Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Book review: the Mirror and the Light

Not really a book review: more a collection of thoughts. Spoiler: he dies in the end.

Title: "Wolf Hall" was good; "Bring up the Bodies" rather weak; TMATL is somewhere in between. About two thirds of the way through it is reveals as an epithet for Henry: the Mirror and the Light of Princes. "Mirror" (Speculum) as a concept seems to have faded; wiki offers me Speculum literature which says was inspired by the urge to encompass encyclopedic knowledge within a single work, but doesn't explain the "mirror" concept; I think it means in the sense that a mirror appears to contain the world. The "mirror of all Christian kings" sense is slightly different; here the image is more propagandistic; we think of holding up a mirror that reflects back the virtues we want to see? So a distorting mirror? It is a subtle phrase that somehow conveys a meaning it does not have. I was hoping for a more... interesting?... meaning to emerge; as the book progresses, Cromwell often reflects (ha!) on his life; images of light on the river are presented; but these don't connect to the title, alas.

As a book: as for WH and BUTB I enjoyed it; it is well written; a good story is told. About two thirds through I found myself bizarrely reminded of Tea in Space, in the sense that everything is so... serene. This is the character of Cromwell as drawn (as I noted in WH): he is a fixer, he can arrange all things (apart from Pole, I'll get to him), all things run smoothly when arranged by him and the tone of the narrative takes this on from him. Some things jar: eventually, the somewhat maudlin flashbacks become boring and skippable; for all her novelly talents she is not a poet and her attempts to rise to that don't work. The serenity extends oddly to the Pilgrimage of Grace: all the death occurs Oop North, with the man being invited to Windor for Christmas, for killing later.

In reviewing Wolf Hall I said that events, while terrible, at least got us the split from Rome, and that was good. I need to re-think that. Because: what I was thinking was that the separation of church and state was good. But of course, the split doesn't get us that. Instead, it produces a temporary solution to the conflict of temporal (local) power with (foreign) spiritual power by unifiying them locally; but this is no long-term solution and in a way just concentrates power, making things worse (from my viewpoint). The counter to that is that it probably did, globally, weaken religion, by making it harder to believe it made sense. I'm ignoring the reformation due to ignorance, of course.

This brings me to the character of Henry. The book presents him as Princely, though flawed. I can't tell if we are meant to see through that to the egotism and childishness underneath, which is presented implicitly; and if she doesn't make that explicit due to subtlety, or just because dissing Henry isn't quite done, he still has a reputation? During the book, he more and more agonises over his inability to have an heir, and being "cursed" for various imaginary sins, and his honour; and I wanted to slap him around the face and tell him to care about the real sins he's committed, like killing people. Because all the imaginary sins are so lawyerly and convoluted and designed in retrospect; and he appears so blind to the real problems1. This seems plausible; he's been surrounded by people all his life who tell him he is right, he's not going to change now.

HM needs to explain Cromwell's downfall. She does this by presenting a series of possible explanations, in C's mind, as he turns over events. The one that seems most likely to me and which she plays well is C becoming too great, combined with H's own insecurity and overriding concern for his own magnificence. The Cleeves marriage was in my head as the folk-reason for C's downfall, but that gets de-emphasised in the book.

Before (mostly) reading TMATL I'd read Thomas Cromwell: A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch. This is interesting, in the sense of containing much interesting information and interpretation, but actually rather dry despite his best efforts, so I rather struggled to get through it. That was some time ago so I've forgotten all the details, but I do recall him noting that H resented C doing any foreign relations, which brings me to...

Pole: in TMATL, Pole is a constant irritation, and C rather implausibly fails to deal with him. This doesn't feel right. But knowing little about this there's not much for me to say.


1. The tone of this section is influenced by a conversation with Mfd. FWIW, Mfd considers that wittering on about this stuff (my words) is entirely likely, given the thinking of the time. And yes, I know the "real" sins probably would not appear sinful to him.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Book review: Big Planet

Vance. And, I now find, very early Vance: from around 1952 (City of the Chasch is 1968, waay later). And Durdane was even later; the "highline" in this is the progenitor of the balloonway of Durdane.

Goodreads has various opinions. If you want mine... yes, read it. But while good and archetypical, many others (Durdane, Planet of Adventure, Lyonesse, The Dragon Masters) are better.

Following convention, a spaceship crashes on approach to a planet leaving our heroes stranded waay away from Earth Enclave, and with some dastardly saboteur in the party;they must make their path across country, finding colourful cultures as they go.

And just as in The White Mountains there is a small piece of philosophy: should people live free, but unprotected, risking horrors; or should they be protected but corralled? 

The adventures along the way are fun, if you like that sort of thing, which I do. And the denouement is interesting.

Quibbling: well, would the highline really survive so well nearly unmaintained in a hostile environment and would it really work? The meteorology doesn't work I think, because a given gravity sets the scale-height, which restricts the size of your topography. And given that the Barjarnum is a dictator, could he really afford to be absent from Beaujolais for so long?

Book review: The White Mountains

The White Mountains is "The Tripods #1" by John Christopher. I first read this oh many years ago: perhaps when I was fourteen. This is probably my first re-read. Now, I'll have to find the other two in the series.

It's fun. Officially "young adult" so some things can be excused. There's even a veneer of philosophy in there: is it better to be free, or to be happy? In this out hero decides to be free, though the "happy" version doesn't have much downside in this book.

Good bits: how things are described; the olde-time objects (most obviously, grenades)are described in terms of how people see them, not using their names. The railway is the shmand-fair, because that's what the French word sounds like. The overall adventure story is decent, and well told. One can doubt that children or even adults would really make it so far, but that is a quibble for all such books.

There are two obvious plot holes... actually, make that three. The first is that really, if people were out seeking for recruits, they would have some kind of system of safe-houses or something along the way. The second is the Count taking in three strangers and treating one of them so well and leaving him alone with his teenage daughter; that seems implausible. The third is the tracking device: having implanted it, why make it quite so blatant that you can follow? It's also odd - well, nowadays, with drones common - that the Tripods only mobility is via Tripods; why wouldn't they have a swarm of drones to do the small work too? But, I'm quibbling.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Stolen text: Hayek's The constitution of liberty, chapter 19

This is the beginning of Chapter 19, "Social security". I omit the lead-in quote from The Economist.

I've copied p 248-253 so far; initially I was only going to nick a couple of pages but it's all too good.


A somewhat high falutin' word. Let me pick out one bit:
it produces the paradox that the same majority of the people whose assumed inability to choose wisely for themselves is made the pretext for administering a large part of their income for them is in its collective capacity called upon to determine how the individual incomes are to be spent
The paradox arises because, per the intro text, the original justification - having slipped past relief for the indigent poor to a more general scheme - was that a general compulsory scheme was needed because, knowing relief would be available, people would fail to save for themselves. And now, those self-same people who have been declared incapable of making sensible choices, are making the overall choices - via ballot - about the scheme.

The text

1. In the Western world some provision for those threatened by the extremes of indigence or starvation due to circumstances beyond their control has long been accepted as a duty of the community. The local arrangements which first supplied this need became inadequate when the growth of large cities and the increased mobility of men dissolved the old neighborhood ties; and (if the responsibility of the local authorities was not to produce obstacles to movement) these services had to be organized nationally and special agencies created to provide them. What we now know as public assistance or relief which in various forms is provided in all countries, is merely the old poor law adapted to modern conditions. The necessity of some such arrangement in an industrial society is unquestioned-be it only in the interest of those who require protection against acts of desperation on the part of the needy.

It is probably inevitable that this relief should not long be confined to those who themselves have not been able to provide against such needs (the "deserving poor," as they used to be called) and that the amount of relief now given in a comparatively wealthy society should be more than is absolutely necessary to keep alive and in health. We must also expect that the availability of this assistance will induce some to neglect such provision against emergencies as they would have been able to make on their own. It seems only logical, then, that those who will have a claim to assistance in circumstances for which they could have made provision should be required to make such provision themselves. Once it becomes the recognized duty of the public to provide for the extreme needs of old age, unemployment, sickness, etc., irrespective of whether the individuals could and ought to have made provision themselves, and particularly once help is assured to such an extent that it is apt to reduce individuals' efforts, it seems an obvious corol lary to compel them to insure (or otherwise provide) against those common hazards of life. The justification in this case is not that people should be coerced to do what is in their individual interest but that, by neglecting to make provision, they would become a charge to the public. Similarly, we require motorists to insure against third-party risks, not in their interest but in the interest of others who might be harmed by their action.

Finally, once the state requires everybody to make provisions of a kind which only some had made before, it seems reasonable enough that the state should also assist in the development of appropriate institutions. Since it is the action of the state which makes necessary the speeding-up of developments that would otherwise have proceeded more slowly, the cost of experimenting with and developing new types of institutions may be regarded as no less the responsibility of the public than the cost of research or the dissemination of knowledge in other fields that concern the public interest. The aid given out of the public purse for this purpose should be temporary in nature, a subsidy designed to assist in the acceleration of a development made necessary by a public decision and intended only for a transitional period, terminating when the existing institution has grown and developed to meet the new demand

Up to this point the justification for the whole apparatus of social security" can probably be accepted by the most consistent defenders of liberty. Though many may think it unwise to go so far, it cannot be said that this would be in conflict with the principles we have stated. Such a program as has been described would involve some coercion, but only coercion intended to forestall greater coercion of the individual in the interest of others, and the argument for it rests as much on the desire of individuals to protect them selves against the consequences of the extreme misery of their fellows as on any wish to force individuals to provide more effectively for their own needs.

2. It is only when the proponents of "social security" go a step further that the crucial issues arise. Even at the beginning stage of "social insurance" in Germany in the 1880's, individuals were not merely required to make provision against those risks which, if they did not, the state would have to provide for, but were compelled to obtain this protection through a unitary organization run by the government. Although the inspiration for the new type of organization came from the institutions created by the workers on their own initiative, particularly in England, and although where such institutions had also sprung up in Germany-notably in the field of sickness insurance-they were allowed to continue, it was decided that wherever new developments were necessary, as in the provision for old age, industrial accidents, disability, dependents, and unemployment, these should take the form of a unified organization which would be the sole provider of these services and to which all those to be protected had to belong.

"Social insurance" thus from the beginning meant not merely compulsory insurance but compulsory membership in a unitary organization controlled by the state. The chief justification for this decision, at one time widely contested but now usually accepted as irrevocable, was the presumed greater efficiency and administrative convenience (i.e., economy) of such a unitary organization. It was often claimed that this was the only way to assure sufficient provision at a single stroke for all those in need.

There is an element of truth in this argument, but it is not conclusive. It is probably true that, at any given moment, a unified organization designed by the best experts that authority can select will be the most efficient that can be created. But it is not likely to remain so for long if it is made the only starting point for all future developments and if those initially put in charge also become the sole judges of what changes are necessary. It is an error to believe that the best or cheapest way of doing anything can, in the long run, be secured by advance design rather than by the constant re-evaluation of available resources. The principle that all sheltered monopolies become inefficient in the course of time applies here as much as elsewhere.

True, if we want at any time to make sure that we achieve as quickly as we can all that is definitely known to be possible, the deliberate organization of all the resources to be devoted to that end is the best way. In the field of social security, to rely on the gradual evolution of suitable institutions would undoubtedly mean that some individual needs which a centralized organization would at once care for might for some time get inadequate attention. To the impatient reformer, who will be satisfied with nothing short of the immediate abolition of all avoidable evils, the creation of a single apparatus with full powers to do what can be done now appears therefore as the only appropriate method. In the long run, however, the price we have to pay for this, even in terms of the achievement in a particular field, may be very high. If we commit ourselves to a single comprehensive organization because its immediate coverage is greater, we may well prevent the evolution of other organizations whose eventual contribution to welfare might have been greater

If initially was chiefly efficiency that was stressed in support of the single compulsory organization, there were other considerations clearly also present in the minds of its advocates from the beginning. There are, in fact, two distinct, though connected, aims which a governmental organization with new method of pursuing the old alms of socialism. The reason why it has come to be so much more widely accepted than the older socialism is that t was at first regularly presented as though it were no more than an efficient method of providing for the specially needy. But the acceptance of this seemingly reasonable proposal for a welfare organization was then interpreted as a commitment to something very different. It was mainly through decisions that seemed to most people to concern minor technical issues, where the essential distinctions were often deliberately obscured by an assiduous and skillful propaganda, that the transformation was effected. It is essential that we become clearly aware of the line that separates a state of affairs in which the community accepts the duty of preventing destitution and of providing a minimum level of welfare from that in which assumes the power to deter mine the "just" position of everybody and allocates to each what it thinks he deserves. Freedom is critically threatened when the government is given exclusive powers to provide certain services powers which, in order to achieve its purpose it must use for the discretionary coercion of individuals.

3. The extreme complexity and consequent incomprehensibility of the social security systems create for democracy a serious problem. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, though the development of the immense social security apparatus has been a chief factor in the transformation of our eco nomy, it is also the least understood. This is seen not only in the persisting belief that the individual beneficiary has a moral claim to the services, since he has paid for them, but also in the curious fact that major pieces of social security legislation are sometimes presented to the legislatures in a manner which leaves them no choice but to accept or reject them whole and which precludes any modifications by them. And it produces the paradox that the same majority of the people whose assumed inability to choose wisely for themselves is made the pretext for administering a large part of their income for them is in its collective capacity called upon to determine how the individual incomes are to be spent.

It is not only the lay members of the general public, however, to whom the intricacies of social security are largely a mystery. The ordinary economist or sociologist or lawyer is today nearly as ignorant of the details of that complex and ever changing system. As a result, the expert has come to dominate in this field as in others.

The new kind of expert, whom we also find in such fields as labor, agri culture, housing, and education, is an expert in a particular Institutional setup. The organizations we have created in these fields have grown so com plex that it takes more or less the whole of a person's time to master them. The institutional expert is not necessarily a person who knows all that is needed to enable him to judge the value of the institution, but frequently he is the only one who understands its organization fully and who therefore is indispensable. The reasons why he has become interested in and approves of the particular institution have often little to do with any expert qualifications. But, almost invariably, this new kind of expert has one distinguishing characterteristic: he is unhesitatingly in favor of the institutions on which he is expert. This is so not merely because only one who approves of the aims of the institution will have the interest and the patience to master the details, but even more because such an effort would hardly be worth the while of any body else: the views of anybody who is not prepared to accept the principles of the existing institutions are not likely to be taken seriously and will carry no weight in the discussions determining current policy.

It is a fact of considerable importance that, as a result of this development, in more and more fields of policy nearly all the recognized "experts" are, almost by definition, persons who are in favor of the principles under lying the policy. This is indeed one of the factors which tend to make so many contemporary developments self-accelerating. The politician who, in recommending some further development of current policies, claims that "all the experts favor it," is often perfectly honest, because only those who favor the development have become experts in this institutional sense, and the uncommitted economists or lawyers who oppose are not counted as experts. Once the apparatus is established, its future development will be shaped by what those who have chosen to serve it regard as its needs.

4. It is something of a paradox that the state should today advance its claims for the superiority of the exclusive single-track development by authority in a field that illustrates perhaps more clearly than any other how new institutions emerge not from design but by a gradual evolutionary process. Our modern conception of providing against risks by insurance is not the result of any one's ever having seen the need and devising a rational solution. We are so familiar with the operation of insurance that we are likely to imagine that any intelligent man, after a little reflection, would rapidly discover its principles. In fact, the way in which Insurance has evolved is the most telling common tary on the presumption of those who want to confine future evolution to a single channel enforced by authority. It has been well said that "no man ever aimed at creating marine insurance as social insurance was later created" and that we owe our present techniques to a gradual growth in which the success sive steps due to the uncounted contributions of anonymous or historical individuals have in the end created a work of such perfection that in com parison with the whole all the clever conceptions due to single creative intelligences must seem very primitive.

Are we really so confident that we have achieved the end of all wisdom that, in order to reach more quickly certain now visible goals, we can afford...

[end of p 253]


Hayek’s The Constitutionof LibertyAn Account of Its Argument, Eugene F. Miller.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Book review: Emphyrio

Looking for something lightweight and fun after a hard day's work and unable to face more interminable artistic theorising from Time Regained, I picked this up, for its second or third re-read.

It is quasi-typical Vance: a young man growing up in a strange limited society who ends up travelling space. As with ?all? Vance space travel is done rather as aircraft were in his day: airliners for the masses, and private craft for the rich, and no-one inquires too closely into how they work; we play along.

The growing-up and world-exploring is done with typical Vancian colour; it is an enjoyable book.

But to say anything interesting I need to reveal the plot, so read no further if you wish to avoid spoilers.

The idea is that the society is in stasis - this a commonplace trope - in this case, a backwater where "duplication" is forbidden; everyone makes originals; in the case of Our Hero, wood carvings. The best of these are sold off-planet, presumably in exchange for imported items. We note that although set on a planet, it's really set in a city, and somehow that's all of the planet - no interactions with others there. This is traditional - the planet is a small place - but we know that's not true; the best realisation of this is in the wacko "Stars in my pocket like grains of sand" which explicitly says, a planet is a large place. Government is effectively by the Welfare Office, and everyone agrees to the rules, in exchange for a peaceful stable life. There is an official obligatory and amusingly described religion, but it's demands are not onerous; for unclear reasons there is no political life. At the same time, membership of society is not obligatory - noncups are tolerated, but that life is insufficiently attractive for many to take it. So the book could have been an exploration of the relative virtues of a peaceful, traditional way of life against full freedom. And in a way it is; but everything in the book except the denouement says that this peaceful if restricted life is better. As usual with such things, it isn't clear that the society would stay in stasis, resisting outside influences; but if we take it for granted that it is, that does rather imply some goodness to it.

There is a superstratum of "Lords", who live by exacting a 1.18% tax; OH admits this does not seem excessive; the citizens are not obviously being exploited. This "economic puzzle" is not fully explained - the end of the book is tolerably abrupt, it is possible that a fuller ending was intended. The answer is that the tax is indeed not excessive; the harm (to (future) income) comes not from the tax, but from the inability of the economy to grow.

The ending - the "Lords" turn out to be (impossibly realistic) puppets run by strange beings from the moon - doesn't really work. The ideas in there are promising, but mis-handled. The savage reprisals on the Evil Moon Beings are unappealing.

The central theme of the legend of Emphyrio is good; but again, it feels mis-handled, or not well developed.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Economic crash could cost more lives than coronavirus, says expert

From The Times, but it's paywalled: Economic crash could cost more lives than coronavirus, says expert.

Tom Whipple, Science Editor / Tuesday March 24 2020, 5.00pm, The Times

If the coronavirus lockdown leads to a fall in GDP of more than 6.4 per cent more years of life will be lost due to recession than will be gained through beating the virus, a study suggests.

Philip Thomas, professor of risk management at Bristol University, said that keeping the economy going in the next year was crucial, otherwise the measures would “do more harm than good”.

“I’m worried that in order to solve one problem we’d create a bigger problem,” he said a day after economists predicted we were on course for the worst recession in modern history.

There is a clear link between GDP and life expectancy, in part due to richer countries being able to spend more on healthcare, safety and environmental regulations. This means it is possible to calculate roughly the effect of increased, or decreased, wealth on the health of a population.

In a paper published before peer review, Professor Thomas has offset that figure against the lives saved through going into lockdown for a year while awaiting a vaccine. According to his modelling, just under a million Britons would die if we let the virus run unchecked. Most of those would be elderly and in terms of years of lives lost would equate to the deaths of 400,000 average age adults, roughly comparable to the toll of the Second World War.

“This is not going to be a three-week or three-month problem,” Professor Thomas said of the virus. Assuming our exit strategy is a vaccine, he said, “we’re talking 12 months, and that looks tight.”

This is why he thinks the economy is crucial — not because of a callous belief that lives can be traded for money, but because money and lives are, at some point, the same thing. “We see this very strong correlation between GDP and life expectancy,” he said. In his paper, published on Jvalue.co.uk, he estimates that if global trends can be extrapolated to the UK economy then the “tipping point”, to offset those 400,000 lives, comes when GDP falls by 6.4 per cent.

“If you reduce GDP per head by so much you start to reduce life expectancy considerably. Then what you are doing is cutting back GDP and at the same time shortening all our lives,” he said. “We are facing something very grave and it’s going to be very grave either way.”

The publication of the paper came as business leaders warned of a deep and lasting recession. IHS Markit, which produces the purchasing managers’ index with the Chartered Institute of Management and Supply, found the economy to be contracting at the fastest rate since the index began in 1998. It estimate that Britain’s economy had shrunk by 1.5-2 per cent this quarter, and predicted that following a total shutdown that figure would soon be “dwarfed” by what lay ahead. Some economists estimate we could expect a 15 per cent drop in the next quarter.

For comparison, at the height of the 2008/9 financial crash, the economy contracted by 2.1 per cent in a single quarter. Chris Williamson, IHS’s chief business economist, said, “a recession of a scale we have not seen in modern history is looking increasingly likely.”

The link between mortality and the economy is clear, but not simple. Some studies have suggested that it may be that greater life expectancy itself leads to economic growth, rather than the other way round. Short term effects are also sometimes in the opposite direction. Although suicides are linked to recessions, they can be offset by a fall in deaths caused by pollution and by accidents at work. The strength of the link between increased GDP and longevity also flattens off the richer a country gets.

The publication of the paper came as business leaders warned of a deep and lasting recession. IHS Markit, which produces the purchasing managers’ index with the Chartered Institute of Management and Supply, found the economy to be contracting at the fastest rate since the index began in 1998. It estimates that Britain’s economy had shrunk by 1.5-2 per cent this quarter, and predicted that following a total shutdown that figure would soon be “dwarfed” by what lay ahead. Some economists estimate we could expect a 15 per cent drop in the next quarter.

For comparison, at the height of the 2008/9 financial crash, the economy contracted by 2.1 per cent in a single quarter. Chris Williamson, IHS’s chief business economist, said, “a recession of a scale we have not seen in modern history is looking increasingly likely.”

The link between mortality and the economy is clear, but not simple. Some studies have suggested that it may be that greater life expectancy itself leads to economic growth, rather than the other way round. Short term effects are also sometimes in the opposite direction. Although suicides are linked to recessions, they can be offset by a fall in deaths caused by pollution and by accidents at work. The strength of the link between increased GDP and longevity also flattens off the richer a country gets.

Mr Thomas said that while the government could well have had no choice but to instigate the current policies, the focus now should be on making the economy work even while much of the country is confined to home.

“It worries me when I hear people saying, ‘Well, vital services can be kept going’. An economist would say that all the services we have are important.

“That’s why people spend money on them.

“The size of the problem is clear. You’ve got to find a way of keeping the whole country working.”

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Junkins: writing a continuous integration server

Just some notes, while I'm about it.

We tend to use Jenkins at work; but I once tried to go about setting up an instance and found even working out how to configure it too much like hard work; so when I found myself wanting one recently I decided to write my own. How hard could it be? And it would certainly be more fun that configuring someone else's. I should mention that my main reason for wanting this was someone else saying they would give up maintaining the Jenkins instance whose result I rely on; so that again pointed to not using it.

The bits I want are:

  1. something to run every now and again, and check for new changes; if there are any, kick off the builds, if they aren't already running;
  2. something to kick off a given list of builds;
  3. something to do each individual build;
  4. something to show me the results.

Point 1 is a cron job; every 5 minutes is a reasonable interval: responsive enough to new changes, and not too much load on the server. 2 is a shell script, using qrsh. 3 is a shell script. And 4 is a cgi script. The "database" of results is just a (Linux) directory structure.

Note that I'm allowed to skip fiddly edge cases and reliability; this is only for my own use, at least in the first instance.

Wildly exciting details

My changes live in Perforce, but that is - or so I believe - isomorphic to Git for these purposes; so it really doesn't matter what change control you use.

Step 1 checks if there's a lockfile in place; if there is, it gives up, because it means there's a build in progress, If there isn't, it syncs the workspace, and checks if the sync did anything (grossly; I just check grep -q up-to-date ; but it's all I need); if it did, then it writes a lockfile and kicks off the builds.

Actually there's a slight complication, which is that all of that previous step is per branch. that adds in a choice: doing a sync in the middle of building a branch would be bad, so the lockfile has to be at least per-branch. In terms of (compile) server load, it might be good to only permit so many branches to be built at once. But I only have two branches right now, so I'll worry about that later.

Step 2 is boring; it is just a shell script that iterates through a list of builds and qrsh's them off into the grid, with params I nicked off another script. At the moment the list is the same for all branches; it could vary, and might one day. When it finishes, it deletes the branch lockfile. It could fire of the qrsh's in parallel, and then worry about exactly how many it is responsible to fling onto the server, and then worry about working out when they are all finished so the lockfile can die (the lockfile could become a directory perhaps that they each write to, and when empty can be removed?).

Step 3 is also dull, and simply builds whatever build has been asked for on whatever branch. Note that this is all done onto scratch (unbackedup) space, so I don't have to care about leaving piles of build products lying around.

Step 4 is the fun bit, and I'm still tinkering with it, since it's susceptible to all kinds of bells and whistles. Most simply, it needs to show the builds and whether they have passed or failed (only when you ask it to display; I don't want it to email me on build fails or anything like that). But in what order? Time; per branch; pass/fail; whatever. I use time, most recent first, because then all the fossil ones that I am no longer interested in fall off the bottom of the list. then the bells: colourising pass/fail; noting now long ago the build was (and switching from secs to mins to hours as they age). Then it's nice to see the most recent changes, and for it to tell you which are in which build, and so on. Since this gets complex it's in Perl rather than Shell.