Stop “Reaching Out”

There’s a perfectly good English word available to use when you need to get information from a third party. It’s “ask”. Please stop “reaching out” instead. I’m exposed to this a lot on tech news sites, usually American. I even had it in an email yesterday, “I am reaching out to you to find out…”. It’s usually used in response to some bogus news story, where the author has “reached out” to the party in question for some feedback. Probably they just phoned the press agent.

While I’m ranting, there is an even more galling habit I see a lot in online journalism. It is the irritating imperative to “think”, usually parenthesised, which seems to be a way to avoid using “e.g.” or “i.e.” It’s hard to find examples, as Google can’t search for punctuation, but here’s one: “a fun little distraction .. before Disney Interactive reveals the real iOS (think iPad) app for the game.” And another: “combining raw film footage with animated characters (think Angry Birds in real life)”. I can’t quite explain (even to myself) why this annoys me – probably because it is a little bit patronising and has more than a whiff of dumbing-down. Thankfully this one has not (yet) reached any reputable reporting.

Unlike “super”, which is now everywhere. I remember reading a prediction (but annoyingly not where) that this was going to be the word of the moment for the coming year, and didn’t quite believe it. The last time I’d heard it used in conversation was by my Auntie Marie when I was but a teenager. Now every presenter is “super excited” about their next guest, or “super happy” to be talking to you and “super thrilled” that you can join them.

I’m super reaching out (think: asking) for you all to stop it.

Tree Cut

Before and After
Before and After

The neighbours seem particularly allergic to the leaves from our tree, so we have to get it cut every now and then just to keep everybody happy. Except me, because now the ridiculously bright new street light prevents me from seeing any stars at all from the garden. It was advertised, before they installed it, as being turned down at night – but it blazes away like a full moon after the sun has gone nova.

I miss the Milky Way.

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie

A Champagne Socialist toasts the departure, at last, of Mrs Thatch
Dead, dead, dead.

Tim at work said when he first heard that Mrs Thatcher had died, he thought “Derek will be pleased.”

It’s true. I was. I opened a bottle of champagne and toasted her departure. Amongst the “vitriolic hatred” on Twitter, there were calls to “show some respect for the dead;” that she was “a mother,” or just a “sick old lady” and that we should “think of the family”. (To that last point, if I knew them, obviously I agree my reaction would be different.)

Clearer writers than I have pointed out that if the only people who are allowed to speak are those who admired her, particular those in power or who own newspapers, then the wrongs she did would be swept under the carpet. I refuse to be cowed by “petty” or “lefty” tags.

My younger cousin (although he is old enough to remember her) asked on Facebook what good she did. I could think of nothing, other than the inspiration to my favourite Alexei Sayle joke:

In the olden days, people were named after their jobs – smith, if you made horseshoes; cooper if you made barrels; thatcher if you made people SICK.

And I left it at that for a day, but the praise continued. People forget, or don’t know, or think that because Labour would have been worse then she was good for the country. That’s how we ended up with the horrors of the present Government, but that’s a different argument.

So I wrote this:

A lot of things which changed under Mrs Thatcher would have had to change anyway, this I will concede. The unions were undemocratic, and our industrial base was never going to continue as it was.

Things did not have to change in the callous and unsympathetic way that Mrs Thatcher chose. Germany and Norway managed it without the destruction. Now, without effective unions, we have a “flexible workforce” with zero-hour contracts, multiple part-time jobs, enforced weekend hours and a minimum wage which isn’t enough to live on.

She had more interest in 3000 people on an island half way around the world than the many British communities which were destroyed by her vendetta against the miners; the resulting Falklands War cost many lives and won her the election for her second term. We now import coal.

She sold off council houses and stopped the councils using the money to replace them; now we have a housing crisis.

She started selling off all the utilities, so now the French own the electricity, the water is owned by Middle Eastern and Chinese companies. They dodge tax on their profits, but claim that upgrades and maintenance must be paid for on the bills.

She “liberated” the financial markets and we all know how that ended up. Nobody can afford to buy a house in London as the bonus-driven price inflation spreads out across the country. Successful British companies are bought by multi-nationals, often with loans which they struggle to repay so that production has to be moved overseas or the factory they promised to keep open is closed because it is “unprofitable”.

She made the market “king” – private always better than public – which saw NHS cleaners re-employed by the lowest bidders, paid so little that they didn’t care about the job, and people died from infections in filthy hospitals.

Most of all, she created the me-first, money-is-everything, screw-you-if-you-can’t-afford-it attitude which pervaded the eighties and still drives the politicians of today. The rich own more and the poor own less but David Cameron still insists we are “all in it together” whilst his chancellor cuts the tax rate for the richest 300,000 people.

I’m glad she’s dead, because of what she stood for, because of what she did and because of what is still being done in her name. I wish that Thatcherism had died with her.

Glastonbury, See Tickets fail & Twitter win

The crazy Sunday morning browser refresh panic returned after a year off with the sale of 150,000 tickets to an estimated 750,000 punters. The promise of a beefed-up system (after it took 4 hours to sell out last time, to a number which did not include me) soon evaporated and even getting to the “holding page” seemed like a victory.

The next page was the “registration entry” where you added the numbers and postcodes. Naïvely, we thought we had succeeded the first time we got this far. Sadly, “0% uploaded” was as far as we got before being thrown off again.

Luckily for me, I was watching the twitter #glasto feed in another window. After about 40 minutes, somebody tweeted a hack – a line to add to your hosts file – which would get you through to the See Ticket servers. I didn’t really believe it, but had nothing better to do so gave it a go. Result! Straight through and tickets bought.

So how did that work? It was an error by See Tickets with their DNS entry.

For the non-technical: DNS (Domain Name System) is the “phone book” of the Internet. (For younger readers, a phone book was a list of people’s land line phone numbers listed alphabetically by their surnames, printed out every year and delivered to the house of everybody who had a phone – hard to believe, I know.) When you type “” in your browser, the browser asks your Domain Name Server for the IP address, and the server returns a number like “”.

Anticipating the demand, See Tickets had, to their credit, set up two servers. Both the addresses should have been entered in the DNS records, and thus 50% of the punters looking for tickets should have gone to each server. Sadly, somebody mistyped one of the addresses, putting 192 instead of 194. Thus half the queries failed, and the other server was hit by every sales request.

On your PC the hosts file is like a small, local Domain Name Server where your browser looks first to see if it knows the IP address of a name. Adding the actual address of the “spare” server in that file meant that you avoided the queue and walked directly up to the almost unused counter next door. Apparently, See Tickets did notice the very unbalanced load on their servers and fixed the DNS record after about 10:00am. The nature of DNS meant that it still took quite a while after that for the change to work its way through the Internet.

How was the error (and fix) discovered? It was because of the actual IP address numbers involved. Addresses starting 192 (or 172 or 10) are reserved for private networks. If you have a network at home, it will start with one of these numbers. Somebody trying to connect to See Tickets was doing it from work on a network which just happened to have a machine with the mistyped address. Instead of the same “could not connect” error that everybody else was getting, they saw a web page from a computer on their own network. So they looked up the numbers, worked out what the error was and shared the solution via Twitter.

Thank you, anonymous hacker, for getting me my tickets to Glastonbury.

Exam Madness

I’ve been a school governor for an alarmingly long time – the last 10 years at a Cottenham Village College, now an Academy. This apparently makes me more qualified than anybody in Government to see how ridiculous their claims about “grade inflation” are.

Every school, under several shades of Government, has to produce monstrous amounts of documentation: policies, plans, guidance, self-assessments, declarations, statements of ethos, etc, etc.

Chief amongst these for many years has been the School Improvement Plan. This has to show how the grades achieved by the pupils would be better next year than last year. If a school did not achieve this improvement, then it would be classed “failing” with promised terrible consequences for all.

Can anyone see yet why the accusation of “grade inflation” is completely hypocritical? Yes, Gove – at the back there, boy!

And now there will be the “English Baccalaureate Certificate”. Has he even looked that word up in the dictionary? In English it means a University Degree (Bachelor of Arts, or Bachelor of Science).

Latitude, attitude: Part 1

With Glastonbury taking a year off, Latitude was an easy choice this year. After last year’s rain, it was bound to be sunny in 2012, right? We bought pre-sale cheap(er) tickets in October and were well chuffed when Elbow were announced as headliners.

42/365 20120712First BeerThursday was sunny. We set up camp and waited for Latitude to open so we could get a beer.

It started raining around 11pm, and there wasn’t much on so we retired around 11:45. None too soon, because it absolutely tipped it down and earplugs, always useful when sleeping at festivals, became a necessity to deaden the sound of rain on canvas.  I woke up at 3:45 to turn over (I hate sleeping bags) and noticed that the inner door on the tent was open. I had this ridiculous idea that Wen might have opened it because she was too hot, but she said it wasn’t her. I looked outside and the side door to the tent was open too. Waking up a little, I saw something on the floor: my trousers, which had been next to me in the inner tent. The wallet in my pocket was gone.

Robbed! Professionally, too – on the first night when we had all our money for beer and food for the weekend. They didn’t take my phone or Wen’s purse, so we started testing the various credit and bank cards out-of-hours stolen card support lines. (Winner: the police lady on “101” who fished her Barclaycard out of her own bag to read us the number; Loser: Barclaycard, who asked three times for the card number from a dodgy line to an Indian call centre. I don’t know – it’s been stolen!)

Coffee and TeaI got a call on my mobile in the morning from a bloke just a few tents away (the flag was useful again) who had found my wallet. All the credit cards were still inside. But worthless. We only had enough money for one day’s food and beer.

Luckily, Tim was coming to Latitude, but not until Friday afternoon. We called him at work and asked to borrow £150. We might eat yet! And it had almost stopped raining. Time for a nice cuppa before we popped into the arena and into the Comedy Tent and the Finalists for the Chortle Student Comedy Awards, who were surprisingly good.

The rest of the day we saw LLoyd Cole, Punch Brothers, The Antlers, Mark Watson, Janelle Monáe, Lana Del Ray, Metronomy, White Lies and John Hegley.
Lloyd ColePunch BrothersThe AntlersMark Watson43/365 20120713Lana Del RayMetronomyWhite LiesJohn Hegley
And in the afternoon we met Tim who lent us enough money to eat and drink like kings.

Apple Trojan?

I have a standard, non-jailbroken iPhone 4. This morning, randomly, a message popped up asking me to enter my iMessage password. On a PC I would have been suspicious, but Apple have been doing odd things with their security lately, so I responded. Then it asked the same question about Facetime. Ditto.

A few minutes later, entirely by coincidence, I attempted to access my Apple account via iTunes, and my password was not recognised. I reset the password and checked the account – thankfully nothing purchased. Still, this is odd and surely related to the now-suspicious question on my iPhone.

I’ve had a quick Google and seen nothing about this kind of behaviour reported anywhere, but if other people get that prompt and have their password changed, maybe they’ll find this when they search. Another data point.

I don’t know how to tell Apple, and in my previous experience that’s a black hole anyway so I didn’t try very hard.

Banks. Security. Will they ever get a clue?

Against my better judgement, but somewhat inevitably given my levels of laziness and inertia, I now have two Barclaycards. They bought Egg and so bought me as well. This has kept me entertained on and off via several low-level email complaints (about their ridiculous security, the ill-planned migration of accounts which meant I had two different on-line sign-ins for a while, the misleading email warning of an impending payment when I have a Direct Debit to pay in full every time).

Lately I mentioned that their monthly payment email is useless, because it only tells me the minimum payment and suggests that I could set up a Direct Debit. I suggested that telling me the actual amount, and that it would automatically be paid, might be more useful. They replied that “Security Protocols” prevented them from putting that information in an email. I said in that case that there seemed little point in sending it.

This seems to have irritated them, as they called me on my mobile this morning at 08:54. From a BLOCKED number. A guy with an Indian accent* said he was from Barclays and could he ask me some security questions.

He seemed surprised when I said no. (I’ve already been through this with Egg, but at least they sent the phone number which matched the one on their website. Sadly, that can easily be spoofed but it’s better than nothing.) They have a “Security Protocol” which stops them putting my current bill in an email, but expects me to give away my account access to random blocked callers? I despair.

*I only mention the Indian accent because all the spam callers also have them, thus making it inherently suspicious.

Genius Exchange

I like my iPad 2, and am happy to admit that it is an expensive toy. However, I did find out this week that at least some of that expense is justified.

My previous experience of taking back a faulty product was a cheap TV from Tesco (just £80) which occasionally turned on with no sound. Annoyingly, none of those occasions was in the Tesco Tech Support department. The man there just would not accept my word that the thing was broken. Shouting ensued, Donna used her retail experience to attempt reasoned debate and eventually satisfaction was reached with an exchange made as a “goodwill gesture” on behalf of the management.

So, when my 3 month old iPad developed an odd small white patch on the display, I was a little concerned that it might need some explaining. Not so.

The greeter at the door looked at it, almost gasped with horror, and said I must take it to the Genius Bar. I would need an appointment, he said, but he could make that for me and as it was just gone 5 to 6 on a Wednesday evening that appointment would be in 3 minutes.

3 minutes later the Genius at the Genius Bar asked what the problem was and when I showed him he immediately said they would replace it right away, as long as I had backed it up recently. The only delay was finding a relevant tick box in his on-line form to describe the fault. He chose “other display”.

A quick squint down the headphone socket to prove that it hadn’t been wet, and I left the Apple Store after 13 minutes with a new iPad.

Now that, Tesco, is customer service.