Contemporaries

The announcement by the Pope that he is to resign prompted me to do a little bit of research, since I can just about remember who was Pope when I was a teenager but I wasn’t sure how many Popes there have actually been since I was born.

Anyway, having looked it up, I have (so far) lived at the same time as:

  • Five Popes
  • Six Archbishops of Canterbury
  • Three Ecumenical Patriarchs of Constantinople
  • Fifty Moderators of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
  • Six Secretary Generals of the United Nations
  • Ten Presidents of the USA
  • Seven Presidents of France
  • Eight Chancellors of Germany
  • Ten Taoiseachs of Ireland
  • Ten Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom
  • Forty Mayors of Evesham
  • One Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda and Saint Kitts and Nevis.

For the sake of the pedants who will undoubtedly be reading, I have counted repeat office holders only once (so, for example, Harold Wilson is just one Prime Minister despite serving two non-consecutive terms), and not included interim or caretaker office holders (unless, of course, they went on to become the office holder in their own right). However, I have counted both the mayors of Evesham from the year when the initial office holder resigned, as his successor was, despite also only serving for a partial term, officially designated mayor.

The individuals fortunate enough to hold these titles at the time of my birth were (in the same order as above):

  • John XXIII
  • Michael Ramsey
  • Athenagoras I
  • Nevile Davidson
  • U Thant
  • John F Kennedy
  • Charles de Gaulle
  • Konrad Adenauer
  • Seán Lemass
  • Harold Macmillan
  • Cllr William Kimberley
  • Queen Elizabeth II

With one notable exception, none of these lasted long enough for me to have any memories at all of them in their position from my childhood, although a few did survive long enough in retirement for me to recall their deaths.

This used to be my playground

When I was a child, this was where I went when I wanted to be on my own. A walk along the edge of open fields leads to a track which crosses the railway line and gives access to an area of uncultivated wetland known as Botany Bay (or, as we children invariably called it, “Botney”, omitting the second syllable and the second word). This photo is taken from just the other side of the railway, looking back towards it. Off to the left as you look at it is the sluicegate which terminates the stub of Lakenheath Lode and allows access to the wetland proper, while behind me as I took this, the path continues to another bridge across into the marsh.

I could, and often did, spend all day there on a summer Saturday or during the school holidays. When I got older I’d take the boat out on the river, rowing alongside the poplar plantations in Joist Fen.

Some things have changed since I lived there. The poplars have gone, to be replaced partly by farmland and partly by a nature reserve. The farm track which crosses the railway has been downgraded to a footpath with stiles instead of gates either side of the line. A solitary wooden plank which acted as a footbridge across one of the drainage dykes has been upgraded to a proper steel bridge with handrails. The bridge cross the Lode into the wetland is also just a footbridge now. And, because none of these tracks carry farm traffic any more, everything is more overgrown. But, otherwise, it’s all very much the same.

There wasn’t anything particularly unusual about this visit; I’ve been back several times since moving away and, while infrequent, I still like to take a walk in my old stamping grounds when I can. This time, I went over with my brother so that he could show me his small fleet of boats that he hires out to customers at his camping and caravan site. But what made it different is that this was the first time that I’d taken Ellie, my eldest daughter, with me. On the way back, she tugged my arm and said “Dad, this place is really beautiful”.

“I know”, I said. “This is where I grew up, and I used to come over here a lot”.

“Wow”, she responded. “You must have been really lucky to have a place like this”.

She’s right, of course, although at the time I didn’t appreciate it that much – it was just what I was used to. I don’t yet know what Ellie’s favourite places will turn out to be – she’s still only 5, which is a bit younger than I was when I first discovered Botany Bay – but I hope that when she’s the age I am now, she has as many good memories of them as I do.

TPS complaints – roll of dishonour

I got an unsolicited sales call this evening. Since we’re registered with the TPS, that’s illegal. So I decided to report them via the online complaint form.

In the course of filling in the form I noticed that when it reached the section where I had to give the name of the offending caller it was using a bit of “search as you type” Javascript to auto-complete the form with names matching what I’d typed so far. And the company I was complaining about was one of the suggested names.

Apart from the fact that this is a useful piece of code that makes completing the form easier, it also confirms that they’ve been the subject of previous complaints. Otherwise, there would be no reason for them to be in the auto-complete list.

So it occurred to me to go another step further. What if I could see the full list of names used in the auto-complete? Right-click, select ‘view source’, a quick glance through the HTML and yes, there’s the location of the underlying search page. Open it separately in a new browser tab, and it turns out to be a simple text list of all the names. No server-side processing at all, it’s completely client-side and all the data is downloaded by the browser as you complete the form.

So, what’s in it? At the moment, this is the list:

1 SOLAR ENERGY
1 STOP MARKETING SOLUTION
118 INTERNET DIRECTORY
121 CUSTOMER INSIGHT
1ST ASSIST
1ST CLAIMS SOLUTIONS
1ST QUOTE INSURANCE
1ST STOP FINANCE LTD
2 TOUCH
21 DIGITAL SIGNAGE
24 TALK
24/7 PC CARE
360 ETECH SUPPORT
365 SOLUTION
3D MARKETING GROUP
A.O.L
AA
AA INSURANCE SERVICES
ABSOLUTE INSULATION LTD
ABSOLUTE SAVINGS CENTRE
ACTIVE HEALTH MOBILITY
ADMIRAL GROUP PLC
AFFINION INTERNATIONAL
AFFINITY WILLS LTD
AGH WORLDWIDE
ALBERT HOLMES
ALLIANCE & LEICESTER PLC
ALLIANZ CORNHILL
ALLIANZ DIRECT
ALTERNATIVE ROUTE FINANCE
ALTODIGITAL UK LTD
AMBER WINDOWS
AMERICAN EXPRESS
ANDERSON BEARD
ANECO
AOL LIMITED
APR SERVICING
AQUATECH UK
ARBUTHNOT LATHAM
ARC EQUITIES
ASG MIDLANDS
ASHLEY BROWN FINANCIAL SOLUTIONS
ASIAN EXPRESS NEWSPAPER
ASTUTE LTD
ATC MEDIA LTD
ATHONA
AUSTIN CLARK RECRUITMENT
AUSTIN FRASER LTD
AUTO TRADER
AUTOCONTENT
AUTOMOBILE ASSOCIATION
AUTONET INSURANCE GROUP
AUTONET INSURANCE SERVICES
AUTOTRADER
AVIVA PLC
AYJAY DIRECT MARKETING LTD
BAINES AND ERNST
BARCLAYCARD
BARCLAYS
BARING INSULATION
BARNARDOS
BD RECRUITMENT LTD
BDS MORTGAGE GROUP
BETFAIR
BETTER HOMES PROCLAD
BILL CUTTER
BIO PARTNERS LTD
BLUE SKY FINANCIAL CLAIMS
BLUEWATER HOME IMPROVEMENTS
BOND PARTNERS
BRITISH CONSUMERS
BRITISH GAS
BT CUSTOMER STREET
BUPA
BURNHILL LAND INVESTMENTS
BUSINESS ADVISORY SERVICE
BUSINESS PHONES DIRECT
C R SMITH GLAZIERS (DUNFERMLINE) LTD
CALL CONNECTION LTD
CANCER RESEARCH UK
CAP ONE
CAPITAL 1
CAPITAL ONE
CAR PROTECT
CARAVAN GUARD INSURANCE
CARBON EQUITIES
CARD PROTECTION PLAN
CARD SAVE
CARELINE SERVICES LTD
CARILLION ENERGY SERVICES
CARLTON FUELS
CARTRIDGE WORLD
CAS MEDIA
CASTLE COVER
CCA INTERNATIONAL UK LTD
CELLCOM COMMUNICATIONS LTD
CENTO CLIENT REVIEW
CENTRAL CAPITAL LIMITED
CENTRAL CLAIMS GROUP
CENTURY LAND GROUP
CETAFONE
CHAMELEON TELESALES LTD
CHANCE CURTIS
CHASE TEMPLETON LTD
CHILDREN IN CRISIS
CHRISTIAN AID
CHRISTIES KITCHENS (UK) LIMITED
CHURCHWOOD FINANCIAL
CIA INSURANCE SERVICES LIMITED
CICADA INVESTMENTS LIMITED
CLAIM PROFESSIONALS
CLARITY
CLARITY EMPLOYMENT FOR BLIND PEOPLE
CLEAN GREEN UPGRADES
CLEAR CONTACT
CLICK CONNECT
CLICK FINANCIAL LTD
CLIENT CONNECTION LTD
CLOSE CREDIT MANAGEMENT LTD
CLUB LA COSTA (UK) PLC
COCA COLA ENTERPRISES
COLT TELECOMMUNICATIONS
COMANTRA
COMFOMATIC LTD
COMMERCIAL VEHICLE DIRECT INS SERV LTD
COMPARE THE MARKET.COM
CONSERVATION CARBON CREDITS
CONSORTIUM RECLAIM
CONSUMER LIFE STYLES
CONSUMER LIFESTYLES
CONSUMER MONEY MATTERS
CONTINENTAL TELECOM LTD
CONVERSO CONTACT CENTRES
CO-OPERATIVE BANK PLC
CPM
CPM UK LTD
CPP GROUP
CR SMITH
CREAM PUBLISHING LTD
CREDIT SAFE
CRISIS
CURVED AIR MARKETING SOLUTIONS LTD
DAISY COMMUNICATIONS LIMITED
DALESMAN PUBLISHING CO LTD
DASH TELECOM
DATA LOCATOR GROUP
DATA LOCATOR LTD
DEBENHAMS
DEBT ADVISORY LINE
DEBT CORRECT LTD
DEBT FREE HELPLINE LTD
DEBT MADE SIMPLE
DEBT MATTERS
DEBT SOLVE DIRECT
DEBT SURVIVAL (UK) LIMITED
DEBTCORRECT LIMITED
DEBTMATTERS
DENNIS PUBLISHING
DIGITAL MAINTENANCE LTD
DIGITAL SERVICES (UK) LTD
DIMENSION SECURITIES
DIRECT DEBT SOLUTIONS
DIRECT DIALOGUE
DIRECT FUELS
DIRECT RESPONSE
DIRECT SAVE TELECOM
DISCOVER FINANCE
DISTRIBUTION VERIFICATION SERVICES
DIVA TELECOM LTD
DLG
DM DESIGNS
DNA INSURANCE
DOCKLANDS TELECOM CENTER
DOG TRUST
DOMESTIC & GENERAL
DOMESTIC AND GENERAL INSULATION LTD
DOUBLE TAKE STUDIOS
DREAMWELL LTD
DRU YOGA
DTC Direct
DTD EUROPEAN SERVICES LTD
DUNN & BRADSTREET
DUNRAVEN WINDOWS
DUOTOOL LTD
E.D.F
EASY TALK
ECO GLOBAL MARKETS
ECO HOME SERVICES LTD
EDF
EDF ENERGY
E-GLAZE
ELM LEGAL SERVICES
Elswood Associates
ELSWORTH ASSOCIATES LTD
ELUCIDATE CONTRACTOR SERVICES (ECS) LTD
EMAX GROUP T/A EMAX COMMUNICATIONS
EMC ADVISORY SERVICES LTD
EMMAS DIARY
EMS INTERNET LTD
ENDSLEIGH INSURANCE SERVICES LTD
ENERGY HELPLINE
ENERGY LINKS HOME SAVE
ENTERPRISE CLEANING
ENVIRO ASSOCIATES
ENVIROSELECT
ENVIROSOLAR
EON
ESB INDEPENDENT ENERGY
ESURE
ESURE INSURANCE LTD
ETHICALL LTD
EURODEBT FINANCIAL SERVICES
EUROMEDIA ASSOCIATES LTD
EUROPEAN ENVIRONMENTAL CONTROLS LTD
EUROPLAS LTD
EUROSEAL WINDOWS
EVEREST
EVERGOOD ASSOCIATES
EVERYDAY FINANCIAL SOLUTIONS
EVOLVE TELECOM
EXCELL CONTACT CENTRES
EXCHANGE ENTERPRISE LTD
EXIMIUS SOCIAL CARE
EXPERIENCES CONNECT LTD
EXPERTO CREDITE
EXPRESS GIFTS LTD
EXPRESS LAW
EXTEND A ROOM LTD
EYG
EZE TALK LTD
FASCIA DIRECT
FEATURE HOMES
FINE WINES OF THE WORLD
FINISHING TOUCHES
FIRST ASSIST GROUP LTD
FIRST CALL
FIRST CHOICE HOME IMPROVEMENTS
FIRST CLAIMS SOULUTIONS
FIRST FOUND
FIRST FOUND
FIRST NATIONAL BANK PLC
FIRST QUOTE INSURANCE
FIRST SOLAR ENERGY
FIRST STEP FINANCE
FIRST STOP FINANCE LTD
FIRSTASSIST GROUP LTD
FIRSTFOUND
FLAGSHIP MEDIA GROUP LTD
FONE HOUSE
FONEHOUSE
FOXY COMMUNICATIONS
FRANKLINCOVEY EUROPE LTD
FREEMANS PLC
FRESH START
FRESH START LIVING
FRIDAY AD LTD
FULCRUM MEDIA
FUNDRAISING INNOVATIONS LTD
FUTURE HOMES
GCS RECRUITMENT LTD
GEMS HYGIENE SUPPLIES DIRECT
GENESIS ACCIDENT CLAIMS
GIANT GROUP PLC
GILT EDGE PROMOTIONS LTD
GIORDANO UK DIRECT
GMAC RESIDENTIAL FUNDING
GRADWELL
GRAPEVINE GROUP
GRATTAN
GREEN PLANET INVESTMENT
GREENPEACE UK LTD
GROLIER BOOKS
GROVE COMMUNICATIONS
GUIDE DOGS FOR THE BLIND ASSOCIATION
GYM CO UK
HALO MOBILE
HAMILTON BLAKE
HAMMER PROPERTIES
HAMPSHIRE WILDLIFE TRUST
HAQ PUBLISHING LTD
HARRINGTON BROOKS
HASTINGS DIRECT
HAVEN POWER LTD
HEALTHYDAYS LIMITED
HEATH LAMBERT GROUP
HELP PC ONLINE LTD
HIDDEN HEARING LTD
HOME FIX 247
HOME SERVICE (GB) LTD
HOMEGUARD DIRECT
HOMESERVE
HORIZON FINANCE
HOT HOUSE ROOF & ENERGY
HYPE BRANDING
IDEAL CLEANING SERVICES
IDEAL HOMES
IDEAL SOLAR ENERGY
INSIDE TRACK
JD WILLIAMS
JUMP UP MEDIA
KAFEVEND GROUP LTD
KALEIDOSCOPE
KINGFISHER TELECOM
LA RADOUTE
LARKIN WINDOWS
LIFESTYLE CLAIMS LTD
LIFESTYLE GROUP
LINK FINANCIAL SERVICE
LISTEN UK
LITTLEWOODS GROUP
LOGIN4SPEED
LOVE FILM UK LTD
LOWRI BECK SERVICES
LYONS DAVIDSON
MAKE MY HOLIDAYS
MARCHES ENERGY AGENCY
MARK INSULATION LIMITED
MATCHTECH GROUP
MONEY HEALTH CHECK
MORTGAGE ADVICE SERVICES
MORTGAGE MATTERS
MOTORWAY DIRECT WARRANTY
MY HOUSE GROUP
N.POWER
NATIONAL TRUST
NATIONWIDE ENERGY SERVICES
NO WORRIES LOANS
NORTON FINANCE (UK) LTD
NPOWER
NSQUARED CREATIONS LIMITED
NUNWOOD CONSULTING LTD
OASIS
ON GUARD 24
ONE TWO ONE CUSTOMER INSIGHT
ONLINE PC MASTERS
OPAL TELECOM
OPTICAL EXPRESS LIMITED
OPUS TELECOM LTD
ORANGE
OTTO UK
OXFAM
PAYDAY UK
PENICUIK HOME IMPROVEMENTS
PHOENIX INSURANCE
PHONE HOUSE
PITNEY BOWES LIMITED
PITNEY BOWES LTD
PLUSNET
POWERGEN
PREMIUM STAR LTD
PROMISE FINANCE
PRS FOR MUSIC
PURPLE PIG CLAIMS
QUICK QUID
QUICKQUID
READERS DIGEST
REDRESS CLAIMS
RESPONDEZ
RIGHT TO HEALTH
ROYAL & SUN ALLIANCE PLC
ROYAL NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR THE BLIND
RSPCA
SAFE STYLE
SAFESTYLE UK
Sanderson Blinds
SAVE THE CHILDREN
SCOTTISH AND SOUTHERN ENERGY
SCOTTISH POWER
SENIOR RESPONSE LTD
SERIF (EUROPE) LTD
SHINE TELECOM LTD
SHOP DIRECT HOME SHOPPING LTD
SKY TELEVISION
SOLATRICITY LTD
SPACE DESIGNS
SPACE KITCHENS
ST JOHN SECURITY INSTALLATIONS LTD
STERLING INSURANCE GROUP
STIRLING HEALTH
SUMMIT ROOFGUARD
SUPREME O GLAZE LTD
SUPREMOGLAZE
SWIFTCOVER INSURANCE
SWITCH GAS AND ELECTRIC
SYGMA BANK UK
TALK MOBILE
TALK TALK
TALK TALK BUSINESS
TALK TALK MOBILE
TALKNTALK3
TAMESIDE INSULATIONS
TAMESIDE INSULATIONS
TELEGEN UK LTD
TELEPERFORMANCE UK
THAMESIDE INSULATION
THE BOTTOM LINE (GB) LIMITED
THE CUSTOMER ADVICE CENTRE
THE LISTENING COMPANY
THE MONEY GROUP LTD
THE MONEY MANAGER GROUP
THE WHEELIE BIN & WINDOW CLEANING COMPANY
THOMAS SANDERSON BLINDS LTD
THOMSON DIRECTORIES LTD
THUS PLC
TIMESHARE RESALES CONSUMERS ASSOCIATION
TISCALI UK LTD
TOP SPOT MARKETING LTD
TOUCAN CLAIMS
TRANSNATIONAL CORP LTD
TRUST INHERITANCE
TSC
TSC TELEMARKETING LTD
TUCAN CLAIMS
TULIP (UK) LTD
TV PROTECT
TW0 TOUCH
TWENTY FOUR TALK
UK TODAY
UKML
VACATION CLUB 4U
VANQUIS BANK LTD
VIEWLINE NORTHWEST LIMITED
VIKING DIRECT
VINANCE PLC
VITAMINS DIRECT LTD
VOICE MARKETING LIMITED
VONAGE UK
W.D.S. ASSOCIATES
WADE AND CO FINANCIAL CLAIMS MANAGEMENT
WDS ASSOCIATES
WE CLAIM U GAIN LTD
WE FIGHT ANY CLAIM
WEATHERSEAL HOME IMPROVEMENTS
WIGHT CABLE LTD
WORKWEAR EXPRESS LTD
WORLD VILLAGES FOR CHILDREN
WORLD VISION
XLN TELECOM LTD
XPRESSION WEB SOLUTIONS
ZEBRA MONEY MANAGEMENT

In total, there are 440 entries in this list. The names range from well-known, generally reputable companies through charities to obvious scammers and shysters. I’ll leave it to you to decide which category each of them falls into, but I was amused by the fact that the alphabetical listing puts “WE CLAIM U GAIN LTD” next to “WE FIGHT ANY CLAIM”. There would be a certain amount of poetic justice if those two ended up battling each other over a claim brought for breach of the TPS.

Even allowing for the fact that some complaints will be misdirected or spurious, though, this is still an excellent list of companies that probably don’t deserve to get your business. Stick with suppliers who advertise their wares and services legally.

Disco 2012

I went shopping today. Decided to hit the sales, and came back with a new suit and a deep fat fryer. Exciting, eh? No? Oh well. I’d taken Ellie with me, mainly because I’d promised her a day out and she’s not old enough yet to realise that when I promise a day out and actually take her shopping, she’s been had. On the way back, I had a CD playing in the car – some compilation CD that I’d bought from the “reduced to clear” rack back in the days when I still went into record shops. One of the songs was Disco 2000 by Pulp.

Well we were born within an hour of each other.
Our mothers said we could be sister and brother.
Your name is Deborah, Deborah.
It never suited you.

“Turn it up, daddy” said Ellie, “I like this song.” At least she has taste. And then, in her precocious five-year old music critic self, added “This song is about a girl called Deborah, isn’t it?”

“Yes”, I nodded. “At least, sort of. It’s more about regret, loss of innocence and the crushing sadness of unrequited love.”

“Don’t be silly, daddy” said Ellie. “It’s just a song about a girl called Deborah”. Life is simple when you’re only five, and so is music. Although her ability to pick up on the lyrics of songs reminds me to purge anything by Eminem from my in-car playlist, and make sure that it is the radio edit of American Idiot.

I said let’s all meet up in the year 2000.
Won’t it be strange when we’re all fully grown.
Be there at 2 o’clock by the fountain down the road.
I never knew that you’d get married.
I would be living down here on my own
On that damp and lonely Thursday years ago.

“Daddy, when is the year 2000?”

“It was before you were born. A long time before you were born, in fact”.

A long time. I meant that for Ellie’s benefit, since in her terms it is a long time. But it got me thinking. 2000 is a long time ago, even by my standards – eleven years is a significant fraction of my lifespan. 1995, when Pulp released the song, is even longer ago. In 1995, I’d only just discovered the Internet, and was still some time from earning a living from it. I still lived in a flat above a shop (echoes there of Common People), and had very little money (ditto). But the song doesn’t just remind me of 2000, or 1995, but when I first started to think the thoughts expressed by Jarvis Cocker. “What will it be like in the year 2000?” “Won’t it be strange when we’re all fully grown?” I can’t put a precise date on it, but my guess is that I was probably around 11 or 12 when I first gave it some serious thought.

Deborah do you recall?
Your house was very small,
with woodchip on the wall.
When I came around to call,
you didn’t notice me at all.

Jarvis Cocker is pretty much the same age as me – we were, so to speak, born within a year of each other – so this verse always makes me smile. I, too, can remember the fashion for woodchip wallpaper when I was a child. When, for that matter, I was wondering what life would be like when we were all fully grown.

I can remember how big a thing the millennium seemed before it happened. Of course, it’s just numbers on a calendar, with no intrinsic meaning – millennium or not, nothing changes on New Year’s Day, although any New year is a good excuse for a hug – but, still, the novelty of the year beginning with a 2 rather than a 1 somehow makes it feel different (which, of course, is why the pedants were always going to lose the argument that the new millennium started in 2001 rather than 2000).

I’ve taken it for granted, of course, that Ellie doesn’t remember the 20th century since she was born several years after it ended (by either the pedantic or popular measurement!). But she doesn’t yet have much of a concept of history at all. Unlike me, and unlike the narrative singer of Disco 2000.

Oh what are you doing Sunday baby,
Would you like to come and meet me maybe?
You can even bring your baby.
What are you doing Sunday baby,
Would you like to come and meet me maybe?
You can even bring your baby.

We don’t get introduced to Deborah’s baby until the last verse of the song, and, assuming that the song is, indeed set in the year 2000 (i.e, five years into the future when it was released) then that makes this baby either one of the first children of the new millennium or the last of the old (yes, I know, OK, I’ve adopted the populist definition here. So sue me). Either way, he or she will grow up with no memory of the 20th century. And so, in real life, will all the other babies born around the turn of the millennium. Some of them will be reaching their teens in 2012.

It doesn’t bother me that Ellie can’t remember the 20th century, because she’s still a small child. But, for some reason, the thought that there are – or soon will be – teenagers who don’t remember it, and never lived in it, does bother me. Because it won’t be long before there are adults who have no connection to the 20th century. And that makes me feel old. Happy New Year, everyone.

First council meeting

Councillor M Goodge

Just got back from my first council meeting, having stopped off for a kebab on the way. Apparently, they don’t always go on this long, but this was a bit unusual as it was the first proper meeting after the election and hence there was a long backlog of stuff to be discussed.

My only significant contribution to the debate was a comment on the use of sponsorship money to fund our entry into the Britain in Bloom competition, which may sound trivial but apparently feelings run high on this matter! I’ve also been elected onto the Property Committee and the Promotions Committee, so that’s more work for the future.

Silence

It’s rare that I’m at home on my own with absolutely nothing to do. To be accurate, this isn’t one of those times either, as there’s plenty I could do (and, at some point, need to do). But the reason I’m at home is because I’m ill, and for much of this afternoon there really wasn’t anything important enough to do that I was prepared to do it despite being ill.

So, I lay on the floor in the living room in front of the gas fire, with a cushion as a pillow, and just listened to the world. This is what I heard.

Inside the house, I could hear the cats padding around and occasionally playing with some small object. When one of them came and sat next to me, I heard it purr.

I could hear the gas fire hissing gently.

I heard a mouse (at least, I assume it’s a mouse) run up and down inside the walls!

I heard the Sky box give an almost imperceptible “click” as it went into standby.

From the front of the house, I could hear traffic. Not a lot, since the living room is at the back of the house but I heard the regular “whoosh” of cars going past and the occasional louder noise from something bigger.

I heard an emergency vehicle of some sort go past on “blues and twos”.

At the back of the house, through the window, I could hear birdsong.

I could hear the wind in the trees in the garden.

When it rained briefly, I heard the drops on the flat roof of the extension.

Then my iPhone went “ping” because someone sent me an SMS. It was so loud by comparison, and so close to me, that I sat up, startled, and banged my head on the coffee table.

Think of the children

The spectre of Internet censorship has reared its head again recently, with reports that the government is planning to hold talks with ISPs over the creation of an “opt in” system for allowing customers to access pornographic material on the web rather than requiring them to take steps to avoid it if they don’t want their children to see it. The claim is that this will protect children in households where the parents either don’t care about them seeing porn or do care but don’t have the skill to take effective measures themselves to prevent it. It’s been in a few newspapers, but this report in the Daily Mail is pretty typical.

Before discussing whether or not this is a good idea, I want to make it clear that I entirely agree that there is a real problem here. There is a very large body of research which supports the claim that early exposure to inappropriate sexual material can be very damaging to children. The ready availability of porn on the Internet is a major factor in this. I’m certainly no defender of the porn industry, which – even if you think there’s nothing wrong with porn itself – is unarguably one of the most corrupt and amoral sectors of business around today. And there’s no significant civil liberties angle here; while it’s generally true that adults should have the freedom to do things which are harmful to themselves, the same does not apply to those – such as children – who are incapable of making an informed decision on the matter. As the parent of two pre-school children myself, the need to protect them from seeing inappropriate material on the Internet is something that concerns me greatly. And I wouldn’t have wanted them watching the XXX-factor edition of Simon’s Karaoke Show, either.

So the argument isn’t over whether there is a problem. The fact that there is a problem is accepted by all of the major players in the debate – the campaigners, the ISPs, and the government. The argument is about how best to tackle it.

So, is a compulsory opt-in system for viewing porn the solution? I think not. The rest of this article will be about why I think it isn’t. But, just in case anyone thinks that my opposition to these proposals makes me somehow “pro-porn”, or that I’m not “thinking of the children”, I’ll refer you back to the second paragraph and ask you to re-read it. If, after that, you still think that my opposition  to these plans amounts to my going soft on the porn industry or being heedless of the harm it causes, then, frankly, you’re probably too stupid to understand my arguments anyway. If that’s you, then stop reading now as all you’ll do is waste your time.

Having got that minor rant out of my system (and if you’re still with me, thanks for approaching the matter rationally even if you ultimately disagree with my conclusions), why don’t I think this is the way forward? My main objection is simply one of practicality – I don’t think that the technical proposals will be anywhere near as effective as their supporters think, and even if they are they won’t do all that much to protect children.

Starting with the technical flaws in the proposals, it seems pretty clear that many of them are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the Internet. That doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t work, of course – you don’t need to understand the aerodynamics of powered flight to be able to make a valid case for regulating the airline industry – but it does mean that they’re likely to leave people with a false impression of what’s actually possible. For example, most of the media reports of the proposals use wording similar to this, from the Mail article linked to earlier:

The plan is to allow parents to ‘opt out’ of the sites and they will then be blocked at the source, rather than using conventional parental controls.

The problem with that is that the ISPs are not the source of pornography, and have no ability to block it at source. The same mistake is made by Claire Perry MP, one of the leading lights of the campaign, when  she compares it to regulating TV channels:

We already successfully regulate British TV channels, cinema screens, High Street hoardings and newsagent shelves to stop children seeing inappropriate images

This is the fallacy of the inappropriate analogy. Just because we can, and do, do something in one situation doesn’t mean it will necessarily work in another. In this case, the differences between the Internet and broadcast or print media are not only significant but are a key to why we have the problem in the first place.

The reality is that ISPs have virtually no control whatsoever over the sources of pornography on the Internet. In many cases, the source isn’t even in the same country as the ISPs. So, far from doing something different to conventional parental controls, any ISP-level blocking is doing exactly the same thing: blocking it in transmission (or preventing its reception).

That’s not necessarily a huge problem, of course. There’s no reason why ISPs shouldn’t offer a filtered Internet feed for customers who want it, rather than requiring them to do their own filtering. Let’s just not pretend that it’s qualitatively different from installing Net Nanny or similar on your own PC.

The downside of a centralised version, though, is that it will be less effective. And, again, the reason why it will be less effective is due to factors that don’t seem to have been appreciated by the campaigners. A comparison is often drawn with the Cleanfeed and WebMinder systems used by ISPs to filter child pornography identified by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). These work reasonably well, most of the time, but the reason they do so is because of three specific factors which do not apply to pornography in general:

  • Child porn is illegal almost everywhere in the world
  • There isn’t all that much of it on the web
  • Not many people want to view it

Taken together, those three factors make it relatively easy to combat. Its illegal nature makes it a risky business to publish, which means that there isn’t very much at all that’s readily accessible, and that in turn means that a relatively small and lightly-funded organisation can keep track of what little there is without too much difficulty. And, since its illegal to view in the UK, no-one is going to be complaining to their ISP that they can’t get it.

By contrast, porn in general isn’t illegal, and there is a humongous amount of it on the web. That’s part of the problem, of course, and the reason why we’re having this debate, but it’s also part of the reason why an IWF-style watchlist simply won’t work. Keeping track of every pornographic website in the world requires resources way beyond those currently available to the IWF. That’s why the likes of Net Nanny, for example, aren’t free – the price you pay for them goes towards creating the filter list. Even so, they aren’t 100% reliable – websites change by the minute, and any list-based system will always lag behind. And that’s the other problem with a list-based system. Even the relatively small IWF list gets it wrong sometimes and ends up blocking sites that it shouldn’t – as evidenced by the time it blocked Wikipedia, until eventually reversing that decision. The bigger the list, the greater the probability of errors. With a system that I run on my own PC, I can override it if I decide it’s made a mistake, but if the blocking is controlled by my ISP then that’s much harder. In any case, who decides which sites should be on it? It may be fairly easy to conclude that the likes of PornTube (not linked, I’m sure you can guess the URL if you really want to) should be blocked, but what about the aforementioned Wikipedia? There’s porn on Wikipedia, if you know where to look – or even if you don’t, since it’s all linked in as a mesh and it’s quite easy to stumble across some unsavoury images on Wikipedia without meaning to if you’re researching some otherwise quite innocuous subjects.

The other big difference, though, is that an awful lot of people do actually want to view legal porn. And a lot of them are parents. If I wanted to browse porn on the Internet myself, but don’t want my daughters to see it, then I can install software on my PC which will allow me to do so while at the same time minimising the probability that they’ll see it accidentally. If I’m relying on my ISP for the filtering, though, then it’s all or none – if I can see it, then so can anyone else on my home network, as my ISP can’t tell the difference between my use of the computer and anyone else’s. It’s all very well to say that the default should be no porn, with customers having to opt in to see it, but what if the customers who do opt in are parents? Is the ISP supposed to refuse to allow them to opt in? Or do we trust the parents not to, even if they fancy viewing a bit of horizontal action on their laptop?

There’s another aspect to this, too. The campaigners talk in terms of “no porn” or “with porn” options, but in reality it’s not that simple. What we’ll actually have is a choice between filtered and unfiltered web access; the filtered access will minimise (but not eliminate) the availability of porn but it will also filter out some sites that many people – even those who don’t want porn – will want access to. It will also, due to the way it functions at a technical level, cause problems for some people who work from home and need to access company intranets, for example. So a lot of people (who would include myself) who seemingly “opt in” to porn are actually opting out of having their Internet access filtered by their ISP, with porn having nothing to do with it. Many of these people, too, will be parents.

So, when it comes down to it, what will mandatory default filtering actually achieve? It won’t do anything to protect the children of those who want or need unfiltered access for reasons which have nothing to do with porn. It won’t protect the children of those who actually want to be able to get porn at home, and don’t have the self-discipline to refrain from opting in just because there are children in the household. It will reduce (but not eliminate) the amount of porn available to the children of those who don’t opt out, but at the cost of increasing their monthly bills – because someone is going to have to pay for maintaining the pornsite list, and I very much doubt it’s going to be the government. In fact, if it was proposed that it be the government, that would be an even stronger reason to oppose it – there are better things to spend taxpayers’ money on than compiling a directory of pornographic websites (and just imagine what would happen if that list ended up on Wikileaks). But it will also generate a false sense of security among those who come to rely on it, especially if it doesn’t occur to them that their children might be getting access to porn elsewhere.

Ultimately, therefore, I think these proposals fall into the category of “well meaning, but misguided”. The cost and complexity of implementing them will be disproportionate to any benefit they may provide. There is even some danger that they will make things worse, by discouraging parents from taking responsibility themselves for what their children see on the Internet.

So, what is the solution to the problem of porn on the Internet being accessed too easily by children? I don’t think there is a simple, single answer, and I think that the biggest mistake being made by many of the campaigners is that they think there is. But there are some things we can do, and these are some of them.

Firstly, I think it’s entirely appropriate for ISPs to offer an opt-in filtering system for customers who want it. As I’ve said, I don’t think it will be as effective as a user-installed system, but it will provide some benefit to those who choose to use it. But a secondary benefit of such systems – which will need to be widely publicised by the ISPs if they’re to be of any value – will be that it will draw people’s attention to the need to take some steps themselves to protect their children. Because the second, but in my opinion the most important, issue is the lack of user awareness of the issue. I’m sure that most parents would, if they were aware of the issue and had the ability, take some precautions to prevent their children accessing inappropriate material. A big problem, though, is that too few of them are aware. A campaign by the ISPs to improve take-up of their opt-in centralised filtering systems, together with a wider publicity campaign by the government and issue groups to raise awareness of the need to protect children, could make a big difference. In fact, if any of the people and organisations currently campaigning for mandatory default filtering were to change their focus to campaign for raised awareness of the problem and encourage parents to take greater responsibility, then I’d happily support them.

Also, as far as action by the Internet companies is concerned, I think that the ISPs are the wrong target. If the problem is children accidentally encountering porn on the Internet (as opposed to children who deliberately seek it out, which is an entirely different issue), then it’s important to look at how that happens. And one of the major causes of accidental porn exposure is the inclusion of links to porn sites in otherwise innocuous search results. If Google, Bing, Yahoo et al were to insist that “safe search” can only be turned off if you’re logged in to an account which requires you to state your age, then that alone would significantly reduce the amount of porn which is readily accessible by children. That’s a simple change which could easily be made, and one which the search engines would probably agree to if pressed (particularly if the USA and the EU were to make a similar request).

Finally, though, there really is no substitute for parental responsibility. I won’t be signing up for ISP-level filtering, not because I want my children to see porn but because I don’t trust anyone else to protect them from it. I want every parent on the Internet to share my attitude. And I will oppose any campaign which seeks to reduce it. Ultimately, we all need to think of the children.

For the Fallen

We normally only quote the middle section of this. But I think the whole poem is worth re-reading.

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Lawrence Binyon
Originally published in The Times on 21 September 1914

In memory of John William Goodge, 1895 – 1917 and Robert Goodge, 1865 – 1916. And with grateful thanks that Sidney Goodge, my grandfather and the younger brother of John and Robert, was too young to fight in their war and, as a farmer, too valuable to be allowed to fight in the next.

The voice of the People

I got an email last week from a journalist researching a story on motorway services. Nothing hugely unusual about that, since I do run a popular website on the topic, and I’ve previously spoken to a variety of media including The Daily Mirror, Channel 4, The Guardian and BBC 5Live. All of these, so far, have been essentially one-offs, either when they’re researching a story or following up something else that’s already been reported and want some comment.

Last week’s contact was from the Sunday People, and I spoke to the journalist and gave a fairly standard interview about the type of things that people complain about when it comes to motorway services. I don’t actually know what they printed, since I didn’t buy a copy and it’s not on their website.

No sooner had the piece appeared, though, that I got three follow-up emails: one from the Manchester Evening News, one from Wire FM and one from BBC Radio Kent, all wanting to talk about motorway services in their area. For the MEN and Wire FM it was mostly about Bolton West services, which has the distinction both of featuring in the pilot episode of That Peter Kay Thing and being currently the lowest rated MSA in the country. You can read the MEN article on their website, the Wire FM interview was recorded so I have no idea when any of it will go out, and the BBC Kent slot will be tomorrow morning at around 7:45 am – they want to talk about Maidstone and Clacket Lane services, which also get below average ratings.

The thing that intrigues me, though, is that I’ve never before had a follow-up call or email from another media outlet after being quoted in one of them. There seems to me to be one obvious conclusion to be drawn from this:

Most journalists’ own newspaper of choice is the Sunday People.

New Year, New Year

I wasn’t planning on making any New Year resolutions as such, but then had second thoughts and decided to put a few down anyway. So here, in no particular order, are the things that are on my list for 2010:

  1. Lose weight. That’s a bit of a hardy perennial, really, and to be honest it’s not really a biggie. I’m not hugely excessive in the chubbiness department – I’m still at the stage where I can call it “cuddly” if I need to – so I don’t have any major targets here. But I am a bit above the ideal weight for my height, and, given that growing taller isn’t really an option, I could do with knocking off a few pounds. The main aim is to go from a situation where my clothes – especially my trousers – are just a tad on the tight side to one where they’re comfortably loose. If I can manage that, I’ll be happy.
  2. Get debt free. By the end of 2010, I want to have no debts other than the mortgage. I’m actually not all that far away from that anyway, so it ought to be relatively easy to achieve.
  3. Write more stuff on my blog. This was actually last year’s resolution; I didn’t achieve the target that time but that’s not going to stop me from trying again.
  4. Get out more. When I first moved to Stoke, I spent nearly every weekend out and about in the surrounding countryside, getting to know the area and just enjoying the scenery. Since moving to Evesham, though, I’ve done very little local exploring – most weekends are spent either in the house or shopping. That’s not to say I’ve done nothing – I have done a fair amount of local investigation – but not to the extent that I have done in the past. Partly, of course, that’s because I now have a family living with me, which makes things a bit more complicated, and partly also because the Vale of Evesham (and surrounding areas such as the Cotswolds) aren’t, frankly, anything like as interesting or visually spectacular as the Peak District and Snowdonia, the two places I spent most of my weekends after first moving to Stoke. I think I need to go a bit further afield – I haven’t been to the Malverns yet, and the Brecon Beacons are also in reach, so those are my immediate targets.
  5. Make music. Since leaving Stoke, and the Hope band, I’ve barely played a note. I need to get the keyboards set up and the guitar restrung and start playing again.
  6. Buy my wife flowers more often.
  7. Get involved in national politics. 2010 will be an election year; I want my voice to be one of those which helps shape our future. This is probably the most vague and amorphous resolution, since I don’t really have any detailed plan for achieving it. But it’s also the one I feel most passionately about, so I’m determined to find a way.
  8. Get the cat done. Kittens may be cute, fluffy and adorable, but they eat, wee and poo and it’s a pain in the neck trying to rehouse them.
  9. Tidy up the house, and keep it tidy. A resolution which I may well achieve by the simple means of hiring a cleaner.
  10. Travel. Other than the brief trip to Brussels last May, I haven’t been out of the country since our honeymoon in Ireland. And the trip to Brussels reminded me of how much I enjoy going to (relatively) far off places. So a big target for this year is to take a family holiday outside the UK, for the first time. That’s going to be interesting, to say the least – I’m not sure I really fancy flying with a three year old and a baby (which will have arrived on the scene before we’re likely to go anywhere), so our destination is probably going to have to be somewhere accessible by ferry or the tunnel. Ireland again is an obvious choice, but I rather fancy visiting Amsterdam – I haven’t been there for many years, and it would be nice to go back. France or Spain would be options too – does anyone have a gîte or a villa we could borrow?