An Interesting Evening

(But the “Chinese curse” kind of interesting)

This evening I got home at my usual time, picked up my post from the doormat and was sitting on the sofa reading it. Suddenly I heard an almighty crash followed by the sound of running water. It was coming from the kitchen. I ran in and found this.

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And this.

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The ceiling had collapsed, scattering rubble and water everywhere. And water was still pouring out of the hole. Looking up into the hole, I saw this.

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It seems that something had been leaking into the lagging for a long time. The lagging had been soaking up the water, getting heavier and heavier, until today was the day it got too heavy for the ceiling to support it any more.

I got on the phone to our buildings insurance people. They have registered my claim and are sending a surveyor round next Tuesday (six days seems rather a long time to wait). Then I got in touch with Aspect to get a plumber round to see if he could work out what was going on. While I was waiting for him, I cleared up the most important bits of the mess – cleaning and drying the chairs and moving the table out from under the drips. The plumber arrived about an hour later and started to investigate.

What he found seemed to bear out my theory. But the question was, where was the water coming from. The bathroom is directly above the hole, so there were plenty of suspects. But he soon tracked it down to the shower and fixed it. Then, before he left, he ripped out the wet lagging so that there was no water left to drip on the floor.

So everything seems to work properly again. I haven’t had to turn the water off and there’s no longer water dripping into the kitchen. There’s just rubble and water all over the the kitchen floor and a big hole in the ceiling. The insurance company will pay for someone to fix the hole, but I’m going to have to do as much as I can to tidy up. I’ve done some this evening but I’m bored and going to bed now. I’ll do some more tomorrow.

But this certainly hasn’t been the evening I had planned.

Some of you will remember that we had a lot of work done in the house in 2010. The leaky shower was fitted as part of that work. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the shower has been slowly filling the ceiling with water since then. Bloody builders.

Amanda Palmer vs The Daily Mail

I’ve obviously been slacking in my Daily Mail watching duties as this completely passed me by.

Two weeks ago, the Mail published a write-up of Amanda Palmer’s appearance at Glastonbury (don’t bother following that link – it’s really not worth reading). I say “write-up” rather than “review” because they didn’t mention her songs or the performance at all. No, they just fixated on one aspect of the show.

At some point during the show, Amanda’s bra rode up and for a while you could see her left nipple.

That’s what “Daily Mail Reporter” thought was the most interesting part of her set. That’s what he chose to write a whole article around. Oh, and a little bit at the end pointing out that her fans were annoyed that the BBC didn’t broadcast her set.

Of course they had a photo too. Which they published so that their readers knew exactly what they should be getting enraged about. The comments soon filled up with Mail readers who felt it was important to tell us that they had never heard of her. And others who were impelled to share their disgust at the fact that she doesn’t shave her armpits. It was all deeply depressing.

But this was all two weeks ago. Why am I telling you now?

Well, last night Amanda Palmer played a gig in London. And she got her revenge. As she came on for her encore, she sang this (warning: probably not safe for most workplaces).

She specifically asked us to film it and share it as far and wide as possible. So this is me doing my bit.

This video just surpassed Martin Robbins’ Fuck You Daily Mail talk as my favourite anti-Mail video.

Update: Found a higher quality version of the video.

Three Tom Robinson Gigs

I’ve been thinking about Tom Robinson recently. There’s an anthology of the old Tom Robinson Band recordings coming out on Monday and on Tuesday I’m going to see him at a show celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of Power in the Darkness. But this has all got me thinking about the first three times I saw him play. They were three very different gigs.

Ipswich Gaumont – 10th April 1979

Growing up in north Essex, the Ipswich Gaumont was nearest place that we could see mid-level bands. I went there many times between 1978 and 1981 (at which point I moved to London and going to see bands became much easier).

This was one of the dates on the tour to promote the Tom Robinson Band’s second album, TRB Two. Somewhere I still have the programme from the tour (really just a double-sided print folded in half) – I should find it and scan it in.

I don’t remember much about this gig. And what I do remember is probably slightly mixed up with a gig from this tour that was broadcast on Radio One at about the same time. I recorded that broadcast (in the time-honoured manner of putting a microphone next to the radio and glaring at anyone who dared talk) and listened to it a lot over the years. I only lost it when I threw away all of my cassettes about ten years ago. I believe that the “Wycombe Town Hall” gig that is included on the new anthology might be the same broadcast. I’m looking forward to hearing it again.

That was the only time I saw TRB. The next two gigs were very different. I can’t even remember for sure the order I saw them in.

Islington Folk Club – Summer 1982

I was living in a City University hall of residence in Islington and when I heard that Tom Robinson was playing at a folk club just round the corner, I couldn’t believe it. I was sure it couldn’t be the same Tom Robinson, but I went along just in case.

And, of course, it was him. This was the first time I became aware of Tom outside of TRB and the performance was very different to the previous one. Tom played a lot of songs that I heard for the first time that night and now know well. In particular, I remember 1967 and a cover version of Walk on the Wild Side.

I can find no mention of this show anywhere on the internet. I don’t think I dreamt it, but I’d love to have some evidence that it actually happened. Was anyone else there.

At the time I was social secretary at The City University. So at the end of the gig I approached Tom and asked if he would be interested in doing a similar show at the Students Union. He suggested that I should contact his agent. I did that, but the agent didn’t seem at all interested in finding Tom gigs so nothing ever came of it.

Bloomsbury Theatre – 1982(?)

It was certainly a theatre in Bloomsbury, but I’m not 100% certain of the name. This was a very strange night. Tom was playing support for The Passions (remember I’m In Love With A German Film Star?) but there was another support act which was a one-act play. There may have been some comedy involved too. I don’t really remember Tom’s set. I think it might have been the first time I heard Atmospherics.

This page on The Passions’ web site at least confirms that something like this did happen. It says:

Next came the question of how to promote the album. For some long forgotten reason the band were unwilling to tour at that point and so together with Cairo Management came up with the idea of doing a week of variety shows at the Bloomsbury Theatre in central London instead. ‘New Variety’ or ‘Alternative Cabaret’ was taking off at the time with the CAST theatre group running shows at pubs across London. Quite how a band such as the Passions fitted into this concept is puzzling to say the least. However the idea was followed through and acts were booked including a strange little play about someone who lived inside a sofa, the band’s friends Kevin McNally and Veronica Quilligan (who acted as comperes in addition to performing comedy sketches) and Tom Robinson.  The show was booked for five nights and apart from the first night, ticket sales were abysmal so the band pulled out after only two shows. As a result of this the band were sued for loss of earnings by the theatre group performing the strange play.

I guess I’m lucky that I saw one of the first two shows. Was anyone else there? Can you share any more memories of the night?

After that I’ve lost track of the number of times I saw Tom play. But it was a lot. Largely at festivals or at his annual gigs for fans. It’s been a while since I saw him though. I’m really looking forward to seeing him on Tuesday.

Pete Waterman and Girl Guides

Pete Waterman is, of course, a complete idiot. I’m sure everyone reading this is fully aware of that fact. But I wonder if the producers of BBC Breakfast knew just how big an idiot he is when they invited him to be their guest newspaper reviewer this morning. Perhaps they were just desperate to find someone concious who was willing to be in Salford at 7am on a Sunday morning. Or perhaps they were relying on him to say something stupid – in which case he didn’t disappoint.

On the section I saw, he picked on the story that the guides are dropping references to god from their oath. It was clear that Waterman isn’t in favour of this change, but it took him a while to come up with a coherent reason. First he babbled about “tradition” and “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” before coming up with this gem

All religions have a god. It didn’t say which god they were talking about.

Let me just unpick that for you. Waterman is obviously coming at this from the perspective of a typical Daily Mail reader. He thinks that the reason for the change is so that the non-Christian religions don’t get offended. He thinks it’s Allah and friends that are the problem here. I bet he was a couple seconds away from claiming it was “political correctness gone mad”.

But, of course, that’s not what this change is addressing at all. The majority of of non-Christian religious people will have no problem at all pledging allegiance to “god” because (as Waterman very nearly gets right) “all religions have a god”.

No, this change addresses a different problem. According to the 2011 census, 25% of the population have no religion. And that’s the people that this change is for. 25% of potential Girl Guides were either avoiding the Guides or taking an oath that meant nothing to them. Those girls can now happily join the Guides without having to swear an oath that they don’t believe.

It’s a good change of course. One that opens up the Guiding movement to a whole new group of potential recruits. I can’t see why anyone would object to it. Well, certainly not if they’ve understood the reason. Waterman clearly didn’t.

Oh, and perhaps someone could send Waterman a beginners guide to comparative religion. You really don’t need to look very hard to find a religion that doesn’t have a god. Buddhism springs to mind.

This is why you should think twice before inviting a record producer to comment on current affairs. Although I suppose it’s also why I should stop watching Breakfast News.

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.