My frustration with the hack culture here within the Oxford bubble has reached new heights in recent weeks. A hack is someone who gets involved in either student politics and student journalism with the primary aim of personal advancement; while they may have subsidiary interest in whatever it is the organisation they have joined does, they are generally willing to sacrifice effort they could put into the organisation if it serves their purposes. For example, they might join their JCR’s committee as a stepping-stone to greater power, neglecting the rest of their duties in that post just as soon as it has got them a ‘better’ job somewhere else. The greatest frustration is how to tell hacks from non-hacks when figuring out who to put effort into, who to rally behind and who to speak well of. It’s made harder by some hacks becoming alright when they get to the ‘pinnacle’ of their ‘career’ in Oxford; they might then start caring about things that matter once they’re comfortable. But figuring out when this has happened isn’t easy.

The thing that I’ve only really realised recently is just how much the main hack-infested organisations in Oxford link up with each other. Perhaps the biggest are the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC), the Oxford University Students Union (OUSU) and the Oxford Union (the Union), a debating society. My thought in the past was that they were fairly independent. There were the Labour hacks and the OUSU hacks and the Union hacks, with JCRs being trodden on by all three groups in their quests for advancement, but now I’ve realised that people tend to bounce back and forth between the three, sort of jumping up between three or four ladders. The only independents seem to be the journo-hacks who write the (abysmal) student press and don’t seem to get involved in the politics they write about directly, but this could be another illusion on my part. As I say, I’ve realised major links between the three lately. I always knew that OUSU has at least three sabs each year who got there because OULC masterminded their election campaign, but what I didn’t realise was that OUSU is basically under OULC’s control as it has many many elected positions, and the majority are filled with OULC folk. JCRs mean that we have a very weak students’ union in Oxford, with a very low election turnout, and this is capitalised on by the likes of OULC. Okay, I thought, so OUSU and OULC are tied up, but hopefully the rather less progressive Union is a separate entity; hopefully the OULC hacks have at least some standards and don’t throw their lot in over there. Some hope. At an OUSU campaign meeting this week where the best of OUSU’s campaigners met (and they really are quite good at fighting the university and its colleges), the chatter before the meeting began, from those there who I most respect, was concerned with whether or not each of them had voted in the Union elections happening that day.

This is not to say that there are not good people involved in these organisations too. My JCR job this year is to liaise with OUSU and form a link in the JCR-OUSU-NUS chain, and there are others like me who sit there getting frustrated and just try to improve things in our own little domains, with no thought of advancement. But we end up falling victim to hacks who try to muscle in on projects; we end up disenchanted with it all. At the start of this term I was very enthusiastic about OUSU and wanted to promote it within Balliol and work hard to counter its extremely low reputation there, but my impetus has all but disappeared as I’ve realised just how many of the people involved are there for the wrong reasons.

Time for two examples to attempt to illustrate my realisations. The first is a hack we’ll call X who I met at the meeting for JCR OUSU reps, so, all the people from across Oxford with my current job. He had a lot to say and a lot of it didn’t seem too relevant to me but there was nothing to complain about, even though my antihack-senses were tingling slightly. Then a few weeks later he stood for a minor position at OUSU that no-one had stood for in the real elections. Here come the divided loyalties which evidence his concern with personal advancement: I’m pretty sure that the position entitles him to a vote at OUSU Council, the place where JCR reps like me and the OUSU officers get together to make decisions. But you can’t have more than one vote. So his JCR’s vote (I have one of Balliol’s three votes) and his OUSU exec vote now clash and he can only use one, so he can’t do both jobs properly. A friend of mine in a similar situation resigned her JCR job as soon as she got elected to her OUSU one, in order that her college could continue to be represented properly. But, assuming I am right that the position X ran for does give him a vote, X clearly doesn’t care about either of the positions all that much and is keeping both to milk them for all they’re worth. The icing on the cake was when he came and sat down again after the hustings, and flipped open his laptop (obviously it was an Apple laptop; they often outnumber other makes in Oxford), and opened up the OULC website and looked at its committee page. There was his face smiling back, with a reasonably important-looking position. No wonder he won. The room was full of OULC people ready to vote him in.

But there’s more. As I mentioned earlier, it’s been Union elections this week and mysteriously my copy of the manifestos which I got pidged, and my neighbour’s, appeared on our kitchen table with no intervention from either of us… very odd. Flipping it open, guess who’s face stared back, standing for the Union’s governing body? That’s right. Then yesterday I learnt from someone else that X is also standing for OULC’s top position, co-chair, for next term. He can’t possibly do all this stuff at once without doing some of the jobs rather poorly, and it’s very disappointing to see that attitude.

I have another example of a Balliol friend, Y, who I watched pace around the front quad from the library window for most of yesterday as I battled through a challenging article on the problem of induction. He sat on the bench and messed with his laptop, and occasionally he would spot people he knows as members of the Union to go and ‘hack’ them to vote for him in the elections. That’s basically what they come down to. How good you are at getting mass numbers of people to go and vote for you. Y attempted to hack me multiple times and while I like him, I decided to stick to my principle of never voting in elections that are such a farce, and when I’m only voting for the candidate who asked me because I happen to know them. It’s all so very pathetic and such a waste of people’s time.

So why do hacks hack? It’s definitely a pre-medidated thing because they seem to arrive at Oxford and get right to it. If I wanted a hack career I wouldn’t stand a chance, because I’ve been here for a year and a half already; you have to get going right from the word go. Some of them genuinely enjoy debasing themselves in this way; Y definitely does and tells me so. And perhaps some of them excuse their desire for power and prestige with the thought that they can achieve some positive change by getting these positions; as I say, some hacks cease to hack once they reach the top of whatever ladder they are building for themselves and start to do good stuff. But the main reason is probably that they want to be politicians and (in the case of journo-hacks) journalists, and since they’re in Oxford, that’s what’ll happen. The coalition cabinet has more ex-presidents of the Union than women; people I know involved in student journalism are going to walk out of their degrees straight into the offices of national newspapers, for which they already write for. Some of them are very competent and this is good. But when you look at the overall state of these student organisations and realise the extent to which they feed the ruling classes and the press of this country one worries very much for the future.

The reason it upsets me is that I have a positive view of student politics in general and what is can achieve. I pour myself into my JCR to help it achieve things, and I enjoy giving something back to my immediate community. I’ve written before about how valuable I think JCR-style organisation of people to do stuff can be. But anything above that level ends up dominated by people out for themselves and that leads to projects being short-term and under-achieving.

One final note about the Union in specificity. There is the hacking side but there is also the technical debating side, which is autonomous and meritocratic. I wish I’d realised that these things were seperate and got involved when I came to Oxford because I used to enjoy debating and I think it’s a good way of improving how you think. And as I say it’s separate from the front-of-house of the Union: in order to advance you have to win stuff, and that’s that. The rules are carefully set up for a meritocracy. But I wasn’t brave enough to fight through the hacks to reach this and I regret that.

Posted Sat 05 Mar 2011 12:12:00 UTC Tags:

I’m due a post on events for the rest of term and plans for the vac in detail but now I’ve got back home and I’m at my desk I thought I’d write a few thoughts down. Right now I’m waiting for my e-mail to sync up to my desktop, after syncing all my files and configs and doing a system upgrade. It’ll be interesting to see if I have X after a reboot, or indeed a window manager, since I found this one on a different one on arrival which is disconcerting when I had my laptop and desktop on at the same time; the new one’s installation process is a pain so I don’t know if much will be working after a reboot. I’ve had the odd experience of looking over at my shelf of stuff and not really caring about most of it. All the reading backlogs and bits and pieces don’t seem very important because the philosophical works I have with me are more important (more on this later too — the real world (i.e. current affairs and popular intellectualism) just doesn’t seem important to me at all anymore, which is probably a bit worrying). This is one thing I will try and bring out soon: my enthusiasm for and commitment to Philosophy has gone through the roof in the past three weeks or so (though my ability to do it is still greatly hampered by the ongoing adversary I have described at length before). All I care about (materially!) is the stuff I’ve brought with me: the data on my laptop, the paper in my folders and the piles of books. This is a nice feeling and an encouraging one.

Tomorrow I’m taking the day off to finish unpacking and to clear my organisational backlogs so that everything is clear and ready to go before me for the next five and a half weeks (time in France and time in Oxford after that before full term starts a whopping eight weeks away) and the nice thing is that I know that I will get it done. I’ll make a quick list when I get up of the various backlogs that I am to clear, get them cleared and then I will feel legitimately free for the rest of the day. Perhaps I’ll write on here. I’ll try to get my diary filled in (got four days-worth of rough notes that lose meaning every hour I delay writing them up). And on Tuesday one of the hardest tasks I have ever faced will be before me, as I will write about properly. But this evening I am contented. I am concerned about how much I have to motivate myself to do, and I am guilty that during my insane 8th week of many conflicting academic and social pressures I have neglected my contact with people I care about; I’ve got to try to fix this, but it’s okay for now. Because I’ve got Blame’s Essential Mix on and Nu:Tone’s Balaclava is incoming, and I feel the challenges I face are solidifying into things I can hack at, and I’m starting to really believe my frequently proferred views of what’s important in how I am to spend my life.

Come on offlineimap…

Posted Sun 13 Mar 2011 23:48:00 UTC Tags:

Cleaning out today. Here are some links to interesting pages about Emacs and LISP (and some vi) that got me excited about the adventure I’m on with these technologies. Thought I’d post these here before I archive them.

Posted Sat 19 Mar 2011 23:13:00 UTC Tags:

JavaScript library aimed at novice-ish users writing web services that runs under Google Chrome’s JavaScript virtual machine, is the impression I get from the description. I suppose this is the future?

Posted Sun 20 Mar 2011 08:40:00 UTC Tags:

minimalism’s critics | mnmlist

Minimalism hipsters can seem very silly when their minimalism is expressed through buying junk from Apple and arranging it on small desks that leave no room for pen and paper and then considering that they’ve made a breakthrough by streamlining their lives or something. But this post is interesting. While this particular author likes to write things like “that’s so zen” and describes a margharita pizza as “the most heavenly substance in the universe: love”, I was pleased to read this latest post in which he claims the root of his movement to be anti-consumerism, and being very anti-consumerist myself, I’m pleased to have his type on board.

Posted Sun 20 Mar 2011 08:48:00 UTC Tags:
Posted Sun 20 Mar 2011 18:17:00 UTC Tags:

Looking over Crux again | Motho ke motho ka botho

It often annoys me how slow to start up and how slow immediately after startup my computer can be. Since my application usage is pretty stable around a small number of things, it is very tempting to take the time to set Crux up. Maybe over the summer.

Posted Sun 20 Mar 2011 19:02:00 UTC Tags:
Posted Mon 21 Mar 2011 11:18:00 UTC Tags:

One of the many introductory texts I have been set to read before doing the Ethics paper next term. I can highly recommend it, though I admit a good deal of that is based on Williams’ crushing attack of utilitarianism, something I stand against, at the end of the book. Raises some very interesting issues. Can’t wait til next term.

Posted Mon 21 Mar 2011 12:00:00 UTC Tags:

Forum vs Mailing List; Why some developers have a strong preference | Spiral of Hope

There is a certain kind of user, and over time I’m more strongly becoming a member of that group, who have a sort of focus. When highly interested in a task, the rest of the world falls away for a time. They become agitated at the slightest distraction from their current task. Ergonomics becomes extremely important: The right keyboard, hotkeys, chair, screen settings, background sound level, temperature. A responsive computer becomes important. Very. Important.

The computer itself becomes an extension of the mind. Typing is so intuitive that there’s no thought involved in it. Fingers fly across the keyboard at speeds unheard of in everyday people. If there were a faster way to input, it would be used and it would still be too slow. So when the computer “hiccups” for any reason at all, it’s an amazing distraction to the train of thought.

It’s that delicate train of thought which gives such a strong preference to email.

A highly-demanding user will use email and will download it locally. They will have all their native preferences including their favourite email client. Anything they can tweak to their preference will be. They can access emails swiftly with hotkeys. Replying becomes as fast as their computer. Control-R, typety-type-type, control-enter, n, n, delete, and so on. They can interact with the email like anything else on their computer. Controlling their environment and tools they can sharpen their attention span.

Beautifully expressed.

Posted Wed 23 Mar 2011 22:45:00 UTC Tags:

While I’ve been using Org-mode quite successfully for some months, a lot of my settings were copied from other sources and in several cases I either didn’t understand them at all, or assumed they would fit my workflow when they don’t. Org-mode is (like lisp apparently) about growing the software (language) up to your own system (program/task) and so now that I know more about how I best organise myself I’ve been able to hack out my own system with Org-mode. The results are summarised on this screenshot of what I get when I boot up (lack of zenburn in the status bar at the very top of the screen is due to a current stumwm bug/issue :().

Imported comments

Sam @ 29th March 2011, 0604

Wow, that looks neat! Could you provide the code for your agenda view and the automatic startup? That would be great!


Sean @ 29th March 2011, 1750

You’ll find the agenda view code at;a=blob;f=init-org.el;h=787150b433b503697e371c9472e71e50d5067c63;hb=HEAD#l107 and the automatic startup at;a=blob;f=init.el;h=71671964f7ffb35474303037862e18f4a41cfaa4;hb=HEAD#l292 HTH.

Posted Thu 24 Mar 2011 18:50:00 UTC Tags:

On the left we have Emacs PDF viewer, which doesn’t produce as good quality images as a proper viewer but it’s good enough for these purposes, and on the right we have my highly tuned LaTeX editing environment based around AUCTeX and CD-LaTeX mode. C-c C-c y RET saves and compiles the LaTeX and the display on the left automatically updates. A very efficient way to write my revision notes.

Posted Fri 25 Mar 2011 09:15:00 UTC Tags:

Today’s march is a challenge the rule of money | John Holloway on CommentIsFree

Capitalism is still our enemy. The move of left-wing politics away from an ideological opposition to this is why it continues to fail.

Posted Sat 26 Mar 2011 16:34:00 UTC Tags:

Trivially easy inline LaTeX anyone? How about some beautifully syntax-highlighted lisp? Right monitor is the code I type; left hand side shows the result on the web server when I hit C-c C-e P. Ideally I wouldn’t be using MathJax because it’s evil JavaScript, and I’d be using org-mode’s capability to generate images instead, but I’m experiencing some weirdness with that atm that I haven’t yet managed to fix.

Posted Sun 27 Mar 2011 12:35:00 UTC Tags:
This page was originally static content on my website. I have incorporated it into my blog, entry dated the last time I believe it was edited, as a more appropriate place to archive old things like this.

A few notes on the computers I use regularly.

Desktop: Zephyr

My primary machine. I built zephyr to high specs so that I can play games on minimal graphical settings for as long as possible, and it’s going well so far, creating an immersive experience single player or at LAN parties. Accompanied by some nice speakers, and an ancient keyboard since the one I got with it broke and I found this gem in the loft.

I am still amazed at how cheap my 22” monitor was, at just £21 from eBay. (Picture out of date — I now have a flatscreen primary monitor.)

Self-built tower :: Arch Linux, Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate :: 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo :: 4GB Ballistix DDR2 memory :: 500GB 7200rpm :: nVidia GeForce 8800GT 512MB GDDR3 :: 1950x1080 primary LCD, 1024x768 secondary LCD

Laptop: Artemis

I wanted to get a ThinkPad as my university laptop due to the quality of their keyboards and general build. I think, though, that I made a bad choice in getting a new high-spec consumer-orientated one: I would have been better with an old, second-hand business-orientated classic ThinkPad since I don’t really need its power, and this one was quite expensive. The glossy screen annoy me, too. But all things considered I’m very happy with this machine.

Lenovo ThinkPad SL300 :: Arch Linux :: 2.1GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6570 :: 2GB DDR2 memory :: 250GB xxxxrpm :: nVidia something-something :: 1280x800? shiny TFT

Server: Athena


My rock in the digital world, my VPS Athena is considered to be my most important machine. It runs my persistent processes like my IRC client, serves all my mail, tunnels traffic and hosts a VPN, hosts multiplayer games, is a shell and mail server for a couple of other people, and more. Athena is a carefully configured, mean serving machine.

Xen DomU :: Status :: Debian GNU/Linux 6.0.1 :: 360MiB memory, 300MiB swap :: 25GiB HDD

NAS: Hestia

My trusty NSLU2 has recently been resurrected after around a year in storage after I replaced its power supply. It’s going strong thus far as a useful way to access and make use of my external HDD. A great device you can leave on all year round since its power usage is so low. I’ve carefully configured its setup to work well with its limited memory.

Linksys NSLU2 :: Debian GNU/Linux 5.0.4 :: 266MHz ARM Intel XScale :: 32MB memory :: 120GB WD Passport USB HDD

Posted Mon 28 Mar 2011 00:00:00 UTC Tags:

Everyone has their diaries on their mobile phones today, right? The data’s all in the cloud — and I don’t know what that is but it sounds like something I can trust because it has “Google” or “Apple” stamped on it — and so I should be able to see what everyone is doing by looking at their shared calendars on (for example) the university’s shared calendaring service based on Microsoft Exchange, shouldn’t I?

Never say I’m not up with the trends. Never call me a luddite; a tech conservative. This is my cloud setup. GNU style.

Posted Mon 28 Mar 2011 17:42:00 UTC Tags:
~ $ ssh selene uptime
 18:31:55 up 332 days, 14:08,  0 users,  load average: 0.57, 0.46, 0.30

This is very impressive for a box I sysadmin…

Posted Mon 28 Mar 2011 22:31:00 UTC Tags:

Quick shot of today’s environment. LaTeX folding is now hiding code unless I put my cursor there (note the subheadings) and outline-minor-mode means I can fold up subsections in the same way I can in Org. We also see some Taylor expansions computed using the Emacs calculator, just for fun.

Posted Wed 30 Mar 2011 10:34:00 UTC Tags: