Jessica London

Recently, I started getting unsolicited email from a company called Jessica London. They sell women’s clothes and they seem to think that I’d be interested in all of their latest offers. I have no idea where they got my email address from. I know I have never dealt with them so it’s not a case of me forgetting to uncheck the “please spam me” box when registering with them or anything like that. In fact they have been using an email address that I never use for those kinds of purposes.

But I think they’re a real company. So today I decided I’d use the unsubscribe link in their email to see if that would actually remove me from their mailing list. I know this is a risky strategy, but I like to live on the edge sometimes.

The link took me to a page where I could tell them why I was unsubscribing. There was a series of radio button – which means I could only select one of them. It’s interesting to note the reasons that they think it’s worth tracking.

  • Receive too many emails from Jessica London
    Well that’s true, but I don’t think it really gets to the heart of the matter
  • Email content wasn’t relevant to me
    Also true, but misses the point
  • I no longer plan to shop at Jessica London
    I never had any plans to shop at Jessica London
  • I am cutting back my spending on clothing
    That’s not the case. I’ve never spent that much on clothing
  • I prefer to stay connected via Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
    I like to connect to people via social media – but not to brands that I have no interest in
  • Other

In the end, I chose “other”, hoping that they would then give me a text box where I could write “because you’re a bunch of obnoxious spammers”. But no such box appeared. So they just know that I had “other” reasons for unsubscribing.

I was left with no alternative other than to write this blog post in the hope that Google will help them discover my actual reason for unsubscribing.

Public Wifi

We’re finally reaching the stage where public wifi is becoming ubiquitous in London – at least when you’re indoors. It’s now quite strange to be somewhere that doesn’t have wifi available. But as it’s all supplied by commercial operators, it can all get a bit confusing. I know a few people who leave wifi turned off on their smartphones because they’d rather rely on the 3G connection (which always works) than a wifi connection that doesn’t work because they haven’t logged on to the providers service.

It would be nice if these providers all just used the standard WEP or WPA security protocols. These both prompt you for a password when you connect to the network. Your device can then store the password and always connect you whenever you’re within range. That’s probably how you have your home wifi set up.

But that’s not how the commercial providers do it. They want your to actually log in to the network. That might be so that they can trace each users’ individual network traffic. Or, sadly more often, it’s probably because they want to show you a web page covered with lots of lovely adverts (or collect your email address so they can spam you). This is a rather broken approach as it assumes that the first network request that you make will be to a web page – so that they can interrupt the request and show you their login page instead. Often your first network request might be an app (perhaps Twitter or Foursquare) which won’t know what to do when it gets a login page back rather than the app-specific data that it was expecting.

Recent Android versions try to deal with this (perhaps other platforms do too). As soon as you connect to a network, they make a request and try to work out whether you need to log in. If you do, they will tell you so. It’s all rather non-standard, but it’s the device makers trying to make the best of a bad situation.

If that was the worst of it, then public wifi wouldn’t be too bad. Most people would be happy to use it. But there are two other things that some wifi operators do which serve no purpose other than annoying people.

Remember I mentioned how the network will interrupt your first request and redirect it to the login page? Once you’ve logged in, a polite service will complete your original request and redirect you to the page you were originally trying to visit. A rude service (and there are plenty of them about) will complete the request by redirecting you to another page on their web site – assuming, no doubt, that you can never show people too many adverts.

That’s really annoying. But there’s one more thing that wifi operators do which makes that pale into insignificance.

They make you log in again after a certain period of time. This makes me really angry. Picture the scene. You go to a pub and the second thing you do (after buying a round, of course) is to check in on Foursquare. For that you need to connect to the network, so you jump through all the connection hoops. Then you put the phone back in your pocket and start to enjoy a conversation with your friends. Half an hour later it becomes vital that you know the exact date that “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” reached number one. So you reach for your phone to look it up on Wikipedia. Only to find that you need to go through all the log in rigmarole again.

This kind of experience is commonplace. And it leads to one of two outcomes. Either people turn their wifi off because it’s all too much of a faff (and then venues start to decide that it’s not worth having wifi as no-one uses it) or, alternatively, people keep jumping through the hoops and come to believe that this broken and frustrating experience is just how public wifi has to be. And that’s just not true.

Do you run public wifi? How is it set up? Please consider making it as easy as possible for people to use your wifi. What’s the point of annoying your customers?

Jungle Money

There’s been a lot of talk recently about what Nadine Dorries was paid for her appearances on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here and why she hasn’t declared that fee yet.

By following the trail laid down by Unity in this excellent blog post and listening carefully to what Dorries says in this interview with Andrew Neil (I expect that’ll be there for another week or so) it becomes pretty obvious what has happened.

She hasn’t received the money yet.

Of course, you wouldn’t usually expect to wait six months for payment for a media appearance, so what has happened?

Dorries has a service company called Averbrook and all of her media work is now undertaken by this company. Then Averbrook invoices media organisations for the work that Dorries does and the media companies pay the fees to Averbrook. The fees then sit in Averbrook’s bank account until needed.

At this point Dorries has received no money and therefore has no requirement to declare any income. In the Andrew Neil interview, she says “I have not personally benefited from going into the jungle”. She then explains that she has a company for her media work and although it isn’t made clear, it’s obvious that this company receives the money from this work.

Dorries goes on to say that when she benefits from that work, she will have to register the income. At some point in the future she will need to use this money and Averbrook will pay it to her. There are various ways for a director to take money out of a company. You might pay it as salary, you might pay it as dividends (if the director owns shares in the company) or, in extreme circumstances, you can close the company down and redistribute its assets. All of these will have varying tax implications and all of them will require Dorries to declare the income to parliament.

But here’s the interesting thing. The income that Dorries will receive from Averbrook will have no link back to its original source. The declaration will simply need to say “£X,000 dividend from Averbrook” or whatever is appropriate. There will be no way to say how much of the money comes from each individual source.

It’s a bit like money laundering. But, of course, this is all completely legal. Working through a service company is a really common way to manage tax affairs. It has tax benefits and (as we can see here) it has privacy benefits.

Of course, there’s a good argument that using a company like this goes against the spirit of the requirement for MPs to declare income. It would be hard to argue against that. But until the law is changed, you are very unlikely to see any MP stop using the system.

So what are the chances of the system changing? Rather slim I’d say. Why? Well because the people who would need to make the change are many of the people who are benefiting from this system.

But on this occasion, I’d have to say that Dorries isn’t the problem. She’s just taking advantage of a well-known system. And people aren’t asking her the right questions about it.

The Political Web

I made a thing.

On Sunday I mentioned how OpenTech always makes me feel a bit embarrassed that I’m not doing more useful stuff – particularly in the kinds of areas that OpenTech speakers care about.

Usually, real life takes over before I get a chance to do anything about it and I forget about my embarrassment until the next OpenTech. This year, I managed to harness my embarrassment and actually do something productive.

It’s not like I built anything from scratch. This is is really just me finally shipping something that I’ve been working on (off and on – more off than on) for almost five years. I built the first prototype at a hack day in 2008. I even wrote about it at the time.

The Political Web is a site that is intended to be a one-stop-shop for finding out information about British MPs. Currently each MP has a page which lists a number of standard web pages that contain information about the MP (Wikipedia, The Guardian, TheyWorkForYou – things like that). Of course each MP also has a number of non-standard pages on the internet (an official web site, a blog, perhaps a Twitter account) and adding those is going to be a harder job.

Previously two things have stopped me launching this. One was the fact that I wanted to support those all of those other sources of information. But I’ve decided to go for a “minimum viable product” approach and show you what I’ve already got. The other thing that prevented me talking about it much was that I thought I’d need someone to make it look nice (my web design skills are horrible). But the arrival of Bootstrap means that even a design ignoramus like me can build a site that looks more than half-decent.

So there you go. It’s there for you to play with. And there will (hopefully) be more coming soon. Please let me know if you find it useful.

And thanks to all the giants whose shoulders I’m standing on. The site wouldn’t exist without the TheyWorkForYou API, the Perl Dancer framework and Twitter Bootstrap.

OpenTech 2013

Yesterday was the (almost) annual OpenTech conference. For various reasons, the conference didn’t happen last year, so it was good to see it back this year.

OpenTech is the conference where I most wish I could clone myself. There are three streams of talks and in pretty much every slot there are talks I’d like like to see in more than one stream. These are the talks that I saw.

Electromagnetic Field: Tales From the UK’s First Large-Scale Hacker Camp (Russ Garrett)
Last August, Russ was involved in getting 500 hackers together in a field near Milton Keynes for a weekend of hacking. The field apparently had better connectivity than some data centres. Russ talked about some of the challenges of organising an event like this and asked for help organising the next one which will hopefully take place in 2014.

Prescribing Analytics (Bruce Durling)
Bruce is the CTO of Mastodon C, a company that helps people extract value from large amounts of data. He talked about a project that crunched NHS prescription data and identified areas where GPs seem to have a tendency to prescribe proprietary drugs rather than cheaper generic alternatives.

GOV.UK (Tom Loosemore)
Tom is Deputy Director at the Government Digital Service. In less than a year, the GDS has made a huge difference to the way that the government uses the internet. It’s inspirational to see an OpenTech stalwart like Tom having such an effect at the heart of government.

How We Didn’t Break the Web (Jordan Hatch)
Jordan works in Tom Loosemore’s team. He talked in a little more detail about one aspect of the GDS’s work. When they turned off the old DirectGov and Business Link web sites in October 2012, they worked hard to ensure that tens of thousands of old URLs didn’t break. Jordan explained some of the tools they used to do that.

The ‘State of the Intersection’ address (Bill Thompson)
Bill’s talk was couched as a warning. For years, talks at OpenTech have been about the importance of Open Data and it’s obvious that this is starting to have an effect. Bill is worried that this data can be used in ways that are antithetical to the OpenTech movement and warned us that we need to be vigilant against this.

Beyond Open Data (Gavin Starks)
Gavin has been speaking at OpenTech since the first one in 2004 (even before it was called OpenTech) and, as with Tom Loosemore, it’s great to see his ideas bearing fruit. He is now the CEO of the Open Data Institute, an organisation founded by Tim Berners-Lee to the production and use of Open Data. Gavin talked about how the new organisation has been doing in its first six months of existence.

Silence and Thunderclaps (Emma Mulqueeny)
Emma has two contradictory-sounding ideas. The Silent Club is about taking time out in our busy lives to sit and be still and silent for an hour or so; and then sending her a postcard about what you thought or did during that time. The Thunderclap is a way to get a good effect out of that stack of business cards that we all seem to acquire.

Thinking Pictures Paul Clarke)
Paul takes very good photographs and used some of them to illustrate his talk which covered some of the ethical, moral and legal questions that go through his mind when deciding which pictures to take, share and sell.

1080s – the 300seconds project (300seconds)
The 300 seconds project wants to get more women talking at conferences. And they think that one good way to achieve that is for new speakers to only have to talk for five minutes instead of the full 20- or 40-minutes (or more) that many conferences expect. The Perl community has been using Lightning Talks to do this with great success for over ten years, so I can’t see why they shouldn’t succeed.

Politics, Programming, Data and the Drogulus (Nicholas Tollervey)
Nicholas is building a global federated, decentralized and openly writable data storage mechanism. It’s a huge task and it’s just him working on the project on his commutes. Sounds like he needs a community. Which is handy as the very next talk was…

Scaling the ZeroMQ Community (Pieter Hintjens)
Peter talked about how the ZeroMQ community runs itself. Speaking as someone who has run a couple of open source project communities, some of his rules seemed a little harsh to me (“you can only expect to be listened to if you bring a patch or money”) but his underlying principles are sound. All projects should aim to reach a stage where the project founders are completely replaceable.

The Cleanweb Movement (James Smith)
I admit that I knew nothing about the Cleanweb Movement. Turns out it’s a group of people who are building web tools which make it easier for people to use less energy. Which sounds like a fine idea to me.

Repair, don’t despair! Towards a better relationship with electronics (Janet Gunter and David Mery)
Janet and David started the Restart Project, which is all about encouraging people to fix electrical and electronic devices rather than throwing them out and buying replacements. They are looking for more volunteers to help people to fix stuff (and to teach people how to teach stuff).

CheapSynth (Dave Green)
Dave Green has been missing from OpenTech for a few years, but this was a triumphant return. He told us how you can build a cheap synth from a repurposed Rock Band game controller. He ended his talk (and the day) by leading the room in a rendition of Blue Money.

As always, OpenTech was a great way to spend a Saturday. Thank you to all of the organisers and the speakers for creating such and interesting day. As I tweeted during the day:


But I spent yesterday hacking on something. More on that later.

Liverpudlian MPs

Back in the day, when I grew up on my Liverpool council estate every member of Liverpool City council was Conservative. The city had eight Conservative MPs.

This is Nadine Dorries writing on Conservative Home a couple of days ago. She should really learn that if she doesn’t check her facts, then someone else will. You’ll be shocked, I suspect, to hear that this information is less than completely true. To me, it looks like Liverpool never had more than six Tory MPs while Dorries was growing up there.

Dorries was born in 1957. So let’s look at the 1955 general election and see which MPs were elected in Liverpool then. Liverpool has nine MPs, six of which are Tory. None of the seats changed hands in 1959. In 1964, however, the Tories lost four seats, taking their total down to two. This number remained constant in 1966 and 1970. The Tories lost another seat in February 1974 and remained steady on only one seat in October. Finally, in 1979 (when Dorries is 22 – so I’m not sure it still counts as while she was growing up) the Tories doubled their number of seats to a rather unimpressive two.

So Liverpool never had more than six Tory MPs – al least not while Dorries was growing up there. But she thinks that she can just throw a fact into an article like that and people will just accept it’s true.

You should never trust a word that Dorries writes. She has frequently been proven wrong on details like this.

p.s. Tim Fenton has run this analysis too and has reached similar conclusions. And, surprise surprise, he finds that her claims about the council are nonsense too.

Doctor Who News

I’m getting bored of the number of media outlets who are taking the slightest of comments that someone makes about the upcoming Doctor Who anniversary special and spinning it into a story packed full of completely unsubstantiated nonsense. Headlines like “No Doctors To Return For 50th Special” which, when you read them turn out to be based on the fact that Colin Baker hasn’t had a phone call from Steven Moffat.

Obviously it’s good for the show that it gets all of this publicity and I don’t, for one second, expect the production team to do anything to put a stop to it. They’ll tell us what they want us to know when they want us to know it. Not a moment sooner.

But in the meantime, anyone who has ever appeared in Doctor Who has to watch what they say for fear of it being overhead by a tabloid journalist and being used to reinforce what ever story the journalist wants to write.

In an attempt to counter this, I’ve set up The plan is that I’ll read these stories, extract the actual facts that they are based on and explain what we can actually believe based on those facts. Forensic analysis of entertainment news, I suppose.

I’ve also got a page where I list the best current information we have about what is actually happening for the show’s 50th anniversary. I’ll try to keep that up to date as more details emerge over the coming months.

Oh, and there’s at Twitter account too – WhoNews50. You might want to follow that.

Let me know if you find it useful.

Money From HMRC

I got a letter from HMRC this morning – to my company, not to me personally. It basically said “we’ve been looking at the PAYE you paid in 2010/11 and it looks like you’ve overpaid by [a surprisingly large number of pounds]”.

Now 2010/11 was the year that I was having some difficulties with my accountants. The difficulties eventually got so bad that I switched to my new accountants (who I’m still very happy with). So it doesn’t really surprise me that something went wrong that year, although the amount (it’s about 25% of the PAYE/NI I paid that year) is impressive.

What really surprises me is the tone of this letter. Having told me that I’ve overpaid (and, helpfully, pointed out the exact extra payment that I made) the letter goes on to say:

Before I can agree to either a refund or a credit, please let me the reason the overpayment has arisen


Please complete the enclosed P35D giving a full explanation as to how the overpayment occurred.

Below are some example of reasons I cannot accept to justify an overpayment

  • Duplicate payments with no evidence to explain why
  • Statements such as ‘Payment(s) made in error’ with no further explanation
  • The overpayment is due to monthly payments which do not match our records
  • Any other explanation without evidence to support it

I’m finding it hard to read that in any way other than “we know we’ve got some of your money but you can’t have it back until you’ve explained in detail just how crap your record-keeping is”.

You’ve got my money. You know it’s my money. Either my accountants or I screwed up in some way. There’s no more detailed explanation than that. Just give it back to me, you bastards.

Week Notes 3


I wrote a piece about the ECHR and Christianity. The kind of thing this blog used to be about all the time.


My weight is still stalled at around 14 stone. I lost a bit last week but then put it back on again over the last couple of days. I know exactly what the problem is – I’m not exercising enough. But the weather isn’t exactly conducive to the kind of long walks I was going last year.

I’ve signed up to’s MyHealth programme in the hope that it will galvanise me into doing something.

In other news, I was at a gig last week and realised that I could see the act a lot better with my glasses on. These are the glasses that are supposed to be for reading a working on a computer – not for looking at a singer fifteen metres away. I guess it’s time to have another eye test. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up wearing glasses most of the time.

Training & Speaking

Lots of training courses looming. Not much going to prepare for them. Must pull my finger out and do something about that.


I saw Sinéad O’Connor at the LSO St. Lukes. She was great. I’m already booked to see her again in March.


Started to watch Utopia. That’s all very confusing. But it looks like it will be interesting. We’re also watching Roots for the first time for over thirty years. I had no idea that LeVar Burton played Kunta Kinte.


I started uploading photos from our South African holiday. It’s the first time that I had really used the Nikon D90 that I bought eighteen months ago. I’m pleased with the results. I should really spend more time taking photos.

ECHR and Christianity

Today was the day that the ECHR published its verdicts on the four Christians who had claimed that their human rights had been violated by their employers preventing them from acting in ways conducive to their faith. The four cases were as follows:

Nadia Eweida works as a check-in assistant from British Airways. She wanted to wear a cross necklace visibly at work and BA said that all jewellery had to be concealed. BA have since changed this uniform policy to allow staff to display symbols of faith.

Shirley Chaplin was a nurse who was asked not to wear her cross necklace by the hospital where she worked. They said that it was a health and safety issue as the cross could be grabbed by a patient.

Lillian Ladele was a registrar for Islington Borough Council. She refused to carry out civil partnership ceremonies as her church does not condone homosexuality.

Gary McFarlane was a relationship counsellor who was sacked when he refused to give sex therapy guidance to same-sex couples.

All four took their cases to the ECHR after failing to get satisfaction from various UK employment tribunals.

The ECHR upheld Ewieda’s complaint, but overturned all of the others. This seems to me to be an eminently sensible solution. In reaching the decision, the court weighed the human rights of the complainants (i.e. their freedom to follow and express their religion) against other factors.

In the case of Ewieda the court decided that there was no real reason for her not to wear a cross necklace at work. As I said above, BA had already changed their uniform rules in line with this long before the ruling was published.

In the case of Chaplin the court decided that the health and safety issues raised by the hospital outweighed her freedom to express her religion. In other words, your freedom to express your religion can be restricted if it could cause a danger to others or to yourself.

In the cases of Ladele and McFarlane the court decided that the equality issues outweighed their rights to express their religion. It’s important that everyone can expect equal service from their local council and their relationship counsellor so it’s acceptable for an employer to take action against an employee who feels unable to offer their services on an equal basis to all customers. In other words, your freedom to follow your religion can be restricted if it makes you unable to conform to equality legislation.

I think this is an important and useful ruling. It’s basically saying that if your religious beliefs are at odds with the law then you’d better leave them behind when you enter the public arena. It also says that, yes, you have freedom to practise your religion but that there is a hierarchy of human rights and that this one is pretty near the bottom of the pile. Don’t expect it to survive a confrontation with just about any other human right.

Over the weekend a large group of Catholics wrote to the Telegraph saying that the proposed equal marriage laws could threaten their religious freedom. When I tweeted about that letter, I (semi-)joked that I couldn’t really see a problem with that. We can now see that the ECHR agrees with me – society’s demand for equality will trump religion’s demand for bigotry. And that is, of course, exactly how it should be in a civilised country.

One other interesting point about this story is the way that much of the media has reported it. To take a couple of examples, the BBC headline is “British Airways Christian employee Nadia Eweida wins case” and the Daily Mail’s (which seems to be in a state of flux) is currently “Christian British Airways employee tells of joy as after European court finds she DID suffer discrimination over silver cross”. In both cases the editor has ignored the majority of the decisions and focused on the complaint that was upheld. Of course, both stories go on to mention the other cases, but if you read the comments you’ll see that both stories seem to have a large proportion of readers who haven’t got beyond the headline before commenting and don’t realise that this isn’t the victory for Christianity that they seem to assume.

I see this as a victory for secularism. You can believe and do whatever you think your religion wants to believe or do but if those beliefs and action clash with what society expects, you will lose.