Monthly Archives: February 2010

A Slogan Serves for Some

If the Labour party was one tenth as good with the economy and foreign policy as it is with PR, they’d have my vote.  The new election slogan “A Future fair for All” is genius!

Never mind the grammatical flaw, there’s no ambiguity to the sense of the message. The human mind can construe (and deconstruct) far worse than that.  Most people – your humble scribe no doubt included – routinely perpetrate worse.

The crux of it is: it’s a slogan, it scans, it’s catchy, it trips off the tongue. Transpose “future” and “fair” to fix the grammar, and it becomes aurally inelegant, almost clunky. It’s the poet versus the pedant. Real poets take liberties with the language, too. If you want to deconstruct it, the alliteration puts it in the tradition of Norse heroic poetry (or Wagner in more recent times), while the scansion’s nod to iambic pentameter apes the Bard himself (or Tolkien in more recent times). Spot a pattern there? Evocative of heroic fantasy!

And the real genius: what does not kill me makes me stronger. That heroic-poetic ring is a powerful defence against reason. The resilience of religions and other fantasy show that a sufficiently good story can overwhelm logic and commonsense. An attack based on grammar is pedantic. You don’t even need to reply: the world will laugh the attacker off as a petty bore.  An attack based on ridicule will tend to polarise, between those who already support one side or the other.

That’s not to say it’s invulnerable: I’m sure our comedians will tear it apart mercilessly based on homonyms of “fair”, and perhaps find other angles on it, maybe something like a future fair for all, but fairer for some than for others.  Maybe its political opponents will successfully attack it. But it sets a high hurdle!

Luxury shopping

I’ve just been to Tavistock’s long-anticipated new shop, which opened last Thursday.  After they proactively consulted us ahead of time, I was slightly surprised when the first I knew of it was when I saw customer activity in and around it.

Our new Lidl offers one huge advantage over Morrisons and Somerfield/Coop: peace and quiet (no muzak).  That makes it an altogether more pleasant shopping experience!  To add a further touch of luxury, it offers trolleys that, although they have a lock, keep it out of the way of holding the bar, so they are usable without doing the back in.  Just as well, since they don’t have baskets!  The downside of that is that I left with a heavier load on my back than I’m accustomed to of late.

Lidls offers a fair range of supermarket produce and a few other things.  There’s less choice of many things than in Morrisons or Somerfield, but at the same time there are a few interesting and luxury things.  Combining it with the market and the smaller shops in the town centre should help greatly reduce my use of the unpleasant supermarkets.  Unfortunately it doesn’t replace everything I’m accustomed to getting at Morrisons, and only some of those things can be replaced by DIY.  For example, I can and sometimes do squeeze my own oranges for fresh juice, but I can’t brew my own wide range of good English beers (Lidls had only one brand I would consider worth buying).

All in all, a modest but welcome improvement to my life!

Pint mugs

There’s one drink above all others I drink by the pint: tea.  I think I manage as many pints of tea in a day as I do beer in a week.  At least, when the week doesn’t include pub sessions over and above drinks-after-choir.

Once upon a time, I could buy nice pint-sized tea mugs.  I had four, and used them all regularly.  Now alas I’m down to two, as one of them got lost(!) and another developed a hairline crack and had to go.

But nowadays I can’t find them in the shops!  The only pint mugs in evidence are tall thin ones, that’ll be at high risk of capsizing disastrously if I take them to bed – as I do every day.  The ones I like have a big wide base and are stable and safe in bed (provided I’m alone there)!

The picture contrasts a nice cuppa tea I just made with a couple of mugs and cups of regular sizes.  Anyone know where I can get mugs in something like this size and shape these days?

Pint mug contrasts with normal-size mugs, and an espresso-cup.

I need more pint mugs, but where can I get them?

The power of the uniform

Travel to FOSDEM ran smoothly, with just the one glitch.  But it bothers me, because it shouldn’t have happened.  And if it can happen once, …

The Eurostar arrived back at St Pancras a couple of minutes late, but nothing serious.  If I could get to Paddington in 25 minutes, I could get the 13:06 train; if not I’d have to wait another hour in London.  Not a prospect I was keen on, especially since the sleet was falling (there had been snow crossing Kent).  So I headed straight for the tube.

… where I was refused entry.  My ticket was one issued by Eurostar, from the Eurostar terminal through to Plymouth.  It was in a large size, so I couldn’t just use the automatic entry.  And the dumb woman on the manual entry refused to recognise it!

A moment later, another passenger appears (presumably from the same Eurostar train as me) with a similar ticket.  When she too is refused, she explains that she makes this journey regularly and it’s never a problem (well, why should it be?)  Eventually she convinces the idiot to let her through.  Since my ticket was the same, I assumed she’d now let me through too, but no, “I already told you, you have to go to …” well, I’m not quite sure where, but I think it must’ve been someone’s ticket office.  So that’ll be queue up to be told I have my ticket and I should just go ahead and … be turned back again by the idiot in uniform.

Still trying to convince her, I pointed very clearly to where my ticket said “From  LNDON ESTAR CIV”, and the little cross that denotes that a ticket includes a tube connection.  “So where the hell is LNDON ESTAR CIV if it’s not here?

At this point, I see another London Transport uniform: a little man has appeared alongside the moron.  So I tried showing my ticket to him.  He starts off with “That language you used to my colleague is not acceptable“, to which I agree but point out extreme provocation.  He goes on to say that is assault on a member of staff – I guess that’s his training showing through.  But to his credit, he takes my point, and finally lets me through.

I arrive at Paddington at 13:08 for a 13:06 train.

All of which leads me to wonder, what’s the point of having any ticket at all, if a person in uniform can just arbitrarily refuse it?

And next time I hear some horrifying figure for the number of assaults on London Underground staff, I shall know better than to take it seriously.  I wonder how widely that particular nonsense extends?  Perhaps it’s the norm amongst public-facing organisations, at least in the public sector?

FOSDEM summary

Back from FOSDEM.  I didn’t blog whilst there ‘cos although I’m OK with carrying low-sensitivity passwords (such as my WordPress one) on a mobile device, I had neglected to copy it to the pocket-puter.   Also missing – this time deliberately – the key to decrypt the backup copy available from my webserver.  And finally, a reset seemed OTT for such a brief interruption to blogging.

So what did I get this year?  Socially, I put faces to the names of long-standing online colleagues jMCg and (much more briefly) sjorge, and renewed acquaintance with a few other folks.  Techie-wise, I went to several talks, some of which were discussions in which I participated actively.  Finally jMCg and I met and chatted to Alex and Martin, who I didn’t know previously, but who are developing a really exciting-looking Apache module.

A new theme for me this year was mobile platforms.  I think quite a lot of folks are making that jump around now, as the ‘puter and smaller devices converge.   As I already said, lots of folks this year have foregone the pleasures of a bigger screen and keyboard for the convenience of devices that can be handheld and that run the whole day without having to find a power source.  While there were many different devices in use, the N900 seemed to be possibly the #1 geek gadget ahead of Android: evidently I’m not the only one to see it as the pocket-puter!

An old theme was upstream-vs-downstream, as Gentoo man Petteri Räty gave a session on how to be a good upstream.  Actually he just spoke briefly to bootstrap a discussion (a format well-suited to the subject).   Much of what he said was familiar because where I’ve done the wrong thing in the past, packagers have contacted me to explain how I could improve things.  Speaking as an upstream source for him, I was able to put the complementary view, and add my conclusion that what really matters is good communication.  There was general agreement when I cited Debian vs OpenSSL as exemplifying the perils of failure to communicate.

Alas, I missed the keysigning.  Two reasons: one a clash (to see Andrew Tanenbaum speaking is history in action, and might be a once-in-a-lifetime), the other a muddle (I hadn’t realised I needed to print out the list of keys/attendees myself back home first).  Tanenbaum, who spoke compellingly of the virtues of microkernels, was indeed one of the highlights of the event.

FOSDEM: the tools for the job

FOSDEM is huge and busy.  There’s a bit of a walk from the hotel to the venue.  And it’s only a weekend.

Last year I got some use out of the laptop, but it was also sometimes a liability: for example, when standing up, or when power outlets were scarce.  This year I have the pocket-puter, with sufficient battery life to last the day, and usable while standing.

So I’ll make the latter my primary device.  Question is, can I bring myself to leave the laptop at home this morning, and force myself to use exclusively the new toy?

Oh, and if you’re going to FOSDEM, see you there 🙂


Heard an interesting program on back pain on the beeb[1], featuring some apparently-novel clinic whose mission is to help sufferers cope and alleviate their pain.  Most of what they were doing sounds very familiar from my own experience.  But what they didn’t say was how ignorance amongst non-sufferers can lead to decisions that make things cripplingly much worse than they need be.

I’m interested in this because I have a history of back pain going back to my teens, and the long daily journey on a ghastly school bus.  Maybe it’s because it came upon me so young that I’ve learned to manage it, so that nowadays I rarely suffer anything more than mild discomfort (though I am at risk when my posture is constrained, for example in a theatre seat, or anywhere my legroom is too badly blocked).

But dealing with back pain does have an impact on my lifestyle.  Most importantly, it’s a (maybe even the) major reason why I work from home, having suffered badly in office environments at various times in the past.  It also affects what I can wear (clothes and shoes cannot have tightness or pressure in certain places, and definitely no wristwatch), how and where I can sit or lie, etc.

On the plus side, some things I enjoy doing are positively helpful.  Cycling is great, probably because of the muscles that get exercised.  Carrying the right backpack helps, probably because it holds me to a good posture.  When I worked in an office and suffered serious pain, these were sometimes the only reliefs that kept me going, though at worst even cycling was difficult.

There is a critically important point that the program did not make.  We should have more public information, not just for sufferers themselves, but for people who hold power over them.  The worst possible thing in an office is a bad chair, but almost as bad are most office desks, and above all those marketed as computer desks/workstations.  That’s because they force the legs into unsuitable positions which cause rapid onset of serious pain.  Best is to sit not at a desk but at a table with ample legroom under.

An office manager who insists on furniture conforming to institutional norms can basically drive a back pain sufferer out of a job.  It’s happened to me, and I’m sure I’m not alone!

A lesser gripe is with those supermarkets whose trolleys have a coin-operated lock on the handle.  I can’t push a Morrisons trolley, because the lock forces the right hand into a totally unsuitable place and buggers up my posture.  Since Morrisons[2] is now my only local big shop, this is a real inconvenience.  I’ve tried complaining, but all to no avail: presumably there’s simply no appreciation that it might matter.

In other health news, my tennis elbow has mended to the point where it’s no longer a significant problem, just something I need to be aware of and avoid setting it off again.  But I’m still using a mouse left-handed!

[1] Tuesday, but I fell asleep before blogging it.

[2] When I moved here, it was a Safeways, and the trolleys were not encumbered with those infernal locks.