Blog : Posts from April 2008 : Page 1

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Vote

In which we lament the state of politics


Politics has been depressing me for the past few months. That’s why I’ve stopped writing about it. The government seems to be going further and further downhill; but there is no alternative that I’m willing to vote for.

Still, it isn’t a choice for me tomorrow, because of where I happen to live. My vote probably won’t make too much difference at the next general election, either. I really should be voting for a party that supports proportional representation, if I can; but as we don’t have it, that would be throwing my vote away. At least I have a few years to worry about it.

I really do feel that there is noone at all, now, to represent me. Earlier today, the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill completed its Third Reading in the Lords. That’s the bill which will, the government hopes, ban kinky porn – except that it is framed in such a horribly vague way that nobody, including its supporters, really knows what convictions it might lead to. It is going to ban sexual imagery that is “apparently life threatening”. So, a picture of a normal couple having normal sex, not illegal. If they’re not wearing a condom? Well, you’d think, no difference there. If they’re not wearing a condom and you write “this man has AIDS” over the top of it? Bang, that’s three years in jail for you. Maybe. Nobody really knows. You’ll have to wait and see.

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Defence In Depth

In which we discover we’ve been bad, and have a rant about why


A couple of weeks ago, I discovered that my site had, apparently, been compromised, but my hosting company had handled it. WordPress had been broken in the process; but I’m not entirely surprised. Nevertheless, I thought everything was now happy.

This morning, though, a letter from Google lets me know: it hadn’t been fixed. My site has, for the past fortnight, been serving up crap to any passing search engine. This can’t be good. I don’t blame my hosting company: what they did do was above and beyond the call of duty, and they can’t be expected to understand and trace every twisty little maze of code paths in WordPress that might result on something being sent back to the client’s screen.*** What it does make me want to rant about, though, is PHP.

PHP is – if you’re not a geek and haven’t heard about it – by far the most common “web-programming” language around today. Its modus operandi is: you intersperse chunks of programming code in and around the static content in your web pages. When your webserver reads a page, it will run the chunks of code as a program. In WordPress’s case, the chunks of code run off to a database and fetch my posts, your comments, and so on, from it, and send them back to a client. Thus, one web page can output many posts, managing them is much easier, and so on. All well and good.

PHP, though, is … well. It’s not exactly the best language for the job, which is being polite about it. I’ve been doing lots of programming in it myself lately, for our Office Intranet, and it’s just not as rigorous as other languages. The syntax doesn’t somehow seem as thorough. Apart from the little differences you always get between languages,* it has little corners that feel slightly wrong when I use them, as if I’m transgressing the boundaries between types of programming object in a bad and dirty way.

That’s just a minor thing, really, just me quibbling. What my big problem is, what makes PHP an utterly unsuitable programming language for its job, is one particular feature much adored by people who want to take control of your website and use it to advertise pr0n and drugs. It’s a feature which is unutterably stupid, so stupid I can’t believe anyone thought it should have been created. PHP will, if you like, go and read a file from anywhere on the internet, and run it for you. Which means that a shifty-looking programmer who gets illicit access to the files on your website only has to add a couple of lines of code, to get complete control of everything. Bang. Like that.

Now, you could say: well, FP, you shouldn’t have been using FTP. And you’re right.** My hosts offer SFTP instead, and I should have been using that. There’s no good reason to use FTP either if you have an alternative available. But that doesn’t mean that the next hole along the line shouldn’t be blocked either. It’s called: defence in depth. At work, we have a high fence round the whole site, and an alarm system just inside it; but that doesn’t mean that we leave the office buildings unlocked. Security shouldn’t be brittle; ideally it shouldn’t be thin either. Once you’ve breached the first layer, the tools to complete the job shouldn’t be left lying around.

* The difference between ‘elseif’ – which is a PHP keyword – and ‘elsif’, Perl‘s spelling of the same thing – will forever damage my brain.

** I have a good story about how weak FTP can be – but it can wait for another time.

*** and, indeed, it’s my own fault; I should right away have compared the live files with my known-good backups.

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Blank

In which we resort to kitten pictures


I don’t have, at the moment, that little piece of grit inside me that I think I need to constantly churn out posts here. Everything is calm and happy, and my energy is going into other things and other projects. I am, for once, committing my thoughts to other plans and other projects.

So, instead of something more substantial, here are some cute kitten photos. The kitten belongs to K’s parents.

Ruby Kitten Ruby Kitten Ruby Kitten

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Low

In which we see Low


Last night: we popped up to The Sage, Gateshead, the first time I’d ever been to a concert there. To see a band which has been on my “second-favourites” list for a few years, but who I’ve never really been a fan of. Low. The audience was a strange mixture: lots of former indie-boys now in their thirties, and a good supply of men with long hair, glasses, and bristly Vollbart beards. We spotted, in the audience, the waitress from the Side Café in Newcastle, a very good café which I’m sure I’d written about on this site before; but I can’t find any such post anywhere. Ah well; it’s a very good cafe, and I even have a photo:

Cakes and sandwiches, Side Cafe, Newcastle

My first thoughts about the venue itself: it seems very big from the outside, but Hall Two, in which the bad were playing, is tiny. An octogon, much taller than it is wide, with two rows of balconies from which you could, if you wished, peer down at the band from a great height. The balconies are in the round, which singer Alan didn’t like – “it’s like having an angel on your shoulder,” he said. He doesn’t do banter, which led to long silences between some songs whilst he fiddled with his pedals and feedback equipment, a pair of miked-up monitors behind him. “Play more new songs!” shouted the audience. “Play more old songs!” “Play songs from in the middle!” “Play songs in the order on that piece of paper in front of you!”* “Can anyone else hear … voices?” replied the taciturn Alan.

They’d been preceded by The Helio Sequence, a drummer/guitarist duo from Portland, who had never been over to Britain before. They were rather chattier. “Hello, Newcastle!” shouted their singer-guitarist. “They told us not to say that. ‘No, no whatever you say, not Newcastle, this is Gateshead.’ So I thought I’d say it anyway.” Their music was good,** but what really struck me was: how much their drummer, Benjamin Weikel,*** enjoys himself whilst playing. He is the absolute antithesis of the famous Charlie Watts: flailing around and bringing his arms up high, a joyous and broad smile on his face.

Low are on an album-promoting tour; but, as per the requests, they did indeed play a good mixture of old and new songs – the oldest I recognised being “Lion/Lamb” from their late-90s album Secret Name; but as I don’t have any of their earlier albums, there may well have been older songs I didn’t know before. They really are a beautiful band to hear live, singers Alan and Mimi harmonising beautifully together, supported by a tremendous wash of noise from the two intruments, guitar and bass guitar. With those alone they can fill the space entirely with sound. Before the gig, regular reader and commenter Kahlan asked me what sort of music they play. Now, I hate genre-classification anyway; but I was stuck for words to describe them. They turn a minimalist collection of instruments – Mimi’s drumkit consisted solely of two drums and two cymbals**** – into a grand swell of mind-filling sound. I went away with my ears ringing and a smile on my face.

* which, I think, came from one of the angels over his shoulder.

** K already has two of their albums anyway, so she already knew this.

*** a sometime member of Modest Mouse, according to the ever-trustworthy Wikipedia

**** plus a few other hand-held things like tambourine and sleigh bells. Sadly, despite having the sleigh bells with them, they didn’t play my favourite Low song, “Just Like Christmas”.

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Pests

In which FP is repelled by a pest repeller


It looks like I’m a pest.

At the parent’s house, upstairs. I can hear a ticking noise. Something like a ticking noise, anyway. Something, once every second. Bzzpbzzpbzzp. It’s quiet, but penetrating, and I’ve barely been able to hear it for a minute before it becomes intensely annoying.

I rummaged around, trying to track it down, finding out where it seems loudest. And I find: on the landing, something glowing red and plugged into a power socket. BZZP!BZZP! “Ultrasonic pest repellent” it says, on the side.

“What? You’re not supposed to be able to hear that!” said The Mother, when I asked her about it. “You can’t hear it. You’re kidding me.”

“Nope,” I said, plugging it in in front of her. “You mean you can’t hear it?” I said, as I was holding this thing, loudly going BZZP in my hand.

“No,” she said. “Nothing at all.” BZZP!

The Parents are, it turns out, worried they have mice. There is, on a regular basis, a rustling somewhere between the floorboards and the ceiling. The cat is evidently not putting the putative mice off; so they’ve invested in this device, to scare the mice away. Only pests can hear it, it says. And, erm, me. I can’t believe that I have superhuman hearing, so presumably I’m just a pest.

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Age

In which FP feels tired


I can tell I’m getting old when I go out on a Friday night, and by the Monday, I still don’t feel as if I’m properly recovered from it. I don’t have a hangover, or a headache, but I do still feel as if my head is full of felt and I’m going to fall over at any moment.

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Speed

In which FP drives sensibly


People round here often say: ooh, I don’t like going down to London. I’d hate to drive down there. It’s terrible. It’s so bad to drive around London. All the drivers round there are such bad drivers.

And I say: “hah”. Because I’ve driven round London,* and not had any problems with other people’s driving. I’ve driven round here – a lot more, obviously – and I can hardly go on a car trip without something making me go: “what the hell are they doing?”

In the past 24 hours I’ve driven about 25 miles in total. In that time I’ve had four people overtake me because they’ve thought I’ve been driving too slowly. That is: I’ve been driving at 60mph, on a narrow twisty country road. I drive at 60mph down it, because I know it well; I know where the bends are, where my lines of sight are, and how fast I can go and still be able to stop on sight. And I get overtaken by people zooming past me at 90-ish. On the road past the office, which is an urban road, I drive down it at 30mph and get overtaken by people doing about 50.

Now, no doubt these people would claim they’re very good drivers, and therefore it’s entirely safe for them to drive like that. This is, frankly, bollocks. It’s never safe to drive at 90mph down a twisty country road with a couple of farms along it. These people are living proof of the Dunning-Kruger effect: the more incompetent a person is, the more likely they are to overestimate their skill.

That’s fine when it involves things that don’t concern me. But when I’m driving to work every day, and meeting these idiots every few miles, it bothers me. I don’t want to end up in a ditch, because of your rudeness, idiocy, or misjudgement. If you pass me at 90mph, keep on going – because when you impale yourself on a 20mph ploughshare in half a mile, I want to have plenty of distance between us.

* although no further in than Zone 2; Mile End or Clapham Junction

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Cute Fat

In which Doctor Who is getting silly


We turned to each other and said: “it was never this silly in the Old Days,” was it? And I don’t think it was.

In Doctor Who of Olden Times, you might well have got little creatures made from body fat. The difference, though, is that they wouldn’t have been so damn cute. They wouldn’t have had happy smiling faces and stubby hands to wave with. It’s always been a children’s show, but the old series was never so consciously one.

There are hints of something darker, I’ll admit. A minor character dying purely because of the doctor’s assistant fiddling with something she doesn’t understand, for example. Not fiddling with it because she wants to know what it does, but fidgeting and giving her hands something to do, and killing someone directly because of it. Maybe that will come back up later in the series. There are rumours, after all, that things are going to get much darker later on; but I’ll have to see it to believe it.

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Bad news

In which we get hacked


It’s never a good sign when you come back from tent-shopping (a story for another day), check your email and find an emergency security alert from your web-hosting people. It’s an even worse sign when it says: your site has been compromised. Ah. Oh dear.

My FTP details had been compromised, apparently. This is intriguing, because my FTP password is unique, unrelated to any other I have, and stored solely inside my head. Either some sort of network-sniffing was going on – entirely plausible with the entirely insecure FTP* – there’s some flaw in my hosts’ FTP daemon, or the fault lay elsewhere.

Anyway, it’s prompted me to upgrade myself to WordPress 2.5, released recently. Upgrading WordPress is one of those jobs which I tend to put off and put off, for no good reason because it’s really not that painful; and there’s a good chance that WordPress was the loose link here. Old versions do have known holes, and if I’d upgraded sooner, the break-in might never have happened.

* I nearly said “FTP protocol” there. But that would be “File Transfer Protocol protocol”, which is Just Wrong.

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Holiday Weather

In which we remember how cold it was in Wales


All of a sudden, this week, summer seems to be on the way. It can’t just be that we’re doing everything an hour later than we were a week ago. There’s something particular about a cool summer morning, or a drowsy summer evening, that this week has in spades.

By comparison: here’s some photos from Wales, not even a fortnight ago now, but another season entirely.

Menai Strait, Caernarfon Rain on the window Why was it called Snowdonia again? Ruined building with waterwheel, Llechwedd Slate Caverns

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