Into the Pyramid

November 2019 wasn’t an easy month, for various reasons, and it also rained every single day of the month. But there were some highlights!

LibreTeo

At the bus stop one day I saw a poster for a local Free Software related event called LibreTeo. Of course I went, and saw some interesting talks related to technology and culture and also a useful workshop on improving your clown skills. Actually the clown workshop was a highlight. It was a small event but very friendly, I met several local Free Software heads, and we were even invited for lunch with the volunteers who organized it.

Purr Data on Flathub

I want to do my part for increasing the amount of apps that are easy to install Linux. I asked developers to Flatpak your app today last year, and this month I took the opportunity to package Purr Data on Flathub.

Here’s a quick demo video, showing one of the PD examples which generates an ‘audible illusion’ of a tone that descends forever, known as a Shepard Tone.

As always the motivation is a selfish one. I own an Organelle synth – it’s a hackable Linux-based device that generates sound using Pure Data, and I want to be able to edit the patches!

Pure Data is a very powerful open source tool for audio programming, but it’s never had much commercial interest (unlike its proprietary sibling Max/MSP) and that’s probably why the default UI is still implemented in TCL/TK in 2019. The Purr Data fork has made a lot of progress on an alternative HTML5/JavaScript UI, so I decided this would be more suitable for a Flathub package.

I was particularly motivated by the ongoing Pipewire project which is aiming to unify pro and consumer audio APIs on Linux in a Flatpak-friendly way. Christian Schaller mentioned this recently:

There is also a plan to have a core set of ProAudio applications available as Flatpaks for Fedora Workstation 32 tested and verified to work perfectly with Pipewire.

The Purr Data app will benefit a lot from this work. It currently has to use the OSS backend inside the sandbox and doesn’t seem to successfully communicate over MIDI either — so it’s rather a “tech preview” at this stage.

The developers of Purr Data are happy about the Flatpak packaging, although they aren’t interested in sharing the maintenance effort right now. If anyone reading this would like to help me with improving and maintaining the Purr Data Flatpak, please get in touch! I expect the effort required to be minimal, but I’d like to have a bus factor > 1.

Tracker bug fixes

This month we fixed a couple of issues in Tracker which were causing system lockups for some people. It was very encouraging to see people volunteering their time to help track down the issue, both in Gitlab issue 95 and in #tracker on IRC, and everyone involved in the discussion stayed really positive even though it’s obviously quite annoying when your computer keeps freezing.

In the end there were several things that come together to cause system lockups:

  • Tracker has a ‘generic image extraction’ rule that tries to find metadata for any image/* MIME type that isn’t a .bmp, .jpg, .gif, or .png. This codepath uses the GstDiscoverer API, the same as for video and audio files, in the hope that a GStreamer plugin on the system can give us useful info about the image.
  • The GstDiscoverer instance is created with a timeout of 5 seconds. (This seems quite high — the gst-typefind utility that ships with GStreamer uses a timeout of 1 second).
  • GStreamer’s GstDiscoverer API feeds any file where the type is unknown into an MPEG decoder, which is effectively an unwanted fuzz test and can trigger periods of high CPU and memory usage.
  • 5 seconds of processing non-MPEG data with an MPEG decoder is somehow enough to cause Linux’s scheduler to lock up the entire system.

We fixed this in the stable branches by blocking certain problematic MIME types. In the next major release of Tracker we will probably remove this codepath completely as the risks seem to outweigh the benefits.

Other bits

I also did some work on a pet project of mine called Calliope, related with music recommendations and playlist generation. More on this in a separate blog post.

And I finally installed Fedora on my partner’s laptop. It was nice to see that Gnome Shell works out-of-the-box on 12 year old consumer hardware. The fan, which was spinning 100% of the time under Windows 8, is virtually silent now – I had actually thought this problem was due to dust buildup or a hardware issue, but once again the cause was actually low-quality proprietary software.

What I did in October

October in Galicia has a weather surprise for every week. I like it because every time the sun appears you feel like you gotta enjoy it – there might be no more until March.

I didn’t do much work on Tracker this month, beside bug triage and a small amount of prep for the 2.3.1 stable release. The next step for Tracker 3.0 is still to fix a few regressions causing tests to fail in tracker-miners.git. Follow the Tracker 3.0 milestone for more information!

Planalyzer

In September I began teaching English classes again after the summer, and so I’ve been polishing the tool that I wrote to index old lesson plans.

It looks a little cooler than before:

Screenshot of Planalyzer app

I’m still quite happy with the hybrid GTK+/webapp approach that I’m taking. I began this way because the app really needs to be available in a browser: you can’t rely on running a custom desktop app on a classroom PC. However, for my own use running it as a webapp is inconvenient, so I added a simple GTK+/WebKit wrapper. It’s kind of experimental and a few weird things come out of it, like how clipboard selections contain some unwanted style info that WebKit injects, but it’s been pretty quick and fun to build the app this way.

I see some developers using Electron these days. In some ways it’s good: apps have strong portabilility to Linux, and are usually easy to hack on too due to being mostly JavaScript. But having multiple 150MB binary builds of Chromium dotted about my machine makes me sad. In the Planalyzer app I use WebKitGTK+, which is already part of GNOME and it works very well. It would be cool if Electron could make use of this in future 🙂

Hydra

I was always interested in making cool visuals, since I first learned about the PC demoscene back in the 1990s, but i was never very good at it. I once made a rather lame plasma demo using an algorithm i copied from somewhere else.

And then, while reading the Create Digital Music blog earlier this year, I discovered Hydra. I was immediately attracted by the simple, obvious interface: you chain JavaScript functions together and visuals appear right behind the code. You can try it here right away in your browser. I’ve been out of touch with the 3D graphics world forever, so I was impressed just to see that WebGL now exists and works.

I’ve been very much in touch with the world of audio synthesizers, so Hydra’s model of chaining together GL shaders as if it was a signal chain feels very natural to me. I still couldn’t write a fragment or a vertex shader myself, but now I don’t need to, I can skip to the creative part!

So far I’ve only made this rather basic webcam mashup but you can see a lot more Hydra examples in the @hydra_patterns Twitter account.

I also had a go at making online documentation, and added a few features that make it more suitable to non-live coding, such as loading prerecorded audio tracks and videos, and allowing you to record a .webm video of the output. I’m not sure this stuff will make it upstream, as the tool is intended for live coding use, but we’ll see. It’s been a lot of fun hacking on a project that’s so simple and yet so powerful, and hopefully you’ll see some cool music videos from me in the future!

2017 in review

I began this year in a hedge in Mexico City and immediately had to set off on a 2 day aeroplane trek back to Manchester to make a very tired return to work on the 3rd January. From there things calmed down somewhat and I was geared up for a fairly mundane year but in fact there have been many highlights!

The single biggest event was certainly bringing GUADEC 2017 to Manchester. I had various goals for this such as ensuring we got a GUADEC 2017, showing my colleages at Codethink that GNOME is a great community, and being in the top 10 page authors on wiki.gnome.org for the year. The run up to the event from about January to July took up many evenings and it was sometimes hard to trade it off with my work at Codethink; it was great working with Allan, Alberto, Lene and Javier though and once the conference actually arrived there was a mass positive force from all involved that made sure it went well. The strangest moment was definitely walking into Kro Bar slightly before the preregistration event was due to start to find half the GNOME community already crammed into the tiny bar area waiting for something to happen. Obviously my experience of organizing music events (where you can expect people to arrive about 2 hours after you want them somewhere) didn’t help here.

Codethink provides engineers with a travel budget a little bit of extra leave for attending conferences; obviously what with GUADEC being in Manchester I didn’t make a huge use of that this year, but I did make it to FOSDEM and also to PyConES which took place in the beautiful city of Cácares. My friend Pedro was part of the organizing team and it was great to watch him running round fighting fires all day while I relaxed and watched the talks (which were mostly all trying to explain machine learning in 30 minutes with varying degrees of success).

Stream powered carriageWork wise I spent most of my year looking at compilers and build tools, perhaps not my dream job but it’s an enjoyable area to work in because (at least in terms of build tools) the state of the art is comically bad. In 10 years we will look back at GNU Autotools in the way we look at a car that needs to be started with a hand crank, and perhaps the next generation of distro packagers will think back in wonder at how their forebears had to individually maintain dependency and configuration info in their different incompatible formats.

BuildStream is in a good state and is about to hit 1.0; it’s beginning to get battle tested in a couple of places (one of these being GNOME) which is no doubt going to be a rough ride — I already have a wide selection of performance bottlenecks to be looking at in the new year. But it’s looking already like a healthy community and I want to thanks to everyone who has already got behind the project.

It also seems to have been a great year for Meson; something that has been a long time coming but seems to be finally bringing Free Software build systems into the 21st century. Last year I ported Tracker to build with Meson, and have been doing various ongoing fixes to the new build system — we’re not yet able to fully switch to Autotools primary because of issue #2166, and also because of some Tracker test suite failures that seem to only show up with Meson that we haven’t yet dug into fully.

With GUADEC out of the way I managed to spend some time prototyping something I named Tagcloud. This is the next iteration of a concept that I’ve wanted since more or less forever, that of being able to apply arbitrary tags to different local and online resources in a nice way. On the web this is a widespread concept but for some reason the desktop world doesn’t seem to buy into it. Tracker is a key part of this puzzle, as it can deal with many types of content and can actually already handle tags if you don’t mind using the commandline so part of my work on Tagcloud has been making Tracker easy to embed as a subproject. This means I can try new stuff without messing up any session-wide Tracker setup, and it builds builds on some great work Carlos has been doing to modernize Tracker as well. I’ve been developing the app in Python, which has required me to fix issues in Tracker’s introspection bindings (and GLib’s, and GTK+’s … on the whole I find the PyGObject experience pretty good and it’s obviously been a massive effort to get this far, but at the same time these teething issues are quite demotivating.) Anyway I will post more about Tagcloud in the new year once some of the ideas are a bit further worked out; and of course it may end up going nowhere at all but it’s been nice to actually write a GTK+ app for the first time in ages, and to make use of Flatpak for the first time.

It’s also been a great year for the Flatpak project; and to be honest if it wasn’t for Flatpak I would probably have talked myself out of writing a new app before I’d even started. Previously the story for getting a new app to end users was that you must either be involved or know someone involved in a distro or two so that you can have 2+ year old versions of your app installable through a package manager; or your users have to know how to drive Git and a buildsystem from the commandline. Now I can build a flatpak bundle every time I push to master and link people straight to that. What a world! And did I mention GitLab? I don’t know how I ever lived without GitLab CI and I think that GNOME’s migration to GitLab is going to be *hugely* beneficial for the project.

Looking back it seems I’ve done more programming stuff than I thought I had; perhaps a good sign that you can achieve stuff without sacrificing too much of your spare time.

It’s also been a good year music wise, Manchester continues to have a fantastic music scene which has only got better with the addition of the Old Abbey Taphouse where I in fact spent the last 4 Saturdays in a row. Last Saturday we put on Babar Luck, I saw a great gig of his 10 years ago and have managed to keep missing him ever since but things finally worked out this time. Other highlights have been Paddy Steer, Baghdaddies and a very cold gig we did with the Rubber Duck Orchestra on the outdoor stage on a snowy December evening.

I caught a few gigs by Henge who only get better with time and who will hopefully break way out of Manchester next year. And in September I had the privilege of watching Jeffrey Lewis supported by The Burning Hell in a little wooden hut outside Lochcarron in Scotland, that was certainly a highlight despite being ill and wearing cold shoes.

Lochcarron TreehouseI didn’t actually know much of Scotland until taking the van up there this year; I was amazed that such a beautiful place has been there the whole time just waiting there 400 miles north. This expedition was originally planned to be a bike trip but ended up being a road trip, and having now seen the roads that is probably for the best. However we did manage a great bike trip around the Netherlands and Belgium, the first time I’ve done a week long bike trip and hopefully the beginning of a new tradition ! Last year I did a lot of travel to crazily distant places, its a privilege to be able to do so but one that I prefer to use sparingly so it was nice to get around closer to home this year.

All in all a pretty successful year, not straightforward at times but one with several steps in the directions I wanted to head. Let’s see what next year holds 🙂

Manchester transport consulation

Manchester council is running a transport survey at the moment.

There’s nothing I like more than ranting into pointless online forms, and here’s an extract from my response:

This lane (from Mad Cycle Lanes of Manchester) is a favourite.

Manchester is not the worst city to cycle in due to having largely quite
wide roads, but cycle infrastructure is almost always an afterthought
with many issues. Most cycle lanes pop in and out of existence, forcing
cyclists into the road at dangerous points. For example London Road
going south just past the A57(m) overpass has a cycle lane which
suddenly ends forcing cyclists to pull out in front of fast-moving
traffic that has just come off a motorway. Cycle lanes sometimes
coexist with tram lines, which is very dangerous as mountain bike wheels
are just wide enough to get stuck in the tram lines. When wet, tram
lines are also very slippery which makes them dangerous to cross on a
bike. I have been injured twice as a result of cycle lanes that cross
tram lines. There are also cycle lanes which go onto narrow stretches of
pavement, for example the corner by London Road Fire Station and
Munroe’s Hotel which is painted to look like a cycle lane but is also
clearly a walk way and is too narrow to function as both. In some places
there are cycle lanes which are rendered useless by cars parking in them
or next to them.

Walking should be the main mode of transport to get around the city. At
the moment walking around takes longer than it should because so much
time is spent waiting at traffic lights.

I actually don’t mind cycling round the city too much, and the traffic jams are actually great for cycle safety because cars generally don’t hit you if they aren’t going anywhere. But the absurdity of our existing cycle infrastructure needs to be recognised.

There are more great examples from round the country here and here.

Manchester

Last night an suicide attack took place in Manchester killing at least 22 people. I don’t have much to comment on that apart from that everyone’s thoughts are with those who have been injured or lost friends and family to the attack, and to quote a friend of mine:

If you think you can sow disunity in Manchester with a bomb, you don’t know Manchester.

Ten years of Codethink

32813704624_b7e3899b9f_zSpring is here and it is the 10th anniversary celebration of Codethink.  Nobody could have orchestrated it this way but we also have GUADEC happening here in Manchester in a few months and it’s the 20th anniversary of GNOME.  All roads lead to Manchester in 2017!

The company is celebrating its anniversary in various ways: cool new green-on-black T-shirts, a 10 years mug for everyone, and perhaps more significantly a big sophisticated party with a complicated cake.

The party was fun with a lot of old faces some who had travelled quite far to be there. The company was and still is a mix of very interesting and weird people and although we spend most of our time in the same room studiously not talking to eachother we do know how to celebrate things sometimes!

It was odd in a way being at a corporate party with fancy food and a function band and 150 guests in an enourmous monastery given that back when I joined the entire Manchester staff could go for lunch together and all sit at the same table. The first company party I went to was in Paul Sherwood’s conservatory, in fact the first few of them were there. It’s a good sign for sure that the company has quadrupled (or more) in size in the ensuing 6 years.

In hindsight I was quite lucky to have a world class open source software house more or less on my doorstep. I spent a long time trying to avoid working in software (and trying to avoiding working at all), but I did do a Summer of Code project back in 2009 or 2010 mentored by Allison Lortie, who then worked for Codethink and noted that I lived about 5000 miles closer to her office than she did.It was an obvious choice to apply to there when I graduated from University and luckily it was just at a time when they were hiring so I didn’t have to spend too long living on 50p a week and eating shoes for dinner. It was very surreal for the first few months of working there as a world which I’d previously only been involved via a computer turned into a world of real people (plus lots of computers), in fact the whole first year was pretty surreal what with also adapting to Manchester life and discovering the how much craziness there is underneath the surface of the technology industry.

I had no idea what the company did beforehand, and even now the Codethink website doesn’t give too much away. I saw contributions to Free Software projects such as Tracker and dconf (and various other things that were happening 7 years ago) but I didn’t know what kind of business model came out of that activity. It turned out that neither did anyone else at that point; the company grew out of consulting work from Nokia, but the Elopcalypse had just happened and so on starting I got involved in all sorts of different things as we looked for work in different areas: everything from boot speed optimizations and hardware control, to compiler testing and bugfixing, build tools, various automated testing setups, and more build tools, to Python and Ruby webapps, data visualisations, OpenStack, systems administration, report writing and more. Just before Christmas 2011 I got offered to go work in Korea, the catch being that I had to go in 2 days time, and the following year I spent another memorable month there (again with about 2 days notice). I also had month long stints in Bulgaria, and Berlin although these were actually planned in advance, plus all sorts of conferences as the company started to sponsor attendance and a couple of days off for such things. Most importantly of course I got involved in rock climbing which is now pretty much my favourite thing.

Since a long time now it’s felt like the company has a solid business model and while the work we do is still all over different sectors I think I can sum it up as bridging the gap between the worlds of corporate software projects and open-source software projects.  We have some great customers who engage us to do work upstream on Free Software projects which is ideal,  but far from everything we work on is Free Software, and we also work in various fields that I’m pretty unexcited about such as automotive and finance. It’s very hard to make money though if you  spend all your time working on something that you then give away so it’s a necessary compromise in my eyes.

And even in entirely closed source projects having knowledge of all the great Free Software that is available gives us an advantage. There are borderline-unusable proprietary tools still being sold by major vendors to do things like version control, there are unreliable proprietary hardware drivers being sold for hardware that has a functional and better open source driver, there are countless projects using medieval kernels, obsolete operating systems and all sorts of other craziness.Working for a company that trusts its employees is also pretty important, I meet operating systems engineers there are working on Linux-based devices whose corporate IT departments force them to use Windows, so right they trust them to maintain the operating system used in millions of cars but they don’t trust them to maintain the operating system on their laptop.

One thing Codethink lacks still is a model for providing engineer time to help with ongoing maintainance and development of different free software projects. There have been attempts at doing so within the company and I acknowledge it’s very difficult because the drop in, drop out nature of a consultant engineer’s time isn’t compatible with the ongoing time commitment required to be a reliable maintainer. Plus good maintenance skills require years to develop and either require someone experienced with a lot of free time to teach them to you, or they require you to maintain a real world project which you mess up continually and learn every lesson the hard way. Of course open source work that comes out of customer projects is highly regarded and if you’re lucky enough to have unallocated time it can sometimes be used to work through the backlog of bug fixes and feature additions for different tools you use that one inevitably develops as a full time software engineer. Again, it amazes me how many companies manage to actively prevent their developers from pushing things upstream.

We have been maintaining Baserock for years now (and many people have learned lots of lessons the hard way from it :-); BuildStream development is ongoing and I’m even still hopeful we can achieve the original goal of making it an order of magnitude easier to produce a high quality Free Software operating system. I should note that Codethink also contributes financially to conferences and projects in various ways.

I should also point out that we are still hiring. This wasn’t intended to be a marketing essay in which I talked up how great the company is, but it kinda has turned out out that way. I guess you take that as a good sign. My real underlying goal was to make it a bit clearer what it’s like to work here which I hope I’ve done a little.

I am quite proud of the company’s approach to hiring, we take in many graduates who show promise but never got involved in community-driven software projects or never really even got into programming except as a module in a science degree or whatever. Of course we also welcome people who do have relevant experience but they can be hard to find and focusing on them can also have an undesired effect of selecting based on certain privileges. I was debating with Tristan last week whether a consultancy is actually a good place for inexperienced developers to be, there is the problem that you don’t get to see the results of your work very often, you often move between projects fairly frequently and so you might not develop the intuition needed for being a good software maintainer, which is a complex topic but boils down to something like: “Is this going to cause problems in 5 years time?” There’s no real way around this, all we can do is give people a chance in an environment with a strong Free Software culture and that is pretty much what we do.

Ideally here I’d end with some photos from the party but I’m terrible at taking photos so it’s just all the back of people’s heads and lurid green lighting. Instead here’s a photo of a stranger taking a photo of me this afternoon while I was out biking round the river Mersey this afternoon.

stranger.jpg

Cake photo by Robert Marshall

Leaving the EU

I've never voted for Christmas before, but we all need to accept savage cuts.

In a few weeks the UK has a referendum over whether we should remain a member of the EU.

It’s completely impossible to make a fully informed decision on whether leaving the EU now would be ultimately beneficial, unless you can actually see ten years into the future.

I’ll be voting to remain, for a few reasons:

1. I’m proud to be from a part of Europe, and I like having the freedom to travel and work anywhere in Europe.

2. Most of the “Leave” campaign’s arguments boil down to xenophobia, fear-mongering and “economics“. Sure we’re in the midst of a global population crisis, but leaving the EU will hardly solve that.

3. The “Leave” campaign is fronted by various awful human beings who make me want to do the opposite of whatever they say (although, comically, the “Remain” campaign is fronted by someone who doesn’t like the EU at all — that’s the return on a Faustian bargain he made a decade ago so that he could become leader of the Conservative party & Prime Minister)

4. Taking power from the EU means giving more power to the Conservative party, the same delusional, incompetent, hypocritical arms-dealing racist election cheats who have been steadily running the country into the ground for the last 6 years; ruining education, welfare, healthcare, the police, the economy, the universities, and anything else they can get their hands on.

5. A restricted border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be a massive step backwards for people there.

6. If we did leave, there would be no going back.

Actually I don’t care much about what we end up voting for. I became fully disillusioned with British politics five years ago, when we were given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change from our hopelessly unfair voting system to one that’s slightly better. We voted 67% in favour of the most unfair voting system. There has been no UK government in my entire lifetime that I could be at all proud of. If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s the British public voting to shaft ourselves!

I would like to put on an international software conference in England next year. The upside of leaving the EU would be that presumably the Pound will be at about the lowest it could possibly be, so GUADEC would be quite cheap for everyone! The downside: maybe a lot more people would have to suffer Britain’s complex, offensive and arbitrary VISA application process.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens on 23rd June. I would be surprised if we vote to leave, because money tends to control politics and there would obviously be financial losses stemming from the uncertainty that would follow a “Leave” vote. On the other hand, the world-class bastards who run our lying, scheming, racist, hate-filled newspapers are mostly anti EU. Never underestimate the power of the British public to completely ruin things for ourselves.

The only good thing that can really come out of this referendum is a climax of infighting in the Conservative government, so grab some popcorn for that.

Image at the top from http://henrypryor.com/blog/2012/10/the-idle-guide-to-making-money/

Pro-UKIP / anti-Green bias in the Manchester Evening News website

Screenshot of http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/ from 2015-05-09 19:45

What’s missing in this picture?

I sent a little complaint about this to the MEN (newsdesk@men-news.co.uk):

Hi
I noticed that you have a graphic on the front page (in fact, every page) of relating to election results at the moment. I’m confused why you decided to include UKIP in this graphic (who have 1 MP) but not the Green party (who also have 1 MP). In my ward (Gorton) the Green candidate actually came second, higher than the UKIP candidate, so they are clearly relevant to people of Manchester and should be included anywhere that UKIP is included.
Sam

It could be an accident of course, or some “totally fair” algorithm just happened to select those 6 parties to include, but bias is bias whether deliberate or not!

On joining the Green Party

A month or two ago I became a member of the UK’s Green Party. I’m not hugely into trying to influence politics, I mostly did it as a tiny counter response to the increase in UKIP media coverage and public support. Every UK government since I’ve been alive has made this country worse and has been made up largely of complete wankers, so I’m pretty cynical about politics in general and I’m suspicious of anyone who wants to exert control over the lives of others enough to do all the dog work required to run for parliament. But I thought that if I started to donate to the least worst party then I might feel a bit better.

Since then I’ve received lots of emails and now one paper mail with a copy of “Green World” magazine. I found that there was a bunch of stuff in there I agreed with. I was especially happy to discover Molly Scott Cato’s views on “economics”. (It’s worth noting that anyone who thinks that the Green Party’s policies are a bad idea because “the sums don’t add up” is a moron who doesn’t realise money is a completely made up concept and the banks create more of it every day.)

There’s quite an optimistic tone to the writing in said magazine, perhaps due to the enourmous surge in members the Green Party saw last year, but realistic at the same time. I liked Natalie Bennett’s comment that the only thing we can be sure of in the forthcoming UK election is that the First Past the Post voting system will be a big loser, as “First Past the Post ensures a strong majority government” is proved false for the second time.

In the end it’s mostly paranoid old people that decide who gets elected to the House of Commons, and Britain will no doubt go further to shit regardless of the exact makeup of the next coalition. MPs themselves know that they don’t actually have much power anyway. But it’s nice to know that there’s a group of people in politics who aren’t delusional morons. It got me thinking a bit about what might actually be possible if they did get to power and what I’d want from that. It’s good to have a goal, right?

Human greed won’t go away, but right now we fucking celebrate it, instead of celebrating those who try to help people and make life a bit more bearable. There’s no way to make life fair, or to cure death, or to save us from suffering and self-destruction. But I want to be able to talk about this stuff! Instead of bullshit like “growing the economy” and “maximising shareholder value” and “zero tolerance of failure”. So I wish luck to everyone who is chipping away at this bullshit, and I hope that my small contribution to the running of the Green Party is helpful.

The Gagging Law

I just got back from a public meeting with my MP John Leech, about the Lobbying Bill (the “gagging law” that is going through parliament at a breakneck pace right now.

Firstly, it’s great to see the UK’s democracy in action, in person. You can never get the full picture of how the country works through the lens of the media. It’s great that John sacrificed his Saturday night to come and see us and great that enough people came out that we filled the moderately-sized Chorlton Central Church.

There were some excellent points made and the bill certainly makes more sense to me now. Sadly, it was not really a discussion and there was no kind of outcome to speak of. There was quite a lot of ignorance and repeating the same thing over and over, both from John and from members of the public who repeated previous questions (and non-questions) again and again, rewording them slightly each time.

The bill is in 3 sections. The main criticism of part 1 is that it does nothing to address party donations, does nothing to counter the enourmous power wielded by Conservative party donors such as Lord Ashcroft[1], and nothing to counter the huge amount of political campaigning done by the tabloid press. John accepted that completely, although his only constructive point was that the Liberal Democrats continue to campaign on these sorts of things in some way (I forget exactly the details).

Section 1 of the bill introduces a statutory register of lobbying companies. This government already “proactively” (I’m not sure if that means that they could stop whenever they want to) releases quarterly details of which lobbyists MPs have been taken out to dinner by. The register would allow us to find out who these lobbyists are actually working for, which seems pretty crucial information.

Plenty of people felt the need throughout the evening to make the same points about the fact the bill doesn’t address media lobbying and political party donations, although with no concrete suggestions of things they would like John to do about this in the future. It’s a fair point, for something which is being referred to by the government themselves as the Lobbying Bill, but is also being reasonable when he points out that no bill is perfect, and the fact this bill doesn’t fix everything is no reason to throw it out, *on its own*.

Section 3 of the bill didn’t get much time, which is a shame because it seems quite important. Life is hard for trade unions, which it must be if the Coalition are going to continue to shaft almost every public sector worker throughout their term. Section 3 apparently makes life easier by tightening the already tight regulations on the accuracy of union membership records? But several union members pointed out that they already spent lots of effort on ensuring address etc. are up to date because they can be prosecuted over the tiniest discrepancy if not. Again, John didn’t acknowledge their points that this is a problem for them, and the union spokespeople didn’t propose anything they would like him to do, other than oppose this bill which is not in itself going to help them much.

Section 2 of the bill is the big boy that all of the charities who organised the event are concerned about. It imposes limits on how much an organisation campaigning for or against a specific party or candidate can spend in each constituency, but several lawyers, and the Electoral Commission, have warned that it’s unclear who will be covered by the law and who won’t. John began by explaining that the activities of almost all the charities who attended were not covered under this limit at all, and are in fact prohibited from being party political by charity law. Since the second hearing of the bill, the rules for what does and doesn’t fall under the limits are the same as in PPERA (2000), which has caused no trouble at all for charities and campaign groups in the 2005 and 2010 elections.

This was the biggest disagreement of the night, I think. While John’s point is great on its own, he gave no reason why we should ignore the advice of the lawyers and of the Electoral Commission who say that the law is still ambiguous. If the law is unchanged since PPERA (2000), then their concerns must be equally valid with the law as it stands today. Scrapping the Lobbying Bill won’t fix that, of course, but either way we can’t ignore these concerns. The concerned parties have set up a commission to do the consultation on the Lobbying Bill that the Government failed to do, and I hope that whatever happens with this bill, any problems found with the law today are fixed.

John stated again and again that there would not be any problems for charities in the future. Now that I look back though, I realise that he was talking about *only* charities. Since they are prevented by law from political activity already, I’m sure he’s right. But that doesn’t make life any easier for campaign groups, and this is where the ambiguity lies. He even picked up a flyer produced by 38 Degrees to promote the meeting as something that might fall under the new law.

At the same time, it’s a failure of 38 Degrees to not mention PPERA (2000) in their campaigning over the issue and to make it clear that the definitions in the law have not changed, only the financial limits. I think it was only in an amendment of the bill that this became true, so perhaps that’s understandable. If I’m understanding things correctly John is also correct to say that 38 Degrees have muddied the issue by saying that charities as well as campaign groups need to be concerned about the bill. They are hardly the only people saying that, though.

There were many other points made over the course of the evening. I didn’t make notes of anything so I’ve not got them all here. John made it clear that the bill was badly drafted in its original form, but that he was happy with its state by the time of the 3rd reading. He reminded everyone that lobbying is not an inherently dirty thing, and is not a clearly-defined one either. Where does personal lobbying end and corporate lobbying start? He also gave an example of one (and there seemed to be only one) non-theoretical positive effect the that the act would have, which is to greatly reduce the amount of money the campaign group “Young Britains,” who are apparently a Conservative-funded campaign group who happen to exclusively support Conservative candidates, can spend on lobbying in a single constituency.

He ignored some of the concrete examples of negative effects that were raised. A spokesperson from HOPE Against Hate pointed out that their campaigning against the fascist BNP would be hugely limited in the next election to just 2% of what the BNP would be permitted spend. John spoke out against the BNP in response, and entered into the hypothetical situation of a counter organisation to HOPE Against Hate who, if this law was not passed, would continue to be able to spend up to almost £800k in a single constituency campaining in favour of the BNP, but would be limited to £10k if the law was passed. Which is true, but John would have done well to acknowledge the reality of the situation which is that there is no huge pro-fascist organisation at present, but the good work HOPE Against Hate have been doing is going to be hugely impacted at the next election. Instead, he ignored the direct question. It seems to me this bill is more about solving theoretical problems than real ones.

John pointed out that he’s had very few people contact him about the bill who weren’t directed via 38 Degrees, and nobody who spoke about against section 1 or 3 of the bill at all. He also made very little of the fact that the bill had no consultation, was published on the last day of Parliament before the summer reccess, and had its first debate on the first day back after the summer recess.
At no point did he admit that the bill should not have been rushed. At no point did he acknowledge that there should have been a consultation. The reason for the rush was apparently so that it can cover the May 2014 European elections … but if PPERA does much the same thing, why is this bill so urgent?

I am going to go and take a moment to acknowledge how great it is for the UK that campaign spending is limited at all. There are holes that big money interests get through, but big money will always find its way through a hole somewhere, because there is always a grey area and there is almost no limit on what you can do if you have a huge amount of money. And that is the real problem in the world.

1. It seems Lord Ashcroft’s money is already out of the picture

Health

In the mid 1990’s Britain’s railways were privitised. This was based on the myth that there would be choice and competition in the railways. This is and has always been a lie, because if I want to take a train to London from Manchester then there is only one train which I can take. It’s pretty expensive and uncomfortable but there isn’t anything I can do about it, other than move to a different city, get elected as a Member of Parliament, or buy a car. I am no better off than before the railways were privitised, only now we have the most expensive railways in Europe and they are mostly owned by Deutsche Bahn.

Of the governments that have been in power through my life, every single one has pushed privitisation upon sectors where it doesn’t make any sense. Thatcher did a wonderful job with the electricity boards such that a lot of public investment got sucked up by private companies and nowadays most of it is owned and controlled by the French. Those in charge peddle a need for constant “reform” (even though permanent change would seem to be the opposite of what a Conservate government should be offering).

One of the places in which choice makes no sense at all is in the NHS. I have no way of telling who is a good doctor and who is not, besides whether they have been on shift for more than 12 hours. If I find that I have contracted MRSA then the main thing I would like to do is get better again. I certainly don’t want to have to research which hospitals are and are not fit for purpose so that I can “choose” which one gets to give me antibiotics. This fact cannot escape even the most out of touch of the our millionaire government.

Still, this is exactly what is happening. If you look closely, choice is not involved at all. It’s more like a game of poker: whichever company can claim that they will charge least and deliver the same quality will be able to take over whatever services they feel like. What happens if the winning bidder later turns out to be charging crazy fees, delivering a bad service or even flat-out lying? Well, usually nothing, it seems. It’s a game of “who can come up with the best contract.” It would make a great party game.

From the Telegraph:

In a series of articles in the British Medical Journal, Professor Pollock has shown, for example, that £500 million of taxpayers’ money has been wasted on a flagship scheme to treat NHS patients in the private sector. The Independent Sector Treatment Centres were set up to enable private companies to treat NHS patients. But under the terms of the contracts, an arrangement known as “take or pay”, the NHS allots the private company a set sum at the beginning of each year, regardless of whether or not it does all the work it is paid for. In fact, the data shows that of the first 31 of these centres to open in 2005, just four performed all of the contracted operations. In total, the government paid £217 million for operations that never happened.

Incidentally, if I were forced to think of an organisation that makes even less sense to privitise then I would probably say the police.

Edit: there is an EDM to repeal the new regulations which I have mailed my MP about urging him to sign. (I guess as a Lib Dem he could go either way). This article explains what is currently happening a bit more clearly — the gist of it is that Andrew Lansley is a lying bastard.

US election 2012

Scott Adams neatly expresses the reason that I have close to zero interest in the result of US presedential election that takes place sometime this week (in a blog post that’s mostly about a previous blog post that has something to do with medical marijuana dispensaries in California)

My observation is that voters often – perhaps usually – don’t get what they think they voted for. Nixon surprised everyone by getting cuddly with China. Bush Junior turned from isolationist to military adventurer. Obama went from weed-friendly to badass destroyer of state-approved dispensaries. Some fiscal conservatives have blown up the budget while some free-spending Democrats balanced it. If you think you can predict how a candidate will act in office, you might need a history lesson, or perhaps a booster shot of humility.

Now consider Mitt Romney, the most famous chameleon of all time. I submit that a hypothetical Romney presidency would be nearly impossible to predict with any accuracy. In each of his past leadership roles he has morphed into whatever the job required. … Romney knows that the electorate is full of idiots and he needs to be a gigantic liar to win their votes.

In any event, Congress will be the ones who decide on the next budget. It will probably look similar no matter who gets elected. I don’t believe, for example, that a Romney budget would overfund the military. Congress would moderate that, and Romney probably doesn’t mean it anyway. Remember, his job today is to lie to get elected. His job once elected is quite different.

Not that I have any delusions that Romney might avoid making the world a worse place to live in any possible way. But Obama has made it pretty clear, if it wasn’t before, that the whole thing is a charade and behind the appearances, the same interests are furthered regardless of which party is officially in control.

Facebook is the new phone book

A while back there used to be this website which was a fun alternative to actual work. Lots of real people were on there and you could share jokes, photos and meaningless rants. I realised today that Facebook has reached a crucial turning point, because it’s not actually any fun. With more and more eyes on it, the atmosphere has shifted from a playground to a marketplace, and the profile of the company from the leaders of an expedition to a brave new world to a generic services company.

They have always been a company without precedent. I think it’s worth noting just how many big decisions they have taken without the slightest idea how they would turn out, and the big effect that it’s had on the way the entire world interacts with the Web. They have been super proactive! Imagine if the first social network had resembled the Facebook of 2011 – it would have been impenetrable and impossible. They created the market for themselves.

I can’t tell if the current Timeline move is genius, desperation or insanity, but I can tell what’s going to happen – with the increasing exposure of public data and “sharing by default”, Facebook will become the 21st century phone book. The momentum is such that to no have an account is limiting, because events and announcements pass you by. I think it’s unlikely that anyone will manage to supplant them. But at the same time – is this where they wanted to be?

We’ve had to become experts in privacy, identity protection, here’s an article on how to use Facebook for professional advantage, for example. Scammers and spammers are working hard to steal your identity and sell things that I don’t understand. This is not fun!! Digital media by default has lead me to start using a film camera, because having actual photographs has become an interesting thing in itself. The age of social media is fully upon us, but do they realise that by becoming ubiquitious, they are taking up between the print shop and the telephone company?

Edit: this article tells you much the same.

Privacy advice

This post was inspired by a great example of the not-fun I’m describing:

“I like to keep my FB private for obvious reasons except to those I am friends with. So if you all would do the following, I’d appreciate it. With the new FB timeline on its way this week for EVERYONE. . . please do both of us a favour: Hover over my name above. In a few seconds you’ll see a box that says “Subscribed”. Hover over that, then go to “Comments and Likes” and unclick it. That will stop my posts and yours to me from showing up on the side bar for everyone to see, but most importantly it limits hackers from invading our profiles. If you repost this I will do the same for you. You’ll know I’ve acknowledged you because if you tell me that you’ve done it I’ll “like” it”

I had a quick think about this one. Of course subscriptions don’t allow “hackers” to “invade” our profiles (this is a reference to the multiple “remove timeline from your profile” apps which are apparently all scams, there’s actually no way to do that). I don’t particularly feel like having an automatically generated personal website that’s out of my control, though, either. Is there a way to – not show the timeline?

The nearest I’ve found so far is:

  • Privacy Settings > Limit the Audience for Past Posts
  • , which I guess removes any public posts from public view

  • Manually selecting “Hide all” for every type of activity in the “recent activity” section on your timeline, which hides them for everyone looking at your profile as well