of the matter: is Maemo really Linux as we know it, or am I going to find it a waste of time to attach that keyboard and monitor and try to use it as a porta-’puter?

I guess a good proxy for that question is, does it run X11 natively / without fuss?  If it does, I think enough follows from that to make it a real ‘puter.  If not, what I want may still be vaporware.

Anyone using the device as I envisage?  Or tried but found it problematic?

How to stifle an economy

Following my little rant on Wednesday, it’s clear vet gets it (albeit with more cynicism than I had intended), but it appears none of the powers-that-be (including the mainstream meeja) have noticed a problem.

So let’s try again.  First, in the current world, with big tax breaks for empty properties:

Entrepreneur: I’d like to rent your business premises. Here’s my business plan: as you can see, it moves into the black in year 3. I’ll be bringing this great new service to the area, and I’ll employ 6 people there.

Landlord: Here’s our price list (it’s only 10% up on last year).

Entrepreneur: There’s no way I can afford that initially. How about a reasonable reduction for those critical first two years?

Landlord: That’s our price. Take it or leave it.

Entrepreneur: But you have a monopoly on business premises, and 30% of the high street is standing empty. Surely it’s in everyone’s interest for me to open shop?

Landlord: Goodbye.

Entrepreneur is unable to open new business.  The area doesn’t get its new service.  Jobs are not created.  High street just falls further into dereliction, as only charity shops (who enjoy good tax breaks of their own) can afford it[1].

Contrast a world where there is no tax break for empty properties.  Now the half-derelict high street is costing the owner real money, so it’s in his interest to come to a compromise with the entrepreneur:

Entrepreneur: I’d like to rent your business premises. Here’s my business plan: as you can see, it moves into the black in year 3. I’ll be bringing this great new service to the area, and I’ll employ 6 people there.

Landlord: Here’s our price list (it’s only 10% up on last year).

Entrepreneur: There’s no way I can afford that initially. How about a reasonable reduction for those critical first two years?

Landlord: We’re not a charity, and we have to consider our investment and overheads!

Entrepreneur: But you have a monopoly on business premises, and 30% of the high street is standing empty. Surely it’s in everyone’s interest for me to open shop?

Landlord: Well, we can’t meet your request in full, but maybe we can meet you halfway for the first two years.  I’ll put it to my board and see what we can do.

Entrepreneur: Thank you.

A better outcome all round, except for landlord who fears lower rents more than empty properties!

p.s. glad to see the chattering classes have picked up on how damaging the employment tax is (maximum marginal tax rate on earned income now rises to 76%[2] from April 2011).  Though it’s the fact that the increase also applies to middle-income people that’s mostly stirred things up: guess that’s where there are more votes.

[1] Nothing wrong with charity shops, but they tend to be remarkably similar to one another, and the demand for what they do is satisfied by one or two – not the ten or twenty we commonly see in a high street today.

[2] If you earn £100k, and get a rise to £101k, government will take £620 of that rise from your paycheck and another £140 employment tax from your employer, for a total of £760.

Turning the season

After the wettest November on record, extended into early December[1], the weather seems finally to have turned.  Yesterday was dry, overnight was colder with fog, and today has been fine: sufficiently so that I never felt the likelihood of getting soaked while out without a waterproof.  Feels like a distant memory when I could last do that, even if in reality it was as recent as late October!

At the same time, it must be the earliest dusk of the year, almost to the day.  That is, astronomically and geographically speaking.  In reality the change in the weather has brought us the opposite: after weeks of dominant gloom with only the occasional bright spell, today brought a brighter note.  Up Whitchurch Down, the dusk was bright and the sky colourful at around 4:30 – just after sunset.  And from now on it’s a gradual improvement in the underlying hours.  It may be the middle of winter, but it suddenly feels better than anything since the thief of time plunged us into gloom in October.  We may have four weeks of humbug still to endure before the season has truly turned, but today is a beginning.

[1] As evidenced by the water levels in our local reservoir, as well as meeja reports.

The most scandalous break of all

Today’s “pre-budget statement” (pre-election statement) brings no big surprises.  Taxes on productive work and employment up, some “stimulus” tax breaks ending.  Huge election bribe for pensioners.  Token attack on banker bonuses.

One announcement stands out as the biggest scandal of all[1].  Tax exemptions for empty business properties to be maintained.  So our property hoarders are to be rewarded, while productive business who might be bringing a product or service and generating jobs can be squeezed out, or forced to pay crippling rents in a rigged market.  That’ll do as much as anything of late to suffocate any prospective recovery in the real economy.

It’s bad enough in a small country where space is always at a premium that there should be no penalties for hoarding property.  But positive rewards for it are an absolute outrage!

There’s a parallel argument regarding tax breaks for empty residential property.  But it’s secondary: residential taxes are much lower, the breaks for empty property are smaller, and there are separate issues with how it is taxed.  On the other hand, there’s still a scandal of rapidly rising numbers of empty homes – and no pressure on their owners – in a country where many struggle to house themselves.

[1] Just in case anyone thinks I have a vested interest, I should perhaps clarify that I am employed by a big company and work from home.  So I’m about as far from being affected by this myself as it’s possible for anyone in the UK to be.

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