Strike action called for 31 October #fairpayinHE

Unite newsflash email: Strike action in Higher Education 31 October
Unite newsflash email: Strike action in Higher Education 31 October

Yesterday I received an email from Unite the Union. of which I am a member, calling me out to strike in favour of fair pay on Thursday 31 October.

I joined Amicus (MSF Clergy and Churchworkers branch) in 2003 which later merged with the TGWU and became Unite the Union. My reason for joining a union began with a letter I received on 11 January 2003 which gave me six weeks to leave my then position as assistant curate, a post that according to canon law requires me to be given three months’ notice. I felt wonderfully supported by the union and their advice was really helpful even if I was made to be felt like a trouble-maker by getting involved with the unions. When I moved from full-time church employment to the university in 2006 I kept my union membership up and simply moved branches from churchworkers to higher education.

A few years ago while the University of St Andrews was merging two units (Business Improvements and IT Services) the three main unions that support those working in higher education: UCU, Unison and Unite were a very present help to those of us caught up in the uncertainty of the restructure.

For the last few years these three unions have been working collaboratively to negotiate better annual pay rises for university employees, with little success. Over the last four years the following offers have been made, to the best of my knowledge:

  • 2009: 0.5%
  • 2010: 0.4%
  • 2011: 0.5%
  • 2012: 1.0%

This year, I believe, the offer was again for a 1.0% pay increase. According to the email from Unite that means “in real terms [pay] has been cut by 13%” during the past five years while the salaries of UK university principals and vice-chancellors has very often gone up. (I received a PDF of vice-chancellors’ remuneration 2011-2012 which showed that while some VCs’ salaries decreased by up to 42%, some had increased by as much as 111%!)

Over the last few years I’ve received ballot papers from Unite asking it we wanted to accept these low pay offers, and if all unions rejected the offer would we be prepared to take matters further with work-to-rule directives or strike action. Each year the vote has returned a ‘no’ to strike action from my union. Until now.

On Thursday 31 October (a week today) the members of Unite, UCU and Unison have been recommended to take strike action at universities across the UK.

There is more information about the strike on the following unions’ websites:

You can also sign the petition.

Given that strike action is such a serious sanction the unions recommend that all members observe the strike. Not doing so rather undermines the bargaining power that the unions have and makes it harder to protect its members.

The union has supported me tremendously over the last ten years, time for me to support them supporting me. So, it looks like I’m going on strike next week.

Installing Node.js on Windows 8

Command line showing node installation
Command line showing node installation

Over the last month I’ve slowly begun exploring Node.js and so far I’m really liking what I’m seeing.

In a nutshell, Node.js (or simply Node) allows you to write server-side JavaScript. In other words, until now JavaScript is normally written to be run within a web browser, on a web page. Node instead allows you to write JavaScript applications that run outside the browser or via the command line.

Node uses Google Chrome’s JavaScript engine, called V8. Perfect if you are used to writing JavaScript for your browser.

This means that you can now write applications, or ‘modules’ that can do stuff outside the scope of a web browser. For example, you could write a simple web server in Node or — and this is what I want to use it for — you could write modules to manipulate web code and automate certain processes related to web development.

Installing Node.js

Installation on Windows 8 could not have been any more straight forward:

  1. Visit nodejs.org
  2. Click the “install” button to download the installer.
  3. Run the installer (make sure you tell the installer to add references to your PATH system variables).
  4. Reboot your PC.
  5. Er…
  6. That’s it!

Command line

Almost everything you do with Node is via a command line. You can use either the standard Windows cmd.exe or Windows PowerShell (or, indeed, any other command line interpreter (CLI) you may have installed).

To use the standard Windows command line:

  1. Press Win + R (for Run)
  2. Type: CMD
  3. Click OK

Checking that Node is installed is as simple as opening a command line and typing:

node --version

Hit enter and you’ll get a result, something like:

v0.10.5

Node Package Manager

One of the great things about the Node installer is that it automatically installs the Node Package Manager. This makes it much easier to install additional applications to extend Node’s capabilities.

Again, you can check the version of NPM by typing the following into your CLI:

npm version

You’ll get an answer, returned as a JSON object:

{ http_parser: '1.0',
  node: '0.10.5',
  v8: '3.14.5.8',
  ares: '1.9.0-DEV',
  uv: '0.10.5',
  zlib: '1.2.3',
  modules: '11',
  openssl: '1.0.1e',
  npm: '1.2.18' }

To find out what packages are installed enter the following into your CLI:

npm ls

The result will be formatted as a directory structure, like this:

C:\Users\Gareth
├── [email protected]
└── [email protected]

Obviously, to find out which globally-installed packages are available use the global flag:

npm ls -g

The first application/module that I want to investigate in depth is the CSS pre-processor Less which is used by the Bootstrap project. I will no doubt report back.

Why I love Windows 8 (but don’t have 8.1 yet)

Update to Windows 8.1 for free on the Windows 8 app store... or so they say
Update to Windows 8.1 for free on the Windows 8 app store… or so they say

On Thursday Microsoft released Windows 8.1 into the wild. Hmmm… there be dragons!

The upgrade hasn’t gone particularly smoothly for a lot of people (including me) judging by this thread (“Couldn’t update to Windows 8.1 – 0xC1900101 – 0x40017”) on the official Microsoft Community Windows forum and this article (“Windows 8.1 launch weekend plagued by some show-stopping installation issues”) on PC World.com.

The Windows RT upgrade (for Surface tablets) was removed from the app store until they could figure out what was going on. Microsoft released a “recovery image” yesterday to try to address the issue. Time will tell if it has worked, I can’t see past the search engine results noise of it having been removed.

The Windows 8.1 upgrade disappeared from my Windows 8 store for a day or two as well, but re-appeared last night. I’m still not going to try to upgrade again until I know for sure that it will work.

Windows 8

Windows 8.1 was meant to address some of the criticisms of the original Windows 8 release, particularly the removal of the Windows start button and that Windows 8 boots to the new Modern/Metro UI start screen, rather than to the desktop.

I have to say that I have been a huge fan of Windows 8 since the beta. I had the beta installed on my laptop right until the RTM edition was launched. Since then I’ve defended Windows 8 to everyone and anyone.

Windows 8 has been, by far, the fastest, most stable, most secure version of Windows I’ve used (since my standalone, not-connected-to-the-internet version of Windows for Workgroups 3.11 in the mid-90s). My desktop PC boots up and is working within about 20-30 seconds. Compare that with my Windows 7 Dell beast of a PC at work which can take about 10 minutes to start up and become fully responsive.

Start button

As for those two criticisms about the lack of start button and not booting directly to the desktop, well Start8 from Stardock (USD $4.99) addresses both those issues.

Start8 gives me back my start button and Windows 7-like start menu
Start8 gives me back my start button and Windows 7-like start menu

Firmly ticked is the configuration option in Start8 that reads “Automatically go to the Desktop when I sign in“.

I rarely use any of the Metro UI applications (occasionally TV Catch-up, the Steam tile app, and a couple of games with the boys) so it makes sense for me to jump straight to the desktop. This application saves me a click.

To be honest I installed Start8 mostly to make the PC more accessible to my wife Jane, who uses it occasionally. I didn’t want her to have to bother with the convoluted Windows 8 nonsense of Win+C > Settings > Power > Shut down, or Win+C > Settings > Control Panel to access the Control Panel. I reality though, I use those features most.

Start screen

I also have to confess that I really like the Windows 8 start screen. My grumble about the traditional Start menu in XP, Vista, 7 is that it’s a mess. It lists everything that is installed and gives everything equal status.

The Windows 8 start screen allows me to customise it for my own needs, my own priorities.

And if I want to see everything: Win + Q takes me there.

I can pin to the taskbar those applications that I use most frequently, the rest I can pin to the start screen and arrange into named groups. It’s so easy my four year old boys can use it.

The Windows 8 start screen on my PC.
The Windows 8 start screen on my desktop PC.

I used another paid-for application from Startdock to customize the background of my start screen: Decor8 (USD $4.99).

A desktop-centric Windows 8 PC

This gives me the best of both worlds: the speed and stability of Windows 8 coupled with the desktop-centric focus of Windows 7.

In each version of Windows that I’ve used I’ve tweaked it and wrestled with its user-interface to give me the experience that works for me. With Windows 3.11 I used Calmira, in Windows 98 it was power toys and TweakUI, in XP I created my own toolbars. Why should this operating system be any different? Surely that’s one of the beauties of Windows.

I really don’t understand these grumbles of “I hate Windows 8 and the Modern/Metro UI!” To be honest, I don’t notice the juxtaposition of desktop vs Modern/Metro UI much. I ignore most of it. I don’t have a touch screen, I have all the Windows desktop applications that I need and only occasionally dabble with the odd Modern/Metro app. And Start8 and Decor8 allow me to quickly tweak the rest

Windows 8.1

And so back to Windows 8.1. I would rather like to upgrade sometime soon.

I tried it on Friday.

It all seemed to be going well until the second boot when it halted the screen that Windows 8 shows when it’s booting up. The little spinner just kept on spinning… for about 30 minutes. So I rebooted the PC… and it did the same until it quickly flashed up a blue screen of death (BSOD) and about 10 minutes later returned me to Windows 8 and a message similar to this one but with error code 0xC1900101 – 0x40017.

Couldn't update to Windows 8.1
Couldn’t update to Windows 8.1

I’ve been closely following, and contributing to the thread on the Microsoft Community. People have had limited success it would appear with certain workarounds working for some but not others: uninstall graphics card drivers, uninstall SteelSeries Engine software, unplug everything, etc.

I have a SteelSeries mouse. I could uninstall it and try the upgrade again, but do you know what? It’s 2013. Why should I have to? Modern operating systems should just work and upgrade without any kind of hardcore hardware geekery.

I’m going to wait until either Microsoft have figured out a way for the operating system to work around or quietly remove incompatible device drivers or until Steel Series have made their drivers compatible with Windows 8.1. Which in my opinion they should have done by now.

Windows 8.1 was code-named “Blue”. It looks like they omitted “…Screen of Death” at the end of it.

Disappointing, and at a time when Microsoft is fighting to stay relevant this seems to me to be a terrible blow to its reputation. As I said, I’ve been almost evangelical about the stability and reliability of Windows 8. I’m not at all confident about upgrading to 8.1 now. That’s not a good thing.

The trial continues…