WordPress updates with SSH2 in Ubuntu 16.04

I’ve had a few issues upgrading WordPress recently. I thought I was going mad, but it turned out to be a really annoying bug.

Recently, I upgraded my virtual private server (VPS) to the latest Ubuntu release (Ubuntu 16.04). I did this for two reasons.

First, it’s good to be on a recent release, and Ubuntu 16.04 is a long term support (LTS) release, meaning it’s supported for longer than other Ubuntu releases, and aimed more at stability for things like servers, rather than all-new features which might be a bit sharp around the edges.

Second, Ubuntu 16.04 came with PHP7 out of the box, which provides drastic performance improvements which, on a VPS, is very useful as CPU resources can be a little constrained.

It also gave me a chance to burn the old install to the ground as over the past three years or so, I’d tested a lot of things out on it and I wanted everything to be nice and uniform, putting into practice some of the things I’d come up with along the way, like my automated website creation script.

Anyway, on my Ubuntu 14.04 install, which used PHP 5.6, I had automatic updates set up on my WordPress installs. They worked nicely and provided good security, as I used SSH2 for the updates, meaning the files and folders the WordPress install lived in were not modifiable by the web server itself.

I host multiple websites on my server, and to enhance security, each site is owned by a different local user, and each database has its own user, so if one site is compromised, it’s harder to compromise the rest.

The web server shouldn’t really have write access to local files, but it needs write access to update WordPress automatically. By using SSH2 for WordPress updates, the web server can get the access it requires without having direct rights. It works well.

The problem is, it’s broken in PHP7. No matter what I did, I could not get updates to work. I came across various error messages, and after a lot of hunting around and double-checking, I was sure it wasn’t because I was doing anything wrong.

And it turns out I was right to be sure. A problem with the php-ssh2 breaks updates for WordPress. If you have this problem, you’re probably not going mad. Fortunately, I can offer a solution: SSH SFTP Updater Support.

This plugin uses a different library and I found that once I’d uploaded the plugin manually and activated it, my updates worked perfectly, first time (because my settings were correct, obviously!)

Once I’d fixed this, I decided to see if I could find any more information about this package, so I had a look at the information attached to the package in my installation:


So this is an unreleased git snapshot and should be used with caution? Doesn’t seem like the kind of package that should appear in a long term support release…

Installing PHP Manager on IIS 10

Have you tried to install PHP Manager on IIS 10? It doesn’t seem to be compatible. But don’t fret – the solution is straightforward.

This is a bit of a niche issue on the whole, but an issue all the same.

Microsoft have a useful utility called the Web Platform Installer, which is a repository of products which plug in to Internet Information Services (IIS) for people hosting sites on Microsoft servers (yes, some people do that, despite what you might read).

One useful utility is PHP Manager. It installs an easily accessible utility into IIS Manager giving you a shortcut to PHP settings. It’s also useful if you run sites on different PHP versions and/or configurations.

One problem. If you try and install it on IIS 10 (Windows 10 / Server 2016), it will fail. Why? It seems to check against a registry entry for the Windows version, and didn’t take into account that the Windows version number might change in the future. Awkward.

The key in question is in:


The entry in question is MajorVersion. In Windows 10, it’s set to 10 (decimal). Change it to a lower number (e.g. 8). PHP Manager will then successfully install. Once you’ve installed PHP Manager, don’t forget to change it back!

CCS is shorthand for Current Control Set.

Thoughts on the EU Referendum

We’re days away from the UK’s third referendum in just over five years. The first referendum, on our voting system, was barely met with disdain, let alone any real views or debate. The second, on Scottish independence, consumed political debate for two years in the lead-up to it, and still looms in some corners.

This one, on whether the UK should remain a part of the European Union, or leave, sits somewhere between the two. For people who believe in the European project, it’s met with disdain, but for those who want to leave the EU, it’s a fiery subject.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this referendum is that, like in 2011’s AV referendum, very few people are enthusiastic about their chosen option. Just like most people who wanted change in our electoral system didn’t really want AV (they wanted STV, for the mostpart), a large number of people supporting Remain in this campaign struggle to be enthusiastic because Europe isn’t really what they want it to be either. In some regards, it’s a bit of a poisoned chalice.

People regularly ask my opinion on the matter (more fool them!) so here are some of my thoughts.

It’s not about the Tories

First and foremost, this is not a referendum on the Conservative Party. It’s not about whether you prefer David Cameron and George Osborne or Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (which is good news for everyone, I think). We need to look past the media headlines, because this is a decision that will affect not just the next five years, but possibly the next twenty-five. This is about how we, the British people, view our country, our standing in the world, and our approach to the future.

Making a statement

The decision we make on Thursday will inevitably have consequences in the way our country is seen by people outside the UK, and their governments. If we vote to Remain, the other member states of the EU will read that as acceptance of the general direction of the EU. If we vote to Leave, we will likely be seen as isolationist. Whether either of those scenarios appeals to you is a moot point – that’s the position we’re in by holding a referendum, and that’s how people outside the UK will see it.

The bigger picture

If we do choose to Leave, eurosceptic movements in other countries may be emboldened. The obvious candidates are Sweden and Denmark. In some ways, we could have an opportunity to form a northern European bloc of some kind, which would be an interesting prospect!

I think it unlikely the UK wouldn’t be followed by other countries. This could result in some very big changes to the EU, but may also result in a long period of instability. This could be, in the short- to medium-term, bad economically for Europe, albeit beneficial in the longer-term. Politically, NATO is a far more important institution for Europe’s stability, especially when looking further east.

The economic argument

The economic argument is more complex than any politician will openly say. The shock! But to me, it’s a trade-off. In my mind, staying in the EU is definitely beneficial in the short-term. If we vote to Remain, the Pound and stock markets will surely rally, as things will basically return to normal. The future will be as predictable as it was six months ago. Businesses won’t leave the UK unless they had plans to do so already. Investment will be made in the knowledge of existing rules.

Were we to leave, uncertainty could lead to all sorts of effects. If investment goes down, taxes receipts might go down. Tax rises might follow. The government might come under serious pressure. Inflation could be quite unpredictable. Of course, it’s hard to know which of these would happen and to what extent, and who would win or lose, but one thing it would surely have an immediate effect on is pensions invested in shares.

But should that really affect how we vote this week?

If this referendum will affect the UK for a generation, we really should be basing our view of economics on the whole of that period. Would a potential recession last for twenty-five years? No. Would any short-term loss of GDP be recoverable in the longer-term? Yes. Do you trust the people on either side have a sound economic plan? Not so easy to answer that one, is it?!

It’s not racist to talk about immigration

People who support Leave seem to think people on the Remain side want open borders. People on the Remain side seem to think that controlling immigration is racist. Neither is an accurate picture.

There is, of course, freedom of movement across the EU, plus a few other non-EU countries.By pulling out of the EU, we can pull out of existing arrangements over freedom of movement. This would mean we could place a limit on people from the EU coming to live in the UK. EU countries might then place similar restrictions on British citizens. Is this something we would be willing to accept?

Furthermore, freedom of movement would likely be a precondition of any deals we make with the EU. It’s kind of the Leave campaign to point out Canada don’t have to sign up to freedom of movement, but Canada is not on Europe’s doorstep either!

It’s also worth pointing out that refugees from non-EU countries do not have the right to come to the UK just because they claim asylum in an EU country. There may be moral arguments for the UK to take more refugees, but that’s another argument.

On the other side, it is not racist to want to place limits on immigration. Immigration undoubtedly has an impact on the UK. Some of it is positive – workers for the NHS, for instance (and savings on training them). However, there are other consequences, such as pressure on house prices. Could everyone in the world come to live in the UK? No. No-one would disagree on that, surely? So the question to ask is, how many people would be too many? And what controls should be in place to control who makes up the numbers that are then deemed to be sustainable?

A points system for immigration does two things. First, it sets a limit on the numbers of people who can enter a country. Secondly, it provides a (hopefully) objective system by which people can be assessed on merit. The alternative is a first-come, first-served system. If that’s what you support, that’s fair enough, but short of accepting uncontrolled immigration, you need a system in place to control immigration in some way.

(Some of) the EU debate is a mirage

The EU debate is often an easy way to avoid taking responsibility for the failures of our own governments. For instance, immigration is often blamed for stealing people’s jobs. But there are two problems with this. First, sometimes British people don’t take those jobs. Job centres do not appear to be set up to effectively channel people into work. Perhaps that’s as much an issue as immigration? Second, in some cases it’s because jobs require expertise which is not available in sufficient quantities in the UK. This is an issue with education and training, rather than immigration per se. Why are so many of the healthcare workers from outside the UK? Perhaps we don’t have enough training places available…

Sometimes arguments just cover up other issues, and you can’t always rely on the other side to flag it.

Whatever you do, vote

Especially if you’re a young person. The odds are the result will affect you for longer!

Reviewing Eurovision 2016

It may be a little late, but I’m sure you’re dying to know what I thought of this year’s Eurovision.

Although a couple of weeks have now passed since the Eurovision Grand Final, I figured it’s still worthy of a few notes and opinions since, as always, it managed to provoke a few interesting reactions (and people are still asking me about it).

The Winner

The winner was always likely to cause controversy this year. My personal favourite to win was Bulgaria, but it was always a long-shot that Poli Genova would take the trophy home. The early favourite, France, was never likely to do well in the televote. I also thought Sweden was over-rated.

The other favourites were Russia, Ukraine and Australia. Any of those three would have been controversial winners one way or another. Australia originally were meant to be a one-off entry for 2015, so many in Europe would have complained had Australia won. Russia will always be a controversial winner, and the nature of Ukraine’s song meant it would always to accused of being politically motivated, regardless of any truth.

Of the three, I thought the only bad winner would be Russia. Sergei performed his song very well, and the staging was very, very good, but the song itself was about eight years past its time. It would have been a victory for style over substance, which would have been a shame when up against a number of songs of good substance.

In contrast, Australia and Ukraine were great songs with simple staging. I probably would have preferred Australia to win, but Ukraine was a worthy winner. The song may not be uplifting, or a natual chart hit, but it struck a chord with people across Europe, and that cuts much deeper than a bunch of slick stage tricks.

I hope this results means more countries do what Australia and Ukraine did this year and pick a strong song and give it simple staging that keeps the focus on that – the song – in what is, after all, a song contest.

Eastern Bias

There’s a familiar and sadly predictable line, often spouted by the UK media, that Eurovision has an eastern bias and that western countries do badly at Eurovision because of that.

Let’s be clear. It’s nonsense. In the ten years before this year, Sweden won twice, with Norway, Finland and Denmark winning once. Germany and Austria won once too. The other winners in that time were Serbia, Russia and Azerbaijan. That makes it seven wins for countries in western or northern Europe, and three for countries outside of that. If anything, there’s a Scandinavian bias, and with Sweden winning twice, perhaps I could petition that it’s really just a bias towards decent music?

Of course, that doesn’t really fit with the fortunes of the UK and Ireland, who between them have an abysmal record. Ireland finished in the top ten twice, failing to qualify five times. The UK finished in the top ten once, finished bottom of the final twice, and all because of that pesky eastern bias.

The other accusation is that the rest of Europe don’t like us. Well, they don’t care much for Russia either. Russia’s record in those ten years? One win. Oh, and three second places, two third places and a fifth place.

Maybe we just send junk to Eurovision? Let’s face it, that’s the real story here. Eurovision winners include Loreen, Lena, Emmelie de Forest, Alexander Rybak, Mans Zelmerlow and Conchita Wurst (yes, a man in drag, I know – but a man in drag with an incredible voice).

Who have the UK and Ireland sent in that time?

  • Daz Sampson, cavorting with teenage schoolkids
  • Scooch, with a Ryanairesque entry, but less pleasant
  • Josh Dubovie, who, it was universally agreed, didn’t sound as good as he thought
  • Blue, out of music retirement
  • Engelbert Humperdinck, out of a retirement home
  • Bonnie Tyler, presumably from the same one
  • Ryan Dolan, who didn’t survive a terrible perfomance in the jury final
  • Jedward, nearly scraping the bottom of the barrel,
  • Dustin the Turkey, which absolutely was the bottom of the barrel

Aside from Jade Ewen in 2009, there’s nothing memorable for anything other than glorious failure. There’s nothing that should have done really well, let alone win. Out of 20 entries, barely anything that registers better than mere indifference.

So what of this year’s entries? Nicky Byrne didn’t qualify from his semi final, and despite Graham Norton’s protestations, it was thoroughly deserved. Nicky is a good performer, but firstly, he’s not current, and the song’s chorus was very weak. The UK’s entry wasn’t terrible, but was let down by some terribly weak verses. The chorus may have been passable, but overall, the song had no realy presence.

Joe & Jake and Nicky Byrne may have been fine on The Voice, or XFactor, but it’s not good enough at Eurovision any more. You need confident performers, stage presence and a solid song. If you miss any of those, you won’t win. Other countries have the same issue – Germany suffer from picking weak performers and Spain often suffer from weak staging.

If the UK and Ireland want to do well at Eurovision, they need to invest more into the contest. We don’t need to go all-in Melodifestivalen style, but we do need to put more focus on good songs. We often look for the full package all at once, but we’d perhaps be better to commission song-writers to pen great songs, and then find a performer who can really pull it off – and that performer really needs to be someone confident on stage, not just an act that looks like it’s hired the stage for a three-minute impromptu garage session.

And Ireland, if you want to do better, ditch the Late Late Show and Louis Walsh. The UK and Ireland produce some fantastic music. The acts we send to Eurovision don’t reflect that.

Anyway, enough of that.

A Few Other Thoughts

The entrances worked very well, once it got going. I found the country introductions fairly tedious last year, with each country just waving their own flag. It was far more interesting this year with the catwalkers. My own gripe is that it wasn’t really introduced, so it was only after the first couple of counries had entered that you realised what was going on.

My personal favourite, Poli Genova (Bulgaria), was amazing. As was Dami Im (Australia), and Zoe (Austria). Poli and Zoe also worked the camera very well when Justin Timberlake was on screen.

Cyprus had some fairly wild strobing, but Georgia’s were something else. I have never experienced strobe lighting like that. When they called it “prolonged and extreme”, that wasn’t a lie.

Francesca Michielin (Italy) was probably disappointed with sixteenth, but she was a bit flat, which is a shame because it was a really beautiful song. Hovi Star (Israel), who went right after her, sang really well but ended up overshadowed by Bulgaria and Sweden, who went after him.

Germany finished last, again. I really like Jamie-Lee. She was quirky, and admittedly definitely an acquired taste. Unfortunately, she was just too weak. All the above criticisms of the UK and Ireland apply to Germany too.

I thought Spain deserved better. A fun song, sadly let down by mediocre staging.

Armenians have good genes, and they clearly want us to know that.

Petra Mede was incredible, as always, and her performance with Mans in the interval act was hilarious. But how did the man manage to climb on top of the hamster wheel?!

I loved the new voting system. However, it seemed to take everyone (Graham Norton aside) a while to realise Ukraine had won. It created a strange moment of suspense when there wasn’t really meant to be any.

This year’s production was phenomenal. The whole Eurovision team did an amazing job. Ukraine will have its work cut out next year, as Sweden always put everything into Eurovision, but with the contest away from northern, western and central Europe for the first time in six years, it may provide a very different experience to what we’ve seen in recent years – and that could be a good thing.

Eurovision 2016 Preview

There’s something I get excited about every year that everyone pretends not to care about. Secretly they love it.

Eurovision is here? Wondering what to expect? Look no further.

Northern Europe

Two of the Northern European countries are already through to the final: the United Kingdom, as one of the Big Five, and Sweden, last year’s winners and this year’s hosts. Sweden are one of the favourites to win; the UK will be looking for somewhere close to the top ten. I’ve given up guessing how British entries will do at Eurovision, but there’s been less negative press around Britain’s entry this year.

Iceland are represented by Greta Salóme, who was at Eurovision in 2012 when Iceland finished twentieth in the final in Baku. I’m not convinced.

Norway are represented by Agnete Johnsen, five years after she finished second in Norway’s qualifying competition Melodi Grand Prix as part of the BlackSheeps. I love it, but it has an unusual transition from verse to chorus that might be too much for people to really love from on listen.

Nicky Byrne represents Ireland, but that’s as good as it gets for them. No one in Europe will care for his past credentials, and the song is weak. I don’t see it making the final, so if you want to catch it, make sure you see the second semi-final.

Of the Baltic States, Latvia are the strongest. They open the second semi-final. The song is probably too much a grower to win, but may do very well. It’s written by Aminata, who finished sixth for Latvia last year – their best finish since 2005.

Watch out for: Latvia, Sweden
Give it a miss: Estonia, Denmark

Western Europe

Two Western European countries are already in the final by virtue of being in the Big Five – France and Germany. Germany has a chequered history in Eurovision, and France’s history is more on the side of glorious failure – sometimes justified, and sometimes simply unappreciated by the rest of Europe.

Germany didn’t score any points in last year’s final. Their entry this year is from the winner of their version of The Voice. I quite like it, but it’s not going down well at all with others, so it’s likely going to finish bottom of the Top Five this year.

France, by contrast, have brought an entry that’s garnered a lot of attention. It opens in French, but the chorus is in French. It’s an upbeat song, and will do much better than some of their moodier entries from recent years, or the car crash of Twin Twin in 2014 (which had a great studio track, but was disastrous on stage, turning into the worst din I have had the misfortune to hear). Some think it will win. I think there’s better, but the outer reaches of the top five might not be too far away.

Austria also failed to score last year – unfortunate given they hosted the event. I really like their entry this year, probably because it’s a half-decent, upbeat pop song, in French, with a violin in the background. It ticks a lot of pleasant boxes. Unfortunately, past experience tells me Europe will be unimpressed and Zoë won’t be asked to turn up to the final on Saturday.

Watch out for: Belgium
Give it a miss: Switzerland

Southern Europe

This is a large section. Two more countries go direct to the final as members of the Big Five: Italy and Spain. Both are tipped to do well this year. Personally, I think Spain will ultimately struggle with a song that whilst pleasant, isn’t particularly memorable, whereas Italy should be comfortably around the top ten with a contemporary number that mixes Italian (which is always worth more points, as opposed to French which I always think is a penalty) with English. Since Italy returned to Eurovision in 2011 their record has been very good, and they should be confident of beating most of the Big Five on Saturday.

Greece have always qualified for the final since the semi-finals were introduced, despite a few questionable acts. Aphrodisiac (2012) was cute, but hardly tuneful, yet finished fourth in its semi-final. Freaky Fortune and RiskyKidd (2014) finished seventh in their semi-final with a terrible song only made slightly better by a trampoline the act bounced on during the song, giving you some vain hope they might fall off, break their neck and save you from the rest of the song. If there is any justice, this year will finally be the year they fail to qualify.

Perhaps reflecting the vast expanse of land and culture between these fair isles and the far reaches of Southern Europe, there’s a lot of entries here I wouldn’t give much light of day. Montenegro are usually the best example of this, and this year is no different. There’s also Albania, F.Y.R. Macedonia and others who you’ll not worry if you hear them only once.

The standout entry from this section, however, is Malta, which closes the first semi-final and is a sure-fire qualifier for Saturday. With Molly Pettersson-Hammer on backing vocals, it’ll be interesting to see how high this song can go in the final.

Watch out for: Italy, Malta
Give it a miss: Greece, Montenegro

Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe is a fairly small bunch of countries and a bit of an eclectic mix.

Ukraine return to Eurovision this year having pulled out in 2015 owing to the unrest in the east of the country which Vladimir Putin most definitely has nothing to do with. The song is called “1944” and is about Stalin’s treatments of Crimean Tatars. How it passes Eurovision’s political test, I’m not sure, but it’s a good song with a message that if understood, will certainly resonate with many.

Bulgaria were well-fancied in the run-up to Eurovision this year, but seem to have dramatically underwhelmed in rehearsals. That’s a shame because on track recording only, it’s one of the best songs of the year. It’s reminds me a little of Hungary’s Kati Wolf in 2011. A shame.

Watch out for: Ukraine
Give it a miss: Belarus

Greater Europe

And so we come to the final Eurovision group: the countries which aren’t really in Europe! This includes Cyprus, which whilst in the EU and using the Euro, is officially (according the United Nations) in Western Asia. Which, conveniently for me, helps reduce the size of Southern Europe.

Russia appears in this group, and they are currently the favourites to win. Australia are fourth favourites, despite Graham Norton’s disapproval. Armenia has also had a lot of hype, including a little coverage from some leaked footage of the jury semi final. But, to be honest, none of this group really light my fire*.

Watch out for: Russia, Israel
Give it a miss: Georgia

*Congratulations if you understood that reference.

Thoughts on the Scottish Election

With the Scottish elections imminent, there are a few things I’ve been asked about that I may as well get off my chest.

I’ve been asked my thoughts on the Scottish election a few times this week, so I’ve decided to pen a few of them. It may make your blood boil. Some of it is a little tongue in cheek, but there’s some hard truth in it too.


The SNP tell us putting a penny on income tax will hurt the poorest in society more than anyone. This is a lie.

The poorest in Scotland don’t pay income tax. If you earn less than £11,000 this tax year, you’ll pay no income tax, whatever the rate. For those who do pay, income tax is progressive. It’s 1% of everything above the £11,000 figure. If you earn £12,000, you’ll pay an extra £10 in tax. If you earn £22,000, you’ll pay an extra £110 in tax. The poorest don’t pay more, than those who earn more will pay more than those who earn less.

The real reason the SNP are against raising tax is because people don’t like it. The Scottish Conservatives are honest about that, but the SNP aren’t. That’s the real reason they oppose a raise.

By all means, oppose a raise in income tax because you believe in low taxation, but don’t dress it up as a way of protecting the poorest.

Oh, and a quick note on the 50p tax rate. On page eight of the SNP’s 2015 manifesto, they support a 50p tax rate. This year, given the opportunity to implement it, they chose not to promise it, and attacked Labour for supporting it. Again, by all means oppose it for other reasons, but they’ve changed their tune for sheer political expedience and covered it up in hogwash.


One of the problems with the last session was that half of it was taken up by the independence referendum. This meant issues like missed A&E targets, falling literacy and numeracy rates, and chaos at the heart of the new, centralised Police Scotland got very little legislative attention.

Repeating that referendum will exacerbate the situation. We need to focus on legislating if we want to find a solution to those problems. You can’t just blame everything on “Wastemonster”.

I made my views on independence clear at the time. The referendum was run on a one-vote, matter-settled basis. The “Yes” side had two and a half years to convince people of their case. They didn’t. Time to move on.

Aha! But what if “the people”, or “public opinion”, suggest we want independence after all? Well, I have four points to make:

  1. They might change their mind again! Imagine that!
  2. Referendums are not like elections. They are designed to settle matters not forever, but for a generation. Check out the 1975 referendum on membership of the EEC. Did it mean everyone embraced Europe? Far from it. But the UK waited 41 years for another referendum nevertheless.
  3. You don’t run a referendum over and over again until you get the “right” answer. Remember Ireland and the Lisbon Treaty? That’s not the way to do it.
  4. It’s not just about Scotland. Independence would affect the rest of the UK and Europe too. It creates uncertainty. Uncertainty affects investment, and that affects growth. You have to draw a line. The line was drawn before the referendum. You can’t redraw it now.

So, despite my support for independence in 2014, I completely agree with Ruth Davidson. If the Prime Minister is asked to sanction another referendum, he should invite the proposer to take a hike and use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to make a real difference to Scotland.


Trident shouldn’t really be an issue in the Scottish election, as it’s a reserved issue. However, it doesn’t stop people making it an issue.

The usual argument is that replacing Trident would stop us investing in public services, and we’d all be jolly well better off (financially) without it. Let’s look at the maths, shall we?

Replacing Trident would, over 30 years, cost £167 billion under current estimates. Scotland’s share of that would be about 8%. Spread over 30 years, that’s just under £450 million a year.

Scotland’s current budget deficit is £15 billion per year, so it would account for, at current rates, about 4% of the current budget deficit.

Scrapping Trident wouldn’t make Scotland substantially richer. By all means, scrap Trident because you think it’s repugnant, but don’t do it because it will turn Scotland into a rich paradise. It won’t.

“Free” education

Education is not free. Someone has to pay for it. There are three ways of doing it:

  1. General taxation – everyone pays.
  2. Student fees – the student pays everything.
  3. Hybrid approach – university is funded partially through general taxation and partially through fees paid by the student (either upfront or after graduation).

In reality, the second approach is too expensive to be an option. So, it’s either general taxation or a hybrid approach. The SNP, Labour and the Liberal Democrats support funding higher education purely through general taxation. The Scottish Conservatives, meanwhile, support the hybrid option.

So, why do the other parties not support that option? That’s because they support “free” education.

Newsflash! It’s not free. You’re just asking all taxpayers to pay for it. Even if they didn’t go to university.

There is another objection. It’s the poor card again. Fees will put off poor students from going to university. Don’t believe it.

Upfront fees (where you need to pay before you go) will put off poor students from going to university, because they will struggle to find the money. However, that’s not what’s proposed, and that’s not how the system works in England either. Instead, the proposal (and the English system too) works by asking graduates to pay back their fees once they have their degree and are earning over a certain threshold.

If you get a degree and can’t get a job, or don’t earn much, you don’t pay anything back until you do. Once you do, you pay back a certain percentage above the threshold. It’s progressive. (Have you noticed how the SNP don’t like progressive taxation yet? Don’t worry, there’s one more coming.)

There is one area of concern, however, and that’s the cost of the loan to the student. I was fortunate to study between 2005-2008, and the interest rate on my loan is very fair – it’s broadly in line with inflation. Under current English student terms, the interest rate is RPI + 3%. That’s a raw deal for students (but loans are cancelled after 30 years). So, the terms are important, but the principal is not a bad one. And free education is a myth from that far away oil-rich egalitarian independent utopia (often called “Norway”).

Council Tax

OK, one final subject: council tax. This is a putrid tax – everyone is agreed on that. The SNP promised to abolish it in 2007. A committee has spent years reviewing it, with a view to abolishing or reforming it. And, come the end of it, what have the SNP promised to do with the putrid, hated tax they promised to abolish?

They’ll ask people in high-band houses to pay a bit more. Great, thanks for wasting our time. They won’t even conduct a revaluation of house prices and bands – data that’s 25 years old.

But living in a high-band house doesn’t mean you earn more. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hated. If you live in a small flat in a nice area, you might be in Band E, whereas in a house more than twice the size in a struggling area, you’ll be in Band B. Regardless of ability to pay. That’s regressive, not progressive. Shambolic. They had the opportunity to reform Council Tax, but haven’t got the political will to do it. Sad.

SNP Conservatism

The SNP are being very conservative in this election, aren’t they? None more so than in their election billboards:

Don’t just hope for a better Scotland, vote for one.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Trouble is, it sounds very similar to Margaret Thatcher in 1979:

Don’t just hope for a better life. Vote for one.

Ah, Maggie. Still inspiring the SNP, 37 years on. OK, I know. Maggie doesn’t have a monopoly on inspiring (and hollow) slogans. But there is one important difference.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was the challenger. She was the Leader of the Opposition (an actual position, unlike the fake one Ruth Davidson is trying to “win”) at a time when the Labour Government was on its knees after the Winter of Discontent. The Conservative Party ran arguably the most famous election slogan of all time in that election: “Labour isn’t working”. And it wasn’t – for anyone.

Contrast that to now, Nicola Sturgeon is already the First Minister. She has been for about eighteen months. She has served as Deputy First Minister from 2007 to 2014. She is the incumbent.

It’s great to tell people they can vote for a better future, but when you’ve been in power so long, they shouldn’t have to. They should see you’re already doing it.


It’s amazing how parties can feign disagreement when their policies are near identical. Take healthcare, for example. The SNP have taken Labour to take because Labour will only increase health spending “in real terms” (i.e. above inflation – a good thing for the NHS budget, as it will increase).

When you look at the SNP manifesto, they promise to increase the NHS budget by £500 million. That’s a real terms increase, by another name. Labour don’t put a figure on their budget increase for health, but the policies are basically the same.

In the first STV debate, Willie Rennie had the opportunity to ask Kezia Dugdale anything he wanted. So, what did he decide to attack her on? Putting a penny on income tax to fund education. Fair game, right?

Well it would be, except that’s the Lib Dems’ policy too. And that, for me, sums up the Lib Dem campaign. Generally anonymous, and when given a chance, utterly hopeless.


So, there are my thoughts. The SNP will win a comfortable majority on Thursday. I’m not sure who will finish second, but it’s looking more like the Conservatives than Labour right now. The Greens will easily beat the Lib Dems to fourth.

And if you want to know which Regional list I’m watching out for… Highlands and Islands. Plenty of decent things to watch out for there. How strong are the SNP in Orkney and Shetland? How strong are the Lib Dems? What about UKIP? Will Jean Urquhart help RISE’s fortunes, and what about UKIP? A juicy region indeed.

Thinking about the Scottish elections?

How should you approach the Scottish elections? How do you find out what each party stands for? And how do Christians engage with the Scottish Parliament, politicians, and politics in general?

In case you’ve missed it, the next elections for the Scottish Parliament are on Thursday 5 May – less than a week away.

Whilst enthusiasm for these elections is noticeably less than it was for the independence referendum 18 months ago, they are important elections, and with the new powers coming to the Scottish Parliament in the next session, the next Scottish Government will have the power and responsibility to make real choices about spending priorities and raising taxes.

So, even if it seems like the result of the election is already settled, it’s still important to engage. The voting system used in Holyrood means there are lots of seats on the regional lists which are most definitely up for grabs, even if many of the constituencies won’t end up being very close.

The make-up of the opposition will also be important in determining how well the government are held to account – not just whether Labour or the Conservatives finish second and lead the opposition, but the number of seats each party has. So, there are two things to help you as you think towards the election.

First, I have collected as many election manifestos as possible, which are available for you to read and download. They’re often not very easy to find, which is why I’ve collated them together. Some may be missing, but it’s not a conspiracy – if any aren’t there, it’s because I couldn’t find them!

Second, I have been working to produce a booklet for the Evangelical Alliance in Scotland to help Christians engage with the new powers coming to the Scottish Parliament, exploring the opportunities and challenges they bring. It won’t tell you which party to vote for, but hopefully helps to think about more than just the standard issues which are discussed in election campaigns, as well as exploring how Christians can engage with politicians and politics in general. That booklet is available on the EA Scotland website. Unfortunately it’s not available as a PDF download, but if you would like a copy, let me know and I can pass a copy on to you.

Hopefully both these things are helpful. I may have some other thoughts about the election, but I’ll save them for another time.

Buying a home

Yes, it’s been a bit quiet for the last few weeks. There’s a good reason for it, honest.

You may have noticed I’ve been very quiet recently. Well, there’s a reason for that. I bought a house (technically half a house, I guess – joint mortgage), and it’s taken up a lot of my time. Between packing, moving, buying furniture, making furniture, unpacking, fixing problems, working and a few other things, I’ve been rather short on time. But it’s been interesting – perhaps more for me writing than you reading, but since you’re here, I’ll share it anyway.

The first thing is, everyone else seems to find mortgages a lot more stressful than I do. Perhaps I’ve just spent longer thinking about them than other people. Maybe it’s because I’m borrowing what I can afford to pay back rather than breaking the bank just because the bank would let me.

Maybe it’s because small things have always stressed me out far more than big things. One good friend once said I’d be the perfect person to have around in a dire emergency because I’d basically be unmoved whilst everyone else freaked out. To be fair, that might be true. I was once on an Underground train where there was a bomb scare. Everyone else ran for their lives. I just let them all run off, because I figured if there really was a bomb, it was most likely to be in the big crowd…

Or maybe it’s because, in the warped world of the UK housing market – yes, even in the cheaper reaches of the country – it’s significantly cheaper to pay off a mortgage than to rent at market rate. If I had to pay rent at market rate, that would stress me out!

The second thing: solicitors. It’s amazing what being paid does to them. Before you pay them, they’re helpful. Afterwards, not so much. I’m sure I can hear a cynical voice telling me I should have expected that.

The third thing: it’s amazing the things you discover when you move in, that you’d think might have been mentioned to you, like the bathroom sink that leaks down into the kitchen whenever you run it, or the boiler pipes that leak (and only needed screwing tight), or the external doors that don’t lock – and then you wonder, how did they live with that? We had quite a few things we needed to get seen to or fixed in all:

  • Two leaks
  • The phone line into the house didn’t work
  • The property had no bins
  • The external TV aerial cable was shorn in two
  • Some of the light sockets didn’t work, and some of the power sockets only worked sometimes
  • There were plants growing in some of the guttering
  • Oh yes, and those locks that didn’t lock

The hardest thing was trying to work out what we really needed to get looked at first, and what could wait. I decided making the doors lock was probably the most important thing, but not flooding the house, and making sure it wasn’t about to burn down, were fairly important too. No phone line means no internet, so that couldn’t stay that way for long either. So, the guttering and the TV aerial will have to wait.

The good thing is, in amongst all those things that needed looked at, so far none of them have been terribly expensive or difficult to fix. The electrical work took two days and we needed new sockets, but the wiring itself was fine and we got a shiny new fuse box too. The leaks were simple to fix too, and hadn’t (as far as we can see) caused much damage.

Of course, once you’ve looked at all that, then there’s all the things you want to do to the property outside what you need to do. The list basically consists of redoing every room in the house and building a whole new garden, but obviously you can’t do all those at once. We decided we should probably redecorate one of our bedrooms – in hindsight it would have been good to think about that before we got halfway through building a bed in there. Also, your Ikea Family Card comes in really useful when someone accidentally screws right through a board they’re not meant to.

So, that’s why I’ve been a little under the radar, and probably will be for a bit longer. Now, if you excuse me, I need to go and finish sticking up some new blinds in the front room…



2015-16 NFL Playoffs – Super Bowl

It’s the biggest game of the (NFL) season – the Super Bowl. It’s Carolina against Denver, Peyton against Cam, and two cracking defenses against one another. Who’s going to win? You know what I’m going to say already, right?

So, after 255 games (let’s ignore the Pro Bowl), a few upsets along the way, and what seems like an unusually high number of injuries to big name players this year, we’ve finally made it to the Super Bowl. Super Bowl 50, from San Francisco.

In the Championship Round, the Denver Broncos beat the New England Patriots. They put points on the board early and forced New England to chase from behind. This helped them for two main reasons:

  1. After the first quarter, the Patriots’ defense figured them out and the Broncos’ offense was terrible for the rest of the day;
  2. The Patriots’ offensive line was beaten up before play started, and this only got worse chasing the game.

I said the Broncos needed to rely on their defense to win, and I think that view was vindicated. Their defense overpowered the offensive line to an extent that even quick balls were nigh-on impossible for Tom Brady to complete. The Patriots’ run game was non-existent and they couldn’t give Brady time to complete passes. Despite a late surge, they couldn’t do enough to pull it back. Denver survived.

The Panthers had it much easier. An early pick-six helped, but Carson Palmer struggled to throw well, whilst Cam Newton had no such issues. The Panthers showed they are a very good team on offense, defense and special teams. They have no big weaknesses, and that showed in the crushing scoreline of theiv victory.

So, how will the Super Bowl pan out?

I’ll be honest. I don’t see Denver winning. This isn’t a case of “they’ll need to rely on their defense making plays”. Even that won’t be enough. This is Carolina’s to lose. Here’s why:

  • The Panthers have a pick-six in both their last two games. Peyton Manning leads the league in picks thrown this season.
  • The Broncos’ defense can’t rush the Panthers like they did the Patriots – the Panthers have a healthier offensive line. Not league-leading by any stretch, but certainly better than the Patriots’ had two weeks ago.
  • Cam Newton can escape the pocket in a way Tom Brady (and Peyton Manning) can only dream of.
  • Probably the Panthers’ biggest weakness – the deep ball – is also the Broncos’ biggest weakness.
  • The Broncos scored 30 points only twice this season (once, against the Patriots, required overtime). The Panthers have done it twice in the playoffs alone – against the Seahawks and the Cardinals, who both have highly rated defenses. They also did it eight times in the regular season. They are hard to stop.

My Power Rankings give this to Carolina by 2.267 – 2.042, and I agree. Ron Rivera should be a very happy man at the end of the game tonight.


Extracting archive files in Linux

So, you know how to fetch a remote file in Linux, but what do you do if you fetch an archive? How do you extract the files and place them in a directory to work with them?

I previously wrote a how-to guide to fetching a remote file in Linux. That’s great, but once you’ve got the file, sometimes you’ll need to do some more work with it before you can use it.

This is especially true with archive files. Archives generally come in one of two forms:

  1. ZIP files – more commonly used on Windows platforms;
  2. TAR files – more commonly used on Linux and UNIX platforms.

Platforms such as Github and WordPress often offer both ZIP and TAR formats for their downloads.

Once you have the archive file, you need to extract it into a directory. Assuming your file is called wordpress.tar.gz, and you want to extract it to an existing directory called my-site in the same directory, you can use the following command:

tar -xvf wordpress.tar.gz -C my-site/

The -x switch tells tar to extract the files (as you can also use tar to create compressed archives). The -v switch puts tar into verbose mode, so it prints everything it’s doing to the command line, and the -f switch is used in conjunction with the filename to set the file to extract the files from. The -C switch then tells tar to place the extracted files in the directory named at the end of the command.

However, in most cases this will extract the files, but leave the extracted files in a subdirectory. So, in the case of a WordPress archive, the files would be located in my-site/wordpress/ – what if you don’t want the files extracted to a subdirectory?

Not a problem. You can use --strip-components=1 at the end of the command:

tar -xvf wordpress.tar.gz -C my-site/ --strip-components=1

This strips out the top-level directory and leaves the files directly in the my-site folder.