Colin's Journal

Colin's Journal: A place for thoughts about politics, software, and daily life.

January 10th, 2003

Free music every day

It’s nice to be able to get a free piece of music every day. The quality, and bizarreness (is that a word?) of the music doesn’t matter, so much as the opportunity to listen to something that you will certainly not accidental hear on the radio during your day. The only show that I can imagine ever playing any of this stuff would be John Peel, and it’s rare these days that I get to listen to his shows.

So, in case you haven’t already discovered it elsewhere, take a look (and listen) to otisfodder.

Note to self: I must integrate a spell checker into my weblog software….

January 7th, 2003

Politicians versus independent experts

The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes reckons in this BBC article that politicians should not set minimum sentences for crimes, only maximum sentences. The article is about the recent proposals to set a minimum sentence for carrying a gun at 5 years, except in exceptional cases. Simon’s argument is that it should be up to judges and magistrates to ensure that the sentence given matches the severity of the crime, not for politicians (who can obviously only make laws based on their concept of an average case).

If parliament sets a maximum sentence for a crime it says, in effect, that judges and magistrates can not be trusted to set a tariff that fits the severity of the offence in all cases. It also says that regardless of how seriously a particular offence was committed there is a limit to the punishment that society thinks should be attached to it (reflected through our elected representatives). Sure then it is only reasonable that parliament can set a minimum sentence, that society can say that no matter how trivial the infringement a certain level of punishment is required?

There is a trend, commented on by others, of trying to keep politics out of large chunks of decision making processes. This trend is aided by such examples as the independence of the central bank to set interest rates, which seems to be now universally seen as a success. However there are very definite limits to when and how this can be applied. In the case of monetary policy it is easy for parliament to instruct a group of people to target a particular inflation rate, and to give them the tool of interest rates with which to aim for this target. It is not possible for parliament to give senior judges and magistrates the target of reducing crime and then given them the tool of sentencing by which to achieve this objective. Unlike with monetary policy, there is no consensus on how crime behaves given different sentencing regimes, and so the structure of sentencing options are innately political in nature.

January 7th, 2003

Apple releases a web browser

I’m sure it’s everywhere by now, but Apple have released a beta of a new web browser for MacOS X. It’s called Safari and I haven’t seen it in action yet, because it only works on Jaguar onwards (that’s 10.2). The rendering engine is from Konqueror, so this is great news for the KDE project because it’ll no doubt lead to some significant improvments in the quality of the software as bug fixes are sent back by Apple.

January 7th, 2003

Back home

I’m back home, feeling tiered but refresh from my holiday. I’m not sure I’ve felt refreshed from a holiday before, I normally feel sad to see it go and normal life take over, but this time I actually feel like I want to get on with normal life.

Every now and again a country will be pursuing something that seems so small, in comparison to what is happening in the rest of the world, that it stands out. Here’s a classic example from Bjørn Stærk: “Yesterday, for instance, a man threatened to crash a plane into the building of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. Meanwhile, three Norwegians are scheduled in court to dispute a a $350 fine for hurling paper planes at the American Embassy in Oslo, over a year ago.”

January 4th, 2003

Network computing

It’s remarkable that I can use my computer remotely from around the world (as shown by this post) via a simple modem connection. I’ve used vnc before over a high speed network connection, where you can use the GUI of one machine on another, and barely notice the difference between the remote and the local version, but it’s another thing to do this over a modem connection. The display is certainly slow to update, but the fact that it’s usable at all is a feat of software engineering. If the whole screen, uncompressed, was sent with every key press then a chuck of data 768K in size would need to be sent over the modem connection. With a connection of about 3.8K per second it would take nearly two and a half minutes just to send the one snapshot of the screen. As it is typing this the delay is roughly one second for the text that I type to appear on the screen in front of me!

As network connections around the world improve the user experience of using a machine across ~3500 miles of ocean will get better, but given the restrictions that a modem places on us, we have already achieved an extremely good result. (BTW If you wish to try this your self then use TightVNC for use over a modem – the ordinary VNC requires too much bandwidth for bearable modem use).

December 26th, 2002

Christmas greetings

There’s been no posts for a while, and there will be few over the next couple of weeks because of the Christmas break. A Happy Christmas to you all!

Unlike Dave we didn’t get snow here on Christmas day – the temprature was around 10C and it rained, but despite this it was a really good Christmas day. I’ve read the Night Watch (newish book by Terry Pratchett), almost finishing it Christmas day, but instead polishing it off today.

December 19th, 2002


Here’s a fairly good description of what’s wrong with JSPs (via Hack the Planet). JSPs are exceedingly popular at the moment as part of the J2EE environment, mainly because they are so well supported and documented. They are also extremely powerful, and so programmers and architects will initially think that they are the best way of doing a web application. The HTML designers usually get no say in the selection of architecture, even for a web based application, and so all of the issues that JSPs have don’t come out.

What’s an alternative? The ideal replacement needs to be valid HTML so that the resulting file can still be edited/viewed in the standard tools of a web designer. It should also have a syntax that’s easy enough to learn that those doing the HTML design can easily incorporate the required elements into the page. The best example I’ve seen of this is TAL. I’ve actually written a new implementation of TAL, that isn’t dependent on Zope (or rather some of the python extensions that come with Zope), for this very weblog. TAL is nice because there is very little logic that can be included in the template, and the syntax of the template is non-intrusive to the HTML (only additional tags are used).

December 19th, 2002

A new look

As you can see if you are reading this post I’ve updated my weblog and main page to a new look. The formatting is basically the same, but the new selection of colours should make reading posts much easier. It also looks much more proffesional (at least to my eye!) than the previous design.

December 18th, 2002

Possibly the worst idea on taxation ever

There could be other candidates for the worst form of taxation possible, but the one described in this BBC article seems like a front runner to me. The idea is that it’s bad for university graduates to have an individual debt to pay off (i.e. a loan) and that instead it’s some how preferable for graduates to pay a special tax for the rest of their lives.

Now it could be that the duration of a graduate tax, as proposed, would be limited, but that in turn doesn’t make much sense. It would mean that the best thing to do after graduation would be to take a cheap job until this time limit expires, at which point you can get your high paying job and not pay the extra tax. Unless they tie the duration of the tax to how much you pay, in which case it’s effectively the same as individualised debt.

I used to be a big fan of free university education, after all I benefited from it myself, but it’s become clear that the current system is unsustainable. General taxation can not rise enough (and can not be justified) to cover the costs of providing a world class university education. The idea of some sort of graduate tax doesn’t work, and so the only real option left is loans that are tied to the individual that received the education. To make them palatable they should have only minimal interest, payments only triggered once a certain wage threshold is reached, and a limited life span so that they are written off if you still have them after 20 years.

Once this issue is resolved the next major step for the UK in terms of university education will be whether private universities can develop. From the point of view of generating more choice and giving the existing state universities some competition it seems like a good idea. Once the fees for the top state universities reach the levels that are required to keep top notch facilities and staff, the potential private universities will not be priced out of the market as they are today.

December 17th, 2002


A good article on what happened to the cod in Newfoundland in 1992. It’s a story I hadn’t heard before – about how Canada (with a little outside help) managed to fish the waters so completely clean that the entire industry collapsed. The article is meant as backdrop to the current debate on setting the EUs fish quotas issue, and it does a good job of it.

The best piece of the article for me is a couple of quotes from a marine scientist:
“If you look at the data on the catches-per-unit of the trawler fleet, the highest ever recorded in this fishery were in 1992, when the stocks were on the verge of collapse,” said Professor Rose.
“So if fishermen are still saying they can find concentrations, that’s good news for now, but it should give no reassurance that you couldn’t take those last bits of fish down and push the whole thing right over the edge.”

It just goes to show that the “common sense” response (there’s lots of fish – see!) isn’t always superior to scientific advice.

Copyright 2015 Colin Stewart

Email: colin at