Sunday, 25 November 2007

Too much

I'm really going to have to give up reading the political blogs and the 'Comment' sections of the UK press. There really are some seriously strange people out there. Stranger than me in fact.

I read comments about how 'the Government should do something' when the reason for the problem itself is UK Government intervention itself. UK Governments as a whole appear to be remarkably over rated when it comes down to solving problems and often get it completely wrong.

The UK Education system is in a mess - Central Government intervention.
The UK Police don't get out on Patrol enough - Central Government instigated changes to procedure (The CPS for one).
Local Government Services are costing more and delivering less - Central Government interference and insistance on 'compliance'.
The NHS is a moribund mess - Central Government interference.
The Tax offices can't keep our details secure - Central Government appointees and adherence to ill thought through 'procedures'.

In fact I can't think of a single thing the 'Top down' management model as practiced by the current UK (And previous) administrations can't royally fuck up. No wonder Mrs S and I are bailing out of Britain (Along with over two hundred thousand plus others per year). Our two girls have evinced a desire to follow us into the sunset when they finish the next round of their studies, so with luck our families putative next generation will be Canadian born. So long as they don’t provoke the RCMP by throwing a paddy (Or a Pole – sorry, bad taste there) at the airport, we should be laughing.

Anyway, there have been Orca’s out in the channel today so my neighbours tell me and I'm stepping away from the keyboard tomorrow to see if I can see them.

Additions to sidebar
Vented Spleen
Appalling Strangeness

Friday, 23 November 2007

Where the wheelchairs go to die

You ever have one of those days? Yup, it’s been one of those. This afternoon in particular.

This morning was routine, Mrs S did her voluntary stuff and I pootled off to do my Red Cross duty, little knowing what the afternoon held for me. I rolled up at my appointed time, ready to go and do my bit, only to find at first that there was not a bit to do. I ended up stripping down two definitely defunct wheelchairs for spares, mostly bolts and wheels. With a few of the bits we salvaged a third and I thought that it was going to be a slow afternoon. The rest was stripped and separated for recycling. This, I mused as I dismantled it, is where wheelchairs go to die.

Half an hour later, my oppo meanders by.
“Fancy a run out Bill?”
“Yeah, sounds like a good idea. Ready when you are.”

Forty five minutes later we’re at the house of a client, fitting some aids for the disabled, having negotiated a forty plus degree slope to get down to the property, itself perched on top of a steep drop but with views to, if not die for, then seriously inconvenience yourself for.

However, there are times when things conspire against you, and this was one of them.
“Er, I think we’ve got a bit of a problem.”
“What’s up Bill?”
“Take a look.” The bolts I had been tasked with undoing were corroded to almost a formless reddish brown lump.
“That doesn’t look so good.”

For twenty minutes we manfully struggled with two rusted bolts until the Householder offered to drill them out. “Yeah, great. A quarter inch drill would do it.” I responded.
Five minutes later the Householder had appeared with an air drill and thirty feet of airhose. With a few deft actions and a lot of the characteristic loud wheeerk and whooork! Noises that air tools are in the habit of making, the offending lumps of rust were removed, much to everyone’s relief, without harming the rest of the decor.

The next hurdle was finding that half of one kit we had been issued to fit with was defective. Mine host sprang to the rescue again, and I followed him down to his basement to find a full mini engineering workshop. A full air tool set up including a serious compressor, pillar drill, small vertical miller, TIG welder and a lathe. Not to mention a crane track built into the ceiling. I was quite taken aback, and quietly impressed by the range of kit the Householder had at his disposal.

“You got quite a place down here.” My oppo commented, obviously impressed as I was, watching the Householder take a mini grinder to an aluminium component we couldn’t have otherwise fitted.

Half an hour later we were all finished and ready to head on back to the barn, having taken almost two hours over what was normally a twenty five minute job. Next task was to actually get back onto the road. This too was not without difficulty.
“Looks like you guys are going to have to reverse out.” Commented the householder, indicating fifty or more metres of steep drive.
“We’ll try turning around.” My oppo volunteered.
“Want me to wave you out?” I asked
“Yeah, we’ll give it a try.”

For the next ten minutes we fussed and went one lock to the next trying to reverse turn in the restricted area of the Householders clifftop retreat. Had the area at the bottom of the slope been level we might have made it, but as this was not so, and our truck was a rear wheel drive without a decent differential, we started to leave more rubber on the ground than was helpful. “No good Bill, we’re going to have to reverse up.” My oppo and I decided to try things the hard way. Him driving, me guiding.

Ever tried to reverse a Dodge Sprinter Van up a steep slope? It doesn’t like it very much, especially when the slope has several nastily little ridges and gullies that interfere with your vehicles imperfect traction. Even with both myself and the Householder pushing with all our might, the Van left long skidmarks most of the fifty metres back up to a less insanely steep road. At one point I was ready to jump clear when the van completely lost traction for half a second and jerked forwards. We just redoubled our efforts, and ten minutes later the van was back on the road above with it’s tyre tread thickness significantly reduced. My oppo checked his mobile phone to see if our Manager was wondering where we were.
“Any missed calls?” I asked, having got my breath back, although my throat felt raw and my shoulders ached more than a little.
“No.” He said, surprise evident in his voice. “I’d have thought they’d be wondering what was taking us so long.”
“I just feel like someone’s been sticking Kryptonite in my cornflakes.” I responded, glad that I could now take it easy on the way back to base.

On the way back, we saw the moon appearing through clearing clouds and an old Vachel Lindsay poem drifted into my head;

The moon? It is a griffin's egg,
Hatching to-morrow night.
And how the little boys will watch
With shouting and delight
To see him break the shell and stretch
And creep across the sky.
The boys will laugh. The little girls,
I fear, may hide and cry.
Yet gentle will the griffin be,
Most decorous and fat,
And walk up to the milky way
And lap it like a cat.

Tonight it is a real Hunters moon, fat and bright. I may not sleep very well. I never do at full moons. Shaving becomes a bit of a chore as well.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Bag is cat of out the the

Excuse the flat pack cliché title of this particular rant (Requires a little user assembly and a screwdriver). I’m reading the latest on the HMRC data handling cock-up with increasing frustration.

Wherever the disks are, I find myself thinking that if the agencies concerned checked down the back of the proverbial filing cabinet, the offending disks would be rapidly found. On the other hand, did some lazy slaphead say that they had burned off a couple of CD’s and not actually done what they said?

What really beggars belief is the Senior Management assertion that de sensitising the data would ‘cost too much’. Okay guys, here’s a heads up on data transfer. Most databases (In fact all the decent ones I ever came across) have a data import / export facility available to those who have sufficient access rights to the database application that manages the stored data. Although I'm a bit out of touch with these things, the menu options generally go something like this;

Select 'File' Menu
Select Import / Export from File menu dropdown
Select - Export from menu options
Select fields to be exported per record - a.k.a. 'Building a database query'
E.g. Salutation, First name, Surname, Street, Town, Relationship to parent / child, file number for cross reference. (Do not select 'All', only a chimp does that.)
Select export file format (CSV, Text, whatever)
Encoded / Not encoded - Yes / No
Password protect? - Yes / No or go straight to password option
Type in password
Type in password again in next field to confirm
Do you really want to do this? Yes / No
(Yes – now go and get a cup of coffee or have lunch while your machine merrily chunters away, you can even 'lock' your screen if you like)

Total time taken to select fields – Ten minutes maximum. The actual number of records would govern the processing time required, and a query of this nature would have a lot of records to go through. Record size, let’s be greedy and say 2kb. Ergo 25 million records will fit on 1 CD, no compression. For added safety, compress the file with a secondary password required to decompress the data. Actual processing time with compression, probably no more than three to four hours, maximum, maybe a lot less depending upon how fast their processors are and how wide the query has to cast its net to select the data. At any rate, selecting and compressing the data to a point where it can be securely burned onto a CD, four to five working hours. If you have a secure Intranet between Government agencies you could copy the file up to a secure Ftp location and e-mail the password(s) in an encrypted attachment to the desired recipient. Job done. Piss of piece.

Compressing 500Mb of data, password encoding it and burning the CD? one hour tops, and it’s a long time since I had to do this sort of number processing. My figures could be way too slow because modern machines and processors should be much faster than when I were a lad.

I've done this myself and seen it work on flat file and distributed relational databases. It’s the skill in building the database query that counts. Nothing needs to be 'sanitised', you just select the bits of the records you want to 'export' and run the query. Is anyone telling me that people tasked with the maintenance of such databases don't know this? You emphatically do not transfer whole data files unless you're migrating or porting a system across to a new operating system or hardware platform.

This is all pretty basic stuff when dealing with ‘secure’ data. I could ask why this wasn’t done within HMRC, but now that the metaphorical horse has bolted, what’s the point? Brewery, a, run, couldn’t, up, a, piss, in. Such are the benefits of 20-20 hindsight, yet why were people with such an obvious ignorance of secure data handling doing making these decisions in the first place?

Oh sod it. Mrs S and I no longer live in the UK. Why should I care? Just because I was once an IT consultant before ageism and fast track visa's put me on the scrapheap. Sod it. I care because HMRC have leaked my families details potentially for all to see, that's why.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Vive la revolution!

Is Heather Mills-McCartney the new Marie Antoinette?

Let them drink rats milk indeed.

No 2 ID (Again)

No doubt Mrs S’s details and mine are on the now notorious two missing CD’s courtesy of HMRC. Both our UK bank details are at risk of being public domain and this will lead to our main UK bank accounts being frozen should our details find their way into the wrong hands. If they haven't got stuck down the back of someone's photocopier or at the bottom of an overloaded HMRC clerks out tray or the National Audit Offices in tray, perhaps even sent to the DVLC by mistake. The latter three choices are higher probabilities in my book.

Perhaps, and let’s assume that any of the putative data thieves have a modicum of intelligence and cunning, they will simply create a £25 a month direct debit on, let’s say every account holder with an income over £14,000 a year. That should account for most people in the tax paying system. Multiply that by a potential 7 million bank accounts at risk. One hundred and seventy five million a month, tax free. If the amounts are small and go unnoticed for a while it might take a year for the full scope to become apparent, (£2.1 Billion) and by that time, the thieves will have melted into data obscurity. If they are based in another non-EU country, they will never be caught, nor the money retrieved. Of course if said data thieves have no restraint, whole towns and cities will go down the financial plug’ole. Including jolly old Londinium.

The blogosphere has been alive with comments about how the loss of this data will finally kill the wasteful and bloated UK ID cards IT project. Having watched the current UK Governments attitude to outraged public comment with increasing world weariness; I cite the ignoring of the Iraq war protests, Countryside Alliance marches, Fuel tax protests and so on. I am forced to the following conclusion; ID cards will happen whether we like it or not. HM Government don’t give a monkeys about what we think. They won’t even listen to IT professionals who have raised perfectly reasonable concerns about the projects size and its potential security issues. Hopefully Mrs S and I will have citizenship of Canada before that comes to pass.

No other country has successfully put all their ID eggs in one basket before (Bank details, Medical records, National Insurance & Tax details, the lot), and no one else but the UK (To my knowledge) has tried to do so in such a manner. To me, that’s rather like having what remains of the UK’s gold reserves being put on display in the foyer of your local town hall. It’s an incredibly tempting target for the ID thieves, who can then empty bank accounts, turn ordinary people (Me and you) into unpersons, give you a criminal record (Once your personal details are obtained) instantly. The High street banks won’t be able to sustain the losses, and when they go down, the whole country will financially go with them. Could the UK survive a banking collapse that would eclipse the current Northern Rock crisis? The sub prime market problems will be a mere storm in a teacup by comparison. The terrorists won’t need bombs.

As for the scandal of the lost data spelling the end of ID cards. Sorry but I’m on the side of the sceptics on this one. The UK government won’t cancel the ID card bill. On the one hand they don’t want to lose public face on the issue, and on the other, who cares? After all, it’s not really their money they are chucking down the tubes is it? It’s ours. Joe taxpayer.

Perhaps we ought to ditch the whole biometric ID idea and try a more Canadian approach.

The sound of silence

Today Mrs S and I took a walk down to the waters edge. Dog fussed around in the shallows and got thoroughly wet. We just sat there on a near perfect November morning watching a Sea Otter hunting out in the middle of the channel. We sat together on a metre thick sea washed log, amber and stripped of it's bark by the tides. Both alert for the tell-tale ripples that would betray the Otters presence. For ten minutes, neither of us spoke except with the occasional gesture. Both of us struck mute, overcome with the grandeur, and above all the quietness.

Apart from the far off noise of the ferry terminal, the only noise was the soft lapping of the water on the dark grey rocks. A nearly still sea with a chilly slowly ebbing tide. Diving birds unhurriedly up-ending themselves to feed on thick shoals of fry just below the surface. Even the eagles were silent. The ferry terminal went quiet as the last departure cruised out of earshot and for a while not even the wind stirred the trees. For two long minutes, all I could hear was the small, insistent sound of my own heart beating. The cares of the previous day evaporated.

A small thought crossed my mind that this must be the sound of one hand clapping, that moment of complete inner stillness and calm, near revelatory in it's spiritual impact. Mrs S must have felt it too, because we turned slowly, looking at each other with a shared feeling of fulfilment and content.

Then the dog bounced back into view noisily paddling through the shallows and the moment was gone. He had found something to roll in that stunk. His canine grin said it all.
“He’ll need a bath when we get home.” Mrs S remarked.
I nodded, knowing that washing the dog is exclusively my chore. “Come on then.” I got up and held out my hand.

We clambered back up the slope and went home. It took me two hours to wash and dry our mucky mutt. I didn't mind at all.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Customer disservice

Sometimes you run up against a brick wall of bureaucracy even more impenetrable than Canadian immigration. Where even a long phone call to 'customer services' (Hah!) armed with all your reference numbers in order to preclude any possible ID theft won't do you any good. Where the poor underinformed chumps in the call centres run you into a dead end time after time. Where letters posted in the UK to a UK address take over ten working days to arrive, costing you, the paying punter, time and money (Especially money). Sometimes you're tempted to think they do it just to squeeze extra money out of you.

The following three companies have been causing Mrs S and I considerable heartburn (and costing us money) because we have been unable to access our online services and manage our accounts directly;

British Gas
Nationwide Building Society
Direct Line Insurance

Here in Canada, we have no problem whatsoever with online services, and customer service is red hot (after all, this is a competitive market and they want to keep your business). Especially Royal Bank of Canada - excellent, diamond. Over in the UK - rubbish. The three companies I have named need lessons. The CEO's of the organisations in question should take note as such poor standards will lose them customers, regardless of how good a deal they might claim to offer.

I'm just glad we will not be their customers for much longer.

Rant over.

Much better

Lets101 - Free Online Dating

Mrs S says that the bit about getting the last word in is especially true. Nice to find one of these things that doesn't paint people born in late February / Early March as a bunch of gloomy losers.

Curmudgeonly, grumpy, yes. Gloomy, no. My names not Eeyore.

Hat tip to Kittymistress and friends

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Small ad

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Taser! Taser! Taser!

Recently there have been a number of deaths due to Tasers up here in the currently not so frozen north. The most notorious was the recent death of a Polish man who was angry about being kept hanging around at Vancouver airport for something like nine hours.

Canadians, who have turned fair mindedness into something approaching a religion, turned out en masse at his funeral.

One Canadian I talked to expressed his sadness and opined that the airport staff had ‘dropped the ball’ at somewhere around six levels, and that had someone been awake enough to go and talk to the man when he had been observed in a secure area for more than an hour, the Polish travellers tantrum would have been avoided, the RCMP officers would not have to have used a Taser, and the Polish traveller in question would still be alive. However, 20-20 hindsight is a wonderful thing is it not?

Despite the principle of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, I have to say that the poor guy should really not have been out on his own. You have to be pretty solid between the ears to throw a paddy inside a major international airport terminal in today’s climate of fear, and throwing furniture around and breaking a place up, especially a place where there are armed guards, has to be about the worst idea on God’s earth. This may not qualify for a Darwin award, but it’s close.

As for Tasers, whatever happened to applying a Tsukkake? This is a wrist lock applied as a counter to a straight punch or knife thrust. Having done a little judo I know that this effective and immobilising armlock can be held with finger and thumb, and any assailant restrained with a firm foot on the shoulderblade face down (Works in real life, done it for real – don’t ask).

Having watched the video I find myself wondering why the Taser was used twice. The Polish guy wasn’t armed, and went down (Albeit twitching – see the video) at the first hit and there was an officer holding him down. So what was the point of delivering the second dose? Having an electric shock isn’t a pleasant experience, and in the first few seconds after getting hit by that much voltage, trussing the unfortunate should have been the proverbial piece of cake for the four officers in question.

I know no Police officer wants to get hurt, but I can probably name an expert in physical restraint who teaches such techniques. He’s an English bloke who does (or did up to 2005) this kind of training professionally and from this ageing Judoka’s perspective he’s very good. Just as an aside, if you do hire him on my say so, I charge 10% commission per referral. Only kidding.

Just goes to show

Just when I thought I as a Red Cross volunteer, was doomed to visiting vile, cramped and squalid places of residence, up pops something different. Every single 'job' was in a nice area with very salubrious and spacious houses and apartments. One was an umpteen bedroomed mansion on a large lot (Area upon which the property is built), the others were two (generously proportioned) bedroomed apartments kept spotlessly clean in very modern blocks. I was quietly impressed.

Just goes to show that not every delivery is going to be one where I come out feeling I should have worn a biohazard protection suit. Thank goodness for that.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

A Teachers Tale

Once upon a time there was a primary school teacher in England; a friend of my wife from when they both worked together at the same school. From all accounts she was good at what she did and highly professional. Until the Lie, that is. These are the facts as I know them;

A child, for a reason no one has been able to ascertain, falsely (and I’d stand up in a court under oath and back that up) complained that this particular Teacher had been ‘nasty’ to the child to the child’s gonzo parents. No specifics as to what ‘nasty’ entailed, probably telling child to sit down and be quiet or something ‘damaging’ like that, that sort of thing. No thrown chalk or blackboard rubber, no cuff round the ear or six strokes of the cane (Ah, those were the halcyon days of my youth – Rum, sodomy and the lash). The ‘nastiness’ was probably just a couple of sharp words, if it happened at all.

Male gonzo parent, instead of taking the issue to the head teacher of the school and asking for some kind of explanation, infiltrated the school grounds during school hours and attacked the female Teacher while the Teacher was on playground duty. Male gonzo parent was arrested, having left bruises on the neck of the Teacher. What a brave man, eh? Having a go at a Female primary school teacher in her forties. Tough guy (Not).

To say the least, the Teacher was shocked, and took two days sick leave to recover a little. She returned to work. The Teacher not having properly emotionally recovered from the assault; was also subjected to ‘lesson observation’ (Stress levels of this on a par with taking one’s driving test or high level exam) by her head teacher, and given extra workload to boot. Still being a bit rocky from the assault, the Teacher decided that enough was enough, and after two months of this treatment handed in her resignation. The Teacher’s confidence in her ability to interact with her charges had been shattered.

Talk about a lack of sensitivity. The CPS are currently requesting more ‘evidence’ so they can bring additional charges. The victim (The Teacher) was subjected to high levels of scrutiny to cover the schools arse, and in the meantime the kids have had their education disrupted because their form teacher has been off work.

I don’t know how everybody else feels but it’s high time the system in England stopped punishing the victims and dealt with the malefactors instead. Unfortunately, I don’t think that this will happen soon, officialdom being so in love with the ‘bean counting’ and ‘box ticking’ philosophy where the price of everything is known, but the value of everything is a distraction. Therefore I’m afraid the phrase ‘in your dreams’ has some synergy at this point.

What annoys me most is the way that officialdom assumes that everything a child says has to be the unvarnished truth. Most of the time the children themselves don’t know, and couldn’t tell you either. How many other hardworking people have had their careers wrecked by this PC assertion that the child is always right?

I blame Rousseau’s argument;

“Everything is good in leaving the hands of the Creator of Things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.”

What utter romanticised 18th century nonsense. He was obviously never a primary school teacher or he’d have known better. Children can be deceitful monsters, and he never saw that.

Abandon blog

Just been checking out "Walking the Streets" and I've decided to call it a day. I no longer walk streets, and it's high time I shifted the focus of things over to my new 'civilian' self.

In future, all of my ravings will be published here. This does mean a hit on the old traffic stats, but what the hell, if people want to read my rabid drivel, come one come all. Or not, whatever.

Monday, 15 October 2007

A minor mishap

While waiting for our apartments connection to the Internet I’ve been in a bit of pain. Whilst walking the dog on my way down a partly washed out path to the shoreline a week or so ago (Did I mention that we now have a nice place by the sea?) I slipped and ended up sliding ten feet on my back. Did a judo breakfall and took most of the impact on my shoulders, so I didn’t break any bones. To be honest I didn’t think much of it at the time; apart from cursing my own clumsiness and lack of care. My main thought afterwards was first to get some boots with a better grip before I tried the hundred foot descent again; and second how to get some rocks and logs into place to make the washed out track a little safer for me (and others) in future.

The rest of the evenings walk was a clamber over sea washed logs littering the rocky foreshore partially covered in newly washed up green seaweed. On our little exploratory trip we disturbed a family of six Sea Otters, who dashed into the water as soon as the dog and I got within fifty yards, and then roundly cussed us from the safety of the bays shallow waters in fluent Canadian Sea Otter (Lots of hissing, huffing and snorting) for disturbing them in whatever they were doing.

The return journey up the path was more abseil than walk, and I arrived back at the apartment after dark, a little muddy and dishevelled to find a very concerned Mrs S busily hunting out my old Life insurance policy (No she wasn’t really but it’s an old joke, and well worth trotting out occasionally to make sure it doesn’t get all manky).

Two days later my lower back was playing merry hell with me. It felt like an electric cattle prod was being rammed into the muscles alongside my spine. Both sets of muscles were in spasm and giving me serious grief every time I stand up, sit down or walk. When the pain hits I couldn’t help but buck like an untamed horse with the violence of the spinal cramp. The only sure fire respite comes from taking it easy for a couple of days with lots of hot baths and compresses. In addition, a little gentle traction and hanging from a door lintel by my fingers often helps.

This is not a new problem; it’s a weakness I’ve lived with for around the last thirty years. Every so often, around once, maybe twice a year, I’ll have a tumble like the other night, mis-step off a kerb, a trip and recover and although nothing happens right then and there, a day or so later I can barely move. I’ve had this problem since I was in my late teens and used to do various heavy physical jobs in between college courses to pay for my beer ration. Might even have been caused by the first ever semi serious crash I had on my old wreck of a Honda motorcycle (I really used to abuse that machine), or a particular game of Rugby when I ended up at the bottom of a particularly rough ruck and maul. Notwithstanding, how it first occurred is not important; somehow I’ve left myself with a weakness in my back muscles that kicks up every so often.

I’ve been X-rayed and gone to surgeons who have told me there’s nothing serious worth doing anything about, Chiropractors who have wrenched things back into shape (I’m not sure that the pain they induce isn’t worse that the pain of the condition itself), and masseurs who hammer the knots and kinks out (That hurts a lot too).

No matter what anybody else says and does, the pain goes away after a maximum of three days soaking in hot baths and taking it easy. Ergo, it looks like I’m stuck with it. A few pounds off the waistline might not be such a bad thing either. In the meantime; pass me the painkillers and I’ll have a nice hot soak and ride this one out like I usually do.

Now where's me rubber ducky?
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