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Blog : Posts from February 2007 : Page 1

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Shredder update

In which the broken shredder is sensibly disposed of, to our disappointment


The shredder didn’t go anywhere, in the end. Before anyone could lift it, the branch office phoned up and said: “don’t throw it away! Fix it!” I explained it was unfixable, by me at any rate. So, they phoned up the office secretary and said: “don’t let FP throw it away! Find someone competent to fix it!” The office secretary told them to stop being silly, and started shopping for a replacement, before throwing the broken one out in a sensible, unimaginative fashion. I was mildly disappointed.

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Facing Points

In which we delve into railway history following a recent accident


Some notes on the Lambrigg rail accident (also known as the Grayrigg crash in the media).

Facing points are a bad thing. Facing points have always been known to be a bad thing. This has been known ever since the railways were first created.

A facing point is, essentially, a junction, where one line of rails splits in to two. The opposite is a trailing point: a junction where two lines come together to become one. You will quickly realise that a facing point becomes a trailing point if you stop your train and reverse it, and vice-versa.

Facing points are dangerous; trailing points are safe. You can drive through a faulty trailing point, or a trailing point set the wrong way, and you’re unlikely to have your train come off the track. You’ll probably wreck the point, unless it’s designed for you to do that to it,* but your train will be unharmed. Do that with a faulty facing point and your train is going to end up all over the place.

Now, this was never a problem, because for years main-line railways only ever had tracks in pairs, one track for each direction. Going the Wrong Way was strictly against the rules. The main reason for this was to stop trains meeting head-on, but it had a secondary benefit: it meant that engineers could get rid of as many facing points as was possible. This was partly an expense issue. Anyone who’s ever had a train set will know that if you switch a facing point whilst a train is on it, Bad Things will happen as different parts of the train try to go in different directions. This isn’t what happened at Lambrigg/Grayrigg, but it has the same result; and when the government realised, they quickly insisted that all facing points be fitted with a complex arrangement of locks and train-detectors to make sure you can’t do that. Back then, that involved mechanical locks which needed a lot of careful and regular maintenance and adjustment. Now, most of it is done electrically, but there is still a mechanical lock somewhere in the point’s machine that holds the various moving parts of a point fast when a train is nearby. Of course, that’s only any use when the rest of the point is mechanically sound too.

So, anyway, as I said, if all lines are one-way only you don’t need facing points. Not until you get to big junctions, at any rate, where you have to live with them. Freight lines didn’t need the expensive facing point locks, so freight trains always backed into sidings. And the railways happily ran like that for a hundred years or so, and facing points rarely caused accidents. In modern times, though, it didn’t really work.

(continued here)

* Lots of points on rural lines, nowadays, are what’s called “sprung points”. They’re not controlled, they just sit there. Use them as a facing point, and they’ll always send you the same way.** Use them as a trailing point, and you can approach them from either route without problems.

** Left, usually

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Disposal

In which we’re trying to get rid of something


I have been wrestling with a shredder.

A dead shredder, not a switched-on one – that would be silly. Wrestling with a dead shredder gave me at least a fighting chance of not having my fingers chewed off.

It was all the fault of the branch office staff over in Another Part Of The Forest. Their shredder was dead, making horrible noises, they’d tried oiling it, nothing was working. So, it turned up in Room 3B (IT Office) for me to deal with. I took it apart, scattering chaff all over my desk. I pulled chunks of oiled paper from the jammed-up cutters. I dragged a length of plastic, of some kind, from between them.* I picked out all the paper I could see with tweezers, and made a minor blood-sacrifice with my fingers. But nothing would bring it back to life.

Which itself raised a problem. How do you dispose of an office shredder? We’ve tried putting things like that in our office skip before: it generated irate skip-collectors. They’re a bit big for the waste paper basket. So I came up with a plan. I drew up a sign. “Valuable! Do not throw out!” and stuck it onto the side of the shredder, before parking the shredder in Reception, by the door. With any luck it’ll be gone tomorrow. I’ll let you know how we get on.

* “Oh no,” said the manager from Another Part Of The Forest on the phone later, “we’d never put any sort of plastic through it!”

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Equality

In which someone takes charge


I was idly thinking, this morning, about sexual equality. And all because what a work colleague, P, was telling us the other day.

P’s partner doesn’t have a bank account, credit cards, anything. All of their income, his and hers, gets paid into one of P’s bank accounts. P’s partner – who is called R – doesn’t have any money in their own name, apart from £50 a week in pocket money. If R wants to buy anything online, on a credit card, then that amount of pocket money has to be returned before P will lend the card out.

The question is: in the modern world, do you think this sort of thing is acceptable?

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Legal news

In which Microsoft are on the good side for once


Legal news of the week: Microsoft has lost a patent infringement case brought by Alcatel, the company that owns the rights to the MP3. That is, they don’t own the file format itself, but they own the patent on understanding what they mean.

Now, normally, “Microsoft losing a court case” would be Good News for computer users everywhere, because Microsoft generally aren’t a very nice company and seem to spend most of their time thinking up new ways to extract money from people.* This case isn’t, though, because software patents are a bad thing, a bad thing indeed. If you’re a geek you can skip this next bit, because you’ll already know why they’re a bad thing.

Software is, basically, a list of instructions for doing arithmetic. Forget all the flashy graphics you see on the screen. Forget your email and your IM programs. Computers are machines for pushing numbers around,** and computer software is a list of instructions for doing that. Remember doing long division at school? That was essentially a list of steps for working out division sums that are too hard to do in your head – software for your brain, in other words.

Now, imagine if the inventor of long division*** had patented it. Every time you did a long division sum, you’d have to pay him a royalty. If you invented a machine to do long divisions for you, you’d have to pay a bloody big royalty. That’s how patents work.

Software patents are even worse, because often they involve access to data which is otherwise locked up. All those MP3 files on your computer? There’s no practical use for them without decoding software. Decoding software is patented. Microsoft thought they’d paid the patent holders for the right to write a decoder and sell it with Windows – but then the patent holder changed, and the new owner thought otherwise. The courts agreed with them.

Imagine if the first person who ever thought of the idea of reading a book in the bath had patented it. They managed to get a patent on the following: “run bath, select book, get in bath, pick up book, hold book in a cunning way to avoid getting it wet, read.” That’s no different, essentially, from a software patent that involves reading data from a file. If someone had done that, then you could only read a book in the bath if you’d licensed the right to do so. That’s why software patents are bad and wrong.

In more amusing legal news, the right-wing UK Independence Party has been told to return over £350,000 in illegal donations, made by a businessman who wasn’t registered to vote at the time. The party think the ruling is ridiculous. It shines a light, though, on the underside of their philosophy. There are rules there to ensure that only British people with a stake in British politics can fund political parties. UKIP think the ruling is silly because the man is obviously British even though he couldn’t prove he was a British voter. Which just goes to show that they’re not interested in proof or evidence or process; their definition of Britishness seems to be that you’re Someone Like Us.

* which, to be fair, is what capitalist companies are supposed to do.

** that’s why they’re called “computers”, and not “communicators” or “info-readers”, despite that being their main use.

*** apparently the sixteenth-century Yorkshire mathematician Henry Briggs, according to this lecture from his old college

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Speedy

In which we spot some truth in advertising


At the office, we often get random pieces of promotional crap sent to us by companies touting for business. The best so far: an “emergency phone kit” from O2.* The latest: a pen from Openreach. If you’ve not heard of Openreach yet: they’re the chunk of British Telecom that actually gets to play with wiring and hardware, and ends up doing all the manual work.

Openreach’s PR people clearly aren’t as imaginative as O2’s, because they’ve sent us a ballpoint pen. One of those pens with a moving picture inside, that slides from one end to the other when the pen’s tilted. Rather than go for the classic “woman whose bra and knickers disappear” design, their pen has a background of terraced houses, and an Openreach van chugging from one end to the other.

So far, so boring. This pen, though, is ideal to represent BT.** Because of the speed the van moves: chug chug chug, dead slow along the line of houses. Perfectly representing the speed it takes BT to do pretty much anything.*** Ideal publicity material!

* A piece of string, and a capped cardboard tube marked with a “cut here” line around the middle.

** Or, “Openreach, a part of the BT group”, as it says on their promotional bumpf

*** To be honest, I have found one part of BT that does what you ask, quickly, and gets it right first time: whatever office it is sets up reverse DNS information for ADSL lines with static IP addresses. If you do not know what this means, rest assured you will never need to get in touch with them. Oh, and if you know anyone who works for BT: they have a special staff-only customer service number which allegedly gets better service than the ordinary one, and if you have a problem they can call it up on your behalf.

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Purcell, Automatic

In which we go back to a musical original


Musicology news of the week: the discovery by a Manchester University academic, Rebecca Herissone, that one of the best known pieces by composer Henry Purcell was largely rewritten seventy years after Purcell’s death, and that the original version is probably lost.

She’s only guessing, of course. Her logic goes: the only copy we have of Purcell’s Come Ye Sons Of Art was written out in 1765, by a chap who rewrote several other pieces by Purcell. So, he probably rewrote this one too. Circumstantial, but there you go. She has “reconstructed the original”, which was relatively easy because the rewriter wasn’t a very good composer himself.*

Quite apart from the slightly spurious validity of her reconstruction – given that she’s producing what she thinks Purcell himself ought to have originally written, isn’t there a risk of her producing a pastiche herself? – what amuses me is the idea that bad remixers have been around on the musical scene for years. It’s nice to know that the bad cover version isn’t something that’s only been around for fifty years.

* I’m going by what she said in a radio interview this morning, on Radio 4. But if the second composer was so awful, how come his version has been one of the most popular “Purcell” pieces ever since?

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Important

In which we get an email from the PM


I got an email from Tony Blair today. Yes, Tony Blair. See, I must be important.

You know that anti-road-pricing petition that’s been spammed all over the net* recently? And how Tony Blair was going to respond personally? Well, I’ve already had an email from him. So there.

It’s because of a petition I’d entirely forgotten about signing, about how ID cards are a bad idea, won’t work, and will waste billions of pounds. Tony Blair wrote to tell me just how great they are, and how my participation in democracy is so important that he’s going to ignore me personally. Not just any of that old generic ignoring that everyone else gets, you understand. Personal service.

I feel touched. No, honest. See, with modern communication, the Prime Minister can tell me, personally, how he’s going to ignore what everyone else in the country wants. Now that’s what I call democracy.

* well, the British bits of it

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Observational

In which the toilet was definitely there, Your Honour


Wee Dave has been at the office a couple of months now, nearly, and seems to be settling in nicely. He quickly picked up on which managers were friendly, which were annoying, and which were just best avoided.

The other day, though, I was in the toilet, relieving myself, when Dave comes in and nips into a cubicle. Nothing out of the ordinary, really. Except that later, he says: “I’d never seen that urinal before! I didn’t realise it was there! I went in the toilet and saw you – and I thought you were just pissing up the wall!”

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Friday

In which we’re puzzled by origami


The end of another week, and it’s been an enjoyable one for a change. Work: not too stressful. Life: rather nice, in fact.

The only thing about work: I wish that I could regularly work a four day week, like I did this week. My day off was lovely: a lazy lie-in, breakfast at the Wetherspoons on Carr Lane, a bit of a potter round town, and dinner out at a rather nice restaurant. It’s a shame I can’t have a day like that every week.

Today, as you can tell, must be Colon Day.

Tonight, I have mostly been marvelling at some origami crease patterns,* and trying to see if I can see any link at all between the pattern and the finished design. In general, I can’t see any connection, and it leaves me wondering who on earth could read a complex mass of geometrical lines and see that it folds up into a tiny little ornament.

* link via but she’s a girl…

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