Monthly Archives: May 2008


As with the other more poncey areas of America, Philadelphia is getting into tea. But there are several institutional barriers that they are going to have to contend with:

  • No-one here owns an electric kettle. I know! So they either boil their water on the hob or they use a “water heater”. The latter does indeed do what it says on the can, but as any tea aficionado knows, the water needs to actually be boling when it hits the tea.
  • The teabags here are mostly shite. Surprisingly the “Liptons” brand is still alive and well here, but the tea they produce is startlingly weak.
  • You can get ordinary British tea here like PG and Tetley, but who wants that ? Even if you did want it, you wouldn’t find a place that serves it with proper boiling water.
  • Getting any sort of proper Assam, Darjeeling or even Ceylon Tea is really, really hard. Twinings have a presence over here, but they call themselves “Twinings of London” and have “London” in a wanky copper plate type font. They also don’t sell proper tea here – it’s all flavoured crap with poncy names!

The happy news is that good tea is available but for a premium. But it really is good! A colleague in my last job gave me some tea as a leaving present that was not only genuinely from Darjeeling, but it was your pukka, first-flush, S.F.T.G.F.O.P. tea, that I never thought I would ever encounter. Lovely.

On a totally different topic, DD-WRT really does appear to be the dogs bollocks! Even on a crappy VxWorks Linksys V8 WRT54G router it does the business. We have our VoIP utterly QoS’d and I’m feeling quite happy about that. If that sounds like Latin to you then be grateful you have a life.

Society for Apostrophe Deprecation

If there’s one thing that annoys the most pedestrian of the middle classes, it’s when they find a badly used apostrophe. In reality, they don’t hate it at all; they love it! It gives them a sense of superior smugness; that they have managed to understand a simple rule that someone else hasn’t. They can then bang on about how poorly educated most people are these days – the subtext of which is how intelligent they are.
Enough please! The apostrophe is an anachronism and rarely, if ever, needed to convey the true meaning of text. Like the split infinitive, it is just another victim of die-hard language fascists that has not been allowed to die gracefully. Instead it has been kept alive artificially on life support for far longer than its natural or useful lifespan. If that isn’t cruel enough, the only reason for it being kept alive is just so it can be used to make people feel smug for recognising it, and thus form even deeper divisions in society.
However, there are two possible explanations for why so few people use the apostrophe correctly:

  • They don’t know, because they are stupid and didn’t go to school, or went but just didn’t listen…or something.
  • They went to school, heard the explanation and realised it was utterly pointless so reused the neurons for something useful – like football scores.

Re-read this post and imagine that the apostrophes weren’t there. Would you understand it ? Would you understand what I meant by “werent” ? In fact, if you spot an apostrophe-related error in this post, would you get confused ?
When you see a fruit and veg seller mark-up the price of “Banana’s” are you really, genuinely, confused by what they mean ? Do you really think the vendor is claiming that the curved, yellow, fruit are owned by someone called “Banana” ? This is a rhetorical question, because if you really tried to answer it then you should not be questioning the intelligence of others. In fact you should be seeking psychiatric help.
So, I am starting the Society for Apostrophe Deprecation (SAD) to campaign for a dignified death for the archaic apostrophe.
Next week, “i before e except after c.” Tell it to their neighbours.


Long weekends in U.S. are well cherished by the natives because days-off are so difficult to come by. In traditional American style most people gratefully accept this state of affairs rather than try to fight for more time off; much like the UK now behaves in these days when liberty is regarded as a ludicrously anachronistic idea.
This particular “holiday” as it’s known here (which, in the UK, we would call a “weekend with a Bank Holiday Monday”) was particularly good because a friend and fellow Brit was on the continent and spent the weekend with us. Ralph came down from NYC on Friday night and so we did our best to expose him to as much traditional Philadelphia culture as we could in 48 hours: “center-city”, micro-brew bars that sell very good seafood, a broken bell, cheesesteaks, poncy bars, and bad driving. In fact, that’s about it.
It was very refreshing to spend some quality time with a London friend, in Philly, in the pursuit of fun.

We spent yesterday wandering around historic center-city; which basically involved sampling some very nice Belgian beers in-between a couple of minutes of conscience-salving time inspecting places where Ben Franklin used to hang out.

This morning we visited a local diner and somehow managed to persuade our guest into stuffing a cheesesteak down his throat. Sorry Ralph! I felt bad about this and so suggested, in fit of altruism, that we spend some time cleansing his polluted guts at the riverside bar of the Manayunk Brewery. It was a lovely couple of hours! Words can’t describe the pleasure of sitting on a lovely riverside bar, drinking some beautiful locally-brewed beers, followed by a walk home along the canal.

Rounded the day off with parrots, some good Chinese food (ie no MSG/salt), some red wine (natch) and the complete first series of Porridge.

What would Tom Paine do ?

The middle classes over here would, if the coverage on the radio was anything to go by, think that Obama was a dead cert for the White House. In reality, the situation is far more grim. I used to think that Obama was the best of a bad lot. But now I think he’s a genuinely good candidate, with a shocking amount of integrity, and someone who really could save America from the slow, terminal disease it’s currently suffering.
The resultant excitement makes us all forget that the war against Hillary isn’t over, and even when it is he’s still got to deal with the corruption, the dirty tricks, and the fact that America has an enormous amount of latent racism to deal with…which is odd considering that for the last 200 years it’s been a nation of immigrants.
Trying to keep up with the news from home is quite difficult. On one hand, they’ve prevented some pointless, blinkered, anti-abortion law (props to Simone on The World Service for arguing, quite firmly, on the side of righteousness) from going through, on the other hand Boris Johnson is Mayor of London…what were you thinking you London wankers ?
As it was my 37th birthday recently, Michele thought she would get me an appropriate t-shirt. She couldn’t find one in the shops, so decided to make one, and researched some suitable content. It turns out that Tom Paine also entered America on his 37th birthday (much like I did on mine) and so she went to cafepress to make me a t-shirt that says “What Would Tom Paine Do ?” Thanks bat – I love you. Not like either of us would actually compare me to Tom Paine but it’s still nice to think we had something in common.

Latent Kernality

Geeky post – move along.

The PC I shipped from the UK to the states turns out to have, as a result of my unrelenting parsimony, a PSU that *only* supports 220V. So, in a fit of reckless abandon, I bought a brand new HP bargain-bucket barrel scraper with a nice 19″ flat screen. The days of building my own are over because:

  • I really can’t be arsed with all of that tedious Lego crap any more
  • Building your own is now more expensive than buying new if, like me, you buy older (ie cheaper) technology. As has been mentioned before, I don’t have a lot of regard for people who insist on living on the edge
  • If it doesn’t work, I can get it fixed without having to wait for the next computer fair and then trying to find the vendor
  • HP kit is infinitely better than the similarly priced competition (cough…cough…Dell)

So, I took the hard drive out of my old machine (teapot), slapped it into the new one, and powered up. Bam, worked first time and came up perfectly except for sound and X – I expected that. The sound was dead easy – NVidia MCP61 uses the intel hda sound driver ; new kernel module built and installed. But the video is more of a bugger. Weirdly, the problem was with the monitor. It was widescreen and nothing I tried would give me the correct resolution. This still isn’t fixed and so the picture is big and beautiful but blurry in detail… BTW – yes I did Google the bugger out of it and no-one appears to have found a proper solution. If you have, let me know (HP w2007).
The next problem was quite surprising; the machine regularly locked up for seconds at a time, particularly when a lot of I/O was going on. Now, as someone who isn’t too bothered about performance I usually won’t care but latency problems were so pronounced that I was getting annoyed. Even giving the asterisk process top priority didn’t help. After doing some reading it became apparent that the “Completely Fair Scheduler” in modern kernels really needs to be tuned to your exact requirements for it to be of any use at all. This is the first time I’ve ever had the need to mess around with kernel tunables for my home machine; in the past the defaults were fine 90% of the time.
More reading. It turns out things are very different now. Not only are there a bunch of very useful tunables (eg vm.dirty_background_ratio and vm.swappiness)
but you can even configure ‘cgroups’ which let you assign priorities to groups of processes, even by username! So now I have a box that is neatly tuned to what we need, which is great, but who is normally going to bother ? Distributions are really going to have to take this seriously, otherwise they are going to be a lot of pissed off desktop users. Some sort of simple tuning tool with enough smarts to do the job properly.


As has been mentioned before in previous posts, we don’t have a regular telephone service beyond our mobile phones and the plan is to use “asterisk” as a telephone exchange. For a large part of last weekend I spent time trying to get it working happily with the rest of our kit. All the time I was working on it, and failing to get it to work, I was relying on any incoming calls being diverted to a voicemail system belonging to our VoIP provider and so happily hacked away at all of the various byzantine configuration options. I managed to configure extension 500 to make the sound of monkeys screeching (one of the free sounds asterisk provides in its arsenal) whenever we dialed it. Being a phreaky geek I was excited about this because it showed I was getting somewhere. But after many hours of hacking I was still unable to make and receive calls from the outside world.
It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that I realised the truth: everything was working perfectly, except:

  • Outgoing calls were being dialed with no numbers, resulting in no sound and
  • Incoming calls were being accepted and sent to the sound of screeching monkeys!

Sorry to any folks who tried to call during that time.

Tonight I was trying to find some suitably offensive music to download in the hope of subjecting telemarketers to it, when I suddenly remembered that I own some really dreadfully shit music already! After a little searching I became aware of how utterly unpleasant some of my CDs would be as unsolicited hold music. Akie’s classic “Magic Troms” proved to be our favourite. Listen out telemarketers.

Anarcho Capitalism

It still amazes me that people even discuss “Anarcho-Capitalism” anymore without taking the piss out of such a ludicrously laughable concept. Sadly, Wikipedia is still full of apparently serious discussions on the topic. Good for Wikipedia. All I would ask is that readers interested in genuine viewpoints on the articles should click the “discussion” tab on any anarchist related articles. There you will find a lot of unedited debate that will provide you with many hours of turbulent thought.
Even though you probably couldn’t give a toss, here’s my argument against “Anarcho-Capitalism”: it’s an oxymoron. How can a system that relies on people happily co-existing on two distinct levels (rich and poor) be possible when there are “no leaders” or there is “no hierarchy” ? Both of those last definitions are as pure as you will find when it comes to defining Anarchy. In fact that’s what I like about it – rather than being something intricately defined, it’s simply an umbrella term for a common belief: that rulers, and therefore social hierarchy, are wrong. That’s it! From that starting point you can come up with whichever path suits you (anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-communism etc etc). The only restriction is that the suffix can’t contradict the prefix (anarcho). For example “anarcho-fascism” is impossible because it’s an oxymoron.
From this definition it’s clear that “anarcho-capitalism” is also an oxymoron: if the market really was “free” then what would stop the people with the riches fucking off and leaving the shareholders with nothing ? In fact, honoring anything like “shares” would also rely on everyone believing that they were worth something. The same holds for money; we only value it because other people do. In fact, we regularly acknowledge that the money we have in our pockets, or the roof over our heads, changes value from one day to the next without us so much as changingav a lightbulb.

My favourite discussion on the subject is with the excellent Anarchist FAQ. Their answer to the question “Are “anarcho”-capitalists really anarchists?” begins:

In a word, no.



At what is probably the worst time in American history to drive a car, we have found ourselves in a position where have a daily 15 mile commute. As Michele navigates us through mighty traffic jams, along badly maintained highways strewn with bloody carcases of unfortunate wildlife, and through vast industrial developments, we listen to NPR. Frequently, when they’re not morbidly dissecting the previous days non-news involving Obama and Hillary, they are discussing high gas prices and how everyone is now using public transport. If that were true it would be quite ironic for us when you consider that after a lifetime of public transport usage we should suddenly start being a regular car user. We ponder this while our inefficient, old, 3.8L car relentlessly transforms a precious natural resource into a slow crawling motion, ice cold air, and toxic pollution.
So, as a concession toward mitigating this unhealthy situation, I’m writing this on a bus. Ok, Michele still drives me to work in the morning but I get the bus home. Ok yes Michele drives over to pick me up from the bus station too… what can I say. I’m a hypocrite.
Despite all this, I’m really not developing a fondness for cars. In fact my loathing for them is getting more fierce. They seem to embody all of the worst aspects of humanity in a big, ugly, violent metal lump. Nowadays I see them as consuming-machines that promote selfishness, anti-social behaviour, cause wars in foreign lands, and bleed you dry while they’re doing it.
Cars are central to the American way of life. Outside the few major cities, the townships were designed around driving; frequently there are no pavements because there’s nowhere to go within walking distance. No walking down the pub in the evening – instead you drive to a bar, drink too much, and then drive home.
So the fact that many Americans feel they have a right to drive and have cheap gas is understandable; in many parts of the states, life can’t continue
without it. But they are in for a shock. There’s outrage at the price of gas at the moment, and it’s still half the price the rest of the world is paying. Of course the Republican answer is typically ill conceived: cut gas taxes. And of course Hillary, who with her hellbent drive for power at any cost makes Tony Blair look like Rodney Trotter, agreed.
But, it might have backfired! Obama, who is bending all the rules by demonstrating he has some genuine integrity, said he thought it was a bad idea and laid out the paralysingly obvious reasons why. Weirdly, the polls indicate it worked! Maybe it could all turn out ok….

Regardless, there’s no excuse for me getting Michele to drive me to work. We can walk everywhere, and we have good public transport. I need to pull my finger out.

Real MoneyFarmin’ G(eek)

For a while now we have had no land-line for telephone calls. As far as we were both concerned this was a good thing because not only did it mean we weren’t paying stupid prices for a land-line, but also that people couldn’t call us. Nowadays people imagine they have the right to be able to call you whenever they feel like it…and personally I like to spend time being inaccessible. Anyway, Michele and I fantasized about having our own telephone exchange that would insist on callers issuing an extension number on being connected. Anyone who didn’t know the number would be forced to go on hold, with some suitably offensive hold music (eg bagpipes) for a long while until they left a voice mail. Which we could then ignore.
Our dream is coming true thanks to a combination of VoIP, asterisk, and an amazing piece of luck.
I’d been trying to buy a piece of equipment called an ATA or “Analog Telephone Adapter” which would let us plug a normal phone into Ethernet. Owing to my preference for UK debit cards I’d had a few problems with many of the provincial companies of here.
But, the other night I stumbled upon something that seemed too good to be true: a company specializing in all kinds of VoIP hardware that is literally 2 minutes walk from my front door. So, I went to their site and bought a stupidly cheap ATA which Michele went and picked up the same day. Let me tell you, this little box of tricks is amazing. With no extra hardware I managed to hook up a phone that makes and receives calls for less that 1c/min – and that includes the UK. Obviously to get this bargain I had to use a VoIP company, but the company I used, Future-Nine do a pay-as-you-go thing that means there’s no “line rental.” They really do appear to rock.
So now I’m in the process of configuring asterisk to provide us with a lovely voicemail/annoyance system.

Going home

Before going “home” to London I had tried, and failed, to imagine what it would be like. It had seemed like such a weird idea to visit somewhere I’d felt so attached to after not being there for six months. In reality it felt like I’d never left. From that side of the Atlantic it appeared that no time had elapsed since I left; as if the Pause button had been pressed. From over there the life in Philadelphia seemed like a sort of dream. The week abroad consisted of about 15 seconds of being with my parents, 15 seconds of drinking too much in pubs with some excellent friends, followed by 15 seconds of sleep on someone’s floor. Then I went back “home” to Philadelphia. Einstein was right about time being relative.
To summarise the emotions involved I’d say that while London is, and will forever be, my home, Philadelphia (together with Michele, the parrots and this house) is where I feel at home.
It’s just a shame that I didn’t manage to spend as much time as I’d liked with my family and friends. Sorry to those people I never even managed to meet. You can’t do too much in 15 seconds…