Author Archives: niq
Today’s obituary: Denis Norden. A name that hasn’t been heard so much of late, but was big in my formative years as half of a comic duo, Muir and Norden. Although their main works were before my time, the pair were, to my schoolboy self, the Grand Old Men of (light) entertainment on the radio. The quiz/chat show “My Word” (and to some extent its lesser twin “My Music“) – in which the two were lead panelists – was something my parents would have on around teatime, and that I enjoyed too. Light entertainment with wit and erudition.
It was My Word more than anything else that first got me hooked on speech radio. Maybe indeed radio in general: I don’t have a clear memory of what came first between that and starting to listen to broadcast music. I *think* My Word came first, some years before I had my own radio on which I could listen to music.
In recent times (hmm, in fact probably most if not all my adult life) I’ve most often thought of Muir&Norden when the BBC give us mindless and ugly drivel in the name of attracting a younger audience. The underlying assumption seems to be that young implies mindless, and it’s one of the things that makes me want to shout at the radio: no, you attract young people by putting on good shows – like Muir&Norden did, and like some of today’s entertainers do. And you accept that young people may naturally listen to less radio than old codgers not because they want to be treated as morons but because they have busy and active lives.
RIP one of the last surviving public figures to have influenced my schooldays.
How does a lapsed mathematician describe crowds on a beach? I shall come to the pseudo-mathematical observation in due course, but first a little recollection and rant.
I’ve just been visiting my dad. He’s in Brighton (or Hove, if you’re local enough to the area to have heard of it). That’s the south coast of England, directly south from London. Though he’s several blocks back from the sea front, it’s an easy walk to the beach.
Like the rest of Blighty, it was hot, dry and sunny. It has been like that almost uninterrupted since about early May, which makes this an exceptional summer (our weather -in all seasons – is normally much more mixed). I took advantage of that to go down to the beach for a swim every day: Brighton and Hove have a huge amount of public beach, endowed by nature with benign conditions, meaning no natural hazards unless you count the power of the waves breaking in rough weather.
I tend to prefer it a little cloudier, cooler, wetter, as that’ll leave the beach a little less busy. But this time I was pleasantly surprised: only on the Sunday was it truly ghastly. I guess there’s been so much high-summer weather the novelty’s worn off. So all in all, the most pleasurable week of beach I’ve had in a long time. But I was struck by two rather gratuitously restrictive (and widely ignored) notices on the wide paved promenade:
- No cycling
- Keep dogs on leads
Now I was there with neither bike nor dog, so have no axe to grind. Nevertheless I find those notices stupid and mildly annoying in such a huge wide open space. So I took it upon myself to make a mental note of such real nuisances as I encountered to blight my time there. Let’s see where bikes and dogs figure in such a list. In order of nuisance (with the first two overwhelmingly the Big Ones):
Far and away the biggest nuisance was the barbecues. The pervasive miasma of thick, greasy smoke blights a huge area: not just the beach but also the promenade, and including the main road where it competes with the fumes of heavy traffic. There are “no barbecues” notices on some sections of beach, but that’s about as effective as 1980s trains that had “no smoking” in half a carriage while the other half was full of smokers.
The other nuisance to blight an area well beyond the perpetrator, though far less than a barbecue. Come to think of it, the worst instance was a car radio. It was parked with the occupants inside, with a thumping bass audible from a lot further away than the car could be seen. But that was a one-off.
There were relatively few smokers, and subjectively seemed to be divided 50/50 between the twin nasties of tobacco and pot. This was, however, a very minor nuisance: only on the last day was the weather such as to allow the stench to blight a slightly wider area, so that I’d be suffering it for more than a couple of seconds.
Not dogs – on or off the lead. Nor humans. But dog leads are a bit of a hazard. And on the last day there were some characters out there with the more insidious hazard: the stealth tripwire – aka fishing line.
- Beach Patrol
Two guys on annoying “quad bikes”, trailing noise, fumes, and ugly tracks on the beach. Surely if there’s a beach patrol and it needs more mobility than a pair of legs, they should have honest bikes. With MTB wheels for the beach.
Not much litter: there seem to be folks cleaning the beach. But still annoying when something like a crisp packet did appear. Ditto some other things like the smell of suncream on some people.
As you can tell, we’re running into the realms of the utterly non-serious here, so let’s have a final entry that could easily have appeared higher up:
- Transport and Toys
There were lots of cyclists, and lots of boats. That is, inoffensive boats like rowing boats, canoes, and various boards. Over eight days, the total annoyance amounted to no more than two cyclists (one looking at his phone not where he was going, the other just inconsiderate) and one boat I had to evade. In other words, a huge majority were entirely considerate and well-behaved.
So it seems those prohibited things really don’t make it onto the scale of nuisance at all. How depressing that someone’s priorities are so desperately warped.
OK, enough rant. I’m supposed to have an insightful observation, right. OK, here goes.
A bathing beach is saturated if the crowd is such that both
(a) Open-ish spaces are sufficiently limited that you actively look for the best available.
(b) As you approach your best-available space, someone else gets there first, having had the same idea ahead of you.
The measure of saturation is how many times you repeat step (b).
Happy to say it was surprisingly non-saturated over this past week.
Apache APR is a stable project. Development activity tends to be incremental, and low-volume.
Today we have what is probably our biggest change for years: a new apr_json module to parse and produce JSON. This was developed as a third-party project by Moriyoshi Koizumi, who has now formally donated it to the APR project. Thanks to Moriyoshi and to Graham Leggett from the APR core team for bringing it to Apache.
With a bit of luck, this might motivate us to work towards a new APR-1.7 release in the next few months. I shall endeavour to get my own fat arse into gear and backport my XML (libxml2 and build) work of some time ago from trunk, as well as do my bit in working towards a release.
 For values of “few” that tend to grow.
Our next concert is a week tomorrow: Sunday July 1st at the Guildhall, Plymouth. This concert presents three works, all of them new to me and one of them to all of us. Overall an exciting programme of some lovely works, and firmly recommended to those readers within evening-out distance of Plymouth.
The least-novel and least-exciting work is Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise. This is in a similar idiom to his much more famous oratorio Elijah, though less bloodthirsty (and less of an actual story). The music is similarly lovely, and if you enjoy Elijah you’ll like this. However, it’s not so well-written for singers, and is physically exhausting.
Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, Coleridge-Taylor’s setting of Longfellow’s epic poem, is a middling-level bucket-list work for me to sing in, and I’m thrilled to be doing it now. This is a long poem in trochaic tetrameter, which has always seemed to me fiendishly difficult to set to music. And though you couldn’t call the Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s 9th symphony boring, it is undoubtedly very four-square, pushed into that mould by the shoehorn of a rhythmically-similar but much shorter poem. Yet there’s no hint of that in this piece: it flows effortlessly. That Coleridge-Taylor’s creative imagination with such a rhythm outshines mine is of course unremarkable, but that he should do the same to Beethoven is indeed impressive!
Tonally it’s also interesting. Premiered in 1898, it’s on the cusp of the 20th century. There’s no hint of C20 dissonance, but the tonality is constantly on the move, and seems to me to carry hints of what was to come, both in the English Pastoral and the Verismo movements. If you enjoy the gorgeous-yet-dramatic harmonic language of a Puccini opera or a Vaughan-Williams symphony, this foreshadows them both.
Finally, Bob Chilcott’s Dances of Time. Published only in 2015, I had never heard of this until scores were handed out. These five songs are pure pleasure. And if you ever thought modern music can’t be easy both to sing and to listen to without being trite “crossover”, this is a perfect counterexample: gorgeous yet always fresh. Though having said that, I think the virtue of brevity is essential to its appeal: it’s the perfect length for what it is.
News story: “upskirting” to be outlawed. Replaced by news story: “upskirting” bill scuppered by rogue MP. Cries of “shame”!
Background. This was a private members’ bill, motivated by a campaigner’s bad experience. The campaigner has clearly suffered a Bad Thing: an event that might be described as assault, with followup that looks like bullying or harassment. That she should have some remedy in law seems uncontroversial, even if two years prison seems disproportionate.
But does that really imply a whole new criminal offence? Looks to me like a cop-out. When we talk about Good Practice like one-in-one-out for new criminal laws, this is precisely the kind of thing we mean. Might it not be much more productive to review why existing laws dealing with assault, bullying and harassment had failed this victim? A proper review might do something for many victims whose equally-distressing bullying and harassment just hasn’t got media attention.
This stinks of Bad Law. And of Bad Processes for making law: it’s been cooked up behind closed doors without any opportunity for review by the representatives we supposedly elect to make our laws (so much for “democracy”). Perhaps if it had had proper (or indeed any) debate, someone would have pointed out that this was a Very Bad fix.
The campaigner is in the right: she should have some remedy. The backbencher who brought the bill is right-ish: a backbencher has no real remedies, and the outcome should have been to put it on the Government’s agenda. But for the Government itself to jump on this populist measure is a disgraceful failure in its obligation to deal with such obvious shortcomings in existing law. The hero of this case is the backbencher who stopped it and forced at least a debate. Must take courage to bring down the wrath of the Establishment and kneejerk media on yourself like that!
How come I’ve not yet commented on the announcement that Microsoft is buying Github? OK, pure laziness. Same reason so much else slips by unblogged. You’ve got me bang to rights there.
Actually I have commented, albeit elsewhere and not in public. The question posed to us was whether we had any reaction to it, and the answer was No. Or at the very least, not yet. A change to the terms and conditions would call for a reaction. A change to the user interface and APIs likewise, especially if it involved loss of functionality such as, for example, any tie-in to the new proprietor’s choice of tools. But a change in ownership doesn’t in itself call for a reaction.
Of course, this is not no-change. It is a change to the risk profile of using github. In the past it was VC-backed, and their business was to build a business of real value in the market. To do that, they had to develop a service of real value to its users (i.e. us), which they did over the years. But an eventual buyout by some bigco was always on the cards, and in retrospect Microsoft was indeed a likely candidate. With Microsoft the risk is that it could fall victim to a hostile or misguided corporate agenda.
Microsoft itself has assured us of its good intentions. I believe those assurances are meant sincerely: the value of Github is its developer community, and they have nothing to gain by alienating us. They know that a proportion of the userbase will abandon them in a knee-jerk reaction: I guess they factor that into their plans. On the other hand, no matter how good their intentions, a company the size of Microsoft inevitably encompasses multiple views and Agendas, both good and bad, and internal politics. I can’t quite dismiss the conspiracy theory that the intention of setting back the github community and a lot of important projects exists somewhere within MS!
On techie discussion fora (e.g. at El Reg), a lot of folks are taking a different view: MS will destroy github as we know it. They cite MS acquisitions such as skype and linkedin, and others going further back. Skype is indeed a troubling example, as they have abandoned so many platforms and users: a course of action that would certainly sound the death-knell for github. But skype was always closed and proprietary, and it’s likely the whole thing was also thoroughly unmaintainable long before MS acquired it. MS may have been facing an unenviable choice with no satisfactory options (abandoning the whole thing would also create unhappy users, though it would shorten the pain all round).
Taking the longer history, back in the 1980s I was reasonably happy with MS stuff. Word seemed good at what it did. MSVC had the huge virtue of decent documentation, in a world where the existence of TFM was a rare thing! They first really p***ed me off around the turn of the decade, in part with Windows, but much more so when I found myself the victim of proprietary and closely-guarded software. The zenith of their evilness came later in the ’90s with “Embrace and Extend”, the deliberate breaking of published standards, subversion of the ‘net, and unleashing the first great wave of malware on their own users. Around that time they were not merely a company without innovation (they acquired new things by buying companies from Autoroute to Hotmail after others had proved an idea), they were actively smothering it. Some think they were also behind the world’s most preposterous software company SCO’s attack on Linux, although they weren’t the only company linked to that by circumstantial evidence. A track record that left them very short of goodwill or trust among developers.
But that was then. Again from uncertain memory, the first indication I had of the winds of change was in 2006 when a senior MS man gave a presentation at ApacheCon in Dublin. This was someone seeking to build bridges and retrieve something from the ashes of its reputation. Open Source was now on the agenda, and MS – or at least some within it – genuinely wanted to be our friends. Signals since then have been somewhat mixed, but it seems clear at least that MS is no longer the deeply Evil Empire of twenty years ago. Indeed, I’m sure that if it had been, such great people as my Apache colleagues Gianugo and Ross would never have joined them.
From that seed (one hopes) was born the company that is now buying Github. This will be a real acid test for their relationship with open source. I don’t think they want to fail this one!
 As I recollect it, an upgrade left me with some important Word documents that simply couldn’t be loaded, and even transferring to another machine with the old version was no help. I couldn’t even do what I’d do today: google for any discussion of similar problems, or for relevant tools.
(Readers with no interest in singing, please consider this TL;DR).
Yesterday evening I crossed the floor.
Let me explain. This is a choir rehearsal. The choir in question is not a strong one, but has a new conductor who is doing a lot of good things to improve it, and whose reputation drew me to join. I recently enjoyed singing Rossini with them (as reported here last month), and the eventual standard of performance was a lot better than one would’ve expected from the rehearsals.
This choir’s next fixture is a concert in which only half is choral. The Fauré Requiem and his Pavane. The Requiem is something I’ve sung in many times – both First and Second Bass lines – and I really can’t face rehearsing it all over again with a choir that needs to note-bash and such boring things. So I crossed the floor, and am attempting to sing Second Tenor.
It’s something I’ve occasionally contemplated, and the Fauré is kind-of an ideal trial work: not too long, not too high, and the tenors have most of the best lines! I know I can do tenor in small doses, but I tend to suffer if I try and sustain it for more than a few minutes. So it is with trepidation and a great deal of uncertainty that I cross the floor.
And it’s not just the tessitura that’s a challenge. Reading the music is different: not so much the treble clef (any male singer needs to be .. um .. ambiclefstrous) but the different character of a tenor line. That’s a minor challenge, but one I’ll enjoy. And in one rehearsal so far, I don’t hear it around me: there’s scope to be the confident leader, which I managed in places.
Can I hack the tessitura? I came to a grinding halt on the last page of the Dies Irae section, but was otherwise OK. Time will tell how that plays out: on a day when I’m tired I’ll be useless, but when I’m on form I shall be working on technique to get through it and pace myself for the sustained high passage that defeated me.
Still Bass in my regular choir and other occasional and one-off activities. That’s the comfort zone.
Dammit, I should have blogged this a week ago!
I have three concerts coming up.
First, one with Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, tomorrow evening (Saturday, March 10th) at St Andrews – Plymouth’s main church. I can do no better than repeat what I wrote here when I last sang in it – with a different choir:
a lovely and startlingly unique piece. Perhaps it takes a septuagenarian Old Master – as Rossini was in 1863 – to have the confidence to write something quite so cheekily uncharacteristic of its time. It certainly shows the complete mastery of a lifetime’s experience, together with a creative imagination undulled by age!
Second, next Sunday, March 18th, with my most regular choir at the Guildhall, Plymouth. This is a concert of several shorter works from the English repertoire, amongst which Vaughan Williams’ Five Spiritual Songs are the highlight. Also worth hearing are Rutter’s Gloria, and Stamford’s Songs of the Fleet. Sadly there’s also some dreary muzak from Karl Jenkins. This is with the band of the Royal Marines in place of our usual orchestra, and the podium will be shared by both their and our regular conductors.
The third concert is a programme on the theme of the Christian death and resurrection, to be given at Buckfast Abbey on Saturday, March 24th. The pick of this chamber concert is probably some gorgeous works by Herbert Howells, and the programme also includes Fauré‘s Requiem and shorter anthems.
Damn, I can’t post a comment here. Both Firefox and Chromium browsers complain of a bogus certificate somewhere at wordpress, and I haven’t the time to dig into that. Let’s see if it works as a new post.
Feb. 22nd, 11:32
More this morning. A call from a number apparently associated either with Virgin Media or with a scam impersonating them, but it stopped before I could get to the phone. And a text message threatening cut off.
Investigating the phone number, https://who-called.co.uk/Number/08451112735 is inconclusive as to whether it’s Virgin or a third-party scam, with some comments offering evidence of the latter. There’s also a thread here on Virgin fora at https://community.virginmedia.com/t5/Forum-Archive/Scam-calls-from-Virgin-Media/td-p/3093322 raising precisely that question. It’s nearly two years old, but no reply from the Virgin team. Presumably another facet of the no-communication policy I’m trying to complain about.
I also replied to the text message. Unsurprisingly, my reply was flagged undeliverable.
I’ve also now blogged about this: https://bahumbug.wordpress.com/2018/02/19/customer-service-the-kafka-model/
Time to go public here. This is one of many matters I’ve been meaning to blog about but wasn’t getting around to. But this deserves to be on record somewhere public, and I don’t want to rely on Virgin’s forum where I have been posting it.
My broadband service from Virgin has been misbehaving again. I’m not sure when it started: it was sometime last year I found myself frequently getting very poor VOIP call quality, which in retrospect was probably a symptom. Other visible symptoms of the boiling frog included timeouts on the web, and from my mailer.
It’s slightly reminiscent of my previous troubles with Virgin , a nightmare that bears re-reading. In some ways not as bad: I haven’t had extended complete cut-offs. But in other ways worse: it was bad enough running the gamut of menus and adverts trying to phone them before, but this time that’s been replaced with an “on hold” noise that’s some yob screaming extremely aggressively: the kind of thing you’d beat a hasty retreat from if you heard it coming from a nearby street. I didn’t catch any words, but the sound was a most emphatic “F*** OFF”.
Anyway, visiting the website, I find there’s no way to file a support ticket, only supposedly-interactive ways to call them, and a community forum. The interactive ways don’t work, as will become clear below.
The Forum – once I’ve signed up (groan) – does work, and gets me some helpful replies. But these aren’t from Virgin, they’re just members of the public. My thread “Contacting Virgin” there tells the story. This morning, one post was removed from there. Not an important post, but if they can remove that then I reckon it’s time to copy the important contents, and not just to the saved page I already have. So here goes. My posts verbatim; replies omitted in case any other poster might be bothered by copyright on their words.
Jan. 30th: 15:53
I have a problem with virgin broadband: it’s very slow (less than 1% of the theoretical speed) and so intermittent that many things are simply timing out, and phone (VOIP) has become unusable.
So I tried to contact Virgin. First online, where it tells me their support team are unavailable (yes, this is within the opening hours advertised – most recently today about 15:20). Then by (mobile) ‘phone, where after 4 minutes of menus it puts me indefinitely on hold. Then today I went in person into a Virgin shop, where the staff could (or would) do absolutely nothing, and wouldn’t even let me try to ‘phone customer support from there.
How the **** do I contact them?
I have just now taken the precaution of cancelling my direct debit. Maybe that’ll prompt them to contact me?
[first reply tells me I have contacted them by posting, but it’ll take “about a week”, and advises me to post some info from my router]
Jan 30th: 17:06 (as I was about to head out):
Thanks Tony. Yes, I’m at my desk, working wired (I use wireless too, but not for things like speedtest). Both are equally affected.
Sadly this editor won’t accept cut&paste from my router’s status pages. Well, actually it looks fine when I paste it in and in preview, but then rejects it when I try to post. I may try again later, but not now.
I could add my earlier experience of Virgin failing here, especially https://bahumbug.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/cut-off-again/
Feb 8th: 08:32
Well, my broadband appears to be back. In fact, it’s faster than it’s ever been before, or than I ever asked for: http://www.speedtest.net/result/7040027720 . In fact I seem to recollect that when the man from Virgin came to install my kit for a 30 Mb/s connection, he mentioned explicitly throttling something back for that.
That (still) doesn’t resolve the issue of contacting Virgin. If it’s pure coincidence that they fixed it after my attempts to contact them. that leaves me in limbo again next time something fails. Alternatively, if something I did (like my session with their menus from the mobile phone, or my posting here) prompted them to fix it silently, that’s an extremely unsatisfactory way to treat clients.
Either way, there needs to be a way to contact Virgin and get either a fix or at least an acknowledgement that a fault has been logged and will be checked out, rather than leave a customer in limbo! Not to mention an acknowledgement of known faults on Virgin’s status pages (this fault may have been unknown to Virgin until my attempts to contact them, but the one that led to my blog post referenced above was certainly known to them).
Tony, do you act for Virgin here, or am I still completely un-acknowledged by the company?
[another helpful reply telling me – among other things – this forum is the best way to contact virgin and suggesting 7-10 days for a reply from staff]
Feb. 16th, 22:44 (after nasty email from their billing)
No contact here after two and a half weeks. Perhaps I have to go to ofcom?
(Ofcom website tells me there’s an ombudsman, but I have to wait 8 weeks before trying them).
Feb 16th, 23:05 (after an attempt to reply to billing unsurprisingly bounced).
Seems I can’t reply to their email, either. So for the record, here’s what I just tried to send. There’s a “contact us” link in their email, but that just brings me straight back here!
On Fri, 16 Feb 2018 14:50:08 +0000
“Virgin Media” <Letters@virginmediacollections.co.uk> wrote:
> Important information about your Virgin Media Account
> Account Number: ********
> Overdue Balance: £33.23
I have no idea if this address reaches a real human, but
I shall reply in the hope that it does.
I need to be able to contact Virgin Media concerning my
service. I have tried in various ways, without success.
Please see my thread at
At the time of the original problem, or probably even of
that post, I’d have accepted being able to get through to
a call centre droid. I think now it’s gone beyond that,
and I’d be looking to speak to a real person, and to
get at least an apology for the lack of service.
Another helpful reply commenting on the difficulty contacting them, and concluding with a paragraph that really, really deserves reproducing here:
A cynic might conclude they do not want to make it easy and do not want you to have any record of their statements, but surely that is just being paranoid?
Note, the three replies mentioned above are all from different posters. What they have in common is forum labels describing them respectively as “Superuser”, “Super Solver” and “Knows their stuff”. I presume those labels are based on their track records in Virgin’s fora.
Getting up to date, here’s Feb. 19th, 10:31:
They’ve just ticked another box in a diabolical blame game.
That is to say, half an hour ago, I got a call to my mobile ‘phone, showing the caller as Virgin Media. When I answered, it wasn’t a human, but a robotic voice asking questions to answer on the keypad.
Question 1: am I me? Press 1 for yes. OK so far.
Question 2: enter some password. Erm, WTF? Even if I had a clue what password they’re talking about, how likely is it I’d have it to hand at the moment they call me?
So now they’ve ticked a box. Call the customer, check. Customer confirms identity, check. But customer hangs up. How many customers could hope to explain that to any kind of adjudicator without appearing now to be firmly in the wrong?
Well, if anyone’s still reading, thank you. I hope you’re duly amused. I shall aim to update here as and when things happen, but no promises. I do still have a 4G device, which is a faff to use but means at least I’m not completely reliant on Kafka’s castle at Liberty Global.