Category Archives: Uncategorized

Dismal Choices

Thursday is Election time again. Different elections in different parts of the country. Here it’s local councillors and a Police and Crime commissioner.

I’m completely lacking information. I’ve had just two election leaflets: one from the Tories, one from and Independent candidate who fails to impress.

  • For local councillor I’d take the Tory candidate as a person (based on her very effective response the one time I had occasion to contact her – referenced here), but can’t endorse her party, so I have no candidate I’m happy with and I can’t even find information online.
  • For Police&Crime commissioner, this is not at all like the last time I blogged about it, when we had an interesting array of candidates. There are just four candidates, all of them affiliated to political parties: Tories, Lab, Libdem, Greens. Information including statements from all candidates is available online: there’s little if anything there to choose between Tories/Lab/Libdems, while the Green candidate is such a loony-lefty as to look like a self-parody.

Ho, hum …

Cat of Nine Deaths

A regular cat may have nine lives, but Stuttley’s dead cat appears to have nine deaths. Or maybe far more – I haven’t been counting.

Right now we have one timed for next week’s election: namely the scandal (or storm in a teacup, or actually both) of the Downing Street flat (erm, Flatgate?) The leader of the opposition has totally taken the bait, and as a result looks pusillanimous and irrelevant. Which, to be fair, is probably his natural state: I expect he could turn people off caring even about the Cummings row. Anyone influenced by national politics may find the tories a ghastly prospect, but Labour is worse: it’s simply too depressing to vote for. So that’ll be an election triumph, which he’ll of course claim as a ringing endorsement.

Blair may have been the supreme master of fake sincerity. Stuttley has just demonstrated an entirely different mastery: to demolish his opponent exactly when it matters. Even down to a Thespian tour de force of appearing flustered and on the back foot on the subject and of keeping it unnecessarily alive, giving Starmer ever more rope to hang his party’s election prospects.

The classic dead cat, when there are so many other things an opposition leader should focus on. Possibly the Cummings claims, though it’s plausible they too could be – like Gollum’s stabbing Stuttley in the back to rescue him in 2016 – an elaborately-orchestrated setup. Certainly actual instances of free handouts to cronies, of the cruel and ineffective lottery of covid handouts, and actual instances of brexit-bonus ranging from NI troubles through fishing disaster to routine closures like (this week’s announcement) Nestlé‘s UK factories.

The whole Flatgate issue is being de-fanged by an independent inquiry. The announcement of the appointment of Lord Geidt – who appears from press reports to have strong credentials – to fill the Parliamentary Standards vacancy and head an investigation was ideally timed to let Stuttley off the hook. I expect someone on Stuttley’s team knows – if only on Richelieu’s principle – where Geidt’s bodies are buried, lest they should need to exert pressure. Even if something from that or any other inquiry has potential for real damage, it comes long after the election, events have moved on and the media and public are sick of the subject.

Two Standards

I seem to have rather dropped the ball on commenting on double standards in our Establishment. But two news stories both reported today exhibit a contrast too good to pass up. Both concern rich and powerful folks accused of major white-collar crimes fraud and corruption.

Story 1: Trial of Serco executives collapses.

Story 2: 24 foreign individuals sanctioned under “Magnitsky” act.

So that’s two Brits acquitted without a completed trial, and a much larger number of foreigners punished without any suggestion of a trial. The latter haven’t even reached the threshold to face prosecution, they are just guilty until proven … erm … that’ll probably have to be until proven dead, and on no more evidence than the word of the Minister!

Just imagine that standard had been applied to the Serco two!

And as regards the Magnitsky 24, I imagine a lot of wealthy users of London’s money-laundering services will now be re-evaluating their budgets for protection moneyConservative party donations. And those linked to political targets but not in need of such services will be looking to dispose of any assets they might have in UK jurisdiction.

Lynch Him!

News: Richard Stallman – the grandfather of Software Freedom, without whose efforts “free software” might still be seen as the worthless crap that featured on 1980s floppies given out with computer mags – to rejoin FSF board.

Online community erupts in horror. How can anyone give him a platform after his “crimes”? There is some thoughtful and reasoned reaction against his comeback (I think the best example I’ve seen is Gunnar Wolf), but it seems the majority is a pure lynch mob, whose baying I won’t grace with a link. My irony meter goes off the scale when they seek to exclude Stallman while at the same time preaching inclusivity.

Stallman undoubtedly has a strong personality. That goes with the territory of being someone who Gets Things Done. In his case, most famously he didn’t take it lying down when he was prevented from adapting an expensive printer to meet his and his department’s needs. I admire that: it’s a contrast to the timid alternatives of submissive (write off an expensive door stop or at best live with it) or passive-aggressive, to both of which I would have to plead guilty at one time or another. But it’s surely also part of the personality package (shared by the greatest of both heroes and villains) that doesn’t easily Suffer Fools, and that gets labelled toxic in an anti-excellence culture.

As I understand it, the crime the mob absolutely can’t forgive is to have defended the late prof. Marvin Minsky (who stood accused of sexual impropriety), and then risen to the bait when challenged. Minsky was no longer alive to defend himself, and his accuser stood (indeed, stands) on a pedestal where neither what she says nor even the most monstrous inferences from it can be questioned. Stallman – who I understand had known Minsky – committed the unforgiveable crime not of calling her a liar[1], but of suggesting an explanation that failed to damn Minsky. For that, he must be excommunicated. A weaker man would surely have backed down in the face of such an onslaught of hatred!

I have a problem with accusations like these of sexual impropriety. A witch-hunt environment[2] and a strong streak of historical revisionism[3] provoke automatic scepticism, particularly about cases given high media coverage. A second problem with them, or rather with the witch-hunt environment and related SJW issues – is that it provokes division, and leads to backlashes that can themselves be pretty hideous (Trump being an obvious example – and a future backlash could be worse). A plague on both their houses: Trump and the anti-Stallman mob!

[1] Though Minsky’s wikipedia entry tells us his widow has indeed denied any possibility that the accusations could be true.

[2] In the UK, “operation midland” is an obvious example, where an accuser was for years given a pedestal similar to Minsky’s accuser[4], before eventually being discredited. Some of those leading that witch-hunt and pressuring the police over it are still in place: Tom Watson may have fallen on his sword (as have some in the media), but fellow witchfinder-general Vera Baird is still in place and generally gets an uncritical media platform.

[3] Minsky’s crime is to have – allegedly – had sex with a teenager. That’s identical in all but name to the crime for which today’s hero[5] Alan Turing was convicted, and treated rather less harshly than he would have been today. In Turing’s time homosexuality was De Jure illegal but De Facto tolerated between consenting adults like Turing’s contemporaries Britten and Pears.

[4] Note: I’m not saying the two accusers are alike: that’s a subject on which I have no knowledge. What clearly is very similar is the pedestals given to them to accuse others.

[5] To be clear, calling Turing today’s hero is with reference to the story of his sexuality and downfall. His achievements, including his considerable legacy in computing and AI, stand on their own merits without reference to “today”.

Boiler

Greetings from my disappointingly-modernised house.

When I moved to this house right on the river[1], I knew the boiler was rather old and would want replacing. The house has nowhere suitable for solar panels, but I could make some effort and get a heat pump drawing heat from the river. That’s a whole lot more efficient than either a ground or air source heat pump: ground because the river water is constantly renewed rather than the pump chilling its own surroundings; air because water has more than four times the specific heat of air. So while not free of the need for a pump, it’s the best possible of its kind.

I spent some considerable time looking for someone who might install such a heat pump. Most prospective suppliers never even answered my enquiries. One did, and came to survey the place at the beginning of October, and agreed that the location is excellent for it. The up-front cost would be ballpark ten times higher than a new gas boiler, but the government offers a rather bizarre subsidy scheme through which I could recoup that difference over a seven-year period. Great! Combined with switching to an induction hob in the kitchen, I could become gas-free.

However, my prospective supplier told me it would have to wait for the summer, to carry out works while the river is at low summer levels. And wasn’t good at following up, despite having taken the trouble to survey the place.

Then we had the cold snap just after christmas, and my existing boiler got rapidly worse. It got erratic firing up, and wouldn’t give hot water unless the heating had been running long enough to heat the radiators. Neither did that always happen: I started to resort to various wheezes like the classic turn-it-off-and-on-again. Getting it serviced didn’t help. And after too many cold showers – at a time when the emergency alternative of going to a public baths and showering there is unavailable[2] – I concluded it’s become too urgent: I don’t want to wait until summer and the heat pump.

Reluctantly I did some online research, and was pleasantly surprised to find a number of suppliers competing to offer prices fully inclusive of boiler, installation, and associated extras – and cheaper than I’d dared hope for a reputable boiler[3]. Presumably a low margin, high volume business model. What a contrast to the difficulty sourcing a heat pump! I placed an order with one of those suppliers.

Today[4] was the day, and a very pleasant young chap has installed my new boiler and taken away the old one. I feel more confident in my shower already, and I also expect running a bath to be quick and straightforward. Furthermore, I now have a modern wireless controller sitting in the hallway, offering timer and thermostatic controls. And controls on the boiler itself to determine how hot it heats water: I may want to turn that down in the summer!

Of course the heat pump would have delivered much the same range of mod-cons, albeit based on hot water coming from a tank in the basement. And I’d’ve liked to combine installation of that with switching the downstairs rooms from radiators to underfloor heating. The latter may yet happen, but will have to be part of another project. But with a new gas boiler, the heatpump project is dead. RIP.

For what it’s worth, I mentioned the heatpump project to my installer. He told me he’d looked at going on a course to qualify to install them, but couldn’t justify the cost and time to qualify in a rare niche when he has an ample and reliable stream of very mainstream work with gas boilers. I expect that’s a common story, and the reason why the one is so much easier than t’other for me as customer to source.

[1] It’s a former industrial building, converted to houses in the 1990s. Before the days of mains power, the river was used to power it. Nowadays the lowest level of the building is underground parking: I don’t believe it’s ever flooded, but if it does, better that than inside peoples’ homes!

[2] Covid lockdown rules. Yes, we all know that, but someone reading this a few years hence might not instantly make the association.

[3] The latest model from the same stable as the boiler at my last (rented) house, which impressed me by always working flawlessly and without fuss.

[4] Monday. As I blog it’s past midnight, so the timestamp will say Tuesday.

Darwinian Selection and Award

Lockdown has failed: let’s have ever more lockdown! Much of the world – including Blighty – has gone mad.

Today’s news: it’s confirmed “the new strain” is indeed spreading a lot faster than its predecessor. A moment’s reflection suggests the hypothesis: is this Darwinian natural selection in action? “Social distancing” and isolation has reduced the virus’s opportunity to propagate, so a strain that better overcomes those limitations is thriving in the environment we’re giving it.

Similar story to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacterial nasties, albeit happening faster.

How would we be able to test how similar bugs – not least common cold coronaviruses – react to social distancing? I suspect a new and much more infectious strain would go unremarked, perhaps even unnoticed!

Oh, and the figures telling us the vaccines are unexpectedly much more effective than the ‘flu jab. Could that be because they’re new, and the coronavirus has not yet adapted to them as flu viruses have? Perhaps the ‘flu jab is a better guide to a future steady state.

Can we have a societal Darwin Award for societies that are getting the worst of both worlds: stopping normal life including much of the economy, yet failing miserably to stop the virus spreading? Though come to think of it, Blighty has a much stronger and also-very-topical claim than any mere virus to a Darwin award.

And, erm, happy new year. Don’t breathe, don’t hold your breath.

A vaccine

We’ve had a flurry of Good News announcements from developers of Covid vaccine candidates. The fact that one announcement has provoked more highlights how competitive the race is.

At the same time, we hear that governments are going to come down hard on antivax (is that how you spell it? – I don’t want to google). With drastic potential penalties on platforms, it’s inevitably going to be enforced as one of those taboos that may be used to shut down not just nutjob conspiracy theories but also legitimate discussion. That (always) bothers me.

I’m not anti-vaccination myself. I’ve had the flu jab for two or three years, and would have had it this year if Stuttley’s ultra-centralised crony-driven Soviet-lookalike system hadn’t proved itself incapable of delivering it. Yes, they’re going to roll out this massive Covid programme, but they can’t even manage a routine flu jab for those deemed vulnerable by the NHS!

Riiight …

In terms of the covid candidates, I have no doubt whatsoever that their inventors are working in good faith in the hope of protecting us – the people – from covid. There’s no sinister agenda of mind-control or anything like that. Where there’s a risk it’s cockup – the vaccination does something unintended – not conspiracy. On the basis that that risk will be lower than the risk of covid, I shall get it if offered.

Sadly that’s not the whole story. The risk is that under immense commercial pressure, corners get cut. Or – worse – adverse information is suppressed, and tests that raise red flags get redesigned to suppress it. No fewer than two news stories this week remind us of the real-life risks of suppressing adverse information: the Boeing 737 max being re-licenced after its disastrous history, and the Grenfell tower inquiry’s evidence of how highly flammable material was used in full knowledge of the danger.

The vaccine candidates are coming up for regulatory approval. Which begs a number of questions:

  • To what extent is regulatory approval a rubber-stamp exercise?
  • I understand the EU single market serves to save producers of regulated products (like medicines) a lot of per-country red tape. How far does EU approval go towards making a vaccine automatically legal/available in member countries?
  • Does anyone have a clue whether and how brexit affects this?
  • Do we have mutual recognition – or something approaching it – of medicines with any other countries, such as the US?
  • Is there jurisdiction-shopping by pharma companies seeking regulatory approval for a drug? If so, what jurisdictions are commonly favoured?

All in all, I’d have the greatest confidence in a vaccine developed in a politically-unloved country. With a Russian or Chinese candidate, I’d have that little bit more confidence that it hadn’t got through an EU or UK regulator on-the-nod at some level. Though that expectation is based on ignorance of the system: the argument for it is that humans are involved and will always come under pressures that may differ for drugs of different origins.

Who knows what the suppression of anti-vax disinformation will take with it? One of the first casualties will be any would-be whistleblower on adverse side-effects. Like flammable cladding, or flight control that causes crashes. Of course the counterargument to that is that most of us (certainly including me, and more importantly those tasked with the censorship) would stand little if any chance of telling whistleblowing from a conspiracy theory. But it’s no less concerning for that.

Crippled Voip (Motorola/Android)

Question 1: Is there any SIP softphone that works on today’s Motorola phones? Note, this is not at all the same question as working on Android: Motorola has, it seems, crippled both the native Android SIP capability and third-party softphones available from the play store (see for example nerdvittles or motorola’s own fora). Non-SIP communications – like voice calls, jitsi, zoom, sylk, skype work just fine, but not SIP.

Question 2: When buying an Android phone from A N Other manufacturer, how do I find out ahead of time whether SIP will be available or crippled?

The long story …

My first Android phone was a Moto G, from before the days when the Moto G had numbers – though as I recollect it did call itself 4G to distinguish itself from those with no 4G capability that were still available at the time. I was pretty happy with it, though there were occasional problems such as activating unintentionally whilst in my pocket.

When I moved house in 2013 I moved my old “landline” number to VOIP with a sipgate account. I installed CSipSimple on the Moto G, and it worked like a dream – reliable and with excellent call quality anywhere I had wifi and/or adequate phone data signal.

Fast forward to 2019, as I was in the throes of buying my present house. I lost that phone when it slipped out of my pocket on the bus. It was the worst possible moment to be without a phone, and I couldn’t wait to ask lost property. I used the web to disable the SIM (in case it was stolen), armed myself with proof of identity, jumped on the bike, and went into the O2 shop to get a replacement. They could do the SIM, and Argos just down the road could sell me a handset. They had Moto G in stock, so I bought it and fitted the new SIM.

The new handset (turns out to be G6) is annoyingly bigger and heavier than the old one, but does the job, and is in some ways an improvement. However, I found myself unable to get a SIP client working adequately on it. CSipSimple being discontinued, I first tried Zoiper, but found it highly unreliable and the call quality was poor. I’ve tried several other softphones, and none of them works adequately. The problem is the same whether I’m on wifi or 4G.

Googling is difficult here, because it turns up lots of results for Android that simply don’t apply on the Motorola. With “motorola” as a keyword I get a few results such as the links in the first paragraph indicating it’s not just me being inept!

The good news, I got my old Moto G back from the bus company’s Lost Property. It has no SIM, but I can still use it around the house with wifi, and with CSipSimple it still gives reliable calls and excellent quality. But that’s only a partial solution: without a SIM it only works around the house, and when a very elderly phone battery is charged!

Lockdown?

The news is now telling us there’s a likelihood of another covid “lockdown”. France has just gone full-on prison camp, and other countries are tightening measures.

Last time we gave them the benefit of the doubt: lockdown might just serve a purpose. But that’s conditional on there being an exit path: without it, lockdown is real pain for illusory gain. Six or seven months ago it seemed somewhat implausible, but evidently the government’s advisors thought otherwise and who was I to argue? At least, beyond reservations expressed in that post, notably:

… if the lockdown proves worse than useless in the longer term – perhaps because return to normality proves impossible without the Herd Immunity of most of the population catching it.  But if that happens we’re in good company, with much of the world likely to be in similar trouble.

Now we have experience: “lockdown” failed for lack of an exit strategy. Sweden got it closest to right (at least among European countries) when they introduced more relaxed guidelines that had the effect of lockdown in reducing case numbers but with less damaging side-effects.

Macron appears to have gone mad, repeating an already-failed experiment. Will our own powers-that-be behave more sensibly in this matter? If they lockdown now it’s far worse than in the spring, when we were at least free to go round the supermarket without wearing a germ-incubator. And when indeed it became for some weeks a particularly pleasant experience, with staff and shoppers sharing a “blitz spirit” of cheerful bonhomie.

A question that I’ve wondered about a few times, and raised elsewhere but not on this blog. I’m no historian, but I’ve heard said that Native American populations were devastated by the Common Cold when the arrival of European settlers introduced it. Is this not an interesting historical parallel (bearing in mind that the Common Cold is a generic description for a wide range of lurgies, some of them coronaviruses), and why is noone discussing it? A possible inference is that what makes covid worse than a regular cold is precisely its novelty to our populations.

Bloat

Details still to be finalised, but I have a sponsor for a new task that’ll help improve security on the Web for all of us.  All to be open-source.  I expect I’ll blog details about it in the not-too-distant.

This has helped me feel more motivated than I have done for quite a while: even before covid and lockdown I was far from my most productive.  This week I’ve been updating infrastructure for the work, with a new raspberry pi on order, and many hours of huge dist-upgrade on my desktop box (running Debian).

The update appears to have run smoothly, though at one point the box wouldn’t wake from suspend (or from screen-blank) correctly and needed a hard power-cycle followed by recovery.  Touch wood: apart from that transient glitch, nothing worse happened (yet) than my (utterly unimportant) desktop background going away (now replaced).

What struck me though was the sheer bloat of a modern system, that bit me before the update.  In preparation I made a much more complete backup than my usual (which is, only data that matters and where mine is an original – so excluding huge areas like working git and svn repos that get committed upstream).  This time I tried to backup the whole of /home, and came a cropper: the compressed tar archive exceeded the 4Gb maximum file size on the USB stick I was using!

OK, how to reduce it?  There’s a fair bit of low-hanging fruit: for example, build directories where “make clean” removes much, and the Downloads directory whose contents are always dispensible.  But the real eye-opener was the caches for various applications – and not just obvious suspects like web browsers!  Some of it years old: for instance, an RSS reader I haven’t used for at least two or three years.  And in mailers, a huge discrepancy between Evolution and Claws mail: the former being many times larger, and appears to keep not just a copy of my archives but even long-deleted spam.  I cleaned a lot of cache, and removed some caches (including Evolution – which is in any case far too sluggish) entirely.

We’re spoiled rotten by the size of even the smallest modern storage, and get sloppy in accumulating junk.  df now (after big cleanup and dist-upgrade) shows my disc 18% full, so I’m under absolutely no pressure, but I shall nevertheless take this as a wakeup call to configure caches to limit their size and lifetimes for ancient entries.

Is it only us greybeards who ever give a thought to our digital hygiene?