Monthly Archives: June 2013

Summer Concert

It’s time to blog our forthcoming choral/orchestral concert of Handel, Schubert and Vivaldi.  It’s at the Guildhall, Plymouth, this Sunday June 30th.

The Vivaldi is that Gloria we all know.  The Schubert is his Mass in G, a simple and beautiful work showing the composer’s sunny and tuneful side in all the usual elements of a classical mass.

Handel’s Dixit Dominus is the most substantial of the three, and also the most unusual.  The text is biblical in the un-Bowdlerised[1] tradition, full of (Latin) words like “Thou shalt shatter their heads throughout the world”.  The music is rather more the formal Baroque than the familiar tunefulness of the Messiah and much of Handel’s work.  It’s a little more demanding to sing, and perhaps also to listen to.

Should be a decent concert if you’re in the area.

[1] Or should that be un-Constantine-ised, in that it was Constantine who started romanticising the bible story and introducing the kind of fairytale elements celebrated at Christmas.

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Mailless

OK, mailless is an exaggeration.  But I’ve lost a bunch of email addresses without notice.  And these are the addresses I give to important people like banks, stockbrokers, share registrars and government agencies, as well as companies I do business with online.

This is basically my .co.uk domain. My public email filters spam quite aggressively, and wouldn’t be smart enough to distinguish between my bank or broker and a spammer.  So best to have it reject anything purporting to come from a financial institution, and give real banks/etc a separate unfiltered address as soon as they have a legitimate reason to communicate with me.

The system in place is that I created a new address for each sender.  That way, if spam starts arriving at one address I can painlessly delete that address without affecting anyone else.  Off the top of my head, I’ve had to do that with amazon@ and johnlewis@, as both those retailers started spamming as soon as they had addresses (probably in violation of data protection law, as I certainly didn’t give them permission to spam – I’m meticulous about reading the smallprint and ensuring “no” boxes are ticked while “yes” boxes are unticked, and not confusing the two).

So what’s just happened, and why is it particularly bad?

When I moved house, I contacted my old ISP to tell them I no longer wanted their ADSL service.  I asked about retaining email service (the one that operates these addresses) and they told me they offer that at a cost of £21/year.  That sounded good to me, so I said yes please.  That was May 3rd (when they also charged a termination fee for the ADSL service), and the mail continued to work as expected until this week.

Then on Monday afternoon I got a flurry of messages in my inbox: all my aliases (the actual addresses) and the mailbox had been deleted.  The final one told me my “product change” to their mail service was now complete.  WTF?  I tried to log in, but my username/password no longer worked.  Ouch!

That’s a serious problem.  With most of my correspondents, there’s no easy way to tell them of a change without going through a confirmation, which involves them emailing me at the old address.  And the old addresses are gone, so I can’t do that.  Big hoops to jump through, and each of 30+ organisations will doubtless be different.  Unless I can restore the addresses – either permanently or just for long enough to change them, but that decision can wait.

Worse, mail to those addresses will get returned instantly as undeliverable, causing mail systems to mark the address as invalid.  That’s completely different to a mailserver just being out of service, when the sender’s mail server will queue it (typically for five days, which probably hasn’t been necessary in practice since about 1990) without bothering the sender.  So even if I restore the addresses I may have to jump through some painful hoops to restore communication with some folks.

Especially my new bank, with whom I’m in the process of signing up for online service.  I’ve been trying to explain a couple of serious faults in their website, and now I’ve surely lost all credibility with them 😦

Given the hassle of hijacking so many addresses, my first reaction was to restore them.  So the first thing I did was to ‘phone the ISP and ask them to deal with it.  They admitted to having f***ed up, but all they would do was put my problem in a queue of support requests, to be dealt with in 48 hours!  I explained this was both mission-critical and qualitatively very different from a mere server outage.  But despite admitting fault, the person had no power to prioritise me.

Ouch!

I’m minded to ask for a substantial sum in compensation.  And get a lawyer to repeat my request more forcefully if it’s not forthcoming.

A special case is Apache (ASF) mail, which accounts for the vast majority of the volume of messages through some busy mailinglists, as well as mail to my apache.org address.  I was able to reroute that at some minor inconvenience, but because this hit me without notice, an hour or two’s mail from Monday afternoon will have been lost.

Cui bono?

Cicero may have popularised Cassio’s wise words “to whose benefit?“, but in our cynical times we need to refine the question: to whose expectation of benefit?  Indeed, it seems implausible that the subtle distinction should have been lost on the Romans, but I certainly lack the comprehension of their language that would enable me to judge such nuances.

WordPress records show the above as the first words of a draft saved, but not published, on February 26th 2012, following the death in Syria of distinguished journalist Marie Colvin.  Who could expect to benefit from her death?  Or indeed from the escalation of events both before and since: an incursion at the Turkish border, various massacres.  Most recently the use of sarin gas, coming conveniently shortly after Obama had spoken of chemical weapons as a ‘red line’ that would provoke a change of policy.

The answer must surely be, someone looking to provoke Western intervention.  Someone given hope of powerful backing by western rhetoric, and by events in Libya.  They’ve been disappointed for a long time, but now finally it seems Obama will supply them[1] with weapons.  For anyone else to engage in such gratuitously provocative yet militarily futile acts would be extraordinarily perverse.  Above all, for a government with nothing to gain and everything to lose if the West were to get seriously involved (not to mention a ruthless but quietly efficient president without the vain showmanship of Saddam or Gaddafi).

Nor could you rule out someone with an even more sinister Agenda, like the CIA or Al Qaeda, or one-off maverick nutters, with whom neither ‘side’ would wish to be associated.  The latter can be the ones who have the most devastating effects of all, as in the assassins of  Franz Ferdinand or Yitzhak Rabin.

Can this be lost on our politicians and their advisors?  Seems unlikely.  I suspect much of the current rhetoric is driven by a complex case of good-cop-bad-cop desperately hoping to achieve something.  Those Western politicians who really want military intervention do so for external reasons: to topple a regime with a history of the two great regional crimes of being friendly with Iran and hostile to Israel (even if Israel itself would rather have a devil-you-know relationship with a stable neighbour than a civil war)!

Could a new Western-friendly president in Iran change the situation?  It’s an interesting prospect (and will probably spare Iran the kind of disturbance that followed re-election of the ‘wrong’ man last time), but I fear it’s too late to make much difference.  Events in Syria have momentum.  Likewise in the West: if the more gung-ho of American politicians and their backers rebuffed Khatami[2] in more peaceful times, how likely are they to change now, when it would mean some serious backing down?  But at least Rohani’s probable election could serve to strengthen the hands of those favouring peace in the region including, I think, Obama himself.

Where I think the West must really bear guilt is in provoking the war in the first place.  The ambiguous rhetoric and the Libyan example led rebels to suppose they’d get support if things got bad enough, but also westernised media-savvy Syrian emigrants who “spoke for” the country when it was all starting, spinners of propaganda like the “gay girl“, and doubtless others, all contributed.  The contrast must surely be Bahrain, where a similar uprising was suppressed by a government that was historically more repressive than Syria’s.  The obvious difference is that with no agents provocateurs or prospect of international support, Bahraini protestors cut their losses rather than escalate when the government reacted firmly to them.  Bahrain didn’t get Egyptian-style democracy, but neither did it get the horrors of civil war.

[1] Who “they” may be, and whether there is a faction less guilty than the government to whom the West could supply weapons is an altogether different question.  Not one I could speculate on.
[2] The Iranian president from 1997-2005, who made serious efforts to mend fences with the West but was firmly rebuffed by the US, sending a message that the West wasn’t interested and that a Western-friendly leadership was a waste of time.

New laptop

After 7 years heavy use, my old macbook is showing its age.  The battery has long been knackered: just about adequate to move the machine from one room to another and plug it in to the mains.  The backlight failed last year and needs nursing to keep it working.  And now the battery has reached a point where it powers down if I just accidentally knock the power lead out of place for half a second.

It’s been a good little machine and served its purpose: a laptop with a Unix-family OS and hardware that just worked.  Plus a fantastic display quality that made a desktop substitute of the 13″ screen.  It’s not been trouble-free: I had to replace the disc a while back, but on the whole it’s been great.  But now with two major expensive-to-repair faults, I guess it’s time to look around the market again, and take advantage of other advances, notably further reductions in size and weight since 2006.

I don’t think I’ll go for another Macbook.  My experiences with more recent macbooks have been rather less positive than the old one, while at the same time I’d expect there to be a much wider range of laptops where the more ‘challenging’ things of 2006 – like ACPI and builtin wifi – just work, without hassle.

So what’s a good laptop for Linux[1], or even with Linux preinstalled?  Another 13″ screen will suffice provided the display is of comparable quality to the old Mac, and I’d love it to be genuinely small and light with a good battery life.  That probably implies ‘ultrabook’.  And since I’ll be doing lots of work with the GNU toolchain – which can write hundreds of thousands of tempfiles in a typical build – I can’t alas go for an SSD-only machine.

A bit of preliminary poking around suggests cheapo ultrabooks from Asus or Acer as good candidates with positive experiences from Linux users, and Lenovo and Toshiba as labels to avoid in the ultrabook space.  Comments solicited from readers who know more than I: will a £500-ish ultrabook be a decent working machine, or is it likely to be as shoddy and useless as the Dell I had before the macbook?  Anything in particular to look out for?  Any further suggestions?

[1] Or I’d consider other-*X if someone convinced me it would be hassle-free on an appropriate piece of hardware.