Sunday, 31 May 2015

Agnostic or atheist?

Recently, daughter.2 asked me why I was an atheist rather than an agnostic.

Good question. Very good question. An agnostic is someone who doesn't know whether a god exists. An atheist is someone who either lacks belief in any god, or believes that there are no gods (the two positions are subtly different). Both positions are, of course, anathema.

For a long time, I didn't really think carefully about this issue. I knew that religion was a waste of time, but since I have no way of proving the absence of god, I called myself an agnostic. But now I think differently.

Here's the argument. What is your position with regard to the Tooth Fairy? Would you all yourself agnostic or atheist? Strictly speaking, I don't see how you can prove that the Tooth Fairy doesn't exist. So, strictly speaking, you should be agnostic. But I think that most adults would come down with a firm belief in the non-existence of the Tooth Fairy, they are Tooth-Fairy-atheists. This is because the whole thing is really absurd. Or maybe you have your own reasons for being Tooth-Fairy-atheist.

Now a slightly more difficult question - what is your position with regard to Jove? Odin? Zeus? Jehovah? Yahweh? Again, strictly speaking, you cannot prove the non-existence of any of them. And yet, your personal estimate of the probability of most, or all of them existing is sufficiently close to zero as to be infinitesimal.

An infinitesimal isn't quite zero, but if you name any quantity, an infinitesimal is smaller than that. I well remember many mathematical proofs that start with "Given epsilon greater than zero, no matter how small, there exists delta such that delta is smaller than epsilon ...". And that leads, inevitably, to calculus which I regard as the most beautiful area of maths.

So, given the possibility of a Tooth Fairy, no matter how small, there exists the possibility of a god that is even smaller.

And hens, as Socrates used to say when addressing his chickens, I'm an atheist.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Reposting fact or fiction

Wouldn't it be nice if, before reposting stuff that they've read in a blog, or an email, or on Facebook, people were to do a bit of fact checking?

I feel that if you're going to try to educate or inform me, you should take the trouble to check the facts.

This rant is brought to you courtesy of a Facebook post, reposting an article on Occupy Democrats. The heading is "A LOT Less Of Your Taxes Go To Food Stamps Than Giveaways To The Oil Industry, SPREAD THE WORD".

I don't know whether this web site is pro or anti Democrats, but that's not the point. The point is the sentence "How would you feel if we told you that fossil fuel companies are benefitting from global subsidies of 14.5 billion dollars a day?" And they go on to point out that this is more than the Food stamp program.

This sounded strange to me, so I checked the numbers.

This says US fossil energy subsidies are $3.2 billion per year = $9 million per day,

This  says that US food stamps cost $74 billion per year = $200 million per day.

So I asked the poster if he could explain the discrepancy between the article on Occupy Democrats, and the numbers gleaned from Wikipedia. I put it that way, because possibly I've made some mistake, or maybe Wikipedia isn't a suitable source.  No answer, so far.


Friday, 29 May 2015

Stamford Hill

Both ladysolly and I lived in Stamford Hill when we were kids - and that, of course, is how we met. There was a small but thriving jewish community, and various youth clubs and movements. I was in Habonim, she went to Stamford Hill Club, and both of those shared premises. It was a nice place to live; Springfield Park was there and you could walk along the river Lea. Across the river was a large area of rough ground; excellent for couples snogging. The Stamford Hill public library was where I got a lot of my education, and there were excellent local grammar shools, such as Grocers, where I went, and where I got the rest of my education. I wasn't very jewish then; I avoided anything to do with religion because it seemed to me to be a complete waste of time. I was barmitzvahed, because my mother would have been very unhappy if I hadn't, and all it meant was that I had to memorise a bunch of totally meaningless stuff and then sing it in the synagogue. At the time, I thought I was an agnostic, but I'm pretty sure that, even then, I was actually an atheist. I like to tell people now that I'm gastronomically jewish, but, thank god, I'm an atheist.

Stamford Hill has changed now.

I've been back a few times; geocaching along the river Lea, and I even went back to where I used to live.

It's full of Chasidim.

Chasidim are those very religious jews who wear fancy dress; a long black coat, a funny hat, and you don't want to know what else.

 Well, I don't mind - live and let live. I don't live in that area now, and nor would I want to, I'm no longer a town mouse, I'm a country mouse.

Some of the rabbis there had just banned women from driving. If I read this anywhere but the Jewish Chronicle, I'd find it hard to believe. They plan to enforce their edict (I almost said "fatwa") by saying that children will be barred from schools if their mothers drove them there.

As a repercussion for a woman who drives in a car, she cannot send her children to be educated at institutions of the Belz Chasidim.
We therefore announce that as of Rosh Chodesh Elul (Aug 14th), a student whose mother drives will not be allowed to study in our institutions.
If a mother has no other choice and has to drive for extenuating reasons (for example medical), she should submit a request to the special committee to this effect and the committee shall consider her request.

It's hard for me to emphasize just how bad I think this is. I would like to think that it's actually illegal. I'm not a lawyer, but don't we have laws against gender discrimination? And threatening the children to enforce their diktat (I almost said "fatwa")  on the mothers, is a very low blow.

God, were he to exist, would be weeping.

Upgrading the secure server.

I've been getting a B when I test my secure server using the Qualys test. B is good enough, but obviously I want an "A". It was complaining that my chain of certification was incomplete. Time to crack open a can of Google.

So, after much googling and considerable thought, I decided that the problem was, that in my apache configuration, I hadn't given it the SSLCertificateChainFile. So I did that.

It diidn't work, I still got a B.

I then spent about an hour fiddling with it, until I finally realised that I was changing the Apache configuration for an old version of Apache, not for the version I was actually running. As soon as I changed the configuration in the real configuration file, it worked. I now rate an "A". Hurrah!

But Qualsys was still showing a concern - the signature algorithm I was using was SHA1 with RSA, which it thinks is weak, although not alarmingly so. Still, it recommends an upgrade, so let's do that. I want SHA2. In a couple of years, this will be a requirement, so I might as well do it now.

I needed a new certificate from Comodo, so I contacted them. I made a CSR (Certificate Signing Request) and uploaded it to their site. I got back an email, "Domain Control Validation".

What followed was an elaborate dance. They wanted to phone me for verification, and needed to look up the phone number in a directory. But I don't give the number to directories. So they talked me through signing up for a directory, I did that, and several minutes later, I got a confirming email from the directory, so now that's fine. Then Comodo looked up the number in the directory, and I got an automated phone call giving me a PIN number, which I put into their web site. This, apparently, proves that I am who I say I am.

Actually, it does nothing of the sort. Before you read on, see if you can spot the flaw in their system.



As you will have realised, I could create a throwaway email address, and get a throwaway mobile phone. Then I sign up for the directory giving that phone number and email address, and confirm when I get their email. Then Comodo will accept the fact that the phone number works, and the email address works, as some kind of "proof" of my identity.

It's nonsense. It's security theatre. You do something complicated and mysterious and say "security". Bringing in a phone directory that lets anyone sign up with any details, doesn't make it more secure, just more complicated. Actually, all that Comodo have really done, is confirm that there's a person at the other end of the email address I've given them. And they could have done that by sending an email with a pin code, without all the kerfuffle.

I wonder if they realise what a nonsense this is? My guess is, they don't, they really truly believe that all this complicated procedure has actually made the signup more secure.

What they think that all this has done, is "verify my identity". Which, of course, it has not.

So the next thing I got from Comodo, is  "Your TrustLogo is ready". This lets me put their logo on my web sites. OK, I can see the benefit to them, it's free advertising. But there's no benefit to me, and I haven't yet got the SHA2 cert that I asked them for.

The new certs soon arrived, and I installed them. I had a problem when the key didn't match the cert, but I soon worked out with the help of the chat operator, that the problem was caused by me using the wrong key. With the right key in place, I now have an "A" pass mark from Qualys, and it isn't warning me about a weak SHA1 algorithm.

By comparison, I tested They got a grade B. Heh heh heh. got B, got B and got C.For Natwest, it says "No support for TLS 1.2, which is the only secure protocol version."

Thursday, 28 May 2015

A history of networking

In the beginning, there was the floppy disk. If you wanted to move data from one computer to another, you put it on a floppy. This was tedious and slow. And, by the way, it was the main way that viruses spread at first.

Then in 1988, Madge Networks loaned me a few token ring cards, a hub and the necessary cables, and I networked together my IBM PC, my PC clone, and my Amstrad 1512, which I bought because they weren't loaning them out for reviews and I made enough by writing a few reviews of the computer to pay for it. The reviews were not kind.

I loved that token ring, I learned how it worked, and invented a dance to illustrate it, which I used for teaching on my networking seminars. It ran at 4 mbit; these days, that would be considered slow for a home internet connection. But compared to floppies, it was well fast.

But even better; I could use it to share our single laser printer, and I used to to develop the software that we used to run the business.

Then we moved the business to our first premises, at Water Meadow. We had downstairs, where the sales, admin and tech support was done, and upstairs, where we did data recovery and other such advanced stuff - in those days, we were the only data recovery service in the world. And the only computer forensic service. The token ring was downstairs, mostly running Dataease, the database that I'd set up to run the business. Upstairs, we didn't have a network at first.

To do a data recovery, you first get the drive working (we used various techniques such as "magic finger", a technique that I invented that involved pressing your finger in just the right place and twisting is slightly), then you copy the drive, sector by sector. We copied onto a Bernoulli Box, which was really just a big floppy disk, about 20 mb in size, just right for the 20mb drives that were our bread and butter. Then, with the image on the Bernoulli, you could work on it without having to worry about using a failing drive.

But then someone realised you could get 30mb on a 20 mb drive by using an RLL controller, and the Bernoulli wasn't quite as handy.

There's a place in Harrow that sold stuff. Computer stuff. It was like an Aladdin's cave in there, only for computer stuff. I'd go in there occasionally and wander around. And one day, I spotted this.

It's a Torus ethernet card, vintage 1987. Full size, 8 bits, coax connector, top speed 10 mbit. They had a few of them, but no software, which made them pretty useless. But I was hopeful, and made a very good deal with the shopkeeper, and came away with several of them. I searched around, and managed to find drivers, and so we set up an ethernet network in the upstairs section of the office. We used a 70 mb hard drive on the server, and we would image hard drives to that.

Backup was to half inch magnetic tape; it was a huge box that was connected to a PC, which I'd got so that we could bid for a job to undercut someone's mainframe computer department; we'd read a tape each month, process it, spit it out onto Lotus 123 spreadsheets, and mail it to the customer. That job more than paid for the tape drive, and since it was there, it was an obvious device for backups.

So for a long time, we had two networks. Token ring at 4 mbit downstairs, ethernet at 10 mbit upstairs. On the strength of this dual experience and expertise, we picked up a few consultancy jobs, a useful extra income, and it was always fun sorting out someone else's network.

But we outgrew Water Meadow, and moved to a much larger premises. We still had downstairs for admin and upstairs for tech, but we switched to ethernet on both, using cards like this:

Still 8 bit, still coax, but much smaller; this one is Western Digital.

The problem with coax, is that it's a ring. Each computer is connected to the next one in the ring, which is OK if you're making something permanent, but not so good for things that change. By that time, I also had a coax ethernet at home.

The big change came in 1997. I got fed up with the slowness of 10 mbit (everything feels slow once you get used to it), and I wanted 100 mbit. So I ripped out all thaose coax cables, and replaced them with CAT 6, which is a thin, flexible wire, and it's a star. You have a hub in the middle, and each computer is connected to that hub, and if the hub hasn't got enough ports, you connect the hub to another hub, and then you have another 32 (30, actually).

And then I realised that a switch is better than a hub, and costs about the same, and that's what I'm using to this day.

So when I was rummaging around my old stuff looking for a router to replace the router that failed, and I found that 1987 ethernet card, it brought back some memories.

ADSL problem

I got up this morning to be greeeted by "400 alerts". That's my system monitor, telling me that I've received 400 emails alerting me to a problem. The problem was with the server called foggy, and the problem was that it couldn't contact the internet. Once per 10 minutes, foggy tries to ping (which is Google) and if it can't, there's a problem.

I use DSLs to supplement my 2 mbit leased line. DSLs are a lot faster for download (but not upload); on the other hand, they're less reliable. Actually, in my experience, they're about the same level of reliability as my leased line. I mostly use them for doing backups of my remote servers to here; also so that ladysolly's array of apple devices (which now includes her iWatch) can access the internet at better than the paltry 2mbit speed of the leased line.
2 mbit slow? The first modem I used was an Anderson/Jacobson acoustic coupler that ran at 300 baud, that's .0003 mbit. When I got a 64kbit ISDN, I though I was in heaven. Now I'm impatiently waiting for BT to install the fibre that will give me 100 mbit!

So I checked out the DSL router, and it was failing to synchronise with the exchange. I plugged a phone in to the line, to check if it was getting dial tone, and it was. So I plugged in another working DSL router from another line, and it synchronised. So the problem was the router.

I have a few spare routers; when I bought them, they were about £15, so I thought a few spares might be useful.  often do that when I'm buying critical infrastructure; I'm taking the long view. Whereas most people seem to think that it's nothing to replace equipments every five years, I'm still using some kit that I bought 20 years ago. But if something fails, and you want to do a like-for-like replacement (which is obviously the easiest thing to do), you can be frustrated to find that the equipment is now so obsolete, you can't get them, even secondhand on Ebay. So I plugged in a replacement router, and it synchronised. Hurrah. Now to configure it.

I went to using a browser (that's the default for these routers) and it asked me for the username and password. I tried user/password, but that didn't get me to the admin account. So I tried admin/epicrouter, which is (I thought) the default for this router, and that didn't work. I tried the password that I would have given to this router if I'd configured it; that didn't work. Eventually, I dug out a couple of old manuals; one suggested admin/epicrouter and the other suggested admin/password, and that worked!

So I changed the password - I've heard that some people don't immediately change their router password, which is obviously not a good idea, even though the router can only be access from inside my network, but it's best to get the habit of always changing default passwords. Then I configured it with the username and password for the ADSL line that it was plugged in to, told it to use CBR, and suchlike other config details, saved and rebooted. When it came up, it was syncronising fine, but it wasn't connectng to the ppp - I think that means that it wasn't logging in to the account.

At that point, I felt that I'd run out of options, so I phoned tech support at TalkTalk. After they put me through a tedious security check, they checked the line, and told me it was synchronising. Well, I already knew that. And then ping started to work from foggy to the internet, which means that it had successfully got through the Talktalk system. The tech support guy suggested that it was either his action in testing the line, or else the login just took several minutes. Neither of those possibilities seem likely to me, but it is working now, so I'm not going to chase this.

A fun spam


Receive it May 28th - Order within 4 hr 49 mins
Here is yours
 *  Makes you more focused and increases your IQ by 130
 *  Become smarter
 *  Have more energy and make your mind sharper

Well, actually, I don't think I want my IQ to be quite so large, it's bad enough as it is, what with having to enlarge all the doorways so that I can get my head through.

Another one:

NPR News: Brain Health
Facebook CEO takes this every day to double his intelligence in 4 seconds
Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook CEO, took this to double his IQ and mental speed in seconds.

If he's doubling his intelligence every day, he'll be awesome in a few months.

And another ...

Billionaire Mark Cuban Just Revealed what he is taking to double his intelligence every day

Increases sharpness, memory, and boost your energy with highly debated brain boosting vitamins. Users are seeing a 200 point increase in their IQ

Sounds too good to be true ...

Wednesday, 27 May 2015


I don't know much about football, but I do know it involves a lot of running around. I know this because when I was at school, we had to play football once per week, in winter, and we ran around a lot because if you didn't, you'd freeze.

I don't know much about Qatar, but I do know it's very hot there. And I also know that running around for an hour and a half while it's very hot, is pretty horrible.

So when they announced "Qatar", these two facts were pointed out. As a way to deal with this, they moved the contest from June/July to November/December.

We're hearing now of allegations of corruption at Fifa. Many people will not be surprised by this. And I can't help feeling that the choice of Qatar was just trying to push it too far.

Hot UPSes

Three of my UPSes run hot (where "hot" means too hot to lay my hand on it. The other two run cools. The cool ones are Compaq, the hot ones are APC, but it's very obvious that they're all the same hardware. Maybe the firmware is different?

So I came up with a great idea to make the hot one run cool; I have a couple of big old eight inch fans (I don't remember where I got them), and I've laid them on top of the UPSes.


iWatch arrives

Ladysolly's iWatch arrived today, and she's been playing with it all day. She's shown me how it tells you what the time is, and even the date!

Checkenden visit

I did three circuits today; the first two were intertwined, and I biked a complicated route to cover them all. One of them was next to a tree lopper. I decided not to search for the cache while he was there, so I came back later. He was still there, so I came back a third time, and finally got it.

The highlight of the day was this.

I'm pretty sure I've cached here before, unless there's a similar one somewhere. It's a well, gifted by the Maharajah, and it looks really good.

49 caches done today, and no DNFs!

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

New batteries

The replacement batteries for my APC 3000 and BPC 3000 arrived. I've put them in, that's a lot easier than extracting old bulging batteries. I powered up the UPSes, and they seem OK.

I'll leave them on test for a bit before I start using them.

These sealed lead-acid (SLA) batteries seem to have a very variable life span, anything from two years to five. I suppose it depends on the usage cycle and the temperature.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Wooburn wander

A short outing with ladysolly. Eleven caches done, but three DNFs.


Each year, I look forward to hearing the first cuckoo. It's a very distinctive sound. Last year, I heard them on April 30; in 2012 on May 2nd.

But now it's May 24, and I haven't heard one yet. I mentioned this today, while I was out with ladysolly. Then later today when I read the newspaper, people in the letters page (the only part of the newspaper that I trust) people were saying the same.

So where have the cuckoos gone?

I checked the web. Apparently, they've been in decline for several years. I'm hoping that I'll perhaps hear one in the next few weeks, but if I don't, I'll have to console myself with this.

There is hope for America

So many people are gullible, it makes me weep. All the people who respond to the spams that I discard without thinking, all the people who fall prey to the "technical support" scam phone calls, and everyone else who believes stuff without any evidence that it's true. Gullibility. This is also known as "faith".

Many people think that faith is good! You hear things like "My faith is wavering, so I'm praying for it to be stronger". But faith, which is really another word for "gullibility" is not a good idea. It leads you into believing things that just aren't true, and can lead to loss of time, money, dignity and reputation.

America, historically, has been one of the worst places for faith. America is where about half of adults believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. But the good news is, this is changing.

Among people born after 1980 (called "millenials") 35% are atheist or agnostic. An agnostic, of course, is just a pedantic atheist, as in "I can't be certain that there's no Tooth Fairy, so I have to say that I Don't Know". Thirty five percent! That's huge, and growing, because if you look at the age group born before 1945, the figure is 11%.

But it's even better. If committed religionists can't (or won't) indoctrinate their children into faith, it's obvious that atheists won't. Two thirds of millenials raised without faith, stay that way, according to the survey.  So the children of atheist millenials will be atheist, plus there will be more people leaving the faith of their parents.

A broad reduction in gullibility must be good; an increase in the number of people who demand evidence is good, and a decline in the number of people who are anti-science is excellent.

Sure, there will still be people who cling to the faith that they learned as children, and I have no problem with that, although obviously I'd be willing to help them out.

But the churches are emptying.

How to do critical thinking

Regular readers of this blog will recall my repeated exhortations for critical thinking. But I think I've left a couple of gaps.

1. What is critical thinking?

2. How do you do it?

3. Why is it important?

Maybe I can explain it by talking about what it isn't. Critical thinking isn't accepting things without evidence, it isn't taking things on faith, and it isn't believing things because someone told you.

The key to "what is critical thinking" lies in the two words. It's about thinking, first of all, and thinking is something most of us don't do, most of the time. Me too. Most of the time, I'm on autopilot. When I eat my lunch, when I walk down the road, when I get dressed. I'm not really thinking about what I'm doing, and there's probably no great loss there. But sometimes, you do actually need to think. For example, when I'm programming, I absolutely *have* to think about what I'm doing, and that's possibly where I got the habit of thinking about what I'm doing. But it does require an effort. When I'm doing a tricky bit of programming (not the sort that I can do in my sleep), I turn off the radio, ignore the outside world, and really think about what I'm doing. It's a conscious effort. Thinking.

The other important word, is "critical". This has the same root as the words "critic" amd "criticise". It means that you don't just accept what is handed to you, you try to evaluate it, pass judgement on it (and I have very little time for people who tell me not to be judgemental, to me, you should only be non-judgemental if you lack judgement).

So how do you do it?

One of the methods I use, is to ask myself the Three Questions.  "Is this really true? Does it make sense? And what's the evidence for it?" For example, I recently made a blog post in "jihadi brides", where it seemed to me that the information being offered to me didn't look right. I couldn't see where the information could have come from, and when I looked more carefully at the newspaper, it all seemed to be based on one blogger's assertion, and I couldn't see how that blogger could have known what he asserted. So I don't say it isn't true, but I'm very sceptical about that report.

I see this again and again. Facts are asserted where either I can't see how they can possibly be true, or how they could possibly be known, or where they consist of a rumour splashing around the internet. I'm not saying that you should doubt all facts and ask yourself the Three Questions about everything; life's too short to investigate every piece of gossip. But I do believe that everyone should do it sometimes, in order to stay in practice.

The Red Queen claimed "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." I'm guessing that this is a lot more common than you might have thought, especially if you read the newspapers before you eat. But here's a good plan - disbelieve at least one impossible thing per day.

Here's one for you for free. "This is a new innovation from Facebook..Have you been informed about your winning prize from the ongoing Facebook Online Lottery Promo ?" Yes, right. It's a spam I just got. I'm guessing it's an "advance fee fraud", you have to send them $29 to "release the funds" or something like that. My point is, it must be working on at least some people, or they wouldn't be doing it.

"Please note that this Facebook Online Lottery Promo is no Joke or a Scam, and i also want you to know that this Promotion is 100% Real and Legit,So you have nothing to worry yourself about your winnings..Is that understood?
Also note that,the Internet Crime Complaint Center is a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National White Collar Crime Center are aware about the promo.So let your mind be at rest,okay?"

Understood. My mind is at rest. And that's one more impossible thing that I don't believe.

So let's use the Three Questions. "Is this really true?" Well, my guess is that a communication from Facebook would have better grammar. And it wouldn't be "From: James Adam <> Reply-To:".

 "Does it make sense?" No, Why would Facebook decide to send me money?

 "And what's the evidence for it?" The only evidence is the email itself, which is kind of circular. You'd trust the email if you trusted the email. Oh no I don't.

So this is a simple example of the application of critical thinking. In the real world, of course, I don't think about such an email, I just delete it on autopilot. But I wanted an example to show about how to actually do critical thinking, and why it's important.

Why it's important, is that by applying critical thinking, I've saved myself from sending $29 (or whatever it would be) to a scammer.

But sometimes, critical thinking can save you from a far, far worse mistake.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Andy Burnham for Labour Party leader!

There's five candidates.

Andy Burnham:
English, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.

Yvette Cooper:
PPE, Balliol College, Oxford.

Mary Creagh:
Languages, Pembroke College, Oxford.

Liz Kendall:
History, Queens, College, Cambridge.

Doctor the Honourable Tristram Julian William Hunt:
History, Trinity College, Cambridge.

 Three from Cambridge, two from Oxford.

The working class can lick my arse,
I've got the foreman's job at last.

Obviously, I support Andy Burnham; he went to the same college I did.

Windows 3.0

25 years ago, May 22, 1990, Microsoft launched Windows 3.0.

I tried Windows 1.0; it was neither pretty nor useful. Likewise Windows 2.0; that was just Microsoft saying "We're going to have a product called Windows someday." You could run it on an 8088 computer, and it ran like treacle.

Windows 3.0, was Microsoft trying to get serious. It looked pretty, it was almost useful, but it crashed rather a lot. I know, I used it. It didn't have networking, you had to install a shareware product called "Trumpet" to use TCP/IP, which was, of course, necessary to use the internet. I installed Trumpet, and i was able to use Netscape to surf the web, and I used an email program called Pegasus.

But Windows crashed, And crashed. And you didn't even get The Blue Screen of Death which was commoner than Microsoft was expecting. I was at a Microsoft presentation when they launched Windows 3.1, and the Microsoft presenter told us that we should stop using Windows 3.0, because it wasn't much good for serious corporate use, and we should upgrade to 3.1. And a guy from the audience stood up and said "I have a question." "Yes?" said the MS guy. "Why the fuck didn't you tell us that when you gave us 3.0?". And the audience collapsed laughing.

I remember writing an article in which I gave my opinion that Windows 3.0 wasn't actually ready for beta test. Beta test is when you think you have something working, so you give it to a restricted number of users so they can report problems. Alpha test is when you give it to some people in-house and they find probems you missed - I'm not even sure that it was ready for alpha test.

The first useful Windows was "Windows for Workgroups". At first, you still have to download from somewhere and install a TCP/IP stack, but in August 1994 they included TCP/IP support. And it didn't crash as often as Win 3.1, and I looked upon it, and it was good. Well, good enough.

Is trade good?

Suppose you have a bicycle that you don't really want. It's still a goer, still useful, but you now have a better bike.

Suppose I have a computer that I don't really want. It still works fine, but now I have a better computer.

Suppose that I'd rather like your old bike, because I don't have a bike, and you'd rather like my old computer, because that beats having no computer. If we swap my computer for your bike, we're both better off.

Both of us? How can that be? Surely there's a winner and a loser?

No. In a game of chess, there's a winner and a loser. But in trade, there can be two winners.

Now let's broaden this. You live in the Ruritanian Republic, and I live in the Democracy of Giggle. Trading the bike for the computer still benefits us both, although now there's more transport costs. But we know about the transport costs, and if we both decide it's a good trade despite the costs, then we both gain.

And that's international trade.

But. There's the government of Ruritania, and there's the democratically elected Giggle Parliament. And they both want revenue. So they have a tariff. If I import a bike from Ruritania, I have to pay 35% of the value of that bike to my government; Giggle is similar, and you have to pay 30% of the value of the computer to your government. And suddenly, the trade isn't worth doing. So without the tariff, two citizens would both have been better off, with the tariff it doesn't happen. We're both poorer than we would have been.

And it can get worse - there's also quotas. Maybe in any one year, only ten bikes can be imported from Ruritania, and those ten bikes were already shipped. We, no matter how much we'd both gain from the trade, the trade is prohibited.

Well - in today's sophisticated economic systems, barter isn't the usual way of doing business. If I want a bike, I don't need to find someone who wants my surplus computer. Instead, I get money for my computer, and pay money for the bike. The two transactions can be separated, and it's all a lot more convenient for everyone.

So international trade today, is all about swapping goods (or services) for money. But the same is true; both parties are better off, and that's easy to demonstrate, because if they weren't, they wouldn't do the deal.

And the government still inserts itself into the possibility of mutual benefit. Because that's what governments do. And sometimes, this is because of tit-for-tat. The government of Ruritania restricts imports of computers from Giggle, because the Giggle government restricted imports of bikes. Or maybe vice versa. Or maybe Ruritania is hoping to develop a flourishing computer-making industry in Ruritania. Or maybe there's already a bike industry in Giggle, and it's failing because of competing imports from Ruritania and elsewhere.

But the outcome is still a loss for the citizens, because they can't get what they want, at a price they like.

So how to deal with this?

There's three ways. You can have international trade agreements; we won't put tariffs on bikes, if you don't put tariffs on computers. Hurrah! We can do our trade. But bilateral trade agreements like that? There's 196 countries, so you'd need 18,525 bilateral agreements, for each possibly traded good and service.

The second way is multilateral agreements - that's like a bilateral agreement, only you get a whole bunch of countries involved. You can imagine how difficult that is to set up, and there's still an agreement needed for each good or service.

And the third way is free trade areas. You get a whole bunch of countries to agree that between them, there's no barriers to trade. That happened in Germany in 1871, and it led to the economic powerhouse that we see today. It happened again to the separate states of America in 1776, and the United States became an economic superpower.

Free trade is *such* a good idea. It benefits everyone. In a trade, there isn't a winner and a loser, there's two winners.

No losers? What about, for example, the way that the UK wine industry is dominated by imports?

Well, it turns out that England isn't the best place to grow grapes. It doesn't really have the right sort of climate. Sure, you can find places in England where viticulture is possible (and I've been caching in places where there are big vineyards), but the fact is, a lot of countries have a much more suitable climate. And if you banned wine imports to protect the UK wine industry, consumers would be cut off from cheap wines, and good wines, and diverse wines.

Maybe it would be possible to grow coffee in England; you'd need expensive greenhouses, maybe, and heating, and I don't know what else. No-one with any sense would try it on a commercial scale, although it is actually possible. No - we do the things that we can do well in the UK, and trade for the things we can't do.

That's one of the reasons why the EC is such a good idea. 28 countries make a free trade area (although the EC has other good ideas) and everyone benefits.

But isn't this globalisation, which is bad?

Yes, it's globalisation. Which is good. And the reason it's good, is explained above.

Ireland says yes!

Well done, Ireland.

I have trouble understanding why anyone would be against gay marriage. No-one is suggesting that anyone be forced into a gay marriage - if you want to marry someone of a different sex, your rights are not reduced. What's happening here, is that other people are getting the same rights that you have. How can this be bad?

The answer, of course, is religion. The bible says that you mustn't eat prawns, you mustn't wear garments of mixed fibres, and you mustn't have gay sex. So here's the next thing I don't understand. How come the Catholic religion is fine with the first two, but not the third? Well, of course, I know the answer. Religion.

What is religion? God knows. As far as I can see, it's a set of rules that someone made up a long time ago (in the bible, there's 613 rules), and 2000 years later, other people decide which of those rules are still valid, and which aren't. So, for example, a couple of hundred years ago, we decided that despite being approved by the bible, slavery is immoral. And a long time before that, a bunch of people decided that despite being forbidden by the bible, prawns are OK.

Me - I don't like prawns. I know this, because I've tried them. I don't like oysters either, even though I haven't actually tasted one - the look of an oyster is just too off-putting. But I digress.

Well, not entirely. You're in a cafeteria. You choose what you want to eat from all the various things on offer. And in cafeteria religion, you choose which rules you want to follow, from all the various rules on offer. Don't want to avoid pork? No problem, who are we to call god's animals unclean! Don't like gays? No problem, Leviticus says that gay sex is an abomination. Oh, and you have to stone them to death, but we don't want that part of it, so we'll ignore that.

I hope that makes sense. Or rather, I hope it doesn't, because if it does, you might be infected with religion, and you need to take a ritual bath. Make sure that the rabbi isn't watching while you take it.

Anyway. The good news is that Ireland has voted in a referendum that gay marriage should be legal, despite strong opposition from the religionists. And that means that Ireland, which used to be heavily in thrall to the religionists, has cast off their restraints, and I think we can guess why.

There was a time when the Catholic church was held in great respect. And then we discovered all the pedophile priests - and worse, that the Catholic church was protecting them, but not reporting these crimes to the police. Instead, they'd "punish" the pedophile by moving him to another parish, where guess what ...? It happens again. And so on.

That led to people wondering, what is this church for? And why are we taking our morality from them?

And that led to today's excellent result.

Well done, Ireland.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Bad smell

We got back last night from meeting some old friends for dinner, and as soon as we walking into the house, ladysolly commented "There's a smell".

My nose is useful in inverse proportion to it[s size, or to put it another way, I can't smell much of anything except curry.  But I could detect a faint aroma. So we went round the house sniffing, and found nothing.

In the morning, I went into the data room, and the smell was stronger; after a lot of sniffing around, it seemed to be coming from one of my UPSes. These are, essentially, a lot of lead-acid batteries and some electronics. If a battery goes bad, it can start giving off hydrogen sulphide (or sulfide as the Americans would have it), which is the bad eggs smell that we all know how to make in the lab. So I powered off that UPS, and switched the servers attached to it, to a UPS where I'd recently replaced the batteries.

Of course, one of the servers didn't come back up when powered on. I opened it up, checked the tiny CMOS battery, and that was dead, so I replaced that. Then I was able to get that server going.

I'll wait until the UPS cools down, then I'll take it apart and have a look inside. I replace the batteries in that smelly UPS in 2013, so I'm a bit disappointed that it's only run for two years. I'm expecting to find at least one faulty battery, and I'll replace them all.

 ... later ...

Several batteries were severely distorted; it was so bad that I had to use a crowbar and mallet to get the eight batteries out. So I've ordered a set of replacements.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The gay cake

The facts are not in dispute. A baking company was taken to court for refusing to bake a cake with the slogan "support gay marriage". The judge ruled that they were guilty of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

But the case is a lot more interesting than just that.

The owners have said, and I believe them, that if the same people had come into their shop and said "I'm gay, and I want to buy a loaf of bread", then they would have happily sold the bread. Likewise, a cake. The problem was that they wanted the cake decorated with a slogan that the shop owners didn't like.

So here's the thought experiment we should all do. If you ran a cake shop, and someone asked for a cake decorated with the slogan that you would find the most repulsive, would you do it? Or would you say no?

For example, if someone asked for a cake decorated with the slogan "Support Adolf Hitler". I think that if a bakery was asked to make such a cake, they would be within their rights to refuse; a cake shop is a private business, and can turn away business that they do not want. And the slogan is a political statement. Just like "support gay marriage" is a political statement.

The important thing is that they didn't discriminate against the purchasers because they were gay; they refused to put words on the cake that they found repulsive. This is not discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, it's refusal to support a political opinion. It's discrimination on political grounds, and that's legal.

And it has to be legal. How can we vote for someone to be an MP, unless it's on the grounds of their political opinion?

The cake purchasers have the right to express their opinion, of course they do. They could have bought from a different cake shop, or decorated the cake themselves. But do they have the right to force other people to support an opinion that they don't agree with?

This case has generated a lot of discussion. Not, of course, as much as "What colour is this dress", because this case requires a considerable amount of critical thinking, whereas the dress just needs an opinion. And that's a shame, because I think there's an important principle at stake here.

We now have so many rights. Huge numbers of rights, all enshrined in legislation. But sometimes, one right comes into conflict with another; your right to swing your fist conflicts with my right to an unpunched nose. And when rights conflict, the law has to resolve the conflict. And sometimes the law gets it wrong - I think the judge in this case got it wrong. I hope it goes to appeal.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Basingstoke bike

Today, I went down the M3 to near Basingstoke, and I did two circuits. The first was the "WP country loop", and I did a slight diversion to pick up a puzzle I'd solved a long time ago.

The second circuit was the "Westeros Walk", except I didn't walk, of course! I also picked up a couple of church micro multis.

The day went fairly well, although I did fail to find three. 55 caches found today.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015


Roy Rogers' horse, of course, of course. Or an old friend of Del Boy. Or the latest thing in the academic world.

I'm starting to see this more and more. The new meaning is, disturbing material that causes excessive stress (which could lead to flashbacks, PTSD or an asthma attack).

It seems that pretty much anything can be triggering, and increasingly, American universites are trying to remove triggering material from their syllabus. Or at least, giving students warning that such material might be coming up.

We certainly didn't have this when I was at college. No-one warned me before we learned about Bessel Functions, or Quantum Field Theory. When our lecturer derived Euler's equation, we gave him a round of applause, no-one rolled around with breathing problems.

The whole point of university is to expose students to strange new concepts and difficult ideas, and I'm here to tell you that there's nothing more difficult than listening to Professor Dirac on Quantum Electrodynamics; he was a superb theoretician, but really not good at lecturing.

The thing is, you protect children, no problem. But there comes a time when you have to let children fend for themselves, it's called "growing up", and it happens ... well, it happens for different people at different ages. But officially, it happens at age 18, and people at university are, therefore, not children.

Even if it were possible to make a list of all possible triggering words, and put careful trigger warnings before letting university students see the text, that isn't going to help them when they leave university. As soon as they read a newspaper or watch television, it's going to be full of sex, violence, war, disease, disasters and catastrophes.

I hope this doesn't happen here. But I think it will.

Home made heroin

I read that it will soon become possible to brew your own heroin.

Interesting. I wonder what the effects of that will be?

It's always been possible to brew your own beer; I used to buy beer kits in Boots; a couple of pounds and a couple of weeks would give me five gallons of excellent bottled beer; stout, bitter, mild and a very low-alcohol ginger beer. It's easy and it's safe - the worst that can happen is that it tastes vinegary. Ditto wine; again, I'd buy a wine kit from Boots and that would make me a gallon of decent bottled wine. I used to take a couple of quarts with me to the allottment, put them in a bucket of cold water, and spend a pleasant afternoon digging and drinking.

What was the effect of this? Well, it was a lot cheaper for me, and a huge loss of revenue to the treasury, because whereas the tax on beer and wine is huge, the tax on ingredients is tiny. Or maybe even none, if it's classified as food. The quality was excellent - if a batch turned out badly, I would just shrug and throw it away, but that only happened once. The key is, I think, good hygene, which means, wash the brewing bucket carefully, and keep a lid on it. I probably drank a bit more beer than I would have, a few quarts per week, but I doubt if that did me serious harm.

So what would be the effect of home-brew heroin?

According to the article, you use a modified form of sugar-fed yeast. Yeast breeds; yeast makes more yeast. You don't ever have to run out of yeast. Once you have your first batch of modified yeast, you don't need to buy more. And sugar is cheap. I would guess that it's like making beer, except you don't need hops or malt. My guess is, you'd take a five gallon bucket, dissolve sugar in water, add the modified yeast, and wait a week or two. Then there would probably have to be some way of concentrating it, or maybe you'd drink it as is - I don't know, and I haven't researched it, because I don't plan to go that route. I don't even brew beer these days.

So it looks like it would be pretty easy to do. The main bought-in ingredient would be sugar, available in any supermarket. And cheap.

The existing suppliers of heroin would be the first losers. The poppy farms of Afghanistan, the heroin smugglers and the drug pushers, and I doubt if many people would feel much sympathy for them. The price of heroin would collapse. Brewed beer costs a few pennies per pint; bought beer costs a few pounds per pint. The cost is about 99% less, and I'd guess that the same would happen to heroin.

But what about the users? I can't see Western governments legalising heroin (although several years ago, I would have bet against any American state legalising marijuana, and now it's happened). But it would be easier and cheaper for users to get heroin, and that, I think, would lead to an increased use of the drug. And that, probably, is bad.

Probably? Why only "probably"? Heroin kills!

But so does tobacco. And it's only very recently that there has been a major attempt to discourage the use of tobacco; the argument is that "adults have the right to choose". If you, as an adult, knowing the harms that tobacco can do, nevertheless choose to risk those harms for the rewards that you get from tobacco, then it's your right to choose. Even though tobacco is obviously, and well known to be, addictive (and if you don't believe that, ask any smoker). Isn't the same thing true for heroin?

Clearly, children need to be protected, because they aren't old enough to make this sort of decision, and if children become addicted to tobacco (or heroin), that's very bad.

So what's going to happen?

If a yeast is modified to become heroin-producing, it won't be possible to stop it getting into public hands, even if it's made illegal to possess it. And the yeast will be made, on the principle that if something can be done then it will be done. And it will get out there; people will be able to brew heroin-infused beer.

I'll stick to the old-fashioned kind.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Wicked tories, part 2

The wicked tories, destroying the NHS. But let's examine this with some numbers. Look at the graphs.

The black line is the level of satisfaction, and the time span is about three decades. The peak is 2013. If you follow the link above, you'll see the graph more clearly.

I hear slogans such as "compassion not profit" and "don't sell the NHS". But what does that mean? Here's my recent experience.

A year or so ago, I went for my regular eye test. I used to go to an optician in Amersham, Dollond and Aitchison, a private company. But it was still an NHS service, and free (although if you wanted snazzy frames, you paid extra), and I guess the NHS paid the company for the services that were provided free. Then that company were bought by Boots. So I went there recently for a retest, but they told me to come back the next day, and I didn't. Instead, I went to another place in Little Chalfont; nearer to where I live. It was still a private company running the shop, it was still free.

The found a problem. My sight was just as good as previously, but I had high pressure in my left eyeball; so high that it needed to be dealt with.  They tried to get me an appointment at Stoke Mandeville (an NHS hospital), but they were busy, and couldn't see me for a long time. The optician told me that my condition shouldn't be ignored; the high pressure would damage the ocular nerve if left untreated. And, by the way, this is why it's a really good idea to have your eyes tested every two years, even if you dn't wear glasses. It's free, because NHS.

So I went to Marylebone Eye Hospital (NHS-run). They saw me on the same day, and tested my eye, confirming that I have ocular hypertension, which can lead to glaucoma. Bummer.
They gave me some drops, to start using immediately, and made an appointment for follow-up treatment and even more testing.

That was with "The Practice" which is a PLC that runs over 50 GP surgeries. I attended my appointment, they confirmed my condition, and told my usual GP at Water Meadow surgery, which meant that I could pick up repeat prescriptions for my eyedrops from a convenient place. This is an NHS practice (I think). But inside their building, they have a pharmacy, which is a private company. I get my prescriptions free (because of the NHS, and because I'm over the age that gets free prescriptions).

A couple or months ago, I went back to The Practice, they tested my ocular pressure, and it's looking good, down to normal, although I have to continue putting a drop in my eye each morning, which isn't a problem, really.

So, as you can see from this story, my experience of medical care is that it's a mixture of NHS-funded and private companies. If The Practice makes a profit out of their activities, I say good for them, they seem to be doing a good job. Likewise the pharmacy at Water Meadow. The opticians, doctors and pharmacists that I've seen are uniformly decent people who are trying to do a good job at what they do. I don't feel that any of them, at any time, was interested in squeezing extra profit out of me rather that helping with my minor eye condition.

And that's why I don't feel that if some elements of our healthcare are catered by private companies, that this is a bad thing.

Something from nothing

It's generally agree that the universe started with the "Big bang"; from a dense collection of matter/energy that expanded and eventually became what we now see. There's considerable evidence for this, most notably the microwave background radiation.

But where did this come from? How could something come from nothing?

First, let me explain about non-questions. It would be nice if every question had an answer; certainly grandson.1 has learned to ask "why?" repeatedly, and that's good. But there are some questions that simply don't make sense.  A non-question is something that sounds like a question, has the grammatical form of a question, but is actually nonsense; for example  "What is the smell of the fourth side of a triangle" and "what is the colour of happiness". A triangle, by definitiion, has three sides. If it has four, it isn't a triangle. And a triangle, being an ideal thing, doesn't have a smell, unless you make a physical triangle and rub garlic (or something) on it, in which case it can have any smell you want, and the question still doesn't make sense.

How could something come from nothing? In one sense, that's a non-question, similar to asking "what is north of the north pole". There cannot be anything north of the north pole, because using our definition of north, that's as north as you can get. The earth is spherical (roughly) and that curvature means that we can have a concept (north) whereby asking "what is north of the north pole" is a non-question.

Similarly, the universe, although in more dimensions. So perhaps "what happened before the big bang", is another non-question.

How could something come from nothing? Well, I don't know. I've never seen nothing, I don't know of any example of nothing, and I don't think anyone else does either. So we don't know what are the properties of nothing. We can only guess. So here's a rather pretty guess.

Maybe one of the properties of nothing is that it's intolerant. Nothing doesn't exist, so maybe nothing *cannot* exist. Maybe if nothing were to exist, then it would immediately, intolerantly, turn into something.

And here we are.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Maidenhead meander

Today I went out with ladysolly to do the FLAB series (nothing to do with my expanding waistline). First, we stopped off at Beaconsfield services, where I had a curry and she had a Nando, and we picked up a copy of the Observer, so we could read about daughter.2.

Then we parked at the recommended place, and moseyed around the route. Then back to the car for afternoon coffee, then a few more drive-bys, then home. A nice day out in the sunshine.

Sunday opening hours

I just went to Tesco to fill up on petrol, and while I was there, I noticed a big sign saying "Open 24 hours". Then in smaller letters underneath, Sunday 10am to 4pm.

So on Monday to Saturday, they're open 24 hours - on Sunday only 6 hours. Why is this?

It's the law.  And I'm appalled.

I could understand if this were some sort of "protection for workers" thing, but it clearly isn't. They're open 24 hours on other days, so they must have some sort of shift system. No. This is obviously for reasons of religion. In Scotland, by the way, there's no such rule.

Now I have no objection to Christians wanting to treat Sunday as the "Lord's Day". And I have no objection to Jews wanting to treat Saturday as Shabbat. And I have no objection to people wanting to treat any other day of the week as their holy day, or every eleventh day, or whatever their religion tells them. My objection is when the rules of one particular religion are foisted on everyone.

I asked ladysolly whether she thought this was unethical or immoral; I often have difficulty with that distinction.

She said "It's bloody stupid."

My famous daughter

Daughter.2 was in the Observer today. Here's the article. Click for full size.

Bullshit on Facebook

Every now and then, someone posts rubbish on Facebook. Who knew! These posts are usually in the form of a graphic with words on them, and the poster thinks that the words are true, or profound, or both. And worthy of sharing.

But sometimes they aren't.

Sometimes when I see such a thing, my bullshit detector goes off the scale. I can accept low levels of bullshit, but when the level gets too high, I feel that I ought to counter the bullshit by explaining why it's bullshit.

This, as you can imagine, is not popular, especially with the poster. But my hope is that it will lead to a bit more thought before posting bullshit. Maybe I'm just an incurable optimist. But at least it might lead to people not reposting the identical bullshit as if they were words of wisdom.

Thursday, 14 May 2015


In my opinion, this has been the best thing on the telly for a long time. The characters are a superb mix of complete plonkers and sensible people, with the sensible people trying to do a sensible job while the plonkers throw random hand grenades around, which the sensible folks have to catch and defuse. If they can.

Apparently, it's about the BBC. But actually, it's about any large corporation with an ill-defined mission. Roles such as "Head of Values" and "Head of Better" sound like people I've met in the past; the inability to make a decision about anything, the totally clueless Will (who very occasionally comes up with a truly great idea, but is incapable of doing something as simple as stuffing envelopes without causing a disaster). The PR woman who talks in meaningless cliches. And the whole thing revolves around the "Head of Values" in the way that Beyond Our Ken revolved around Kenneth Horne; he's slightly bewildered by all the nonsense around him, yet manages to A) take it all in his stride and B) pluck order from the jaws of chaos ... only to see chaos resurgent.

All the characters are excellent; the incompetents repeatedly demonstrating their incompetence while the others just do the best they can with what they've got. You can see it on the BBC iPlayer.

The only thing I can compare it to is "The thick of it". Yes. No. Yes. Brilliant.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

British jihadi brides escaped!

I first saw this story in the newspaper today; a quick Google search shows it being repeated all over the place. But is it true?

If you actually read the story, amongst all the details (most of which are speculation, some of which are a rehash of the previous story when they left the country ), and there's even pictures, you might not notice that the source for this story is "reports from Iraq".

A more careful reading of the same article, will tell you that the source is "Mosul Eye, a blogger in Iraq".

Now, I'm not saying that the story is untrue. But the whole thing is based on something that someone posted on Facebook?

Has British journalism reached a new low? Probably not. For a while now, I've noticed a number of "news" items which are based on something posted on the internet, with no verification or attempt to check with any other source.

Of course, I can see that it would be very difficult to get verification of this story, and the newspaper reports are peppered with "were reported to be and "An unofficial monitor in Iraq claimed" and "They were said". So there's lots of caveats. But in my opinion, it should have been emphsaised, very strongly, that the whole story is based on the unsubstantiated Facebook post of one person.

"You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to", Humbert Wolfe.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Down to the Deans

Back to Rottingdean, and then on to Eastbourne. I finished off the Big Fish series at Saltdean, then on to just west of Eastbourne to do the 1+1= series near Beachy Head. Then on to Eastbourne to finish the day.

I had planned to get lunch at Smugglers again, because they do really great fish and chips. But they're closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

30 caches done today, but several DNFs.

Yes, it's a big sheep.  And now Beachy Head.

Monday, 11 May 2015


How often should we have referendums? There seems to be two schools of thought on this.

1) Very occasionally, when something is so important, it's worth consulting the whole population.
2) Every couple of years, until the people give the right answer.

So, we had a referendum on proportional representation (PR), in 2011. But now I'm seeing calls for another referendum, because some parties would do a lot better under that system. Well, that was always true, and always will be true.

So, the Scots were asked, in a "once-in-a-generation poll", if they wanted to be independent, and they said "No". But the SNP are starting to push for another referendum.

The problem is, referendums are quite expensive, in the obvious costs, in time wasted and in the uncertainty engendered until the result is in. If you think that some drastic change is about to shift the business environment, you'd be sensible to hold off on investment until the question is settled.

I'm in favour of PR. But I don't think it's a good idea to have a referendum on it every few years "until the people give the right answer". Because then the people who think it's the wrong answer, will be calling for a referendum to change it back, every few years.

Windows woes

Confession - I run a Windows box. It's not because I want to, it's because I have to. I use GSAK to organise my geocache data, and although that can run under Wine (a Windows emulator) in Linux, there are a few problems. So I have a Windows XP box that I've had for donkeys years, to run GSAK.

But recently, I had a problem. I wanted to make a change to the GSAK configuration, and to do that, GSAK has to contact using the browser, and it wouldn't work. After quite a lot of messing around, I realised that the problem wasn't GSAK, the problem was that Internet Explorer (IE) could no longer access

That's IE version 6. Which is pretty old. So, ok, let's try to update it. No joy; Microsoft no longer support XP. OK, then, let's install Firefox. No joy, Firefox wants XP Service Pack 2, which I hadn't installed. So, visit the MS web site to get Service Pack 2, and, of course, no joy, Microsoft no longer support XP.

Um. At this point, it's not looking good.

But a Google search found me a site that let me download and install  Service Pack 2, and then the Firefox web site let me download and install Firefox.

Meanwhile - another confession - I have another Windows box, running Windows 7. I got that so that I could play Civilisation, which needed high end graphics. So I put GSAK on that, transferred the database, and now I can use that for my geocaching database. But I'd really  prefer to use the XP machine.

So, with Firefox installed and set as my default browser, I'm all set ... or rather I'm not. GSAK is still using IE. I'd half expected that. Some programs are hard-wired to use IE.

So, plan B. Let's try to upgreade IE. I downloaded IE7 (not so simple, you can't get it from MS because they don't support XP any more. But I found a place I could get it, and I installed it.
And when I ran IE, I was able to verify that it was indeed IE7. So I fired up GSAK again, and ... no joy. So I tried to access using IE7. No joy. Grrr.... BUT! At least, it failed using IE7, so maybe I'm making a tiny amount of progress.

OK, I'm not entirely surprised that this failed, but at least I am actually able to update IE. So let's try IE8. Another google search, another download, Download failed with IE7, so switch to Firefox to download IE8. One step forward, one step back. So, with IE8 installed, it then wants me to reboot. That's one of the things about Windows, any change you make, it wants you to reboot. So, I rebooted.

After the reboot, I ran IE. It said "Welcome to IE8", hurrah. Try to access No joy. So I started up Firefox, and tried to access the same page - no problem. So the problem is this.

GSAK can only use IE to use "get another access token", because it's using the API which can only use the internal version of IE on the Windows box, irrespective whether I make Firefox my "default browser". IE (versions 6, 7 and 8) can't access, I don't know why.


You can guess what comes next. Internet Explorer 9.

Well, you're wrong. IE9 can only be installed on Windows Vista or Windows 7.

Looks like I'm stuck. My XP machine cannot access using Internet Explorer, and GSAK can only use IE in it's internal functions, it can't use Firefox.

Time to ask around for help ...

Update ...

I installed Service Pack 3, no joy. then I tried a suggestion made by Mark Sreeves." Try Tools -> Internet Options -> Advanced Tab   Scroll down to Security and tick use TLS 1.0"

And that worked! 

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Austerity and cuts

I mentioned this in a previous blog; now to go into details.

There seems to be a narrative (big word for "story") that the wicked evil Tories are grinding the faces of the poor with cuts and austerity measures. There's lots of anecdotal evidence, of course. Food banks. NHS waiting lists. Cuts in police numbers. You can, of course, find anecdotal evidence on the other side. But surely what matters is the overall number?


Where's the austerity? We're still spending more than we earn, that's why the National Debt keeps rising.

But what about, as a percentage of GDP?


Where's the cuts? Debt is still rising!

So why does the story about "austerity and cuts" go unchallenged? The left won't challenge it, because it goes nicely with the "evil Tories" story. The Tories won't challenge it, because it means that all their policies aimed at cutting the deficit, aren't doing much.

Deficit? Wait a minute. Don't I mean debt? Let me explain.

Suppose your family has an income of £20,000/year, and a mortgage of £100,000. Then your debt is £100,000. But you have a flamboyant lifestyle, and you're spending £25,000/year. Then your deficit is £5,000, and your debt will be increasing from £100,000 to £105,000 next year.

The concepts of debt and deficit are, I think, pretty simple. But they appear to be too complicated for many politicians, and they routinely conflate the two terms.

So what's happening with the deficit?

Source : Spectator

The deficit is still huge. Is that "austerity"? No, it isn't. OK, after 2015 it falls, and in 2019 we start seeing a surplus (and it needs a surplus if you want to reduce the debt). But that, of course, is a pious hope for the future, not what is happening now. And we all know that these future hopes will be thoroughly revised next year, and the year after.

There is no austerity. The cuts are mostly imaginary; instead of increasing our flamboyant lifestyle still further to £30,000, we're only going increase it to £28,000. That's a cut of £2,000? No, actually. It's an increase in spending of £3000. A cut, would be to reduce spending to £23,000, and austerity would be to reduce spending down to £20,000, which as you remember, is annual income.

So next time you hear the narrative (i.e., story) of austerity and cuts, go look up the actual figures.

Votes and seats

A number of people have pointed out the interesting fact that although nearly 4 million people voted for a UKIP candidate, there's only one UKIP MP. On the other hand, 1.5 million SNP voters got 56 seats. How can this be fair?

The first problem is with the notion of fairness. We're all in favour of fairness, but everyone has a different idea of what fairness is. Usually, it involves taking something from "him" and giving it to "me". Rarely do people requesting fairness, feel over-privileged.

The vote/seat situation is a consequence of the UK first-past-the-post electoral system. For as far back as I can remember, minority parties have complained about how this is unfair, giving them less seats than the feel entitled to.

In 2010, when the Libdems had enough seats to make a Con/Lib coalition possible, the big thing that they wanted in return for support, was a change in the electoral system. And so there was born, a referendum on the voting system. What I don't understand about what happened then, is that the change proposed was to "Single Transferable Vote" (STV), which is horribly difficult to explain and understand, and not to the much simpler Proportional Representation (PR), perhaps better called Party-list proportional representation.

In this system, each party nominates a list, and they get a number of seats in proportion to their number of votes. But that simple system wasn't what was proposed.

However. So, in 2011, there was a referendum on this, and the yes vote was 32.1%, the no vote was 67.9%. The people spoke, and roundly rejected STV.

With that sort of decisive rejection, it's hard to argue.

So is it fair? Hell yes, to quote Ed Miliband. It's fair because despite knowing how minor parties suffer from the existing system, we-the-people decided to stick with it. A change, going against the opposition of we-the-people, would be very unfair. And if you don't like it having the first-past-the-post system, you should reflect on the fact that a large majority of the people in the UK, voted that it's the system they wanted.

Why were the polls so wrong?

The polls were showing 34% to Tories and 34% to Labour. How could they have got it so wrong?

Here's how.

The polls are done by telephone survey, and they ignore the "Do not call" list, because political surveys are one of the exemptions.

The problems are these.

1. They try to choose a random sample, but they can't, because the sample is, to some extent, self-selected. If you're busy, you aren't going to talk to them. If you're about to go out, or if you're already out, you won't talk to them. If you can't be bothered, you won't talk to them. So, the people that are willing to talk to a pollster, are the ones that are actually surveyed, and they won't be a random sample. The people they'll talk to, will be biased towards lonely people, and people with nothing better to do.

2. People like me. I signed up to the "do not call" list for a reason - namely, I don't want to be called by strangers who want a slice of my time for their purposes. I might, for example, be underneath my bike when the phone rings, and I'm really annoyed if I dropped the bike and rushed to the phone for no good reason. So I explain to these survey callers, that because they've called me despite my being on the "do not call" list, every question that they ask me, I'll answer with a wrong response, do you still want to talk to me?

Strangely, they do. The caller has a quota to meet, and they really don't care whether I answer correctly or misleadingly. So my wrong, and somewhat random, answers are added to their poll. I would hope that many other people do the same thng, and eventually, pollsters will realise that, even though they're allowed to call people on the "do not call" list, it's actually a very bad idea to do so.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Election special

So what will the parties do now? I've peered into my crystal ball, and although the future is murky, some revelations have been vouchsafed to me.

1. Conservatives. "Cuts" and "austerity" will continue, and the tories will continue to fail to point out that these "cuts" are actually "increases but not as much as some people would like" and "austerity" is a complete nonsense, Austerity is when clothing, furniture, sweets and bread are rationed. We will be burdened with the EC referendum, which will cause business uncertainty and loss of investment, until eventually Cameron claims "Success in renegotiation" (which he'll do irrespective of what the outcome is) and we'll all vote to remain sane.

2. Labour. Bye Bye Miliband. Then the party will look at "why did we fail", and the answer is "SNP". So what can we do to recover Scotland? And the answer is SNP-like policies. In other words, a lurch to the left, which is what Labour often does after a loss.

3. SNP. The once-in-a-generation secession referendum will be repeated in a year or two, this time the vote will be to leave, and the rest of the UK will heave a big sigh of relief as we stop subsidising those north of the border.

4. Libdems. Who? It was inevitable that they'd lose big. Clegg took a big gamble. He traded a referendum on STV (which, by the way, was the wrong system to go for, he should have stuck out for proportional) which he thought would give minor parties a bigger say into the long term future. But he didn't get STV, the referendum said "no". In return, he had to give "You can't trust lib-dem promises", in particular on university fees, and that was fatal.

5. UKIP. Toodle-oo Nigel, one of the few voices of sanity in the party. It will now become the party of swivel-eyed loons and anyone who wants to propose lunatic policies or irrational views will dominate the party. So it's goodnight to UKIP.

6. Greens. Surprisingly, they retained their single seat in Brighton. Surprising, because Brighton, under control of a Green council, has fallen into omnishambles. But only one.

7. Plaid Cymru. No change at three seats. But they must be very encouraged by the SNP result.

8. Respect party. George Galloway lost his seat. Hurrah!

9. Official Monster Raving Loony Party. No change. You can stand for election by putting up a £500 deposit, which you get back if you poll 5% of the votes (you probably won't). That actually sounds quite attractive, and since there was, sadly, no OMRLP candidate in my area, I'm very tempted to put myself forward next election. £500 for three weeks of fun sounds like a good deal.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Rottingdean and voting

I went caching today, to Rottingdean, near Brighton. The great thing about caching in a town on the South Coast is the ready availability of fish and chips. And I needed it!

The garage where I planned to get petrol and food before hitting the M25, was closed. I calculated that I had enough petrol to get me to Brighton, and I'd fill up there, and it also gave me the opportunity to lunch on fish and chips.

I did a circuit of puzzles that I solved a long time ago, then visited Rottingdean where I found the "Smuggler", and was able to get plaice (rare these days) and some very well-cooked chips. Recommended. I biked back to the car to enjoy the meal.

Then I did another circuit of mostly trads plus some puzzles, then back to the car and back home.

Then ladysolly and I went out and voted for the candidate whose party policies are the least worst, although still very horrible.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Voting tomorrow

So I'm going out caching; down to Brighton. There's a couple of circuits of puzzles that I've solved. But I'll be back in time to vote, at which time I'll put my X against the least worst of the five candidates on the list. They're all pretty atrocious, and my vote will probably not contribute to a majority by one vote.

If it does, I've got five years in which to regret it.

Email from Transport for London

It isn't, of course. But it's an interesting email.

First, I notice that it's apparently from, and it really is from, I checked the header. Genuine emails from TfL (Transport for London) aren't. But they've gone to the trouble of registering the domain name, and given to the domain registrar, the true name, address and email for TfL,; 50 Victoria Street, London.

But they could have made the from-address look as if it had come from Maybe they don't know how? It's easy, and they should have done it to make their email look more realistic.

The payload of the email is a DOC file, and the email advises you to open is with Microsoft Word. The first DOC file virus was Winword.concept, and that came out in 1995, 20 years ago. Would you believe that Microsoft Word, 20 years later, is still open to this sort of attack? Well, now you know. It is.

The DOC file isn't a virus, but it is malware. It downloads "Dridex", which grabs information when you access your bank. So someone else gets your bank login information. There's a huge long list of banks that it looks for, including Lloyds, Barclays and Natwest.

The last few lines reassure you that "This email has been scanned by the Symantec Email service." I've never understood why genuine companies put this sort of thing in their emails, when it's easy for malicious emailers to do the same thing. Are you reassured by seeing this? You shouldn't be, because it's just another thing that malicious emailers lie about.

Only Windows computers are at risk from this. Aren't you glad you're running Linux? But just in case you're not, be very very careful about emails that you get. Even if they seem to be from TfL.