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October 25 2016


Pink Floyd Beginnings: 1967-72

Some observations prompted by this programme, which was shown on BBC4 last Friday night and is based on excerpts from the recent Early Years boxset:

Once Syd Barrett left, the band really were flailing around aimlessly for a couple of years there, or else treading water with some fairly undistinguished psych-pop material seemingly written in attempted emulation of Barrett.

They needed David Gilmour to bring in at least some basic idea of tune and melody, without which even their most avant-garde improvisations would have been simply a menacing bloke whispering over a lot of banging and scraping.

At their best, they had a great line in heavy rock/funk improvised workouts, the kind of thing that appears midway through Atom Heart Mother and Echoes, and was last heard in the second half of the studio version of Shine On You Crazy Diamond. Imperial-phase Floyd had better songs delivered with greater precision in the music, which consequently became much less interesting even as it broadened their appeal. DSOTM marks the point at which these two factors were in equal tension.

There are two Nick Masons: Young Nick and Old Nick. Old Nick keeps perfect time and can play the exact same part the exact same way every time, precisely to a click track and with minimal ornamentation. Young Nick operates at the furthest limit of his abilities and thus frequently fluffs his beats or even drops a stick. He relies on a restricted set of stock fills and rhythms, but can stumble across a magically transcendent moment coincident with the rest of the music and often surprises even himself when everything comes together. Young Nick is many times more rewarding to listen to than Old Nick. Old Nick began when Young Nick was emasculated sometime around 1975, and told thereafter to "keep it simple".

In music at least, insight is invaluable but complete knowledge is overrated.

October 21 2016


What's the big deal about Greggs?

According to Walesonline (prerequisite bucket of salt not included, as this post is already over the healthy eating guidelines), there are now seven branches of Greggs for every 100,000 inhabitants of Cardiff. (A new store opened on Queen Street this week, just round the corner from Greggs further down and before you get to Greggs.)

Apart from the lauded sausage roll, which is a classic, BB struggles to find much that appeals at the average Greggs counter. The pasties are varying degrees of 'okay', although I understand the recently added 'healthy' pastry options are fairly vile. The doughnuts are adequate but, well, just doughnuts. The vanilla slice is quite good, but I haven't seen those for a while. The sole muffin option is bog-standard chocolate. The Apple Danish seems superficially nice but has something of the cardboard box about it. That's about it for cakes, apart from novelty items of stunning averagability for the kids. And their sandwich and baguette range is notably disappointing, due mainly to the quality of the bread (rather a surprise from an alleged bakery, and indicative of their priorities) and not much helped by the bland ingredients in the fillings. (Because it's not like there's a great deal of competition in Cardiff, is it?)

We're all for a bit of greasy, over-carbohydrated stodge but when even the taste and variety is lacking, what's the point?

September 08 2016


King Crimson, St David's Hall Cardiff, 3rd Sep 2015

Yes, this is a somewhat belated review. It's mainly inspired by the recent release of "Radical Action to Unseat The Hold of Monkey Mind" (cough), the new live album from KC, which I find myself curiously uncompelled to purchase despite its inarguable value (multiple discs, complete live show and film included).

Going out again and playing in the UK for the first time in decades, KC are now a six piece band with four veterans and two relatively new members. Most notably, they have a three drummer line-up as their frontline, with the other players relegated to the rear of the stage. Given that two drummers are often thought to be perilous overkill (albeit previously employed successfully on the Thrak album), and Fripp/drummer disagreements are a documented feature of Crim history, one wonders why they tempt fate like this - particularly as it doesn't appear to add much to most of the set beyond an overly tribal emphasis on the sound. (Perhaps the idea comes from the same place as Spinal Tap's amplifier knobs going up to 11.) But of course, Fripp himself is spared this ordeal by his decision wisely to sit behind the noisy buggers. Only on an encore of debut classic "21st Century Schizoid Man" does the conceit really suit the material and breathe fresh life into it, and I say that as someone who generally likes drummers - a lot more than guitarists.

The other major weakness here is new KC member and recent Fripp collaborator Jakko Jakszyk, probably the blandest and most personality-free vocalist that Crim have ever had. Perhaps Fripp prefers it like this, given his also well-documented long history of diagreements with previous, more assertive singers. But again, it doesn't serve the quite bullish nature of the material - while competent, Jakszyk's vocals never rise above merely acceptable.

A set remarkably well-burnished with Krim Klassiks proves welcome, no matter the shortcomings of the delivery - the likes of Larks' Tongues, A Sailor's Tale, Epitaph and Starless were never going to be spurned by this audience. The new material, generally all titled something opaquely randomised such as "Banshee Dogs Turnip The Barbeque", is musically interesting but almost impossible to properly absorb on a single acquaintance. However, my strong suspicion is that most of it will ultimately fail to reward repeated listenings by those who like actual songs.

This then, despite mostly enjoying the gig itself, is the nub of my disinterest in "Radical Action". Quite apart from the rather sterile production of their other live releases lately (not helped by an otherwise laudable expectation that the audience will shut up and listen, and then be entirely edited out of the recording), revisiting these compositions with a modified band configuration is an intriguing idea that doesn't quite pay off in the end. This reviewer will quietly return to the original album versions with few regrets.

August 01 2016


Certification is bullshit

I passed a technical certification exam this morning - just. I had actually revised for it - just - so the result seems sorta fair. Except after the exam, I found an 'example exam' with answers on the Internet - on a site that doesn't look entirely approved - and, assuming the answers are correct, it appears that:
  • the questions I got right were mostly by luck or, if we're being kind, educated guesses; and
  • the questions I got wrong, I still don't understand the reason why.
Am I now a true expert in Magic Technology Solution(tm)? Really wouldn't put money on it. But give me access to the docs and Google, and I could probably busk it in a way sufficiently indistinguishable from knowledge.
We didn't need a training course and an exam certificate to tell us that.

June 29 2016


"You brought the monster"

"There's no pain would prise his need from him."
"A lot of guys think that. Until the pain starts."
"What are you asking me to do?"
"I'm asking, what are you prepared to do?"
- Avengers Assemble

Thought I'd have a go at the "Put Britain back together" game, as the field currently appears to be wide open. (If only "assholes with opinions" were a valuable international commodity, eh?)

What currently frightens me most is that we're already talking as if Brexit is now a democratic requirement and the only question is how to go about it. One begins to doubt whether there is the political will, on either the British or EU side, to walk this back. Perhaps the secretly-reluctant Leavers like (allegedly) Boris Johnson are looking resolute to make the possibility starkly obvious and hopefully deter the unsure. But I think Johnson really does want the glory of initiating some degree of (largely symbolic) termination, even if we retain single market access and free movement; so long as he can jettison a few of those pesky regulations, like workers' rights.

Questions left hanging:

  • The mandate, margin and majority: Quibbling about the narrowness of the Leave win, its legitimacy and how valid it is, however well-founded, has started to smack of desperation, prevarication and bargaining from Remainers. It's not going to be overturned in the present circumstances. Yeah, that sucks because of the...
  • Leave lies: Pretty much 'get over it'. The Remain side cares a lot - I care a lot - but I suspect many, certainly on the Leave side, no longer do. It was 350m, it's less, it can go to the NHS, it won't - they're not interested in debating the details. There is just, supposedly, 'some' money that goes to the EU which we can reclaim and spend on various 'other things', and Leavers no longer care about precision here. You can make the case for what we get back from the EU in terms of funding but that doesn't seem to have played well, least of all in the areas that receive most of it. It's a terrible thing to say but the conversation has now clearly moved on - much as it quickly did from hanging chads during the Bush/Gore election - and banging on about it isn't winning enough people over to Remain. Sure, the media found a few anecdotal tools who regret treating the whole thing as a jape but preliminary polls in the aftermath indicate that Leave still has a slim majority and in fact, some Remain voters have since gone over to their side. Can't get my head around that but I guess some folk always have to feel they're on the winning team.
    Similarly, broken promises to fishermen won't bother many. The only big, problematic lie for Leave is...
  • Immigration: This is the main factor that has to be tackled to gain any traction for a rethink on leaving. God knows brushing it under the carpet didn't get us anywhere. Both the Remain and Leave camps now have to find a credible response to achieve their respective goals - but Leave have a slight advantage in that they can claim to already be responsive to concerns, albeit with varying degrees of sincerity (and absolutely no authority). You can try to persuade people of the positive benefits of immigration and free movement, but that's a significant shift to attempt in a desperately short time and there's a lot of nuance and difficult questions that would be drowned by howls of outrage from the usual quarters. Or you can offer some sort of (largely symbolic) concession, maybe with assistance from the EU (see below) and ideally combined with a genuinely good offer to both affected citizens and outsiders - perhaps something on workers rights and conditions so that British workers will seek the positions that only migrant workers are currently prepared to do. (Of course, employers will probably then scream that their businesses will no longer be viable, particularly in a time of recession - but something has to give and prices are probably going up anyway.)
    (As I write, Ashcroft has released poll data that indicates 'sovereignty' was a bigger issue than immigration. I don't buy this; it seems highly unlikely that such an amorphous concept few could even adequately define mattered more than fear of The Other. I suspect there's a lot of shy bigotry here. But if it's correct, Johnson would be right in prioritising EU regulation over free movement.)
  • The Pain: I suspect that Boris Johnson is playing for time in hope that the full consequences of Brexit will hit home and make the electorate more receptive to whatever softened offer he can pull together. Project Fear will have to turn into Project Reality, and that's going to happen anyway without further help. Right now, convinced Leavers think they're prepared to tolerate some economic misery to get out of Europe, although they're notably less keen to be hit directly ("Until the pain starts"). They want the the Article 50 notification sent tomorrow, and the delay is making them antsy. The current state of the pound and the markets make for good, hysterical headlines but they're not having any appreciable impact on the man in the street yet. That will change (and btw Remainers, appearing to relish every sign of the apocalypse? Not a good look). Changing minds will probably involve some pain and it will have to be pain across the board - City bankers losing their jobs will only raise cheers from the impoverished regions, who still blame them in part for the crash and know they've escaped any real penalty up to now. The working class, the middle class and sadly the underclass will suffer before people are persuaded to change their minds on Brexit in sufficient numbers, and that's assuming the UKIP agitators don't convince them it's because the exit process is being drawn out. Raised prices, shortage of some goods, probably ultimately the threat or fact of large scale job losses (such as from Nissan at Sunderland); these are the factors most likely to provoke public regret. (I can't believe I'm saying this: basically, we'll all have to be strapped into a chair and have our balls thrashed with a knotted rope because it will show us what's what? And even as I say it, I think 'so long as I keep my job, of course'. But if there's to be any appreciable effect, my socio-economic bracket would have to feel the pain too.) The EU need to be careful they don't make this any worse than it already will be, because they have to look like the preferable alternative. And sorry, but the EU has to suffer a bit too otherwise they will be tempted to think that the short term losses may be worth it to lose the biggest troublemaker - so long as nobody else is encouraged to follow suit. Instead, they'll need to be persuaded by the potential fallout to offer some kind of concession - probably on migration - to keep the UK inside the tent. (Awful to say but if UKIP were to stoke up the pressure for departure among other far right European parties, that could sharpen EU minds too, though possibly not in the desired direction.)
  • The media: The coverage and level of debate need to sharply improve if we end up going round this track one more time. There's some evidence that The Sun are having second thoughts, although I suspect this is merely playing to the gallery and they may not materially change their stance. The BBC need to ask themselves why they're now about as useful as The Sun as an informative media source. And the Express and the Mail need to ... go away, really.
  • Bad news bears: Unless it's directly relevant to you, please stop sharing it, especially with those on your own side who are already depressed enough. There's plenty around for now and there'll be more along in the coming weeks and months. We're all refreshing our feeds constantly anyway.

tl;dr: For an unBrexit to happen, we'd need: to cease clinging to wishful hopes; some concession on free movement; shared pain across the board; changed views reflected in the media.

June 25 2016

Those now hoping or expecting that Boris Johnson will start backtracking and wheedling his way out of the horror he has successfully embroiled us in may be in for a nasty shock. If he really wants to be a leader, he's more likely to schedule a piece of typical tubthumping, barnstorming peroration designed to screw the courage of the Tory party to the sticking place for Brexit. If he wants to be a statesman and PM though, he'll find a way of getting the country off the hook without provoking his betrayed hate mob to riot.

But as we saw when Obama visited Britain recently, Johnson is no statesman.

June 18 2016

A few observations on the EU referendum:
  1. This is what a straight democratic poll consisting of one person, one vote with a direct influence on the outcome - no FPTP, no constituency boundaries, no clear party politics and high stakes - looks like. And it appears we are now utterly incapable of conducting one in any considered, balanced manner. It's deeply ironic that the slight majority who normally decide election results by staying home (and thus ensuring that their needs are nobody's priority) will this time come out to vote in many cases against their own immediate best interest.
  2. In my ideal world, the Remain side would win comfortably and the result would kickstart a renewed determination by Britain to actively re-engage with the EU, instead of leaving its sores to fester through disinterest or even outright sabotage. We haven't made any determinedly positive moves since Blair's first government signed up to the Social Chapter on day one. But in reality...
  3. The actual result is now largely immaterial. It looks so close and there has been so much rancour that it will be near-impossible for either side to quietly accept defeat. If the Leave side loses and sees their one chance of breaking free of Europe slipping away, they will howl with outrage, and not entirely without justification, that the government has "stolen" victory through propaganda and scaremongering. Sure, the moderate, more rational campaigners may accept that the electorate was not convinced but there is a significant element in the Leave side that froths at the mouth at the thought of immigrants, the French and the Germans, traditional lightbulbs, bendy bananas and all the other mythical woes that they believe stem from the EU - they will scream of betrayal, and we now know how that can manifest in the most extreme cases. Not to mention others at the top who have staked their entire political careers on this moment.
    Meanwhile, as part of the Remain side, I and many others will roar loudly that a Leave victory was won on the basis of outright lies, media bias, deceit, personal ambition disguised as patriotism and a rank ignorance of fact against a large body of expert opinion. Should Parliament finally exercise some due consideration and weigh the arguments rationally, as they ought to have done all along instead of subjecting us to this farce, and decline to endorse the referendum decision in law, who knows what inflamed responses may erupt. The leading lights of the Leave side certainly appear to have little comprehension of what they may have stoked up in their eagerness to pander to every known prejudice against The Other. One hopes the tragic events of recent days may still cause all concerned to pause and temper the rhetoric but it seems a faint hope. Whatever the outcome on Friday, don't expect the key players to slink away shame-faced and shut up.

March 18 2016


Millennial or not

I suspect one of the main dividing lines is: whether you unconsciously regard an online or digital product as a proper 'thing' or not. Those of us who are older almost inevitably, unavoidably find ourselves assuming 'not', no matter how valid or fair that view is.

Some examples:
Youtube/web 'series': not proper telly. Definitely filmed with one handheld camera in someone's house for peanuts, whether that's true or not.
BBC3: no longer a proper channel, just a wanky PR dream, easily overlooked as it's now missing from the EPG.
Netflix series: borderline, wouldn't count at all if some of them weren't made by Marvel.
MP3: ephemeral representation missing more than half the original data and easily deleted by accident (vs. CD: hard-copy physical object covered in dust on a shelf, requires an act of will to destroy).
Digital photograph: 'pics or it didn't happen'? No, it just didn't happen.
eBook: whatever you've read, it will stay with you about as long as this morning's breakfast. If self-published on Kindle, definitely not a proper thing.
'Online-only' newspaper/magazine: out of sight, out of mind.

February 19 2016


Updating OpenIndiana

My home file server has been running OpenIndiana 151 for several years now. Unfortunately, that release (the so-called '/dev' branch) is now well out of date and, while promoted as 'stable' by the distro site, is so riddled with security holes due to lack of updates (including all your classic favourites like Heartbleed) that it's really anything but.

OI development has all moved to a new, continually updated 'hipster' branch which, until recently, did not offer a direct update path from the previous release. (Note that this branch is not considered production-ready but hey, rock meet hard place. The '/dev' branch is stable but not really, while the 'development' branch is secure but not stable. Bloody hipsters.) However, there is now a semi-official, unsupported update procedure using IPS.

Before going this route on my not-really-critical-but-still-pretty-vital file server though, I wanted to try it out, if only to ensure that obscure and horrible package dependencies wouldn't bring the whole update process crashing to an unbootable mess. And the safest way seemed to be on a virtual guest.

Hence the first step was to P2V the root pool from the existing server. The basic procedure is outlined here, although that's somewhat hobbled in being targeted at the older Solaris 10 release. With OI, you can at least take a recursive ZFS snapshot and save some time. In summary, you take the snap and send it to a file; boot a VM using the OI ISO; 'receive' the saved snap to a new root pool on the VM hard disk; and finally fix up a few things before booting into the restored image.

My own notes:
  • Minimise the size of your root pool as far as possible before taking the snapshot: remove unneeded packages; tidy temporary files; remove any old snapshots (since they're all included in the recursive snap as descendants).
  • Size the VM properly. I was miserly and attempted to do it in a few GB less, leading to space issues following the update due to the size of snapshots created for the new BE. If you run into this, remember that you can disable and remove the dump device ZVOL. Also, IPS needs sufficient RAM (2GB+). As a rough guide, you need the used capacity of the current root pool + 6GB or more 'available'.
  • Remember to boot the VM with the network device disabled to avoid an IP address conflict with your real server. I used NWAM to configure the network interface, so I edited /etc/nwam/ncp-Server.conf by hand to change the IP.

Notes on the update process itself:
  • First, ensure your original system is at OI 151a9 (cat /etc/release).
  • Take a note of any installed packages from the 'SFE' repositories and remove them all, otherwise you will hit package conflicts and IPS will refuse to update. They're all going to be outdated by the update anyway. You can list SFE packages with:
    $ pfexec pkg list | grep sfe
    You can remove all these with:
    $ pfexec pkg uninstall pkg://sfe/\*
    $ pfexec pkg uninstall pkg://sfe-encumbered/\*
    Lastly, remove the SFE publishers:
    $ pfexec pkg unset-publisher sfe-encumbered
    $ pfexec pkg unset-publisher sfe
  • Disable any services you won't require during the update, particularly any heavyweight Java processes such as Serviio or Minecraft. You'll need the RAM.
  • Follow the update process as given. Be prepared to remove more packages if conflicts occur, but keep a note for later reinstallation. Note that IPS is frustratingly slow, particularly on a VM, and invariably returns an error when you've walked away to leave it running after ten minutes of inactivity. (On one occasion it eventually returned a DNS lookup failure because I didn't have resolv.conf configured correctly, after I left it running and went to work for the day. $*&$*£!!!) Redirect the stdout and stderr to a temporary log file using tee.
  • If all goes well and you successfully reboot into the Hipster-2015 BE, add the SFE publisher from OpenCSW and reinstall your packages.
  • Test any critical services, such as DNS, NFS/CIFS, web proxy (Squid config will need redoing for 3.x in Hipster), DLNA media server, etc.
I haven't tried the update on my actual server yet, but the above procedure has given me confidence that it should work and, thanks to the miracle of boot environments, I will retain a working rollback path.
(Note that my server is based on a text OI install; YMMV if you use the desktop release, although I can't imagine who'd want to use JDS in the present day.)

Real world coming to resemble Monopoly

I played Monopoly yesterday for the first time in many years, with my youngest Junior Research Assistant. The JRA only discovered the game at a friend's house this week, so she's still reasonably keen on it. For myself, the flaws in the gameplay were brought starkly home and I was unsurprised to discover since that it remains largely unpopular with serious board game enthusiasts (of which I am emphatically not one). Yes, we encountered the runaway leader problem very quickly, although it didn't spoil the JRA's fun because I was the one who got fleeced. By buying up all the stations (admittedly an astute move), being fortunate enough to land on both the dark blue properties and some early luck with bonus payments, she quickly amassed a sizeable war chest with which to build up an expensive portfolio while I was kept penurious by bad dice rolls and repeated rental payments, unable to extract more than a few nugatory payments from her pile. Quite frankly, it was a relief when I went bankrupt a short while later, even before I'd managed to land on her Mayfair hotel.

Despite the (just) criticisms levelled at the game, it makes a fine illustration of Thomas Piketty's thesis that entrenched inequalities will quickly widen if left unchecked. Interestingly though, the main complaint of pro-capitalists about the game is that it isn't a sufficiently accurate simulation of a market economy. Which is obviously true - you can pass Go, collect your salary and immediately relinquish it all in tax, and where else has 100% tax without representation ever resulted in anything except the heads of political leaders on spikes (without wishing to put ideas in the minds of the UK electorate...)? But then, it is only a game.

More relevantly, the original designer of "The Landlord's Game", as Monopoly's progenitor was known, actually intended it to highlight the dangers of rent-seeking monopolies to average income earners. In this, despite all its flaws, I think you'd have to admit it does a fair job.

February 18 2016

February 17 2016

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