Ten Years in an Open-Necked Blog

Can’t be anyone in the London NooMeeja scene without a blog. So here’s mine.

Welcome to the New Blog in Town – 10 July 2002

That was the sum total of the first post on this blog which was made ten years ago today. I like to think that some of the subsequent posts were of a higher quality than that.

Blogging has been patchy over the years. We’re currently going through a bit of a lean period. But there have been times when I’ve been posting several times a day. Of course, a lot of those posts were “hey, have you seen this interesting article” and these days that will probably just get thrown out on Twitter.

I don’t claim that I was a particularly early blog. 2002 was the year that the world discovered blogging in a big way. But I expect that when I started blogs were numbered in the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of millions we have today.

This blog has changed a few times over the years. It’s now run on different technology. The address has changed at least once. And the URL scheme isn’t the same as the one I started with. But I think that I’ve always put redirections in place so that anyone who linked to that first post (not that anyone would) should find that their link still works.

I wonder what blogging will look like in ten years time.

p.s. A (virtual) pint to anyone who gets the reference in this post’s title. It has nothing at all to do with this blog.


Dorries Round-Up

Update (28th October): I’ve just been shown The Nardinia Chronicles, a new blog with a lot of detail about Dorries’ idiocy.

A round-up of all of the blog posts that have been made about Nadine Dorries since she was cleared by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards last Thursday. If anything is missing then please let me know.

And for more historical context on this, here’s humphreycushion‘s similar list of blog posts that followed Dorries’ recent disablist comments.


She Writes Fiction

Given what we now know about the content of Nadine Dorries’ blog, the title of this post (which I’ve reused here) seems somewhat appropriate. Dorries must have known that John Lyon’s report on her was about to be published so it might be seen as slightly disingenuous to write about other people publishing fiction as fact given the revelations that were just around the corner.

It’s also interesting to revisit some of her old blog posts and play “spot the 30% that is true”. We could start with the “She Writes Fiction” post, but it’s hard to get anywhere near a 30% figure for facts in that piece.

Or there’s the “Hand of Hope” post (and its sequel, “Hand of Truth“) where Dorries delights in overturning pretty much all scientific evidence on pre-natal surgery. Far less than 30% facts there too.

Perhaps we should look at her posts about the expenses investigations last year. Here’s the post that contains her response to the Telegraph and the one where she expands on the previous one. But no, those are both clearly complete nonsense as the Lyon report demonstrates. Or maybe the one where she claims that everyone in Westminster “fears a suicide“. Is that only 70% true? Perhaps everyone in Westminster really feared a paper cut.

Or how about the one where she fearlessly refused to kowtow to the speaker. Is only 30% of that true? Perhaps she just thought about doing it.

Last night, in an interview, Dorries claimed that she may have got the 70/30 figures the wrong way round. But does that really make a difference? Is a MP who tells lies on her blog 30% of the time rally much better than one who does it 70% of the time? Is that what the voters of Mid Beds really want from their MP?

She’s clearly gone too far this time. A lot of this morning’s press is covering this story. It’s even in the Daily Mail. Her constituents will know about this. What will their reaction be? I know that Mid Beds is one of those constituencies where the Tories can never lose. But surely the constituents deserve a better quality of MP than this? Surely the local Conservative Association can’t ignore this. Someone must be having a quiet word with Dorries about now. And if the local party won’t ask her to stand down immediately or deselect her before the next election, then there’s clearly only one option open to us.

Where’s Martin Bell? It’s time for another Tatton moment.



In the middle of last week I upgraded this site to Movable Type 5. And at (I assume) the same time comments stopped working.

It seems that it was some incompatibility between the MT5 Javascript that drives the comment system and the old MT4 templates that I was using. I’ve now rebuilt the site using MT5 templates and everything seems to be working.

Sorry for the inconvenience. If you’ve tried to leave a comment recently and just got a never-ending spinner then I hope you’ll try again now.

And a tip to people upgrading to MT5 – rebuild your templates.

Update: Looks like I spoke too soon. Commenting is still completely broken. I’m looking into it. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Update 2: Ok, that seems to be fixed now. It was a corrupt database table. Should work ok now. Feel free to comment away.


Overcomplicating Matters

It is, of course, a truism that the larger and more complex a project is, the less likely it is to come in on budget, on spec or in time. When the project in question involves IT, the chances of any of the original targets being met approach zero.

This is why one of the tenets of the Agile Programming movement is “the simplest thing that can possibly work”. When faced with a problem, solve only the current problem. Don’t waste time complicating matters by adding extra features (“you ain’t gonna need it” is another of their slogans).

Writing a blog engine is a pretty simple project. A reasonable programmer could produce a pretty good first attempt in a weekend given the right tools. But ask any of the worlds most talented programmers for a blog engine and the chances are that they won’t spend the next two days writing one. Because that’s not the simplest solution.

The world already has more blog engines than it really needs. And many of the existing tools are quite capable of handling just about any requirement that you might have. Unless you have very specific requirements there is just no need to write your own.

Hold that thought.

Five or six years ago, blogs started to become popular. Tim Ireland wrote this article. What Tim realised was that the blog format was a great tool that politicians could use to communicate with the electorate. By their very nature blogs encourage two-way communication. The blogger posts information that they want people to be aware of and people can add their comments. Also, the web feeds that are an essential feature of blogging engines make it easy to disseminate and aggregate this information.

Later on, Tim launched the Political Weblog Project, where he offered to set up blogs for any politician who wanted one. What Tim and his team would have done was to set up blogs using the existing free tools like Blogger and Movable Type. They also wanted to offer advice on the most effective way to use blogs. As I understand it, only two MPs (Tom Watson and Boris Johnson) took Tim up on his offer.

Time passes. At some point in the last couple of years the popularity and usefulness of blogs finally started to seep into Westminster. MPs started to want blogs. A small number of MPs did “the simplest thing that could possibly work” and got a blog on Blogger or WordPress. Many others didn’t do that. And that’s where things start going wrong.

I have an interest in blogging MPs. I run a site called Planet Westminster which attempts to aggregate all of the blog postings from Westminster MPs. At the last count there were about 40 MPs blogging. I say “about” as it’s hard to keep track. Some MPs have a burst of enthusiasm for a few weeks and then give up. It’s hard to be sure when their blogs are dead so I can remove them from the list.

But the biggest problem I have is that most MPs blogs are crap. And I don’t mean that what they write in them is crap (though that’s certainly true for many of them). I mean that they are crap from a technical perspective. When faced with the desire to set up a blog, it seems that most MPs had no idea where to start. And that for some reason many of them ended up with horrible proprietary systems that bolted on to their existing web site. These systems were often written by people who really didn’t seem to understand the simplest things about how blogs or the web worked[1]. One good example is Nadine Dorries blog. A basic requirement for a blog is that each entry has an address (a “permalink”) which refers to that entry uniquely and permanently. Dorries’ blog has some weird date-based system which gets horribly confused if she blogs more than once a day.

Planet Westminster is a feed aggregator. So most of the contact that I have with MPs’ blogs is through the web feeds that they produce. Web feeds seem simple enough to produce, but the various formats are picky enough that it’s a hard job to get exactly right. That’s another reason for using the existing tools. They get it right far more than some home-brewed system will. My local MP is Martin Linton and it was a problem with his web feed that galvanised me into writing this article. I’ve been tracking Linton’s web feed for several years. It often vanished without warning and, on further investigation I find that it has changed address (there are methods for handling that without losing existing subscribers – but that’s another area where MPs’ IT knowledge seems to be lacking).

Earlier today I realised that I had seen nothing from Linton’s feed for some weeks. Checking his site I saw that the feed has moved again. The new address is:

Now, I know I can be a picky about wanting nice-looking URLs. But, honestly, how much faith can you put in a system that produces URLs like that? Unsurprisingly, the answer is “not very much”. Checking the feed with a feed validator revels a relatively small number of errors, but they are really serious ones. In particular, having incomplete URLs in a web feed renders it almost completely useless. I should run all of the MPs’ feeds through the validator. Well, really, the people creating their feeds should. They might learn something useful.

So we have a situation where a small number of MPs are publishing blogs and most of the ones who are doing so are using seriously sub-standard tools. And this is where we come back to my original point. The simple blog systems that are already out there are perfectly adequete for what our MPs want to do. In most cases using the tools is free and it takes less than an hour to set up a blog that is more functional than the ones that most MPs currently have.

I know that most MPs run their office on a tiny staff. And that they probably don’t employ IT experts. But every week thousands of people set up blogs and they do it using the existing tools – because it is cheap and effective. Even people like Iain Dale who know nothing at all about blogging have been able to choose a decent blog platform. Why do our MPs feel that they need something more complex? Why do they waste time and money on systems that aren’t as good as the free solutions? It doesn’t need to be that complicated.

I believe that Tim Ireland’s points from 2003 are still valid. Blogs can be an important and useful tool for politicians. And in the run-up to next year’s General Election they will become more and more important. I predict we’ll see a large increase in the number of blogging MPs over the next year.

So I’m going to repeat Tim’s offer from 2005. If any MP wants a blog set up for them,then I’m happy to help them or to put them in touch with someone who can help them. It needn’t be expensive. It needn’t be complex. But it can be very effective. And it will work.

[1] A lesser writer might make the point that a large proportion of these broken system are written in ASP. But we’re way above such petty point-scoring here.


Review of 2008: Most Popular Posts

This blog has been running for over six years and I’ve never done a review of the year before – so this is all very experimental. Today I’m going to list the ten most popular entries from this year (as measured by number of views) and tomorrow I’ll list my ten favourite entries.

So here are the ten most read entries. If nothing else, the list certainly demonstrates how much of my traffic is driven by getting high placings in Google.

1/ The BBC’s Merlin
My rant about the BBC’s terrible recent new version of the Arthurian Legend is incredibly high on Google. The entry was only published in September but but it has almost twice the number of hits of the next entry.

2/ Pub Quiz
3/ Derren Brown – The System
A couple of entries about Derren Brown took second and third places. In February I wrote about his TV programme, The System, and in April I wrote a description of a night I spent being an unwitting part of another Derren Brown show.

4/ Quantum of Solace
In January, the title of the new James Bond film was announced and I used that as an excuse to write about my dislike of Bond films and my opinion that the they’d be better if they followed the books more closely. It picked up a lot of Googlejuice early on but, of course, now the film is out it has been pushed out by sites with far bigger SEO budgets.

5/ Is Sarah Palin a Wiccan?
A Guardian office joke gets turned into a blog post. I can understand why it’s the first Google result for phrases like “sarah palin wiccan” (there aren’t very many sites containing that phrase), but what puzzles me is why so many people a searching for the phrase.

6/ Baby Bible Bashers
Something a bit more serious (at last). Channel 4 broadcast a documentary about some children whose parents had encouraged them to get involved with christianity at an obscenely young age. It was a deeply troubling programme.

7/ Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
A post about the massively backfiring publicity campaign for the creationist propaganda film. I’ve seen the film since and keep meaning to write about it – but it’s hard to find the right words.

8/ Proof of Residence
A pretty standard rant about my local council preventing me from doing something pretty simple.

9/ Recording TV Revisited
A follow-up to a 2005 post talking about the combination of technologies that we use in my house to ensure that we never miss a TV programme that we want to watch.

10/ Combining Google Accounts
A post which made it into the top 10 despite only being published in November. If I had treid to combine my Google accounts earlier in the year, this post would almost certainly have been much higher.

So those are the posts that you’ve been reading over the last year. Thanks for showing some interest in my witterings. Tomorrow I’ll list the ten articles that I like the most (and which, for some reason, weren’t popular enough to make this list).



I had a little bit of an accident over the weekend when I accidentally started to restore an old back-up of the database that runs this blog. I noticed what I what I was doing pretty quickly and stopped it before too much damage was done.

But I lost the last few days entries and comments. Luckily I hadn’t rebuilt the site, so I still had the missing stuff in the HTML files. I’ve restored the entries and I’ve got copies of the comments which I’ll put back when I have command-line access to the database this evening.

Sorry about that.


Blog Fixed (Hopefully)

Regular readers will know that this blog has experienced some problems over the last few months. Since I last moved to new hardware this blog has been running really slowly and more often than not any attempt to publish content (whether a blog entry or a comment) has ended with a server error. This has made me less likely to write here and has made you far less likely to comment. Which is sad.

When the problem first arose I prodded at it a bit, but nothing I did made any difference. So I decided to ignore the problem in the hope that a Movable Type upgrade would fix it at some point in the future.

Over the last couple of weeks, that strategy has been causing me large amounts of grief. The problem is that any of the programs that publish content to this site are taking such a long time to complete that the connection times out. So what should take a few seconds is actually taking two or three minutes. Over the last few weeks the amount of comment spam I get has risen to new levels. And even though none of that spam ever gets published, each request runs the MT comment program. For about two or three minutes.

As a result, when I come under a comment spam attack (which is happening several times a day) I get dozens of copies of the comment program running simultaneously (because they aren’t finishing quickly enough). The load
on the server goes right up and all of the sites on this server stop responding. I’ve been having to reboot the server on an almost daily basis. Sorry if you’ve experienced problems with any of my sites being unresponsive.

On a separate front, I decided to move hardware (again). This was prompted by the fact that the people who I rent my
colo box from have started to support Centos as well as Fedora (they have Ubuntu too, but I’m far happier in rpm-world). Centos is a far better distribution for servers than Fedora so I’m in the process of moving.

Last night I started to move my blog on the hope that the new hardware and new operating system might somehow fix the performance problems. As part of the process I needed to dump the database that runs the blog on the old server. Some way into the dump process, MySQL told me that it couldn’t dump the mt_log table as it was corrupt. I logged in to the database server and ran “fix table mt_log”. The dump then ran successfully.

Then it struck me. Any time you publish content on an MT site, you write to the mt_log table.  And the symptom I was seeing was that a process would complete all of its work
and then hang. And presumably all of the logging goes on at the end of the process.

So, hopefully fixing the mt_log table has fixed the performance problems. I was able to successfully rebuild the whole site in thirty minutes last night. Previously it would have taken hours and had a good chance of failing somewhere along the line.

We’re running on the new hardware and operating system too, Which, all in all, should mean that the performance problems are no more. I’ll start blogging a bit more and hopefully you’ll start commenting a bit more too.

And here’s a good tip for fixing MT performance problems.
Use the MySQL “check table” and “fix table” commands regularly. I’ll certainly be looking to schedule an automatic job to do that.

Sorry for any inconvenience. Regular service has (hopefully) been restored.


Blog URLs

Argh. I’ve just noticed that having rebuilt all of the entries in the blog, the URLs have all changed. For example the URL of my entry about finding Perl programmers in London has changed from to They’ve dropped the “archives” directory. No doubt there’s a good reason for it, but until I put a some redirections in place, I’m going to have lost all the Googlejuice that those entries used to have. And all the Technorati pings too.

I’m beginning to wish I’d just stuck with the old version of the software.

I promise to get back to blogging about something other than my blog any day now.


Blog Status

I’ve had a bit of a play, and I’m not convinced that Movable Type Open Source 4.1 is quite as stable as Six Apart want us to think it is.

Yesterday I was having trouble publishing pages. I was getting timeouts which were leading to 500 errors. I still haven’t been able to republish all of the old entries that I imported over the weekend.

I’ve had this problem before when upgrading MT and one cause seems to be incompatibilities between older page templates and newer versions of MT. I hadn’t made too many changes to the templates (since the last time I upgraded) so I reset all of the templates to the defaults and started again.

At that point it looked like I was able to publish pages without getting 500 errors. But the pages I was publishing were all missing the various bits of information that appear on the right-hand side of the page. A bit of digging revealed that this version of MT uses something called widget sets to determine what is in that part of the page and that my default set of templates had no widget sets defined. That was pretty easy to fix (although it still needs a bit of tweaking – the “About this page” widget, for example, looks broken when it appears on the main index page).

Also, and throughout all of this tweaking the blog continuously seemed to forget the minimalist white theme that I had applied and reset itself to the minimalist red version that seems to be the default. I’m sticking with that until I get far closer to the finished design.

So, at this point it looked like I could publish pages (albeit slowly) and that they had approximately the correct widgets on them. Before going to the hassle of republishing all 1,400 entries I thought I’d add my Google Analytics tracking code to the templates.

And at that point it starts going wrong again. I’ve started getting 500 errors again when I publish a page. Maybe it’s the Google Analytics code that’s doing it, but I can’t really see how a bit of Javascript can cause this problem.

So currently I have a blog that is has about 400 completely unpublished entries, about a thousand entries that are published but that have no Google Analytics code and are missing the page widgets and about twenty entries that look approximately as I want them (but in the wrong colour). And that’s before I start thinking about the category and archive pages.

Oh, and the search program seems to take over all of the CPU whenever it’s run, thereby bringing the system to its knees. And publishing any page (which includes adding a comment) will give a 500 error.

I’ve used Movable Type for a long time. I’ve always been a big fan. But why is upgrading it such a problem? I’ve spent so much time fixing the upgrade that I haven’t had time to write about anything other than the upgrades. That’s really not what this blog is supposed to about.

I’m sure the this new version looks great if you’re starting a blog from scratch. But for people upgrading a blog that has been going for a few years, it all looks like a bit of a pain.

Of course, with the new Open Source version of MT, it’s finally fine for me to go in and fix these problems myself. But I’m not really interested in writing blog software. Blog software should be a tool that I can just use. When maintaining a tool take more time than using the tool then you have to wonder if you’re using the right tool.

Maybe I’ll have another look at WordPress. Or Blogger.