Back in the Saddle

May 11th, 2019

I was up early, for a Saturday, and I needed both some exercise and to visit a pharmacy to collect a prescription. A quick Google told me that Tesco Brownhills’ pharmacy was open from 8am, so off up the towpath it was. In days gone by, I might have walked, but that’s hard going for any sort of distance now, so it’s back on the bike. A pleasant morning for a ride, so when the pharmacy said there would be a delay, I continued up the canal a short way (ordinarily, I might have gone for bacon, but my increasing girth means I forewent that today).

Further up the canal, the imperial measurement fuckwits had been about:

Beryl! The EU have been stealing our miles again!

I continued on to Slough Railway Bridge, a brief encounter with NCN5, and then through the industrial estate, down Engine Lane,

and back round to Tesco, with the cycling gods on my side- no stops at the junction or island.

A decent way to get a bit of exercise, avoid a bit of polluting the planet, and sort out an otherwise tedious task.

Easter

April 22nd, 2019

For some years now, I’ve spent the Easter holiday working, but this year, as I’m still recovering from my recent surgery, work that involves more walking and standing than normal (and would involve travel) didn’t seem like a great idea, so unusually I’ve had a long weekend, and it’s been a cracker, weather-wise.

With this time, I’ve got my bike back into working order, and ridden it on a couple of very short trial local journeys, I’ve visited a couple of new pubs, got a very small amount of gardening done, and sat in he garden with my pussy cats. Beats pushing packets 🙂

The pub trip introduced a new experience: heading north out of Walsall Station on the Chase Line to Hednesford. At one time, there was a direct bus service, but that went a number of years ago: given the train is fairly regular and quick, and the station is close to town unlike others on this line, there seems little need: a 25 minute trip saw us in Hednesford, which seems a bit more thriving than I remember, though the sun probably helped.

The end of the free internet?

April 9th, 2019

I’d usually stay a million miles from Spiked Online, being as it is, according to Wikipedia, it was/is

founded in 2001 as a successor to Living Marxism and has been characterised as libertarian “with a moderate right wing bias”

and is generally according to me

A nasty, libertarian, right-wing biased shitrag

(I have little time for libertarian policies, as generally they seem to be adopted by people that hate taxes and rules, right up to the point where they stand to benefit, at which point they’ll gladly use public services, and libertarian right-wing is basically a way of saying “fuck you all, I’m alright”)

I was hugely surprised, therefore to find a very sensible article upon its virtual pages.

It’s been announced in the last few days by our ever-competent government that moves are afoot to start the move towards a British equivalent of the Great Firewall of China to make the UK

to be the safest place in the world to go online, and the best place to start and grow a digital business.

One of the measures available is quoted as

measures to block non-compliant services.

White paper here

So here we are: another step towards “only the sites we want you to see”. We already have the poorly-implemented porn block on its way, with age verification by Mindgeek; curiously enough the owner of some very popular porn sites, and now there’s more potential for what amounts to censorship.

This is a dangerous way to proceed, and somewhat at odds with the claimed aim of

A free, open and secure internet.

and

Freedom of expression online.

Hive Mind?

April 2nd, 2019

Odd how things synchronise at times: I was listening to Planet Rock today while working, and kept hearing adverts for the new service from Hive (aka British Gas):Hive Link. Checking in on Twatter, I found this fascinating tweet from a good friend who spends a lot of time doing clever shit with Arduino or Raspberry Pi:

Then I looked at the Hive site:

Screen grab from Hive website, 2019-04-02.

I did find the idea of the Hive thing interesting, having done something much simpler with a nasty cheap IP cam for a relative some years ago, and it also rang a bell with this article where someone called Jamie Grant did a similar thing with a Raspberry Pi back in 2012. It’s an interesting idea: you basically put a few sensors on electrical items (kettle & TV, for example), and have motion sensors, temperature sensors, and a contact sensor on the front door. All of these sensors get monitored, and Jamie’s system graphed them; Hive’s system does pattern learning, and plays spot-the-difference, letting nominated people know when the pattern doesn’t match expected.

Jamie did try to market his solution, but it didn’t seem to succeed. I wonder if he patented it, or if he got a job with Hive?

This actually seems pretty good; it’s a nice use of technology to unobtrusively keep an eye on a relative, it could be valuable, and from the site they’ve done a nice job with integration and making it friendly for normal people, but I’m going to have to make my usual comments about buying cloud-based services, and voice the usual concerns about what Hive might do with the data you have to give them

Zero Commute

April 2nd, 2019

I’m spending a few days virtually back at my desk rather than physically, and it makes a nice change; a good hour and a half more in bed, and a walk to the dining table (or indeed the garden) with a laptop, a mobile and my USB headset compares favourably to pumping the air full of hydrocarbons and NOx on the M5. My usual commute is a particularly wasteful exercise in many ways, taking over 2 hours out of my day at least, and costing both cash and the planet, but my employer is mostly OK, my colleagues are great, and the money isn’t bad. I could do a lot worse, basically. My recovery sees me moving better, but not quite ready to drive to work, so I’m at home with VPN, IP Softphone, and a mobile. That means I get to choose Planet Rock (over Internet radio rather than DAB), get pussy cat company, and get a shorter walk to the kettle and toilet. Oh, and my productivity has gone up, at least on the specific tasks I’ve got to do at the moment, due to fewer interruptions. What’s not to like?

Well, some employers are doubtless concerned that if their employees are out of sight, they’ll be fucking about all day watching Homes Under The Hammer, sloping off to the shops, sleeping, wanking, whatever, but then in this post I discussed that happening right under their noses anyway; this is a fairly simple management question: if your employees aren’t producing, you should be able to tell. People who work for themselves have to be organised about this, and it’s perfectly possible for a wage-slave to do the same: I’ve done a full day’s work, just removed the pollution at time-wasting of the commute.

I know I’ve whined about this before, and I also recognised that telecommuting doesn’t work for some people- in fact, at times it won’t work for me.

But as journey times increase and our roads gridlock more and more, just why do we all travel like this all the time?

Charity Begins at Home

March 11th, 2019

So, it is a matter of days after I post a long post defending Walsall council, and having remained uncharacteristically quiet for a long time, Councillor Mike Bird has returned to form and made some… odd comments about charity shops. From the article (referring to the discretion a local council has over 20% of business rates):

Cllr Bird has suggested removing any discretionary exemption from charity shops, potentially forcing landlords to develop the sites into something more profitable.

also:

The charity shops obviously are endemic because once they’re in there then the owner doesn’t have to pay any rates. So therefore there’s no incentive for that individual to develop that site of that shop into something meaningful.

Now, as I said recently, shops are a commercial enterpise, a product of the capitalist system, and on that basis, the market decides what works. The charity shops obviously benefit from low, or none-existent business rates, and are staffed by volunteers at times, so they don’t need to turn over a lot to be viable- their costs are lower.

Does Cllr Bird really think there will be queues of people looking to invest their money in a retail shop in a town centre that is already visibly struggling (and has many empty units already)?

That’s before considering all the factors pointed out by the Charity Retail Association.

I really think that as a responsible authority, and indeed as a landlord of a large shopping centre, they really need to welcome any business they can; we might want nicer, more profitable, classier shops, but this is Walsall, and an occupied shop is better than an empty one, and charity shops have other benefits.

Portable Music

March 5th, 2019

For some time, my portable music needs had been satisfied with a Sansa Zip Clip player and Soundmagic E10 headphones, but the breaking of the Sansa meant I needed to revisit that.

My current phone is a Huawei P-Smart, the previous Motorola having broken, got fixed and then given to my better half, because there was a delay fixing the Motorola (in the end, easy and cheap) and I needed a phone: The Huawei, however is not ideal for a number of reasons:

1) It comes preloaded with too much tat. I’m quite zero-tolerance on un-neccesary apps and add-ons, something I’ve always done with PCs and continued with phones.

2) It can’t take a second SIM and a micro-SD, like the Swift 2 I dunked in the cut.

Still, it was cheap, and the battery lasts well, but:

3) The headphone output is just shockingly bad. Indescribeably bad, it sounds flat and lifeless unless you enable some Huawei proprietary shitty processing software, and when you do that, it seems to have a active dynamic range compression that actively compresses loud(er) sounds down in particularly clumsy way. It’s painful to listen to.

So the obvious choice of giving up on a seperate player and using the phone seemed to be out. I did fancy the award-winning Cowon Plenue D player, but £200 seemed a bit much given a few expenses of late.

The answer presented itself: Soundmagic’s new offering, the E11, comes in a Bluetooth version. That way, the crappy phone just presents a bitsream, someone that is competent can handle the D-A conversion, and I don’t risk tearing the headphone jack off the phone in my pocket, and if I end up with a phone with no 3.5mm jack (unlikely for a while, I’m too tight), no problem.

I’m a convert. I had my doubts, but the headpones are light and comfortable, the battery life seems OK, and the sound is as good as the wired E10s, all for considerably less than half the price of the Plenue D. Hell even the slight background hiss I’d noticed during my recent hospital stay turned out to be from the oxygen pipe I was wearing….

A Greater Kneed

March 4th, 2019

I’m less mobile yet again. Attempt 3 at controlling the large swelling in my trousers has occurred, with an overnight hospital stay and my knee being cut open, so I’m once again at the mercy of Homes Under the Hammer, and trying to stave off the boredom, and also I’ve not been out on the bike for months (the possibility of injury and/or aggravating the problem being an issue).

Once again, excellent care from the NHS, excellent staff, and what really was just minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things.

I do, however, feel I need to revisit an old blog post, and perhaps apologise to Stuart Berry, or at least moderate my argument?

Some of my arguments have lost their edge due to tech, of course. Connectivity is cheaper, WAPs are no more expensive, and manageability has got a lot easier (though you may pay for it- e.g: Meraki). Devices are better at handling connection issues and captive portals- the whole thing has matured.

My argument that 3G is cheap is probably stronger now- competition drives down mobile data such that I now pay £10/month for more mobile data, calls, and texts than I use, but I did miss one key thing: the hospital I was in had wildly varying mobile coverage: in the ADCU, where I spent 1 day in August, has zero coverage for O2 or Vodafone, but the ward I was on this time had workable 3G. If it hadn’t had that, the free wifi (which incidentally, works very well) would have been very useful to keep in touch with my better half: I’d warned her to keep an eye on email. This is probably a consequence of the building being quite old in places. From personal experience, mobile providers will charge outrageous sums to install micro-cells or similar in buildings.

It’s worth mentioning that the on-bus wifi I mention in the old post is useable now, too. As technology moves on, things get more useable. I remember vividly trying to get useable dumb-terminal access working over mobile data in the mid-late 90s, where you were lucky to get 9600 bits/second.

Bloody Useless Council

March 4th, 2019

Against my better judgement, I’ve become more active on Facebook. Under a pseudonym. I’ve got drawn into local groups, and there’s a predictable theme in many of them, something that reminds me of an old Alexei Sayle joke that I can’t find a Youtube clip for.

I’ve been using this toilet for 6 weeks and no-one from the council has been round to flush it for me.

The theme is largely “it is all the council’s fault”, where “it” could be anything from bus price rises, homeless and beggars, crime rates, to empty shops, to anything fucking else, to be honest.

I’m all for taking Walsall Council to task, but let’s be realistic here. People imagine that the council is rolling in cash from “all our council tax” (oh, apart from the proportion of that spent in overseas aid, apparently, despite that being proved as bollocks from the accounts), people think the council can approve or deny planning based on a whim, and that they control rent and business rates.

So then. Here we go:

1) Buses. Buses are run by private companies. National Express, mostly, round here, with a few others- notably Arriva in Staffordshire. They set the fares, and buy, maintain and run the vehicles. The bus stops are maintained by the West Midlands Combined Authority.

2) Homeless People. There’s no council housing. Thatcher sold it off, and councils haven’t been able to build houses for years; the only social housing gets built by housing associations. You can thank the Conservative government’s austerity measures and the bedroom tax for the fact that social housing is in short supply and expensive, and for the cutting of social care too,so the council’s powers are very limited. As to taking over empty buildings- as they don’t own them (see below), why should they take them over? If you owned a empty office lock, would you want it taken over and used as a shelter, or would you want the opportunity to rent it at a market rent?

3) Empty Shops. Shops shut down because there’s not enough money being spent to sustain them, plain and simple. The reason that you don’t have enough shops, or the wrong sort of shops (fast food, charity shops, pound shops etc etc), or no shops at all is called capitalism and market forces; if there’s not enough money coming in, then they can’t pay the rent and rates and their staff. (see 4 below) The shops that do survive survive precisely because people use them, enabling them to make money. You might want a nice focaccia bread and olive shop in Park Street, but unless it stands a chance of making money (hint: it doesn’t), then you’ve got fuck all chance of that. Retail is in decline and changing everywhere. There’s fewer butchers and bakers because we all buy from the supermarket; there’s fewer record shops because of Amazon, iTunes, and Spotify; the list goes on.

4) Rent and Business Rates.

The council should cut the rents and rates so shops could afford it.

The council do not own most of the shops. They do own the Saddler’s Centre (and they will in all likelihood be criticised for buying it, in the future, when the shops are all empty), but that’s about all. The majority of shops are owned (and therefore have rent set) by property investment firms like London & Cambridge. Business rates are set by Central Government, so no chance there, either. Also:

They built all those new shops at [location] and they’re all empty. Waste of council money.

Whoever built it, it sure wasn’t the council.

5) Begging. Again, the cuts in social care, the reduction in addiction support programs, and the basic all-round selfishness of our society means that some poor fuckers have nowhere else to turn. It’s funny how the people most offended by this are so often a close intersection with the bastards that voted for it.

6) Planning.

They shouldn’t allow planning permission for [x] because there’s too many of [x] and [optionally] I don’t like [x].

Typically, X will be a fast-food outlet or a takeaway.

Thankfully, councils don’t have the power to refuse planning on the basis that you don’t like something.

They granted planning for [y] and that ruined [z]

[y] might be an out-of-town shopping centre, for example.

Since national government reduced council’s powers on planning, they couldn’t refuse a reasonable request, so the developer of [y], if he’s clever, can just do it. All that troublesome red tape that we got rid of, see? Red Tape. That stuff that stops people doing exactly what the fuck they like, regardless off the impact on others? Better off rid of it.

I’ve not done an Evil Overlord post for a while. Evil Overlord 22: people who mindlessly blame the council for stuff they aren’t responsible for get to man the phones there for a few months.

It feels wrong to be be defending Walsall MBC, but I just wish people would get their facts straight and perhaps just think.

Moderate Behaviour

February 25th, 2019

I’ve been trying to find alternatives to the awful choice of radio stations, so mixed in with the music I’ve found some downloaded stuff from the BBC, courtesy of the wonderful get_iplayer software, and also the IRL podcast, from Mozilla.

The episode I listened to this morning explored moderation: the process of people approving (or not approving!) content posted online.

This is a bit of a hot topic lately, there’s increasing pressure from governments and others to regulate the web (and social media in particular).

I’ve discussed this before, of course, and I generally get a bit ranty about censorship (and, as the podcast pointed out, moderation and censorship is a close-run thing).

Moderating even a Facebook group or small forum can produce a considerable workload, and not moderating it can rapidly cause it to degenerate into a shit-show. Moderating an entire platform like Facebook, Youtube, or Twitter is almost unimagineable.

There was an angle I’d not thought about before: because computers are not good at judgement calls (like deciding if a particular photo is offensive or illegal), then you need humans to moderate, and these humans get subjected to the full, unfiltered onslaught of whatever the Internet throws their way, and have to deal with that, and the psychological problems that might bring.

As the social networks are companies that need to make money, those humans need to be cheap; so they turn to the Philipines, for example- a very different culture to the west, which introduces another set of problems.

So- who, if anyone, should moderate what we see? My personal choice, as an adult, would be “no-one”, but even if you think content should be policed, is a low-wage young filipino with minimal support the answer?