Monthly Archives: November 2010

Downsizing

Deprived of my 24″ monitor from Sun, last night I pressed my older 19″ monitor back into service.  That gives me a month to live with it and decide whether I feel the need to upgrade back to something bigger before the VAT rise.

The 19″ monitor was originally selected for several attributes:

  • It was one of the cheapest on the market.
  • Its general specs were pretty-much as good as anything at consumer-prices at the time (the main limitation being 1280×1024 resolution, the same as on many 17″ monitors).
  • Its power consumption was one of the lowest available, at about 40W (nowadays it seems I can get 24″ monitors in the same ballpark in the £200-300 range).
  • It has builtin sound, saving desk space.

First impression last night: I rather like being back on the smaller monitor.  The screen is a pleasure to view, and it actually has some significant advantages:

  • An easy-access on/off switch on the front.  The Sun monitor’s front switch left a nasty high-pitched whistle while ‘off’, so in practice I had to use an awkward-to-reach switch behind on the bottom.
  • Those builtin speakers mean I no longer have to faff about to turn on sound, with speakers periodically getting moved around when space is needed.  Though to be fair, going from two to one desktop computer would no doubt have simplified that anyway.

As against that, I realised the pleasure of the display was not entirely for real.  With lots of windows at the same pixel-size as on 24″ 1920×1200, they were oversized and taking most of the screen: the 19″ monitor was acting as a scaled-up version of the 13″ laptop rather than as a bigger display for multiple apps in luxury.  And the worst thing: an inadequate stand, so it has to sit on an ugly pile of fat books, notably an old yellow pages retained for that purpose.

OTOH, I’m comfortable with that laptop display, so why not the same on the desktop?  I guess the answer lies in some of the development work for which I tend to prefer the desktop.

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November – back to normal!

The Big Freeze is all over the news.  Yep, we have frost as early in the season as November!  That’s in contrast to many recent years like 2006/7 or 2007/8.  It’s even a contrast to last winter’s real snow, which came a little later in the season and never quite brought an old-fashioned cold spell.

Is winter reverting to something more like “normal”, when a first frost – indeed a 24-hour frost – would be pretty sure to come sometime in November, and going out on Guy Fawkes Night (November 5th) could get chilly?

In other non-news the season of humbug is upon us and the shops and streets are full of crap.  Brings nostalgia for the Italian winter, when the festive season had the virtue of brevity, so it wasn’t so drained of meaning.

Falling energy bills

The news is full of outrage about rising domestic energy bills.  So by way of contrast, I thought I should mention this morning’s letter from my electricity supplier, EDF.  From next month they’re making a 32% reduction in my monthly direct debit payments.  From above to below what they were last time I blogged on a related subject.

My usage hasn’t changed significantly in all that time.

🙂

FWIW, UK energy charges have been kept artificially low for many years, as policy (and regulators) put cheap supply now ahead of essential investment in future supply, energy security, and cleanup – all areas where we significantly lag much of Europe.  All part of The Liar’s feelgood bubble.  In general terms, I expect prices should be rising.

Virtual Bereavement

With my severance from Sun/Oracle, I have to return to them their computer equipment, including a chunky workstation, and a nice 24″ monitor which I’ll miss.  As part of housekeeping I knew I needed to dispose of sensitive information on the workstation: things like private keys, passwords, etc.

Short of destroying the disc in the fires of Mount Doom, the best I can do is to overwrite everything sensitive, so I hacked up a little utility to overwrite a file, then ran it with find(1) to overwrite a lot of stuff before deleting it.  First, known sensitive stuff like .gnupg and .ssh.  Then my entire home directory, to be sure to catch things like credentials cached by browsers and mailers.  Plus, for good measure, other home directories created for particular apps, and /root.

Then on to /var, and eventually /etc, by which time sensitive data are indeed erased.  And the system is essentially unusable and will have to be reinstalled – which is what I’d expect to happen in any case.  Now I can’t ever log in again, and since I don’t have a root shell open I can’t even shutdown.  So there’s nothing for it but to power down the machine for the last time and feel a mini-bereavement for the loss of a perfectly good system.

Then I realised, with zfs there’s more to do.  I boot earlier opensolaris images, and once again have a working system, albeit without data from my home directory.  Looks like it’s just old incarnations of things under /var that have to be repeatedly deleted before wiping the filesystem.

I just hope someone does use it back at Oracle.  It’s high-quality hardware, and would be a crime to throw away just because it’s been used for a couple of years.

Available

I’m now available for paying work.

Since February 2008 when I was hired by Sun I’ve been out of circulation, and had to turn down occasional prospective clients.  I’ve always done my best to offer alternative suggestions, and in one case I was able to do the work because the Client was also a regular Sun (and Oracle) client and was able get me through their regular contact after I explained.  But in general I’ve been out of circulation, except for my presence on public/free fora.

As from now I’m free again, and soliciting calls from anyone who needs my skills and has a budget for them.  Hello, World!

Autumn fun concert

A week today (or rather yesterday, looking at the clock – Sunday 28th to be clear), we’re performing an autumn concert at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  I understand tickets have sold well and they may no longer be easy to find, but if you can get one it should be fun.

On the programme are two medium-sized works.  Rutter’s Magnificat is light, tuneful, very bubbly, yet good music and with a deeper, darker side: a Schubert for our times, though obviously a lot more modern, and quite a bit more challenging to perform.

Then the big crowd-puller: Orff’s Carmina Burana should need no introduction: no matter if you’re completely unmusical, you’re sure to have encountered something from it somewhere in an advert, soundtrack, sound effect, or something.  A very big and very distinctive sound, a collection of extremely bawdy mediæval poems that’d get us onto the sex offenders register if performed in English, and lots of fun.  It’s many years since I last sung in it, but I still have fond memories of my first time as a young student, when I was just discovering some of the concepts in it with a soprano from the same choir. 😉

We never had it so good!

Today’s news: Lord Young quits over ill-advised remarks.  Nothing too serious, just the suggestion that he might be out of touch with reality.  The prime minister’s failure to back him over such a small matter could be seen as casting a biblical first stone.

Lord Young is reported as saying most Brits never had it so good as during the recession.  He seems to have been talking about money and what it can buy, so I’ll do the same.

Is he right?  Unlikely.  But does he have a point?  I think he does.  He referred specifically to mortgage holders, and it’s true that zero interest rates and money printing have been a huge gift to them.  Though unemployment has risen (and underemployment probably more so), the vast majority still have jobs, and those with mortgages have been handed a windfall.  Indeed, with government help for mortgage holders set at a much higher level than interest rates, one could argue there has never been a better time to lose your job.

What about those of us without a mortgage?  They’ve robbed our future to hand out this largesse, they’ve devalued our currency (and hence our earnings and savings), they’ve raised our taxes.  But in an era of both essentials (except housing) and consumer goods at near-zero cost, falling house prices leave us better off too – except those who own outright and therefore have everything short of Larry Ellison’s yacht.  Where’s the downside?

Maybe a student running up unavoidable debts could point to a downside.  They’ve gained nothing from gifts to mortgage holders.  Neither are they in the market for cheaper houses.  Only the future affects them, and it’s a future of devalued earnings and higher taxes compared to … well, compared to what?  Actually compared to the bubble they’re not so badly-off either, because they too stand to benefit from lower house prices sometime in future.

Therein of course lies the answer.  Compared to the bubble we are indeed better-off.  Compared to pre-bubble times, or even the relatively-harmless dotcom bubble and bust, we’re ****ed.  The bubble has damaged us (nearly) all as our resources were misdirected into unproductive speculation.  Not only our wealth, but future wealth and imaginary wealth borrowed into existence, eventually busting the banks.  That, not the money-printing that followed, is what destroyed our incomes and savings.  A classic case of bad money driving out good.

When did we have it better?  Maybe the mid to late ’90s to the turn of this century, when only slightly more expensive essentials and consumer goods were offset by cheaper houses?  As against that, we’re better off for modern LCD displays saving the eyes, mobile connectivity, e-readers that give everyone the chance to own a library, a host of gadgets.  Yes, Lord Young has a point even there.

The only thing that’s not in doubt is that we would be better off now if we’d never had the bubble.  Never as a society lived beyond our means, and handed our wealth to a new generation of spivs.

Taking on the rich and powerful

It’s too early to tell whether they’ll have any success where previous governments have failed.  But the current government’s announcements have once again impressed me.  They’re taking on some of our richest and most powerful lobbies.  More specifically, those who enrich themselves at great cost to the taxpayer and society.  What’s more, they’re tackling sacred cows: money gifted to the parasitic rich in the name of good causes – “the poor”, and “access to justice”.

First came landlords, with the announcement that housing benefit will no longer rise without limit.  This is a huge benefit to society at large.  Most obviously the genuinely poor who are stuck with having to pay artificially inflated rents and who cannot reasonably compete with housing benefit in the market.  But also first-time housebuyers who will in future face a little less competition from property pimps propped up by the public purse.

As against that, benefits reform looks far too limited.  The principle that work should pay is good, so why will the lowest-paid still lose (apparently) 65% of their earnings through loss of benefit?  Admittedly it’s a big improvement on what happened to me in 2003 when my effective tax rate compared to benefits was close to 300%[1], but it’s still hardly a great incentive to work.

This week they’ve impressed again, taking on an even more sacred cow, the bloated legal profession and the spiraling burden of legal aid.  This is a more ‘respectable’ and long-established class than landlords (the old aristocracy being now secondary to a nouveau-riche spiv class in the open market), and if the government can tackle their taxpayer-trough I’ll be all the more impressed.  Though having said that, if they really valued justice over ritual they’d disband the entire court system as we know it, and dispense entirely with the grossly overpaid adversarial advocates in its replacement.

At the same time, some of the government’s plans are alarming.  I find the rising cost of higher education deeply disturbing.  Not just because of the conflicting signals being sent to our young people and the terrible burden of debt for some, but also because the complexity of the new terms surrounding student finance look nightmareish (up with the worst of ex-chancellor Brown’s creations), full of perverse incentives, and designed to put social engineering ahead of academic excellence.  Ugh.

[1] That’s due to cascading benefits.  Earn £60/week, and lose not only income support (about £54/week), but also a host of other benefits given to those on income support – most notably ~£100/week in housing and council tax benefit.

Lest we remember

11th November is “remembrance day”, when we commemorate the 1918 armistice with plastic poppies, symbolising the Flanders fields where so many young men fought and died in unspeakable conditions.

In the past I’ve not just worn a poppy, I’ve even helped sell them and raise money.  In more recent years they’ve come into disrepute with the appropriation of remembrance by Blair’s warmongers, so I would feel unclean touching them or participating in the event.

This year, we should also have belatedly dropped the pretence of supporting the veterans of the Great War.  Since the death of Harry Patch[1] in 2009, there are no such veterans to support.  The Great War is now history, just as the Roman campaigns or the Napoleonic wars (to take just two examples) are.  The plastic poppy should be relegated to the museum.

Lest we forget may be a fine sentiment.  Until you give it a moment of thought, and look at the history of not forgetting.  Blair’s Britain has glorified war to a level not seen since before 1914, and treats the memory of past wars – particularly 1939-45 – as an absolute excuse to behave like James Hogg’s Justified Sinner around the world.  Much better we do forget.

[1] A man to be admired for his robust refusal to allow his status as the last survivor to have fought in the Great War be appropriated by today’s warmongers.

Phishing gets more focussed

It’s a story that’s well-known in net-savvy circles, but a couple of recent personal experiences bring home how phishers are changing.

First story – on the phone.  I’ve had a spate of “sell the business” and “reduce my bills” calls.  Among them, one from a caller identifying himself as from my provider, O2.  He’d done his homework, knew my name and my company, and was an English voice, not an obvious Indian call-centre (which might, ironically, have made more sense if it really had been my provider).  Everything to put me at my ease.

He didn’t start with the ritual of security questions: that would of course alienate the mug on the other end of the line, not to mention raise who are you concerns.  Instead, he wanted to talk about whether I might qualify for a new “free” handset, and reducing my bills.  He asked about my existing handset (answer: how is that relevant?) and on the subject of bills said “you’re paying about £x-£y/month now, right?” (wrong, by an order of magnitude).  OK, you’re plausible, but if you were really from O2 you’d have access to your customer’s details and not have to ask!

After that one I tried calling O2 to confirm it really wasn’t them being daft.  The automated introductory message reminded me what security questions I’d need to answer.  Damn, I don’t have that information to hand, can’t even ask them the question!  Never mind, I went through my options in detail less than a year ago when I got connectivity for the pocket-‘puter, and I’m not looking for a change.

The second story came in a ‘phone call from my mother earlier this week, and served to remind me that not everyone finds it as easy to dismiss them as I do.  She had email about her bill from mybebook.com, and wondered about clicking the link.  OK, that’s an old-fashioned phish, but coming “from” a minority site that she has bought from (though not recently) gives it extra credibility over the one “from” amazon or ebay.  Or indeed “from” tesco or waitrose.  I suggested she hover the mouse over the link to see where it really leads.  Turned out to be some .exe on an unknown site.  Just as well she’s not a complete mug 😉  Googling mybebook.com finds a thread about the phish, and the site itself has posted a warning!  Having reassured herself about deleting that email, she then contrasted it with a legitimate email from John Lewis about an actual recent purchase: the invoice was in the mail itself, with nothing to click.