Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Katrina and her waves

Holidaying, hanging out and living in and around Florida and the islands in 97/98/99 I lived through a few hurricanes, sometimes 5 in a year. I watched Floyd, probably the largest since Andrew arrive at the shores of Fort Lauderdale before veering sharp right, avoiding Florida and smacking into the Carolinas and other states further North. On that day, they closed the parks in Orlando for the first time in history, everyone in th city moved West to escape the storm and, the next day, before anyone came back, the parks opened and I was able to tour each of them in less than half a day, riding every rollercoaster ten times or more. In the Keys, storms were marked by a few days without power, a lot of boats lost under the waves forever and beer parties, making use of what little ice remained in the fridges until it melted. In the islands - the Bahamas - hurricanes flooded the hotels, ripped the roofs off apartments, sped off with anything that wasn't tied down and caused general havoc. The season runs from July to about November and, if you're there when there's no storm during that period, you'll have great weather just like any other time of the year. And that, I imagine, is why people stick it out. Most of the time, the weather is great, the sunshine radiant and life relaxed. A storm comes along every so often, sometimes it hits you, sometimes it doesn't - but it moves on and everything gets back to normal in a few short hours or a few days. They're so practiced at it, it's like the first snow falls in Vienna - the sweepers come out, the path clearers do their thing and everyone gets on with it. This one feels pretty different though - more like Andrew in 1992 than anything since. One that's going to take time to recover from. Despite the practiced approach, the regular evacuation procedures and the far in advance warning systems available, people die in the storms - indeed 50+ are already dead and I wouldn't be surprised if the final total is 5 times that or more - especially in the more exposed areas with less shelter and less infrastructure (or poorly constructed homes, such as caravan-style houses in the lowlands). They shouldn't be underestimated - when I watched Floyd come in, I had no idea what I was doing, standing on the beach with 12' waves heading my way; In the Keys most people don't evacuate when a storm comes, they figure they'll be lucky - they've seen it before, sometimes for decades and made it through. Katrina teaches the lesson that, every so often, we'll be unlucky - it's all a question of how unlucky and how often. If you're holidaying in Florida in the back half of the year, take your rain gear. There's still at least 2 months, maybe 3, of the season left. Three to five majors were predicted this season - and I haven't counted more than a couple so far (two to three is normal, so this is around double the average). And, Katrina is not done yet, it will head on North East and throw a lot of strong winds and rain at whatever is in the way. For those who lost loved ones, my condolences. You can get RSS feeds with storm updates at the National Hurricane Centre site. And a pile of great links here.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Running On Full

Posts have been a bit scarce for the last few months. I've been working double time on two jobs at once. I thought I'd worked hard before, but doing 2 full time roles at once has proved a challenge. I'm not complaining though, they're both fun but with long hours coupled with a distance location and a lack of net access after hours, it's been difficult to get posts together. On top of that I've been trying to get in shape for a bit of running that's coming up. This week, I signed up for the Great North Run (September 18th), thanks to a friend who is far better connected than I am. Also, I have the RunLondon 10k and also a Clapham Common 10k in October. This is all designed to get me in better shape for next April's London Marathon when I'm targetting 3h 45 or so - about an hour faster than I ran this year. Nothing like setting a difficult target, but what's the fun if I don't make it interesting. Since my shin splint problems I've been putting in mostly 5k runs, trying to get round them and I think I've sorted that now. Last week I put my first 10k in, this week I put a 15k in. Next week I plan 20k and then some lighter runs before I do the Great North Run - apparently it's the biggest half marathon in the world with something like 47,000 runners (that's not a typo). I do have two long posts in preparation though, the first (and nearest to ready) is a 10 year look back on e-government, the second is something entitled "The Real Windows Tax." I'm determined to get at least one of those out this bank holiday weekend.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Diligently seeking online insurance

Morethan.com is still not working, despite a couple of emails suggesting that they might want to take a look and figure out why. After all, why plaster an ad on the back of every bus exhorting me to visit the site and then not make it operable? Their emails tell me that I'd be much better off phoning, but I don't want to phone, I want to do it online. I want to do everything online, that's the point. Another site tells me that I can have insurance as long as I don't work in any of the following professions:
entertainment industry, nightclub, fairground or gaming industries; professional sports, modelling or photography; antique or art dealer, jeweller; market or street trader, general dealer, hawker, scrap or second hand dealer; moneylender, debt collector, pawnbroker, private investigator, farmer or student
Nightclub? Peter Stringfellow need not apply? Moneylender? Does that include bankers? Professional sports? Does that mean Kelly Holmes need not apply (until she retires)? Farmers? Because they're more prone to losses? Students? Because they can't be trusted? Such an odd list. Still, a lost cause again, despite a promising start. Another request to phone them up to get a quote.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Waving the flag, it not flying it

Today, for, I think, the first time in 15 years I took a US carrier to fly across the pond. Not BA this time but AA. It was like going back in time, maybe about 8 years or so. Ugly, wide seats, no flat beds, dodgy TV screens and a limited choice of films. Normally I love to fly and the time passes in a whirl but today's 10 hour flight seemed to last a week - every time I moved in the seat, it reclined, whether I wanted it to or not; the headrest was in exactly the right position to cause neck ache. Listen to me complaining about flying, let alone flying in business class! How easy it is to get used to the good things in life. I kept looking out the window to see if I could see Simon Moores towing a banner, but no luck. There are plainly a few reasons why BA is the most profitable airline in the world - some of that will be to do with laying off vast numbers of staff - but one of them must be that they've invested enough in the business class cabin to make people want to fly with them. It's funny how quickly you get used to such upgrades in seats, service and performance. Those upgrades aren't really different to, say, the change from dial-up to broadband - once you have the latter, why go back? I consciously avoid places that don't have fast connections in the hotel doing everything I can not to use dial-up. The last time I used dial-up was early 2000. I'd rather not surf than mess around with dial-up. Like I said, how quickly do you get used to that - when I first used Compuserve it was at 1200 baud, then 9600 ... I remember when 28.8k modems came along how fast that seemed. Now I complain if my BT ADSL line runs at less than 2Mb/s. I'm over here for dinner, back overnight tomorrow. Can't wait for an overnight flight in those seats, am sure it will be a blast. Look for me red-eyed with a crick in my neck on Friday.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

10 years on

It's 10 years since Amazon went public, there are over 700 million Internet users in the world, yet every time I use morethan.com, I get this
Sorry - our system's busy
We were hoping you wouldn't see this screen but if it's appeared, it means that our system is busy, busy, busy.
Now, to be fair, this is better than what I got for the whole of June and most of July - which was an error page saying that the "Home Insurance" website wasn't working at all. But it's not exactly much better is it. Surely it knows it's busy when I get there - I shouldn't have to fill in a whole page of personal information about the quote I want (with no options to save it for later) before it tells me this?
You'd have thought that after the opportunity for up to 10 years practice and with an ad campaign that relentlessly pushes the website as a channel, they'd have figured out how to make it work now. Busy, busy, busy they say ... Is that 1,2,3 users? LessThan 10 or MoreThan 5?

If you see Bill, tell him

Two weekends ago it was barely noon on Saturday and I was already on my ninth glass of champagne. Thanks to my friend Ronan I was in the exalted company of a dozen sommelier tasting the full range of Gosset champagnes, from the current NV all the way to vintage 1985, via 1996, 1993 and 1990 with some rose mixed in as well. This Saturday, I was buried in a heap of spyware going through a PC belonging to a relative. There were 114 separate bits of vermin and, for good measure, a persistent backdoor trojan. This despite three separate anti-spyware tools and Norton anti-virus being installed. Or, at least, apparently installed. I spent a good 6 hours cleaning all of that stuff off, hunting through the system for other bits of junk, getting all of the necessary auto-updates installed and, most importantly, getting rid of the anti-spyware software. It hadn't done much good of course - the infections were running riot. There were even XXX diallers in the dial-up zone and lord knows what else. I replaced all of the paid for (and free trial) anti-spyware software with Microsoft's own beta release. It cleaned everything up in the first pass and promises to innoculate it for good. If you see Bill, tell him he did ok - that's what I needed: a simple, free tool that took care of the problem and that I could trust. Much of the anti-spyware stuff out there is as pushy as realplayer about getting you to sign up for one thing or another. I don't need any of that. There are those who blame Microsoft and even Bill personally for the spyware that's out there. Every time I hear that I'm reminded of Willy Sutton's response to the question "Why do you rob banks?" - which was, of course, "Because that's where the money is." Likewise, people write spyware for Windows PCs because that's where the users are and they'll keep looking for ways to exploit every opportunity. In 2003 there were 593 million PCs in the world. Sounds like that's where the money is to me. Macs, whilst growing, seem still to be around 2-3% of that number. although it's unclear how many are on the 'net (figures I look at from government show that the percentage of people visiting government sites and using Macs rarely breaks 1% but that might not be representative). The natural question to ask then is, if there were 500 million Macs out there, would there be just as much spyware attacking those, or are they somehow better protected or even immune? That's hard to say but I doubt they're better protected - since upgrading to Mac OS 10.4, I've had 2 major updates (to 10.4.2 now) and one set of security patches. I'm not, though, aware of any spyware that hits the browser; there might be something in saying that Macs are better protected there - but maybe it's all down the law of large numbers still? My main frustration though is that the ISPs aren't, I think, being responsible enough in protecting either their own consumer customers or those of other ISPs through ensuring that PCs connecting to the network are safe and secure. If I'm paying £10, £20 or £30 or whatever to an ISP for the privilege of a network connection and some email, I'd like them to take care of my security configuration too. At the very least, I'd expect them to do three things: 1) Ensure that when I connect for the first time each day, I'm up to date with all necessary patches and have the right products installed - from a recommended list that they maintain. I'd go as far as letting the ISP insist that I could have access only to walled garden sites until I'd installed the right software. This would be appropriate contraception. Until I prove I'm safe, I'm not allowed out of the house. It may be that this will increase the cost of the subscription - but if all ISPs provided the software, then the cost would be the same (or close to it) across all providers, neutralising any market inefficiency. Indeed, the bigger ISPs could negotiate cheaper prices from software suppliers and improve their deals, as is the case with all other markets. 2) Provide basic virus protection using heuristic scanners that check both for known viruses and possible viruses so that new messages that arrive whilst I'm connected cannot infect me and ruin things for everyone else. This should not need to be client side. If viruses are checked on the way in and the way out by the ISP (who, after all, sees all POP3 email) and are checked in the same way by e.g. Hotmail and gmail (as they are), then email viruses would be a near-dead business overnight. 3) Block known dodgy numbers - porn diallers, spam diallers, whatever, from being dialled from my PC. That might deny the ISP from collecting revenue (mainly though it will reduce BT's revenue - but BT aren't, I suspect, keen to get revenue from such sources and probably pay a fortune to investigate bills that are challenged - indeed, I'm sure I heard BT had a product that checked for these things, but I can't find it off their main site). My relatives have seen many things in their lives and lived through enormous change in the world, technically, politically and socially. They are not, however, equipped to deal with the kind of change that brings spam, viruses and spyware to their PC. They want to surf the web, chat to friends overseas, exchange pictures, write books and stay up to date. That social retards, crooks and spammers can make that a terrible experience should no longer be tolerated ... and the process for that can start with the ISPs and extend from there. I know I've harped on about a Green Cross Code for the internet before but after this weekend's experience, I only see a greater case for it.