Internet Blocking for Ireland

In January, Digital Rights Ireland filed a Freedom of Information request with the Department of Justice asking for all documents dealing with Internet Blocking by ISPs. Of 57 documents that were relevant, 28 were held back. These include correspondence discussing the disastrous implementation of a similar filter in Australia and minutes of meetings held with telecommunications and internet providers.  Minutes of meetings with a group called Watchdog International were also withheld.

I oppose any implementation of an internet block on personal, professional and moral grounds.

As an IT professional, this proposition strikes me as an ineffectual move by a technically clueless government. Ireland has been selling itself as a haven for high-tech industry for nearly 20 years now, and we have done well with such tech giants as Microsoft, IBM and Dell setting up here. We also play host to several of the largest internet players: Google, eBay and Amazon all have offices in Ireland. All of these companies understand the importance of a free and open internet. Google has been outspoken against the internet filter in Australia, and recently pulled out of China because they refused to filter search results at the behest of the Chinese government. At a time when 500,000 Irish people are unemployed, and we are trying to sell ourselves as a “knowledge economy”, we cannot afford to make such a clueless move.

Secondly, any filter would be ultimately ineffective. There are more than 10 billion web pages. If a person were to look at one page per second 24 hours a day, it would take them more than 31 years to look at each page. And thousands of new pages are being added every second of every day. Trying to administer a list of what sites are allowed and what sites are not allowed would be a literally impossible task. Add to that, the fact that the nature of the internet is such that it works around blockages. There are countless ways of subverting filters and barriers. A filter would be – at best – an inconvenience to someone determined to access banned content.

Personally, I don’t like the idea that anyone can tell me what I can and cannot see. From the subject matter of some of the witheld documents, it is clear that the ban would be brought in with the aim of stopping access to child pornography. This is an admirable goal, but inevitably the remit of filters such as these get expanded. In Australia, the Internet filter was brought in under the auspices of protecting children, but was later expanded to filter websites about euthanasia, racism and even some video games.

Filtering the internet is censorship. Censorship is the hallmark of tyranny. It is the last recourse of a government that no longer trusts its people. It has no place in a free and open democracy. I realise that this sounds a little dramatic, but once a filter is put in place, it is a simple matter to expand its remit and add to the black list.

Finally, I am appalled that these conversations are taking place in private. Watchdog Internation is a vendor of internet filters to governments.  They represent their own interests and not those of the Irish people.  The minues of these meetings tell us who approached who in for these talks.

Now more than ever, Ireland needs to be an open society. Too often recently have we been reminded of the consequences of making decisions behind closed doors. If this proposal is being considered for implementation, then it needs to be discussed in public. The Irish public must be allowed have their say.  I for one will be saying no.

As a constituent, I request that you oppose any legislation relating to any filtering of the Internet by the Irish Government or by third parties.

Come Back To Eircom

Dear Mr Kieran,

I recently received a letter signed by you inviting me to “Come back to Eircom”. I am writing to you to tell you why I am not coming back to Eircom, and why I am not going to come back to Eircom in the near future.

It is not the fact that I get a better service from my current Internet provider than any service that Eircom advertise; I do (12MB connection with 1MB up, contention of 1:1 and no bandwidth cap), but that’s not the point.

It is not because when my ISP supply me with an access point, the default settings don’t leave it wide open to unauthorised access.  My access point’s quickstart guide included setting up WPA as a mandatory step, but that’s not the point.

It’s not because my ISP’s DNS servers have uptimes that can be measured in months and not minutes. Nor is it that my ISP’s DNS can generally be trusted as authoritative, and have never yet pointed me at a site incorrectly.  My ISP’s DNS is unimpeachable, but that’s not the point.

This is the point: your craven capitulation to the demands of record companies is unacceptable to me. Blocking thepiratebay.com is a shameful act of cowardice. It is a declaration that you would rather serve outside interests than those of your customers. It is a tacit admission that you believe your users to be untrustworthy.

This is the point: the thought that you would consider unilaterally implementing a so-called “three strikes” rule is reprehensible. You would trust the record companies (who don’t pay you a monthly fee) over the customers that you serve. The fact that you would voluntarily disconnect paying customers from a necessary service without due process or a legal order is a damning display of cowardice.

This is the point: the punishment is disproportionate to the crime. If one member of a family downloads music, the entire family is disconnected. If someone steals a CD from HMV, his brother isn’t forbidden from watching television.  His father isn’t prevented from filing his taxes.  His mother isn’t forbidden from looking up public service information.  His sister isn’t forbidden from talking on the telephone.  Under your regime, this is what happens.

This is the point: in the letter that you sent me, you describe Eircom as a “trusted provider”.  I cannot trust a company that already thinks I’m a thief.  I cannot trust a company that thinks it has the right to decide which websites I can and cannot visit.  That is why I am not coming back to Eircom.  That is why you will not be receiving my custom.

It is never difficult to spot when a company places its own interests above those of its customers.

Yours Sincerely,

Dear Ireland

It’s not like you’ve not seen it before. It’s been this way for hundreds, even thousands of years. The sky is not falling. It is rain.  There is no cause for alarm.  There is no cause for ludicrous acts of idiocy.

I am consitently confounded by the response of this nation to rain.  It is a fact of our climate: more days than not in a year, water will plummet from the sky.  Yet we frequently act as if this is something that we have never encountered, and that no sane person could have been expected to anticipate.  Rain.  In October?!  Surely this is some sign that the end of days is nigh and we should all head to Limerick and pray to a tree stump.

The roads fill up with cars.  Driving on a rainy day will leave you convinced that all of the unlicenced drivers on the road have congregated around you to demonstrate to each other how not to drive.  It is dangerous to drive on a wet day.  Less because the rain makes the roads treacherous, and more because the people on the roads are frantic, reckless, taken aback by the volume of traffic, and they are trying to get where they are going and trying to get there on time.  Rainy days also seem to precipitate broken headlights and short tempers.

I really don’t like talking about traffic this much, but I left the house at 8:40 this morning.  I was in work at my desk at 10:00.  Conversely, coming home, the sky was clear.  I left the office at 18:30 and I was home before 19:00.

May Contain Awesome

My younger brother texted me the other day.  This isn’t exactly strange, but we don’t talk as much as we used to do when we lived in the same house.  He took up playing the guitar a while ago, and even when he fractured his wrist, he was still practising away like a mad thing.  The text I received asked if he could borrow one of my electric guitars to play in the battle of the bands at his school.

A flood of emotions and thoughts all at once.  Of course I’m immensely proud.  Excited.  Delighted.  Intrigued.  What are they going to play?  Who are the other lads in the band?  Who’s singing?  When is the battle of the bands?  Can I play?  Most importantly, what are they going to call the band?  You might think this is a fairly trivial thing, but it’s of huge importance.  A band’s name can say a lot about them.  Before you’ve even begun playing, you introduce yourself and people begin to form opinions on the strength of your name alone.  A name can be cocky, it can be self-conscious, it can be pretentious, it can be anything.  But a name is a product of the band, and it can give a bit of insight into how the band thinks.

My brother’s band are considering “May Contain Awesome”.  This is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect a bunch of 13 year olds to come up with.   I love it.

I’ve been gigging for years, and I’ve made pretty much every mistake someone can make on stage and off.  I know how to do this right and I know how to do it wrong.  I want to help my brother, but I don’t want to lecture him.  I have no problem pontificating about gigging here, but I don’t want to be an overbearing shit and ruin my brother’s fun.  So I’m going to limit myself to one piece of advice.

Make sure you’re in tune.

Simple, but there is no such thing as “close enough”.  Along with whichever guitar he chooses, he will be getting a loan of my Tuner Pedal.

I hate Dublin traffic.

Since I’ve come back from my holidays, it has been taking me an extra 20 minutes each day to get to work. I don’t mean that this is 20 minutes on top of my standard journey time, I mean 20 additional minutes each day. On Monday, it took me ~40 minutes. On Tuesday, it took an hour.  On Wednesday, determined to miss the traffic, I left the apartment a full hour earlier than I’d left on Monday and Tuesday. It took me 80 minutes to get to work on Wednesday.
I travel a distance of around 8 miles to work each day.  On Wednesday , I traveled at an average speed of 6 MPH. Much of this time was spent sitting still in traffic for minutes at a time, playing Solitaire on my iPod. For some reason, the stretch of the N81 between Templeogue and the M50 roundabout does not move. A slow mosey would be enough to beat a car up this short stretch of road.

One of the guys at work has shown me a convoluted route that will assuredly get me to work in 30 minutes, but will actually make my route longer by about 2 miles. This is well and good, but it should not be necessary. I am not an expert at traffic modeling, but I can’t imagine a worse model for traffic in this area.  The Spawell Roundabout seems to be the major hold-up here. People come to the roundabout, and they can’t get on or get through because they are timid, or nervous, or because some cunt who doesn’t know the rules of the road, or doesn’t care is sitting in the yellow box, blocking traffic to two exits from the roundabout.  These last ones are the people who make me pray for spontanrous rains of gigantic, flaming hail.

There are two other major hold ups on the route home in the opposite direction. The first is the Bus Only traffic light on the Terenure Road.  This is a ridiculous concession that inconveniences a huge number of cars, and has on more than one occasion added an extra 10 mintues to my journey home.  In those 10 minutes, the only vehicles I saw make use of the bus lane were taxis and bikes.  In the middle of rush hour, this light is indispensable, I would imagine – merging a bus into a solid line of traffic would be impossible without it.  But at 18:30 when I’m tried and I’ve already spent a significant proportion of my day sitting in traffic, it’s stupid.  I have more than a sneaking suspicion that the timing on this set of lights has not been changed since the number of buses has been dropped.  You will even find a line of cars sitting waiting for this light to change after 19:00 when the bus lane is open to all traffic.  These people need to take the plastic bags off their heads, and start breathing air again before they suffocate.

The other major hold up on the way home are the traffic lights at Terenure, coming down the side of the car dealership.  The ones that are on a period almost exactly half that of the ones less than 20 metres away at Terenure cross.  The ones where you can routinely sit through an entire turn of the lights and get nowhere.  With idiots sititng behind you blowing their horn when you don’t shoe-horn yourself into the yellow box.  These idiots need to be garotted with a rusty wire.  This junction is the epitome of poor traffic management, and it causes no end of consternation and hassle.  And the idiots that are responsible for it are the ones who make me glad that schadenfreude isn’t a crime.

I enjoy driving.  I hate commuting.  I think I’m going to buy a bike.

Do not play a gig in a nightclub

If you are playing in a nightclub, you are going to have a shitty gig.

Generally, a gig in a nightclub is early or mid-week.  The management has figured that they’re not making much money on these nights and decide to try and get a different crowd in to grab some more cash, counting on the bands to haul down a load of their mates and fans.  They figure once you get this scruffy, mop-haired demographic in the door and make some sort of concession to their taste in music that they’ll stick around.  We’re basically unemployable alcoholics, right?

The management find some well-meaning, but ultimately ineffectual young man to run the sound.  If this kid is given any budget, it’s insufficient, and so the gig is run with equipment not really suited to it.  The PA is designed to blare bass heavy music and not be bothered by such subtleties as dynamics or mid to high-end.  It is not designed with rock music in mind, nor is it suited for a live performance.  Amplifiers will probably be mic’d, but there will not be enough mic-stands, so the mic will be dangling from its cable which is looped through the carry-handle on top of the amp.

You will only hear one instrument.  There’s no way to know which.  You might have a sound check, the importance of this having been driven into the skull of the young sound-guy by that online tutorial he read, or by one of the other bands.  You will have time to soundcheck one instrument, and much time will be spent trying to get the mic for that instrument’s amplifier to report any sound at all.  After that, the signal will be EQ’d within an inch of its life.  You will have 30 seconds to play with the full band – just long enough to hear how lopsided everything sounds.  Do not expect relative levels to be adjusted until you are off stage.  Don’t fret, though.  By the time you get back on stage to perform, the levels will bear no resemblance to the levels that were “set” during your sound check.

There is no stage in most of these places.  More importantly, because there is no stage, there is no monitor set up.  If you’re playing an instrument you’ll be told to stand next to your amp.  If you’re singing… well, nobody really wanted to hear your part anyway.

Few, if any, of these gigs are run by a promoter, so the bands will be expected to provide their own backline.  Many of the bands playing these gigs will be doing so because they are either new to the game, or woefully ignorant of how the game is played.  They will expect too much, and give too little.  They will not be helpful, either out of arrogance, ignorance, ineptitude, or because they think they are rockstars.  Someone will generously offer to schlepp a drum kit in, but come gig time, you will find that he has either left some crucial item at home, or decided that your drummer can’t be trusted with it.  Thus, instead of sound-checking, your drummer will spend 20 minutes running around looking for a snare-drum stand.

Moreover, the management in a nightclub expect people to pay in.  Your friends will be charged a tenner (or more) to see you play.  The booze will be over-priced and shitty.  The people who come to see the other bands on the bill with you will leave as soon as their friends are done.  You will be playing to the smattering of your friends that like you well enough to pay €10 to not-hang-out with you for 40 minutes.

You can still have a shitty gig in a proper venue, but it’s less likely.  And while you might see one of these problems in a better equipped venue, the chances are that the management there are more familiar with how to run a gig, that the engineer knows enough tricks to work around most problems, the promoter has the sense to charge no more than a fiver in and if all else fails, you can at least get smashed on still shitty, but at least reasonably priced booze.

Do not play a gig in a nightclub.  If you do, and your gig is shitty, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Constant Craving

I have a hankering for some kit.

I’ve wanted a home recording set up for a long time.  Not anything particularly fancy – the modern equivalent of an 8-track, maybe with a bell or two, and a functional, if mainly decorative whistle.  On top of that, a mic for recording acoustic instruments and vocals, and a stand so that I don’t have to hold this mic with my feet while I play. I already have a set up picked out.  You could call it rudimentary at a stretch.

In my head, this will be the audio equivalent of a sketch book.  I can pick it up and plug in and record that riff while it’s still fresh in my head.  I can put down a melody and try different harmonies over the top until I find one I’m happy with.  If I think of that perfect lick to go over a chord progression, then I can try it out.  What’s more, I can lay down that shitty pop-punk track I’ve had in my head for the last week, and see what all the bits sound like when they’re put together.  I can add bass-lines, and vocals all by myself, and get an idea of what the finished song would sound like.  If I come up with a lick or a riff that I think would work as a song with the band, I can throw together something for the guys to listen to, instead of saying “it goes like this, and then like that, and then has this weird bit that happens twice, and then goes back to the first bit”.

But this is not a set up that will ever enable me to produce release quality tracks.  That’s not what I want to do at the minute, but I might want to at some point in the (not necessarily too distant) future.  I know I could get some software and an outboard sound-card for my laptop, and have a better quality, more versatile set up than this for around the same price.  But I work with computers all day.  They are slow, they are unreliable, and they crash at inopportune moments.  I don’t want the hassle of dealing with a computer when I am trying to relax by playing some music.  Waiting for Windows to boot, and then $mixer_app to load and then open a new project adds too much delay between “idea!” and that idea on tape.

Shit Venues (to play).

There are a many reasons a gig you’ve played can be shitty:  your band is under-rehearsed; the lead guitar player is drunk; someone gets stage-fright.  There could be issues external to the band: the venue is empty; there’s a heckler in the audience; or you’re put off-stage early because the promoter is trying to fit 5 bands into 2 hours.  Then there are the gigs that you knew were going to be shit the second you walked into the venue: the drum-kit is held together with electrical tape; there is one amp with a rip in the speaker and what you thought were monitors actually turn out to be beer-crates holding the stage up.

The following is a list of venues where the gig was ruined by the venue:

  1. The Sugar Club
    OK, so The Sugar Club isn’t the worst venue I’ve played in.  However every time I have played the Sugar Club, I have had a shitty monitor mix.  I don’t know how this happens!  The mix is usually fine during sound-check, but by the time I’m halfway through the first song, I’m standing right in front of my amplifier to hear what I’m playing.  This is a simple fix – it can’t be anything more complicated than a loose connection.  The Sugar Club is a great venue to play in, otherwise – good atmosphere, good sound, a dance area that will look full with 35-40 people on it – but a bad monitor mix leaves a sour taste in your mouth.
  2. Slattery’s
    Slattery’s
    of Capel St.  There’s a venue upstairs.  It’s quite nice. Although, when I say a venue, I mean it’s a lounge with a stage in the corner.  And when I say a stage, I don’t want you to misconstrue – you might imagine something you could perform a small play on.  It’s a platform just big enough to fit three guys with guitars on. If there is a fourth member of your band, or if you have a drummer, you’d better hope you’re all very comfortable with each other’s body odours.
    This is simply a poor choice of venue for band.  It’s fine if you’re just another mopey fucker with a guitar and “something to say”.  But if you want to rock it out, this is a bad venue.  The PA is not good enough, and the only monitor set up that you will get is standing very close to your amp.  This is also the venue that left me with a permanent aversion to good mic-technique.
    I was a slightly beardy.  I was singing backing vocals.  Every time I got near the gorram microphone, I got a jolt of electricity in my stubble.  To this day, I cannot sing into a mic properly – I have a pavlovian fear of microphones that comes from being shocked in the mouth constantly for 40 minutes.  I don’t know why there should be a current running through a Shure SM58, but there was through this one, and then through me.
  3. Pravda
    I played a gig in Pravda recently.  I will not be playing in Pravda again.  There were three mic’s on stage: one sitting on the blanket inside the kick-drum, and the other two on inappropriately long boom stands for vocals.  The only monitor on stage was there to keep the mic-stands from falling over.  There was enough cable on stage for you to trip over yourself and get caught on cable again before you hit the ground.  The hi-hat stand was supplied sans-clutch.  The kick-drum was supplied sans kick-pedal.  The sound check consisted of some kid who cannot yet shave telling us that he would not be mic’ing the amps, and that if he waved at us, we should turn up or down.  To sing harmonies, I had to look at the faces of the few people who were actually near the stage to tell whether or not I was in tune.
    These problems all actually stem from a larger issue of night-clubs trying to put on gigs.  More on this later.

I’ve played shit gigs in great venues, but less frequently than I’ve played shit gigs in shit venues.  To put it more poetically (or pretentiously, if you’d rather), the venue is the canvas on which you will paint your performance.  If you are relaxed and at your leisure, you will play better.  If the stage is well set-up, then however many people show up will see and hear you at your best.  If there is a decent monitor set up, you can focus on playing, not hearing what you are playing.  It’s not impossible to play well in a bad venue, but it is more difficult.

Car Insurance

I am mystified by the insurance industry.  It was time for me to renew my car insurance. My agent rang me up and said “It’s time to renew your insurance. It will cost you €1,740.”
I said “What?”
“€1,740”
“Last year, my quote was significantly less than that, around €900, I think. Since then, I have another year’s driving experience, I’ve reached the age of 25 that seems to mean I am now a Man in the eyes of insurers, I have an additional year of no-claims, and I am willing to pay with a single payment. You are telling me that I will be paying nearly twice what I paid including interest and charges when I paid last year by monthly direct debit?”
“Please hold on a minute, sir”

A few minutes later, she comes back and tells me that she can do me a deal for €1,567.  I don’t have that money to hand, so I say I’ll have to think about it and I will be in touch.  I call the bank and immediately ask them to up the limit on my credit card, thinking I’ll pay on the credit card – I’d rather give the interest to the bank than the insurance agents at this point.  I then hit google and look up a bunch of quotes online.  Instantly, I find a quote that is €200 cheaper than the best offer I’d just been shown.  A bit more digging and I find a quote of €816.  That’s nearly €1,000 less than the first quote.

Not believing this, or thinking there’s some catch, or that I would be compromising my level of cover, I call up the broker that showed me this quote.  Over the phone, the guy quotes me €720.  I do a quiet double take.  I ask him some questions like “that’s fully comprehensive, right?”, “that includes breakdown assistance, right?” and “does that include windscreen repair?”.  He answers all of these questions the same: “Yes, sir.”  I can’t get my credit card out fast enough.

This has left me with two things I don’t understand:

  1. Why didn’t the agent who called me the first time quote me her best price right away?  Why did I have to haggle before I got to the best price.  I can only assume this is because most people will pay what they are told, and won’t question it.  Maybe this is a symptom of being Irish.  We don’t talk about money, dear.  But it’s foolish to waste money when you can save up to €200 by just asking is there a better price available.
  2. How can there be such a huge differential?  One online broker found me quotes every €200 between €1500 and €900.  I filled my information in once, and this website checked a bunch of insurers for me.  One of the insurers it claimed to have checked was my own, yet the highest price was ~€100 cheaper than the best price my insurer had offered me.  From this, I can infer that insurers are just making it up as they go.  I always thought it was a job of rigourous statisitcal analysis, depressing actuarial tables and carefully measured risk.  Apparently not.  Apparently they’re talking out their collective arses.

By the way, the cheap quote I got was from http://insure.ie/.  Might not be cheaper for you, but it certainly was for me.