Blog Archive — Page 25

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  • When Mark met David

    After the recent visit of Mark “I’m the CEO… bitch” Zuckerberg to No. 10 Downing Street, Jeremy Hunt, the secretary of state for culture and media, tweeted:

    Just met Mark Zuckerberg, Founder of Facebook. Really smart guy with some good ideas on improvement digital engagement in policy making. (Source)

    Could I please be the 32768th person to say: “Aaaargh! We’re doomed!”

    Now I’m sure there was nothing particularly sinister discussed at that meeting, but I can’t help the shivers down my spine when I discover that my government has been taking advice from Facebook.

    From News Feeds to Beacon to Connections to the impossibility of quitting, Facebook’s privacy is continually worsening at a worrying rate. (danah boyd rant; scary employee interview.) And Zuckerberg’s famously cavalier attitude doesn’t help matters either. Facebook are about the only people I would trust less at the helm of the Labour party’s aborted Überdatabase less than the government themselves.

    Though that said, perhaps Jacqui Smith needn’t have bothered trying to force the Database State on us after all – half the population (myself included) already signed up for a bigger, leakier, privately owned one.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pipe my net connection through an SSH tunnel so Jeremy Hunt can’t see how close I am to finishing building my stable.

  • Society isn't Broken!

    From Tory plans for communities to create their own schools to Guardian hacks begging for alternative currencies, ex-Soviet strategies for social collapse to alarmist talk of counter-insurgency on American soil, there has been a lot of talk lately about the advantages of small, self-sufficient communities over the single one-size-fits-all approach of the nation state. Half the world seems to think that, due to the economic downturn or by deliberate policy decision, the governments of the world won’t be effective at ruling their nations anymore.

    In the latter three cases, it reeks of scaremongering – “The End is Nigh, prepare while you still can!” But this kind of idea is infectious. There’s a secret thrill in imagining the downfall of society, and somehow a rose-tinted aura of romance around the idea of self-sufficiency. There’s something that feels good and honest about being part of a small community rather than just one citizen out of 60 million.

    But there’s a reason why, over the centuries, fiefdoms and tribal territories merged together into the nations we have today. Being a small, self-sufficient community is really hard and you don’t want to do it.

    Whatever scale of small community you pick, there are problems.

    With a village, maybe you can be self-sufficient on food provided you have enough arable land and people to farm it. But you’ll all be getting by at the subsistence level, your quality of life will be poor.

    With a group of villages working together, you can grow more things, your diet gets better and you get more resistant to crop shortages and disease. But that’s the kind of issues we’re still talking about. Economic doomsayers who suggest that this is the kind of community we should be working towards are suggesting we revert our massively successful first-world country to third-world near-poverty.

    With towns working together, finally we see infrastructure, healthcare, education. But we still can’t afford to defend ourselves. Effective police forces and militaries, and with them the public’s confidence that they can go about their daily business with little risk of assault or invasion, only really become possible at the level of the nations we live in today.

    Splitting up into self-sufficient communities becomes even more difficult because the infrastructure we’ve built up over thousands of years of being a country doesn’t lend itself well to being split up again. Case in point: I live in a conurbation, a fusion of three towns that’s home to around 400,000 people. How much farmland do we have within the boundaries of this conurbation? Oh, none. How would we feed that many people? Well, we’d have to absorb the rest of Dorset (population 700,000) into our community. Suddenly it’s not small and romantic anymore. We might as well call it Wessex and find someone called Alfred to be king of it for about 5 years until Athelstan 2 turns up.

    To top it all, we ourselves have, through thousands of years of moving away from this lifestyle, become incompatible with subsistence-level communities. They’re not going to have a lot of demand for autonomous vehicles, or for warship combat system designers, or even (god forbid) bloggers. What if – and I know this is going to come as a shock – the hairdressers and management consultants and advertising executives that live on my street turn out to not be very good at farming?

    No, it’s not going to work. Nations are what we have, and nations are what we have to stick with for the foreseeable future. If the econopocalypse brings down governments, makes them inefficient, so be it. What we have to do, and luckily what happens naturally, is try our best to fix them.

    As a country and a collective body of people, all we ever do is the bare minimum to ensure that life carries on as normal. And for once, that’s not a bad thing. When our society breaks in little ways, we need to find little ways of patching it up. If the Tories’ “free schools” work, then great – it’s a little patch to a problem which is tiny, if it exists at all.

    But politicians telling us that “Britain is broken!” and bloggers telling us to prepare for a life of subsistence farming just aren’t helpful.

  • Calling All Soton Kiddies!

    My attendance at the latest RABIES event, and the ensuing “oh god I’m old” melancholy, have set me off really, really missing my own generation of Southampton geeks. And since Twitter seems generally in agreement, I propose: Some Sort of Event! (Fanfare please.)

    I’d like to organise another Geek Meet, with a list of attendees more akin to RABIES 1 than RABIES 6. That would include, in no particular order: Myself and Eric, Andy, Rhiannon, Mark (+Alice?), Chantelle, Claire, Donna, Anna, Racheet (+Anne?), Ali, Nick, Martin, Leo, Pete.

    Some other complications:

    • Anyone know how to get in touch with Anna or Claire? I haven’t spoken to either in years (for which I now feel rather guilty).
    • Is Racheet still a controversial guest, or can we consider all the drama “soooo 2006”?
    • I can’t remember if Sam and Emily were at RABIES, but they should certainly be invited to this.
    • Millzee, Zane, Jo and possibly Frankie were at RABIES 1 too, we might want to invite them too?
    • I would feel kind of harsh deliberately excluding 2nd-gen geeks such as Mike & Gemma, Alex, Hugo and Little Andy, but this is already turning into quite a huge guest list.

    Next issue: where to hold it? Southampton would seem reasonable; do we have enough people who could offer crash space? Our flat in Bournemouth is on offer, though we couldn’t sleep everybody. And London is probably the easiest place for everyone to get to (and the most to do), but where would we all stay?

    And the other question, when should we hold it? Summer might be best for things to do, but holidays and a lack of notice might make it hard to get everyone. Perhaps later in the year?

    So that our discussion doesn’t stay relegated to Twitter, here’s a blog post. Let’s have it out in the comments and see what we can come up with! (Probably best if we all comment on LiveJournal to keep everything in one place - and for old time’s sake!)

  • Tiring of Lock-In

    My main argument against owning an iPhone, despite their shininess, has been one of vendor lock-in. Once you have an iPhone, you are virtually compelled to also use iTunes, as it won’t sync with anything else. And that dictates your choice of operating system and primary media player, both of them towards software that I’d not otherwise pick (Windows or Mac over Linux, and iTunes over virtually anything else).

    So I don’t have an iPhone. But I do have an Android phone, and even there the perceived lock-in is starting to irritate me. Android phones are at least indifferent to your choice of OS and media player, and do not pretend that in this day and age you still have a reason to sync your phone to your computer by a cable and dedicated software.

    Even though I’m unlikely to abandon Google products – at least in the realms of web-based e-mail and calendaring, they’re almost certainly the best around – the fact that owning an Android handset would make it painful to do so if I wanted to is growing irritating. I’m for some reason tempted, next time my phone contract is up for renewal, to buy something like an unlocked N900, to forego shiny interfaces and thousands of apps in favour of a mediocre experience that at least doesn’t make my choices for me.

    Perhaps this is leading my brain down dark, geeky alleyways, and I should go install Gentoo on my toaster or something to get it all out of my system.

  • RABIES, Six Years On

    Somehow, against all odds, a party we threw in June of 2005 to celebrate the graduation of Racheet and Andy turned into a regular yearly event. This, for spaffy self-indulgent reasons, is its history.

    RABIES 1 RABIES, a horrible backronym of “Racheet and Andy’s Big Incredible Extravaganza of Summertime”, came at what was the end of my second year at University. Andy and I cooked what was to be a sit-down meal for 18 specially-invited guests, and would have been just that if we’d had enough chairs and tables to seat everybody. In practice most of us sat on the floor and served ourselves buffet-style from food on the two big tables we’d borrowed from the Games Society.

    There was suspicious vegetarian stuffing, an experimental recipe all of our own. There was Christmas pudding (what better time than June?), there were swordfights in the garden under the blazing sun, and there was performance of the worst lemon fanfic we could find on the internet.

    It marked the closing of a time in my life that was saturated with the company of so many friends – a time I knew would soon be gone, but RABIES was always about forgetting that for a day.

    It was, with the possible exception of the day I proposed to my girlfriend, the happiest day of my life.

    RABIES 2 If the first RABIES marked the end of a year of friendship, the next marked the end of a year of drama. So much fell apart in the nine months that preceded it, yet by the end, by the time June and RABIES rolled around, much was fixed again.

    2006 was the graduation year for many of us, myself included. We spent days trying to figure out another suitably horrid backronym involving everyone’s initials, but in the end gave up and declared it “RABIES 2”. Racheet and Andy were both still in attendance, so it didn’t seem too much of a stretch!

    Out of necessity we relocated to a different house and the sit-down meal became a barbecue, a change that was to define all future events.

    RABIES 3 RABIES 3 was a turning point for me. Having graduated and moved away, I was coming back to Southampton just for the party. And having not spent a great deal of time in my old University town that year, RABIES had moved on a generation. It had become adopted by the Games Society as a society event, attended now by freshers that everyone else knew, but I had never met.

    I had no imminent leaving to forget that year. But as a father-to-be with a brain full of all the stress that entails, I suppose it helped me forget about that for a day – pretend I was back at University again, with a child’s carefree existence away from what my life had become.

    RABIES 4 As the now increasingly inaccurate RABIES 4 approached, a thread appeared on the Games Society forum asking what on earth “RABIES” stood for. It dawned on me then: they don’t know who Racheet and Andy are. Three years had passed. Those graduating that year could have spent three whole years of University life in the time since we’d said goodbye to those two.

    RABIES 4 And when I arrived, people clustered around me, asking how I was, bemoaning how long it had been since we’d last met, asking how my job was, how my son was. I was old.

    New traditions were born here – the location moved once more, though the barbecues remained. It was here that the dubious tradition of “Shirtless O’Clock” was born, and where our fondness for fire staves and poi blossomed into fire-swords, fire-chucks and the fire-naginata. Truly, it was a new generation of drunken recklessness!

    RABIES 5 The fifth RABIES continued in a similar vein, with alcohol and barbecue and fire aplenty. We also ventured deep into the hedge behind what was by then known as the House of A (and E), no longer the preserve of Gemma and Tallulah and the Chemistry students of the once-glorious Extreme Breakfasting Society. Beyond that hedge we found all kinds of bizarre things. We emerged bearing them, but we emerged changed people.

    RABIES 6 And now, RABIES 6 has been and gone. Five years have passed since Andy, Mark and I first sketched up a guest list of the friends we’d like to invite to a sit-down meal in honour of their graduation.

    The attendance these days tops 40, and the hunt continues for ever larger back gardens in which to hold it. Nothing short of 20 pounds of mince and 40 sausages were bought for the barbecue, and outdoor tables groaned under the weight of drinks bottles piled high.

    And oddly, things have come full circle, for Andy is graduating again this year, albeit in a city far from us.

    I am the last of what we called the Soton Kiddies to still be in attendance at RABIES; the only person to have been to all six. I don’t organise, these days, and I am barely involved with the cooking.

    And I wonder, at times like these, how long RABIES will continue.

    Will I still be going when I’m 30, five years from now? Did we create a tradition that will last the test of time, still happening every year 10 or 20 years from now, when no-one remembers any of us, and RABIES has become an acronym for something else entirely?

  • Keeping in Touch

    I guess it’s funny who you do and who you don’t stay in touch with. After all this time I’m still partying with people whose time at Uni didn’t even intersect with mine, but yet I see my best friends maybe once a year at most. And of the three people I spent my time at Uni developing crushes on? I haven’t spoken to two of them since 2006.

  • In Search of Source Control's Holy Grail

    Bestowed with a new network and a new-found autonomy, we set off on a quest for Code Re-Use, one of software engineering’s many Holy Grails. How, we asked, should we modify our existing processes to make code re-use more widely practised – to make it the norm, rather than something done on occasion?

    As it stands, our network features a Subversion server and a Mantis instance to which it is linked. SVN handles our source, Mantis our issue tracking, and documentation and other sundries are held on a SharePoint server on the same network. SVN has project repositories, within which sit applications, so your average URL begins:


    Existing Structure

    Libraries tend to be passed around freely in compiled forms, and many a Java project begins with grabbing some JARs from a previous project and dumping them in the new project’s include/. Not ideal for re-using code in a sane way.

    Clearly, the first-party libraries that we use should be brought properly under source control. We also like the idea of not tying applications to projects, since one app may be easily re-used on another project with only minor configuration changes. Furthermore, in order to reduce the large number of libraries around the place, we might also want to group them together in functional groups.

    This gives us four kinds of item that we need to place under source control: Projects, Applications, Libraries, and Library Groups.

    Proposed Structure 1

    Our first proposed structure had top-level repositories for Projects, Applications and Library, to keep these classes of item separate. Granted, this has its fair share of issues. But regardless, here we ran foul of that old problem – trusting the users. It’s a requirement for many development teams that their projects/applications/libraries be kept private, either invisible to or at least non-writeable by those not in the team. Here, Subversion – as well as every other VCS I’m aware of – fails. Permissions can be set per repository, but not with any greater granularity.

    Given this requirement, we seem to have no choice but to make all four classes of item into repositories in their own right. But with this structure, if our plan to break code down into smaller, more generic, more re-usable components succeeds, we will eventually have hundreds of repositories. We’ll have shot ourselves in the foot – although all the re-usable components are now neatly controlled, they will be impossible to find. Proposed Structure 2

    So, how will we make the available components accessible to users? Current thoughts centre around maintaining a list in SharePoint – while it will provide proper filtering and searching options, and as much metadata per item as we could throw at it, it’s a separate system. Nothing I know of will tie the two nicely together, meaning that it’s a manual job to update it – every time a programmer releases a new version of the library, they must head to SharePoint, update the version number and release status, and update a link to point to the tag for that version.

    There also remains the matter of how application developers will get hold of the libraries once they’re aware that they exist. Assuming we don’t want to check binaries into our source control system, we seem left with two options: a separate area for builds (which would also require manual maintenance, or a hefty bit of scripting to ensure it’s updated properly), or some common method for building each component from source so that any Application can rebuild its own dependencies. Given the wide range of programming languages and build systems used across our software, this isn’t an easy problem to solve. Plus in order to get maximum uptake of this system from software teams, we also need to reduce the barrier to entry – if we force users to re-script their build process just to add their code, they’re not going to add their code.

    That range of languages also kills off the likes of Maven, which if given control of our repository would solve a few of these problems – but only for Java.

    Figure 4.  The Software Engineering Experience

    A few systems exist that seem designed to address exactly these kind of problems – TeamForge and Github, to name a few popular ones. Unfortunately, both are prohibitively expensive at this stage, and they also muscle in on the territory of our existing SVN, Mantis and SharePoint applications – all of which have been a struggle to persuade people to use in the first place, thus our reluctance to change them.

    As of now, it looks like the many repositories solution with the SharePoint index list is the option with the least problems, though I don’t foresee maintaining that list being a joyous experience for certain SharePoint admins (Hi!).

    Does anyone out there in Interwebland have any thoughts? Is there something blindingly obvious we’ve missed? Are we trying to do something crazy? Should I abandon software engineering immediately and become a Lumberjack?

  • The Best We Could Have Hoped For?

    I returned to my hotel at half past ten last night, having drunk just enough Kräuser to make Labskaus palatable, to find a Giant Smug Cameron Face grinning at me from a lectern outside 10 Downing Street. “The Queen has asked me to form a new government,” he began, and I started to wonder if I should have had more beer after all.

    So we have a new Tory government. It plans to fight the deficit, but yet to raise the inheritance tax threshold to a million pounds. It promises an end to the National ID Card scheme and database, yet wants to crack down on immigration, especially those who have the audacity to not speak English very well. It promises to make the poor better off, but it seems to want to achieve this by paying people 150 quid to get married while they sell off what public services we have left.

    It says “Britain is broken” and means, as all parties mean when they push that agenda, “Britain is changing, we don’t really understand how or why, and we’re a bit scared”.

    But this Conservative government is a little special because, even at its heart, it is also a Liberal Democrat government. The two are in coalition for the first time in 60 years, and no-one’s really sure what will become of that. Do we dare hope for something good?

    It’s quite telling that not only do we have a hung parliament, in which no party has been given an overall majority, but we don’t even have an easy coalition either.

    Despite 13 years of dubious wars, expenses scandals, erosion of privacy and our worst recession since the 1930s, Labour still command nearly a third of the vote. Despite widespread fear and mistrust amongst the young, the Conservative party command over a third. And the Lib Dems are still a non-entity for a lot of people – not having been in power for over 70 years, we have no way of knowing if we can trust them or even if they’re competent.

    Though there were campaigns asking people to vote tactically in order to deliberately produce a hung parliament, no-one seems happy with any of the options it’s produced. A Labour / Lib Dem coalition was unpopular as it could have meant another four years of the same PM, cabinet and policies. The Conservative / Lib Dem coalition that we now have was unpopular too, with many staunch Tories and Lib Dems accusing their party of turning traitor or selling out. And the alternative to these was a minority government, which would have been no different at all to a majority one except that we’d probably all go to the polls again much sooner.

    But on the prospect of electoral reform, which all three parties have talked about and a good proportion of the electorate are in favour of, could we have asked for a better result? The Lib Dems have been pushing their agenda strongly, and at least a referendum seems to be on the cards. The Conservatives also seem to be coming around to the Lib Dems’ plan to increase the tax threshold to help those on low incomes, so perhaps the poor won’t be shafted after all.

    I do worry about the next election, though. Labour has a tough job to ditch its reputation and win voters back. Even with Proportional Representation, the Lib Dems don’t have enough support to rule outright. And Cameron’s modernism and willingness to dish out cabinet seats to the Lib Dems could spark an all-out war in the Tory ranks. If we thought all the parties were pretty unappealing at this election, it could be a whole lot worse next time around. Who will we elect when we don’t trust anyone?

  • Death by Electorate 2010

    For any of you wanting a reason to be in A&E; by 6am tomorrow, we proudly present: the Election Results Drinking Game!

    Simply tune in to a live broadcast of your choice by 10pm tonight, and…

    • Every time the Labour party wins a seat, take a sip of Aftershock.
    • Every time the Tories win a seat, take a sip of Blue Curaçao.
    • Every time the Lib Dems win a seat, take a sip of brandy.
    • Every time the Green party wins a seat, take a sip of absinthe.
    • Every time UKIP wins a seat, read their manifesto, then make and drink a Purple Rain to get over the shock.
    • Every time the BNP wins a seat, emigrate.

    There are 649 seats up for grabs, so good luck and try to avoid an untimely demise!

  • The Dilemma of the Young Socialist

    In case you aren’t aware, my political views are rather towards the Left end of the spectrum, to the extent that while I’m not sure I’d fully commit to the label ‘Socialist’, I’m certainly not far off.

    I make no secret, however, of being a Liberal Democrat supporter, and indeed I’ll be voting for them on Thursday. Despite their history and nominal status as a Centre party, they are now to my eyes the Leftmost of the three main parties.

    I’d like to support Labour, I really would – the problem is, I’d like to support Old Labour. And I never got the chance. I was twelve years old in 1997, when a widely-grinning pair of ears swept into power to the tune of “Things Can Only Get Better”. And things probably did get better for ‘Middle England’. For the entirety of my politically-aware life, Labour has been New Labour. To me, it has always been about courting the middle classes, about image and spin and lobbying, about unjust wars and surveillance and mediocrity, and a bunch of laws that show just how far detached Whitehall is from the world outside.

    They’ve drifted so far to the Centre and, on occasion, the Right, that I just can’t bring myself to show them any kind of support. Not to mention that as the incumbent party, they offer no hope of the kind of electoral reform I would like to see.

    So sorry, Labour. Maybe if two or three Cameron governments drive you back to the Left where you once belonged, we’ll meet again.