Isn’t That The Point?

Vince Cable has been grilled by members of a parliamentary committee about the selling off of the Royal Mail. He has been accused of selling off the Royal Mail on the cheap and costing the tax payer millions of pounds.

See the report here.

What isn’t addressed seems to be that the whole point on privatisations is for politicians to sell off national assets and enrich those in the city. This has always been the case. The scam is simple, and can be summarised by the following steps:

  • Tell the public who, via the government actually own the assets that it needs investment of the sort that only the market can provide.
  • If that doesn’t work then tell people that they can make money from the sale by being able to buy a few shares in the floated company.
  • Bring in some consultants from the city to advise you about the sale. Take their advice on the price that you can expect to get. Remember that at this point you will be enriching the consultants because you will be paying for the consultation.
  • Accept the price that you are told, and go ahead and float the company.
  • The shares will be massively successful on the first day and the companies that acted as consultants will block buy shares enriching themselves hugely. The public that bought shares can make a quick buck, selling their shares to the companies that are hoovering the shares up knowing that they will be able to collect dividends in the long run as the company is either asset stripped or made more profitable by upping prices, demanding subsidies from the state or by massive shrinking of the workforce (or often all three).

The game has been repeated over and over again, and in the long run the only real winners are the city. As a nation we are at the whim of companies from other countries who have bought up companies that they knew were being pushed into a ‘market environment’ but where the market was captive. In cases like this (energy, telecoms and public transport) the choice is little more than a façade.

The classic example of this idiocy will always be the railway privatisation. The UK has some of the most expensive train services in Europe, and yet the industry not only continues to receive subsidies despite being privatised, but the amount of subsidies has climbed enormously. The melange of companies that now make up the train and network operators all need to make a profit. This fact ended up meaning that investment in safety suffered, and major train accidents resulted from the scrimping on safety.

And to think, I used to think Vince Cable was the one with integrity…

How Not To Write A Website.

One of the research groups where I work has asked me to update their website for them.

It seemed like a simple request at first, and then I looked at the code. It is awful. The code has styles defined in the tags themselves rather than in a single style sheet for the site. This means that if you find a style that needs tweaking then you need to modify it in each file in turn! Yuk!

Each sub-folder has its own style sheets too, which means that even if you find the killer edit which will fix the majority of their layout woes then the edit needs to be applied correctly 10 or more times!

Nothing is commented. Anywhere.

Oh, and it appears to use some fancy Javascript which breaks if you move the files to a different server.

I won’t mention which ‘design’ package might have been used to create this website, but many of these crimes seem pretty universal these sorts of programs.

It is so bad I would be tempted, had I the time, to rebuild the site from scratch by hand, with better coding standards. The whole thing would be so light, and easy to maintain. Maybe I’ll keep it as a project to help bring myself up to speed on HTML 5 some day.

Now, back to fixing things…

Getting Your Message Over…

As part of my job I’m on a mailing list for computer officers from all over the University. By and large this isn’t a hugely busy mailing list. I would guess the biggest use is for people pimping hardware that they no longer need (its incredible how quickly a range of old servers gets snapped up!).

But sometimes (two or three times a year) a subject flares up and the list gets very busy. And today one of those subjects arrived.

One member of the list sent a teaser advert about an announcement which will be made in a months time. The teaser was in the form of a picture file attached to an otherwise blank email.

And the fact that the teaser was an image file attached to an email is what caused all the traffic.

It started off with one user complaining that, because they are using a venerable old email client (Mutt), and the original author neglected to add any ‘alt’ text to their image the user was forced to open the image file in a suitable image viewer, only to discover that the image was almost entirely information free.

The user then received several emails telling him that he could have used another email client and that it would have been fine. However, one of the things that I really enjoy about the University is that it is entirely agnostic about such things, and people are free to use whatever mail client they choose. This is the case even when the choice is both difficult to maintain and causes the user to be unable to upgrade their operating system (yes, I’m looking at you Eudora!). The Computing Service maintains Pine/Alpine available running on the mail servers and accessed via SSH.

I feel a lot of sympathy for the original poster (I’ll call him Mutt). When I first started using email ‘in anger’ I used Pine. It had a steep learning curve, but once you were used to it things got ridiculously easy, muscle memory took over the process of reading, writing and filing emails. But attachments were a problem, and you ended up saving them to some file space and then opening them as required from the file space. Because of this, I sometimes use the Pine system that is available, for that little sting of nostalgia.

I once wrote a similar email to Mutt’s to a mailing list that I was on.  Back then my net connection was ‘dial up’ and I had a bee in my bonnet about the use of html in emails. It was, I contended, a simple matter of signal to noise. Every email is intended to carry an aliquot of information, and ideally the amount of data that had to be uploaded, transmitted and downloaded is proportional to the volume of information in the email. My beef with html email was that most users wrote html emails without even noticing, so never took ‘advantage’ of the available text effects. However, irrespective of whether effects were used or not, the email would then be sent, more often than not as the ‘html’-ised version of the text, followed by the plain version immediately afterwards. The signal to noise ratio in this case was at least half of what it could have been (assuming that there were no html tags used) with the ratio falling further, given the bloat that the html more than likely contained.

So Mutt was making a valid point (the point was even more valid in his case, the data downloaded wasn’t justified by the information to be conveyed, and he needed to go through a couple of hoops to discover that fact). However, the irony in the aftermath is that there then followed a short flurry of emails where many opinions were expressed regarding the use of different email clients and value of data, and so the issue, such as it was, was compounded furiously by the responses received.

My favourite response by far though was the fellow computer officer who, understanding the need to convey the little information involved, but wanting to do so in a text friendly manner generated an ASCII art version of the original teaser poster and sent that to the list. Well played sir!

BBC Interviews – What’s That Noise?

I was listening to George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer being interviewed on the radio yesterday morning, and, not for the first time I thought the BBC’s microphones must have been on the fritz.  There always seems to be a roared stream of obscenities drowning out the self serving platitudes spewing from his mouth.

Then I realised. Whenever I heard that malodorous, pompous, rich slime ball talking about austerity I can’t help it. I find myself shouting like some sort of nutter.

I can’t believe that we have to listen to this privileged millionaire  who has always happily protected his rich buddies while insisting that welfare and social support gets gutted.

Horrid, evil, slimy git.

Project Gutenberg: Sticking it to the man.

In my last post I urged anyone intent on reading ‘The Secret Adversary’ to head over to Project Gutenberg to get a copy for free.

Of course, it isn’t absolutely free, someone is paying for bandwidth, storage and the like. If you find that Project Gutenberg is a service that you use then you might think about making a donation to their upkeep.

The subject of copyright is one fraught with difficulties. A lady I know on Facebook has just published her third novel of a series. The books have been well received, and she is, understandably very pleased with how things have gone. But within a couple of days of the books launch she found messages asking for ‘cracked’ copies of the e-book of the novel. This isn’t a rich author, but a lady working hard to put her heart and soul into something that the public will want to read. And having managed to (a) write her story so well that it has a willing audience and (b) managed to get it published, she now has to hope that the majority of people who want to read it will purchase a copy to make it all worthwhile.

I am conflicted. I believe very strongly that artists both deserve and need to be suitably recompensed for the work that they put into their creations. The call for an illegal copy is reprehensible. But there should be a limit on the extent of copyright. Copyright is intended to ensure that both authors and the wider cultural space are enriched by artistic creativity. For a period of time the control of all works stays with the author (or their representative). The author will receive payment for the instances sold. This is as it should be. More power to those who represent this model. But when copyright comes to an end (a point which in America recedes at approximately one year per year, essentially making copyright for the last 50 years ‘in perpetuity’) then the work should enter the public space where it will help to enrich our cultural heritage.

The issue is complicated by the change to the nature of ownership which is inherent in the e-book reader ecosystem which currently holds sway. At the moment when you ‘buy’ a book from Amazon for your Kindle you don’t actually own it. You essentially license it, an agreement which can be revoked unilaterally by Amazon, seemingly with little in the way of redress or appeal.

And at the end of the day this is my real conflict. I love my Kindle. I really do. I love how you can readily carry around tens of books in a slim electronic device which supports searching, bookmarking and dictionary lookup. But I do worry about the power of corporations to modify the very nature of ownership.

‘Your’ Member of Parliament – A Quick Guide.

Recently I did something that I have never done before. I got in touch with my local MP.

I was initially driven to do so by the announcement that the ‘independent’ body which had been formed to set MP’s pay rises was going to recommend a pay rise in the order of £7000-10000 per annum after the next general election. BBC Article

I was so disgusted by the idea that this might take place (the backlash was furious at the time, and party leaders have already disowned the idea entirely, knowing that to do otherwise is likely to be electoral suicide), that I decided to drop my chosen representative a line to voice my opinion.

I like to think that I was as balanced and measured as I could possibly be. Rather than challenging the value of our politicians I asked whether he felt that the increase was justifiable.  I wanted to know whether a job which has longer breaks than higher education students (students often only have classes for 24-30 weeks in a year, depending on their institution) deserved a pay packet so much higher than the average in the population.

The final point that I chose to make was regarding the number of politicians who have other jobs. These other ‘jobs’ are usually in the form of non-executive directorships in companies. The problem that I, and most people have with such roles is fundamentally the conflict of interest that they are likely to represent. Politicians have directorships in private health care companies, but are still able to vote on legislation which helps nudge us ever closer to privatisation of our health care system. They have directorships in arms companies who benefit from the waging of poorly defined wars of aggression, sales to dictatorships and tyrants and stockpiling of weapons that we will never be able to use but which costs us each mind boggling amounts of money.

I was warned when I had sent my message to my local MP that he was a very busy man and I may have to wait a while for a reply. However, I was impressed at just how quick his reply was. Only a couple of days later I got an email.

Unfortunately, the answer was the sort of mealy mouthed nonsense that I should have expected. The pay rise wasn’t one that MPs had decided for themselves, so it wasn’t their fault. And they hadn’t had a pay rise for a couple of years. But there is a mechanism for letting the powers that be know if we didn’t like the idea (he pointed me in the right direction).

He had nothing to say about whether the rise was deserved (the question that I had asked).

On the subject of second jobs, he wanted me to know that there are no plans to privatise the NHS. The fact that Hinchingbrooke hospital has been privatised already seemingly having escaped his notice.

The unfortunate thing is that I know that in my part of the world, the politician with the blue rosette is, in all likelihood going to win. My anger at his complacency, the lack of a real, substantive response to questions of exactly who our politicians represent are not going to overturn the sort of majority he gets in a semi-rural, largely affluent southern county.

It is worth noting that it is cathartic writing these messages though, so I may do so again in the future. And as my MP has announced he will be standing down at the next election I will have to make sure I let my feelings be known to his successor!

Adventures in Xmonad.

My last post was about the range of window managers available on Linux, and how varied they can be. Having settled on using Xmonad I have been on something of a learning curve, and I know that I still have a way to go before it is everything that I want from my primary interface with my computers.

The Positives:

Using Xmonad is really very fast. To a certain extent this appears to be down to the fact that you only go around launching the things that you really need to hand, rather than starting stuff just because it is there. One example that I discovered today was that central pillar of my computer use, Dropbox. Today I knew that I had updated the contents of my Dropbox folder, but hadn’t seen any confirmation of the fact on my work desktop. To fix this I just needed to launch the Dropbox daemon, but, importantly, this hadn’t been launched at startup (which meant that it wasn’t either impacting on my processor cycles, or my network connection). Xmonad uses screen real estate in a very interesting way. When you start your first program on a workspace it will open full screen, taking the whole screen, and starting maximised. When you start the next program then the usual approach is to split the screen into two vertical panes, one for each program. Things get a little odder when you add subsequent programs, but in my configuration the left hand pane continues to use half the screen, and extra programs will take up progressively smaller areas in the right hand area.  This works very well on my iMac at work, where the very large monitor feels expansive, even when I have a browser window and mail client on the same screen. The big win for Xmonad comes when using multiple workspaces. I have access to up to 12 windows, and I can move programs from whichever workspace they are on, to another workspace simply by holding down the modifier key (the Windows button) and hitting the function key for the workspace that I want the window moved to. Switching to the other workspaces is simple to, hold down the alt button and the appropriate function key.  Switching a program to fullscreen (without shuffling other programs on the same workspace off to other workspaces) is a simple Windows key + space bar cycle.

The Negatives:

There is really only two negatives with using Xmonad. The first is not the fault of Xmonad, but is a combination of the configuration used for my setup and my laptop. The problem is that my Dell laptop requires the fn (function) button to be pressed when selecting one of the function keys.  This means that when I am using my laptop the buttons for switching workspaces or moving windows to other workspaces are more akin to a vulcan death grip, holding down the function key, either the Windows key or alt key and then the function button. The equivalent on my desktop computers is much simpler and typist friendly. The other issue is the learning curve. Xmonad is completely unlike any classic Window manager (Gnome, KDE, Xfce, Windows (3.1 style or 95 style). In some ways it feels a little like when I first used Vi. I entered the command from the command line, and was presented with a blank screen with a column of tildes on the left. Xmonad is just as terse, and is waiting for just as arcane a command sequence to be brought forth. But, like Vi, the time it takes to familiarise yourself with it is time well spent. And at some point I will try hacking the customisation files (I found the ones I use at the moment on-line). Then I can really be a master of my own destiny.

I have just thought of one other issue, which largely affects those pieces of software which open large numbers of dialogue boxes. For me the most obvious example is ‘The Gimp’ image processor. In some circumstances launching Gimp will leave the user with a stack of small windows containing the various dialogue boxes. In amongst them will be the image, displayed at dimensions more appropriate for a thumbnail. This is easily fixed by only opening Gimp in a workspace all on its own, but it is a little surprising the first time it happens to you…