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Three things

reading the newspaper this polling day, three things caught my eye:

1. Guardian Letters: The scourge of our wealth divide:

The annual Sunday Times Rich List yields four very important conclusions for the governance of Britain (Report, Weekend, 28 April). It shows that the richest 1,000 persons, just 0.003% of the adult population, increased their wealth over the last three years by £155bn. That is enough for themselves alone to pay off the entire current UK budget deficit and still leave them with £30bn to spare.

Michael Meacher MP

2. Privately run NHS hospital ‘will need to make eyewatering cuts’

In a deal signed off by the government in February, Circle takes the first £2m of any year’s profits at the hospital in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. After that it gets a quarter of surpluses between £2m and £6m, and a third of surpluses between £6m and £10m. The terms mean that in any year Hinchingbrooke makes less than a £6m surplus, more than half will go to Circle.

In the past decade the hospital has never made an annual surplus of more than £600,000, suggesting large cuts would be needed to meet targets. This year the hospital is on course to lose £10m.

Circle’s 10-year management franchise is seen as a potential model for other hospitals.

3. Rover workers get £3 redundancy pay compensation after seven-year battle

News of the tiny payouts was announced to campaigners at a meeting on Monday and has led to calls for personal donations to the workers’ compensation fund from the so-called Phoenix Four – John Towers, Nick Stephenson, John Edwards and Peter Beale – the businessmen whobought the company for £10 in 2000 and then paid themselves and managing director Kevin Howe a total of £42m.

Carl Chinn, a trustee of the former employees’ fund, said: “I hope they will search their conscience to see if they can find the goodwill to help those who have lost so much. But as they have been ignoring my calls for four or five years, I’m not holding out much hope.”

Chinn said a request for contributions had been put to representatives of the quartet, who last May were disqualified from working as company directors in Britain for a total of 19 years.

A spokesman for the four said: “All we would want to say is that the request has been noted.”

So, yes, I voted today.

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Moved

A couple of weeks ago I moved this blog from its old home on a Windows-based virtual server at EasyCGI to a dedicated Linux server running as a “micro instance” on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) platform. Herein some notes on the move.

Overall I’m pretty happy with the move. The EasyCGI hosting was cheap but painfully slow and seemingly getting slower. Although I have no illusions that many people read this blog (although it does get some incoming traffic from Google) I do object to paying for a poor service.  I also needed an excuse to play with AWS.

Since I have never used AWS before, and haven’t used Unix in any significant way for about fifteen years, I needed some help. I started with this tutorial [1]; which is a good idiot’s guide to signing-up for AWS, creating an EC2 micro instance, and installing WordPress and its dependencies. The article is a year old, though, and is out of date in several respects. The most important is that AWS no longer provides Fedora-based machine images. They do offer something called Amazon Linux, which did the job for me. There are some minor differences between this and the tutorial, but noting serious.

Signing up for AWS was as smooth as I expected – kind of like an extended Amazon checkout process.

After I had an instance built and launched, the first problem I encountered was that the default Amazon Linux EC2 image does not allow root user login. This is explained here [2]. The effect of this is that you login as “ec2-user” and is you want to use any privileged commands then you have to use the sudo command. At this point I discovered this [3] tutorial, which is a bit more up to date. Despite the title it is not specific to Apple Macs.

Installing Apache and MySQL was easy: just a few simple ‘sudo yum install’ commands. I still carry the scars of installing software in SunOS and Solaris back in the early nineties (only if you have to, plenty of coffee, allow a whole day), and this yum stuff impressed me a lot. (Must take a look at NuGet when I have the time). You can’t install phpMyAdmin using yum because its not in Amazon’s yum repository, but the tutorial [3] explains how to do this. There’s also an informative SuperUser Q&A about it here [4].

I installed a fresh copy of WordPress as described in the tutorials, then copied over the various config files and a database backup from my old site to the new one (via http using wget). No surprises there, but there are some instructions here [5] that might be useful (or at least reassuring). Make sure you have backups! Since I had installed WordPress in a subdirectory below /var/www/html I had to put a php redirection script in that directory. There is an example of how to do this here [6]. I found this [7] cheat-sheet useful throughout when driving the vim text editor.

Finally, I assigned a public “elastic IP address” to the instance and changed the DNS for the andrewjohnson.me.uk domain to point to it.

And that’s it really. It didn’t take long, I enjoyed it, and I learned some things. My thanks to those who took the time to write the various tutorials – it would have been much harder without them.

 

[1] http://www.2bit-coder.com/2010/9/wordpress-in-the-cloud-amazon-ec2

[2] http://imperialwicket.com/aws-default-root-password

[3] http://calebogden.com/wordpress-on-linux-in-the-amazon-cloud-with-mac/

[4] http://superuser.com/questions/291230/how-to-install-phpmyadmin-on-linux-ec2-instance

[5] http://codex.wordpress.org/Moving_WordPress#Moving_WordPress_to_a_New_Server

[6] http://php.about.com/od/learnphp/ht/phpredirection.htm

[7] http://www.cs.colostate.edu/helpdocs/vi.html

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Virtual

Some time ago, while explaining the concept of virtual memory to a work colleague, I remembered something I’d seen about twenty years earlier…

Between July 1988 and September 1989 I worked at an IBM research lab in Winchester, Hampshire. This was the industrial placement part of my four-year computer science degree. I was about 20 at the time. The industrial trainees inhabited a basement room with small, ceiling-level windows that were at pavement height in the street outside. High up on one wall, near the ceiling, someone had blu-tacked a piece of paper that (from memory) read:

If it’s there, and you can see it, then it’s real.

If it’s not there, and you can see it, then it’s virtual.

If it’s there, and you can’t see it, then it’s transparent.

If it’s not there, and you can’t see it then it’s gone!

Someone had crossed-out the ‘ne’ part of ‘gone’ and written a ‘d’ above it. I never felt the slightest inclination to correct this.

__________

The paper seems to have been a home-made version of an 70’s-era IBM poster explaining virtual memory. The lab was the IBM UK Scientific Centre, a really fun place to work, and which seems to have closed in the early 1990s when IBM was having financial problems. While the world thinks that these global problems were the responsibility of the then-CEO John Akers, I can exclusively reveal that they were entirely caused by UKSC management allowing induistrial trainees unrestricted access to the stationary cupboard. I still have a stapler.

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Installing 64 bit itunes on 64 bit Windows 7

This has been driving me mad for the past couple of days, and I wanted to give the solution a little Google-juice in case someone else encounters the same problem.

If you’re trying to install the 64 bit version of itunes on the 64 bit version of Windows 7 and you’re finding that the installer just won’t run, even if you’re running it as administrator, then try downloading it using something other than Firefox. I don’t know why, but if I download the installer in Firefox then it just silently exits immediately after I run it. If I download it using ie8 then it works fine. Weird.

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Beauly-Denny

below is a copy of my letter to the First Minister of Scotland regarding the environmental destruction about the be wrought by the upgrade to the Beauly-Denny power transmission line. For context on this see here and here and here and here and here.

–=o=–

[My address removed]

9th November 2009

Rt. Hon. Alex Salmond MSP
Office of the First Minister
St. Andrew’s House
Regent Road
Edinburgh
EH1 3DG

Dear First Minister,

I am writing to you regarding recent media reports that the proposed upgrade to the Beauly-Denny power transmission line is about to be approved by the Scottish Government.

As someone who has visited Scotland many times to enjoy the unparalleled beauty of its mountain and wilderness areas, I am saddened that such a development is being considered. The industrialisation of parts of theCairngorms National Park and the imposition of enormous pylons across large areas of Highland landscape will destroy the very qualities that draw so many people to visit Scotland. Once the 200 foot pylons, access roads, and transformer buildings have been built, the damage will bepermanent.

I appreciate the need for enhancements to Scotland’s transmission capacity. However, I urge you to consider alternatives: upgrading the existing East-coast line or the use of sub-sea cables for example. While they may be more expensive, they would go a long way towards preventing further environmental damage and would demonstrate to the world that Scotland is as serious about protecting its natural heritage as itundoubtedly is about preventing climate change.

I do understand that you are a busy man. But I urge you: before making a decision, visit some of the spectacularly beautiful areas whose landscape will bepermanently changed. See what is at risk, and what will be lost to us all – including generations to come – by this reckless development. Please, for all our sakes,exercise brave leadership and seek an alternative.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Johnson

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Extremists

There has been a lot of debate over the last few weeks about the BBC’s decision to allow the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, to appear on the Question Time programme. I wanted to set-out some of my thoughts on this.

To be clear: I hate and dispise the BNP. It is vile, racist, anti-semitic, hateful, and I do not want to share a country (or planet) with it or its moronic supporters.

So, what to do?

The BBC’s position appears to be that the BNP is a legal political party with a significant body of support, and, as such, they should be represented in BBC current affairs programming in the interests of ‘balance’ and ‘fairness’. The BNP seems to agree, while presumably also believing that the BBC are leftist commie race-traitors who will be first up against the wall…

The opposing view is that the BNP is an extremist organisation and should not be legitimised by an appearance on a high-profile, respected television programme. The phrase “oxygen or publicity” gets used a lot here.

Reading blog comments on the BBC News site, the Guardian, and others (such as the Guido Fawkes’ blog), a lot of people seem to be saying “freedom of speech… let Griffin onto the programme and everyone will see that he’s a nazi.” This is the “give him enough rope” approach. Maybe he will expose his and the BNP’s true nature, live on national TV. That would be a great result.

But what if he doesn’t?

Nick griffin isn’t stupid. Yes, he holds truly vile opinions, but he’s not stupid either. He’s also a relatively seasoned public performer and is articulating a world-view that is, unfortunately, highly plausible to a significant number of of my fellow citizens. Almost one million people voted for the BNP in the lst European election. When he apperas on TV tomorrow evening he will know that he’s not in the back-room of some pub where he can say what he really thinks to people who think the same way. He’ll be bland and moderate, with maybe just a bit of “straight-talking victim of the liberal political establishment” thrown in, because his sole aim will be to be accepted as just another politician. Someone that ordinary people can vote for. He want to be legitimised.

What if that is the outcome? Well, France discovered how this plays-out back in 1984. Voting BNP will become acceptable. We’ll see our first fascist MPs not long after that, and the history of 20th-century Europe tells us where this can lead.

If the BBC is correct that they have an obligation to provide a platform to all legal political parties, and I suspect that they are, then the BNP must cease to be a legal political party. I am aware that this can be interpreted as elitist: “some people are just not smart enough to see what the BNP really is, and so ‘we’ must protect them for their own good.” Maybe it is, but sometimes a state (society?) must recognise the inevitability of human failbility and protect its people from the consequences of their own actions.

How to do this? I don’t want politicians deciding that other politicians should be banned. Thats just a short-cut to the sort of society that the BNP want to create. Instead I’d like some kind of socially-agreed ‘filter’. If an organisation can pass through the filter then they have the right to be treated as legitimate, and can enjoy the priviliges that that brings (like arguing on Question Time). If they can’t then they stay illegitimate (which is not necessarily the same as illegal) and the police/MI5 keep an eye on them.

The criteria for the filter should be decided by society as a whole. I suggest that prerequisites are a commitment to democracy, equality, and freedom under the law. Any party that wants to remove rights from their fellow citizens, as the BNP does, would fail. Formulating this filter would be difficult, especially an a diverse and fractured society, but if nations can agree on constitutions and human-rights treaties and acts, then we could do this.

I really hope that tomorrow night the country sees Nick Griffin and the BNP for what they really are: hate-filled fascists. But I am afraid that a process has been started, and I fear for the future.

Conversation with my five-year-old son

Him: Daddy. My brain knows the answer to every question!

Me: (Thinks) Ok. Is it possible to factor any number in linear time?

Him: (Without stopping to think) Yes!

Me: How?

Him: … I don’t know…

Me: Ah. Well… Which painting is better – the Raft of the Medusa or the Mona Lisa?

Him: The Daft of the Haducer?

Economy. Stupid.

I love it when this thing forces me to think.

The blog post that would have been here – about the economy no less – is sitting safely in the drafts folder until I figure-out a way to express my opinion on that subject without it being full of logical holes and arguments that are just… well, wrong.

Its probably because I know next-to-nothing about economic public policy, but it would be nice if I could realise that without having to write 300+ words first…

Meanwhile…

If you want some useful perspective on the economic situation then you could do worse than read about how Barclays Bank got a senior High Court judge out of bed in the middle of the night to prevent the Guardian from publishing Barclays internal memos detailing systematic, large scale tax avoidance by Barclays.

Despite the efforts of Barclay’s clueless corporate lawyers, and the probably equally clueless judge, the documents are up on Wikileaks. The one about Project Knight (PDF) is particularly interesting. I wonder how many schools the tax that they avoided would have paid for? While you’re there, check-out the Guardian’s extensive investigation of corporate tax avoidance.

Me? Angry?