The Smith's Journal - December 2004

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New Herts LUG venue

Our merry little Herts Linux User Group has finally escaped the noisy smoky pub we used to meet up in, and sorted out a proper venue, at Shephall Community Centre in Stevenage. For this first session there, we set up a few machines on a little network to see different Linux distributions in action and show each other top tips. A successful evening, which should pave the way for an exciting future, especially if we can persuade the management to let us install Broadband internet access for them (we did ;-)


Mercury retrograde madness

The Mercury retrograde situation is certainly having detrimental effects, causing all manner of communications, travel and equipment problems. Ade and Immanuel didn't make it to our drum class this time, but promise to return next time with a posse of Africans. Today there was a power cut, albeit only for five seconds, but enough to take out my computer and clocks, and set off a cacophany of burglar alarms in the street. Yesterday I even managed to pull out the mains plug of the computer I was currently using. Luckily my data was recovered as I use a journalled filesystem, but considering recent fears about the instability of the aging National Grid, maybe it is time to get that UPS I've always been promising for my machine room. Making a complete pillock of myself in public on a worldwide mailing list wasn't too clever either, but I try and keep smiling.


Drum fund

Our drumming group had a great idea: instead of waste money buying each other naff/unwanted Christmas presents, we can each contribute to a kitty to save up and buy some dun dun drums which will benefit the whole group. If ten of us each put in, say, twenty quid (or less as they wish/can afford), and then add a few pounds each session, we will soon have enough to get some proper basslines rolling. The maths:

Say you have four close friends in the group. Instead of spending a fiver on each of them, invest twenty pounds, which will be worth that in value to *each* person in the group. And how about for their birthdays too... And if you have more than four close friends, well aren't you lucky then?! ;-) Surely a good friend is worth an hour's work, or ten minutes if you earn Ian's salary! (*ducks*)

Of course, this idea could be used to benefit any community project, and you don't have to be a member of the group to contribute; anyone not knowing what to buy me for my birthday is welcome to donate. It is my dream to one day get a set of Ghanaian drums to play the Ashanti court music that I learned at Dartington back in 2001, which really rocked. Santa? :-)

Charitable Christmas presents

On a similar note, many people have this year been buying charity Christmas presents for their friends, directly from charity websites. We are choosing to opt out of the annual con-$umerican nightmare of battling through overcrowded shops and streets, striving to find that perfect gift-to-remember for the friend/relation who already has everything, which invariably ends up being unwanted anyway, just more waste in our throwaway society. Our generation has been indoctrinated into believing that this is what we should all do, otherwise Christmas won't be right. But if you ask most people (aged > 15 anyway :-) what they want for Christmas, they usually reply "Oh - I don't really know..." This is because most of us are lucky enough to want for nothing. And what really makes Christmas special is spending quality time together with loved ones and friends, making memories to cherish: the little things in life that bring smiles.

So instead of getting the SUV out of the garage, sitting in traffic jams, getting stuck in car parks and cashdesk queues, and being subjected to mind-numbing sleigh-bell muzak all in the pursuit of cheap tat, just wander over to Oxfam Unwrapped, Amnesty International, FreeTibet, Greenpeace (USA), and FairTrade, and buy your loved one a flock of chickens for some malnourished African family to have eggs for breakfast each day. You can bet that this will be the Christmas present that friends talk about most, and just think what effect it will have on the recipient: "Why has some kind stranger given us this?" It's about time we sent out a message to The Chancellor that we have had enough 'retail therapy'.

Pay It Forward

This is an excellent example of the concept of "Pay It Forward". Ruth told me the wonderful story of this novel/film, which is a brilliant meme to spread:

A child is given a school assignment to think of something that would make the world a better place. He draws a triangle, with one person at the top. That person does a favour for three different people without being asked, shown on the diagram connected to him by lines to the triangle's base. Instead of paying him back for the favour, he asks them each to pay it forward to three other people, and get them to do the same :-) Hence, from each node sprouts three more nodes, ad infinitum:

                *                   One person does three favours
              / | \
             /  |  \
            /   |   \
           /    |    \
          /     |     \
         /      |      \
        /       |       \
       /        |        \
      /         |         \
     /          |          \
    *           *           *       Three people each do three favours
   /|\         /|\         /|\
  / | \       / | \       / | \
 /  |  \     /  |  \     /  |  \
*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   Nine people each do three favours, etc...

("Every Man and Woman Is A Star" - Ultramarine, quoting Aleister Crowley)

Concepts like this make the world go round, not economics (unless you are foolish enough to believe the propaganda of economists). The Free Software/Open Source movement and Minerva Cuevas's Mejor Vida Corporation ('Better Life Co.', who give away their products) are other examples of people doing good things because they want to and realise that helping others helps them too. Thatcherism is dead, long live the 21st Century.

[UPDATE: The love flows onward in this marvellous thread.]


A new image

Today I managed to fall asleep after work, sitting here at my computer! Another night of reading: my website-that-is-my-Life has decided it wants a facelift, and so, inspired by a recent Slashdot discussion about scanning, I've been checking out Philip Greenspun's excellent article about Adding Images To Your Site, as well as Good Website Design and Managing A Digital Image Library. Despite the many advantages of digital cameras, I'm still too fond of my Canon EOS600 analogue SLR to abandon it, and so find myself agreeing with this guy even four years hence. My plans to buy a flatbed scanner have now changed to a proper negative scanner for better results, but I am still waiting for some form of Digital ICE to be implemented in Free Software (VueScan is sadly non-Free). Meanwhile, daring to play with some image enhancements in The GIMP, instead of merely cropping and touching-up my photos, I have discovered a new world, and realise that some of my website's images need work; I'll just have to clone an army of me to find the time...

Eyesore of the Month

James Howard Kunstler has a nice line in socio-economic and architectural criticism, for example, nasty dorms, crumpled village, cool concrete womb room, sad bench, picture windows and pillars.


Car Free

Plans have been announced for a High-Occupancy-Vehicle lane on the M1 between Luton and St. Albans, to encourage car-sharing; the idea of drivers actively seeking hitch-hikers with people standing waiting for lifts (or 'slugging' as it is known) makes a refreshing change. This section of motorway is a notorious accident blackspot due to people overtaking slow vehicles on the hills; surely restricting the traffic will only make things worse, unless a new lane is created first. Although it seems a good idea in principle, it fails to address the real issue. One woman on a radio phone-in, who said she regularly commutes from Leicester to London, complained that she wouldn't be able to find anyone to share her car for that whole journey, completely missing the point that anyone who lives more than twenty miles from their place of work is the problem. Another good suggestion involved building an express lane which runs straight from Luton to London with no exits.

Instead of building yet more roads, I have always thought they should take this idea further by having a road/tunnel that runs directly from Central London to (say) the M1 (also M11, M20, M23, M3, M4), with no exits, that operates with a tidal flow (into town in the morning, and out in the afternoon), so that traffic is swiftly funnelled straight in/out without congesting the whole city. Such a road should be single-carriageway (controlled by traffic lights at the entrance) with a dedicated bus lane, a slow lane for lorries/caravans, two+ lanes for cars/vans only, plus two hard-shoulders (one on each side) for breakdowns and emergency vehicles (and dedicated accident teams on standby), with each lane having changeable high minimum and maximum speed limits (less for the lorry lane) displayed on signs above each lane, average-speed-camera-monitored to maintain optimum traffic flow. The cost of building it should be funded by an increase on fuel tax (to discourage car use), possibly also a toll could be implemented and profits thrown back to the underfunded railways.

But really, this is only a partial solution; now that Peak Oil is sounding the death knoll for road transport, it's high time to go Car Free.


Software Patents Meetings at DTI

Last night I embarked on a mission for Freedom. I'd been invited to the DTI in London for a meeting about software patents, which was preceded by another meeting at UCL the night before, arranged by the FFII. To ensure we made it to the DTI for 9am, some of us stayed overnight in a hotel after the UCL meeting (booked under the name Gulliver's Travel Associates ;-). For the first time since moving to Offley, I decided to go on public transport. Unsure of which bus+train route to take (via Hitchin or Luton?), I packed a 24-hour supply of food and set off, suited and booted, into the heart of the metropolis. Luckily as I got to the bus stop, a bus appeared bound for Luton, making my decision for me. Arriving there I was amazed to find a luxurious new Midland Mainline train running direct to St. Pancras with no stops, in just thirty minutes! Wow, no more battling with traffic on the roads for me in future.

After walking through the vast building site that currently is Kings Cross, I arrived at UCL and soon bumped into more geeks looking for the venue. The meeting was quite well attended, with about thirty people having travelled from all over the place, some from Scotland even, mostly software developers but also others keen to protect their freedom to innovate. We discussed the key issues and had a brainstorming session to devise appropriate questions to ask the Patent Office people tomorrow. Afterwards we retired to a nearby Chinese restaurant where discussions continued. About ten people went back to the hotel to sleep for an early start; this was my first stay in a hotel (since school holidays) but after swapping the feather pillow I'm allergic to, I got a good six hours' sleep.

Rising at 7am, we met in the hotel lobby to sort and staple A4 handouts that had been printed, a production line of men in black lined up along the counter shuffling papers, until the staff got annoyed that we were taking over their workspace and using all their staples. Unperturbed, we took our sheets and set off marching to Euston station, each carrying large piles of sorted-but-unstapled pages. Battling through the Tube as a team was tricky but we made it to Victoria Street and eventually found a stationery shop to buy a stapler. The production line resumed on the street to finish the task, then we walked to the DTI building, near to New Scotland Yard. Before signing in, I gave a short interview to an independent film-maker, then we descended into the basement of the plush modern building.

There were about two hundred guests who had all written to their MPs (many other people were uninvited) expressing concern about the EU Directive on Computer-Implemented Inventions being (ab)used to patent software; some MPs such as Richard Allan (LibDem, Sheffield) were also present. Giving out leaflets over drinks beforehand, I chatted to one guy from Wales, and we wondered why the floor had drainage grills every few metres - to drain away the blood after they machine gun us? We then went into the conference hall, a large underground room with no windows, where only the distant sound of police sirens intruded. The speakers were Lord Sainsbury (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation), Peter Lawrence (UKPO Policy Director) and Peter Hayward (UKPO Divisional Director); Deputy Director Steve Probert was also present but didn't say much. After two brief presentations, in which they basically tried to claim that 'nothing will change', we started an hour-long question and answer session, which the Patent Office people later described as 'lively'. The atmosphere at times was tangible as two hundred people became increasingly alarmed at some of the uninformed statements being made by the Patent Officials who really should know better if they are to be deciding our industry's future.

The outcome was that Lord Sainsbury, obviously rattled by our concern, agreed to hold a workshop (ideally online, for the benefit of distant travellers) to properly define the fuzzy term 'technical contribution', but later said that he was "not certain that it will affect the Directive". Hopefully if we can ensure that the Patent Office knows the difference between pure software and patentable hardware inventions, they will stand firm under pressure from large corporations wishing to sneak through software patents under the guise of making a 'technical contribution'.

After the meeting, about fifty of us went to a nearby pub, along with the camera crew. Alan Cox also appeared, wearing an appropriate T-shirt bearing the slogan 'SECURITY', having applied to come to the meeting but later, on enquiring, being told that they'd lost his application, whether through incompetence or malice is undetermined... (I would have gladly given up my place to get him in there). I had a good talk with him, not just about patents but also airport expansion (after yesterday's court case challenging the government's consultation); he was against expansion at Swansea airport, in a National Park, and they found that long ago, the airfield had bought common land from the people under certain provisos, and so now threatened to claim the land back unless they behaved :-)

Meanwhile, the Press had been invited to an afternoon meeting at the DTI, so a few of us went back to catch them on their way out to see their reaction. We waited outside for an hour, talking at length with Alan about possible ways to defend our industry in the face of corporate threats, joking about how scary it seemed to be on the same side as UKIP for once, against Europe. At one point a policeman's whistle was heard and five police motorbikes went past, clearing the street for an entourage of black BMWs and Mercedes with blue lights and outriders, obviously carrying someone even more important than Alan. Eventually the Press started coming out, including Lucy Sherriff from The Register. I was too tired to go back to the pub, and thought I should get out of town before the rush hour swallowed me up, so said goodbye.

Getting home, my head still spinning from trying to decode all the doublespeak, I heard on the news that Google is going to digitise millions of books in libraries such as Harvard and Oxford as well as The British Library's website. But the bad news is that while we were detained underground, the EU Council had decided to force through the Directive early in an Agriculture and Fisheries meeting (?!), with total disregard for the democratic process.

Audio files of the DTI meeting (in Ogg Vorbis format from digital dictaphone and analogue tape) have appeared, and a transcript is available on the Patent Office's website. The discussions are continuing online.


Thank Poland for Free Software

Two great triumphs for software freedom today :-)

In giving thanks, why not also vote for Bob Geldof to become the Listeners' Lord? [Update: He won!] I had originally nominated the tireless peace campaigner Brian Haw, but he was apparently dismissed by the judges (themselves Lords) who didn't want a 'single-issue' candidate.

Winter Solstice

For last year's Solstice, we had a fine time at Michael's Folly. This year, I went with Bizia over to see Jeannie and Jules in Oxfordshire for an evening of song to celebrate the Solstice. The venue was a lovely little church converted into a Friends' Meeting House in the charming town of Charlbury just north-west of Oxford. The misty streets were bedecked with glowing white lights ornamenting the stone buildings as we walked through the magically moonlit churchyard. Inside, the place was full of candles and people gathering. Various teachers led us in song, and Melissa's fine band Kismet, a dynamic trio of accordion, clarinet and violin, played some spirited music to accompany us. My favourite was a Gaelic folk song in three-part harmonies which really roused the soul; alas I've forgotten it, but managed to remember the three voices of another one, which we sang while walking back through the streets like a rogue gang of carol-singers:

Hold still in your turning,
In the night a candle's burning.

The night is long,
The darkness deep.

Watching, waiting,
Watching, waiting,
Watching, waiting,
For the sun to rise.

Afterwards we returned to Jeannie's place next door to Blenheim Palace, and read out some of Caitlin Matthews' inspired writings about the Solstice. Finally I discovered with some joy that Jeannie's Tibetan Singing Bowl resonates at 111Hz and has Fountain Bowl tendencies :-)


Rack Aesthetics

[ Hifi, outboard rack and Jupiter-6 glowing in the dark ]I've always loved rackmount outboard gear, but hate to see it just thrown into a rack all higgledy-piggledy, with absolutely no aesthetic forethought whatsoever. My rack has been lovingly designed to be both functional and colour co-ordinated. OK, so everything is black (I couldn't avoid having the silver-edged Digiface up there as it was the absolute best sound card for Linux Audio when I got it), but black is the best colour for audio gear anyway; last year's vogue for silver looks too much like cheap DVD players or 1950's radio equipment for my liking (with a few exceptions, naturally). Of course, there are some companies who have a flair for colourful FX units, and maybe one day I'll complete my blue/blue+black rack... [UPDATE: didn't take long! :-]

[ Outboard rack ]So I've done my best to make this rack look like it is one unified unit, choosing devices with nicely-proportioned controls and similar switch-types. Indeed, many of these boxes are now going to be employed in series in a single mega-process known as the Ululating Feedback Occultifier... I love the way the curved white borders on Eve's front panel nicely match the TC 2240HS above her, looking like they were made by the same manufacturer; hmmm, a TC 2290 would look great on top... ;-)

[UPDATE 2: Since these pictures were taken, the rack has inevitably grown and sub-divided into separate sections, evolving into the UFO on one side and the dbx gear, digital convertors and power units on another. A third blue rack is also growing, plus some beige Akai units under the desk.]

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Licence © The right to copy is left with the user copyleft Malcolm Smith 2004-12-06 - last updated 2010-10-29