The Smack-Down Block Management Company

Our old flat is part of a block of 16 flats, and I’m a director of the company that collects the service charges. The company is owned by 16 leaseholders, and spends the money on carpets, paintwork, locks, or whatever other maintenance needs doing on the building, about £13000 per year – small, easy stuff. So yes, I do 2-3 full days of work for “free” that means my flat becomes a nicer place to live. What other landlords do is none of my business, but they benefit from the time I put into the building too.

But I got a scary phone call last week – a tenant of a neighbouring flat had found his “furnished” place sporting a broken bed, worn-out mattress and no hot water. The landlord was not resident in this country, and the letting agent was pleading delays frequent delays to getting expenditure approved. In desperation (though they were exceedingly polite and lovely about a borderline illegal situation) they had called the number on the noticeboard to ask whether I could help.

I was horrified, and emailed the landlord, expressing extreme displeasure that a) I was dealing with his tenant on his behalf where his letting agent had clearly failed, and b) that he was running such a shameful letting operation. The young tenants had even expressed their belief that this was par for the course with landlords. I judged this landlord very hard, and got a barrage of criticism by return – I was “unprofessional” and should basically mind my own business. Yes I’ve got the corridors outside his flat repainted, locks and keys changed where they broke, paid builders & cleaners. He’d not visited the block in years, but I was the unprofessional one.

“Suck it up” is my attitude. My day job involves telling customers “no”, with almost-always polite reasons. I think it’s for the good of the whole block that somebody is looking out for the tenants and making sure nobody is living in actual misery. And doing the work on the block is easy stuff. But from reading around others’ experiences of property management, it seems no company is able to do it properly, professionally and profitably – it seems like one of those always slips, and this kind of unhappy tenant is par for the course.

The local firm that was used to run our block went into “retirement” when we decided to take over ourselves about a year ago. I’d had frequent run-ins with them over their competence and ethics, and I learned from another landlord in the block that this firm was even one of the better ones he’d dealt with. But because of the legal complications around leasehold, being appointing managing agent of a block company is an extremely secure financial position. It seems to take several large breaches of trust before shareholders in a block company would even meet up to talk about firing a bad agent. An incompetent company can keep themselves appointed by doing very little, just because nobody knows how to fire them, or even what being a shareholder in a block management company even means.

So in such a cynical climate I’m glad to run our old block for free, but see a business opportunity to redefine property management. Build a company that takes on a block, communicates with both landlords and tenants, collects money, fixes what’s broken – all the stuff you’d hope would be easy.

But a property manager need to educate, and enforce discipline wherever it’s needed, and isn’t afraid to tell its paying customers when they’re failing as human beings. Deference to paying customers and refusing to take on tenants’ concerns is the socially irresponsible status quo. Most landlords with one or two properties just don’t know what they’re getting themselves into and can legally maintain a good deal of apathy towards tenants. A good management company  ought to educate landlords as they manage; on the law, the real condition of the block, and the effectiveness of their investment. A good property management company ought reassure landlords that their tenants are being listened to, and that harsh judgements (even contractual penalties) will follow to those that don’t pay their dues, and take reasonable care of their tenants. A good property management company like this would be able to charge securely for their services, and afford to reject slum blocks where landlords don’t want to pay to do things properly. Their presence would be a tangible sign of standards in an industry that is notorious for not having any.

While I’m tied up with the day job, if anyone is interested in starting the Smack-Down Block Management Company, help push out bad landlords and make a lot of money out of it, I’d love to help.

Advent Vega tablets going cheap, and how to fix them

If you hadn’t heard – tablet computers are the hot new thing! They are like laptops where someone has ripped the keyboard off. Anyone who tells you they do anything useful or creative on one is therefore lying, which means they must be toys, like a remote-controlled helicopter or a swingball set. But toys are fun at the right price, and Dixons are selling some “open-box” Advent Vega tablets for £130. So I bought one and fixed it.

You can see in about 10 seconds from turning it on why Dixons had so many returned – it does basically nothing. It has a web browser, but none of the Google applications, and no Android Market, so there is no simple way of putting new software onto it. The installation is a giant shrug.

But if you have a good two hours to screw around, you can fix it so it runs everything you expect – like a totally genuine Apple Flypad! The device actually has some reasonable hardware – a 1024×600 screen, dual core processor, multitouch, camera, bluetooth, HDMI port, blah blah blah. It feels quite nice. And Cyanogenmod is the Android that comes to the rescue – it doesn’t give up, even when the manufacturer has.

I won’t rewrite the perfectly good tutorials I followed, but they’re not all in the same place. Here’s what I did:

  • plug the tablet into your PC, and the mains, turn it on!
  • on the tablet, find the Settings application, the “Applications” menu, and “Development”, then tick the “USB debugging” box;
  • install the android SDK which gives you the vital “adb” debug tool;
  • follow the handy guide, but here are my notes on each section:
    • Backup: you obviously don’t need one if you’ve only just unboxed it;
    • Rooting: the “rooting” program didn’t work first or second time for me – the device froze and needed resetting. Third time it worked, but it still seemed to make the display freeze. That doesn’t matter, once you’ve rooted it just type “adb root” and carry on;
    • Installing a Custom Recovery image: don’t mess around with the manual method, grab the latest RomManager.apk from my server, and install it by typing adb install -r RomManager.apk . You can then run the program directly from the tablet, and just tap “Flash ClockwordMod Recovery” to get that part done;
    • Finally, installing CyanogenMod should be done from the recovery program, it’s a lot quicker. Once you’ve downloaded the latest version of CyanogenMod and the latest Google Apps (which are absolutely not optional), and copied them to /sdcard/, you can use the ROM Manager to “Reboot into Recovery” to begin the process and install the two zip files.

Reboot, and that gets you most of the way – the device will boot into a modern Android, hooray! With the Market, hooray! But you will also need the Vega screen calibration program which you can also install via the USB cable with adb install moduleap.apk once you’ve downloaded it. Run it once, and it will fix the screen calibration.

Finally you will find, when browsing the Market, that lots of programs have an annoying “This program is not compatible with your device” warning, and will forbid you from installing it. This includes Youtube, Google Maps, Adobe Flash and some other big ones.  You need to:

  • download the LCD density changer from the Market;
  • change the LCD density to 160, and reboot
  • go to Settings -> Applications -> Manage Applications and find the Market application. Hit “Clear data” and restart it; you should be asked to reconfirm your acceptance of terms etc.

That should allow you to download what was missing. Though not everything works brilliantly on the tablet’s larger, 16:9 display. Some things get stretched horizontally, and some applications’ interfaces go a little wonky.

But it’s early days for tablet support in Android, and as new versions of CyanogenMod come along, you should find authors fixing their apps. I’d recommdn the ROM Manager Premium app, which lets you download and install new versions of CyanogenMod with “one click” and directly supports the dedicated hackers working on this project.

While finding links for this article, I also noticed there’s a second Vega ROM called Vegacomb knocking around. I’m not sure which is better, but had been using CyanogenMod on my phone for a couple of years, and trust it.

Super! Now I just need to find out what a tablet is for.

Keep it classy, Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman told us what free software was in 1984, why it would be better, and made a moral case to shun software that wasn’t free. He took his ideas and produced the GPL - a uniquely subversive legal document. He spent years talking developers into the idea, on his own terms, and that influence (plus some crazy dot-com cash) caused an explosion of new free software from 1990-2005.

But users didn’t choose free software because of its morals. They used it when it was better value than the alternatives, and they could do a little maintenance themselves: internet providers, academics, and companies with smart developers and tight budgets. Now there’s few transactions that happen over the internet without some GPL-licensed code being involved along the way, and not that most people would care.

There was permanent economic value created by the GPL and Stallman’s focussed influence in promoting free software to developers. That includes Apple’s Safari web browser, Google’s free mobile OS Android and the MySQL database powering most zillions of web sites. Least importantly, my whole business and thousands more like it depend on this same software.

So it’s a huge pity that the man has always such an enormous ego and unshakeable fundamentalism; in his obituary to Steve Jobs, he calls Jobs “the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom” and amazingly, “I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone”. Jobs excited more people into buying into his vision of computers than Stallman; I can see a piqued ego at work. But there’s still more indirect users of GPL-licensed Free software in the world than Apple software. By a long way. The FSF has achieved far more than Apple, and with far less glitz, but Stallman appeared to regard Jobs as a rival and a nemesis.

Stallman has adapted. He recognised patents, web services, documentation and covered them all with a set of licenses that help implement his ideal of free software. But his pitch, and the FSF’s, hasn’t adapted. Their last visible campaign, Windows 7 sins, is a embarrassment on so many levels. The FSF’s only effective advocates seem to be working developers willing to attest to Stallman’s brilliance, and apologise for his public statements, like some mad old uncle.

Fully free software is a difficult idea, and there’s been a new wave of developers who’ve not found it as inspiring as it was 20 years ago. Richard Stallman is nearly 60, two years older than Steve Jobs, and still holds a uniquely influential position. I wish he would make headlines by reaching out to developers again, and not flicking bogeys at a dead guy.

Not too proud to use WordPress

Just practising for now. Normally I prefer to reinvent software, a bit worse, and with a few more bugs but there’s no time at the moment – WordPress is luxurious, easy, free software and turns my vanity domain into a lovely fun colouring book.