Seven Days to Stop the Bill

My second letter, with hyperlinks. Please feel free to use this as a template to contact your own MPs.

Dear Mr Sharma,

I wrote to you recently outlining my concerns around the Digital Economy Bill currently before parliament.

You may be aware that Harriet Harman MP announced last week that despite widespread criticism of some parts of this bill from across the creative and technology sectors, it will receive it’s second reading on Tuesday April 6, leaving only 90 minutes for the bill to be scrutinised by the House of Commons.

I hope you will agree that this is not acceptable for a Bill that seeks to define the technological landscape of Britain for the next generation. The Bill has undergone considerable scrutiny in the House of Lords and it is only reasonable to expect this same scrutiny from our elected representatives in the Commons.

I see from your web site that you have welcomed Ms Harman to the constituency on more than one occasion. I would therefore ask you to use your influence as the member for Ealing Southall to oppose the Government’s plans to rush through this Bill in the period before the election and that ensure the provisions receive proper debate and scrutiny in a new Parliament.

I am writing as one of 17,000 people who have also written to their representatives on this matter. I am sure you will have received many letters on this subject and I would ask you to take these views into account and make these known with ministers and party managers.

Yours Sincerely,
Will Abson

Building Britain’s Analogue Future

I tried to catch up on Gordon Brown’s surprise appearance today on Number10.gov.uk exclaiming the virtues of ‘superfast’ broadband and the semantic web, but sadly I was disappointed.

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Reading the transcript, perhaps I needn’t have bothered anyway. Aside from the release of the DfT NaPTAN data (which was made available to OSM some time ago) via data.gov.uk, and a promise to force transport operators to open up their timetabling information when their franchises come up (every 10-20 years) there wasn’t much news on the open data front.

Further justification for releasing data in this way probably wasn’t needed to convince most of the audience, but to illustrate how open data can be used to push the boundaries of innovation, Brown picked a New Labour favourite.

…Independent developers are using the information we’ve published for innovative new websites and mobile phone applications such as ‘asborometer’ – built by one person in just five days. It finds your position using GPS and tells you how many people have been served with an asbo in that area.

ASBOs? Seriously? Surely there must be better examples out there of how citizens have re-used public data to increase transparency, accountability and participation in government?

There was an announcement that @timberners_lee and @Nigel_Shadbolt will he heading up a new institute to study emerging web technologies, although no explanation of why our universities aren’t able to do this themselves (lack of funds, perhaps?). Also a new Digital Public Services Unit is being formed to advise departments on how to ‘transform’ their services for the web, with @Marthalanefox at the helm. Fortunately for her, she gets to keep the word ‘Champion’ in her job title.

The Digital Economy Bill was mentioned only once, in a section defending the 50p phone line tax and emphasising the importance of maintaining a strong regulatory presence in the form of Ofcom, the two parts of the bill most opposed by the Tories. So more electioneering than setting out a future policy vision.

There was no mention of the crippling effect of Clauses 17 and 18 of the bill, which threaten to cut off users and censor free speech on the Internet. The Government can invest as much as it likes in Public Services 2.0, but if individuals, families and businesses are unable to access them because their connection has been blocked then that investment is effectively useless.

So if like the Labour government of the past, you believe that digital inclusion is more important than the BPI increasing album sales in 2011, write to your MP, contact your local paper or make your voice heard at this Wednesday’s protest.

Marthalanefox

Testing the speakers

I’ve been playing with 7digital’s wonderful MP3 store lately, and I must say I’m damn impressed with it so far.

It’s hard to believe that despite Amazon having had their own MP3 store open state-side for a year or so now, they haven’t managed to roll a similar service out on this side of the pond.

As a result, the market over here is still saturated primarily by iTunes and secondarily by the army of sellers flogging songs in Microsoft’s DRM-encumbered and closed WMA format.

7digital rocks because:

  1. Their store works in a normal web browser and doesn’t require some crappy application on my computer, unlike some I could mention
  2. The site itself is amazingly well designed and Just Works
  3. All the songs are available in 320kbps MP3 format with no DRM at all
  4. iTunes perhaps aside, the range of artists is second-to-none
  5. The prices are pretty damn good, with most tracks at 79p and albums from £5

Note to the rest of the music industry: this is how you should be encouraging music lovers to not rip off artists – by providing practical alternatives to illegally downloading material, alternatives that aren’t over-restrictive and actually treat people like adults rather than children.

Rather than wasting millions on lawyers attempting to sue unfortunate souls in Oklahoma who’ve had their wifi hijacked by people on BitTorrent (they’re unfortunate because of their poorly-set up wifi, not because they live in Oklahoma. I’ve never been there) – money that could be better spent on encouraging grass-roots efforts to help actual musicians.

Back into the groove

The irony that when you have lots of blog-worthy things to write about you never seem to find time to do just that has been commented on many times before in conversations with friends. More worrying though is when you don’t even seem to be able to find the time to read other peoples’ musings anymore. And I guess I’ve kinda got out of the habit of doing both of those lately.

So yesterday I invested some of my remaining time off in setting up a whole bunch of subscriptions on my Google account. Their Reader has a few too many bevels and waaay too much baby blue for my liking, but at least I can access it from any of the three computer accounts I regularly use and should I get that fed up of it I figure I can always export the feed list list to something else – so long as it can read an OPML file.

I haven’t even added half the feeds I want to yet (since the process is a little cubersome in Firefox), but I’ve already managed to get back into quite a few blogs that I haven’t read regularly in a little while.

It’s nice to catch up. So today I’ve discovered (via John Dale) that Warwick’s new VC seems much more down-to-earth that the last guy, and that Amazon’s MP3 download service is apparently open for business – with pricing particularly attractive to those of us lucky enough to be living in a country that’s not headed straight for a recession ;-).

Who knows – at this rate I might even have Planet Afterlife working again soon. But don’t hold your breath.

Password paranoia

Never change the password for your web-based email account when you’re drunk a little worse for wear. You’ll never remember it the next day and then Google will make you wait five days before letting you go through the security questions.

Arse.

Project X

Disclaimer: This is a medium-length entry about photo sharing on the web and the merits of one popular platform versus a more hetergenous and open approach. If you haven’t heard of Flikr and you don’t remember what wabson used to be like back in the good ol’ days, then the following probably won’t interest you. Otherwise, please read on.

Unlike many people I know, it’s only recently that I’ve started actively using Flickr to share my photos on the web. Before that most of you will remember that I used to blog the occasional photo by uploading JPEG files through WordPress, and that before that I had a cool home-grown PHP solution that got trashed when I decided it was all a bit too much effort to maintain after all.

I resisted using Flikr until now – even though it would have no doubt made my life much easier – for a few reasons.

  • You have to be a registered Flickr/Yahoo! member in order to comment on other people’s photos. I don’t like shutting people out from my work, simply because they choose not to use Yahoo’s services.
  • I don’t like the idea of my photos being owned (or at least appearing to be owned) by some third party. My blog is hosted on my own domain (and not, say, with Blogger) and I like the feeling of independence that gives me.
  • I find the Flikr interface sometimes difficult to navigate and inconsistent – why do I get a column of medium sized pictures in one page and a grid of small thumbnails with another, for instance?

Granted, Flickr is a great tool for sharing photos with others and has built a huge and enthusiastic community around that, but should that community be limited to signed up (and in a lot of cases paid up) members of Yahoo! Inc.?

Take blogs as a counter-example. We in the Planet Afterlife circle have our own blogs all hosted across different servers in different parts of the world and use different software to manage them, but it’s still a successful community, right? Afterlife continues to pull in these heterogeneous sources of literary profoundness thanks to Laurie and that works pretty well, doesn’t it?

I’ve started thinking again along the lines of “why can’t I have my photos hosted on my own domain?”. The previous incarnations of wabson with photo management functionality built in also worked pretty well for some time, so could I perhaps somehow ressurect that functionality?

The code would no doubt need some modification to get it working again, and there may be some issues with the new web host. It would also likely need some work to clean up the interface and separate it from the integrated blogging tools that never were quite up to scratch. But it could be done.

The only question is – is it really worth it? I might well do it anyway just to see if I can produce an open source web app that’s less annoying to use than Flickr, but I’d be interested to know how many of the people who used wabson so enthusiastically in the old days would use it again in whatever revamped form it takes? I’m not asking you dump Flikr, just perhaps for a bit of help in testing whatever I manage to produce.

And yes – I may even put the old photos back up 🙂

The Guardian do Warwick Blogs

Via e-lab’s Blogbuilder news blog comes an article from the Guardian’s Online section all about Warwick Blogs.

There’s no mention of us pioneers of course, not that I’m bitter. Did I mention we were here first? Nor did they mention Kieran or Rob, both of whom I know put a lot of work in to set up Warwick Blogs in the first place. Perhaps more embarrassingly, they refer to John as the “head of IT services at Warwick”, something which I suspect may not make Rosemary very happy.

Despite the omissions and the almost Warwick Boar-esqe inaccurancy in the text, the article seems quite balanced, if a little short. If anyone has a paper copy lying around that they want to send to me then please do, as apparently the presentation is a lot more impressive in print than online.

Meta-blogging

I fixed Planet Afterlife again. This time its cache had got corrupted somehow, which I think was what was causing the old entries to pop up a few days ago. In the end it started crashing while halfway through the update job, swallowing huge amounts of memory and CPU time until the computer seized up completely.

I cleared the cache and it all seems fine now. Although perhaps I should have copied it off somewhere else so I could use it to file a bug report against Planet instead. A rm cache/* command isn’t particularly helpful in allowing me to do that but never mind, eh?

Nice to have Matt back up there, even if most of the entries up there are now his! I wonder if it’s possible for one to spam one’s own blog? 🙂

Planet Downtime

I got Planet Afterlife working again, woot! Perhaps I need to simplify the current updating process somewhat from it’s current form:

  1. The Ubuntu installation running under VMware on my work computer runs Planet‘s planet.py script on a cron job
  2. The script pulls in all the necessary RSS feeds and generates the HTML and RSS files for Planet Afterlife
  3. Another cron job running on mimosa (one of our multi-user UNIX servers) uses wget to grab the HTML and RSS files from the work computer and deposit them in my public_html directory

All this happens once a minute, every day. Except when it doesn’t, either because of a problem with mimosa, my work computer or the VMware installation running on it, or because of something getting turned off or unplugged, or (in this case) the IP address of Ubuntu changing after I rebooted it.

I freely admit that this method sucks and I’m actually quite surprised (though glad) that it doesn’t break more often.

Perhaps one day I’ll find a reliable*, UK-based** web host who have Python 2.2 or greater installed on their servers and will let me run a cron job to update Planet Aftelife every minute or so. But that day hasn’t come yet and until it does I have to make do with the current system.

Which sucks. A lot.

* If you remember the frequent downtime I was getting on wabson.org until I changed back to Easily last summer then you’ll understand why reliability is my top requirement.

** As I said to Laurie yesterday, I want someone in the same country as me who I can phone up when problems crop up. Admittedly the need to do this is much reduced if you have a reliable hosting company, but call me paranoid.