Thanks to a serendipitous choice of website layout, we have multicoloured TARDIS stairs now

I'm not sure this is something that website designers should try to reproduce, though.

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When we moved into our new house in October 2014, we triaged our redecoration. We repainted walls in colours that we preferred, especially those downstairs rooms that visitors might see, or rooms we’d be in much of the time. We decided not to bother too much with any of the carpets: they were pretty knackered, and when we had time and money we’d get rid of them. Besides, we were going to get a puppy.

Ella has discovered that the carpet is not an integral part of the stairs...

Fast-forward a year, and Cleodhna was looking at replacing the stair carpet with rubber tiles, because they’re easy to clean and the dogs would be happy.

(This isn’t as silly an idea as it sounds. Habibi, our smallest dog, doesn’t like going up stairs where she can see gaps between the steps, and she has problems on wooden staircases. We wanted to be sure that she would be comfortable going up and down, and not insist on being carried up the stairs all the time.)

The website had a range of tiles in various colours, and the way it was displaying them… Why choose just the one colour?

Well, she ordered a bunch of tiles, and we offered them up in situ. And of course we clamped her Proper Camera to the bannister with a tripod/octopus hybrid that you can get in John Lewis, because we were going to do things properly:

And lo and behold, now we have TARDIS stairs:

Here’s a before and after shot. As is traditional with these sort of things, the before shot is lit badly to make it look even worse than it actually was.

Part of me wishes that they lit up and played sound when you trod on them, just to go into full-on music video territory. That’s almost certainly a bad idea, though. Not only would it be tricky, impractical and the novelty value would wear off, at least one of us would probably suffer a significant injury while trying to play the stairs like a musical instrument. Besides, there are 12 stairs, and (assuming each stair went up by a semitone) you’d need 13 to make a complete octave. The missing last note would drive me spare.

No dog show for us this year

The first time Ella came into season, she insisted on going outside at all hours and burying her toys. This time we had to lock all the doors.

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Bujadelle, a small village where my old primary school teacher lives, is just under 2km away by car. As the crow flies, or, perhaps more pertinently, as the large black intact male dog runs, it’s just a kilometre away. At first we thought Ella was merely happily barking at a friend down the hill, but then her friend turned up at the front of the house, and after some coaxing came into the kitchen. He had a collar (albeit without a phone number to call), and was obviously well-cared-for, so we gave him some food and prepared to keep him inside with our two for the night. And then he started getting somewhat frisky with Ella…

Ella’s and his puppies would have been magnificent, but Ella isn’t even a year old yet, even if we had room in Glasgow to raise a litter of puppies, which we don’t. So we sadly ushered him outside - and found the lengths a large smart dog will go to if there’s an attractive bitch in heat inside a house.

Opening doors: yes, he knew how to do that, so we pushed the door handles up so you’d need a strong downward force to open them. Problem is, he was large, determined and smart enough to be able to do that, and also to jump over or wriggle under the fence in the back garden - which we realised when we suddenly heard Ella and big black dog playing together outside when surely she’d been inside only moments ago. So we brought her back in, locked all the doors, and I went to bed so I could drive him to the police station in the morning where they’d scan him and find his owner. Only to be regularly awoken by a large dog barking or howling every half hour or so, and our dogs barking back.

Eventually he went to sleep under a tree in our front garden, and then went away for a while before returning late in the afternoon. At that point his owners had realised he’d got out, and our neighbours had recognised him and phoned them, so everyone was happily reunited. And at one point I’d like to go and see them in Bujadelle, because he truly was a magnificent dog: very large, jet-black with brown accents, a coat like a flat-coated retriever but wiry, intelligent and good-natured.

In the mean time, though, our plans for tomorrow are scuppered. There’s a dog show that happens every year and we were looking forward to going with our two, but taking a bitch in heat to a large assembly of dogs, all of whom are trying to be on their best behaviour… no, that’s not fair to anybody.

Taji on the bed

It all started when we were in the car on the way back from the vet. Taji was slightly overweight, so Cleodhna was calling him “fat boy”, “lardass”, and so on. He’d put up quite a struggle before they could take a blood sample, so she was also alternately calling him “petunia”, “wussbag” etc. Then she crossed the streams.

“Fat Petunia!”

That was instantly, indelibly, unavoidably, his nickname from then on. He gained more nicknames over the years: “chocolate” from when he ate an entire bar of Green & Black’s and had to be rushed to the emergency vet (the case notes for that incident read in part “large amount of dark brown chocolate smelling vomit produced”); “bell” from the bell we put on his collar when in France so we could hear him having got out of our garden and into the neighbours’. He would blow his coat twice a year, but refused to let us brush him, or pluck any more than a few handfuls of tufts off him; that was where “fruity hairball” (or, possibly, “hairy fruitball”) came from. (When he needed to have his teeth descaled, something that by necessity involves general anaesthesia because you can’t tell a dog to hold his head still and not move, we asked the vets to also pluck all the loose hair from him while they were at it. One of the vet nurses described the process as “oddly therapeutic”, like doggy bubble wrap.) He got “deckchair” from his habit of lying down from standing: first cantilevering his hindquarters down, then his front.

He was also the first of our dogs who truly had a voice of his own. Something about him made us want to speak aloud the thoughts that, we were quite clear, were going through that strange doggy brain of his. Typically they would start with “you have food. Give it to me”; when rebuffed, he would point out good and noble things that he had done recently, and, after a pause, “I should be rewarded”. (If we pointed out that he’d just had such a thing only moments ago, his response would be “I have no concept of time”.) He seemed the sort of dog that would try to argue logically but fail, so we delighted in him spouting grotesquely flawed arguments.

His first owner thought he was (or should be) a tough guy dog, and taught him all sorts of bad habits; two other would-be owners returned him to the kennels because he was too boisterous. Cleodhna had bruises all over her arms and legs when we first got him because he would occasionally do a “batzoid” when out on walks, jumping up and biting her. Eventually we realised that this wasn’t aggression, but something he thought was a game that he should play, so we resolved to just turn our backs until he stopped, and within a couple of months he stopped and never did it again.

In truth, Taji was a total goofball - “cozy lummox” I’d call him. He loved nothing more than to sleep on the bed with me; I’d have to make sure that the duvet was spread over his side of the bed because he wouldn’t lie down otherwise, he’d turn around in place two or three times just to be sure, and then flop down beside me with a satisfied sigh. Often work started later than planned because how could you get out of bed when there was a warm furry akita to cuddle?

When Berkeley died we decided we would truly embrace the life of endless drifts of dog hair and get a longcoat Akita. Ella is as different from him as it’s possible to be while still being the same breed, but he patiently accepted her into the family, even when she decided that the best thing about his tail was that it would fit in her mouth. He was slowing down - 10 is a reasonable age for a large dog like an Akita - but the arrival of a new puppy rejuvenated him to some degree; only a couple of weeks ago they were happily romping in the garden.

In the end, it was quick: he suffered a quick gastric dilation that damaged a fairly hefty part of his stomach lining, which then proceeded to leak toxins into his system. We rushed him to the vet on Thursday evening, then again on Friday afternoon, and he was dead on Saturday morning.

Ella is arguably a “better” dog - she has a wonderful temperament, without any hang-ups, and she’ll let us brush her. I look forward to when she’s fully grown and I have to stop calling her puppy and can instead call her Your Furry Highness or Your Hairy Majesty. But we would never have had her if Taji hadn’t first shown us the Way of the Akita. Thank you for all you gave us, dear old boy. I miss you terribly.

Taji in our garden

Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence; what would third be?

"Enemy action" doesn't apply as both times things have been scary but ultimately good things.

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This is now the second time that my cousin Barney has jumped in to help us during an emergency the day before he was due to drive back to the UK from our house in France. The first time, it was when a storm went from “impressive!” to “er, this is getting a bit scary” to “help, a tile from a neighbour’s roof has shattered a window and water is running through the kitchen!”. This time it was “Taji isn’t looking well, he has a distended stomach and he’s just tried to throw up but nothing happened; damn, this might well be bloat, in which case we might only have an hour or two”. He needed a vet, and I’d had enough to drink that I was probably over the limit (not that in this case it would have stopped me), but Barney stepped up, and we bundled Taji into his car.

This post wasn’t titled “Taji Totoro Fat Chocolate Bell Petunia Fruity Hairball Deckchair Nightshade: 2006-2016” so it’s giving nothing away to say that Taji is fine. He’s asleep on the kitchen floor, dreaming happy opioid dreams; Habibi and Ella, having fussed over him when he came in, are asleep nearby. The vets told us to let his stomach empty entirely before we let him drink in the morning, and then have some food by midday, small doses each, so that’s what we’ll do. We’ll get some elevated food bowls because there’s a suggestion that it helps. But in truth nobody really knows why big dogs can get stomach bloat, or why it happened this time. He certainly didn’t do anything obvious like wolf down a huge quantity of food and then do a sled run, which is the closest vets have to a likely cause.

Once at the vet surgery, they sedated him a bit to x-ray him, found a whole bunch of air inside his stomach, sedated him some more so they could stick a probe down his throat and suck a bunch of air and water out and not much more; then we waited for Taji to unzonk, while Barney had a power nap in the car, and the two vets (on-call vet + vet who knows what he’s doing) discussed between themselves why on-call vet thought Akitas were smaller, and which breed he was thinking of instead. Remembering the last time that Taji had general anaesthetic (he needed his teeth cleaned, but while they were at it we asked them to also cut his nails and pluck him of his blown coat that he normally won’t let us touch), I took the opportunity to pluck him. Unfortunately I only got to deal with one half of him as he was lying on his side, so he’ll probably look rather strange in the morning.

Meanwhile, here’s a reminder that all problems in the world can be found to involve telephony and/or computer problems these days. Most trivially, by the time senior vet went to look for x-rays, it took him a while to realise that we’d gone from 14th July to 15th July, so the reason why the photos were missing was that he was now officially in the Wrong Day. More interestingly, on-call vet was accustomed to seeing people phone the vet’s phone number and getting put through to his mobile, presenting as phoning him from the vet practice. When I called, though, the practice’s telephony passed my number - all 13 digits of it - straight through, so on-call vet assumed he was being cold-called by dodgy randos. It’s only because I called back a few times that he was persuaded that I was serious.

Wait, no, I can blame something even more topical. When I called the first time I assumed that the vet’s phone system was on the blink because I couldn’t hear anything happening; in fact, my phone was for some reason only relaying sound when I put the speaker on, so the first message on-call vet got in his voicemail was basically background noise of trees rustling in the breeze while I waited for something to happen. Once we’d arrived at the vet’s I rebooted my phone and everything was back to normal again.

What happened to my phone, though, that I could only use it as a speakerphone and not as an actual, you know, phone? Well, there was only one thing I’d done recently that could have anything to do with that.

That’s right.

I blame Pokémon Go.

Berkeley Baskerville Nightshade


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Berkeley in a chair

Before we moved in together, let alone before we were married, Cleodhna said to me that she was thinking about getting a puppy. I said to her: “I love you dearly; I may not love your dog”.

And it’s true that Berkeley, in many ways, was not the perfect dog. He wasn’t what your idle dog-fancier would call beautiful; not in the way Laszlo (Malamute-Alsatian cross) or Taji (Japanese Akita) would attract attention everywhere they went, although he did have his share of admirers. Hell, your idle dog-fancier wouldn’t know what to call him, and neither did we: lurcher cross? bit of bearded collie in there maybe? something else? we had no idea. Cleodhna would occasionally meet someone else with a dog that looked like Berkeley and would ask “what sort is your dog?” and they wouldn’t know either.

He was shaggy enough that when he decided to roll in something - like, for instance, the same dead salmon he’d found the two previous days running - you would smell it until you’d managed to douse him in baby shampoo and hose him off. In those days when we lived next to Byres Road, he would sing along to fire engines when they drove past (we never managed to take him to Edinburgh during the Festival so he could troll pipers).

And he certainly wasn’t smart: Laszlo had to teach him that when Cleodhna went outside (the same way they went outside for walks every goddamn day), she would turn up on the street that they could see out of the window. Berkeley knew that if he dropped his ball on one particular hill in the Botanic Gardens, it would roll downhill; it took him quite a while to systematise gravity, viz. that that happened if he dropped his ball on any hill.

But then, contra Taji, he never displayed any inclination towards eating broken glass and/or Buckfast. Thanks to a freak event when he was out in the Botanic Gardens playing with his squeaky broccoli, he never had Habibi’s fear of thunderstorms, because Cleodhna said “hey, hooray, lightning, isn’t this fun‽” and he played and barked and thought no more of it. And his habit of shoving his head between random new stranger’s knees (because that’s obviously how you get stroked) stood in stark contrast with Laszlo’s absolute fear of anybody he hadn’t been out on a walk with. (If Laszlo had been out on a walk with them, though, they were suddenly Pack, and prone to muscular displays of affection. Jessie claims she still bears the bruises to this day.)

And towards the end of his life, when he was in and out of the Vet School at Glasgow University, he never made a fuss. There were times when we’d be in a consulting room and in would come Dr French, like a mother goose followed by a gaggle of vet students, and the students would take turns prodding him and listening to his heart and doing the sort of uncertain things that first year vet students do. Berkeley quietly let them do whatever they wanted, like an absolute trooper.

And if I have any single thought of Berkeley, it’s as Dog: not the pretty dog, nor the smart dog, not the goofball dog, just the ur-Dog. With his magnificent eyebrows, his fuzzy coat that would be a CGI renderer’s nightmare, and above all that simple but somehow beautiful face, he was the epitome of furry, patient doggy love.

You made me into a dog person, Berkeley. I hope you’re proud of yourself.

Berkeley by the canal

Alien epistolary fanfic

A brilliant short story about Weyland-Yutani stuffing and mounting an alien went missing from Google. I'm trying to put it back.

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Earlier today I was looking for a short story, in epistolary format, about a bunch of Weyland-Yutani scientists lumbered, thanks to corporate scheming, with stuffing and mounting an alien. (Which is tricky given the damn thing has an exoskeleton.)

Well, eventually a kind soul on the Internet found it, and it turns out that the website has decided to ban Google from viewing all but the preamble - which, of course, includes none of the important keywords that I’d used to try and narrow this particular fan-fiction.

So yeah. A bunch of Weyland-Yutani scientists emailing each other about how to stuff and mount an alien. Maybe Google will remember it now? Although their search has been getting increasingly worse in the last year or so, so I doubt it.

Asymmetrical warfare works both ways

Commenters don't care if their comment is deleted.

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I blanked it last week, because, frankly, it sounded silly: a 13-year-old girl has just made a music promo that suddenly went viral on the basis of how bad it was. The link to the article isn’t working for me, but Boing Boing’s summary is probably good enough for now: despite the promo being horribly bad, it’s very difficult to parody because it depicts, pitch-perfectedly, the reality and aspirations of its 13 year old target market.

(Yes, I am aware of the irony of using the phrase “pitch-perfect” when discussing a company whose business model involves relentlessly auto-tuning the vocals of teenagers who can’t sing.)

The comments to the Boing Boing article are full of parodies, and contrary to the article’s claim, some of them are pretty good. Appositely, most of the successful parodies succeed by using well-worn tropes - take a bubblegum pop song and turn it into something else by slowing it down and changing into a minor key. (Bonus points if you convert the protagonist from a happy 13-year-old girl into a wrong-side-of-20-something unshaven slovenly guy, although that’s strictly speaking a video job and not an audio job.)

And there are plenty of people pointing out that, these days, camera and audio gear is cheap: Rebecca Black’s parents paid $3,000 to record the song and shoot the promo, and with the state of technology today it’s completely reasonable to assume that the company involved made a fat profit.

To a certain degree I feel sad that technology has produced this; not for any rational reason, but because I remember my father being in the “music video” business. (He always referred to them as promos, rather than videos, possibly because that better referred to their inherent advertising nature, but more probably because many of them were shot on film, so the term “video”, referring to video tape, was actively misleading, dammit).

But then I look at other videos by the same people that uploaded Rebecca Black’s “official video”, and I realise that they’ve got the last laugh after all. Because they’ve gone to all the related videos, and marked every single comment as spam.

No, seriously. trizzygg’s YouTube channel currently links to four “official video” videos, presumably produced on behalf of teenagers with more parent’s money than sense. And the video that’s currently the promoted video for this account is full of comments. But not the others. They’ve all been mass-marked as spam by, presumably, employers or employees of a business who knew that they were temporarily getting more attention than they wanted, and who knew that Youtube comments are a drive-by phenomenon: people come by, comment, and then have no interest in ever following up their comment.

Which makes it a no-risk, no-brainer to claim that those comments were spam. Hardly anyone will be banned by this - the algorithms will realise that this was a false positive, an erroneous diagnostic of a real person being a spammer - and therefore nobody will notice. But conversely nobody will realise that a certain user is deliberately, and probably automatedly, tarring real people with the brush of being fake.

Social network friendspam

Random cynicism, human-powered data mining, or the latest iteration of 419 scams?

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I’m on Twitter, and while I’m not a prolific poster, occasionally tweets will attract the attention of some random bot that decides to follow me, maybe thinking that I’ll follow it back. I mostly ignore them - everything I post is public, after all, so it’s not as if there would be any benefit in them following me via’s APIs as opposed to screen-scraping every so often.

I’m also on Facebook and LinkedIn, which are walled-garden sites, though, and require some degree of human interaction. And that’s where things get intriguing.

I view LinkedIn as a purely professional social network, which is why, with a few exceptions, I don’t friend anyone I haven’t actually worked with. Occasionally I’ll see a friend request come in from a marketing guy at UK2, or a UK2 Group company, who’s clearly asking anyone he can find (it’s nearly always men) to connect with him so he can boast a larger number of connections or something. That’s OK - it’s a different but valid interpretation of social networks, and everyone has a different interpretation of what it would mean to be friends or connected with someone. Some friend everyone they’ve ever met, and connect with everyone they’ve shared office space with. Others restrict themselves to people they actually consider friends, and people they’ve worked with and would work with again.

Then Jacob Wall turns up today. Jacob Wall describes himself as an “Account Manager at Steadfast Networks”, which I assume to be The only connection between me and him is that he works for a hosting company in Chicago, and my company’s parent company owns a hosting company, or maybe it’s a data centre, in Chicago. (I needed to google that - I’m not involved in any of this stuff at all.)

I can only assume this is friend spam: trying to inflate your connections numbers by attempting to friend everyone in your industry. Maybe this works for him - maybe he does this a couple of days after each major conference, hoping that a few people thing “this must be some random guy I met in a bar” and friend him.

At least Jacob Wall is a plausibly real person - he’s on Google and his details match. The next one is altogether weirder.

Earlier today, Facebook emailed me to tell me that some random guy person called Michael Waiganjo wanted to be my friend. I have no idea who this Michael person is (although I suspect the profile picture is fake - if you’re not on Facebook, or the account has been pulled, this is the image in question). So I told him to fuck off.

But what’s in it for Michael? Why does being my friend on Facebook matter? I can understand rogue apps requesting excessive privileges just to display a pretty picture, and promptly mining my contacts database for juicy information; is this an attempt to do the same via the subtly different method of claiming to be an impossibly cool person?

Or is this the latest iteration of 419 scams? Get friended, burble away with random plausible everyday stuff like “hey, I ate roast beef and it was awesome” for a few weeks, and then say “Hey, mate, I’m awfully sorry, but I need, like, 10 bucks” and see if any sucker bites?


Refusing to discuss awkward documents because you'd rather nobody knew about them.

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There’s been a lot of talk about the latest Wikileaks document dump of “secret” (i.e. only shared with about 3 million Americans) diplomatic cables. Charlie Stross has a good round-up - be sure to read the linked article on why Julian Assange is doing this in the first place.

A lot of it is rather inconsequential, and, if anything, reflects well on US ambassadorial and consular staff - this description of an elaborate Dagestani wedding is informed, well-written, incisive and something any diplomat or journalist should be proud of.

Yet the response has been almost comically over the top. The Guardian talks to the US Government to make sure that nothing it was about to publish would accidentally imperial covert operatives? CNN’s Wolf Blitzer wants everyone, anyone, hung, drawn and quartered for this document leak to have been even possible. And then you get this Foreign Office response to a story about how the UK agreed to let the US have cluster bombs:

We reject any allegation that the Foreign Office deliberately misled parliament or failed in our obligation to inform parliament. We cannot go into specifics of any leaked documents because we condemn any unauthorised release of classified information.

Not “we didn’t let the US keep cluster bombs on Diego Garcia, and the leaked cables are wrong”. No, the much simpler “we don’t like there being leaked cables, therefore we’ll deny anything in them and won’t discuss them”.

Whither the Union?

A revised House of Lords may be the most surprising outcome of Britain's new coalition government.

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The new Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition deal includes one intriguing detail: a commitment to a partially- or wholly-elected House of Lords. This being a Conservative-led government, and the nature of the House of Lords in the UK political system being what it is, I don’t think anyone particularly expects the renovation of the Lords to go quickly or simply; it will almost certainly be a matter of compromise after fudge after delay, with most of the difficult decisions kicked into the long grass until the more troublesome problems retire or die. I would be surprised if, by the end of the current parliament, we had anything greater than 25% of the Lords elected. But it’s the method of electing members to the upper House which may have the most lasting effect on British politics.

Not that this will be the stated intention of anyone involved; British governments are elected, and staffed almost entirely from, the House of Commons, and the Commons would have very little inclination to surrender power to the upper House under most circumstances. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats alike have talked about renovating politics, and it’s tempting to save money by sweeping away a number of old fossils and Labour cronies (13 years of Prime Ministerial patronage adds up), but after a bruising experience cobbling together a coalition in one House, the last thing any new government wants is to make more problems for itself in the other. However it is reformed and composed, the House of Lords should be expected to remain a revising chamber, restraining the excesses and haste of the Commons, possibly, but in case of serious conflict determinedly subservient to the wishes of the one House that is truly popularly elected.

And there’s the rub: you can’t do that if you have a House of Lords that is as legitimately-elected as the Commons.

(Note that you’d have this problem even if you weren’t a self-interested politician: if you’re going to elect two legislative chambers in similar ways, why bother having two of them?)

Countries that have a lower House and an upper House tend to have the lower House be regularly democratically-elected, and the upper House either indirectly-elected (e.g. French Senators are elected by and from local, departmental and regional councillors), elected in a way that disproportionally favours some regions over others (e.g. the USA allots each State in the Union two Senators, irrespective of population), or both. To encourage a long-term approach, upper Houses tend to also only have a certain proportion of the membership up for re-election at any given time, unlike the lower House where the entire membership is force to stand for re-election every time. That way, if an election goes against you, you can say “Hey, most of the House is still fine”, and move on.

I can’t imagine that any UK government would decide to have the House of Lords be elected using the same constituencies as the House of Commons. That would be such an amazing challenge to the legitimacy of MPs at best (if the same party won both the Commons and Lords seats), and the legitimacy of the government at worse (if its majority in the Commons was contradicted by the results in the Lords, because this is a mid-term election and voters want to send a message). So not only would a UK government, reforming the House of Lords, decide to have members elected to longer terms, but only refresh the House by thirds or quarters at any given election; I think it would choose different constituencies from the Commons. And I think the only practical choice is to choose to have the Lords elected from much larger geographical areas than the Commons.

Which suggests PR.

Now, normally this would be anathema to the Tories, but remember that the point of the House of Lords is to be less important than the Commons. Ideally the Tories would like the Lords to be elected by a disproportionately rural or wealthy electorate, so as to build in a long-term advantage for them, but even if it were politically possible to come up with an indirect electoral system in the 21st century, there’s an annoyingly-large number of Liberal Democrat councillors in the UK. Failing that, their best bet might be to come up with some sort of regionally-elected chamber so they can say that all regions are represented in government, and thus fend off any demands for more regional devolution, while similarly having it elected by a confusing and indecisive electoral process, which they can then point at and scorn whenever anyone asks about reforming the way we elect MPs.

Which is why I think we’ll see people seriously talking about a House of Lords elected using list-based PR on a county level. This has the advantage, to the Tories, of making sure that rural counties elect a disproportionate number of Conservatives, while exiling Labour peers in urban/unitary councils, and pacifying members of the smaller parties by saying “hey, you get representatives in the Lords, what are you complaining about?”

And PR will mean that the Tories have non-trivial numbers of elected members in all nations of the Union, even Scotland. Given that David Cameron desperately fears being the last Prime Minister of the Union, but had to choose a Liberal Democrat to be Scottish Secretary because he’s only got one Scottish MP from his own party, I think he might take this gamble.

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