Monthly Archives: May 2011

RIP spring

Our once-beautiful tree has been looking dead of late, with no sign of blossom or leaf.  But in the case of a tree whose wood looks healthy, I wouldn’t rule out a return of life in future, perhaps when we get another mild (non-)winter.  I’ve heard the experts on the BBC’s Gardeners Question Time tell of circumstances where an apparently-dead tree can revive.

Today all hope is gone as a gang of men, presumably from the council, have sawn it down.  There was the sound of a chainsaw, and when I walked down into town I saw Paddons Row full of big branches being chopped up and taken away, so I had to divert my route.  All that’s left is a sad stump.

Just a couple of years ago, this tree really was our spring, with its sweet scent of blossom bringing the place to life in February and even late January when all else is dark and drear.  RIP beautiful tree, and our little bit of spring. 😦

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There Was a Child

I wasn’t familiar with Jonathan Dove before today.  But I’m in Brighton for a long weekend, and today I was privileged to see his major work There Was a Child at the dome.  This was the second event I’ve been to in this year’s Brighton Festival, and the first that was worth my time.  It was coupled with Elgar’s Cello Concerto, but you don’t need me to tell you anything about that.  Details here.

There Was a Child is a huge-scale choral-orchestral work, in the tradition of pieces like the Dream of Gerontius or the Sea Symphony.  I’m not sure I’ve seen a new work on quite this scale in my life before today: composers in our time tend to be acutely aware of the practicalities of huge forces, and the barriers they put in the way of performance.  But Dove, having got the commission for this work (to commemorate the life of a young man who died in an accident aged 19), evidently spared no expense in writing for the Very Big League.

So let me put in my little bit of gushing enthusiasm.  Dove is indeed a master of big forces, up there with the best!  I loved seeing this work, and if the chance to perform in it comes my way I won’t hesitate.  Indeed, of the comparisons I suggested, I like it better than Gerontius.  I hope it succeeds in entering the occasional repertoire of those choirs, orchestras and venues big enough to take it on.

Having said that, I should perhaps also add a critical note.  Whilst this is fantastic music to listen to, it’s not pushing any boundaries.  Easy on the ear, and while stimulating, it certainly wasn’t challenging on the mind.  It could almost come from Vaughan Williams’s own pen (or some of his continental contemporaries) in the middle of last century, and you wouldn’t think Britten and Tippett came between.  I sense that modern music revisiting the first half of the last century may be something of a Zeitgeist to which this belongs.  This is a very fine work, but I’d’ve liked to witness something more distinctive to call it unreservedly great.

Do listen to it if you get a chance.  You won’t be disappointed!

House auction

Went to a house auction today.  Only a very small local affair held at the Bedford Hotel, but nevertheless an interesting experience.  One of the lots has been on my radar for a while, and I’d’ve been interested in bidding if I had a regular income stream to support a 50%-or-so mortgage on it.

Since I’m not in a position to bid on the interesting house, I was definitely not bidding.  I took a seat in the back row, leaving most people where I could observe them, but standing behind were not just event staff, but also some punters.  The room was stuffy but otherwise pleasant.  The auctioneer was not using a sound system, and I had to listen up to hear him, but his patter was amusing, engaging and reassuring.  As indeed it jolly well should be from someone in his line of work!

Lot 1: a tiny one-bedroom cottage in a lovely (but impractical for someone needing connectivity[1]) –  location, in need of extensive renovation.  Guide price £65-75k, went for £83k in a fairly lively contest.

Lot 2: a much bigger but ugly house in a nondescript location.  Guide price reduced from £175k in my catalogue to range £150-175k.  Bidding again competitive but looked reluctant: the buyer, an elderly gentleman, looked as if he was letting the auctioneer bully him into his £165k winning bid.  I couldn’t even be sure the previous £164k wasn’t “off the wall” – a thought that crossed my mind again at Lot 6.

Lot 3: a nice but not economically useful plot of land.  Two thirds of an acre, so one would’ve thought very little value without planning permission – which it didn’t have.  And within the National Park.  Plus a clawback if buyer sells at a profit within five years.  Guide price £40-50k seemed horrendous, but it fetched £45k.  Evidently someone has high expectations of getting planning permission!

Lot 4: a pretty decent-looking investment property: a big sea-front house divided into three decent-sized flats.  Guide price £160-180k, reduced from 180-190 in the brochure.  Not much interest, and it went at £160k to someone bidding by ‘phone.  Looked like a bargain to me!

Lot 5: the one I was interested in.  A three-bedroom riverside house, formerly a forge building.  Been a long time on the market but overpriced: in the autumn of 2009 I was thinking “if it comes down within offering distance of £175k before the end of the year (and £175k stamp-duty holiday), I’ll definitely take a look“.  Guide price £180-200k, so finally in the ballpark of my target and looking like a bargain if I’d still been on a mortgageable income.  The auctioneer clearly also considered it the star attraction, and said so.  But he and I were both wrong: there were few bidders, and the £175k best bid failed to secure the house.  Evidently a would-be vendor still deluded after over two years failing to sell.  Land registry shows it last sold at £238k in November 2003 so the owner is taking a hit, but given that they don’t actually live there it’s hard to have any sympathy for a speculator losing out.

Finally Lot 6: a former chapel converted to a home.  Looked interesting, and at a £80-100k guide price I might have contemplated bidding if I’d been happy with the location (Okehampton).  Bidding went up to £104k, and the auctioneer tried very hard to cajole the £103k-bidder at the front into raising to £105k.  But unlike Lot 2, this one wasn’t budging, and it ended without selling.  Could the £104k have been “off the wall” on the assumption of £105k, or was this a less-than-honest would-be vendor so blatantly mismatched guide and reserve prices?

All in all, an interesting experience, and I think I could feel more confident now to bid at a future auction.  Though of course that’s subject to caveats about whether I’d hold my calm under the stress of competitive bidding.

[1] there’s no ‘phone signal, no clarity over ADSL, and in a steep valley where even satellite might fall short.

RIP NHS

For as long as I can remember, the NHS has been a sacred cow for politicians on all sides, and indeed everyone in the chattering classes.  For better or worse, governments have reformed and updated it, their opponents have howled in protest over threats to the NHS, and governments have robustly denied any question of a threat.

But some fundamental principles have remained unquestioned, and tacitly supported by all sides.  The reality may diverge from the principle, but we still all agree that treatment should be according to the patient’s need.  We may moralise over lifestyle and self-inflicted conditions, but we don’t turn them away, unless on the basis that an extreme lifestyle would itself defeat treatment.

Neither do we turn people away because someone else is more important than them!  Getting priority is for private medicine.

Yet now, that principle appears to be suddenly under existential threat.  The threat is as yet hypothetical, but what is staggering is the lack of opposition to it.  Noone has stepped up to defend the NHS!  Where a technical reorganisation is commonly seen as threatening, an existential threat to the fundamental principles isn’t even generating controversy!

The threat is of course the so-called military covenant, on which the government wants to legislate.  One suggestion that has been floated is that military personnel should get priority in the NHS!  Priority for anyone of course implies someone else – perhaps with an identical or worse condition – losing.  The principle of treatment according to need is abandoned.

I’m purposely not commenting on what we should or shouldn’t do for military personnel.  If society thinks they deserve priority medical treatment beyond that afforded by their own facilities, then the obvious solution is to provide private insurance.  Or just expand the scope of the military hospitals.  Crucially, whatever is offered should be within the MoD’s budget, but I guess that’s exactly what they’ll be avoiding if they kill the NHS with this covenant.

What do we do for other public servants who risk Bad Things in the course of their duties?  For example, police, firemen, social workers, or even NHS staff themselves facing violence from Saturday night drunks?  Is this a slippery slope in front of us?

A sad day

Yesterday, that is.

The funeral I spent much of yesterday attending (and singing for) is not something I’m going to share in detail with my blog readers.  A moving ceremony, and a medium-sized church impressively filled with mourners, followed by a wake.

Yesterday’s public event was of course the voting: the election and referendum.  The first was interesting, particularly in Scotland where the SNP – who seek Scottish independence – won an outright majority.  Good for them!  What saddens me there is to see the libdems lose so badly, here (England) and elsewhere.  I’m not a libdem supporter (though I’m with them on some issues), but they surely deserve credit along with the Tories for giving the country a government last year in its hour of need!

The worst result was the referendum.  We were presented with a choice between an utterly indefensible system, and one with the merit of ensuring winning candidates have majority support.  Since I’m not a candidate for election, I can be blunt and say without beating about the bush, the electorate has demonstrated its stupidity.

Sweeny Todd

Had the hair chopped today.  Barber was busy, and my idle curiosity turned to the fate of the vast amounts of hair they must sweep up.  Does it go to any kind of recycling?  Maybe to produce energy, or even compost?  I asked: apparently not.

Does anyone have a process to make constructive use of chopped hair?  If not, why not?

Taking Prophets

Today’s big story: they’ve killed Bin Laden.  Let’s assume for clarity we can take today’s reports at face value.

Conclusion: no great loss to the world.  But perhaps not such good news as everyone seems to believe.  Does he have a following (or potential for one)?

If no, then how is he or his death relevant?   To be the bogeyman he’s set up to be implies he had followers.

If yes, then we have a more interesting and more disturbing scenario.  Because he has all the hallmarks of a true biblical prophet.  Most obviously the prophet Elijah, a similarly absolutist man of God who brought immeasurable suffering on a godless people, incurred the wrath of earthly powers-that-be, and fled into the wilderness.  Indeed, “9/11” looks pretty trivial compared to Elijah’s deeds.

We have a lesson from history there: a charismatic maniac of absolutist views and uncompromisingly extreme violence is the very stuff of which religion is made.  Elijah is an obvious prototype, but we can find many similarly terrible examples amongst biblical prophets and other heroes (the suicide bomber Samson is another fine role model for modern terrorism).

Now they kill him, and dump the body at sea so there’ll be no shrine.  Well, there’s a great biblical precedent for an ignominious death at the hands of one’s enemies.  The man who got crucified wasn’t one of the thoroughly evil prophets (though St Paul, who founded a church in his name, certainly was), but that terrible death just became part of a glorious myth.  Another lesson of history is that a humiliating death makes a powerful story.  And a visit to, for example, Rome’s catacombs, shows the lengths to which adherents of a story will go while they are the world’s repressed underdogs.

Bin Laden acted and looked the part of the true biblical prophet.  To follow him is madness, but at the same time no more irrational than to follow the bible.  If he had a real following, it’s just been handed what could possibly be the strongest stimulus to a single man since Christ’s crucifixion.

I don’t expect him to have a live cult a generation hence.  But I wouldn’t care to bet too much against it, especially after today.

Errata

A reader has pointed out a second serious error in my book.  Unlike the first, this one is obscure: noone in real life would use Digest Authentication for mod_authnz_day where there are no secrets to protect!  But my reader evidently used the code as a template for something and discovered the error.

The error is on Page 195, where apr_md5 is used to compute an MD5 hash. apr_md5 in fact computes a binary digest, which then has to be encoded to the hash we need (as in htdigest).  This is very simply accomplished by using ap_md5 in place of apr_md5 in our code.  I have added it to the book pages errata section, and corrected the code downloadable from there.

Fortunately my correspondent was extremely complimentary about the book in general: evidently it is achieving its purpose of helping a programmer surmount the learning curve to working productively with Apache HTTPD.

He also wondered whether I have any plans for a second edition: a question I have contemplated but not acted on as we approach the release of a new stable 2.4 branch.  Since 2.4 doesn’t actually obsolete 2.2 (or indeed 2.0) programming skills, my feeling is that the book remains valid, and my time would be better spent writing some supplementary standalone articles to deal with what’s changed.  But then, if I do that then it’s a relatively small step to a second edition with additional chapters.  Hmmm ….

Thanks to Brad Goodman for alerting me to the error, and for being so nice about it!