Archive for September, 2007

If it looks right, it probably is right, as they say. So LockMart is looking into a seaplane design…but how did they come up with this?

Surely that’s too ugly to fly? (hat tip: Aviation Week.)


Windows Vista is Buggy

OK, so I’ve got a WinVista laptop – and it’s dire, at least the OS is. As well as lots of annoying crapware features well described here, it’s also got some really annoying bugs. For example, I quite regularly encounter an error condition in which the WLAN client goes out of kilter, failing to complete DHCP registration and get a routable IP address. Then, after some cursing, it fails to detect the network at all. The best idea I can think is to shut down the Intel wireless LAN client and start it up again; but when I try to disable it through Windows Device Manager, the Management Console application hangs, using 80-90 per cent of CPU (how? this thing has 2×1.8GHz processors! its thrashing is so awful that it’s pulling 2.88GHz of processing power!). It has to be killed through the task manager, and the computer rebooted; but the shutdown process then hangs for ages, too.

I’ve got a copy of Mandriva Métisse Linux on the D: drive; dare I install it? All that holds me back is concern regarding the drive partitioning process – I have two Windows drives, both actually partitions of equal size on a 120GB hard disk. I’d quite like to install the Linux build in D: and dual-boot, but I’m not at all sure how to map the Windows and Unix file systems – I understand that the two are very different, but not how to get around this.

I recently read about a Zimbabwean refugee who was sent a letter by the Home Office, which stated that his presence in the UK was “not essential for him to enjoy family ties with his new partner and her family”. The letter went on to demand that he leave “without delay” and that this might be “enforced”. Well, it wouldn’t; the courts having ruled that Zimbabwe is too dangerous to send people back to, their hands are tied.

Somehow, though, the government continues to contend that although the legal test of refugee status is “a well-founded fear of persecution”, the fact that asylum-seekers cannot be returned to Zimbabwe for fear they might die does not imply that their fear of this fate is well-founded. This pernicious fuckery just keeps going; it is one of the most repellent features of the post-Michael Howard Home Office that it has so little respect for legality. An unfavourable judgment is not a fact that should alter behaviour, but an unreasonable caprice to be reversed by superior power as soon as possible.

Therefore, it is still worth menacing “Thomas” in the hope he might bugger off; and if he was to do so, and later die in some unpleasantly public fashion in Zimbabwe, the government would bear no responsibility for it. (Even if they paid for his ticket.)

But what was the official who signed this document thinking when they signed their name to the statement that his presence was “not essential to enjoy family ties with his new partner and her children”? What on earth does this mean? Are we to believe that he could pop around at the weekend? Perhaps videoconferencing might be a solution, if he can find a computer and an operational Internet connection whilst keeping away from the Central Intelligence Organisation and not starving to death?

Clearly, this sentence should read something along the lines of “We are aware of your family, and we are indifferent to them,” or perhaps just “We don’t care.” But this would make it a far harder document to sign; it’s traditional to cite Orwell’s Politics and the English Language at this point. I prefer Vaclav Havel’s parable about the baker, who every year put a sign in his window on Revolution Day that read: Workers of the world, unite! Havel asked if he was actually enthused at all about the idea of unity among the workers of the world – of course not. He did it because the Party wanted him to.

But, Havel wrote, had the Party demanded that he put the sign’s actual meaning there – a sign that said I am afraid, and therefore obedient – he would have been far less indifferent to its content. If we were to rewrite the letter, we might frame it like this:

Dear Sir,
We want you to go back to Zimbabwe because we think you are a liar. Unfortunately, the courts do not agree with us and will not permit us to force you, but this makes no difference to our opinion. We are aware of your family, but we do not care.

If I don’t sign this they’ll sack me.


Civil Servant X.

I agree that the tone is harsh, but it could hardly be more distressing for the recipient than the original. I’m not sure what the correct formula of politeness is. (Yours faithfully? Surely not. With kind regards? Nuh. Yours sincerely? That’s more like it, I suppose – this version is nothing if not sincere.) But at least, it is clear to the writer what is meant; it would be considerably harder to sign this without examining your conscience, and you could not sign very many without altering your opinion of yourself.

That such a programme of ruthless honesty, and specifically honesty with self, would be a good first step is a cliché. But sometimes, I doubt it. Consider this column in the FT, by ex-Sunday Torygraph editor Sarah Sands.

So, my Polish builder first worked on my house only a year ago. Seven days a week, 14 hours a day with his crack team. Barely spoke a word in English. Refused tea or coffee, just smoked and consumed Coca-Cola and chocolate biscuits. I was so swelled up with pride at my good fortune that, last December, I recommended him to a liberally inclined film director. I waited for grateful e-mails but none came. I grew a little uneasy.

Then a few months ago, I commissioned my Pole to do a bathroom. He returned without his team. Where were they? He was a little vague; they had disbanded/gone back to Poland/were busy elsewhere, but I should not worry about that.

I didn’t, until it became clear that he was arriving at 10 and knocking off at five. The driven gang was gone. Now he had a baby-faced apprentice who spilt his fizzy drinks on the carpets and broke the window. Every couple of hours they would down amateurish tools for a break. Finally my tight-lipped resentment spilt over.

“What on earth has happened to you?” I cried. “Why don’t you work any more?”

Well, you cannot accuse her of not being conscious of the literal meaning of her words. You could accuse her of class prejudice, exploitation, snobbery, and just being fucking gratuitiously unpleasant because she can, like a dog licking his balls. But you cannot imagine that she was not fully aware of her own meaning, and so, responsible for it.

It’s also hypocritical; by her own lights, why didn’t she put in more time at the Torygraph? Maybe she would still be there – and then, I could more thoroughly avoid the risk of reading her thoughts. Anyway, if you doubt that this little tale is serious, you might read this, published the same day.

Listening to all these experiences, it was as if all the Factory Acts and health and safety regulations had suddenly disappeared in a puff of smoke, along with 150 years of trade union gains. None of this protection existed in the minds of these workers. The government will point to an avalanche of legislation, but the devil is in the detail.

I refer the honourable gentleman to this post, this one, and this one.

The Rays, again

It’s been bloody difficult to see anything of this year’s championship play-offs; apparently there’s some sort of rugby union event going on. But I did manage to see Hull and Wigan last night. Which posed a problem – which of them do I hate more?

I still get abusive comments on this post from time to time; but then there’s this, too. It’s a pity I’m committed to despising Hull, really – it’s quite a club, after all.

Anyway, last night’s game rocked the Pennines; it was incredibly close, and extremely loud in a way you hardly ever hear outside RL and (sometimes) football. There was some brilliant rugby, too – Gareth Raynor’s first try, for example. Chasing a grubber kick to the flag, he stole up on Leuluai, who was hoping to shield the ball off the park, and managed to touch down reaching around his legs; a pickpocket’s try. Wigan got ahead and ended up hanging on for the last 10 minutes in a succession of frantic drives.

It struck me that sport (as well as a lot of other human activities) is a way of manipulating time; the mark of a really good match, spectating or playing, is that at first time hurtles past (what, half-time already?) and then slows to a tension-ridden crawl. There is some science to this; it’s been suggested that the brain has a variable clock speed, increasing the rate at which it samples reality at moments of crisis and therefore giving the sensation of time passing very slowly.

Something similar occurs with Rugby League; the game’s administrators see their thought processes slow to a crawl at moments of crisis, so suddenly it’s 2007 and we haven’t had a World Cup for seven years. The difference is that everyone else experiences the intervening period passing incredibly slowly. This is really getting embarrassing; if you remember how good the Tongan, PNG, and Western Samoans were in 1995, and how good the corresponding rah-rah sides have been this year, it’s a disaster that they have had no meaningful international rugby since 2000.

Strange signs and wonders are visible in the sky. Catalans Dragons beat Wigan. And Felix Salmon becomes an autogestionniste, in the auto industry to boot.

Now the VEBA, according to the WSJ, is a union-run trust – which means that the UAW now controls more than enough money to buy GM.

Of course, the VEBA is designed to pay healthcare costs, not to run a car company. So what it should probably be doing is trying to place its investments with money managers mandated to beat some kind of healthcare-cost benchmark. And the obvious way to do that would be to invest in hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, health insurers and the like – rather than in the declining US auto sector.

On the other hand, there are obvious advantages to the union owning the company – it would be very unlikely to go on strike, for starters. And there wouldn’t be a conflict between shareholders wanting to maximize dividends and workers wanting to maximize earnings.

It’s like Chris Dillow took over his brain! (There might be an interesting product coming up, too.)

Walter Reuther, the legendary UAW president, famously had the solution back in the 40s when the healthcare benefits were originally agreed – he thought the automakers should back a universal healthcare scheme in return for the union letting them off the hook, which anyone who isn’t completely bug-fuck crazy now sees would have been very wise indeed. But they were willing to sign a blank cheque on their own money rather than admit the principle.

Update: Well, well, well…

I have no idea why “libertarians” would support this idea at all; especially not Jim Henley, who ought to know better. Briefly, “Direct Instruction” suggests that teachers should be given prepared scripts to use in class and instructed to follow them exactly, with classes streamed by ability and repeating courses until passed.

First of all, this is of course wildly managerialist and authoritarian; who precisely gets to decide what goes in the script? What happens to local, democratic accountability? The examples given refer to big school systems (>20 kilostudents), which implies that the sort of parish-meeting board of governors folk like Henley romanticise would maybe have some influence over paperclips.

And, of course, the entire history of brilliant centralising education schemes shows that brilliant centralising education schemes don’t work. This is one, so it almost certainly won’t. So how the hell did libertarians, subtype North American, come to like it?

My explanation is that it’s purely the politics of ressentiment: school teachers and their trade unions are a traditional rightwing enemy image in the US, as in the UK through the 1980s, and this appeals simply because it would piss them off. It’s worth remembering that even Henley and Co are actually very right-wing people indeed; in an alternate time line, they’d be on the other side.

Hence the neato anti-trade union ads; from the “Center for Union Facts”, indeed. Further reading is here; apparently the Center consists of a bunch of Wal-Mart money and a well-known tobacco industry lobbyist. I think the phrase is “nice mates you got there”.

This is one of the reasons I don’t have ads on this blog; you either have to filter them, in which case you are in a sense taking responsibility for their content and could be accused of a conflict of interest, or else if you disclaim any control and make it clear that it’s entirely up to the BlogAds or Google computers, you run the risk of something really horrible turning up. And then, if you decide to censor it, you’ve got to answer why you don’t censor X, Y, or Z.

So, I wonder if there’s anything stupid going on at Richard “Who are you going to believe – me, or the fact the Israeli Air Force *apologised* for the strike-in-error?” North’s place….and guess what? There is!

As CabaPhil (good to have him back in the ‘sphere) points out, Dick North is deeply conflicted here – for someone who opposes UK membership in the European Union on the grounds of absolute national sovereignty, he’s incredibly keen on letting the Americans infringe it.

This is a common failing of Eurosceptics, and a bizarre one at that; surely any grown-up discussion of sovereignty needs to acknowledge that it has limits. But it is an issue these people simply don’t discuss. North is an especially egregious example – not so long ago, he was sweating with indignation that the MoD had bought trucks from a European manufacturer and uniforms from China, presumably on the grounds that industries of the future like textiles (!) must be protected.

Now, he is furious that unlike Australia, we haven’t entrusted our strategic communications network entirely to the Americans. The logic here beggars belief – we should trust the Americans not to read our most secret diplomatic and military traffic and not to switch off the link if we disagree, but we absolutely must have uniforms made in the UK at much greater cost!

Further, he is quite simply wrong on facts. The “European commercial partner” involved is none other than EADS’s Astrium satellites division; which is also known as the old Hawker Siddeley Dynamics/BAE Space plant in Stevenage! Now, Britain has a rather good satellite industry – besides Astrium UK there’s Surrey Satellite Technology in Guildford, aka the University of Surrey engineering faculty’s pension. Apparently we can let it slide, so long as we support whatever is left of Lancashire textiles and truck making.

You’d also think a hard-rightist like Northo would remember that the Skynet 5A project actually began with Maggie Thatcher, who didn’t want to depend on the US for satellite communications. The first version of the system wasn’t ready in time for the Falklands, when the US rented us bandwidth on theirs, but the rest got orbited very quickly afterwards despite the delay caused by the Challenger accident. One might wonder why Thatcher let HOTOL struggle on as long as she did before defunding it; Alan Clark wanted to convert Polaris units into satellite launchers on Ascension, which is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard.

It has been well pointed out that the difference between the European countries that joined the war with Iraq and the ones that did not is that none of the first group had their own satellite reconnaissance capability; France has both satellites and launchers, and I think the Germans have one whizzing around up there. This ought to be a knockout argument for a independent space capability (possibly more important than nukes – what say you, TYRos?), but you’re never going to see that at North’s.

So what are the lessons of the Liberal conference?

First up, get a bloody autocue already. We could have a blogger whipround. Out of all the speakers I saw on TV, excepting Ming’s big finish, all of them were very obviously reading off a bit of paper. Danny Alexander’s entire TV appearance consisted of him staring down at a script; not good. Nick Clegg was little better. The best performance was from a ginger Scottish guy called Kennedy; concise, punchy, addressing the crowd not the lectern. I wonder where we found him?

And if you can’t remember your whole speech, memorise the bits you absolutely can’t leave out; then just deliver those. In fact, even if you can memorise the whole thing, you ought to do this anyway. As a party, we badly need editing.

Secondly, the big media is not our friend. BBC coverage ruthlessly edited out everything substantive, self-described liberal Simon Carr of the Indy issued a succession of poisonously hostile pieces moaning about the practice of letting delegates ask questions (imagine!); the reason is firstly that no-one on our side scares them, and secondly that no-one on our side seems to make it easy for them to fall over the news.

Thirdly, we need to define the enemy, and this has never been easier. Here they are – The Party of Control. Labour thinks everyone can be zapped into being better people, the Tories think the poor can be zapped into immobility while the rich clean up. The various Nats want more zapping of various kinds; UKIP wants more police power. We are the only party that doesn’t want to zap everyone. Of course, the big issue here is that administering more control always empowers the administrators and the people who can game the system; and this is generally either the rich or the unscrupulous.

The nature of big, complex systems is that the more fiddling you do, the less likely you are to get the result you desire. Set the incentives and infrastructure, then keep grubby fingers out; we’ve learnt this in fields ranging from environmental sciences to computing, behavioural psychology to industrial management, central banking to the military art.

Fourthly, we are the party against stupidity, and we have practical solutions. Where the Tories think what everyone needs is a toff, and Labour thinks what everyone needs is a public-private surveillance system, we should be the ones who guarantee to hold our plans lightly and trim to reality.

Finally, we need a short slug of principles; and how about these?

1. It’s better to fiddle less

If you want to save fuel (and we do), tax it; don’t build a mass surveillance system.

2. People know what they are doing

Respect the professionals; encourage anything that gives people more autonomy and control of working life

3. Fat cats are as bad as bureaucrats

What else are they – except an unusually egregious species?

4. You can’t rig the facts

Presentation, “sending a message” – it’s all crap. We should be keen on real evidence-based policy; the kind where the evidence changes the policy.

5. The best treatment for poverty is money

What Daniel Davies said!

6. “Freedom from” and “freedom to” are inseparable

This is where it all lines up; we’re here to defend negative liberty and extend positive liberty.

Dear Lazyweb – can anyone work out why I can’t get useful data out of this page with BeautifulSoup and Python 2.5?

The information is in an HTML table, enclosed by td tags nested in tr tags, and governed by three CSS classes, “flight-data”, “data-head” and “data-row2”. The latter pair are used only within the first. So you would think something like this would work:

for item in soup.findAll('td', {'class': 'flight-data'}):

The ellipsis is there to make the indentation obvious in this post. Where soup is naturally an instance of BeautifulSoup that’s been fed the webpage as a file-like object. But it doesn’t; it does grab some of the data, but it also grabs much of the webpage as raw html, including the header and a gaggle of javascript. And it’s slow, dammit. I can’t be too far off beam, because I’m successfully parsing another very similar website using a near-identical parse command.

I’ve tried various interlocking restrictions, and searching for both data-head and data-row2, but these usually find nothing.