This blog represents the views of the author, David Fosberry. Those opinions may change over time. They do not constitute an expert legal or financial opinion. New entries will appear when I have time, and when inspiration strikes.

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Bad Geography Or Inability To Count?

Posted on 15th October 2021

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The BBC does it again, in this article.

The journalist (unnamed) reports that the USA is planning to expand offshore wind energy on "on both coasts and the Gulf of Mexico".

The last time that I checked, the USA had not two but three coasts: east, west and south. I believe that these words are actually quoting the Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland. There are several journalistic methods for showing that the stupidity or ignorance was that of the source, not the journalist: by putting the words in quotation marks, or inserting "[sic]" after the offending statement, for example. No such attempt was made, meaning that the BBC has decided to own the mistake.

Antibody Discovered Against COVID-19.

Posted on 15th October 2021

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Finally, some good news about the fight against the coronavirus. This piece on "City A.M." reports on the discovery in a 45 year old man of a natural antibody which is effective against most variants of the virus, including the Delta and Alpha variants.

It is possible to synthesise antibodies, so it is only a matter of time before a treatment using this antibody is available.

This Judge Presides Over Dreadful Injustices.

Posted on 15th October 2021

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I found this story on Pro Publica thoroughly shocking.

The story revolves around Judge Donna Scott Davenport, a judge in Rutherford County, Tennessee.

Judge Davenport created a process to decide whether children should be detained in the local juvenile detention center; she also happens to be the director of that detention center. This decision making process was ruled illegal by a federal judge in 2017, and it was ordered to end, although it seems that it is still being used. In 2014, among cases referred to juvenile court, Rutherford County locked up children in 48% of its cases, whereas the statewide average was 5%!

The shit has recently hit the fan, due to a case where police arrested four black girls at an elementary school in 2016. The officers handcuffed two of the girls, including the youngest, an 8-year-old. The kids were accused of watching some boys fight and not stepping in. They were charged with “criminal responsibility for conduct of another,” which is not an actual crime. All the charges were later dismissed.

Due to the recent investigations, it has emerged that Judge Davenport lied about (or at least seriously exaggerated) her experience "in law enforcement". This is relevant because such judges are elected, not appointed. Another result is that the Middle Tennessee State University has broken all ties with the judge.

I find so many things worrying about this saga. After the publicity, she seems unlikely to be re-elected, but I feel that she should be removed from her position immediately, before she ruins anyone else's life.

Brexit Is Making UK Shortages Worse.

Posted on 15th October 2021

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In this report on the BBC, the French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, is quoted as saying that Brexit has made the supply chain crisis worse for the UK. Personally, I accept his thesis.

Most of the shortages currently being suffered by Britain, including the petrol shortage, are due to supply chain issues, rather than any real shortage of goods.

So, yet again, rather than yielding benefits to the country, Brexit is making life worse for Brits.

Political Correctness and personal pronouns.

Posted on 27th June 2021

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I was thinking recently about the ridiculousness of political correctness regarding personal pronouns.

Many transsexuals, and even some transvestites, are very picky about what personal pronouns people use about them and to them; they can get seriously offended if people don't use their chosen pronouns (he, she, they etc.).

Many of us have, or had in the past, nicknames that people used instead of our given names. I, my father and my son Brendan, have all been called "Foz" or "The Foz". Often these are not directly offensive (not, however, the case with an ex-colleague whose name was Richard Head). I know of no-one who ever chose their own nickname, but most of us know better than to be offended by, or try to change, the nicknames people use for us.

Why then, do people expect to be able to choose the personal pronouns used when people refer to them?

Personal pronouns are part of our language; the purpose of language is communication, and lack of ambiguity is an important part of that communication. If someone who identifies as a woman, still looks like a man (and I have seen a fair few transsexuals whose operations, hormone treatments, clothes and makeup are not convincing) then I reserve the right, for the purpose of avoiding ambiguity, to use whatever personal pronouns I choose when referring to them.

I feel that is the height of arrogance to insist on specific personal pronouns. You own neither the nicknames nor the pronouns that people refer to you with.

Facebook chooses to prioritise its own interests, like making more money.

Posted on 4th October 2021

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This article on the BBC is about the Facebook whistleblower: Frances Haugen.

She has been leaking Facebook internal documents, initially anonymously, but now she has revealed her identity.

She has quite a lot to say about Facebook's business ethics, or lack thereof. In one statement on CBS's "60 Minutes" programme, she said "There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook". "Facebook over and over again chose to optimise for its own interests, like making more money."

Well Duh! As I have written before in this blog thread, the issue is with the laws and stock exchange regulations governing corporations, which constrains companies to maximise profit; company officers may be fired, fined and even barred from holding jobs as corporate officers, for choosing to prioritise other things like the environment, public decency, political stability, etc.

Many people are clamouring for companies to act more for the public good, but are shouting at the wrong target. If they want corporations to act more responsibly, the laws and regulations need to be changed to allow companies to prioritise things other than profit, and provide them with financial and legal incentives to do so.

Not a Jet!

Posted on 4th October 2021

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Pilatus PC-12

Someone else has obviously already complained about this report on the BBC.

The headline originally read "Milan plane crash: Eight dead as private jet hits building", but has now been changed to "Milan plane crash: Eight dead as private plane hits building".

Well good! Although most readers might not know anything about the model of aircraft which crashed (a Pilatus PC-12), anyone can see from the photo to the right that it is not a jet.

This is not the first time that a BBC journalist has been unable to tell the difference between a jet and a propeller plane, and that the editor has let the mistake slip by.

Widespread Shortages.

Posted on 28th September 2021

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The news contains lots of reports about shortages. This problem seems to be the nature of the world, now.

Bus With Neon Lights And Stripper Poles

The funniest story that I have seen is this one on The Hustle, describing the impact of a shortage school-bus drivers in the US, which talks about the case of a high school teacher in Boston who wanted to take his 11th graders on a field trip. No yellow school buses, were available for charter, so he ended up renting from a private company. The bus provided was equipped with neon lights and stripper poles. I am sure the students told their parents all about it. Some of the side-effects of this bus driver shortage include increased costs of the school bus service and increases in the amount of parents driving their kids to and from school (with all the associated impacts of more petrol consumption, increased pollution, more traffic congestion and more traffic accidents).

There is a worldwide shortage of semiconductor chips, making computers and accessories like graphics cards and RAM more expensive and increasing waiting times, and causing car, washing machine and smartphone manufacturers to pause manufacturing (here, on the BBC). Part of the blame can be laid at the door of the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused a dip in demand; now that demand is picking up again, the chip manufacturers do not have the capacity to meet it, having retired or mothballed chip manufacturing plants and shed staff.

There are shortages of truck drivers in the UK (here, on the BBC) and the EU (here, on Politico). In Britain there is a shortfall of about 10,000 lorry drivers, both for fuel and grocery delivery, prompting the UK government to temporarily relax visa requirements for truck drivers.

There are shortages of natural gas in the EU (here, on The Economist) and the UK (here, on the BBC).

There is a CO2 shortage in the UK (here, on the BBC).

There are enormous problems with petrol (gasoline) supply in the UK (here, on the BBC); not a shortage, as such, (there is plenty of petrol), just a delivery problem (because of the shortage of truck drivers), all being made worse by panic buying, as usual.

There are shortages of various groceries in the UK (things that are imported from the EU), and in the EU (mostly, but not only, things that are imported from the UK), due to Brexit and other causes. Things are starting to improve now, but for a while we were not able to get Branston pickle or Marmite. Last year our everyday wine (from Portugal) was not available in a local German supermarket for an extended period. Another supermarket keeps dropping items off of its stock list (the "Sensational Burger" vegan burger, hot sauce, etc.). There are regular warnings that coffee may become more expensive and harder to get. Real vanilla is very expensive and hard to find.

Various reasons are slated for these different shortages:

  • Brexit is blamed for the problem with truck drivers in the UK, and for many of the grocery shortages in the UK and the EU.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic is blamed for many shortages.
  • The natural gas shortages in the UK are blamed on a cold winter depleting stocks, but in fact some of the fault lies with inadequate contingency stocks, so we should probably blame the government.

Some of the blame lies with industry's love affair with JIT (Just In Time) manufacturing and supply; although it helps reduce costs (by reducing the amounts in stock) this system is much less robust when things go wrong. JIT is definitely partly to blame for the shortage of semiconductor chips.

One thing that occurred to me is that the current shortages in so many things are exactly what one would expect at the beginning of societal collapse (see here), with plausible explanations given for each different shortage, but all in fact symptoms of deeper and wider malaise. I am not saying that societal collapse (due to climate change or other reasons) is definitely to blame, but it is a possibility that bears consideration.

Hospital Calls Bullshit On Religious Exemption Claims.

Posted on 19th September 2021

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I like this story from Ars Technica. Unusually, everyone involved seems to understand what an exemption means and who can grant one, and the hospital in Arkansas is calling bullshit on the claims of religious exemptions.

The basis of the claims by some of hospital staff that they should be exempt from a vaccination mandate is that foetal cell lines are used in the development and testing of the Covid-19 vaccines, which is in conflict with their religious beliefs. So the Conway Regional Health System is requiring staff to sign a written declaration that they will also not take any other medicines that use foetal cell lines for development or testing.

The report lists a selection of such medicines: Tylenol (paracetamol/acetaminophen), Pepto Bismol, aspirin, Tums, Lipitor (Atorvastatin, to lower blood cholesterol), Senokot/Ex-Lax (a laxative), Motrin/Ibuprofen, Maalox (an antacid), Benadryl (an antihistamine), Sudafed (a decongestant), albuterol (which opens up airways in the lungs), Preparation H, the MMR vaccine, Claritin (for allergies), Zoloft (an antidepressant, Prilosec OTC, and azithromycin (a powerful antibiotic, listed by the WHO as an essential medicine). Remember that these are just examples, and the full list is much larger.

I am pretty sure that all of the health workers applying for religious exemption have taken more than one of these medicines in the past, and will find it difficult to give them all up. Without them, they run the risk of serious illness, permanent disability and even death.

I am also pretty sure that, if the Conway Regional Health System catches any of these staff taking any of these proscribed medicines, they will have their vaccination exemptions revoked immediately, as they should be.

Religious Exemptions.

Posted on 19th September 2021

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This story on NewsOne is sadly not so unusual.

NewsOne says, in their piece, that there " a growing trend of people who oppose COVID-19 vaccine mandates exercising their religious exemptions as a way to skirt the rules."

I can't work out who is more ignorant in this case: NewsOne, the restaurant or the family trying to skirt the rules.

A man took his family to a restaurant in New York. The waiter tells the family that he can not serve them unless they show proof of vaccination.

The key statement is by the would be customer: "... we just told you that we are religiously exempt". No proof of this claimed religious exemption was proffered.

There are only two kinds of requirement to be vaccinated: those imposed by law, whether federal law, state law or local law; and those imposed by the venue (in this case, the restaurant). There is only one party that can grant an exemption to a rule: the party who created that rule.

In Germany, the requirement to have been vaccinated, and to show proof of that vaccination is imposed by law (usually by the city of state government, not the federal government, depending on the current number of infections), but in the US these rules are usually imposed by the venue/business. In such cases, claiming that his family "are ... exempt" could only be true if the restaurant had granted an exemption.

For countries like the USA, Germany, Britain, etc. which have a separation of church and state, and where religions have no special status under the law (except, in many cases, being tax exempt as a charity) there is no way that one's church can grant an exemption to either a law or a venue's rules. Even in countries which do not have this separation, such as Iran, documentary proof of this exemption is required.

The restaurant really should have pushed back much harder.

The problem in the US seems to be that people believe that their various religions have some special legal status that they do not actually have. This has led to numerous highly publicised cases of people flouting laws against discrimination on the grounds of their religious convictions.

I do not have a requirement that people who visit my home are vaccinated against Covid-19 (nor any other disease), but I have a general expectation that they are. If a visitor tried to claim that they were exempt on the grounds of their religion, they would not get in (or if they were already in my home, they would be leaving immediately), simply because I don't tolerate being bullshitted, and will not tolerate being told that my choices are governed by someone else's religion.

Even on their death beds, some COVID-19 patients in Idaho still reject vaccination!

Posted on 12th September 2021

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The headline of this report on ABC News really says it all: even people who are at death's door due to Covid-19 still reject the vaccines.

I am sure that many of you will feel that I am being overly harsh when I say that these people deserve to die!

There are some other nuggets in the article, such as:

  • The patient who said "Don't tell me I have COVID. I don't believe in COVID".
  • Medical staff reporting that they are often afraid to ask patients whether they have been vaccinated, because of the risk of "adversarial" responses. The answer to this question is essential for working out a treatment plan, and for making an accurate prognosis!

There is so much disinformation, and so many conspiracy theories, on the subject of Covid-19 and the vaccinations that combat it, that it can be impossible to have a rational discussion on the topic.

Disinformation seems to be a modern pandemic in its own right; one for which there is no vaccine.

RPMs Per Minute!?

Posted on 12th September 2021

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Yesterday Sheryl was watching an American TV show on a streaming service. The show is called something like "Metal Shop", and is a competition where contestants make items from metal.

One contestant explained that she was turning a work item slowly, at "5 RPMs per minute". RPM is an acronym for Revolutions Per Minute, so she claimed that she was turning it at 5 revolutions per minute per minute. Also, RPM does not have a plural; one should say "5 RPM".

Of course, there is such a thing as RPM per minute; it is a measure of the rate of change of RPM; after one minute rotation rate would be 5 RPM, and after 2 minutes it would be 10 RPM. That, however, is not what the contestant meant.

I would expect that "RPM" would be part of her expert vocabulary; even if her language skills are not great in all domains, they should be good in her area of expertise.

Do the unvaccinated feel guilty about this man dying?

Posted on 11th September 2021

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This sad story on USA Today, in which a man died of a "cardiac event" after being turned away by 43 ICUs (Intensive Care Units) which were all full due to the enormous number of Covid-19 patients, really begs the question: do the unvaccinated feel guilty about this and other deaths and severe illnesses caused by their selfishness?

Of course, we all know the answer: no they don't. They should do. This is exactly the sort of reason why they are being asked to get immunised, but they are more concerned about their "right to choose" than about other people's life and health.

Well, that "right" (to be selfish) is gradually getting eroded away. As reported here on Reuters, the US government has mandated that most federal employees be vaccinated, and the US Department Of Labor will now require companies of 100 people or more to insist that their employees either be vaccinated or tested weekly.

Other employers in the US and elsewhere are also making moves to require vaccinations. Other governments will probably follow the example set by the US.

This is only right. As I have pointed out before, the basic liberal principle is that people should have as much freedom as possible as long as it doesn't impinge on other people's freedoms. Choosing not to be vaccinated against Covid-19 clearly takes away other people's freedoms and rights (to "life, health and happiness"), as demonstrated by the case of the man turned away by 43 ICUs.

SSD Manufacturers Caught Cheating Their Customers!

Posted on 3rd September 2021

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The author of this report on Extreme Tech is livid, and rightly so.

Western Digital, Crucial, and now Samsung have been exposed cheating their customers for SSDs (Solid State Discs).

The article describes how the initial versions of the products are released, and reviewed by magazines like Extreme Tech. Then modified versions of them are released, having lower performance but the same model number. These newer lower performance SSDs are bought by customers on the basis of reviews of higher performance versions.

This is fraud, pure and simple.

One In Three Tree Species Facing Extinction!

Posted on 3rd September 2021

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This horrifying piece of news on the BBC describes a new assessment of the extinction risk faced by tree species, and concludes that a third of all species are at risk.

The risk is due to forest clearance for crops and grazing, logging, clearance for development, fire, climate change and its side-effects of extreme weather and sea level rise.

The potential proportion of risk of extinctions is much higher that for animals, and is shocking.

Trees are essential to life in so many ways, and the loss of this many species would have huge knock-on effects on all other life on our planet.

Time to take action, before it is too late!

Stupid Fake Vaccination Card!

Posted on 3rd September 2021

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People's stupidity continues to amaze me.

This article on Gizmodo reports on a woman from Illinois who was arrested trying to enter Hawaii with a fake vaccination card which identified her vaccination as "Maderna"!

If you are going to all the effort of creating fake proof of vaccination, wouldn't you at least check the spelling of the vaccine?

Hacking Continues.

Posted on 26th August 2021

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Several recent stories show that hacking (and rasomware) attacks, and security vulnerabilities, are part of every day life in the modern world, and not just some passing phase. They also show that the problem is being exacerbated by a lack of the appropriate paranoia about the risks, and by general stupidity.

Earlier this year the Solarwinds hack came to light, which mainly targeted U.S. government agencies, although it went undetected for many months.

More recently there was the Kaseya attack, which affected companies around the world. Many companies were much more seriously impacted than necessary, because they were using Kaseya's backup service, meaning that the backups, which were also compromised, could not be used to recover from the hack. A friend who runs a small to medium sized company in Munich was impacted by this hack (and he is totally paranoid about cybersecurity!), and will not be using Kaseya's backup service any more (he didn't actually realise that his backups used this service, because his backups were handled by one of his service providers, who in turn used Kaseya).

Crypto-currency traders and repositories were also hit recently. There was an attack on Poly Network, in which about $600M was stolen, although bizarrely, most of the funds were later returned by the hacker. Then there was an attack on Japanese crypto-currency exchange Liquid. where the hackers stole around $100M.

There was a hack which stole data on more than 40 million of T-Mobile's U.S. customers (and people who had merely applied to be customers).

Microsoft continues to be the greatest cybersecurity risk in many people's everyday lives; Adobe is a close second. After the PrintNightmare vulnerability came to light, there is now a new security hole which would let hackers take control of your systems, without needing an administrative password. This article on Tom's Guide really says it all: "Boneheaded recent change to Windows just makes it too easy". It's like I always say, you can't trust Microsoft.

We need to accept that this problem affects everyone, and all systems, and to apply some common sense and paranoia, to reduce the risks and impacts. The problem is not going away. Security needs to be designed into systems from the ground up, not added as a bolt-on fix. Do your own backups, and store them off-site; update your systems frequently (but vet the updates before rolling them out); use firewalls which only allow essential access, and review the settings regularly; use dissimilar systems where possible (e.g. Linux servers with Windows clients); use quality malware scanners (more than one); block your users' access to dangerous web-sites; provide your users with a quarantine environment where they can open suspicious email attachments and visit suspicious web-links; control the connection of removable media/devices (USB drives, mobile phones, etc.) to company systems; and trust no-one.

Evolution Deniers Are Finally a Minority in the U.S.!

Posted on 26th August 2021

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Sometimes I despair of people. This report on Gizmodo describes new data that shows that "acceptance of evolution among Americans has increased, even among religious fundamentalists", and that evolution deniers are now a minority in the United States.

Evolution is a well established thing, with many well documented examples of evolution in action in the modern world; so no longer just a theory. Americans, however, have until recently, mostly not believed or accepted it, with many schools banning the teaching of evolution.

I find it very worrying that the USA, the nation with the most powerful military in the world, the powerhouse of technological innovation and the leading Western economy, has only just recently come around to accepting that evolution is real. I guess one doesn't need to be smart and educated to be rich and powerful.

Street Lamps Are Destroying Our Insects.

Posted on 26th August 2021

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This article on the BBC provides some worrying, if not totally surprising, information. Street Lamps are having a major impact on insect populations, mainly on moths and other insects which are active at night.

Insect numbers are anyway being reduced due to climate change, habitat loss and pesticides. The researchers also think street lights may deter nocturnal moths from laying eggs and increase the risk of the insects being spotted and eaten by predators such as bats. In turn, caterpillars born under streetlights, especially LED lamps, show altered feeding habits.

Insects are a vital part of our ecosystems, pollinating plants, providing food for birds and bats, and recycling waste food. Damage to insect numbers and diversity puts us, and all life on this planet, at risk.

There are things, some of them easy and cheap, that we can do to reduce the impact of street lamps on insects:

  • Only have street lamps on when needed, by using timers, motion sensors and buttons that pedestrians can use to switch on the lights for a few minutes.
  • Install lamp shades to ensure that the lights only illuminate what needs to be lit.
  • Use lights that emit colours that insects are less sensitive to; LEDs are inherently monochromatic (it requires some technological tricks to make white-light LEDs), so it would be easy to make street lamps coloured.

We need to do something, and every little helps.

Living within the planet's limits.

Posted on 4th July 2021

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The headline ("To Stop Climate Change Americans Must Cut Energy Use by 90 Percent, Live in 640 Square Feet, and Fly Only Once Every 3 Years, Says Study") is actually very misleading, in this report on "Reason".

The study described started from the premise that the technology used for energy production, transport (transportation, to some readers), etc. remains largely unchanged compared to what we currently have. They then calculated how much we would all have to tighten our belts to live within what the planet can support.

The results make grim reading. They also looked around the world to see if there are any countries currently living within these limits, which provide an adequate lifestyle for their citizens; there are none.

I think that many people already realised that saving the planet simply by consuming less resources is not viable, especially as the world population is still growing, meaning that the limited resources will have to shared by more people.

Clearly we need radically more efficient technologies to create and distribute resources: energy, food, water, transport, health care, heating and cooling (for food refrigeration and air conditioning), clothing, etc.

Huge efforts are being made in renewable energy (with results already being seen) and carbon capture, but more is needed. We need to stop creating products with built-in obsolescence (computers, cars, TVs and household appliances), curb the fashion industry that encourages us to buy new clothes without any reason, make clothes which last, and promote and enforce the right to repair our property. We need to reduce travel for work (most of which can be replaced with remote meeting technology) and for leisure, and reduce car ownership (replacing it with efficient and effective public transport). We need to demand better energy efficiency in our electrical and electronic goods. We need to make our buildings energy efficient. Plus, we need to move towards a 100% recycling economy.

The consequences of not rising to meet the challenges are horrifying: food and water shortages, rationing of energy and almost everything, luxury products (coffee, chocolate, wine, spirits, olives, truffles, etc.) being unavailable (with some crop species becoming extinct), a disastrous decline in people's health and life expectancy, collapse of the money-based economy and law and order, and wars over resource shortages. This is not a world I want to live in!

Colossal cyber-attack!

Posted on 4th July 2021

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This news report on the BBC describes a huge cyber-attack, with about 200 US companies effected so far, and the number apparently still growing.

The attack seems to be working in a similar way to the SolarWinds attack on US government agencies in 2020, whereby a software supplier (Kaseya, in the latest attack) was breached and their software compromised; the compromised software was then distributed to their customers through the standard software update process.

The latest story, also on the BBC, reports that the Swedish Coop supermarket chain has had to close hundreds of their stores, because they were unable to process customers' payments. This is a huge problem in Sweden, where almost all shop payments are electronic, and many people do not carry enough cash to pay for their groceries.

The worrying thing is that the Swedish Coop is not even a direct customer of Kaseya, but a customer of one of Kaseya's customers. This suggests that the impact could potentially grow even larger.

Children make up a growing proportion of new Covid-19 cases.

Posted on 4th July 2021

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This piece on USA Today reports on data from the USA on the increasing proportion of children amongst new infections by the coronavirus.

At the start of the pandemic, kids were just 2% of cases; now they make up 24% of new infections, despite only making up 16% of the population.

Luckily, these infections are still less severe than in adults (fewer severe infections and hospitalisations), but there is still some risk to the kids, and they are also a source of further infections in adults.

Vaccination programmes have, until now, focused on adults, and most governments have not approved any vaccines for younger children.

Given the new data, it is time to test and approve Covid-19 vaccines for younger kids, and get them vaccinated.

Karma!

Posted on 4th July 2021

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This article on Newsweek reports on the case of a woman in Missouri who was worried about the side effects of COVID-19 vaccines and chose not be vaccinated, but then caught the Delta variant and died.

There are many such cases popping up in the news from time to time, but people don't seem to be learning the lesson.

As far as I am concerned, this is karma.

You can die from eating a bad batch of food from the supermarket, drinking alcohol, crossing the street, or taking a flight on an aeroplane, but people take the risk because the benefits outweigh the risks. Vaccination against Covid-19 is the same.

Unvaccinated people are factories for Covid-19 variants.

Posted on 4th July 2021

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This story on Insider, and this one on CNN explain how unvaccinated people who are infected with Covid-19 are breeding grounds for mutated variants of the coronavirus.

By not getting vaccinated, they are not only risking their own health, but are also putting the health of all of us at risk, by creating and spreading potentially more dangerous variants of the disease. This phenomenon makes the disease much harder to control, and runs the risk of making our current vaccines ineffective.

The basic liberal principle is that people should be given as much freedom as possible without allowing them to limit the freedom of others. This principle is the justification for laws putting limits on people's exercise of their rights and freedoms (such as the various rights in the US constitution). Exercising the right to choose to not be vaccinated is impinging on the rights and freedoms of the rest of the population.

How much longer will we tolerate people choosing not to get vaccinated? I think it is time to enact legislation to limit people's freedom to make this irresponsible choice.

New Windows vulnerability affects all Windows versions.

Posted on 3rd July 2021

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This report on PCMag, and this one on Tom's Guide are about the newly discovered PrintNightmare exploit of a Windows security vulnerability.

Yes, the vulnerability is already being actively exploited, and your computers are at risk.

So, yet again, Microsoft, with their poor design and cavalier attitude to users' security, have put millions of users at risk. The potential impact is huge, because all Windows versions since Windows are vulnerable.

The vulnerable software is the Print Spooler, which is common to all Windows versions, both client and server. As yet there is no patch to close the vulnerability, but there are some things that you can do to reduce or eliminate the risk (depending on your network topology and security policies). Microsoft has released a document listing “PrintNightmare” mitigation strategies. The suggestion on Tom's Guide is to disable the Print Spooler service (which you probably can't live with) or to disable inbound remote printing through Windows’ Group Policy.

Disabling inbound remote printing means that your Windows print servers will not work; yet another reason to migrate your server functionality to Linux.

A hidden coronavirus pandemic amongst our pets!

Posted on 3rd July 2021

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This report on Gizmodo describes a study of Covid-19 infections amongst household pets of people who were themselves infected with the coronavirus.

It has been known for a while that some pets (dogs, cats and members of the weasel family) can get infections of Covid-19. Generally, these infected animals only exhibit minor symptoms, and do not infect humans (although mink, part of the weasel family, show more severe symptoms and can infect humans). What was not so clear was how often these pets were getting infected.

The new study shows that infections of pets by humans is actually fairly common.

The Gizmodo article is rather dismissive of the risk, because of the fact that cats and dogs do not infect humans. So what happens when a new variant evolves, which can make the leap from pets back to humans? This is not such a stretch of the imagination, given the constant parade of new mutant coronavirus types, and the fact that such a mutant variant first made the leap from animals to humans in the first place.

If such a variant (or even several such variants) emerges, the disease will be much harder to control, because there will be a reservoir of infections amongst unvaccinated pets. Mass culling of household pets will be very strongly resisted by pet owners, so vaccination of pets seems the only option, and we do not yet have Covid-19 vaccines for dogs and cats.

This new data suggests that the threshold for achieving herd immunity will be even tougher than previously thought; a 70% vaccination rate is simply not going to cut it.

Facebook's appalling translation service.

Posted on 27th June 2021

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I see many posts on Facebook which are written in various languages (German, French, Arabic, Afrikaans, etc), for which Facebook offers automatic translation. I am constantly appalled at how bad these translations are. On many occasions I have used the option to "rate this translation", but there is no option to explain what is wrong with it; only to say things like "I can't understand it at all".

I am quite happy to invest a little time and effort to explain to Facebook what error(s) their translation software has made, but I don't have this option. I can only assume that the company simply doesn't care about the quality of this service; I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised.

Still No Chemists At The BBC!

Posted on 26th June 2021

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This article on the BBC about recovering century-old beer from a shipwreck was interesting and amusing.

It does, however, prove that journalists who have basic chemistry knowledge are in short supply at the BBC.

The report describes how the ship which sank in 1895, "was packed with various kinds of cargo, including large containers of a chemical called tin chloride".

The is a reason why it is "called" tin chloride; because that it what it is. The use of the word "called" here suggests that it is called tin chloride, but is actually something else.

Why does it seem to be so hard for the BBC?

Some of Britain's Athletes don't want to have the Covid-19 vaccine!

Posted on 26th June 2021

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This article on the BBC reports that some of Britain's athletes do not want to receive the Covid-19 vaccine before travelling to Tokyo to compete in the Olympics. The poor hard done by babies!

Why is there even a discussion? If they want the privilege of representing their country in the Olympics, they need to get vaccinated. If they don't, they are putting themselves, staff and other competitors in Tokyo at risk; when they return home, they will be putting more people at risk. Get the vaccine, or stay home and allow someone more appreciative to take their places on the Olympic squad.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 is still rampant across the world, and mutating into more deadly and infectious variants at an accelerating rate. Already vaccination is required to attend some social and cultural events, make many international flights and take international vacations. Vaccinations are also required for hospital workers (medical and non-medical workers) and some other professions. Given that the disease is clearly not under control, it is probably only a matter of time before vaccinations become mandatory for more people and more circumstances.

Personally, no-one is allowed into my home unless vaccinated, no matter who they are.

Are we really so worried about offending people, and restricting their "rights" that we are prepared to be put at risk by people who don't want the vaccine?

Microsoft erodes your freedoms with Windows 11!

Posted on 26th June 2021

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As many of you will have noticed, Microsoft has announced Windows 11, despite having said many times that there would be no major new versions of Windows, and that all changes would now be handled as updates to Windows 10.

Skype

One of the major changes, as described here by the BBC, is that Teams will now be bundled Windows, and that Skype will not. "Looks like Microsoft is killing off Skype,", according to Adrian Weckler, the Irish & Sunday Independent tech editor.

There are lots of apps providing voice and video calling from PCs and smart-phones, but if you want to call with an app to a real phone number, as you can with Skype, things are not so simple (I have yet to find one). I also know of no other service with the equivalent of Skype-In numbers, where you get a virtual phone number, which diverts incoming calls to your Skype device.

Other Changes

This article on Extreme Tech lists some of the other freedom-eroding changes to Windows. It reads rather like a rant, but nevertheless makes some valid points.

Here is a summary of some of the key issues:

  • A Microsoft account is needed to set up a new PC. This is not new with Windows 11, but was introduced with Windows 10 (or earlier). I find this requirement very intrusive; it requires a level of trust in Microsoft that I do not have. Once you have set up the PC, you can create a local account, and need not use your Microsoft account again.
  • An Internet connection is also needed to set up a new PC. Partly, this is needed to authenticate login with the Microsoft account, and partly to allow updates to the latest version of Windows 11, which is mandatory when setting up the PC. If you do not have an Internet connection, or you are not legally allowed to use the Internet, you are screwed.
  • Windows 11 will often force you to accepts updates. Again, this was also true with Windows 10. Sometimes you can defer updates (if you don't shut your PC down), but only for a while, and Windows will eventually decide to install anyway, causing your PC to reboot in the middle of a session, potentially losing work. The update issue is the reason why I do not run any version more recent than Windows 7 (the last version where the user had complete control over updates) on any of my PCs (and only as virtual machines running on Linux hosts).
  • Windows 11 will not run on a PC without a TPM 2.0 chip installed (and enabled). TPM is Trusted Platform Module, and is a security device. If your PC doesn't have one, there is usually no way to add one. If you have one that is not enabled, you can enable it in the BIOS.

There may be other issues that I am not yet aware of.

Apple pays patent troll $300M - Nemesis at work!

Posted on 21st March 2021

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I had to laugh when I read this story on "9 To 5 Mac".

Apple has been ordered by a federal court in Texas to pay $308.5 million to Personalized Media Communications, a non-trading company which owns dozens of patents and generates revenues through patent litigation.

PMC's original claim was rejected by the U.S. Patent office, but PMC appealed to the court, and has just won the case, although Apple plans to appeal.

I find this especially apt, because Apple has a long history of stealing or otherwise appropriating other people's intellectual property, and then suing other companies for patent infringement.

Like they say, "What goes around, comes around."

Political Correctness in Texas.

Posted on 26th June 2021

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Newspaper Clipping

A friend sent me this photos of a newspaper clipping (to the right) about a bill being put forward in the Texas legislature (the highlighting is my friend's, not mine).

Representative Terry Meza (a democrat - no surprise there) wants to repeal the states's "castle doctrine", which allows a homeowner to use lethal force to defend their home.

There have always been issues with the way the "castle doctrine" legislation was written and interpreted, with the result that there was no onus on the homeowner to use only the minimum necessary force, and a number of morally questionable deaths have resulted. It is absolutely right to put a legal responsibility on homeowners to use only proportionate and necessary force.

I do, however, find some of the other parts of the proposed legislation downright offensive. Homeowners will have a duty to flee, if someone break in, and if unable to flee, then to cooperate with the intruder.

Then there are the excuses made in the article for the thieves, and the statements that the thieves need the money more than the homeowners, and that theft can be viewed as a means to a more equitable distribution of wealth; it is unclear whether these views can be attributed to Representative Meza, or are the opinions of the journalist.

This is arrant PC nonsense. The good thing is that this bill has no chance of becoming law in Texas.

Federal Judge Dismisses Anti-Vax Suit By Medical Workers.

Posted on 13th June 2021

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This story on USA Today reports on the hearing in a Houston federal court on the law suit by medical workers at Houston Methodist Hospital.

After months of warnings, Houston Methodist had put more than 170 of its 26,000 employees on unpaid suspension Monday. They were told they would be fired it they weren't vaccinated by June 21.

In the meantime, a 117 of those staff had sued the hospital on the basis that the vaccines were experimental and potentially unsafe. I blogged about their ridiculous law suit here.

The judge dismissed their suit, saying "This claim is false, and it is also irrelevant". Good for him.

Since this hearing was in federal court, it counts as legal precedent for the whole of the USA, although I suspect that there will be an appeal, so the issue is not completely closed yet.

Time To Check If Your Email Password Has Been Compromised.

Posted on 12th June 2021

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This report on "Laptop" describes the latest release of hacked email passwords on the Internet.

The published leak is a 100GB text file comprising 8.4 billion private login entries (email address and password pairs).

The article included a link to "Have I Been Pwned?", where you can easily check whether any of your email passwords have been compromised. This is safe: all you need to do is enter your email address, and it will respond with the number of passwords in the file for that address. You are not asked for your password, and there is no way for you or anyone else, to find out what those passwords are.

I strongly recommend that everyone checks all of their email addresses.

Amazon Rolls Out Sidewalk: Automated Hacking.

Posted on 12th June 2021

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As reported here on Defender Network, Amazon Sidewalk has now been rolled out (on the 8th of June). If you didn't opt out, you already have it. More to the point, your neighbours with Amazon devices (Alexa, Echo, or a Ring Doorbell) also have it, with the option to use your WiFi is theirs is not working, unless you opted out.

"Amazon Sidewalk is a free, shared network to help customers with Amazon devices, Alexa, Echo, Ring doorbell, and security cameras, stay connected even if your wifi is weak or fails. Sidewalk automatically connects customers to the wifi of neighbors who also have Amazon devices."

This is a huge security risk for your home network, opening the door to hacking from your neighbours' networks. Any security measures are only as secure as the weakest link, so your risk is determined by how careful your neighbours have been.

Personally, I am rather paranoid about my network security. This means:

  • I will not have smart Internet-connected devices like Amazon Alexa, Echo, or a Ring doorbell on my network, nor indeed any IoT (Internet of Things) device (Internet-connected TV or refrigerator) on my network:
  • I am picky about who can connect to my WfFi.
Incentives To Get Vaccinated In The USA.

Posted on 12th June 2021

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This story on Gizmodo is only the latest of a whole array of incentives for people to get their vaccination against Covid-19.

Gizmodo reports that, in Washington State, where recreational marijuana is legal, people can get their immunisation shot at a weed shop, and will receive a free joint.

In California there is a cash vaccination lottery, with prizes currently up to $1.5M; Washington State also has a cash lottery with the chance to win $250K.

This news story on AP News summarises other incentive schemes in the USA: a free beer from Anheuser-Busch once the nation's 70% vaccination target is met; free childcare while getting shots and recovering from the side-effects; plus sports tickets and paid leave.

Canada also has a whole slew of incentive schemes to speed vaccination efforts.

All this is in stark contrast to the situation in most other countries (the EU and Taiwan are examples) where there are not enough doses of vaccines, and governments are focusing their efforts on delaying, prioritising and excuse-propagandising.

Black Fungus, Covid-19 And Diabetes.

Posted on 6th June 2021

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This report on the BBC is one of a whole series of articles about the number of cases of black fungus (mucormycosis) in patients recovering from Covid-19. This seems to be especially problematic in India.

Initially, suspicion fell on treatment with steroids (now a standard medication used in severe cases of the coronavirus), but now the spotlight is on diabetes. In India, amongst patients recovering from Covid-19 94% of those who had the fungal infection also suffered from diabetes.

The IDF (International Diabetes Federation) estimates that about 57% of those with diabetes in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka are undiagnosed, and nearly all of these are found in India.

We should, however, be cautious in interpreting these statistic. Covid-19 is now known to trigger diabetes (something which the author of the BBC article seems unaware of), so the number of cases of black fungus amongst diabetics recovering from Covid-19 will inevitably be distorted by cases of diabetes brought on by the coronavirus.

Texas Mum Opens Fire on Neighbour's Puppy, Shoots Her Own Son Instead.

Posted on 3rd June 2021

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This story on "toofab" beggars belief.

A mother in Texas opened fire on a puppy belonging to a neighbour, which she claims was rampaging, firing three shots in quick succession across a public street in the direction of two occupied houses. She could see a man and woman across the street, but not her own son (her view of him was obscured), and a ricochet hit the boy.

The woman has been charged, as is only just. I also hope that her gun licence is revoked.

This is just another example of problems with gun violence and gun accidents in the USA, but "the guns are not the problem" right?

No Chemists At The BBC?

Posted on 6th June 2021

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This report on the BBC is merely one example of a growing trend in journalism. It is not only an issue with the BBC, but with very many news publishers.

The report is about how the contribution of nitrous oxide to global warming is being overlooked.

Nitrous oxide comprises two atoms of nitrogen bound to one atom of oxygen, and the formula is N2O, not N20 as the BBC report states.

There are many examples of this kind of sloppiness published every day: CO2 instead of CO2, H2O instead of H2O.

Is it really so hard to use subscripts for the numbers in chemical formulae? Anyone who studied some chemistry at school knows how chemical formulae should be written.

Spain's Hypocrisy Over Its Enclaves In North Africa.

Posted on 6th June 2021

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This article on the BBC really highlights Spain's hypocrisy.

The report is about the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla (called Sebtah and Melilah by Morocco). These territories have been in the news a lot lately due to the influx of illegal immigration from Morocco (which requires nothing more complex than a swim along the beach).

The history of Ceuta and Melilla is summarised here, and that of Gibraltar here.

Morocco is using exactly the same arguments for the return of the two enclaves as Spain uses to make the case for the return of Gibraltar. Spain's response to Morocco is broadly the same as Britain's to Spain.

Spain's position is intolerably hypocritical.

Racism At The NFL.

Posted on 3rd June 2021

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My god, what century are the NFL (National [American] Football League) living in?

This report on the BBC describes how the NFL has finally agreed to stop using a racially biased algorithm that assumes black players have a lower level of cognitive function to calculate compensation for concussion victims, and not because they finally got a sense of morals, but because they were sued.

This kind of racial prejudice has been illegal in the USA (and virtually all western nations) for decades. Did the NFL fail to notice, or did they just think that nobody would care?

Texas Allows Concealed Gun Carrying Without A Permit.

Posted on 3rd June 2021

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Sometimes I despair of Texans! This article on the BBC reports that Texas legislators have passed a bill which would allow most people to carry concealed handguns without a permit. Current Texan rules require that people carrying handguns must have a licence, training and background checks, as in other states.

Gun violence is out of control in the USA, and getting worse all the time. At some point there will be measurable impacts on tourism and immigration, as people decide that America is simply too dangerous to visit or relocate to.

More About Transgender Athletes.

Posted on 3rd June 2021

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I found this article on the BBC interesting. It describes how Florida has banned transgender athletes from competing in women's sports. Florida joins an increasing number of states that have passed such legislation.

I found the most interesting part of the article to be the video of an interview by Stephen Sackur of Sharron Davies, an English former Olympic swimmer. She reminds us that men have, on average, a 10% performance advantage in sports, which can be as high as 20% in some sports. This advantage is enough to ensure that athletes born female have no chance of winning medals when competing against transgender athletes.

I wonder whether part of the problem is the entitled attitude that so many people have nowadays. Yes, people should have the right to have gender reassignment surgery and the associated hormone treatment, and the right to not be subject to prejudice for choosing this. The problem seems to be that they think they are entitled to make this choice with no consequences whatsoever. The changes in the law creeping across the US mean that there are consequences: they will not be able to compete in sports. This is a basic component of life: choices and consequences, one of the basic tenets of Montessori education. I don't see why people should be able to choose to change their sex, without such a reasonable consequence.

The Biggest Fines After Three Years Of GDPR.

Posted on 30th May 2021

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I found this article on the BBC interesting. It lists the 5 largest fines so far under the EU's GDPR regulations.

Some of the offences are the kind of thing I had expected; others are rather shocking. In summary:

  1. Google (€50m) in 2019, for failure to make its statements about its consumer data processing policy easily accessible to its users, and for not seeking the consent of its users to use customers' data for targeted advertising campaigns.
  2. H&M (€35.3m) in 2020 for secretly monitoring hundreds of its employees.
  3. Tim - Telecom Italia (€27.8m) because customers received a large number of unwanted (nuisance) promotional calls.
  4. British Airways (£20m) (the most shocking of the list) in 2020 directed its website users to a fraudulent site, allowing hackers to to harvest the personal data of about 400,000 people (the leaked data included login and travel booking details, names, addresses and credit card information).
  5. Marriott International Hotels (£18.4m) (also shocking) suffered a hack dating back to 2014, but not uncovered until four years later, exposing the personal details of about 300 million customers, including credit card information, passport numbers and dates of birth.

What this tells us is that companies are unable to protect the data of their customers, and that legislation like GDPR that limit the data collected and held, and puts requirements for data security on those companies regarding handling and storage are very much needed.

There is only one type of organisation that has proven to be less secure than even commercial companies in handling and storing data about us: government agencies.

Hospital Workers Sue Hospital Over Vaccine Mandate.

Posted on 30th May 2021

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The lawsuit described in this Washington Post report is laughable.

Employees of a Texas hospital are suing their employer, who has mandated vaccination of staff, with the argument that they have a right to not be "experimented on" by being given an unproven Covid-19 vaccine.

Given the number of people who have now been vaccinated against Covid-19, both in the USA and worldwide, and the vast amount of data which has been gathered on those people, the vaccines in question are far from unproven, and administering the vaccine to them is not an experiment.

Continuing to collect data about levels of protection and side-effects of these vaccines does not mean the vaccines are "experimental".

Even if it was a case of experimenting with an unproven vaccine, these people work in the health-care industry; patients have a right to be be as safe as possible from infection with the coronavirus when being treated at this hospital, which means all the staff, medical or other employees, having been immunised.

I hope the judge who hears this case throws it out.

Amazon Refuses Refund After Delivering Empty Box!

Posted on 30th May 2021

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On the surface, this story on Fstoppers is not a surprise. Amazon has a terrible reputation for customer service, and there are many stories on the Internet that suggest that the company is sometimes complicit in fraud perpetrated against their customers.

In this case Amazon delivered an empty box to customers in Alabama instead of the camera worth $7,000 that they ordered, and then refused to give the customers a refund.

The reason that I mention this case is because of the ideas that the the article mentions (some done by the customers in this case, and one not) to ensure that you can get a refund when appropriate.

Based on the article, and some common sense, my recommendations are:

  • If you are asked to sign for delivery, do not do so if there is any reason to be suspicious (based on the size, weight or damage to the package) - in such cases sign only after opening, and make the delivery company wait while you open it;
  • Weigh the package before opening it, and video this being done (this is in case the shipping company cannot provide proof of the weight);
  • Video the opening of the parcel;
  • If there is any problem with the package, immediately file a credit card dispute with your credit card company;
  • If you are asked by Amazon to review the product, do so, being clear but not profane (if you are profane, your review may be suppressed) about what the issue is;
  • Go to the Amazon web-site, click to view your orders, and click to return the order - send back exactly what you received, including any damaged packaging;
  • If you are refused a refund, post about your dissatisfaction on as many social media services as you can: Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, etc. (not much point writing a negative review on Amazon's own web-site);
  • As a last resort, be prepared to sue.

The last time that I ordered from Amazon was also not a great success. The HP printer cartridges that I ordered turned out to not be genuine HP items (not mentioned in the product listing), and therefore didn't work in my HP printer. I gave a review to Amazon when asked, stating that the products were not fit for purpose, and not as advertised. In response I got a "Thank you for your review" from Amazon, but no other action; it seems that the reviews are not checked by humans. I was at least able to return the items and to get a refund, but if the supplier hadn't been honest, I would have got no help from Amazon.

House Representative Katie Porter Calls BS on Big Pharma's Lies.

Posted on 23rd May 2021

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I strongly recommend that you spend the two minutes needed to watch this video on Twitter (remember to click to enable sound), in which congresswoman Katie Porter questions the CEO of a big pharma company (Abbvie) about their bullshit.

Pharmaceutical companies regularly claim poverty because of the "huge costs" of research and development of new drugs ($2.45 billion for Abbvie from 2013 to 2018) , but in fact this pales into insignificance compared to the biggest outgoing, stock buy-backs and shareholder dividends ($50 billion for Abbvie from 2013 to 2018).

As Katie Porter points out, the "justification" for the astronomical prices for medicines in the USA is a fairy tale. It is time for consumers and government to stop buying big pharma's bullshit.

G7 Acts Against Fossil Fuels.

Posted on 23rd May 2021

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This report on the BBC gives me some reason to be hopeful.

The G7 (the UK, the US, Canada, Japan, France, Italy and Germany) have finally decided to take action to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

Specifically, G7 environment ministers have agreed that they will deliver climate targets in line with limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5C. As part of this they have agreed to stop direct funding of coal-fired power stations in poorer nations by the end of 2021, and made a commitment to safeguarding 30% of land for nature by 2030 to boost wildlife and help soak up carbon emissions.

The problem that I have with all this is that this has taken so long to happen, and that the G7 nations are not putting their money where their mouths are. For example the British government decided (in January this year) to give the go-ahead for a new coal mine in Cumbria, as reported here by the BBC. All of the G7 nations still generate a significant proportion of the electricity from coal. Natural gas (also a fossil fuel) is being increasingly used for heating, cooking and electricity generation.

Germany uses mainly lignite (the most polluting kinds of coal) for electricity generation, and only plans to phase out coal fired power by 2038, as reported here by the World Economic Forum.

China (not part of the G7) is still building new coal-fired power stations, and they are not alone in this.

It seems like the rich nations are telling the poor nations they have to be green, while continuing to not be green themselves. I think it is time for the G7 to lead by example.

What really needs to happen is to:

  • Stop building coal mines,
  • Stop building coal-fired power stations,
  • Phase out and retire the existing coal-fired power stations,
  • Stop oil exploration, including for new shale oil and fracking production,
  • Stop the commercial use of peat for electricity production and heating/cooking,
  • Stop the promotion of natural gas.

There should be no loans or grants for the above, anywhere in the world.

The Two Options For Our Future, Depending On Whether We Protect Our Environment Or Not.

Posted on 23rd May 2021

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This article on inverse.com describes two extreme futures for the human race and our planet. Option one is what will happen if we do nothing; option two is what will happen if we pull out all the stops to save ourselves and our world.

The predictions are for the year 2100, which is not so far away.

Option one is very scary, and is not the kind of future I want for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I don't feel that I need to elaborate on this piece of future-gazing.

Female Athlete Complains Of Unfair Competition From Transgender Athletes.

Posted on 23rd May 2021

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This news report on "USA Today" contains a strong complaint by a top American athlete, Chelsea Mitchell, about unfair competition in her sport (the 55-meter dash).

She says that "time after time" she has lost to transgender athletes. "I've lost four women’s state championship titles, two all-New England awards, and numerous other spots on the podium to male runners".

One could simply conclude that this is sour grapes by Chelsea Mitchell, but I feel that she has some grounds to complain.

Compare this with the situation in Formula 1 motor racing. There are limits on the cubic capacity of the engines, the aerodynamic means used to increase grip, and a vast array of other rules to ensure that competition is fair. These rules change all the time, as new technology is introduced by the competing teams. I don't hear people complaining that these rules are discriminatory. Why is a comparable set of rules in athletics viewed by so many as discriminatory?

Eric Clapton Complains Of Covid-19 Vaccine Safety Propaganda.

Posted on 16th May 2021

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I read this report on the "Mail Online", about Eric Clapton, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and his severe and scary side-effects from the Covid-19 vaccine.

From the description, it sounds like he had Guillain-Barre Syndrome (read more about it here), which is a rare but known side-effect of Covid-19 which attacks the body's nerves causing partial or even complete paralysis and loss of sensation. Having Guillain-Barre Syndrome as a side-effect of a vaccination (in this case with the AstraZeneca vaccine) must be even rarer than as a side-effect of a Covid-19 infection; of course, we do not know whether he actually had Covid-19 as well as the vaccination.

Eric Clapton reported that "his hands and feet became 'useless' – prompting fears he would never play [guitar] again". That would have been dreadful for him and the world.

His main complaint, described in the news article, is actually about the propaganda surrounding the safety of the vaccines.

Well, Duh! Of course there is propaganda on the subject, from all sides: from governments, vaccine manufacturers and anti-vax activists. Governments and vaccine manufacturers are trying to encourage the maximum possible number of people to get vaccinated, so that the coronavirus can be brought under control by achieving the holy grail of herd immunity. What is important is whether that propaganda was truthful or not. All the official information that I have seen has been truthful, although the same cannot be said of some information in the media, where publications and their journalists have their own agendas, and are often too ignorant about matters of medicine and public health to be useful. The usual messages are of the form that "the benefits outweigh the risks".

The real problem for members of the public is translating that into real risk evaluations for individuals: answering questions such as "given my age, my weight, and my pre-existing conditions, what are my risks of the various possible side-effects?" A large part of the problem in answering such questions is the lack of the necessary data, and it will probably take two or three more years before enough data has been accumulated to provide such answers.

Known side-effects of Covid-19 vaccines, depending on which vaccine, include:

  • Fever;
  • Soreness at the injection site;
  • Allergic reaction, very occasionally to a life-threatening degree;
  • Blood clots;
  • Changes to menstruation;
  • Based on Eric Clapton's experience, numbness and paralysis due to Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

In addition,we should not be totally surprised to see any and all symptoms which can be caused by Covid-19 also being found, albeit rarely and less severely, to be side-effects of vaccination. These include:

  • Coughs;
  • Strokes;
  • Organ failure due to blood-clots;
  • Breathing difficulties, possibly requiring supplementary oxygen or even a ventilator;
  • Type-2 diabetes;
  • Lack of energy or lethargy.

This also implies that health conditions that predispose people to higher risks from Covid-19 may also increase the risks of side-effects from Covid-19 vaccines. These health conditions include:

  • Obesity;
  • Diabetes;
  • High blood pressure;
  • Heart conditions (e.g. a history of heart attacks or arrhythmia);
  • Kidney problems.

So, in summary, yes Mr. Clapton there is lots of propaganda about the safety of Covid-19 vaccines, but most of it is basically truthful, and the real limitation is the lack of data.

Boeing Again In Trouble For Unsafe Aircraft!

Posted on 11th May 2021

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As reported here by the BBC, Boeing is again under the spotlight for safety issues with their Boeing 737 Max planes.

This time it is an electrical problem, with potential effects on many systems. What is even more of concern is that there is a suggestion that this issue may have been involved in the failed sensors used by the AOA (Angle of Attack) system which caused the crashes of 737 Max planes.

As a result of the discovery of this latest problem, more than 100 Boeing 737 Max aircraft were grounded in April, and deliveries of new aircraft were stopped.

Boeing deemed that the change to manufacturing methods that led to the electrical faults was a "very minor change, so it was not notified to regulators". Again, this is not only a failure by Boeing, but also by the FAA.

Neither Boeing nor the FAA can be trusted to ensure the safety of air travellers.

South Carolina Legalises Execution By Firing Squad.

Posted on 11th May 2021

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It seems that the USA is intent on moving further away from civilized norms.

This video report on The Young Turks seems to focus a lot of how the reporters at Fox News seem to be celebrating the reintroduction of execution by firing squad, but also thoroughly makes the case against the death penalty.

The case is simple. Innocent people get executed, because of mistakes in the legal system: 185 Innocent people have been executed in the US since the death penalty was reintroduced in the 1970s, which is 1 in every 8.3 people, or 12%! Those 185 people are only the ones that are currently known about. I would argue that even even one innocent person being executed is too many.

Much of the world has already stopped executing convicted criminals, but the US is swimming against the tide. I suppose that is what we should expect from a rogue nation.

British Airways Thinks We Need Anti-Missile Tech On Our Airliners!

Posted on 9th May 2021

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This news story on the BBC has me worried.

Apparently, British airways is in discussion with airliner manufacturers about installing anti-missile technology on its aircraft.

What has the world come to, when we need our civilian airliners protected by this sort of technology?

Admittedly, there have been a few of high profile cases in recent years where airliners were shot down by missiles. Here are a few recent examples:

There are also a number of incidents in which it is not certain that the planes were shot down, the plane survived, or where missiles were not involved (see here for a full list of shoot-down incidents).

When I started writing this post, I had no idea that there were so many shoot-down incidents. I guess that British Airways is right to investigate technology to protect against this risk.

Poisonous Fruit At My Supermarket!

Posted on 1st April 2021

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I read an interesting story on the BBC, which put something into perspective for me.

The article is about medlars, an ancient type of fruit that is almost impossible to find nowadays. "Medieval Europeans were fanatical about [medlars] that could only be eaten rotten."

As a teenager, I tasted medlars. A relative had a tree in their garden; they had been allowed to rot on the tree. I copied my father by squeezing the pulp out of the tough skin. The flesh was rather like eating stewed or baked apple.

A couple of years ago I was amazed to find medlars (called Mispel in German) at my local Edeka supermarket, and bought some. They were not ripe, and are not worth eating until they are rotten.

What I didn't know is that if medlars are eaten before becoming rotten, they can make you violently ill: they cause diarrhoea. But if you put them in a crate of sawdust or straw and forget about them for several weeks, they gradually darken and their hard, astringent flesh softens to the consistency of a baked apple; or you can just let them rot on the tree.

I can see that selling such fruit is problematic for supermarkets. Medlars are not robust enough to transport when ripe enough to eat. What concerns me is that the Edeka supermarket sold them without any health warning or instructions on how to ripen them. Sadly, I have not seen medlars in any shops since.

Environmental Groups Seem To Misunderstand Why Frequent Flyers Fly.

Posted on 1st April 2021

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I recently read an interesting article on the BBC, although it raises more questions than it answers.

Statistics show that a small number of frequent flyers do most of the flying:

  • In the UK, 70% of flights are made by 15% of the population, with 57% not flying abroad at all;
  • In the US, just 12% of people take two-thirds of flights;
  • In Canada: 22% of the population takes 73% of flights;
  • In the Netherlands: 8% of people takes 42% of flights;
  • In China: 5% of households takes 40% of flights;
  • In India: 1% of households takes 45% of flights;
  • In Indonesia: 3% of households takes 56% of flights.

Environmental groups are pushing for these frequent flyers to be penalised by higher taxes, and for frequent-flyer schemes to be cancelled. What is not clear is whether this is a simple proportional tax, or tax at at increasing rate as you fly more.

Although I agree with the principle that the polluter pays, and the current system means that everyone is penalised (by reduced quality of life) by the pollution of the few, air travel is already taxed. I do not see a need for a new tax, if the necessary incentives/disincentives can be achieved with adjustments to an existing tax.

In addition, the main problem with environmental taxes like those being proposed is that the governments levying these taxes are not constrained to spend the revenue thus raised on environmental programmes. Huge revenue is raised annually from fossil fuel production, but not a single nation is spending the this revenue on renewable energy sources, environmental clean up and energy efficient transport infrastructure.

Also, the environmental groups do not seem to understand why people fly. I have at times been a frequent flyer, having had to travel for work (i.e. not a matter of personal choice). If people flying for work are taxed more for their flights, they will, of course, pass these taxation penalties on to their employers; this will incentivise employers to send their staff on flights less often, but only slightly so, since the flight costs are usually a small part of the cost of a business trip (staff time is usually the largest cost).

There are, of course, travellers who mainly travel for pleasure. If taxation increases the costs of their flights, and if cost is an issue for them (which is often not true), they will travel less often, but the overall reduction in air travel this causes is not likely to be significant.

Someone needs to do a proper analysis of the impact of additional taxation on air travel: a modelling study which includes the number of various different types of air traveller and the cost sensitivity of their decisions to fly. Only then will we have an idea of whether the proposed additional taxation will work. Anything less than such a study is just propaganda!

Did He Want To Be Arrested?

Posted on 1st April 2021

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As the FBI continues to track down, arrest and charge people who participated in the insurrection at the Capitol in Washington DC, this news story on Vice shows what incredible idiots many of the rioters are.

'When federal authorities arrested a Capitol rioter who called for the deaths of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a Capitol Police officer, they knew they had their guy, because he was allegedly wearing a shirt bearing the words “I Was There, Washington D.C., January 6, 2021.”'

There are only two possible conclusions: either he wanted them to find and arrest him, or his stupidity beggars belief.

The F-35 Programme Is a Failure!

Posted on 30th March 2021

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The grudging admission by Air Force chief of staff General Charles Q. Brown that the F35 programme is a failure (as reported here by Extreme Tech) is, as the article points out, not a surprise to those familiar with the F35.

The programme was originally created in response to strong demands by the Marines to be allowed to buy British Harrier Jump-Jets, after they demonstrated their effectiveness in the Falklands war, where they soundly trounced a much larger Argentinian force of A-4 Skyhawks, IAI Daggers (copies of the Mirage V), Super Etendards and Mirage III interceptors, most of which were considered to be vastly superior aircraft. The Argentinian planes outnumbered the British aircraft by six to one. You can read more about the Harrier's role and performance in the Falklands war here on "We Are The Mighty". The combat advantage of the Harriers stemmed from their ability to use vectored thrust to increase maneuverability during dog-fights. The other reason that the US Marines wanted Harriers was for their vertical take-off and landing capability.

Instead of allowing the Marines to buy Harriers (they bought 77; not as many as they needed), the US decided to start their own VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft development programme, which eventually produced the F35, which is now in service in several countries. None of the various versions of the F35 has vertical take-off capability, and only the F35-B has vertical landing (for which it sacrifices about 30% of its fuel load and has reduced turning g).

So many compromises were made during development that the F35 is best described as a "jack of all trades, master of none". The Marines didn't get an aircraft capable of vertical take-off; The navy has a plane with reduced range/endurance and reduced maneuverability; indeed, no-one got what they wanted and were promised. Its mission capable rate is 69%, below the 80% benchmark set by the military. Operating costs are very high: the F-15EX costs an estimated $20,000 per hour to fly; the F-35 costs $44,000 per hour.

The F35 was planned to replace six different in-service aircraft types: the F16, the F-15C/D, the F-15E, the F22, the F/A-18 and the few Harriers that they bought. It was also slated to replace the A-10. Plans to retire several of those aircraft types have been shelved, and the US military is now planning new aircraft programmes to fill roles that the F35 turns out to be unsuited for or simply too expensive.

Of course, all these issues with the F35 are not only problems for the US; they have sold theses dreadful planes to several allies (Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, South Korea, Singapore, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom), who are now discovering that they have been "sold a pup", and are rethinking the number that they will ultimately buy. Buying American is not always the smart choice!

Most pheasants sold in the UK for food contain toxic lead shot!

Posted on 23rd March 2021

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I was shocked to read this report on the BBC.

A small study found that 179 of 180 pheasants examined in the UK contained lead shot. Lead is toxic, and the process of cooking the meat causes the lead to leach out into the flesh of the pheasants, thus poisoning the consumers even if they don't swallow any of the lead shot.

It is not surprising that pheasants contain shot (they are raised for shooting, not as livestock), but it is surprising that the shot is lead, since the shooting organisations have signed up to a voluntary ban on lead shot.

I find the situation totally bizarre. Lead was also used for angling weights, but was banned in 1986 (see here). I cannot understand why lead shot for hunting was also not legally banned, rather than being phased out with a voluntary ban, and done decades ago.

It just proves, if any more proof was needed, that governments cannot be trusted to look after the environment and the health of their people.

Fire Will Make Chip Shortage Even Worse!

Posted on 23rd March 2021

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This article on the BBC is just the latest in a series of news reports about the shortage of chips.

Semiconductor firm Renesas suffered a fire in one of its clean rooms, causing extensive damage to one of its most advanced plants.

There were already worldwide shortages of chips, causing delays in the manufacture of vehicles, computer hardware (especially GPUs) and mobile phones, and meaning that some new products that have been announced are simply not yet available. This fire will make it very much worse.

The scale of the impact is made much worse by choices that the chip suppliers and their customers made a few years ago. The industry changed over to JIT (Just In Time) manufacturing, meaning that instead of keeping a stock of components (both at the supplier and the customers), items are manufactured based on orders and the required delivery dates. This means that there is no buffer of chip stock anywhere, and as soon as component manufacturing is interrupted, the manufacture of finished goods is also interrupted.

JIT manufacturing has major cost benefits, due to reduced stock-holding, and is fine until something goes wrong; once there is a problem, it propagates through the manufacturing chain very quickly.

Maybe the semiconductor industry is now rethinking their commitment to JIT manufacturing.

Evidence That Covid-19 Can Trigger Diabetes.

Posted on 23rd March 2021

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This new story on New Atlas reports on growing evidence that COVID-19 can trigger the onset of diabetes.

Diabetes is already known to be a factor which increases the risk from the coronavirus, making infection more severe and increasing the likelihood of hospitalisation, but now researchers are investigating a causal link of Covid-19 causing diabetes.

This doesn't surprise me. I am fairly certain that I had Covid-19 last spring, which caused a stroke. Whilst in hospital, the doctors found that I had type-2 diabetes. Of course, I have no proof, because the hospital refused to test me for the coronavirus (an antibody test) despite my repeated pleas (the Rechts der Isar hospital in Munich is such a dreadful hospital!).

Outlaw Bottom Trawling Now!

Posted on 21st March 2021

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This article on Science Alert discusses the carbon impact of bottom trawling.

It turns out that bottom trawling releases more carbon that has been stored in the the marine soil than the world's aviation industry: 1.47 billion tonnes of CO2. That's up to 20 percent of the atmospheric CO2 absorbed by the ocean each year and is "comparable to estimates of carbon loss in terrestrial soils caused by farming."

As we try to reduce carbon emissions to limit global warming, we simply cannot afford to allow this to continue.

That is in addition to the other terrible environmental impacts of bottom trawling, which destroys coral reefs (the nurseries and food sources for marine life) and other seabed ecosystems.

Bottom trawling is like harvesting terrestrial farm crops by removing the topsoil; it is complete madness, and is patently not managing the oceans as renewable resources.

Bottom trawling needs to be outlawed now, before it is too late.

Make ecocide an international crime!

Posted on 19th March 2021

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This news report on The Guardian makes the case for making ecocide into an international crime.

I heartily approve. I have said many times that people (individuals, companies and even governments) will never act in an environmentally responsible way unless non-compliance has real impact, both legal and financial. This is probably the single most useful thing that we can do do save our planet, and the sooner the better.

Microsoft Yet Again Proves They Don't Care About Security.

Posted on 19th March 2021

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The Hafnium hack of Microsoft Exchange Servers (described here by The Verge) has now affected at least 60,000 Microsoft customers around the world, including many US government agencies, and the European Banking Authority (as reported here by the BBC). The original attacks by the Chinese hacking group "Hafnium" has now been adopted by other hacking groups to target other Exchange customers.

The news article reports that Microsoft were made aware of the security vulnerability in early January, but the company didn't issue the first patches to close the security vulnerability until nearly two months later, after the attacks started. Microsoft also made a blog post which didn't explain the scope or scale of the attacks, in an apparent attempt to downplay the risks.

This lackadaisical attitude to their customers' security is par for the course for Microsoft, and shows that they really don't care about the security of their products.

Round-up of Covid-19 news.

Posted on 17th March 2021

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Mutant Virus Variants

More and more variants of the coronavirus are being discovered, as reported here by the BBC, and here by the BBC.

Vaccines and Immunity

There is a steady stream of new vaccines becoming available:

Of course, these new jabs need to be approved before they become available for the general population, but governments have shown that they can fast track these approvals, so there should only be a small delay.

The French government is now saying that just one jab is needed for people previously infected with Covid-19, as reported here by the BBC.

Do vaccines prevent transmission?

The jury is definitely still out, on this point. Some research suggests that the vaccines do help prevent transmission, but some suggests not.

This report on Reason suggests that there is strong evidence that vaccination curtails (i.e. doesn't completely prevent) virus transmission.

This report on New Atlas also suggests mRNA vaccines (i.e. the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) prevent onward transmission.

Do the vaccines work against the new variants?

This report on Prevention states that Pfizer and Moderna are testing a third "booster" dose for their Covid-19 vaccines, to ensure protection against variants (mutant strains) of the coronavirus. The report also states that Moderna has announced that it has finished making a variant-specific vaccine to target B.1.351, and the company is ready to begin a Phase 1 clinical trial of the vaccine.

This report by the BBC says that Moderna's research shows that their vaccine appears to work against variants.

This report by the BBC states that the AstraZeneca vaccine "offers less South Africa variant protection". The company is developing a modified jab, slated to be ready by the autumn, to combat the South Africa variant.

How often will we need to get re-vaccinated?

As reported here by the Mail Online, the UK government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, has said that we will need re-vaccination on a yearly basis.

Side-effects of vaccines

There are understandable concerns about the side-effects of various vaccines:

  • This piece on Live Science reports on new data released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which shows that strong allergic reactions to Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine are extremely rare;
  • There have been reports from Denmark that the AstraZeneca vaccine can cause blood clots, which has caused several countries to suspend or restrict the use of this vaccine (here, on the BBC, here, on the BBC, here, on the BBC, here, on the BBC, );

The World Health Organisation (WHO), however, says that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh the risks, and should continue to be used, as reported here by the BBC.

Delays in Vaccination Roll-Out in Europe

As reported by the BBC continental Europe is suffering major problems in getting their populace vaccinated, only partly due to supply issues.

Germany, which prides itself on its organisational skills, is having a particularly hard time, due in part to their difficulties making their minds up about how to do things, as reported here by Politico. They offered self-test kits to all the schools and kindergartens, then backtracked. They also recently offered all kindergarten staff vaccinations, putting them ahead of many others in the queue, but what they offered was the AstraZeneca vaccine which it seems no-one wants. There seems to be no programme to pro-actively contact people when they can be given the vaccine; I am at higher than normal risk, being 65 years old and having type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure, but it seems that I need to take the initiative to register for immunisation.

Germany continues to be reactive, rather than proactive, as shown by the debacle over the AstraZeneca vaccine. Fist they limited it to under 65s, then approved it for all ages, then promoted it for kindergarten workers, then barred it for all.

Treatments

A large number of herbal treatments have been tested for use against the coronavirus, as have many pre-existing and new drugs:

  • This report on News Medical describes a study by researchers in the United States showing that a compound found in cannabis plants inhibited infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in human lung cells;
  • This report on The Times of Israel describes a study showing that aspirin may protect against COVID-19; people who take small doses of aspirin (75mg) are less likely to be infected, and recover more quickly;
  • This report on Fox13 describes a study which showed that an experimental COVID-19 pill called Molnupiravir, by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, showed promising signs of effectiveness in reducing the virus in patients;
  • This report on The Daily Mail describes a study which showed that people taking statins (used to reduce cholesterol in the bloodstream) were 50% less likely to die from Covid-19;
  • This report on the BBC describes a new study showing that the arthritis drug tocilizumab cuts deaths from Covid-19;
  • A small clinical study in Italy and China has revealed that an anticancer drug, bevacizumab, could help mitigate mortality and boost recovery from the coronavirus, as reported here on The Hindu Business Line;
  • This report by BGR describes a phase 1 trial for a new drug called EXO-C24 that was found to cure COVID-19 in 3-5 days in most volunteers who received the drug;
  • This report by BGR describes a study of the cancer drug plitidepsin, showing that it is 30 times more potent against Covid-119 than remdesivir and can work against the highly infectious new mutations;
  • This report by DW (Deutsche Welle) explains that Germany has approved the use of the REGN-COV2 monoclonal antibody to treat Covid-19 patients;
  • This report on News Medical describes a study showing that St. John's Wort and Echinacea could protect against COVID-19.

Prevention

Experts continue to recommend wearing masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing or disinfection as the best way to avoid infection. They also recommend working from home wherever possible, although for many this is not an option.

This piece on The Mirror also reports that people who wear glasses are up to three times less likely to catch Covid, according to a recent study.

Having Covid-19

It seems that men are at greater risk from Covid-19 (more likely to contract the virus, suffer from severe complications, and die from the disease) than women, according to a large study (reported on here by New Atlas).

Even more worrying is this report on the Daily Mail, which describes research by Leicester University and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing that a third of "recovered" Covid-19 patients are readmitted to hospital within five months and one-in-eight of the Covid patients then died.

Australia sends pitiful coronavirus help to Papua New Guinea.

Posted on 17th March 2021

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This news report on the BBC shows the Australians living up to their reputation.

Papua New Guinea has a very serious outbreak of Covid-19, with the infection rate estimated at one in every three or four people. With a population of 9 million, that is over 2 million cases. Hospitals there are full. Papua New Guinea has ordered vaccine, but it is due for delivery in April, and will probably be delayed, because AstraZeneca are struggling to deliver on schedule.

The Australian government has decided to "help" by sending 8,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. This vaccine, like most, is a two dose immunisation, so they are sending enough to protect 4,000 people.

That is simply pathetic!

Are conservatives and extremists stupid, and should we do something about it?

Posted on 7th March 2021

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This video report on "The Young Turks" got me thinking.

The report covers the results of a University of Cambridge study of Americans, which shows that extreme conservatives have difficulties with cognitive tasks (i.e. they are less smart). This study joins a growing body of work on similar themes, which generally show that conservatives are less smart or have lower academic achievement. Another example is the study which showed that people in the UK who voted for Brexit had lesser academic achievement than average.

We should be cautious in interpreting this data, because the studies show statistical correlation, not a cause and effect relationship.

If, however, we accept the suggestion that being less smart makes one more likely to hold conservative or extremist views, we should be very cautious about any suggestion that we try to do something about it. That would put us on a slippery slope, potentially leading to things like:

  • Attempts to "cure" people of their conservative views;
  • Restriction of the voting rights of conservatives and extremists;
  • Job applications being refused on the basis of one's political opinions, because they are a sign of lower intelligence;
  • A whole gamut of thought control measures by governments.

That doesn't sound like the kind of society that I want to live in. We don't restrict the voting rights of people with mental disabilities, and we shouldn't even think about doing so based on people's political opinions. Even if someone's views are the result of reduced mental capabilities, those views are still valid opinions, and we shouldn't restrict their rights to express those views (within some obvious limits, like incitement to insurrection).

The other key thing to remember is that not all extremist views lie at the conservative end of the political spectrum. I could give some examples, but some readers would probably be offended.

Of course, that doesn't stop you from feeling better about yourself, knowing that your politics suggests that you are smarter than others.

Biden Likely To Back AI Weapons.

Posted on 6th March 2021

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This news piece on the BBC reports that President Biden is being pressured by the US National Security Commission to reject calls for a global ban on AI-powered autonomous weapons systems, and instead approve and fund their development. It seems likely that he will agree.

As the BBC report points out, "The most senior AI scientists on the planet have warned ... about the consequences ...". It seems that their warnings are not being taken seriously.

I have written about the risks of AI in general, and about AI weapons in particular, before. I am strongly against it/them.

If you are unconvinced, I strongly recommend that you either watch the movie "Screamers", or read the book upon which it is based ("Second Variety" by Philip K. Dick). The story is very much to the point, very plausible and thoroughly frightening.

The dangers of AI are a regular theme in science fiction, and many readers will have seen one or more of the movies or TV series that revolve around these dangers: "Avengers: Age of Ultron", the various movies in the "Terminator" franchise, "Next" (2020), "Westworld", "The Matrix" and sequels, "Blade Runner", "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Ex Machina" are just a few of the better known of this genre. I challenge anyone to watch all the above and not be worried about AI.

The important thing to remember about the risks of AI and AI weapons is that, once the human race crosses the threshold into real AI, it will be impossible to go back. Once we start an AI based war, we are basically all doomed.

Bad Journalism about Solar Power Generation in the Sahara.

Posted on 5th March 2021

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Another piece of bad science journalism appeared on "The Next Web" recently (here).

The report describes how massive solar energy farms in the Sahara would cause less energy to be reflected back into space, and thus cause local heating, adding significantly to global warming (although it would have a positive effect on the local climate in the Sahara, with the local heating increasing rainfall).

Tunisia Planned Solar Energy Farm

The article talks clearly about large farms of photoelectric panels, which do indeed reflect less energy than the sand of the desert. Sadly for the journalist, although luckily for the planet, the solar energy farms currently planned for the Sahara are not huge arrays of photoelectric cells, but are based on arrays of mirrors (which track the position of the sun in the sky) which focus sunlight on centrally positioned boilers to generate electricity, as in the artist's impression to the right, which is of the planned installation in Tunisia. The albedo (reflectivity) of such a solar energy farm is very similar to natural desert sand, and maybe even a little higher. There would therefore be little or no local heating from such a facility.

That is not to say that there shouldn't be thorough environmental impact studies for such solar energy farms in the desert, but there seems no cause for panic.

Amazonian groups sue French supermarket chain over deforestation.

Posted on 5th March 2021

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This news story on the BBC reports that indigenous amazonian groups, backed by NGOs in the US and France, are suing the French supermarket chain Casino, for deforestation in the Amazon caused by producing beef that the supermarket sells.

The litigants say that they can directly link the beef being resold by Casino with a deforested area larger than Paris, in the amazonian jungle.

This move is very much in line with the principle of "the polluter pays", and I heartily approve.

All the while that the current situation, of the environmental costs of big agriculture and industry being paid by society as a whole, continues, there will will be no strong financial motive for companies to clean up their acts.

I certainly don't see why I should pay, through higher taxes and costs of other goods, and through loss of my quality of life, for companies like Casino to maximise their profits through damage to our environment.

Let's hope that their are many more such law suits.

More Falling Birth Rates because of the Pandemic.

Posted on 5th March 2021

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After the recent report about panic in South Korea due to falling birth rates (here) comes a new report about falling birth rates in the USA, as reported by the BBC here, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

I still see this as a positive development. The world is badly overpopulated, resulting in climate change, species and habitat loss, and making pollution problems even worse. Given that the USA is, per capita, one of the worst polluters in the world, a falling population will benefit the USA and the planet as a whole.

In most countries, falling birth rates change the age mix of the population, causing problems in funding pensions and health care, but the US government does not (with some exceptions for state employees and members of congress) fund such things (you're on your own, Jack!), so not a problem for Americans.

If the US government was really worried about falling population, they could easily do more to encourage immigration (immigrants are generally younger than the average existing population, and help to fund pensions and health care), but I do see that happening.

Our Environment Under Pressure.

Posted on 23rd February 2021

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Bad news for freshwater anglers, reported here on the BBC, that freshwater fish are in catastrophic decline, with 80 species known to have gone extinct, 16 of those in the last year alone, particularly migratory species and large species. I find this particularly upsetting, having once been a keen angler.

The head of the UN, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, called on the world to stop "a senseless and suicidal war on nature", as reported here on China.org.cn. I agree.

On a slightly hopeful note, six experts have suggested charging additional taxes on international flights (and on bunker fuels – high-carbon fuels used by ships), as reported here on The Guardian. They suggest that the funds raised from these taxes go to developing countries to help them fund climate related costs. To me this seems a no brainer. The only way to reduce undesirable behaviour is to make it more expensive; the same logic as taxes on tobacco products. If the money thus raised goes to help poorer countries pay for the costs of reducing their environmental impact, and to compensate them for the economic damage caused by climate, even better. Just do it already!

The Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act

Posted on 23rd February 2021

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Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith has co-signed a bill to prevent transgender people born male from competing against people born female, as reported here, by WLOX.

The Mississippi senate has already approved a state bill to the same effect, although it is not yet approved by the Mississippi House of Representatives.

I already stated my opinion on this matter (here). My reasoning is based on the science; whilst I support the rights of transgender people in general, in sports, females who were born male can have an unfair physical advantage.

I suspect the new bill will not become US Federal law. President Biden signed an executive order mandating that transgender women should be able to compete on female teams in school, so the Biden Administration seems to support transgender athletes.

I suspect that this debate will go on for years, and may become a party-political football.

Global Warming is worse than we thought!

Posted on 1st February 2021

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There is some bad news in this report on Popular Science. New research estimates that most of the last 12,000 years have been cooler than we previously believed. This in turn means that human activity has already caused even more warming than we previously thought.

The good news is that the new data makes the actual temperature rise due to human-caused global warming more consistent with climate models; the bad news is that we have an even larger problem to fix than we had thought.

UK does the right thing for Hong Kong residents, 33 years late!

Posted on 29th January 2021

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This report, and this report, on the BBC, are about the new rules for holders of a UK BNO visa, entitling them to live in the UK. The new rules take effect from the 31st of January 2021.

The UK government are very proud of themselves for doing this. It is only 33 years too late!

Hong Kong was returned to the control of China (when Britain's lease expired) in July 1997. Hong Kong residents used to be entitled to a full British passport, but the UK government were worried about a huge influx of immigrants, and removed that right well before the handover, and introduced the BNO (British National Overseas) passport (which could only be applied for before the handover of Hong Kong), which gave holders no right of residence in the UK.

At the time, I was disgusted the the UK government: one of the reasons that I cut most of my ties with Britain when I left the country in 1990.

Finally they have redressed the matter, at least partly. As always, too little, too late. I am sure that the reason for the change has nothing to do with human rights or the protection of freedoms; if they feel those are valid reasons, they would have not created the injustice in the first place in 1997.

Stampede from fossil fuels would cost UK jobs.

Posted on 29th January 2021

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I was incensed, on reading this article on the BBC.

What Larry Fink seems to be saying is that we need to go slowly on reducing carbon emissions, otherwise there could be drastic effects on on the global economy, and jobs in the UK could be lost.

This is the same half-arsed attitude to saving the environment that we constantly hear from governments and the companies who have vested interests in continuing their polluting business as usual.

Yes, of course there will be economic impact from saving our planet: companies, governments and individuals will make less money; this is inevitable; you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. The alternative, however, is for the global economy to be completely destroyed, due to environmental damage, with food and water shortages, mass unemployment, broken infrastructure, breakdowns in law and order, and so on.

There are too many people and organisations, either in power or having influence over those who are, who are still pushing the line that we can only save the planet as long as it doesn't cost money or cause any inconvenience. We need to stop accepting this bullshit.

Republicans Are Such Sore Losers!

Posted on 24th January 2021

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Yesterday there was a protest in Munich by Trump supporters, complaining about "election fraud": a motorcade with banners and blaring loudspeakers, accompanied by a very large number of police vehicles, which drove past our apartment. This is mentioned on my News Blog.

My first thought was that it is time that they got over it, and accepted that the will of the people has finally been done.

On reflection, however, I can see the reason for their disbelief.

The weird electoral college system in the USA is inherently biased in favour of the Republican Party. Add to this that every year more electoral boundaries are deliberately redrawn to favour Republicans, and Democratic voters are disenfranchised; basically, whenever they are in power in any state, the Republicans abuse their power to tilt the next election further in their favour.

Given these biases, it is actually quite amazing that the Democrats won, and understandable that Republicans are shocked that, despite them rigging the system so heavily, they lost by so much.

The election result is a testament to just how disenchanted the US electorate is with Trump and his cronies; something that the Republican Party failed to fully understand.

Round-up of Covid-19 news.

Posted on 17th January 2021

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Vaccines and Immunity

This article by the BBC reports that the Chinese vaccine, Sinovac, has been shown to be 50.4% effective in clinical trials in Brazil. 50.4% is not great, compared to the figures for the vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, but still better than nothing.

Moderna claims that its coronavirus vaccine will provide immunity from the disease for at least one year, as reported here on Axios and here on BGR. A year or more is way better than the 4 to 6 months that experts originally estimated for the vaccines.

This piece on The New York Times reports that the Pfizer vaccine works against key Covid-19 mutations, including those found in Britain and South Africa.

A BioTech firm, IosBio - based in Sussex, England, has announced that it is developing a Covid-19 vaccine in the form of a pill, as described here by The Irish Post. The company is currently testing the immunisation pill in clinical trials.

Analysis of data about the 3.2 million recorded cases of Covid-19 in the UK to date has shown that infection provides around 5 months protection from reinfection by the coronavirus, as reported here on Cosmopolitan.

Treatments

This article on the Hindustani Times reports that the use of the diabetes drug metformin, before a diagnosis of Covid-19, is associated with a threefold decrease in mortality in Covid-19 patients with type 2 diabetes, according to a racially diverse study at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Metformin is used to treat type 2 diabetes which is not severe enough to justify insulin injections (I take it myself). "The mechanisms may involve metformin's previously described anti-inflammatory and anti-thrombotic effects", since anti-inflammatory and anti-thrombotic drugs are now a standard part of the treatment protocol for the coronavirus.

A large clinical trial has begun in the UK of inhalable interferon beta, as reported here by the BBC. This treatment is intended for patients hospitalised due to Covid-19; it costs £2,000 for a course of treatment.

The BBC reports, here, that two anti-inflammatory drugs, tocilizumab and sariluma can cut deaths by a quarter in patients who are sickest with Covid. The drugs each cost around £750 to £1,000 for a course of treatment. The recommendation seems to be to administer these two drugs in addition to dexamethasone (way cheaper, at £5 for a course of treatment).

This report on BGR describes how doctors have begun experimenting with the use of stem-cell treatments for severely ill Covid-19 patients, with some success. These are not, however, proper clinical trials; such clinical trials would need to be successfully concluded before this treatment is approved and made widely available, which takes significant time.

Prevention

This report on "Eat This, Not That" mentions the research done and ongoing on the use of vitamin and mineral supplements (vitamin C, D, B6, zinc and magnesium) to prevent severe infections of Covid-19, although some of the trials have been inconclusive, and have contradictory results. There shouldn't be any surprises here: many people are at least lightly deficient in vitamins and minerals, due to poor diet and the impact of processed food. For such people, taking supplements is likely to boost their immunity - Duh!

A report from New Atlas, here, a study investigating the relationship between COVID-19 severity and the gut microbiome. The observational research suggests specific microbial patterns correlate with disease severity and those bacterial imbalances may account for some cases of “long COVID”. Again (as above), if you are healthy, you are not so likely to get severely ill from an infection.

Having Covid-19

This article by The Mirror describes 10 signs that you may have already had Covid and may therefore be protected (immune) for up to 5 months.

There have been several articles about the potential long term effects of a Covid-19 infection:

  • Mashable reports, here, and New Atlas, here, that 3 in 4 recovered Covid-19 patients (people who were hospitalised) suffer from symptoms 6 months later. These symptoms include fatigue, muscle weakness, sleeping difficulties, anxiety, depression, "chest imaging abnormalities", chronic coughs, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and cognitive dysfunction.
  • Medical News Today reports, here, that Covid-19 infection might increase the risk of long-term neurological problems, including cognitive decline and dementia.

The Future

CNBC reports, here, on the prediction by the CEO of Moderna that Covid-19 and the resulting and overwhelmed hospitals will be with us forever, and that Covid-19 will become an endemic disease, meaning it will become present in communities at all times, though likely at lower levels than it is now. This would mean the wearing of masks and social distancing will be our lives forever, and that travel will be much rarer and riskier than it used to be.

Taking a slightly less pessimistic tone is this report on "Mic", which says that Covid-19 may become nothing more than an annoying, common cold-like illness. I guess that would be after the coronavirus has killed most of the more vulnerable people, or nearly everyone has been vaccinated.

Brexit: safe in their hands?

Posted on 13th January 2021

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This article on the BBC, from late December 2020, reports about the last minute deal on Brexit.

It seems that some of the text of the agreement was simply copied and pasted from previous (and very old) agreements.

The agreement mentions Netscape browser and Mozilla Mail: "modern e-mail software packages including Outlook, Mozilla Mail as well as Netscape Communicator 4.x"; The latter two are now obsolete - the last major release of Netscape Communicator was in 1997. It also recommends using encryption technology which is now vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

It is so good to know that the UK government and the EU Commission are looking after us so well.

Psychological Effects of Statins and Other Medications

Posted on 24th December 2020

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I saw a very interesting report on the BBC about the psychological effects of medications.

Statins

The first part of the article focuses on the side-effects of statins (I am interested, since I was put back on statins in June), which apparently can make you bad tempered and aggressive. When discussing the report with Sheryl, she told me that I had definitely become more grumpy since starting the statins again, but luckily not as bad as some cases described in the BBC report (broken marriages, destroyed careers, and a surprising number of men who have come unnervingly close to murdering their wive). It turns out that there is quite a lot of research that shows that reductions in cholesterol levels make people and animals more aggressive.

Until now the main issue that I had with statins was having to give up grapefruit; the reason why I stopped taking them before. It seems that statins' incompatibility with grapefruit is just the thin end of the wedge.

Requip

Requip, a drug to treat (not to cure) the symptoms of Parkinson's was blamed for turning a man "into a gambler and gay sex addict, and was responsible for risky behaviours that had led to him being raped".

L-dopa

There's strong evidence that the drug L-dopa, used to treat Parkinson’s disease, increases the risk of Impulse Control Disorders (ICDs), which make it more difficult to resist temptations and urges. Some patients suddenly start taking more risks, becoming pathological gamblers, excessive shoppers, and sex pests.

Duromine

The anti-obesity drug Duromine was blamed in 2015 by a man who targeted young girls on the Internet. He used the argument that Duromine made him do it; that it reduced his ability to control his impulses.

Sedatives and Antidepressants

Every now and again, murderers try to blame sedatives or antidepressants for their offences.

Paracetamol (Acetaminophen)

Paracetamol is taken in enormous quantities around the world, not least because it is almost impossible to overdose, and it reduces fever and pain. Bizarrely, paracetamol can also make us feel better after a rejection.

A study revealed that paracetamol significantly reduces our ability to feel positive empathy. "Empathy doesn’t just determine if you’re a 'nice' person, or if you cry while you're watching sad movies. The emotion comes with many practical benefits, including more stable romantic relationships, better-adjusted children, and more successful careers – some scientists have even suggested that it's responsible for the triumph of our species."

Asthma Medications

It seems that it has been known for a while that the medications used to treat asthma are sometimes associated with behavioural changes, such as an increases in hyperactivity and the development of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) symptoms. This is in addition to a recently discovered connection between these two conditions, which means that having one increases the risk of having the other by around 50%.

Conclusion

There are a few problems around this issue.

  1. Patients often don't recognise the psychological side-effects of medications, and even if they do, they don't report them.
  2. Doctors often don't listen to patients' reports of psychological side-effects of drugs, so the problems are under-reported and usually there is no action taken to reduce or eliminate these effects.
  3. There is not much research into psychological side-effects, because they are hard to measure; researchers and the organisations who fund them prefer research into more concrete physical symptoms.

We should therefore assume that psychological side-effects might be more widespread and more severe than this report suggests. Let's hope that more research is done in this area.

Democracy under threat in the USA.

Posted on 13th January 2021

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Democracy is not well in America. Few people will not already be aware of the invasion of the Capitol in Washington DC by Trump supporters last week. This report on Rolling Stone explains that it was actually way worse than it appeared from the news coverage at the time. The protesters "erected a gallows with a noose right outside the Capitol" and some of them were captured on video chanting, "Hang Mike Pence". An Associated Press photographer was attacked as he covered the attempted coup, and another photographer was thrown to the ground by the mob. Five people died in the protests. A protester was photographed in full tactical gear and holding plastic zip ties, which were almost certainly intended to restrain hostages.

In another story, reported here by Axios, the Pennsylvania GOP refused to seat a Democrat who won in the November election, thus preventing him from voting, and removed the Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman from presiding over the chamber.

Trump's term may be almost over, but I am still worried that, in the little time that he has, he may declare martial law, thus preventing Joe Biden from taking office (which I first suggested as a possibility here, in June 2020). I hope I am wrong.

Panic because South Korea's population falls.

Posted on 13th January 2021

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As reported here, by the BBC, the government in South Korea is very worried because its population has fallen, for the first time ever.

The country already had the lowest birth rate of any country, and now they plan to introduce major financial incentives for people to have more children.

Apparently, South Korea didn't get the memo about the climate crisis, caused by our planet being overpopulated. If they had, they would hopefully understand that a small reduction in population is a good thing, for the planet as a whole, and for South Korea in particular. In a future of food and water shortages, having low and falling population will be a distinct advantage.

Unfortunately, they are more concerned about how to fund their pension and health care systems, and workers to generate tax revenue, than environmental issues. Time to get with the programme, South Korea!

Boeing pays $2.5 Billion fine, and now another 737 crashes!

Posted on 12th January 2021

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Just in case you were in any doubt that Boeing deliberately put profit ahead of air safety with the development and certification of their 737 Max, the company has just "agreed" to pay a $2.5bn fine for their conspiracy to do just that; in effect they have now admitted guilt.

To cap it all, this week came news of the crash of another Boeing 737 (this time not a 737 Max, but an older design), as reported here and here by the BBC.

Given the already massive impact of Covid-19 on the airline industry, and the fallout of the 737 Max crashes, Boeing will struggle to survive (although the US government is not likely to let them go bust).

When I next take a flight, I will certainly try very hard to ensure that I will not have to travel on a Boeing aircraft.

Brits may not want US GMO crops, but will be getting them anyway.

Posted on 12th January 2021

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I wrote in June 2020 (here) about the risks of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) crops that the US is trying to foist on the world.

Brexit has only just fully come into effect, freeing the UK from EU food safety regulations, but already the British government is getting ready to change the UK regulations to allow the growing in Britain, and the import from the US, of such crops, as reported here by the BBC.

It didn't take them long! I am sure that the Trump administration applied their habitual blackmail to speed the deregulation process.

I am very glad that I live in the EU, and continue to be protected by their comprehensive food safety rules.

If you live in the UK, your best hope is that the new regulations there will at least insist that GMO products are clearly labeled as such, so that you can at least make your own choice (although I suspect that they will not, again due to pressure from the US).

MMR Vaccine Protects Against Covid-19?

Posted on 24th December 2020

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There was some surprising news today, here on WSB-TV.

Research in Georgia suggests that the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella (German measles) "may also provide protection from getting COVID-19 or reduce the severity of the disease".

This is surprising because vaccines usually only protect against the specific diseases for which they were developed, and although measles, mumps and rubella are all viral diseases, none are caused by a coronavirus.

Nevertheless, this is good news, if borne out by other research, and could explain why children have been less severely affected by Covid-19, since children in many countries are routinely immunised with the MMR vaccine.

Round-up of Covid-19 news.

Posted on 12th December 2020

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There has been quite a lot of news about Covid-19 in the last few weeks, much of it good news, so here is a summary.

Vaccines

Several vaccines against the corona virus have completed trials. The UK and the US have each granted emergency approval for a vaccine, and the UK immunised their first person. The European Union is not far behind. Russia began vaccinations even before trials were complete. Brazil has decided to go with the Chinese vaccine, and is preparing to begin their immunisation programme.

So far, all approved vaccines require two injections, separated by a few weeks.

No country expects to have the majority of their population vaccinated within a year, so lockdowns and travel restrictions are not likely to ease any time soon. Immunisations will be prioritised for high risk people (the elderly and front-line medical staff); if you are not at high risk, expect to wait at least a few months before you can get your injections.

Also worth noting, as reported here by BGR, for the Pfizer vaccination at least, immunisation is not recommended for certain people:

  • Children under the age of 16, because the trials so far did not include children, so we don't yet know if it is safe for them,
  • Pregnant women, again because we don't yet know if the vaccine is safe for an unborn child,
  • People who have a history of strong allergic reaction, due to a couple of strong allergic reactions amongst the test subjects.

There have also been several warnings that the vaccination (usually the second injection) can have quite strong side-effects: fever, soreness around the injection site, and generally feeling unwell for a couple of days.

I have heard from several people who are saying that they will not get the coronavirus immunisation, even if it is made mandatory, and quite a few who want to wait until there is more safety data before getting it. I don't think these people are unusual. What this may mean is that the limitations to the speed with which the general population will get inoculated have more to do with people's concerns about safety than with the logistics of giving injections to billions of people.

As reported here by The Huffington Post, there is not yet enough data for us to know how long immunity from a vaccination will last, and therefore how often we will all need to repeat the vaccination. It could be as often as every four months; in time there will be better data available to answer this vital question.

Safe Behaviour

Despite increases in the number of infections and hospitalisations in very many countries (Germany now has more daily infections than ever before), and tighter restrictions (e.g. curfews) across the world, people continue to engage in unsafe behaviour: not wearing masks, not social-distancing, going to clubs and bars, etc. I have seen several videos in Facebook in the last few days of people at dances in Australia.

One surprising development for us is that the supermarket that we use on a weekly basis has removed its shopping cart disinfection station. Sheryl now wipes down our shopping cart with pocket disinfectant wipes before we shop.

I understand that many people are getting emotionally exhausted by so many months of restrictions, and feel the need for a bit of normal life, but failure to behave sensibly is a guarantee of continuing high rates of infection, which continues to kill some at risk people.

Seriously, people, follow the rules and guidelines! It is not just your own life that you are putting at risk! If you doubt that wearing a mask helps, see this report by Forbes.

The Origin and Time-Line

A new Italian study, reported here by BGR, shows that Covid-19 was spreading in Europe "at least three weeks before China announced that a new infectious illness was found in Wuhan".

This casts further doubt that the coronavirus pandemic originated in China, and supports the significant number of anecdotal stories of people in Europe having Covid-19 in December, or even November 2019.

Treatment

There have also been some developments in treatments for Covid-19. This report on Entrepreneur describes a study on ferrets, which showed that an anti-viral drug, Molnupiravir, was able to completely stop the transmission of the coronavirus after just 24 hours of treatment.

Obviously, human trials are still needed before it can be approved for use on humans, but it could eventually add another valuable treatment option.

Also, a report by News Medical describes an extract from a novel cannabis plant (i.e. not ordinary street variety cannabis) may offer protection against infection by Covid-19.

Back to Normal Life?

The short answer is that normal life will not return any time soon, and maybe never. That is the considered opinion of Dr. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, as reported here by Newsweek.

So forget clubbing, vacations to tropical beach resorts, ski holidays, shows and concerts, and just generally going out for drinks or meals. That sucks, big time!

Why KitKat changed its logo.

Posted on 1st November 2020

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This piece on Yahoo-Australia caught my attention. It describes the reason behind Nestlé's temporary change of the KitKat logo to the recycling symbol.

It seems that nearly half of Australian consumers don’t know how to recycle properly. KitKat wrappers are made of soft plastic, which can be recycled, but customers don't seem to know this.

Of course, this problem is not unique to Australia; there is huge ignorance about what to recycle and how, all across the world.

Here in Germany, where the public is generally well-informed, there is also a lot of ignorance about recycling: I regularly see paper and cardboard put into the recycling bin in plastic bags; I see expanded polystyrene, which cannot be recycled, put into the plastic recycling bin; I have been told by neighbours that you can only put "bio" food waste (which means waste from organic produce) into the "bio-Müll" (compost bin); many people still put old batteries into the normal garbage; the list goes on.

Part of the problem is the poor labelling on products; yes, it says that you should recycle the packaging, but not, but not into which recycling bin. Another problem is that there is a different system of separation of recycling in different locations. This is exacerbated by the prevalence of mixed material packaging (most often paper and plastic together, often very hard to separate).

We (consumers, governments, and manufacturers) need to do better.

Belgian doctors with coronavirus asked to keep working.

Posted on 1st November 2020

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I found the decision reported in this story, published on the BBC about 5 days ago, to be utterly irresponsible.

Doctors in the Belgian city of Liège who are infected with Covid-19 have been asked to keep working. This puts patients at even greater risk of infection with the coronavirus. I just cannot imagine the thought process of whoever made this bizarre decision.

I suppose it may have one advantage: it will mean that people will be strongly discouraged from going to hospital unless they have a real emergency, reducing the load on the hospitals.

Round-up of Covid-19 news.

Posted on 24th October 2020

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It is been a while since I added to this blog thread about Covid-19. Since then there has been a steady stream of news about the coronavirus, so here is a summary.

Severity

Although many people who get infected have only mild symptoms (like, apparently, Donald Trump), there are continuing instances of more severe cases.

One example is Chris Cross, known for his late–‘70s hit “Ride Like the Wind” who had a very severe case of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare side-effect of Covid-19 which attacks the body's nerves, and left him paralysed for 10 days. He still can't move around easily, months later. You can read more here on Variety.

Many people assume that, if you have had Covid-19, getting reinfected will result in less severe symptoms. That was not the case here, on the BBC, where the second infection was much more severe than the first.

Rising Numbers of Cases

I am not going to post links to news stories about the second wave of coronavirus being suffered my many countries, because they will be out of date the instant that I post this.

Most people know the latest news about infection rates in their own country: cases are going up significantly all across Europe, the US, and India, and hospital beds are filling up with severe Covid-19 cases. The Czech Republic has it very bad right now, as has France. Lockdowns and curfews are being imposed all over. Restaurants and bars are either closed, or face restrictions (reduced opening times, limited numbers of customers, limits on alcohol sales, etc.).

It is mandatory to wear masks on public transport, in shops, and even on the street, in many places.

Things will definitely get worse before they get better.

Part of the problem is that people are getting fed up with the restrictions, and are being less careful. More people are going to the gym, to the hairdresser, going to bars, clubs and restaurants, and even going on vacation to other countries; all of these are high risk activities. People are resuming business travel. Is it any wonder that more people are getting infected?

Medication

Vaccinations

Currently there are 200 vaccines being developed, of which 44 have started human trials (according to this article on DW.com {Deutsche Welle}), and getting closer to approval. Front runners include:

  • ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 from AstraZeneca/Oxford-University vaccine,
  • CoronaVac, developed by Chinese firm Sinovac Biotech,
  • BNT162b2 from Pfizer & BioNTech,
  • mRNA-1273 from US-based Moderna,
  • Ad26.COV2-S from Johnson & Johnson,
  • Sputnik V from Gameleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology (Russia).

Despite the claims/promises by Donald Trump that a vaccine might be available in the US before the US elections, it is not realistic that any will be approved this year. Even when they are, doses still need to be manufactured, distributed and administered. Given that many vaccines require two doses to be effective, and that top-up immunisations might be needed every four months, the cost and complexity of widespread vaccination is enormous (bear in mind that the human population of our planet is over 5 billion); it is unlikely that widespread protection from the virus will be possible before the end of 2022 or later.

Treatments

Doctors seem to be getting better at treating Covid-19, probably because many have finally read the recent research. The result is that death rates from Covid-19 are falling in some countries, and recovery times are also getting lower.

They are starting to understand that, in most cases, ventilators do not help those who experience breathing difficulties, and indeed make people worse, because their issue is not with getting air into their lungs, but with absorbing oxygen (and flushing out carbon dioxide) from (and to) that air.

Several medications have been shown to help coronavirus sufferers: dexamethasone and other steroids; interferon, antibody treatments, remdesivir and other anti-virals; ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatories; and heparin and other anti-coagulants.

There has also been some useful research on diagnostic tools to determine whether people need treatment with some of the more extreme regimes, such as described here on BGR.

Prevention

Apart from the obvious techniques to avoid infection (wearing a mask, social distancing, disinfecting your groceries and staying at home), there has been new research on prevention.

Some (a small number of) people seem to be naturally immune, but it is not yet proven and at the moment it is not possible to tested for such immunity. In the future it may be possible.

People with blood type O seem to have some degree of protection from Covid-19, as described here.

Vitamin D supplements seem to offer some protection, in people who are deficient in vitamin D. Trials are under way to prove this, as described here.

The Prognosis

Things are not going to get better any time soon: not this year, and maybe not even next year.

The concept of herd immunity has been shown to be a non-starter.

Vaccinations will probably start in 2021, but most people will not be able to get one until 2022 or 2023 (the same situation as with testing for the coronavirus, which has taken ages to become widely available), so the general populace will not be protected for quite some time.

By now, pretty much everyone knows people who have had Covid-19. Many of us have heard of people (friends of friends, or distant relatives) who have died. All this will continue for the foreseeable future.

This means that our lives will continue to be affected by the coronavirus: lockdowns and quarantines, wearing masks, social distancing, working from home, disinfecting groceries, no vacations (if you have any sense), countries to which you can't travel for business, eating and drinking at home and basically no social life. Thank goodness for the Internet!

Lindsey Graham's racist denial of racism.

Posted on 13th October 2020

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The more I read and think about this report on The Guardian, the angrier I get.

I assume that Senator Graham meant the statement as a denial of racism in South Carolina, his home state, but it comes across as confirmation (as if we needed any more confirmation) that there is systemic racism in the USA.

He said that African Americans and immigrants can [safely] go anywhere in South Carolina, as long as they are conservative. The word conservative is ambiguous in this context, but from his other comments that blacks and immigrants "just have to share our values", it seems that he means politically conservative (i.e. Republican), rather than a comment on their behaviour or dress.

To paraphrase Lindsey Graham into language more suitable for the subject matter, he is saying that "everything will be fine, so long as them niggers don't get uppity". Nowadays, in America, uppity means things like "driving while black", "babysitting while black", "operating a business while black", wanting to vote, expressing an opinion to a police officer, wanting an equal wage for equal work, wanting an education, and defending your home against armed invaders who turn out to be cops. In the past, being uppity also meant riding in the front of the bus, using a toilet designated for whites, sitting in the whites-only part of a restaurant and wanting to be free. Clearly, things have improved over the years for minorities, but not by much.

Senator Graham's words are totally unacceptable; the man is a dyed in wool racist.

Boeing's "culture of concealment" to blame for 737 crashes

Posted on 27th September 2020

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As reported in this BBC article, the report on the crashes of the Boeing 737 Max is finally out, and it firmly blames both Boeing and the FAA (the US Federal Aviation Administration).

As was clear from Boeing's press releases on the subject, the aircraft manufacturer has a "culture of concealment". Given this is now established fact, why would any of us believe anything the company says in future? They have been more concerned with how things appear to the flying public than about the safety of their end customers.

The FAA also rightly comes in for heavy criticism, having failed in its duty off oversight and certification. The FAA only really has one responsibility, to ensure that aircraft are safe, and they failed to do so. In effect they colluded with Boeing's concealment of facts.

Now Boeing's reputation with airlines and the public is justly "in the toilet", as is the FAA's. There was a time when certification by the FAA was effectively simply rubber stamped by other certification authorities; those days are over, which will increase aircraft costs and delay the in-service dates of new planes.

Numbers about new Tesla battery technology don't add up.

Posted on 27th September 2020

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Journalists bemoan the poor understanding of science by the general public, and then have the hypocrisy to publish articles like this report on th BBC.

The piece is about the much anticipated presentation by Elon Musk, about Tesla's new battery technology.

It repeats figures from the presentation about the performance improvements that the new battery tech. offers. In short, the new batteries will have:

  1. 5 times more energy storage,
  2. 6 times more power,
  3. 16% more vehicle range.

Item #1 should translate directly into 5 times more range. The only reasons that it wouldn't are:

  • If the batteries are hugely heavier than the current batteries (normal matter is simply not dense enough to cause this - only neutron stars are dense enough);
  • Or if Tesla are going to significantly reduce the number of batteries in each car, to take advantage of the increased energy density, but there is no mention of such a reduction in the report;

Either the journalists at the presentation were so mesmerized by it all that they didn't challenge this inconsistency, or they did, but the author of the BBC article (James Clayton) understands so little about basic science that he ignored this glaring issue.

I expect such poor journalism from some publications, but I had higher hopes of the BBC.

The proper way to pronounce "Thunberg".

Posted on 22nd July 2020

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Greta Thunberg has been in the news again today, because she just announced that she will donate the €1M prize money from the Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity to charity. It reminded me to check on the proper way to pronounce her surname.

Having worked in Sweden for about 6 months, and having a Swedish derived surname, I was always sure that people were pronouncing her name wrongly, but no-one would believe me. Today I found out why: a Google search for "proper pronunciation of Thunberg" offers several YouTube videos, virtually all of which claim that the name is pronounced Toon-berg (examples here and here.

In this video of Greta speaking at the European Parliament, Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI), she introduces herself (at exactly minute 8 of the video), pronouncing it correctly as Toon-berry.

This search on forvo.com also has the correct pronunciation.

Swedish pronunciation is hard - just use forvo.com to play the pronunciations for "sju" (seven), "Köpenhamn" (Copenhagen), "kiosk" (kiosk) and "sjuksyster" (nurse) to get an idea of how hard - but I believe it is important to pronounce people's names properly (insulting if you do not).

Political Correctness is getting out of hand!

Posted on 5th July 2020

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It really seems that political correctness is getting thoroughly out of hand!

Recently, Sheryl and I watched the movie "Rush Hour", starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. Sheryl mentioned that this film is now considered to not be politically correct, because it contains racist words and phrases (anti-Chinese and anti-black). The movie was made in 1998, and the world at the time was much more racist than it is now (and even now, the world is still very racist). The social and historical context is thus racist, and a film set against this background needs to represent this context (without condoning it). Movies that do not properly represent their social and historical context are flawed, and generally uninteresting (no-one will watch them). Lots of other kinds of context are apparently allowed to be represented (and even exaggerated) in movies (sex, violence, espionage, war, science, technology and crime, for example) without the self-appointed PC watchdogs crying foul, but racism now has to be whitewashed (and no, whitewashed is not a racist term). I am getting really fed-up with this PC nonsense!

Another example, reported here on People, is the decision by Hulu to pull an episode of the Golden Girls from their catalogue, because of a scene where the stars are wearing mud-masks; not black-face, but a beauty treatment. All this because Hulu were worried that audiences would misinterpret this scene as racist. How far are companies willing to go to guard against the ignorance and stupidity of some of their consumers?

In other PC news (here, on the BBC), Twitter and other companies are dropping the terms "master", "slave" and "blacklist" (very widely used in software) in favour of more inclusive language. I can understand dropping the use of the word "blacklist", which has racist origins, but "master" and "slave" are words that pre-date the enslavement of blacks and have meanings that accurately describe the functions and relationships of things, which are not based on racist models or analogies. The word "master" is not modelled on a white slave-owning person, and "slave" is not based on an enslaved black person.

Another aspect of political correctness is the beatification by public opinion of the victims of police violence. No matter what the history of such a victim is, once dead they are treated as a saint, and any suggestion to the contrary is met with a vicious backlash by the PC police. An example is George Floyd. There is no question that George Floyd was brutally and unjustly murdered, but he was no saint. Nevertheless, Ron Johnson, who was head of consumer products at Riot Games had to resign (as reported here by the BBC) over a meme he posted about George Floyd, which included the statements "no reason to condone his killing" and "This type of criminal lifestyle never results in good things" (about George Floyd, not the police officer who killed him). Being factually correct seems to be no protection from these kinds of backlash.

There is a well known phrase, widely quoted in several variants: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it". How can we learn from history if our history is whitewashed and we cannot discuss the facts and implications of our history? Political correctness (among other things) is now standing in the way of our learning from our history, and thus guaranteeing that we will repeat it.

Just to be clear, no-one has beaten Covid-19!

Posted on 18th July 2020

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There has been a lot of discussion recently about the success, or failure, of various nations in dealing with Covid-19. At one extreme there is New Zealand, which has been hailed as a roaring success, because they had so few cases, and almost no recent cases (and all of those due to visitors from outside of the country). At the opposite end of the spectrum there are countries like the USA and Brazil, where the coronavirus is raging out of control. In between, there are countries such as Spain, Britain, Ireland, Australia, Sweden and many more, where the virus is surging again, after seeming to be under control, as lockdown restrictions are gradually eased. Even in Germany, where I live, the number of cases of Covid-19 have increased with the reduction of restrictions on travel and public gatherings.

This New York Times report provides an excellent summary of the global spread of the outbreak and the resulting deaths, and this search yields a graphical summary where you can select (in a pull-down menu) the country for which you want data.

So, let us look more closely at the extremes.

  1. New Zealand brought in very strict quarantine and lockdown regulations very quickly. This means that the disease is pretty much eliminated from the country, few people were infected and hardly anyone died (22 people at the time of writing). That in turn means that virtually no-one has any immunity. As soon as they open their borders, the disease will get in again, as it has done at least once in recent weeks. New Zealand may have eliminated Covid-19 from their shores, but all the while that the pandemic rages around the rest of the world, the only way they can keep it at bay is to maintain a national quarantine. For a country which is so heavily dependent upon tourism, and with a fairly high rate of immigration, that is an economic death sentence.
  2. The USA has had an incredibly high number of infections and deaths, compared to China and Europe, for example. They seem to have had no success in “flattening the curve”, and in parts of the country the infection rate is rising dramatically. Even so, the total official number of people who have caught Covid-19 is only around 3 million, which is less than 1% of the population. Research suggests that the actual number of infections could be between 5 to 10 times that (due to undetected infections because of inadequate testing), but even that means that less than 10% have had the coronavirus. Given all the recent doubts about how long immunity to the disease may last after an infection, the number of people having immunity is unarguably lower (probably significantly lower) than 10% of their population, which is nowhere near enough to provide “herd immunity”. This article on The Point describes an interesting analysis of the numbers for Mississippi, showing how unrealistic it is to reach herd immunity in that state, even in a year; the numbers for different states and even countries are obviously different, but crunching those numbers will yield basically the same conclusions, that herd immunity is 1 to 3 years away, if it is ever achievable.

The countries between the extremes have had varying degrees of success in limiting the spread of Covid-19 and the resulting deaths, due to the varying strengths of their lockdown regulations, the amount of testing, and the quality, availability and cost of their health-care systems. Also in the mix are cultural differences, such as people’s willingness to wear masks and socially distance, the general level of public and personal hygiene (and even the availability of soap and water in some places), the varying habits regarding social gatherings and the prevalence of the sharing of food and drink. Many places have been rolling back recent easings of lockdown restrictions as infections surge again (see here, on The Guardian).

The key here is that these differences, country to country, are only about the spread of infections. Limiting the spread of Covid-19 inherently limits the spread of immunity, however short-term and limited in scope that immunity may be, so success in controlling the spread has nothing to do with defeating the disease, and actually has the opposite effect.

In summary, herd immunity will not be achieved in any part of the world within the next year, for simple logistical reasons (as pointed out above, in the article about Mississippi). This is further complicated by the fact that immunity from infection may only last a few months (see this report on The Guardian), meaning that it will never become widespread enough to provide herd immunity. This is unfortunate, since herd immunity was the basis of the exit strategies of governments around the world (see here). We urgently need a new exit strategy. The best hope for immunity is a vaccine, which may be available by the end of 2020, but current expectations are that a vaccine will give only short-term protection, possibly meaning immunisations being regularly repeated (maybe every 3 to 6 months).

There may be no immunity against Covid-19, new Wuhan study suggests.

Updated on 26th June 2020

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This article on SCMP is a disgraceful piece of sensationalist journalism. It completely misrepresents the research results.

As I wrote in this post, if you are infected with Covid-19, either your body mounts an immune response, or you die of the disease.

This report, on the New York Times, paints a more balanced picture: that the immunity that you acquire from the infection "may last only two to three months, especially in people who never showed symptoms while they were infected". Immunity might last longer, for some, but in others it will not. This is in line with the many reports of patients getting infected more than once with Covid-19, typically after about two months.

Of course, this new information has several implications:

  • The whole concept of so called immunity passports (being introduced, for example, by Chile, and being considered by other nations), are not supported by science and are inherently flawed (Chile now admits this [see this Reuters report], but is going ahead with issuing them anyway!);
  • The lockdown exit strategy of almost every government in the world (except New Zealand, it seems) of building up so called herd immunity (by as many people as possible being infected) is also not supported by the latest science, and is thus not sound. Clearly a new exit strategy is needed.
  • Just because you already had Covid-19 does not mean that you can't catch it again yourself, and infect other people, so keep wearing a mask and social distancing;
  • The antibody tests that detect whether you have in the past been infected with Covid-19 are also likely to detect only infections in the last few months, because it is the levels of antibodies in your bloodstream (detected by these antibody tests) that fades over time, the research has shown;
  • Any Covid-19 vaccine that is eventually approved for human use may also only confer immunity for two to three months, so it may be necessary to have a booster shot every two months, which will have enormous cost and logistic impact on vaccination programmes;
  • Covid-19 will most probably be with us forever, like Cholera, Measles, Tuberculosis, the common cold, influenza and many more diseases, as warned about in this piece published by the World Economic Forum; we are going to have to learn to live with that, and adapt our lifestyles accordingly (less long-distance travel for business or pleasure, less promiscuity and casual sex [a condom will not protect you against Covid-19!], less close social contact like handshakes and kissing on the cheeks, improved hygiene [at home, at work, in restaurants, at hospitals, in prisons, on public transport etc.] and so on).
A drug to treat Covid-19.

Posted on 21st June 2020

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is celebrating "a remarkable British scientific achievement", a drug that has been shown to be effective in treating Covid-19, as reported by the BBC here.

The headline of this story, "Dexamethasone proves first life-saving drug", probably based on UK government a press release, is actually not true. Dexamethasone is not the first. Trials of remdesivir, a drug developed to treat ebola, have shown that it is effective in treating Covid-19, as reported here, by Ars Technica about a month ago. There have also been very hopeful animal trials of a new drug from Celltrion (it seems that this new drug does no yet have a name), as reported in this story on Fox News.

For most of us, however, the news about dexamethasone is not really relevant. Dexamethasone, a low-dose steroid medication has been shown to increase the survival rates of people with severe infections: patients on ventilators (survival rates increased by a third) and patients receiving oxygen (survival rates increased by a fifth).

The reason why it doesn't affect most of us? Dexamethasone does not seem to help people with milder symptoms of coronavirus: those who do not need help breathing. Given that around 95% patients who are infected with the coronavirus recover without even being admitted to hospital, and not all patients admitted to hospital need oxygen or a ventilator, most infections will not be helped by treatment with this drug.

There is something that worries me about this announcement. Several studies (reported, for example, here, here and here) have shown that SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus which causes Covid-19) is not in fact a kind of pneumonia, but a blood vessel disease. It damages the blood vessels, causing lots of small blood clots; these clots cause not only the symptoms in the lungs, but also the widespread organ damage that some patients suffer, and the side-effects such as strokes and heart attacks. As a result of these analyses.some of the researchers have recommended treatment with a combination of anti-inflammatories (e.g. steroids or ibuprofen), anti-coagulants, anti-virals (e.g. drugs like remdesivir) and antibiotics (to treat the bacterial opportunistic secondary infections that often occur with viral diseases). So, it really shouldn't come as a surprise that dexamethasone (a steroid) and remdesivir (an anti-viral) are effective treatments, but for many doctors it seems, nevertheless to be a surprise. It just confirms that many doctors are not paying attention to current research, and as a result are putting their patients at risk.

We do not want US GMO crops!

Posted on 21st June 2020

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I have previously written about GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) crops and US attempts to foist them on UK and other consumers (here, here, here and here).

If you think I am making a fuss about nothing, I recommend that you read this report on "Collective Evolution". The report is based on information provided by an ex-Monsanto employee, and is primarily about GMO potatoes, but the risks (although different in some details) apply to other GMO crops. The article makes the point well enough that I don't need to elaborate. If you are not concerned after reading it, then you are probably beyond help.

Although EU food safety regulations provide some protections, the situation in the UK after Brexit will be much worse, once the USA gets the trade deal that it wants with Britain.

Illegal sanctions by US against the ICC

Posted on 21st June 2020

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Not only is the USA the world leader in extraterritorial legislation (see my previous posts on the subject here and here), but when there are no legislative avenues open to them, they resort to blackmail!

I am referring to this article by the BBC, which reports on the sanctions that the USA has imposed on those members of the ICC (International Criminal Court) involved in the investigation of possible war crimes by members of the US military in Afghanistan. These sanctions have been imposed not only on judges, prosecutors and investigators, but on all ICC employees involved in the case, and their family members. The sanctions include blocking the assets of International Criminal Court (ICC) employees and barring them from entering the USA.

Although the USA is not a signatory to the ICC agreement, all of the EU, plus Afghanistan (where the crimes are alleged to have happened) are (see the list of signatories here). That means that the court has legal jurisdiction over the location of the alleged crimes, and also that the ICC employees are acting within the law.

Generally, war crimes are defined by the Hague Conventions and the Geneva Conventions, all of which were signed by the USA. US law even allows the prosecution of US military personnel for war crimes (see here). President Trump has, however, pardoned US troops who had been prosecuted in the US for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

Since those presidential pardons did not convince the ICC (not surprisingly, since Donald the Hutt has no jurisdiction in The Hague or Afghanistan) he has now decided to illegally sanction members of the ICC, in the hope of halting the investigation.

A president who blackmails his friends is no friend, and should be treated accordingly (as in this, unfortunately fictional, movie scene).

More than just a few "bad cops" in Buffalo PD

Posted on 11th June 2020

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This report by the BBC shows just how difficult it will be to reform policing in the USA.

By now most people will have seen the video of the peaceful 75-year-old protester, Martin Gugino, being pushed to the ground by the police in Buffalo (if you haven't seen the video, it is in the BBC report). Mr. Gugino was seriously injured (the video shows a large pool of blood forming on the pavement from a head wound), and was taken to hospital. Once the video came out, the two officers involved were suspended.

The main point of the BBC article is that the 57 remaining officers in the Buffalo tactical unit have resigned from the tactical unit (they haven't resigned from the police force) in support of their suspended colleagues. That is despite the video evidence, which shows that Martin Gugino acted in a peaceful and non-threatening manner, and that the police brutality was totally unjustified.

This is a case where the well known rule applies: if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem. In effect, they are trying to blackmail the police department into allowing criminal police brutality. They seem to want to remain members of the police, but the world doesn't need officers like them; they should be fired.

Donald Trump: President for life?

Posted on 11th June 2020

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By now, everyone must have noticed what is going on in the USA, with the murder by police of George Floyd, the resulting "Black Lives Matter" protests, and the police responses to the protests.

There seems no question that there is something to protest about: there is an increasingly well documented history of racism, not just by police, and murders in America. It is well past time that something was done about this problem.

What is rather more questionable is the government response to the protests. By any standards, the response has been very heavy handed: police using military equipment and riot gear to police the protests, assaults on and injuries to peaceful protesters, troops deployed to protect some sites, tear gas used to clear peaceful protesters so that President Trump could have a photo-opportunity holding a bible (which he held upside down - this in the country where flying the US flag upside down is considered by most to be a crime!), curfews, and so on. Admittedly there has been some violence by protesters, and some looting; opportunist criminals and people who simply want a fight (the police excuse for the extra-judicial killings of blacks seem suitable here too: "a few bad protesters"). Most of the protesters, however, are peaceful. Donald Trump has nevertheless told local politicians and law enforcement groups that they need to "dominate the streets".

One has to ask:

  • Is this the right strategy to calm the situation? The protesters have valid issues which need to be addressed, and stronger policing does nothing to address them.
  • What could be the strategy behind such a brutal and unlikely to succeed approach?

Personally, I suspect that the strategy is to further inflame the situation, to create an excuse for the introduction of martial law in the USA. That would allow:

  • Even stronger policing, including the wider deployment of troops (either national guard or regular army units).
  • The suspension of constitutional rights.
  • The cancellation (which would be described as a deferment) of the upcoming presidential election, which Donald Trump seems set to lose, based on current opinion polls. That would make Donald Trump President for life, which is a truly horrific prospect.

I am not saying that this will definitely happen, and I dearly hope that it won't, but the risk is great enough, and the consequences so enormous, that US citizens should think seriously about what can be done to ensure that it doesn't happen.

President Trump seems to be working overtime to justify my new nickname for him: Donald the Hutt.

Covid-19: "The question is not whether you become immune, it's how long for".

Posted on 17th May 2020

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After I wrote this, about governments' lockdown exit strategies, I posted a copy on Facebook. I received a number negtive comments.

Some were about the issue of immunity: people saying that we don't currently know if our bodies have any ability to acquire immunity from infection by Covid-19. This BBC article gives a good summary of the current situation, based on expert opinions. The key take-away is the statement that "The question is not whether you become immune, it's how long for". Basically, given that there are no effective treatments for Covid-19, if your body doesn't mount an immune response to the coronavirus, you will die of the disease. The only thing that we don't yet know is how long the resulting immunity lasts, although the fact that antibody tests are now available to show whether you have had the disease shows that immunity lasts for at lest a few weeks or months, at least for many people.

There were also comments to the effect that my opinions about the exit strategy were wrong, and based on no evidence. I found this odd, because the UK government, and others, have talked about herd immunity quite a bit. In the absence of a vaccine, herd immunity can only come from being infected (and recovering, obviously). Governments are hoping that the populace develops herd immunity, and the only way to get that is for enough people to be infected, and for them to develop immunity. My opinions on the exit strategy are therefore based on published official statements and policy.

Governments around the world are gradually relaxing their lockdowns, and carefully monitoring infection rates as they do so, to maximise infection rates within the limits of their health-care systems' ability to cope, all to build up herd immunity.

Covid-19 lockdowns; what is the Exit Strategy?

Posted on 17th April 2020

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People are starting to ask "What is the Exit Strategy [from lockdown]?" and "Why is my government being so cagey about it?"

Your government is reluctant to explain their exit strategy because they believe (probable rightly) that you will be upset when you find out, so here is an explanation.

Governments want the lockdown to be as short as possible, because of the impact on the economy and their tax revenues.

The only purpose of the lockdown is to limit the rate of infection to something that a country's medical infrastructure can handle. As long as hospitals and medical services can cope, governments want the infection rate to be as high as possible. Catching Covid-19 is the only way that the population can currently get immunity, and this will remain so until an effective and safe vaccine is widely available (probably not before the end of 2021), and widespread immunity is necessary before ending the lockdown is possible (see this report on Slash-Gear about an MIT modeling study which shows that easing lockdowns too soon will result in "Disaster").

Several countries (e.g. Denmark, Austria and Germany) are beginning to gradually ease their lockdowns. They are doing this because their medical infrastructure is coping. They want to increase their rates of infection (within the limits of their medical infrastructure), to reduce the lengths of their lockdowns. If this increases their infection rates, and the resulting need for hospitalisations, by too much, they will make the lockdowns stricter; if not, they will continue gradual easing.

That, in a nutshell, is the exit strategy: maximise infection rates within manageable limits to spread immunity as fast as possible, so that lockdowns can be ended as soon as possible. This is similar to parents who deliberately expose their kids to childhood diseases like measles and chicken-pox (e.g. by sending them to "measles parties").

Covid-19 is not about to be defeated (there is no sign of a treatment or vaccine in the near future). Your government is going to manage your exposure to the disease, to ensure that you can get back to work as soon as possible. If some people die along the way, so be it.

All this might sound brutal and morally bankrupt, but no-one has a better strategy. No nation can afford to stay in lockdown until a vaccine is available.

The USA is committing economic suicide!

Posted on 7th April 2020

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A friend of mine posted this on Facebook.

It is quite a long read, but worth a look. The earlier parts put the economic stimulus package that the US has put into effect in perspective: what seems like a huge amount of money amounts to a week's lost income, to help families and businesses ride out a lockdown that has already gone on for two weeks, has been extended for another two weeks, and realistically will last several weeks beyond that.

He argues, probably correctly that this lack of support will destroy the US economy, with impacts lasting at least a decade or two.

I do not, however, agree with his later arguments that borrowing money for a larger stimulus package has no real cost, because the money would be borrowed from the borrower, and therefore wouldn't need to be paid back. This is not how things work in national finances.

There are two basic ways for governments to "borrow" money:

  1. They can borrow money by selling government debt (borrowing from individuals, companies, or other governments), or by borrowing money from the IMF or the World Bank. This sort of debt most certainly does need to be paid back.
  2. They can effectively borrow from themselves, by printing money. This has the inevitable result of devaluing their currency: the more money they print, the less value it has. In the long term, this has disastrous consequences on the economy, and on personal and corporate wealth.

This doesn't mean that neither of these measures should be taken, but the idea that they are free and without negative consequences is naive.

The Covid-19 pandemic will have huge and long lasting impacts on us all, and we should be prepared for life to be hard for a very long time. There are no easy solutions, neither medical nor economic.

Self-isolation is so tough!

Posted on 30th March 2020

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Everyone is complaining about how tough it is, being in self-isolation (except for people in Sweden, where it seems to be business as usual, as reported here by the BBC): complaints of boredom, having to spend time with their family, difficulties in getting exercise, problems with grocery shopping (because of panic buying) and so on.

But it seems that not everyone is suffering as much as most of us. One example is the King of Thailand. The Daily Mail reports (here) that he has gone into self-isolation in Bavaria (Germany) by booking out the entirety of the Grand Hotel Sonnenbichl, along with his wife and 20 concubines.

Such a hard life, although I am sure that the hotel owners and staff are happy with the situation.

The Covid-19 pandemic: what can we expect?

Posted on 30th March 2020

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Although there is quite a lot of information available about the Covid-19 coronavirus, there is also a lot of disinformation (not least from President Trump), and quite a few scams. Also the consequences of the information are not being explained by governments and health experts. So I am going to try and list some key facts, and the results on us of those facts.

There is also a useful article here on The Atlantic, on what the future holds regarding Covid-19.

Treatments

As I write this, there are no proven treatments for Covid-19. There are some rumours, but nothing yet that has been shown to work. Many scientists are busily searching for existing drugs that are effective against it, and trying to invent new drugs to treat it.

We should expect that this will take some time, partly because it is a large and complex task, and partly because the approval process for new drugs takes time, although it is reasonable to assume that this process will be fast-tracked. Therefore don’t expect an approved treatment before the end of 2020, or mid 2021 at the very earliest.

Also, if and when one or more treatments are found and approved, expect the drugs to be in short supply at first. This is true even for any existing drugs found to be effective against Covid-19, but even more so for any totally new drugs.

In the meantime, treatments are all symptomatic: treating the symptoms so that they don’t kill the patients, thus giving their bodies time to defeat the virus. This is no different to the situation with many endemic viruses such as ‘flus and colds.

An immunisation

Many scientists and drug companies are working flat out on an immunisation, and at least one has already started testing on humans. Although this sounds hopeful, the development of new vaccines is always full of false hopes and failures: shots that don’t work and immunisations that have side-effects so severe as to make them useless.

We should expect that the first approved immunisations will give only partial and/or short-term protection against the virus. We should also expect that any approval may have exclusions: parts of the population for whom the vaccine is not deemed safe (most likely the people who need it most).

As with treatments, immunisations will take time, for the same reasons, so don’t expect them to be available before mid to end of 2021.

What is all this talk about flattening the curve?

There has been lots of talk about flattening the curve, and it is the justification for the lockdowns and travel bans that have been put in place.

Basically, self-isolation is a way of slowing down the spread, so that hospitals are not overwhelmed by the numbers of patients, so that people who need to be hospitalised can be, thus increasing their survival rate. In other words, lockdowns and travel bans will reduce the proportion of infected people who die, by a small amount.

There is no justification for believing that flattening the curve will reduce the total number of people who get infected. It just means that it may take longer for you to get infected: in some isolated communities maybe 3 to 5 years instead of 3 to 6 months.

Through their strategy of flattening the curve, your government is not trying to prevent you from catching the virus; they are only deferring when you will catch it. That means that not only are your chances of survival improved, but also there is a chance that treatment or a vaccine may be available when you do catch it.

Will you catch it?

Current projections are that at least 50% of the world population will become infected with Covid-19 eventually. It could be more. So yes, expect at some point to catch it.

You might have no symptoms at all, or you might have only mild symptoms. At risk people (people with existing conditions like heart disease, cancer and diabetes, and older people) are likely to have more severe cases, and may need to be hospitalised.

How long will the lockdown last?

One of the results of successfully flattening the curve is that the danger period will be lengthened. You should therefore expect lockdowns to last 3 months or more (the lockdown in Wuhan has already lasted 3 months and is not completely over (being eased, but not over), and that lockdown was severe and very strictly enforced by Chinese authorities).

Will it come around again, and will I catch it again?

Most coronaviruses are prone to mutation. This coronavirus is already mutating. Scientists are currently tracking 8 variants around the world (see here).

What that means is that any immunity that you gain, by catching it, or by vaccination, may not be effective against a new strain resulting from mutation. Immunity from having been infected is likely to be more effective against such new strains than an immunisation.

Also, it is not yet clear how long immunity from infection lasts (see paragraph 8 in this BBC article).

Colds and ‘flus come around regularly, also due to mutations, and these viral diseases are now endemic. Expect Covid-19 to also become an endemic disease, but so far there is no factual scientific basis for believing that Covid-19 will be seasonal like colds and ‘flu (see paragraph 6 in this BBC article).

So yes, it would be reasonable to assume that Covid-19 will come around again, and that some of you will catch it again. If you have some partial immunity from a previous infection or vaccination, a second infection should be less severe (but there are no guarantees).

Will it ever be completely stamped out?

It seems unlikely that we will ever completely eradicate Covid-19.

We have only been partially successful in limiting ‘flu, and even less successful in limiting the common cold (also caused by a coronavirus). In the case of influenza, new vaccines have to be developed every year for the new strains.

There are some notable success stories with immunisation (such as smallpox – now completely eradicated), but other diseases such as polio (caused by a virus) have not been completely eradicated, and TB (caused by a bacterium) is making a comeback, with drug resistant strains.

What about the impact on the economy?

The economy has taken a huge hit all around the world (see here). Currently stock markets are about 30% down. Oil prices are down to around $20 for a barrel, due to reduced demand, due to the lockdowns and travel bans.

It currently looks like China will be the first economy to recover.

Economies will not recover until everyone can return to work and spending patterns return to normal, so not until after the lockdowns are over.

Things may not get as bad as during the great depression, but they might.

What about my job?

Many people have been fired, put on reduced hours, or temporarily laid off.

Governments are offering bail-outs to some industries and financial support to some conventional full time employees, but understand that they cannot afford to do this long-term. Most of the government support is going to large high-profile companies. Worker in the gig-economy, and freelancers, are getting no help. This means that many people and small firms can expect hard times and possible bankruptcy.

Some people are able to work from home. If you are one of these, as am I, you are lucky. Other people are in professions that are critical to keeping things working and keeping people alive (police, fire-fighters, medical workers and the like) continue to work and get paid.

The longer the lockdowns continue, the more people’s lives and livelihoods will be destroyed.

What about travel?

Most flights have been cancelled. Many borders are closed. The Czech Republic has barred its citizens from leaving the country.

So at the moment, international travel is all but impossible, except for people returning to their country of citizenship.

My father in New Zealand is expected to die this year, and I am expecting to be unable to attend his funeral.

Eventually, flights will resume, and borders will reopen. By then, many airlines, bus companies and travel agents may be bankrupt, so travel choices will be reduced.

You should probably not be planning a vacation trip this year, not even in-country. If you are sensible, next year you should probably vacation in-country.

People returning from ski trips have been a major cause of inter-country spread of Covid-19, and should probably be avoided for a while. I love to ski, but I think I will defer it until the winter of 2021/2022.

What about social and business gatherings?

For the time being, pretty much all events are cancelled: concerts, music festivals, conferences, exhibitions, beer festivals and sporting events. This will probably remain the case for the next 3 to 4 months. After that, there should be a gradual easing off of the lockdowns, and some (but not all) social and business events will probably start again. Other higher risk events such as music festivals and beer festivals may remain cancelled for the remainder of 2020.

Apparently this year's Oktoberfest in Munich has been cancelled, although I have no confirmation of that yet. Every year, many people get sick from attending the Oktoberfest, after catching a virus (called the Wiesenkrankheit) from glasses that are not washed well enough before reuse, so it is pretty clear that this year the coronavirus would be spread by the same means if the Oktoberfest goes ahead.

No, pandemics are not a new problem

Posted on 28th March 2020

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The current coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak is likely the first pandemic to have a direct effect on many people around the world today, so it would hardly be a surprise if many people thought that such pandemics were a new phenomenon. The are not (for some history of pandemics, see this report from the BBC).

As I wrote in an Opinion Blog post on 16th May 2017, human history is made up of a series of growth periods, interrupted by periods of zero or negative growth caused by disease. Population usually only starts to grow again when advances in medicine (e.g. the discovery of penicillin or the invention of vaccines) or public hygiene (e.g. the introduction of flushing toilets, drinkable water piped to houses, the invention of soap or the banning of public spitting) are made. Not all of these pauses in growth are caused by global pandemics (some have a smaller geographical footprint), but many are.

The Covid-19 pandemic is therefore part of a pattern, repeated very often in our past. History shows us clearly that pandemics, and other more localised (e.g. limited to a city) outbreaks occur when population density reaches a critical level. As each outbreak is solved, population grows to a new critical density level.

Some pandemics, such as the Black Plague, were solved not by innovations by humanity, but by the population reductions that the pandemic caused.

History also shows us that the human race has not learned the lessons it has tried to teach us. Continued population growth will inevitably cause more pandemics. Solving the Covid-19 pandemic will simply allow us to continue growing our population until the next one hits us. One day we will not defeat a pandemic; it will defeat us, either wiping out our species, or destroying our civilisation and pushing humanity back to the stone age.

It is never going to be possible to predict the nature of the next pandemic, so it will never be possible to pro-actively protect ourselves from the next threat (e.g. by developing a vaccine before the outbreak starts - just look at how unsuccessful we have been with seasonal 'flu shots, and our dismal failure to cure the common cold).

Of course, controlling population growth is an ethical and political minefield. Some people seem to believe that the "right to reproduce" is an inalienable human right, even though reproducing (especially excessive breading) takes away the rights to life, health and happiness of the other inhabitants of our planet. We urgently need to find a solution to this dilemma.

Everything is connected

Posted on 28th March 2020

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This article in The Guardian, written for Australia, makes the case that we cannot separate climate change from the Covid-19 pandemic.

There has been a sea-change in the Australian public's attitude to environmental issues, since the bush fires this winter (their summer). They are no longer a nation of climate change deniers; about time.

The point made in the Guardian article has merit. The root cause of both crises (the pandemic and the various environmental issues) are the same: overpopulation. Solutions which try to address problems in isolation are therefore likely to fail, or to be only temporary solutions.

It is therefore such a shame to see that the USA apparently didn't get the memo. In the news today (here on PBS News, and on many other new sources) is the announcement that the EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) has stopped enforcing environmental laws because of the coronavirus crisis. This is exactly the opposite of what they should be doing. If they defer environmental protection enforcement until after the pandemic:

  • There is a risk that it will make it impossible to control the pandemic,
  • Environmental protections could end up being deferred indefinitely.

This is simply more of the same kind of lame and unsound excuses that are rolled out every time that environmental protection is discussed: we can't do anything that costs too much, we can't do it until we have dealt with the current crisis, blah blah blah. Enough with the excuses: the pandemic is a symptom of a wider environmental malaise and even if we get it under control, there will be another, and then another, until we address the root causes.

Real facts about Covid-19

Posted on 28th March 2020

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The text below was extracted from an email from a friend, and contains information from reliable and expert sources.

"There has been much posted on various media outlets concerning Covid-19. Most of it is true, some hearsay, and some totally misleading. One of [my wife's] clients she edits for is The International Journal Of Infectious Diseases. This journal reports on ALL outbreaks globally and their information is fed to them by people local to the specific outbreak/s. e.g. there are people reporting about the Ebola outbreak in DRC and the ongoing (seasonal) outbreaks of bubonic plague in Madagascar etc. It is considered the de facto source of information re Coronavirus and in particular the Covid-19 variant. And that is where there are issues arising. The virus can, will, and does, have the capacity to mutate. This will not be over any time soon."

"Johns Hopkins University provides solid facts with down to earth basic presentation here, and they also presented to the US Government here."

  1. "A study in The Lancet reported 81% of COVID-19 sufferers have only mild symptoms and do not require hospitalization -- good news for most of us!"
  2. "However, the percentage of those who do require hospitalization is much higher than for the flu -- 1% for flu vs up to 19% for COVID-19. In Pennsylvania, the current percentage requiring hospitalization of confirmed cases is about 13% -- hence, public health officials' concern regarding sufficient supplies, health-care staff, hospital space, ventilators, etc."
  3. "The same study in The Lancet studied a group of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in China -- average age of patients was 56 years, 62% were men, and 48% had other health conditions. The average age is lower than I think many of us suspected (we keep hearing "elderly" used); also, slightly more than half had no other conditions that put them at higher risk for serious disease."
  4. "The number of cases in the US has been skyrocketing in the past 2 days -- we have today passed Iran and Germany and at the current rate we'll pass Spain tomorrow, and only China and Italy will have had more cases [the latest figures show that the US now has more cases than anywhere, including China]."
  5. "Pennsylvania public health officials indicate the reason for the surge is not the increased availability of testing, but is indeed being caused by community spread."
  6. "How can this be if so many of us are staying home? Although the average person shows signs of COVID-19 at 5 days of exposure, it may take as long as 14 days or more for others to show signs."
  7. "Recent case examples: A woman in quarantine for 14 days, who tested negative 3 times during the confinement period, tested positive on day 14, just before she was to be released. Another man who traveled to a country with no local COVID-19 cases developed symptoms and tested positive 15 days after arriving."
  8. "So it's important to remember many folks are likely carrying the virus here and still haven't developed symptoms. Even if you feel well now, don't assume you're not carrying the virus. And this is why we all must stay at home as much as our lives/work/etc. allow."
  9. "Also, it's important to remember that researchers, infectious disease specialists and public health officials are having to work through this pandemic in real time and doing their best to provide good information to community and government officials to help people keep safe and well."
  10. "Covid-19 is a virus which does NOT 'die out' once temperatures get above 70°F or below a certain temperature. e.g. there are cases in Bangkok, Thailand in the past few days (temperature yesterday was 83F - a tad chilly!)"
  11. "Link to The Lancet article here and the Johns Hopkins tracker here."
  12. "THE solution is to isolate from other people for about 8 weeks. That is it... STAY INDOORS and keep in touch."
Failure on Covid-19 Testing in the USA

Posted on 14th March 2020

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This is a copy of a post made in another thread (Medicine and Health).

I am getting thoroughly tired of hearing President Trump and his lies about how Covid-19 (the coronavirus) is "under control" in the US. The facts do not support his position.

In this article on the BBC, Dr. Anthony Fauci, from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is reported as saying that "The testing system for coronavirus in the US is currently failing". The numbers support his statement.

For example, this report from the Daily Mail, from the 10th of March, explains that 8,554 Americans have been tested for coronavirus (but the CDC director says there isn't [sic] enough staff to keep up). Of those 8,554 (and I am sure that in the 4 days since then, the number tested has increased, but I have to pick some baseline), there are 795 confirmed cases of Covid-19, that is around 10% of those tested are infected!

To put those numbers in perspective, the US population is around 330 million. If we simply extrapolate, that would mean around 30 million infected Americans! Clearly that number is an overestimate, because testing has so far been focused on contacts of infected people, and in areas where there are higher numbers of infected people, like Washington State. Nevertheless, the figures do not support the position that overall infection rates are low, because the government simply don't know, and they won't know until test coverage is significantly higher.

The pathetic testing performance of the USA is in stark contrast to all other developed nations, as described by Business Insider. Their report has a table comparing test coverage (tests per capita) for a number of nations: the USA trails the rankings by a huge margin (by a factor of more than 700 compared to South Korea)!

Added to that is the cost for US citizens and residents. Donald Trump announced that health insurers would cover the cost of testing, which is fine if you have insurance, but insurers will not necessarily cover the costs of treatment.

How is it that a rich nation like the USA has such poor provision of health care, especially during a world-wide health crisis? Why do the voters tolerate such a cavalier attitude to their health?

Failure on Covid-19 Testing in the USA

Posted on 14th March 2020

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I am getting thoroughly tired of hearing President Trump and his lies about how Covid-19 (the coronavirus) is "under control" in the US. The facts do not support his position.

In this article on the BBC, Dr. Anthony Fauci, from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is reported as saying that "The testing system for coronavirus in the US is currently failing". The numbers support his statement.

For example, this report from the Daily Mail, from the 10th of March, explains that 8,554 Americans have been tested for coronavirus (but the CDC director says there isn't [sic] enough staff to keep up). Of those 8,554 (and I am sure that in the 4 days since then, the number tested has increased, but I have to pick some baseline), there are 795 confirmed cases of Covid-19, that is around 10% of those tested are infected!

To put those numbers in perspective, the US population is around 330 million. If we simply extrapolate, that would mean around 30 million infected Americans! Clearly that number is an overestimate, because testing has so far been focused on contacts of infected people, and in areas where there are higher numbers of infected people, like Washington State. Nevertheless, the figures do not support the position that overall infection rates are low, because the government simply don't know, and they won't know until test coverage is significantly higher.

The pathetic testing performance of the USA is in stark contrast to all other developed nations, as described by Business Insider. Their report has a table comparing test coverage (tests per capita) for a number of nations: the USA trails the rankings by a huge margin (by a factor of more than 700 compared to South Korea)!

Added to that is the cost for US citizens and residents. Donald Trump announced that health insurers would cover the cost of testing, which is fine if you have insurance, but insurers will not necessarily cover the costs of treatment.

How is it that a rich nation like the USA has such poor provision of health care, especially during a world-wide health crisis? Why do the voters tolerate such a cavalier attitude to their health?

Larry Tesla, The Hero?

Posted on 1st March 2020

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In the last week there was news that Larry Tesla had died at the age of 74. This, of course means that he is now hailed as a hero, and anything questionable in his past will now be forgotten.

Many people will have no idea who he was. He worked at Xerox-PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), and is the man primarily responsible for inventing the keyboard shortcuts <Ctrl>-c (copy), <Ctrl>-x (cut) and <Ctrl>-v (paste). These shortcuts are used millions of times per day (I am using them as I write this).

Xerox-PARC (now simply called PARC) was responsible for inventing a huge amount of intellectual property: laser printing, Ethernet, the modern personal computer, graphical user interface (GUI) and desktop paradigm (the WIMP {Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer} interface), object-oriented programming, ubiquitous computing, electronic paper, amorphous silicon (a-Si) applications, the mouse and advancing very-large-scale integration (VLSI) for semiconductors.

Larry Tesla left PARC and joined Apple. Amazingly, Apple went on to utilise a large number of PARC inventions including those keyboard shortcuts, and the WIMP interface. I don't know for sure whether Larry Tesla was involved in the adoption of PARC technology by Apple, since there were other people who left PARC to join Apple, Microsoft, IBM, etc. I don't have an issue with that; apparently neither did PARC.

What I have always had an issue with was the fact that both Apple and Microsoft later claimed some of that PARC technology as their own, went to court over other companies who used it, and charged licence fees for its use, all for things they didn't create.

Of course, now that Larry Tesla is dead, we are not supposed to criticise him (I have already got into trouble for suggesting that his legacy is not all good). It is just more of that political correctness nonsense that I so despise.

Dreadful Doctors

Posted on 21st January 2020

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Some people think that I am a little crazy in my attitude to doctors, so this post may shed a little light on that attitude.

Whilst visiting my family in New Zealand this Christmas and New Year, I hurt my back. I have suffered from occasional back pain since I injured my back at 18 years old. This latest attack was triggered, like most, from sleeping on soft and lumpy mattresses while staying with relatives.

This attack was probably the worst that I have ever suffered, resulting in not only very severe pain, but also partial numbness and loss of control of my left leg.

I went to a clinic in the Coromandel Peninsula for some treatment, and was prescribed Celebrex (a strong pain killer and anti-inflammatory), plus a muscle relaxant. At a follow-up appointment the next day I was also prescribed Tramadol, a powerful pain-killer.

After we returned to my sister's home near Tauranga, I went to the local A&E (Accident and Emergency) clinic. The doctor told me that the muscle relaxant prescribed by the clinic in the Coramandel was not optimal for my case, and prescribed me another. I asked the doctor about the possibility of a cortisone injection, and was told that this was not possible because I did not live in New Zealand, and because an MRI or at least an ultrasound would be needed for them to give the injection in the right place.

My pain got worse, not better, and 2 days before our flights home, I went to an A&E clinic in Auckland. The doctor (who introduced herself as Pip) whom I saw told me that the other clinics had prescribed me the wrong medications, prescribed be some new pain-killers, and told me to stop taking all other medications (except paracetamol). She even confiscated and destroyed my refill prescription for Celebrex. I again asked about cortisone, and was told the same bullshit; she told me that the A&E couldn't do a cortisone injection, and that, to get one, I would have to be admitted to hospital, and would not be treated until Monday (our flight home was on the Friday before).

Dr. Pip also refused to answer any of my questions about side-effects of the painkillers she prescribed, or about conflicts with other medications. I pointed out that she had taken me off of all anti-inflammatory drugs (best practice with collapsed disc problems is to treat both the pain and the inflammation, in order to break the vicious circle of pain causing inflammation, causing further pain), but again received no explanation.

After returning home to Germany, I went to an emergency clinic (at the Elisenhof), and was immediately treated by Dr. Eugen Dirr (whom I highly recommend) with a cortisone injection and a pain-killer injection in my back (all with no need for an MRI or ultrasound). You might wonder how he knew where to inject me; the answer is in these charts, which easily identify which vertebral junction to inject, based on the site of the pain and/or numbness. Failing that it is also possible to give cortisone intravenously (I had that once, while skiing, and it worked well). Dr. Dirr knew immediately, from my description of the location of my symptoms, where to inject me. I am now, finally, starting to improve, although I still have numbness and reduced control of my left leg.

I have several issues with the above saga:

  1. The doctors in New Zealand could not agree on the correct medication. If two doctors tell me that the previous doctor got it wrong, then at least two of them made a mistake. If they made a mistake, I should not be expected to pay for that faulty service.
  2. Not a single NZ doctor made any attempt to treat the underlying issue. This meant that I continued to suffer unnecessarily, and that the nerve damage causing my numbness and loss of control, which went on for 2 weeks, may now be at least partly permanent.
  3. The reasons I was given for not receiving proper (i.e. cortisone) treatment are simply false. I do not expect medical professionals to lie to me about my condition and the proper treatment.
  4. When I visit a doctor, I am not just a patient; I am also a customer, and expect to be treated as such. I normally insist on this strongly, and it was only because I was in such extreme pain, and being badly effected by my medication, that I didn't on this occasion, but I shouldn't need to insist; it should be automatic. One way or another I pay for medical service, and know quite a lot about medicine (more than some doctors, it seems) and more than anyone else about my own health. Doctors who ignore available information and patient/customer preferences are unprofessional and sometimes downright dangerous.

I am singling out Dr. Pip (surname Gaensicke, I believe) as the worst of the dreadful doctors, for lying to me (or worse, being so badly trained that she was unaware of how diagnose and treat me properly) and for failing to answer basic questions about the medication that she prescribed. She is one of those people who give other doctors a bad name. My flights back to Germany were pure torture, which this doctor could have helped to reduce, if not eliminate, e.g. by organising a cortisone IV.

Tony Blair: "Britain needs alliances"!

Posted on 27th November 2019

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This interview by The Independent, with Tony Blair is well worth watching.

His argument is that, because Britain is no longer a superpower, we need to be part of a larger group in order to survive: to have negotiating power (or even a seat at the table), to have security, to have influence to act against climate change, and so on.

I can't fault his logic.

The USA tries to bully Thailand over food safety

Posted on 22nd November 2019

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This recent story on The Guardian shows that the USA has not changed its approach.

The government of Thailand is in the process of banning three pesticides with known or suspected harmful side-effects. In doing so, they join dozens of countries who have already banned "chlorpyrifos, an insecticide made popular by Dow Chemical that is known to damage babies’ brains; Syngenta’s paraquat, a herbicide scientists say causes the nervous system disease known as Parkinson’s that has been banned in Europe since 2007; and Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide, which is linked to cancer and other health problems".

The ban of these pesticides will block not only the pesticides themselves, but also food imports (e.g. from the USA) that are polluted with residue of these chemicals. "In the United States, pesticide residues are so common in domestic food supplies that a Food and Drug Administration report issued in September found more than 84% of domestic fruits, 53% of vegetables, and 42% of grains sold to consumers carried pesticide residues.

Of course, the USA, as always, is trying to pressure Thailand to not ban the pesticides.

America is clearly not content with poisoning only its own population, but wants to be free to poison those of other nations. The USA has an abominable track record on food safety, and on environmental protection in general, all in the name of profits, and is trying to persuade everyone else to adopt the same lax and irresponsible standards.

The US government tried very hard to get the EU to relax their food quality and labeling standards, without success. They then got very excited about the opportunities that would be created by Brexit, and Donald Trump has made it very clear that only a Brexit deal that does not include the inclusion of the UK in the EU trading block, and the food standards that come with that, would allow a trade deal between the UK and the US, because they need markets for their food exports laced with pesticide residues, and those based on GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) without labels to identify their GMO nature (as described here).

Luckily, Thailand is not about to be bullied by Uncle Sam; Britain, however, seems likely to give the Yanks what they want. It is a sad state of affairs when a country like Thailand has more backbone and protection of their citizens than the UK. As I have said before, very many protections (product and food safety, employment protection, and human rights) that Britain currently has, come as a side effect of EU membership, rather than from British political will, and all of these protections and rights are at risk in the event of Brexit.

Students fined for stealing supermarket waste!

Posted on 20th November 2019

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I was shocked and outraged by this recent news story on the BBC.

Two students in Olching, near Munich, were caught by police, taking waste food from bins outside of a supermarket. The police made them put the food back, and they were subsequently fined.

At root is the question of what constitutes property. The court insisted that, even though the waste food was destined for disposal, it is still the property of the Edeka supermarket (the same chain as the one we shop at in Haidhausen), and that taking it therefore constitutes theft.

The thing is, Edeka pays for the food to be taken away, so it doesn't just have zero value, it has negative value (i.e. it is a liability). In my opinion, anything that has a value of zero or less cannot be considered property, unless it has some sentimental value, and the students were doing the supermarket a favour by taking it.

There is also a discussion in the news piece of the enormous problem of food waste: about 30% of all food for human consumption is thrown away, and no-one seems to know what to do with it. For an answer, maybe people should look to Britain during the second world war. Imports were few and far between, food was rationed, and people were encouraged to grow vegetable, to keep livestock (chickens and pigs) fed on waste food, and to feed pets on waste food. My grandfather did all of those things during the war, and continued to keep chickens until the day he died.

I understand that many people nowadays live in apartments rather than houses, and thus have no gardens, but our apartment building has room for a chicken coop, and there could aalso be municipal gardens/farms dotted around cities, where people could take their waste food. I, for one, would be more than happy to take a walk to such a site, every couple of days, to recycle food waste.

Europe Sets Its Own Rules For The 737 Max To Fly Again

Posted on 6th September 2019

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As reported here, by the BBC, the European Aviation Safety Agency (Easa) has decided not to accept re-certification by the US FAA of the Boeing 737 Max.

Instead, Easa will run their own tests on the aircraft before approving its return to commercial flights. In addition they will insist:

  • On an "additional and broader independent design review" by Easa,
  • That the two fatal crashes were "deemed sufficiently understood"
  • And that flight crews have been adequately trained in any changes to the plane.

That is good news. Clearly, with all the revelations about the 737 Max, Boeing cannot be trusted to ensure safety, and neither can the FAA.

Vaccinate your children, or home school them

Posted on 6th September 2019

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I was a little bemused, reading this article on The New York Times.

The reason is that the article is strongly sympathetic to the parents of unvaccinated children. In New York State, it will now be required to have your child vaccinated; if you do not comply, you won't be allowed to send your kid to school.

I'm sorry; to me this is a no-brainer. If you have not immunised your offspring, then you are putting the health and lives of my family and friends at risk. I and mine are not prepared to pay that kind of price for you to have the freedom to not vaccinate.

Maybe we should be even tougher. How about making all unvaccinated people live in special ghettos, and to ring a bell and shout "unclean" when they are near normal vaccinated people. [Just in case any readers are unsure, this is not serious - it is sarcasm.]

Should the British Monarchy be abolished?

Posted on 30th August 2019

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With all the outrage over Queen Elizabeth II approving UK PM BJ's sneaky scheme to suspend parliament (see here), there is now a movement, with growing support, for the abolition of the British Monarchy, as described in this story on NewsHub.

In the past, I have been slightly more in favour of the monarchy than against. The reason for that has always been because I am in favour of the UK having some kind of constitution. Now, however, the Queen has shown clearly that she is not fulfilling her constitutional duty.

A request by leaders of the main opposition parties to meet the Queen has also been refused, as reported here by The Express. The reason, it seems, is that the Queen doesn't want to get embroiled in the political row that she started.

It really seems that the time has come for Mrs. Windsor to be fired.

There is, however, one major obstacle: there is nothing to replace the Queen's role. The country needs a written constitution, and probably an elected president, to fill the void; not only the void that would be left by firing her, but the void that already exists because she is not doing her job. Writing and approving a constitution takes time, as does the campaigning and election of a president.

There is, of course, one other reason why we should abolish the monarchy: if we don't, then pretty soon Queen Lizzie will be replaced by King Charlie. I don't think anyone is looking forward to that prospect (except for Charlie himself).

For what it's worth, I think that John Bercow, the current speaker of the House of Commons, would make an excellent president of the UK.

Clear Abuse of Power

Posted on 29th August 2019

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This article on HuffPost.com describes the latest in a seemingly endless parade of abuses of power by President Donald Trump.

The report states "President Donald Trump reportedly told officials in his administration that he would pardon them if they had to break any laws to get hundreds of miles of his border wall built before the next presidential election, according to a report Tuesday night in The Washington Post. 'Don’t worry, I'll pardon you,' the president has allegedly told aides worried about his instructions to seize private land through eminent domain, flout environmental rules or push through billion-dollar contracts."

Even if the issue was not party political in nature (he is trying to boost his chances of winning the next presidential election by being able to show progress on building the border wall), this is a gross abuse of power. Why are the American people not up in arms about this?

The retard president needs to be stopped.

Britain Cancels Democracy

Posted on 29th August 2019

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There are many stories in the news about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's latest ploy to push Brexit through: the suspension of parliament.

In This report on the Guardian , a reader quotes Oliver Cromwell's criticism of MPs, suggesting that the same applies to today's MPs: "Ye sordid prostitutes, have you not defil'd this sacred place and turned the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral purposes and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves become the greatest grievance." It reads like the very definition of politicians.

This article, also on the Guardian, takes a firm position that the suspension of parliament is unconstitutional. The problem, of course, is that the UK doesn't have a written constitution; it is instead embodied in the roles of various people (including the Queen and the speaker of the House of Commons) and protocols (established practice) for how various things are done. Boris Johnson asked the Queen to approve the suspension of parliament; she had the opportunity and the grounds to refuse, but she didn't. Basically, the Queen failed to fulfill her constitutional duty. Thanks for nothing, Lizzie!

Where is the will of the people in all this? MPs are failing to take into account, and to represent in parliament, the will of the people, by which I mean their will now, not their will when the Brexit referendum was held (yes, people's will has changed!). BJ's government is also going against the will of parliament, and the suspension is his method of doing so.

I can therefore announce the death of democracy in Britain (it doesn't matter if you agree with my announcement - after all, without democracy, what you think doesn't matter)!

'Trump On Gun Violence

Posted on 6th August 2019

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President Trump has given a speech in response to the two mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, as reported here by the BBC.

He calls on the nation to "condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy". I agree: everyone should condemn Donald Trump for his racism, bigotry and white supremacy.

He also called for the stamping out of violence. One of the means that he proposes to achieve this is the use of the death penalty. Stamping out violence with violence; am I the only person who sees the hypocrisy in this?

Anyway, the USA already has the death penalty, for federal crimes and also in some states, and it hasn't stamped out violence. In quite a few cases of mass shootings, the perpetrators kill themselves, or clearly expect to be killed by police, so how is the threat of the death penalty going to deter them?

Whatever happened to "turning the other cheek"?

Bernie Is Right About Population Control

Posted on 6th September 2019

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Bernie Sanders, one of the contenders for the Democratic party nomination for presidential candidate, is getting ripped to shreds in the press, for his answer to an audience member's question during a CNN climate town hall event, as reported here, by the BBC.

The questioner said "Empowering women and educating everyone on the need to curb population growth seems a reasonable campaign to enact ... Would you be courageous enough to discuss this issue and make it a key feature of a plan to address climate catastrophe?"

Bernie Sanders replied: "Well, Martha, the answer is yes. The answer has everything to do with the fact that women in the United States of America, by the way, have a right to control their own bodies, and make reproductive decisions. The Mexico City Agreement which denies American aid to those organisations around the world that allow women to have abortions or even get involved in birth control to me is totally absurd. So I think, especially in poor countries around the world where women do not necessarily want to have large numbers of babies, and where they can have the opportunity through birth control to control the number of kids they have, is something I very, very strongly support.

Now he is being criticised for proposing the use of US taxpayer dollars to "kill brown babies". He did not even propose abortion as part of the solution; he said "birth control".

The problem is that Bernie is right. As I have pointed out before on this blog, the root cause of climate change and most other environmental problems that we are facing is that the planet's population is too big. Although birth rates are gradually falling around the world, population is still rising overall. Some nations have falling or static populations, but many countries have significant population growth (e.g. India and China). If we managed to fix global warming, the problem would come back again if population growth continued.

So clearly we cannot ignore the population issue; if we do, we are all doomed. US politicians going all "global thermonuclear war" about this issue is not helping.

It is time for a rational discussion of the options, the timescales, and the balance of wrongs and rights that are inevitably at play here.

Boeing 737 Max Roundup

Posted on 17th July 2019

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The drama and scandal about the safety of the Boeing 737 Max continues. Here is a summary of some of the recent news stories on the subject. None of it makes me want to fly on a 737 Max.

In this BBC report Boeing's Dennis Muilenburg admitted "We clearly fell short and the implementation of this [cockpit warning light for the] angle-of-attack disagree alert was a mistake, right, we did not implement it properly". Based on other reports, that seems to be avoiding the truth. They made it an optional extra, for which airlines had to pay, and many airlines did not buy this option because they did not realise that it was essential to safely fly the aircraft.

This story on The Guardian, covers another safety issue, this time on the 787 Dreamliner. The switch used to extinguish engine fires has failed in a “small number” of instances. The switch also cuts the supply of fuel and hydraulic fluid to the engine, to prevent flames from spreading. Boeing has warned airlines that long-term heating can cause the fire extinguisher switch to stick in the locked position so it can’t be used to release the two fire extinguishers in each engine. Again, this is totally against the rules. Fire extinguishers are unarguable safety critical systems, and there is no system redundancy (such as a second switch or another way to operate the fire extinguishers) as required. Again, not only are Boeing to blame, but also the FAA.

This article on the BBC, about how the company is giving $100M to the families of the 737 Max crash victims, seems, at first, to show Boeing in a better light, until you read this piece, also on the BBC, describing how Being has been bullying the families of crash victims into signing an agreement that forfeits their rights to sue for compensation, thus preventing them from getting more money later, as more embarrassing facts about Boeing come to light.

Finally, for now, at least, is this BBC report about how Boeing seems to be trying to rebrand the 737 Max as the 737-8200. The worrying thing is that this may well work, with many air travelers. It looks to be that spending money and effort on safety is much less important than PR, for Boeing.

My general conclusion from all this is that Boeing planes are not safe, and not just the 737 Max (or 737-8200); that Boeing do not care about people affected by their lack of safety; that the FAA has the same disregard for safety as the manufacturers they are meant to regulate; and that most airlines are no better than Boeing and the FAA - they continue to order 737 Max aircraft, and are playing along with Boeing's attempts to side-step the consequences of their poor design and testing.

The 737 Max is a flawed design: am attempt to bolt new technology onto a very outdated aircraft, which has badly compromised the safety and flyability of the plane. It should probably never be allowed to fly again; I certainly don't want to be a passenger on one.

Boeing 737 Max - Boeing Finally Comes Clean

Posted on 5th June 2019

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In my previous post about the Boeing 737 Max I wrote about the rules that apply to safety critical systems.

As made clear in this article on CNN, Boeing neatly sidestepped these rules, by simply deciding that the Angle Of Attack (AOA) system was not safety critical.

The AOA system being treated as not safety critical meant that there was no requirement for redundant systems or sensors. The AOA system relies on only one sensor, even though two are fitted to the 737 Max. Even two sensors would not have been enough, because, in the case where one fails, it is not possible to decide which is correct and which has failed; three sensors are needed to build a proper redundant system.

Without a third sensor, the only option is to do what Boeing is now planning to do: disable the AOA system when readings from the two sensors disagree. I have to ask, why only now, after two crashes and many deaths? The FAA has received at least 216 reports of AOA sensors failing or having to be repaired, replaced or adjusted since 2004, so the failure mode behind the two crashes should have been noticed by Boeing and the FAA.

That is, however, not really the key issue here. More important is how on earth did Boeing get away with declaring a system which can crash a plan when it fails as not safety critical? Not only are Boeing to blame for this, but so are the FAA, for failed oversight.

Due to all the press attention on Boeing and the FAA in the wake of the crashes and subsequent investigations, more safety issues have come to light with then 737 Max, including faulty parts related to the leading edge slats. If these do not deploy when they should, the plane is at risk of stalling during take-off and landing.

Some people, including some airlines which own 737 Max aircraft, are hoping and even planning on the basis that the planes will be cleared to fly again in June or July this year. That seems to be extremely premature, given that the investigations are not yet concluded, and probably won't be until the end of 2019 or later.

I think that this debacle will mean that, in future, other aircraft regulators will be less eager to accept certification by the FAA as a basis for certification in other jurisdictions. I see that as a healthy development, although it will increase costs and delays in certifying aircraft, pushing up the costs of air travel.

Wayne Hennessey did not know what Nazi salute was?

Posted on 17th April 2019

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I can't believe that Wayne Hennessey got away with this, as reported in this report on the BBC.

Wayne Hennessey is goalkeeper for the Crystal Palace football (soccer) team. The FA (Football Association) regulatory commission has just decided that he will face no punishment, because did not know what a Nazi salute was, and displayed 'a "lamentable degree of ignorance" about Adolf Hitler, fascism and the Nazi regime'.

This is purest bullshit. Just look at the photo, which says it all. In the picture, not only is he making the Nazi salute, but he is using his other hand to mimic Adolf Hitler's mustache, showing that he at least understands the connection between Hitler and the Nazis.

His "ignorance" is clearly feigned.

Boeing 737 Max - How Is Aircraft Safety Ensured?

Posted on 14th April 2019

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There has been a steady drip-feed of news about the safety of Boeing's 737 Max aircraft since the Ethiopian Airlines crash. This report, on the BBC, looks at the possible effect of the two crashes, on Boeing.

Some readers may not know so much about how aircraft designers ensure that their planes are safe. Having worked in the avionics industry, I thought that I would explain some of the basic techniques.

Part of the news piece states that "The new anti-stall mechanism on the Max relied on data from one single sensor at the front of the aircraft". This would be against policy and design guidelines. For safety critical systems, including flight control systems, redundant systems, including redundant sensors, are required: normally 3 systems or components (like sensors), so that in the event of an error or failure in one, the output of two correct systems will be selected by a voting system. Reports from other news sources suggest that the Max has multiple angle of attack sensors; the issue seems to be deciding what to do when the sensors disagree, which just seems to be bad design.

Given that design, coding and construction errors will always exist in complex systems, how do aircraft companies avoid crashes? The answer is by doing failure modes analysis. Failure modes analysis is a laborious process in which engineers imagine all the possible things that could go wrong (including multiple different failures) and then analyse how the systems will react and cope with those failures. This technique requires people (cannot be automated, even by AI) with good imagination, even paranoia, as well as an understanding of all the systems involved. It is expensive and complex, and sometimes things get overlooked, which often eventually leads to people dying or being injured.

If a proper failure modes analysis had been done for the Max's anti-stall system, the impact of one or more failed sensors would have been identified, and the necessary redesign would have been performed, this eliminating the issue. While no failure modes analysis is simple, what would be needed for the anti-stall system is far simpler than many on an aircraft like the 737 Max. The obvious conclusion is that either the analysis was not done, or more likely it was done badly.

There are, of course, many other ways that safety is assured in aircraft and other safety critical systems:

Peer review of requirements specifications. The creating of executable requirements specifications. Prototyping of the systems, involving creating a program, independently of the final design that will be put into the aircraft, that fulfills some of the requirements of the actual system, albeit not as fast nor as completely as the final system. Peer review of designs. Peer review of code, electrical design and of mechanical design. Various different kinds of testing of system components, and whole systems.

Many companies have also dabbled in formal methods: the use of mathematically based languages and methods to achieve "right first time" design. I have worked with such methods and languages; they are not yet good enough.

There are two different perspectives used in the above: validation (did I build the right thing?) and verification (did I build it right?). The inherent flaw with most of the methods listed above is that they depend on people, so things may be missed or misinterpreted; sometimes things are, therefore, missed or misinterpreted. This is the reason for the interest in formal methods, to take people out of the equation, to some extent.

For safety critical systems like aircraft, nearly all the quality assurance methods listed above are mandatory (mandated by certification authorities like the FAA), although not formal methods, executable specifications nor prototyping.

The bottom line is that, despite the huge effort, and therefore cost, applied to making systems safe, there is always a chance that a dangerous error finds its way into a product. The cost of trying to assure safety in systems is normally the majority of the cost of creating those systems, and even this is not always enough.

The other basic problem is that projects are always delayed, and over budget. When this happens, testing and other verification and validation activities get trimmed: less time, and fewer resources. The results of this are inevitable: failures and accidents.

Rubbish Postal Services

Posted on 12th April 2019

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This post is a copy of an item from my News Blog.

I returned home on Friday night to find a package for me: a large envelope, in which we had sent thee Christmas cards for my family in New Zealand, for redistribution to my family by my sister.

The envelope had been ripped, and later resealed, presumably by the NZ postal service. It seems that at least one other package was similarly ripped open, because our envelope had been refilled with the contents of another package: cards for someone called Tom. Our Christmas cards were not there, and were probably delivered to someone else.

Our envelope was then delivered to the wrong address. The recipient then returned it to the sender, us.

What a dreadful service the NZ Post provides. I have heard a number of other horror stories about NZ Post, from my family.

Of course, other postal services around the world also screw up, often and badly:

  • In South Africa, you can't send anything other than letters and postcards through the post; if you do, the contents will be stolen. The postal service have video of such thefts, which usually occur in the sorting room, but are not allowed to prosecute the thieves because they didn't get trade union agreement to install the cameras.
  • Sheryl's father likes mustard, so a few years ago she sent him a parcel containing 8 different types of mustard. They were very well packaged. He received one of them; the rest were stolen or lost.
  • Many years ago, when Sheryl moved in with me, she had huge problems getting her American bank to send her statements to the right address (because the structure of German addresses is different to US addresses, and the data doesn't fit in the form or the database behind it); despite the incorrect addresses, her statements were somehow delivered. After months of battling, the bank finally got the address printed correctly on the envelope, but then the statement didn't arrive, and was returned to the bank by the German post office. The bank sent the returned envelope to another address (either her old address, or her parent's address in Chicago - I no longer remember which). We took the returned envelope to the German post office, and asked what was wrong with the address: "nothing" was the answer. We asked why it was returned to the sender: "You will have to ask the US post, because it was returned by them"; "No", we said, "the return sticker is in German, so it was clearly returned by Deutsche Post". It is still unclear whether this was a deliberate lie, or rank stupidity, by the German postal worker.
  • Deutsche Post charges a premium for sending odd sized envelopes: a large premium. It costs more to send an odd sized card than to send an A4 envelope, which is why we often send groups of cards to one person, for redistribution in the destination country.
  • My father told me about a man in New Zealand, who owned a business. He moved from the town to an address in the country. Post to such addresses is delivered to a post box on the street. After a few weeks, he became worried by the fact that he had received no post at his new address, and went to the post office to check; he was told that the post office had no mail for him. He did this again, with the same answer. Finally, he asked to speak with the post-master, who told him that the mail was not being delivered because the post box was at the wrong height, meaning that the mailman couldn't deliver it without getting out of his van. All his mail, which included bills from his suppliers and payments from his customers, had since been destroyed. When he complained that he hadn't been contacted about the issue before his mail was destroyed, he was told "Don't you take that attitude with me. We did inform you; we wrote you a letter."

This abominable service is bad enough, but despite it, the legal position in Germany is that proof of posting is considered proof of delivery. This applies to legal notices of all kinds, payments, bills, etc.

Is it any wonder that postal services everywhere are losing business to courier services?

The Pences Respond To Accusations Of Hypocrisy With More Hypocrisy

Posted on 10th JFebruary 2019

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This piece on politicususa is a typical piece of American news: mainly about personalities and who has been wittiest, rather than anything truly newsworthy. I am only commenting on it because I really don't like hypocrisy.

Pete Buttigieg commented on Mike Pence's disapproval of Buttigieg being gay, by saying, among other things, that "If you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator."

Mrs. Pence feels that this is an attack on her religious beliefs, and said "I think in our country we need to understand you shouldn’t be attacked for what your religious beliefs are and I think kids need to learn that at a young age that this is OK, what faith people have; we don’t attack them for their faith.”

Sorry, but president Trump's policies to prevent immigration, and even visits, by Muslims, which were fully supported by his VP, Mike Pence, are a form of attack on, and prejudice against, people's religious beliefs. You can't practice discrimination against people based on their religion, and in the next breath complain that someone's statements are not OK because they amount to religious prejudice.

Also, if we take Mrs. Pence's statements at face value, does that mean that, if I joined a religion whose doctrine included the killing an eating of children, she would not dare to criticise me, because those are religious beliefs? Religious belief is clearly not a defence against the law and against moral criticism, and just as eating children is morally wrong, so is being anti-gay, in most people's opinion.

Whilst people like the Pences would probably prefer that the US legal code was more closely aligned with their religious beliefs, that is not how it is. Their views do not even have a majority amongst US Christians, and Christians are not a majority amongst US voters. That is the price of living in a (pseudo-)democracy.

'Un-Australian' activists arrested

Posted on 9th JFebruary 2019

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This article on the BBC really highlights what is wrong with Australia, and unfortunately many other countries.

The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison criticised animal rights activists as "shameful and un-Australian" after dozens were arrested in nationwide protests. His argument is that a large part of the county's agriculture, 40%, is based on meat production. Australia is the second largest meat consuming nation, per capita, in the world.

So, yet again, moral and environmental issues take second place to economic priorities. How will we ever save the world, and therefore the human race, if we can't prioritise saving it over making a quick buck.

I understand that this is not a simple issue. Much of the farmland in Australia is good for nothing except livestock; many people's livelihood, and a lot of exports, depend on livestock farming. That doesn't mean, however, that we shouldn't try to make that farming as humane as possible.

I can't really take the moral high-ground on this issue. I eat meat, and am not likely to give that up. I am, however, trying to eat less meat, and also, where possible, choose humanely raised and slaughtered meat.

Labelling these protesters as un-Australian is the same phoney logic that called Americans unpatriotic when they protested against war.

Obstruction Of International Justice By US

Posted on 5th April 2019

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The latest in the continuing saga of lack of respect for international law by the USA is reported in this article on the BBC.

The USA has revoked the visa of the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, who is investigating possible war crimes by American forces and their allies in Afghanistan.

The decision is not a surprise, in that the US had warned the US might refuse or revoke visas to any ICC staff involved in such probes. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said: "We're prepared to take additional steps, including economic sanctions if the ICC does not change its course".

Part of the problem here is an inherent issue with international law (see the other posts in this blog thread, by clicking the link above): it is not really law at all.

The US is not signed up to the ICC, although the history of this is complicated. Nevertheless, there is a huge difference between not signing up to be a member of an important piece of International Law, and actively sabotaging it (and using blackmail, in the form of sanctions, to try to force the issue).

It is not as if the US military's record overseas is spotless. There have been many reported cases of torture (e.g. Abu Ghraib), extra-judicial killings, "extraordinary rendition" and other war crimes and violations of human rights by US military or the CIA recorded over recent years. The well known cases all occurred outside of US jurisdiction (although it could be argued that the imposition of martial law places some, but not all, of these crimes within US jurisdiction), which places them out of reach of US courts. Who, then, can investigate and prosecute such cases? The ICC was established to solve this jurisdictional issue, among others.

So now the USA is flexing its muscles to block the investigation by the ICC. We should not stand for this. The USA sees itself (when it wants) as the policeman of the world; that role requires respect from at least some other nations, which in turn requires good behaviour and accountability.

Regarding the sanctions threat, in the same way as with the US-China trade war, which went into full tit-for-tat mode, sanctions against the ICC or its staff should be met with similar sanctions against US entities (people, government agencies, etc.).

If the US, in its continued playing fast and loose with human and legal rights, continues to act as a rogue nation, then they should be treated like one.

No Right To A Painless Death

Posted on 2nd April 2019

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This report on the BBC is very disappointing.

A prisoner, Russell Bucklew, on death row in Missouri has failed in his legal attempt to be executed by his preferred method. He claims that he has a medical condition, and that the state's standard execution technique, lethal injection, will cause him excessive pain and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. He wants to be executed by gas.

The US Supreme Court has just ruled that prisoners have no right to a painless death. This is really shocking.

"The eighth amendment [to the US constitution] forbids 'cruel and unusual' methods of capital punishment but does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death," wrote Justice Gorsuch, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017.

Leaving aside for a moment the arguments about whether capital punishment is just and fair, the idea that the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment does not extend to executions is an utterly bizarre legal interpretation, and is simply downright wrong.

If the court which sentenced Mr. Bucklew felt that he should suffer during his death, then they should have sentenced him to a painful death (which could then have been legally challenged, since it is illegal under the constitution); the court, however, did not, and it should be beyond the authority of the Missouri penitentiary system to subject him to such a painful death.

It seems that the US legal system is broken. The US constitution is the ultimate law in the USA, and there is a vast difference between interpreting that law, and bending it to the political views of the supreme court judges.

It also again makes to the case that the USA, due to its lack of protection of human rights, and its demonstrated failure to uphold the rule of law, should be branded a rogue nation.

Stupid Racism

Posted on 29th March 2019

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This short piece on Raw Story really shows how stupid people can be about their prejudices.

A man in California totally lost it in a Mexican fast food restaurant: Palapas Tacos in Anaheim. He complained (by shouting and gesticulating) about one menu sign which contained something (the day of the week on which a special was available), even though other signs in the restaurant spelled that same information out in English.

My first thought was that it was a Mexican restaurant, and Mexican customers speak Spanish. My second thought, as I read the story while sitting in a restaurant in the Netherlands and perusing an English menu, was "thank goodness that menus in other languages are totally normal and expected here".

Yes, I understand that the USA is an English speaking country (kinda), and that people who live and work there should speak English, but the people at Palapas Tacos do speak English, albeit not well. There is nothing wrong with providing menus and other information in languages that the customers speak, as long as that same information is provided in English, which it was.

Does this racist lunatic really want to stop people (citizens, residents and visitors) speaking other languages in the USA? Would that mean that, if I visited the USA, I would not be allowed to speak my proper English English, and have to use American English instead?

Why are Americans so against other languages? I recently read an article about Pete Buttigieg, a mayor who is running for the Democratic nomination for the Presidential elections in 2020. He speaks several languages (Norwegian, Spanish, Italian, Maltese, Arabic, Dari, and French) and analysts suggest that this could count against him in his nomination bid, because voters don't really approve. I see and hear a lot of American tourists in Europe, and I know that they are mostly not able to speak other languages, and also totally incompetent in speaking English to non-native-English-speakers (i.e. using different words when you have to repeat yourself, using words that are latin-based which are more likely to exist in the language of your listeners, avoiding colloquial/slang words, using simpler grammar, using redundancy in your sentences, avoiding euphemisms, speaking more slowly, etc.).

I contrast the above with Germany, where people will book a vacation somewhere where they don't speak the language, and promptly sign up for a course in that language, so that they will be able to communicate when they are there; also, people in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where most people are fluent in several languages (ask a Dutch person "Do you speak English?" the answer is always "Yes, of course").

English is, world-wide, the most popular second language to learn. English is spoken in more and more places, and you can get by on a business trip or a vacation totally in English. Many schools across the world have English as a mandatory course. This is, in part because other countries encourage it, as a vital enabler for business, as help for tourists, and other reasons. Don't Americans feel any duty to respond in kind, and encourage the teaching and use of other languages in the USA? After all, the neighbouring countries to the south all speak Spanish, and to the north, part of Canada speaks French. It certainly seems that the ranting customer in this incident does not feel that way.

Delivered Or Not Delivered?

Posted on 12th February 2019

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I am getting thoroughly fed up with the parcel delivery companies: UPS DHL, FedEx, GLS, etc.

This week I ordered some wine, and the tracking web-site shows that it is due to be delivered this morning; that should be fine, since Sheryl is at home sick today. In fact, however, it is not fine. Yet again someone rang the doorbell, and gave up and walked away before Sheryl could answer.

This kind of thing happens often. Our doorbell/entry-phone system is not very smart (but smarter than the delivery personnel): if you ring a bell, the person who lives in that apartment can answer, and choose to let you into the building; if you get impatient and ring another bell, then only the last apartment whose bell you rang can answer. Many delivery drivers ring lots of bells, so that many people get disturbed, but only the last one rung can answer (and they might not be home).

There have been many cases where one of us was home, and no-one rang the doorbell, but we received a slip in our postbox that we were not home when they tried to deliver.

stair-climbing trolley

We have seen delivery vans parked opposite our apartment building while the driver fills in dozens of "you were not home" slips, without first attempting to ring any doorbells. I find this bizarre, since they need to ring anyway to deliver the failed-delivery slips.

There was also a period when one of the courier firms left dozens (basically all) of their parcels with a bakery over half a kilometer from our building, leaving a note saying "we have left your parcel with a neighbour".

A few years ago I bought a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) which weighed 70Kg (the weight is mostly batteries). It was delivered while I was away for work, but Sheryl was home. The delivery guy was alone, and didn't have one of those nifty stair-climbing trolleys (see photo), and refused to bring it up one flight of stairs, so Sheryl refused to accept delivery (our building has no lift) and they had to deliver it another day, with two guys. Sheryl regularly has similar problems with one particular guy who delivers to her work; he always refuses to deliver things into the building, and as a result usually leaves without getting a signature.

Some firms are worse than others, but the main variation seems to be down to the individual delivery person. This is a service for which we, as end-customers, pay (directly or indirectly), but we are not treated like customers and do not receive the service for which we pay. I guess I need to complain more to the delivery companies.

Societal Collapse: What It Means

Posted on 27th March 2019

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This article on Vice.com is about a paper about the impacts of climate change: "Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy".

The thesis of the paper is that climate change, already here and getting worse, will cause economic and societal collapse, potentially in 10 years from now.

If you have read other material about the impact of climate change, either elsewhere in the news, or on this blog (here, here, here and here), then you know that shortages of water, food, energy and other resources are predicted, and that these shortages will in many cases lead to armed conflict and increased migration. Until now, however, I have not seen any predictions about the impact on society; this paper does just that.

The news piece in the first link, above, tells how many readers were seriously upset and depressed by the scientific paper, and are heading to the hills, or places like New Zealand in the hope that their survival chances will thus improve. In order to decide whether such drastic action is necessary, let's look at what "Societal Collapse" means.

The sections below describe the separate symptoms of societal collapse, and what it may mean to you. The thing to remember is that all these things are connected, and degradation in one area causes impacts in another: a positive feedback loop, or vicious circle.

Nevertheless, nothing is certain. Some things may come to pass, and perhaps some will not; they may happen sooner than predicted, or later. Readers should treat all these predictions as risks, and act to try to reduce those risks to the extent that it is possible.

Law And Order

One of the most destructive symptoms of the collapse of society is likely to be in law and order. You only need to look at the news about the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) protests to see the effects of street protests and civil disobedience, and the inability of the police in France to limit the disruption. Imagine protests many times bigger and more frequent, with people on the streets because they cannot feed their families or find a job, or are being thrown out of their homes.

If French police cannot deal with the current Gilets Jaunes protests, how much worse will it be in countries with smaller police forces (e.g. the USA, with a police force one tenth, per capita, of those typical in western Europe? Add to this the impact of reduced budgets for policing (as a result of the collapse of money).

Crimes will go unpunished, meaning that there will be no reason for people and companies with whom you deal (your landlord, your bank, your insurance company, etc.) to obey the law and uphold your legal rights. Looting will be rife. There will be no-go areas for police in all countries, with some streets ruled by gangs; you may have to pay protection "money" just to go shopping. Your car will likely be stolen or torched. It will become very dangerous just to walk the streets.

Money

Because many vital resources will be in short supply, inflation will go out of control (like in Venezuela right now). Money will start to become useless, and you will need to barter to get basics. If you don't have anything that people want, then you won't be able to barter for what you need.

Not only do individuals need money for daily life, but governments need it to fulfill their role in society. Once money becomes ineffective, governments will not be able to pay for the services they provide: health care, R&D (e.g. into combating or preventing climate change), policing, road maintenance, sewage, etc. The collapse of money, and its impact on governments' ability to function, is probably one of the biggest drivers of other negative impacts on society.

Your wages, if you continue to have them, will be inadequate, and you will need to buy what you need immediately you get paid (because, by tomorrow, the price may have doubled due to rampant inflation). Your pension, and your investments, will similarly become useless.

Your property, which in many cases is limited to the house in which you live, is likely to lose its value, which may mean that, although you may need to move home, you can't afford to.

Food

Farming productivity is already being effected by climate change. In some cases this is due to direct changes in the weather, and the predictability of the weather. The distribution of pests is also already changing. It is getting harder to be a farmer.

Intensive farming is heavily dependent upon money, for pesticides and fertilizers, seed stock and machinery. If/when the money system collapses, it will become impossible to sustain intensive farming practices. Without intensive farming, it will be impossible to feed the world. Today, "buy local" is a choice; it will probably become the only option (no more asparagus in December, apples in April, kiwi fruit in Finland, mangoes in Europe and America).

There has also been talk about the threat caused by climate change to coffee supplies. I don't know if this is really an issue, but it could become one.

One effect that seems certain is that people's diets will change. Fruit and vegetables will again become truly seasonal, and meat consumption (the production of which is so dependent on water, energy and specialised feed-stock) will reduce.

Water

Access to drinking water is already an issue for many people around the world. Recently there was a lot in the news about a water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa. More recently there is bad news about future water supply in areas fed by the Colorado River (here, on Mashable) and in Britain (here on The Guardian). The USA, Britain and many other nations have long been extracting too much water from underground and surface sources, causing some rivers and lakes to dry up, and others to become polluted. Ground water in Israel is becoming too salty to use, as salt water seeps in from the sea to replace water pumped out for household and agricultural use.

In other places water is becoming polluted by mining, industrial waste, and activities like fracking. Flint, in the USA, is a well known example of the industrial pollution of water supplies.

Such issues will become more extreme and more widespread, since industry, water companies and governments are unlikely to change their policies.

What this means for you is that you may only have tap water part of the day; maybe not at all. It may no longer be safe to drink tap water. Water rationing may be applied. Eventually you will also probably find yourself unable to pay for your water supply, if your money becomes worthless, and ultimately water supply companies will go bankrupt.

Given that you might be trying to supplement your food supply by growing vegetables at home, the lack of water will be a huge problem.

We could all end up walking miles, and/or queuing up at water tankers, to get enough water to survive. This is already normal for people in parts of Africa, but we are not used to it in Europe and North America.

Health and Health Care

Health care is one aspect of society that will be badly affected by societal collapse. Government paid schemes will be first be trimmed and then cancelled, as government budgets come under pressure and the money system crumbles.

Private schemes will become less and less useful, as the crumbling money system forces health insurers to create more exemptions, preconditions and other loopholes to limit how much they pay, and therefore how good your health care is.

There will be more co-payments, and more treatments which are not covered at all. Good luck getting treatment for pre-existing conditions.

Waiting lists will grow, and more treatments will not be available locally. Medical equipment will be older and in need of repair, and medicines will be in short supply. Doctors and nurses will be even more overworked, and that will result in poorer treatment and more mistakes. Getting a second opinion will become much harder.

Remember to add to all this the coming crisis of antibiotic-resistant diseases.

Eventually, centrally organised health care will all but disappear. Hospitals, clinics and dentists will close. Because of this, vaccinations will be the exception, rather than the norm, and illnesses which are minor today (like appendicitis) will become fatal; child-birth will become mush more risky. Americans of future generations will also start to have "English teeth"; us English will be laughing about that, as long as our toothaches are not too bad.

The Environment

Even today, the world does not seem to be able to prioritise environmental protection above money; wild-life above people; the future against the her and now. It doesn't take much imagination to see how much worse things will be as the effects of societal collapse begin to bite. A lot of funding for environmental programmes comes from charitable donations, from companies and individuals. Most of the rest is government funded. Some government funding for environmental initiatives is in the form of international aid. All of these sources will dry up, as other "more urgent" needs soak up the dwindling supply of funds.

This is going to make some people's survival strategies problematic. If you are planning to live off the land in some way, you are going to want a sound ecosystem in which to follow your plan, whether that means hunting in the mountains, fishing on some island, or self-sufficient farming in New Zealand or Ireland.

The lack of effective and enforced environmental protections means there will be a huge increase in polluted ground water, pests, invasive species, the availability of feed-stock, and climate change will have major effects on species viability, as animals (birds, insects, etc.) find they are unable to change where they live to deal with the altered climate, because the space they need to occupy will already be occupied by humans and their farms.

Travel

Societal collapse will have negative impacts on public transport, and the ability to make business and leisure trips (so forget vacation trips, especially by air).

Even our ability to commute for work will be severely degraded. This will mean having to rethink where you live, and/or where you work: in future people will need to live near their job; by near, I mean walking or cycling distance.

Telecoms and The Internet

Nowadays people rely very heavily on their mobile phones, and on the Internet. Expect that service coverage and quality (i.e. data bandwidths and reliability) will be steadily degraded, as the degradation of money gradually gets worse (telecoms companies are, after all, businesses, and rely on income to maintain and improve their infrastructure).

This will make simple things much more difficult: you will have to agree beforehand not only when to meet someone, but also exactly where.

Internet shopping will eventually die out: without delivery services, Internet services, and a functioning money system, it cannot work.

Racism and other -isms

Recent history has shown us that, when times are tough for whatever reason, racism, homophobia, sexism and all those other prejudices come to the fore. We should expect that, as societal collapse starts to bite, this will happen all over the world. Civilisation is nothing more than a thin coat of paint hiding the feral creatures that humans are at core.

Is Political Correctness Really More Important Than The Environment?

Posted on 6th JFebruary 2019

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I was really quite incensed when I read this article on the BBC.

Japan, like most developed countries, is facing a demographic crisis, as the birth rate falls, life-span increases, and the average age of the population rises, meaning that the pensions of a growing number of retirees will have to be paid by a falling number of working people.

Japan's deputy prime minister, Taro Aso got himself into trouble recently for saying "There are lots of weird people who say the elderly are at fault, but that's incorrect ... Rather, those who aren't giving birth to children are the problem." For this bizarre statement, he was roundly criticised by opposition MPs, who said his words could hurt couples who were unable to have children, and Taro Aso was forced to retract his statement.

REALLY?

Our planet has a whole host of environmental problems caused, ultimately, by overpopulation. Falling birth rates may, in the end, save our species and many other species, and I have to see it as a good thing.

Japanese politics, on the other hand, seems to consider political correctness as much more important than saving the planet.

It is good that Taro Aso retracted his original statement. It is just a shame that he did so for the wrong reasons.

NBC Presenter Criticised For Saying That Hispanic-Americans Should "Work Harder At Assimilation"

Posted on 30th January 2019

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This short piece on the BBC really highlights the differences between Germany, where I live, and the USA.

The USA has an official language: English (although not always recognisable as English by other English-speaking nations). Germany also has an official language: German (although there are regional dialects, to the extent that people from one region have great difficulty understanding people from another, and Swiss-German speakers have subtitles added when on German TV).

In Germany, the government has no qualms in insisting that people speak and understand German. There is even a test, when applying for residence or citizenship. By contrast, the USA seems to need to tiptoe around the issue, and it is not considered politically correct to make a fuss about residents and citizens not speaking English. Most of us have heard stories of people not being able to order food in places like McDonald's unless they do so in Spanish (in some parts of the USA).

I really don't understand the Americans' reticence about insisting on English: it is the law and it is established practice. Giving in on this could easily lead to a situation like in South Africa, where it is common for a school teacher to have to work in up to 14 different languages in one class.

Insisting on ability in English doesn't mean that other languages are banned. At this moment, there are four of us in my office: two Germans, a South African, and me (from England). All of speak English and German; the South African also speaks Afrikaans (so I can also use my very limited Dutch with her). We speak whichever language is easiest for all participants in a conversation; sometimes we use more than one language in a conversation.

Political correctness is largely an American invention, so it is rather appropriate that they are now becoming victims of the monster they created. I must ask, however, that they keep it on their own side of the Atlantic.

Eating Your Boogers Is Bad For Your Health!

Posted on 30th January 2019

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This article on Business Insider, describes the health risks of eating your own boogers (in British English, bogies).

This topic is especially relevant for people like me, who live in Germany, which is the nose-picking capital of the world.

Unsurprisingly, picking your nose is unhealthy; eating your boogers is even more so. Some of the rarer described health problems are rather nasty.

One of the things which the author seems to be unaware of is oral tolerance. This is a mechanism, which probably evolved to prevent us from having allergic reactions to our food, whereby the body identifies things in the mouth as non-threatening. Eating your boogers, which are filled with viruses and bacteria, therefore means that you are likely to have a reduced immune response to these same viruses and bacteria in other parts of your body. In other words, eating your boogers will likely mean that you will be sicker, and for longer, than if you didn't eat them.

The article mentions that there are some people who claim that eating your boogers strengthens your immune response, and that there is no proof of this effect. The truth of the matter is, due to oral tolerance, exactly the opposite.

Americans Want To Poison The Brits!

Posted on 29th January 2019

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No-one should be surprised by this story on the BBC, which is an inevitable result of Brexit.

A lobby group, made up of agriculture and pharmaceutical firms, want the food safety regulations in the UK to be made more like those in the USA. Once the UK leaves the EU, Brits will be able to set their own standards for food and drug safety, and this group is pressing for more relaxed standards, like those in the USA. This means hormone-fed beef, GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) food, antibiotics in food, lack of clear labeling of food (i.e. the labels will not tell you about hormone or GMO content), and a easier and faster process for approval of drugs.

The US already tried to agree these changes with the EU in the past, without success. There was quite a row, almost leading to a trade war. Now that the UK is leaving the EU, they are having another go, and will probably succeed, since Britain will not be in such a strong negotiating position on their own, and needs to agree trading terms with many countries in a hurry, once Brexit is complete.

It is obvious from the facts that Britain puts the health, welfare and rights of its population at a lower priority than the EU does. The only reason why Brits are as well protected as they are right now, is because of regulations created by the EU, so we should all expect that to change after Brexit.

Almost certainly, UK regulations on food and drug safety will be relaxed, although maybe not quite as much as the Yanks would like, and the British population will all be be eating all sorts of potentially hazardous food, and being prescribed drugs that are not thoroughly tested, without even knowing.

I am so glad that I live in Germany, where food and drug safety, and labeling rules are strict, due to EU regulations, and won't be eating any of the poisonous garbage that the USA wants to fob off on the UK.

If you live in the UK, now might be a good time to write to your MP.

"Morally bankrupt" and "undemocratic to the core"!

Posted on 28th January 2019

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As the crisis in Venezuela worsens, everyone seems to be taking the opportunity to express their opinions, some to support Maduro, and some to condemn him; some of these opinions are accompanied by some forceful, and even threatening language.

This report by the BBC quotes US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as describing Mr Maduro's government as "morally bankrupt" and "undemocratic to the core". In that case, I would have thought that the Trump administration would love him; it is therefore rather surprising that Venezuela has not been invited to become the 51st state of the USA, since they would fit right in.

Amanda Knox and Malicious Accusation

Posted on 28th January 2019

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As reported here, by the Guardian, Amanda Knox is in the news again; this time because she has just been awarded damages (€18,400) by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for failures by the Italian justice system.

What concerns me about the article is the issue (still not resolved) of her conviction for malicious accusation. This law, either in its very concept or in its application in the Amanda Knox case, seems inherently flawed.

Given that, in so many cases in so many different countries, investigators fail to properly look into alternative suspects, pointing the finger of blame at someone else is sometimes the only defence that the accused have. Indeed, in some cases the police actually ask the suspect "if you didn't do it, then who did?". In Italy, however, it seems to be against the law to suggest another suspect.

This issue seems to me to undermine people's basic human rights. It also calls into question the basic legal principle of conviction only when it is "beyond reasonable doubt".

Since most western nations already have legislation against slander and libel, I do not see any reason for there to be additional laws against malicious accusation.

I will be adding Italy to my growing list of countries in which to avoid getting arrested.

Brain Damage Causes Religious Fundamentalism

Posted on 9th January 2019

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A recent scientific study has shown that there is a causal link between brain damage and religious fundamentalism, as reported in this story on Salon.com.

"The findings suggest that damage to particular areas of the prefrontal cortex indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by diminishing cognitive flexibility and openness — a psychology term that describes a personality trait which involves dimensions like curiosity, creativity, and open-mindedness."

Now it is clear why you can never successfully argue people out of fundamentalist beliefs; something that many of us have tried.

Let's be clear, the research is not saying that all religious beliefs are caused by brain damage; only fundamentalist beliefs.

Of course, this doesn't mean that we should all stop trying to persuade fundamentalists that their beliefs are wrong, but at least now, when we fail, we know that it is because they are mad.

The Right To Repair Is Coming.

Posted on 9th January 2019

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There is some good news about the right to repair goods that we buy. The BBC reports, here, that the EU are proposing to force manufacturers to make goods that last longer and are easier to mend. The European proposals refer to lighting, televisions and large home appliances.

This article on The Verge reports that 18 states in the USA are considering similar legislation.

I see this as a major step forward. In the last few years I have had to replace:

  • A washing machine, from Siemens, which became too expensive to repair, and could only be repaired by a technician from the manufacturer;
  • An automatic coffee maker (which cost about €650);
  • An electric fan, which no longer works, and which I am unable to repair;
  • A UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply - very expensive and too heavy for me to lift alone), which conked out immediately after the warranty expired;
  • Two network switches, which were damaged by thunder storms;
  • A network router, probably also damaged by a thunder storm.

In addition, I have:

  • A Siemens dishwasher, which has had to be repaired several times, and the last 3 times we were told that the technician wasn't sure whether the repair would hold;
  • A Siemens fridge/freezer, which needs constant attention to stop it icing up (repair is possible, but requires two people to remove it from the kitchen unit, to access the back of the machine, and the repair only works for about a month);

The lists above are probably not even complete.

I also replaced the hard disk in my laptop with an SSD (solid-state disk), and doubled the amount of RAM - I was able to do it myself, but it was extremely difficult (I had to open the laptop many times to get it properly re-assembled and working), and required special tools.

The NHS To Focus On Prevention!

Posted on 8th January 2019

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As reported here, by the BBC, Theresa May has launched a new 10-year plan for the NHS (National Health Service).

NHS bosses believe that 500,000 lives can be saved by focusing on prevention and early detection. How exactly is that news? Isn't prevention and early detection the primary purpose of any health system? It is a well established fact that the earlier an illness is detected and diagnosed, the better the chances of surviving. I am not much interested in having a doctor tell me that I am going to die, but it's OK because they know what it is; I expect to be told what I am sick with, how they will cure it, how long it will take and what side-effects there may be.

It seems, however, that the NHS bosses and the British Prime Minister, were previously unaware of the benefits of preventative medicine: 'Prime Minister Theresa May hailed the launch of the plan as a "truly historic moment".' It now seems unarguable that we have the wrong people running Britain and the NHS.

Then there is the matter of the number of lives: 500,000. Over what period, precisely? 500,000 per year; 500,000 over the 10 years of the new NHS plan, or what? Additional funding of £20bn will be given to the NHS. If that saves 500,000 lives, that is a cost of £40,000 per life, which seems a reasonable return on investment (if it is over 10 years, the cost is only £4,000 per life!). Of course, if they invested more, they could save more lives; it is all really a question of how much value a human life has to the government and the NHS. I am confident that £40,000 per life is close to the actual value that the NHS and UK government work with, since it matches calculations based on other published data.

Of course, many people forget that the NHS is partly a health insurance scheme (one where the insurance provider also provides the services to repair and maintain the health of its customers), for which British citizens and residents pay. The service that the customers receive, however, is dependent upon how much the treatment costs, and only as long as there are enough beds and medical staff are not too busy on other patients.

So,to summarise, preventative care has been de-emphasised, but that is now going to change. Under the new order, your life is worth no more than £40,000. Even if your life can be saved with £40,000, there is no guarantee that you will be saved, because the NHS might be too busy.

Why did you vote for such a heartless system; oh, I know, you didn't; you were not given any choices at any election that even touched on this subject.

Still think that the UK is a democracy? Think again!

Pizza Stupidity

Posted on 8th January 2019

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This article on Mashable is so stupid that it is hard to believe someone even wrote it.

I don't need to explain the maths behind the fact that an 18" pizza is bigger than two 12" pizzas, because the article explains it. What bothers me is that the author, Morgan Sung, seems blown away by the facts, and doesn't seem to believe the maths.

This just reminds me of the very funny video about whether to have your pizza cut into 6 or 8 slices (here).

The human race is doomed!

Bank Breaking The Law With Bad Service

Posted on 4th February 2019

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This weekend Sheryl had some trouble with her US bank: BMO Harris Bank. She was furious, and very disappointed.

She had everything set up to operate smoothly. Her bank was able to automatically fetch her two US credit card bills, and to make the minimum payments. This had been working smoothly for a few years. Then suddenly, the bank were unable to fetch the bills, so she logged on to the BMO Harris Bank banking web-portal to make the payments manually.

Upon logging in, she was presented with an information pop-up, with new Terms and Conditions, with an "I agree" button. The new Ts & Cs basically say that customers must now have an address in the USA; without this address, virtually all the services which she needs are not available, including paying her credit card bills, whether manually or automatically.

She phoned customer services, and after several failed calls and ages on hold, the agent told her that she needed a US address. Sheryl therefore changed her address to her parents' address. The changes didn't take effect immediately, despite the agent's assurances that they would, so she still doesn't know whether she will be able to make the payments or not.

There are many things wrong with what happened:

  • If there is a contract (in this case, between the bank and a customer), if one party to the contract unilaterally changes the Terms and Conditions, the other party must be informed at the time the change takes effect, if not before. Informing the customer the next time they log-in is not compliant with the law.
  • What were the bank thinking, taking away service from a bunch of customers just because they have non-US addresses? There is likely to be a significant number of customers, and these customers probably have higher than average net worth and income. It just seems to be bad business. I suspect that the root cause is recent US legislation to prevent money laundering.
  • The customer service was so diabolically bad. The phone system doesn't work properly, the agents are overloaded and have a bad attitude, the "facts" they give out are simply not true and the promises they make are not fulfilled.

This is not the first time that Sheryl has had trouble with this bank. When she first moved in with me, it took almost a year to get her new address correctly stored on their system. She wrote letters and sent faxes (yes, it was a while ago, before Harris Bank had online banking). Amazingly, despite seriously incorrect addresses, her bank statements arrived at our flat, until the bank finally had the address right, at which point the German Post Office decided the letter was undeliverable (despite a correct address).

Normally, after such bad service, Sheryl would have closed her BMO Harris Bank account, and opened an account with another bank, but in most cases you cannot open a bank account unless you are resident in the country where the bank operates. She needs a US bank, to pay her US bills, but she lives in Germany.

It wouldn't be so difficult if the USA complied with anyone else's standards, for anything at all, but they don't: not in telecoms (only in the last few years have US customers had 3G and 4G phones - before that, Sheryl couldn't even send her family an SMS!), banking ("what is an IBAN number?"), airport rules (no international zones in US airports, so you have to enter the USA even if you are only in transit), road signs (would it really be so hard to use pictures on road signs, rather than words for everything - driving in the USA if you don't read English is a nightmare), and so on.

I am sure that we will find a solution. When we do, BMO Harris Bank will be getting a long letter detailing why her account has been closed.

The French Need To Make Their Minds Up!

Posted on 4th January 2019

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I assume that everyone saw at least some news about the French Yellow Jackets' protests. The whole thing was in reaction to President Macron's attempt to introduce higher fuel taxes, for which there is an environmental imperative. In the end President Macron had to back down, at least in part.

We hardly had time to draw breath before the other side started a petition. According to this report on Bloomberg, "A petition calling for legal action against the French state for its supposed failure to act against global warming had reached 1.81 million signatures as of Thursday [27th December 2019], close to the 2-million goal set by the associations that launched the initiative on Dec. 17."

Can you French people make your minds up?

Environmental protection is important - VERY. It is almost never without cost and inconvenience (i.e. higher fuel prices). You don't get to choose lower prices and greater convenience, and thus the end of human civilisation and mass extinctions, because there are other people (like me) living on planet earth, and we are not going to let you choose destruction for us and our descendants just because you want to burn hot and fast.

Time Machines?

Posted on 4th January 2019

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I was totally caught out, when I first read this article on the BBC.

The piece is about Isaac Asimov's predictions, made in 1983, about what the world would be like in 2019. Some of his future gazing was amazingly accurate.

In the 10th paragraph, however, is the statement "In 30 years time machines will know what each student knows and what he or she needs to learn next." Time machines? On rereading, I realised that the writer, Mr. Asimov himself, I assume, meant "In 30 years time, machines will know ...", rather than "In 30 years, time machines will know ..."

It seems that no-one knows how to properly use punctuation anymore.

Trump Is Guilty Of Everything He Accuses Others Of

Posted on 21st November 2018

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There are no real surprises here, but this article on the BBC beautifully highlights Donald Trump's hypocrisy.

Each of the first few paragraphs includes one or more accusations or judgments of Robert Mueller and his team. Each of them is something that Trump is way more guilty of than anyone he accuses:

  • Robert Mueller's investigation is a "total mess" - The Donald's administration is what is a total mess, from which a constant procession of people are either fired or resign;
  • Robert Mueller's investigation is"absolutely nuts" - POTUS owns the patent on absolutely nuts, and no-one can compete (at least not anyone who is free to roam the streets);
  • Investigators were "threatening" people to provide "the answers they want" - Trump's normal conversation style is based on threatening people;
  • "They are screaming and shouting at people," - There is hardly a press conference at which the President doesn't scream and shout at people;
  • The inquiry is a "witch hunt" - The man at the Whitehouse is famous for his witch hunts (e.g. against Hilary Clinton).

As we say in England, hark at the pot calling the kettle black!

Airbnb Decision Is Shameful?

Posted on 21st November 2018

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This story on the BBC reports that the Israeli government described the decision by Airbnb to withdraw homes in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank from its listings as "shameful".

Since when can a company not make decisions about where it does business? Since these settlements in the occupied West Bank are considered illegal under international law, if Airbnb continued to offer them, they would be open to lawsuits and/or criminal charges. The company therefore has a duty to minimise such risks. Their decision to do so is certainly not shameful; the strongest criticism that could be leveled against them is that they showed excessive caution.

Anti-Vaxxers Cause Chickenpox Outbreak

Posted on 21st November 2018

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This BBC report describes a chickenpox outbreak at a North Carolina school. 36 students at the school were diagnosed with chickenpox on Friday last week. Of the Waldorf School's 152 students, 110 have not received the vaccine for chickenpox, and 67.9% of the school's kindergarten students have religious immunisation exemptions on file.

So, the conclusion is that the lack of immunisation has caused the outbreak.The anti-vaxxers, in exercising their right to choose what is best for their child, have also chosen for other children (including those whose parents support immunisation).

If I was the parent of a child who caught chickenpox due to the decisions of anti-vaxxers, I would be suing those anti-vaxxers right now, and I encourage the affected parents to do just that.

The school says "We, as a school, do not discriminate based on a child's medical history or medical condition." Well, in not discriminating against the anti-vaxxers' children, they have discriminated against the rest of their school population, and potentially people in the wider community. The school should also be sued.

Choices and consequences!

Japan To Restart Commercial Whaling

Posted on 4th January 2019

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Japan has announced that it is leaving the IWC (International Whaling Commission) and intends to restart commercial whaling, as reported by the LA Times.

I find this news utterly disgraceful. Whales are not only mostly endangered, but are intelligent and social creatures which we really shouldn't be hunting.

It irks me that the Japanese claim that it is traditional to hunt and eat whales; this is no excuse: it is also traditional in some societies to sell people into slavery, kill unwanted female children, ban women (of menstruating age) from temples, and use religion to justify war, but that doesn't make any of those things good. It also upsets me that hardly anyone in Japan eats whale meat anymore, and the meat from the so-called scientific whaling that Japan has conducted throughout its membership of the IWC has been hard to sell.

The IWC is the perfect example of "International Law". The IWC rules only apply to nations who have signed up to them by joining the IWC, and members can leave whenever they choose. There is no enforcement system, and there are no consequences for breaking the rules. We need International Law with teeth, not just aspirations.

People will probably strongly criticise me for saying this, even though it is tongue-in-cheek, but the last time that Japan was out of control, we dropped two atom-bombs on them. Maybe is is time to repeat the lesson.

My point is that I consider the extinction of even one species a much more heinous crime than the deaths of mere hundreds of thousands of people; we have more than enough humans on this planet. Our planet is in crisis, and the widely held belief that a human is always and automatically more important than a member of another species, or indeed a whole species, is no longer valid (if it ever was).

Brexit: Here Are Your Choices, But You Don’t Get To Choose!

Posted on 14th November 2018

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The latest statement by British PM Theresa May, as reported by the BBC, proves that democracy is dead in the UK.

Mrs. May said "This deal, which delivers on the vote of the referendum, which brings back control of our money, laws and borders, ends free movement, protects jobs, security and our Union; or leave with no deal, or no Brexit at all." In other words, there are three choices. The problem is that she doesn't want the people to choose: she is very strongly opposed to another referendum, and even fought hard (and lost) to stop a parliamentary vote on the deal, her argument being that the people have already voted in the first referendum. More importantly, it does not, as she claims, "deliver on ... the referendum".

It is rather like if you went to a car dealership and selected a model of car to purchase, and chose several options: metallic grey paint, air conditioning, a sun-roof, and a 2 litre engine. Then, when you go to collect your new car, you find that it is painted black, has no air conditioning or a sun-roof, and has a 3 litre engine. Naturally, you tell the dealer that you don't want the car, because it is not what you ordered, but he tells you that you have to take it, because you have a contract with him.

Of course, in the above scenario, the law is on your side: the contract is not valid, because the conditions were not met by the dealer. Unfortunately, in the case of Brexit, the law will not protect us. The country voted for Brexit on the basis of a bunch of "facts" which were not true, and also based on a list of promises by politicians which have not been fulfilled by the deal now on the table. Even so, Theresa May is telling us that we won't get to vote on the deal, because we already voted, even though her deal does not meet our expectations (i.e. the contract). In most walks of life and business, she would be in breach of contract, but sadly, in politics, things are very different.

So many politicians do not seem to understand the difference between strong leadership and dictatorship. This is not just an issue in the UK: the USA, among others, also fails to get it; even though their lower house is called The House of Representatives, the members of that house consistently fail to represent the views of their constituents.

Extinctions In 2018

Posted on 4th Janaury 2019

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This report on USA Today summarises the species which became extinct in 2018. These are just species which we know about, and the list does not include any insects, bacteria, viruses, or even fish.

There is another report on Mashable, on the same subject.

Although there is no proof that all the listed extinctions were caused by human activity, we are the prime suspect in most cases.

Some people may argue that extinction is a natural phenomenon which has occurred throughout our planet's history, but the pace of species loss is currently higher than ever before (including the time when dinosaurs became extinct). Part of the problem is that evolution is being hampered by lack of available habitat for evolving species to occupy, due to agriculture, mining, and human habitation, so new species are not replacing those lost. Every year there is less wild habitat on our planet.

Do you really want your descendants to grow up in a world where there are almost no other species; worse still, for humanity to also become extinct because we wiped out the species which made our ecosystem functional and our planet habitable?

If you want to get an idea of what our future will probably look like, watch Soylent Green (made in 1973, but amazingly prescient).

Police “Did Their Job”?

Posted on 13th November 2018

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This story from the BBC, about a security guard at a bar in the Chicago suburbs being shot by police, is shocking enough.

There was gunfire at the bar, in the early hours of the morning, and the brave Mr. Roberson did more than his job by chasing down the attacker. When the police arrived, Jemel Roberson had the shooter on the ground, kneeling on his back, with his own licensed gun in his hand. Within seconds of the police arriving (i.e. without taking time to ascertain the facts) they had shot and killed the security guard (who, amazingly, happened to be black).

What really shocked me, though, was this statement by witness Adam Harris: "Everybody was screaming out 'security, he was a security guard'", Mr Harris added, "and they still did their job and saw a black man with a gun and basically killed him". So, Mr. Harris, and presumably many more Americans, believe that the job of the police is to shoot black people (or at least those with guns).

Mr. Harris will probably claim that he misspoke, or his words have been misquoted or taken out of context, but I feel that, whether intentionally or not, his words contain truth.

How will we ever stop the killing of black people by the US police, when, deep down, US citizens feel that the job of the police is precisely that?

Is Matthew Whitaker Actually Wilson Fisk?

Posted on 13th November 2018

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Wilson Fisk Matthew Whitaker

Coincidence? Maybe not.

Mathew Whitaker, the newly appointed interim Attorney General of the USA (in the left photo), seems to look amazingly like Wilson Fisk (right photo), the villain in Marvel's Daredevil TV series.

Of course, it wouldn't be surprising to many if president Trump appointed a career criminal to the top law enforcement position in the country.

There Has To Be A Better Way To Protect The Environment

Posted on 14th November 2018

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This story from AP News shows how horrifically complex it can be to properly protect the environment, unless some common sense is applied.

North Dakota’s Health Department spent more than 1000 hours of department staff's time, over two years, and received more than 10,000 comments from the public, in its attempts to determine whether to grant a permit for a new oil refinery near the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Having granted permission, they are now being criticised, and having to defend their decision in court.

While I strongly applaud the principles at play here, I do feel that this is a case where working smarter, not harder, would be appropriate.

This is how this kind of problem is dealt with in industry:

  • There needs to be a contract between the permit-granting agency and the developer.
  • The contract must contain enforceable SLAs (Service Level Agreements) defining the maximum allowable pollution levels (and any other critical conditions) and how they will be measured.
  • The contract must contain financial penalties, payable by the developer to the agency if/when the SLAs (pollution levels) are breached. These need to be high enough that the developer will be very strongly motivated to keep within the mandated limits.
  • As insurance against the developer going bankrupt, a significant sum must be placed in escrow (held in a special account usually controlled by a lawyer), which can then be used if needed to pay any penalties. This is what was done in the case of the oil production licence behind this blog entry; the problem is that the amount in escrow simply wasn't large enough to cover the clean-up costs.

What this does, if done properly, is make it too expensive for the developer to fail to meet their obligations on environmental protection. The developer will, if they have any sense at all, conduct a thorough study of the risks and consequences of environmental damage, thus taking at least part of the job out of the hands (and off the budgets) of government agencies. The permit-granting authority still needs to do some environmental analysis, in order to set the pollution levels and associated financial penalties in the SLAs, but this would be far less onerous than it currently is.

All this works on the principle that the potential polluter pays the cost of ensuring that no unacceptable pollution occurs, and if it does, the polluter will pay for cleaning it up.

Fake News From The White House!

Posted on 13th November 2018

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The hypocrisy of the Trump White House team, as revealed by this Vox report, should be really shocking; sadly it is what we now expect from this administration.

Donald Trump continued his war of words with CNN reporter Jim Acosta at a recent press conference; the reporter had the temerity to ask questions! Finally, a female intern was dispatched to take Jim Acosta's microphone from him; Jim naturally resisted. The poor Mr. Acosta was subsequently accused of "laying hands" on the intern. To support this fake news narrative, press secretary Sarah Sanders shared an altered video that appears to have originated with far-right conspiracy site Infowars (who are banned by most social media). I can hear you all thinking ".., but the Trump administration are the ones always accusing everyone else of fake news - they wouldn't dare do it themselves!"

Well, they do dare to do so, and we should not stand for it.

Let's look, for a moment at the legal arguments:

  • Taking the microphone (property of CNN) from Jim Acosta would have been theft. CNN should file criminal charges for attempted theft.
  • People who are assaulted, as was Jim Acosta by the intern, are allowed to use proportional force to defend themselves. The fact that the victim in this case restrained himself is a credit to both Mr. Acosta and CNN Nevertheless, assault charges could be laid.
  • The false narrative, and the publishing of faked supporting evidence, by the White House. is both libel and slander, and amounts to defamation of character. Being president grants Donald Trump immunity to many charges, but that doesn't apply to Sarah Sanders and other White House staff, and they should be sued.

As Trevor Noah said on The Daily Show, the White House believes that touching a woman on the arm is inappropriate; he should have grabbed her by her private parts, which the president clearly believes is OK (since he boasted about it).

Porn Addict Spreads Malware To Government Network

Posted on 6th November 2018

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No wonder government agencies do such a poor job protecting our data. This story on the BBC describes how a porn-addicted worker at the US Geological Survey (USGS) infected computers on a government network by visiting malware-infected porn websites.

The US Office of the Inspector General has recommended that the USGS blacklist "rogue" websites. You think? Duh!

I find so many things incredible about this story:

  • That the USGS hadn't blacklisted dangerous sites. It is not hard; there are lists that you can subscribe to for free blacklists.
  • That USGS employees are advised not to connect USB devices or mobile phones to government computers, but USB connections are not disabled.
  • That an employee was dumb enough to access porn sites from his office computer (presumably during working hours, although I don't know that for sure).

It is not as if the threat posed by porn sites is a surprise. It is a well know problem.

If you want to look at porn sites (and many people do - porn is one of the heaviest sources of Internet traffic), then do it from home, or somewhere else private, and use a virtual machine (which you can then easily periodically restore from a clean backup - i.e. from before you used it to access porn). Then any infection will only affect the VM (virtual machine), and can be easily dealt with by the restore. You can use VMs on Windows, Mac, and Linux computers. If you are concerned about people knowing that you look at porn, access it via a VPN (there are widely available options for free or low-cost VPNs). Also, choose your porn sites wisely (read a review to help decide which are safe).

Of course, porn sites are not the only way to get infected with malware. The worst infection that I had was from a Microsoft site, when downloading a document template. Phishing emails are very common; you should never open email attachments from unknown sources. I use a quarantine VM to open email attachments that I am unsure about.

You can read more about virtualisation and how to virtualise, although these are mostly focused on virtual machines running on Linux hosts.

Power versus Energy

Posted on 6th November 2018

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I was very disappointed by this article, on the BBC. The issue of saving our planet by using technology is an important topic, but the journalist has made a complete dog's dinner of it.

The article refers to several means of recovering "surplus energy", using techniques to capture energy from the wind created by passing vehicles, and by people walking on power generating pavements. This is not actually surplus energy: energy that would otherwise be wasted. The technology in question creates more drag for passing vehicles,and makes it harder to walk (because the surface is soft, rather than hard). Although I agree that there could be health benefits for some pedestrians using more energy while walking, this is not true for all users of footpaths, There is, however, absolutely no environmental benefit from creating more drag for vehicles, which are mostly powered by fossil fuels, and generating electricity from it; the only worse solution is to generate electricity from coal.

What really shows the poor quality of the journalism, however, is the statement that a battery made from power station waste can store 500 Watts of energy (the report has now been updated to remove this piece of nonsense - I assume that someone else complained). 500 Watts is a measure of power (i.e. how fast a battery can be charged); energy (a battery's capacity) is typically measured in Joules (or Kilowatt hours).

It is such a shame that Tim Bowler (the writer of this article) couldn't do this vital topic justice.

President says it's OK to grab women's private parts!

Posted on 22nd October 2018

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This report on SFGate got me thinking.

Apparently a man on a flight on Southwest Airlines flight sexually assaulted a sleeping woman; not once but twice. When the flight landed, the man was arrested and charged with abusive sexual contact.

After his arrest, the perpetrator said (meant to be interpreted as in his defence, I assume) that the president of the United States "says it's OK to grab women by their private parts."

Good point. If the guy from the Southwest was arrested and charged, why is it that the retard president has not been arrested? After all, there is a video of The Donald admitting that he did so. In such a case, there is probably no need to even identify a victim.

Surely, the President of the USA is not above the law? [In case you are not sure, yes, that is sarcasm.]

Oil Has Been Leaking Into The Gulf For 14 Years!

Posted on 22nd October 2018

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Before you ask, no, this is not the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This report on Science Alert is about another oil leak, actually close to the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The leak has been consistently under-reported, has been deliberately covered up, and oil slicks from it have often been confused with those from the Deepwater Horizon. To make matters worse, the company responsible is now effectively bankrupt, and its founder dead.

Blocking the leaks seems impossible, and clean-up is not really happening. With the continuation of this spill, it is set to grow to be bigger than the Deepwater Horizon incident in the near future.

Beaches are affected. Scientists recommend that people do not eat fish from the area.

There are plans, at the US Federal level, to allow oil exploitation on the Atlantic coast of the USA, just to spread the joy, although state governments are trying to block those plans.

Do we really need oil enough to pay this kind of price? The planet should be phasing out the use of fossil fuels, not opening more oil fields.

The other important question is where is the Federal funding of the clean-up and repair (blocking the leaking wells)? There is a trust fund containing $450M, intended the cover the costs of any disasters (although the oil company has been attempting to recover these funds), but it is nowhere near enough. My opinion is that any additional funding should come from the US government. The oil leaks are not just polluting US waters, but the whole Gulf of Mexico, and wide afield (after all, the Gulf Stream originates there, and goes to the UK, Ireland, France, etc.).

When will governments start taking responsibility for the decisions (e.g. licensing oil exploration and exploitation in environmentally sensitive areas)? Maybe the EU and Caribbean nations need to sue the US government for damage to their environment.

You Are Missing The Point About Brett Kavanaugh!

Posted on 9th October 2018

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I need to be careful how I write this, to avoid being accused of being against women's rights and in favour of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape - which I am certainly not.

The world has watched in horror and amazement as the saga of Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing for the lifelong role of US Supreme Court Judge has unfolded. The battle was long and vicious, but in the end to no avail; he was confirmed anyway.

Now we have the post-mortem analysis and the tearing out of hair. This piece, on USA Today, is one of very many, and like most such reports, seems to me to entirely miss the point.

Please, don't get me wrong. I don't think that a belligerent drunk serial abuser of women is the right candidate for a seat on the Supreme Court. I find the man reprehensible, his victims have my sympathy, and I applaud those who stood up to be counted.

For me, though, a far more important reason that Brett Kavanaugh is not suitable for his new job is that he demonstrated clearly, over and over again during the hearings, that he is a liar, full of prejudice, with anger issues, and who clearly felt that he had something to hide in front of the Senate Committee. A person like that is the last person who should be considered for any role as a judge, let alone a judge on the highest court in the land.

This whole debacle just shows how messed up politics has become in the USA. How can the Senators who confirmed him hold their heads up in front of their constituents after casting such partisan and irrational votes? Sure, they clearly wanted to ensure a right-wing appointment, but couldn't they have found one with better character? It makes me wonder: would they have voted for an admitted paedophile for a seat on the Supreme Court, if his/her politics were right for them?

Trump Is Out Of Tune With The Rest Of The Planet

Posted on 9th October 2018

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There have been a lot of reports lately about environmental issues. Some of them have highlighted the huge differences in the position of the USA (mainly just the position of President Trump) and the rest of the world.

In this report from the BBC, climate scientists tell us clearly that limiting temperature rise to 2°C is not going to be enough, and that we need to aim for a rise of only 1.5°C. To achieve this, drastic action is needed, and a lot of money will need to be spent on the problem: coal will need to be completely phased out, oil consumption drastically reduced, and huge investments made in renewable energy and carbon capture.

On the other hand, there is Donald Trump. He withdrew the USA from the Paris climate accord. He gibbers constantly about "clean coal", while not seeming to understand what the term even means, and is encouraging investment and growth in the US coal industry. He has also been pressing Saudi Arabia (who basically control OPEC) to increase oil production, so that oil prices will reduce. In fact, The Donald has done more than ask; he has already started trying to blackmail the Saudis ("King, we're protecting you. You might not be there for two weeks without us. You have to pay for your military."). Saudi Arabia has, thankfully, firmly said no, as reported here by Forbes.

Thankfully, Saudi Arabia’s own interests currently coincide with saving the planet (or at least saving the human race). The slower that they sell their oil, the more money they will make, and the longer they will have income, further putting off the evil day when they are broke (again).

Oil needs to be much more expensive, not less, in order to discourage its use, and encourage investment and innovation in renewable energy. Price is one of the very few factors which have any chance of reducing our use of oil and other fossil fuels.

Apple Facilitating Theft

Posted on 18th September 2018

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I was simply gob-smacked when I read this report on Forbes.

Apple are deleting content such as movies from the iTunes media libraries of people who had bought that content, without warning and totally without permission.

Apple claim that they are not responsible, because they are only a "store front", and the media providers are the ones to blame. This is a flawed argument. Apple facilitated the original purchase (as a store front); now they are facilitating theft: they are accessories to a crime.

To make matters worse, Apple's attitude when people complain and ask for compensation is simply not acceptable. If you complain quickly enough, you might get partial compensation, but if you wait too long you will get nothing. If I had a movie that I purchased deleted by Apple, I would have called the police; it is just the same as if someone had broken into my home and stolen a DVD.

This kind of problem is exactly why I don't ever buy things on iTunes, although my girlfriend often buys music that way.

I don't think that Apple and the various movie copyright owners understand the likely result of this theft: they are discouraging people from legally purchasing movies and music, and pushing them towards illegal downloads (which, if they want, they can load onto their portable devices with third-party software such as MediaMonkey).

Anyway, for most people this is just another reason not to use iTunes (anyway a horrible piece of software), and indeed any Apple products. Unfortunately, Apple will probably not long remain the only offenders: as more people become more connected online, the uncontrolled access to the data on your systems will be more and more abused, both by companies and by hackers.

Creationist To Review Evolution Curriculum!

Posted on 18th September 2018

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This story on Inquisitr just shows how messed up the world has become.

Diane Douglas, soon to depart her position as Arizona State Superintendent, has hired a creationist, Joseph Kezele, who believes that dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark, to help schools decide how best to teach evolution in science classes across the state. Joseph Kezele said "Plenty of space on the ark for dinosaurs – no problem."

Whatever happened to facts, science and basic common sense? I am so glad that I don't have children (more likely grandchildren at this stage) going to school in Arizona.

I suppose that this is what happens when you let religion and ideology interfere with education.

How Not To Drive Away Hurricanes

Posted on 18th September 2017

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The record-breaking hurricane season continues in the Caribbean and Southern USA. Houston is still trying to recover from the floods brought by Harvey. Irma brought enormous destruction to many Caribbean islands, and to the Florida Keys, and millions of people evacuated much of Florida. There are, of course, more storms on the way: Jose is still building in the Atlantic, and Maria, although less powerful, is already in the Caribbean.

Despite all this, the climate-change deniers are still denying, and the Trump administration has been trying to avoid even discussing any possible link between the storm damage and man-made climate change; but more on that in another post.

Disasters always bring out the best and the worst in people. Two examples of the worst are:

How stupid are these people?

The USA Thinks It Pays Too Much Into The UN

Posted on 26th September 2018

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This video report by the BBC is a reality check on the recent statements by President Trump that the USA pays too much to the UN.

The basic conclusion is that this is not true. UN assessed (non-optional) contributions work like income tax: the more you earn (in this case GDP), the more you pay. Calculated as a percentage of GDP, the USA pays less than all other rich nations.

The USA treats the UN as a means to get official international legal recognition and support for its foreign policy, and expects the UN to do what it says Also, the USA is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which gives them more power and influence (including power to veto resolutions). I think that they should pay more, not less. If they don't like that, then they should stop giving UN members orders (and blackmailing them when they don't want to follow those orders).

The current situation is a clear case of the USA having their cake and eating it. I am certainly not going to cry about the plight of this "poor" rich nation.

The UN cannot decide about Killer Robots!

Posted on 13th September 2018

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As a reminder to all of us about just how dangerous "killer robots" (AI weapons) are, there was this piece in Metro, reporting on a warning by Professor Jim Al-Khalili, incoming president of the British Science Association.

The good professor says "Until maybe a couple of years ago had I been asked what is the most pressing and important conversation we should be having about our future, I might have said climate change or one of the other big challenges facing humanity, such as terrorism, antimicrobial resistance, the threat of pandemics or world poverty. But today I am certain the most important conversation we should be having is about the future of AI. It will dominate what happens with all of these other issues for better or for worse." In short, AI is extremely dangerous, and the risks and benefits need to be openly discussed, otherwise untrustworthy governments and companies will utilise the technology without public accountability.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read this report from the BBC, about how MEPs (Members of European Parliament) passed a resolution calling for an international ban on so-called killer robots. What worries me is not that the European Parliament is against killer robots, but the shocking fact that the UN was not able to pass a similar resolution: "Last month, talks at the UN failed to reach consensus on the issue, with some countries saying the benefits of autonomous weapons should be explored."

I wonder which countries were against the ban? My guess is the permanent members of the UN Security Council: the USA, Russia, China, France and Britain. Britain has been working on battlefield AI for at least 30 years; the other countries for a similar period. The end of that road is an unlivable planet and the extinction of the human race.

Even More Rogue Nation

Posted on 13th September 2018

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It seems that President Trump did not pay attention to my previous criticism about the USA becoming a Rogue Nation (here), and is carrying on with his programme of isolating and embarrassing his country.

The latest Rogue Nation act was to threaten the ICC (International Criminal Court) with sanctions if they proceed with an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Americans in Afghanistan. Even though the USA is not a participant in the ICC, and does not recognise it, the ICC has a more legitimate claim to jurisdiction in Afghanistan than does the USA, and its founders include several US allies. To take such extreme action against the ICC, and by association against US allies, is simply astounding, and arrogant.

Less than a month ago, there was a report on the BBC about how Donald Trump was threatening to pull out of the WTO (World Trade Organisation, which the USA helped establish), basically because, the USA having broken WTO rules, the WTO was supporting the complaints against America. This is petulance, pure and simple.

How long will the rest of the world stand by while America bullies anyone they choose, to get what they want?

Lufthansa’s Miles and More Programme

Posted on 12th September 2018

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For a very long time, my Lufthansa Miles and More card has been broken (physically cracked). Eventually (about 3 years ago) I requested a replacement card. They did something: they issued me a new card number. What they didn't do is send me the new card, nor did they inform me of the change of card number (I managed to find out my new card number by logging in to the Miles and More web-site using my old number).

I do not understand why:

  • It is necessary to issue a new number for a replacement card,
  • It is so difficult to post a card to me, given that I receive lots of other post from Lufthansa.

I am hesitant to request another new card, because I don't want another new card number.

Because of the above issues, a couple of years ago I got a frequent flier card from SAS (like Lufthansa, SAS are part of the Star Alliance), and have been using that card for all my Lufthansa flights.

Today, while trying to retrospectively claim missing points from my Lufthansa flights on my SAS card, I discovered that, for the last few weeks, Lufthansa has been ignoring the information in my booking (via Expedia, which has my SAS card details) about my SAS card, and instead allocating the points to my Lufthansa Miles and More card (against my wishes and without my permission). I spent some time on the Lufthansa and the Miles and More Apps on my phone, and also on the Lufthansa and Miles and More web-sites, to try to set my frequent flier number to that of my SAS card, without success. I also asked Google, with similar lack of success. It seems that it is simply not possible for customers to choose where their air miles go, except at check-in (not online, but only if you check in with a check-in clerk) or at the gate.

Lufthansa pride themselves on the quality of their service, but it seems that this quality of service is only in their heads. It certainly isn't noticeable in the snacks and drinks offered on flights, or the support I have received regarding my loyalty cards.

"I fear that this has become a bad relationship"

Posted on 14th August 2018

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So, Britain is not doing what the United States wants with regard to sanctions against Iran! This report, from the Voice of America, describes the US attempt to apply pressure on Britain to step into line behind the US sanctions, and it is as subtle as a brick. Donald Trump and his cronies are about as diplomatic as an AK-47.

Remember, for a moment, that the USA unilaterally decided to pull out of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), better known as the Iran nuclear deal. The other signatories (Iran, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union) do not agree, and pleaded with America to stick with the deal, to no effect. The Trump administration chose to go it alone, but it seems that they don't like being alone after all, and are now trying to bully the UK to back them up.

I think it is time for the UK's real-life Prime Minister to give the speech that the fictional Prime Minister, played by Hugh Grant, gave in the movie "Love Actually".

For those of you not familiar with the movie, and unwilling to watch the clip above, the text of the speech is:

Press Conference Reporter: "Mr. President, has it been a good visit?"

The President of the U.S.: "Very satisfactory indeed. We got what we came for and our special relationship is still very special."

Press Conference Reporter: "Prime Minister?"

Prime Minister: "I love that word 'relationship'. Covers all manner of sins, doesn't it? I fear that this has become a bad relationship. A relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm... Britain. We may be a small country but we're a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward, I will be prepared to be much stronger. And the President should be prepared for that."

I wish!

BHP Billiton Shareholders Are Suing?

Posted on 26th July 2017

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This story on the BBC reports that BHP Billiton shareholders are suing BHP Billiton. They are doing this to recover their losses due to the slide in share prices (around 22%) after the dam collapse at one of the company's mines in Brazil in 2015.

The dam failure at the Samarco mine (jointly owned by BHP and Vale, a Brazilian company) killed 19 people and led to Brazil's largest ever environmental disaster (supposedly - forest clearance is arguably Brazil's worst environmental catastrophe). Now shareholders are suing to recover lost shareholder value.

There are, however, several things wrong with this picture.

  1. It is well known and well publicised that share prices may go up, but may also go down. This is the risk that you take when you invest in shares. On that argument alone, the shareholders should expect to just eat their losses.
  2. The shareholders effectively own the company. This means that they are liable for damage, clean up and loss of life. They should consider themselves lucky not to be sued by the Brazilian government and the families of those killed.
  3. As the owners of BHP Billiton, they also effectively run the company. The shareholders' meeting appoints the directors. If the directors misled the stock market, broke the law and/or mismanaged the company, not only are the directors answerable, but so are the shareholders for appointing the wrong people, and being gullible enough to not see through the directors' lies.

Owning shares is not some children's game, where you make money if everything goes well, but if something goes wrong you will be bailed out by the courts or a government. Is is a game with potential rich rewords, but significant risks, and also with responsibilities. The power mostly lies with the big shareholders, not the small hobby investors, but these large shareholders are precisely who is behind this lawsuit.

Time to either get out of investing in shares, or man-up and face the consequences.

The Case For Classifying The USA As A Rogue Nation

Posted on 25th July 2018

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Some time ago, I started referring to the USA as a Rogue Nation: the label that Western Nations apply to undemocratic nations which behave badly. Countries that have been called Rogue Nations include North Korea, Iran, Russia, Libya, Venezuela, Syria and Turkey. Here is a summary of the main reasons why I consider this label appropriate.

  • Undemocratic:
    The USA is one of the most undemocratic nations in the world, after excluding the out and out dictatorships. The influence of money on the results of elections is enormous, and there are regular examples of campaigns breaking election financing rules. The scandal of possible Russian meddling in the last US presidential election, is still going on. In the past we have seen court cases about the results of presidential elections. The electoral college system means that, often, the person with the most votes is not the one who wins. There are issues with the built-in bias in the American electoral system towards rural voters (see this article in the Economist). Voting in Congress is very strongly influenced by lobbying (mainly by rich companies). Most Congress members hardly ever attend sessions, even to vote; only if a bill has local influence on their constituencies do they vote; most voting is on straight party lines.
  • Poor human-rights:
    America’s human rights record is abominable, both within the country and overseas. The scandals of torture and mistreatment in prisons in Iraq (see this Wikipedia entry about the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse), and of extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects (see this Wikipedia entry), highlight the overseas side of this. The way that prisoners, including people awaiting trial, and people in ICE custody (e.g. the separation of parents from their children), are treated show that the same attitude to people and their rights exists at home. The use of the death penalty, no longer used/legal in virtually all western nations, is another example of the inhuman treatment of criminals (some of whom continue to be identified as not guilty after execution). The USA has recently quit the UN Human Rights Council (see this BBC report), thus removing one of the few ways that other nations can put pressure on the USA regarding human rights.
  • Failure to honour treaties and commitments:
    Another mark of Rogue Nations is their failure to honour their treaties and commitments, and here, the USA looks very bad. They have unilaterally pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, with no attempt to renegotiate, and against the advice of the other signatory nations, and are re-imposing sanctions. They have pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, apparently because it is “unfair” to the USA. They have a poor record of paying their UN dues (and, as mentioned above, pulled out if the UN Human Rights Council). They are insulting their NATO allies, and suggesting that they may not honour Article 5 of the NATO Founding Treaty (which guarantees mutual defence). Despite being one of the architects of the World Trade Organisation, the USA are now breaking WTO rules by imposing import tariffs on many of their trading partners and allies (Canada, Mexico, the EU and China).
  • Trade wars:
    The USA are in the midst of starting a worldwide trade war, with the unilateral imposition of import tariffs on steel and aluminium, now escalating to ever widening tit for tat tariffs on all sides. This kind of selfish tantrum will damage world trade for everyone, and reduce economic growth for every nation.
  • State sponsored terrorism:
    One of the things for which the USA is quick to blame other nations is state sponsorship of terrorism. This is a crime in which America is a world leader. Well known examples include the Iran-Contra affair, in which the USA broke the embargo on arms sales to Iran in order to launder money to support the Contras (terrorists) in Nicaragua. The CIA were also sponsors of the Muslim Brotherhood and many other terrorist groups (most recently sponsoring a number of anti-Assad fighting groups in Syria).
  • Extra-territorialism:
    The USA are specialists in extra-territorial legislation. There is the Helms-Burton Act, which penalises foreign companies who deal with Cuba; this means that any foreign company having a presence in the USA can their assets seized if parts of the company (even outside of the USA) trade with Cuba in breach of US sanctions (which prompted a complaint by the EU at the WTO), and legislation in the EU and Britain making the enforcement of the act in the EU and Britain illegal). There is the on-going programme by the DEA (US Drug Enforcement Agency) to destroy drug crops (primarily marijuana and cocaine) in South America, using methods such as napalm bombing. There is the CIA, conducting spying and counter-espionage actions, including murders, across the world in breach of local legislation. There are also the US tax regulations, requiring all US citizens, wherever they live and pay tax, to file tax returns to the IRS, and also to the US Treasury; since the introduction of the FATCA, non-US financial institutions are now required to report on the finances of their US citizen customers, which has led to most French banks unilaterally closing the bank accounts of US citizens, and in other countries (e.g. Germany) causing the banks and credit card companies to contact their US citizen customers to get permission to share their data with the US Treasury (or have their accounts closed). If I were to actually marry my US citizen fiancée, I would also be required to report my income to the IRS, despite me being a British citizen and never having resided in the USA.
  • Environmental record:
    One of the most polluting countries in the world (per capita, second only to Australia) is America. Their cars are some of the least efficient in the world, and Americans drive everywhere. Their household energy consumption is extraordinarily huge (for heating, air-conditioning and household appliances) due to poor building insulation, the widespread over-use of air-conditioning and low efficiency appliances. The nation consumes an enormous quantity of oil, and their oil exports are increasing, despite a desperate worldwide need to reduce fossil fuel use. On top of all this, President Donald Trump wants to revitalise the US coal industry.
  • Bullying and blackmailing of other nations:
    The USA is a bully in international circles. This spring The United States threatened nations in an effort to blunt a World Health Assembly resolution supporting breastfeeding; they threatened more than a dozen participants from various countries. The USA regularly vetoes UN Security Council motions that it doesn’t like, including anything that criticises Israel or the USA itself; any attempt to take these motions to the General Assembly results in more blackmail. They also regularly try to blackmail the EU in regard to trade, because they don’t want to comply with EU health and labeling laws (GM foods, use of growth hormones, washing chicken carcases in chlorine, listing of contents, etc.) for foods exported to the EU. Also, just look at how President Trump treats other world leaders at meetings, manhandling people out of his way so that he can be in prime position in photos.
  • Money over doing the right thing:
    The prime example amongst the nations of the world, of money being more important than “doing the right thing” about any issue, is the USA. They support Israel under any circumstances, despite the Israeli settlement programme and the latest Israeli law defining Israel as a Hebrew/Jewish nation, effectively downgrading the rights of their Arab citizens. This is mainly because of the rich and powerful Jewish lobby in America. American support for China exists for different reasons (because of the size and growth rate of trade with China, and also because no western nation actually knows how to negotiate with China), but it nevertheless gets China off the hook time and time again.
  • Gun violence, crime, justice system, the size of the prison population:
    The level of crime, the broken justice system, and the size and make-up of the prison population in the USA are international scandals. Gun crime and mass shootings are always in the news. On top of that, there are constant shootings by police (mostly but not exclusively of African Americans) ; America is one of the easiest places in the world, apart from war zones, to get shot by the police (just try getting out of your car at a police traffic stop, before being ordered by a police officer to do so). The level of injustice in American courts is an outrage: not only are innocent people regularly convicted (in recent months there have been several cases of people whose convictions have been overturned due to more modern DNA techniques, sometimes after decades behind bars); in civil court cases it is usually the side with the most money and therefore the best lawyers who wins. There are the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance) courts, which hear applications for surveillance warrants in espionage cases, in secret. There is a huge bias in both conviction rates and sentencing severity, depending on the ethnicity of the accused, meaning that there are few whites, but very many blacks and Hispanics behind bars. The USA has the largest prison population, per capita, of any nation in the world.
  • Anti-abortion stance:
    Parts of the USA (Texas and the bible-belt) are strongly ant-abortion. Despite the landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling in the US Supreme Court, which basically says that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion, state legislators are constantly making local laws to restrict access to abortions, and the federal government is cutting off government subsidies to organisations which support and promote abortions. In almost every other country in the world, the trend is in the opposite direction; even Ireland.
  • Migrants and asylum, and the discriminatory rules, plus separation of parents from children:
    The USA was built on immigration (Irish, Chinese, British, German, Scandinavian, to name but a few), but nowadays the national feeling seems to be very much against immigration. The Trump administration made several attempts (the latest of which seems to have overcome legal opposition) to block Muslim immigration. The need for asylum no longer seems to be a valid reason to get into the USA. This year there has been a huge scandal in America and around the world, about migrants being separated from their children, and in many cases the authorities have not been able to put the families back together to comply with court orders. Some parents whose children are in ICE custody have already been deported without their children, which seems to me to be state sponsored kidnapping.
  • Wars and invasions:
    America has a history of pretending to be reluctant to get involved in wars, but in fact is one of the most warlike nations on the planet. Since the end of WW II, the USA has fought wars or more limited military actions in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Grenada (and we still don’t really know why this tiny Caribbean nation was invaded), Somalia and Nicaragua. Donald Trump has been talking a lot recently (despite advice to the contrary from all his advisors) about invading Venezuela, and has made a lot of threats of war against North Korea (once bitten, but apparently still not shy).
  • Health insurance and the cost of health care:
    My girlfriend’s family often talk about the high cost of health care in the USA. It is exorbitant, they get very little cover, every time that someone changes jobs, they effectively have a 3 month gap in cover because they have to change insurers, and they have to pay the first $5000 of medical costs in any year before the insurance kicks in. Health care is very expensive ($20,000 for a pregnancy/child-birth seems a little steep, even though there were complications), and often the insurer will pay only part of the cost. On top of that, you can be fired for taking sick leave (our German friends simply do not believe this). Having a healthy workforce is a basic and sensible investment in economic growth: people can work better and harder and retire later if they have good health care.
  • The “it’s always someone else’s fault” attitude:
    Many Americans seem to have the attitude that everything is always someone else’s fault. This, coupled with the ridiculous concept of punitive damages (fine, if you want to boost the damages as an incentive not offend again, but the victim shouldn’t get the extra money), means that people sue for all sorts of trivial nonsense (e.g. the infamous too hot coffee from McDonalds). This is not just an issue in private issues and US internal matters, but is also apparent in Donald Trump’s America First policies, resulting in withdrawal from, cancellation of negotiations for, or renegotiation of several treaties: TPP (the Trans-Pacific Partnership), the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).
  • Student debt:
    The USA is not the only country to have introduced student loans for people attending college or university, but due to the incredibly high cost of education in America, especially at the top universities, the amount of debt that students are left with after graduation is at crippling levels, taking decades to repay. This prevents them from taking out loans for buying homes, and forces them to live as paupers for years. This, again, is an issue of investment in the future of the nation, and a better fairer balance is needed. The whole system discriminates against poorer students (the richer parents can pay for the children’s education, or at least help with the cost and/or the repayment of the student loans), and prevents poorer people from contributing as much as they could to economic growth. Contrast the US system with that in Germany, which provides grants for foreigners to come to Germany to study (on the condition that they leave Germany after their studies).

You might not agree with all the above arguments, and may not agree that all of them qualify the USA as a Rogue Nation, but the list is long enough that (I hope) you agree there is a case to be made. The question is, what to do? What the international community normally does to reign in Rogue Nations is to apply sanctions, to the nation as a whole, and/or to individuals in government and business. Is it time to start applying sanctions to the USA? Most countries do not have the courage and economic strength to take on America, at least not alone, but given the blossoming trade wars around the world, where nations are anyway starting to impose import tariffs on US goods and services, it is no longer such a big step to ramp them up to punish the USA for its broader behaviour.

You know what you need to do: VOTE!

Reverse PC?

Posted on 19th July 2018

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It seems that things have been turned on their heads recently. After years of trying to stamp out prejudice, two groups who are often victims of discrimination, disabled and transgender people, seem to be telling us that discrimination is good.

This story from the BBC reports that Scarlett Johansson quit a role playing a transgender person because of a backlash from LBGT community. It seems that these people feel that transgender people should only be played by transgender actors.

This story, also from the BBC, discusses whether the role as a disabled person, played by Dwayne Johnson (The Rock), should have been played by an actual disabled actor.

In both these cases, the idea is ridiculous and the height of discriminatory. I would be laughing if I didn't think that such ridiculous arguments could actually gain some traction in the messed up world of political correctness.

Hypocrisy About Breast_Feeding Model

Posted on 19th July 2018

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I can't believe the hypocrisy of the people who criticised Mara Martin (as reported by the BBC here).

It is very common for catwalk models to be dressed in highly revealing outfits: clothing that is largely transparent, or which leaves a breast bare or only partially covered. That, apparently, is OK with these people, but someone breast-feeding on the catwalk (even though, in the photograph there is really nothing to see) is somehow shocking.

I know that attitudes differ around the world, and that things like public nakedness and breast-feeding in public are not so tolerated in more backward nations (like the USA), but please, give me a break from your petty and old-fashioned opinions.

I think that part of the problem may be guilt. Many mothers in the USA do not breast-feed, but know that they really should. Seeing someone else doing so reminds them, and makes the feel guilty (and perhaps they should feel guilty).

Genetic Repairs To Embryos?

Posted on 17th July 2018

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This article by the BBC describes the results of an Inquiry into the ethical issues surrounding genetically altering a human embryo; their conclusion is that there is “no absolute reason not to pursue it”.

This seems to me to be the thin end of the wedge. Once genome editing of human embryos is partially allowed, it will only be a matter of time before absolutely anything is allowed in this area of medicine. Then we will be in the age of designer babies.

The question in my mind is, what problem, exactly, are we trying to solve with this? Clearly there are more than enough people on our planet already: over 7 billion and rising. There are also plenty of children available for adoption and fostering (which I have done), so there is no inherent problem of childless couples wanting to raise kids.

The core of the problem is that people want to raise children: their own children, not somebody else’s kids. People carrying genetic code causing illness and death, often making their embryos non-viable, still want to conceive, give birth to and raise children.

The question is, just because we can, should we be spending our tax money on enabling them to do so? Do people really (as so many seem to think) have a right to reproduce: yet another “inalienable human right” to add to the ever-growing list? If the human race were at risk of extinction due to low reproductive rates or genetic disease, I would say yes, we should help them, but that is far from the case, and I certainly do not subscribe to the idea that anyone has a right to reproduce.

I am sure many people disagree with my position on this very strongly. In that case, feel free to support the necessary medical research and costs of providing the service of genetic fixes to aid reproduction, yourselves (i.e. by private charitable donations). I do not want my tax being spent on this.

UK worse off after Brexit – what a surprise!

Posted on 17th July 2018

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In this article, on GQ Magazine, the title says it all: "Brexit was always going to leave the country worse off". That is what I thought all along, but it was sold the the voting public (I was not allowed to vote in the referendum, having been out of the UK too long) on the basis that Britain would be better off financially outside the EU.

Do you think that maybe we were all lied to during the Brexit referendum campaign? Well, of course we were, just like in every election campaign. The voting public falls for the lies every time.

One of the main criticisms in the GQ article is that there was no plan: not before the referendum, and not even before triggering Article 50 (after which Britain only has two years to negotiate Brexit terms). I think that is a very good point. I understand that David Cameron expected the opposite result from the referendum, but it would have been prudent to have at least an outline plan, just in case. The pro-Brexit camp should also have had a plan. Even now, after more than a year, the government's plan is not concrete; more of a wish-list than a plan, and everything in it is open for negotiation (not negotiation with the EU, but with rebellious Tory MPs, as Theresa May struggles to stay in power).

If I did my job as badly as these politicians do their's, I would expect to be fired. I think firing these inept politicians is exactly what should happen. Just remember that when the next election comes around in the UK.

USA Does Not Want To Defend Montenegro?

Posted on 19th July 2018

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The latest stupidity from President Donald Trump (as reported in this piece from the BBC, and this one from DW) is just stunning. He is suggesting that, if Montenegro (a paid up member of NATO) is attacked, the USA might not be willing to honour its commitments under Article 5 of the NATO founding treaty, which require all NATO members to treat an attack on one member as an attack on all members).

He said several things, one of which is that Montenegro was not paying into NATO, which is simply not true (mentioned in the DW article - around 1.66% of GDP, and committed to raise it to 2% percent by 2024, as agreed by other NATO members). He also said that Montenegro is "a very strong people, ... very aggressive people. They may get aggressive and, congratulations, you're in World War Three." I think maybe he is confusing them with the USA, who are most definitely strong and aggressive, and quite capable of starting World War Three.

Apparently, President Trump is unaware that Article 5 has been invoked only once, by the USA, after the 9/11 terror attack on the World Trade Center. Add to that that Montenegro has contributed a disproportionate (based on their population, as mentioned in the DW article, and their GDP) amount of military assistance in Afghanistan.

I do not really understand why Americans are so against NATO, and Article 5 in particular. After WWII, NATO was created primarily to protect the USA by providing an expendable buffer-zone of countries which would need to be defeated before any effective attack (conventional or nuclear) could be mounted against the USA. The European members of NATO get no credit for providing this "suicide squad", nor for bolstering US forces in wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and providing logistical and medical support to US forces.

Maybe European nations are safer without the USA. It would certainly reduce the number of reasons for being attacked by Russia.

Bad-Science Week?

Posted on 25th June 2018

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Last week, apparently, was bad-science week. I must have missed the announcement.

This promotional video on LinkedIn (if the link doesn't work for you, simply visit https://www.linkedin.com, search for "turbine traffic" and click the "Content" button) is about a wind turbine which creates electricity from passing traffic.

The idea that the video authors seem to be pushing is that the electricity thus generated is free. This is, of course, total nonsense. What is actually happening is that the turbines create extra drag for the passing vehicles, meaning that they consume more fuel. In effect, the turbines are stealing energy from the vehicles.

The video states a figure, obviously intended as the power output of a turbine: "One turbine can create 1 Kilowatt of electricity per hour". This is gibberish. A Kilowatt is a measure of power (like a 1 Kilowatt electrical heater), but 1 Kilowatt per hour is a rate of change of power output, and is meaningless in this context.

No wonder so many of the public do not understand science, when it is misreported like this.

These Customs Agents Are Thieves!

Posted on 5th June 2018

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This story on the Washington Post is shocking.

Rustem Kazazi, a US citizen, was on his way to his country of birth, Albania, hoping to invest his life savings ($58,000) in a holiday home. He took the money with him in cash, because of concerns about high levels of crime in Albania. According to the Washington Post: "On Oct. 24, Kazazi arrived at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport [Ohio]to begin the first leg of his journey, which would take him to Newark to connect with an international flight. He carried the cash in three counted and labeled bundles in his carry-on bag, he said, along with receipts from recent bank withdrawals and documentation pertaining to his family's property in Tirana, the Albanian capital". He intended to file papers about the cash he was taking out of the USA, in Newark (the airport from which he was to leave the USA), in full compliance with the law.

In short, Mr. Kazazi did nothing wrong (apart from not being very good in English, when questioned by the customs agents questioned him): “They asked me some questions, which I could not understand as they spoke too quickly... I asked them for an interpreter and asked to call my family, but they denied my request”. Nevertheless, his cash was confiscated through a "process known as civil asset forfeiture, a law enforcement technique that allows authorities to take cash and property from people who are never convicted or even charged with a crime". In 2017, federal authorities seized assets worth more than $2 billion through such seizures.

The initial receipt that the customs agents gave Mr. Kazazi at the airport did no specify the value of the cash they confiscated. More than a month later, another receipt arrived, but the sum it listed was $770 less than the sum taken. Since the cash was all in $100 bills, it is impossible for the total to be $57,330.

So now, understandably Mr. Kazazi is suing to get his money back.

I think that I would probably take a different approach. This seems to be a clear and simple case of theft. The money was taken without any legal justification, as proven by the absence of any charges against Mr. Kazazi, and the amount on the receipt does not match the sum confiscated. I make that two separate counts of theft. Criminal charges should be brought.

In the primary case of the confiscation, the agents were either acting unofficially, or they were acting under the authority of the federal government. I therefore believe that the agents should be charged individually, and the federal government should also be charged. Regarding the issue of the mismatching amounts, the agents seem to be acting privately, and should be charged as such.

This kind of abuse of the law needs to be stamped out, hard.

Bizarre Bureaucrats At The German Tax Office

Posted on 5th June 2018

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I just had the most bizarre phone conversation with a man at the Munich Finanzamt (Tax Office). I don't know whether the problem is with the staff that work there, or the systems and infrastructure that they work with.

One of my colleagues has a problem with his tax. He is one of many working for my employer who arrived last year from India. Having paid tax in India, he is due to get money back from the German tax authorities. Unlike the dozens of others in this situation, he is having problems, and yesterday asked me to translate a letter he had received from the tax office.

Today he phoned the tax office to get clarification about what information and documents he should send. The bureaucrat who answered spoke very little English, so I was asked to speak to him in German.

The tax official was asking for a copy of a letter. This letter was sent to my colleague by the tax office, but apparently it is not possible for them to find this letter, and they need him to send them a copy.

My colleague, being Indian, has a surname which is unusual in Germany, and also very easy to spell. I would have thought that being able to look people up by name would be a basic function of any filing system or database, but apparently this is not the case at the Finanzamt.

This Man Wants To Legalise Prejudice

Posted on 29th May 2018

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This politician is unbelievable. As reported in this piece on Roll Call, Congressman Rohrabacher says it’s "OK to not sell homes to gay people". He wants the law changed to allow this kin of prejudice.

I thought, in the USA at least, we had got past this kind of prejudice, but apparently, I was wrong.

So, if we are going to change the law to make it legal to refuse to sell homes to gay people, why stop there? While we're at it, let's also legalise refusing to sell to other groups: fat people, ugly people (Representative Rohrabacher will be shit out of luck on those first two), Muslims, Roman Catholics, immigrants, women, Democrats, people who drive mustangs, people who eat sushi, and so on?

Those changes to the law will make the world a much better place, right?

NFL Protests And The Loss Of Rights

Posted on 24th May 2018

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I have to admit that I have trouble understanding the degree to which people are getting upset by the continuing "Take a knee" protests in the American NFL (National Football League). The latest development, reported in this BBC article, worries me.

The latest development is that players will be fined for taking a knee during the US national anthem. If they do not wish to participate in the ceremony, in which players stand (usually with their hand on their chest in a form of salute) during the national anthem, which begins each game, they may stay in the locker room until it is over.

In my view, this new policy violates two basic rights:

  1. The right of players to express their opinion (the right of free speech, guaranteed in the US constitution) by taking a knee in public.
  2. The right of players to show respect to their national anthem. There has been much heated rhetoric about how kneeling is disrespectful, but, where I come from, kneeling is much more respectful than standing, but now they will not be allowed to show respect in their own way (in one of the most patriotic countries in the world).

I suppose that we shouldn't let facts, or anything so irrelevant as the US constitution, interfere with a good row.

AI Learning From Video Games Is Inherently Dangerous

Posted on 24th May 2018

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This BBC report describes how the UK's Ministry of Defence is worried. Apparently "Robots that train themselves in battle tactics by playing video games could be used to mount cyber-attacks, the UK military fears".

I think there is much more to be worried about. AI is already being developed for use on the battlefield. If AI is teaching itself from video games (artificial realities where normal ethics are either non-existent or of lower than usual priority), then the robots engaging in the wars of the future will be the most ruthless and cruel soldiers that ever existed. This is not some vague risk in the future: "Researchers in Silicon Valley are using strategy games, such as Starcraft II, to teach systems how to solve complex problems on their own".

We don't allow our children unsupervised learning until they have developed some moral sense. We certainly can't expect that unsupervised learning by AI will be a safe and successful exercise.

Welcome to The Age of Ultron.

North America Part Of Europe?

Posted on 24th May 2018

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The BBC has done it again!

In a report, here, about how Deutsche Bank will shed at least 7,000 staff, the anonymous author wrote "Deutsche Bank employs about 66,000 people in Europe - including 42,000 in Germany, 21,000 in Asia and about 10,000 in North America". Since when are Asia and North America in Europe?

I know that I would have lost marks if I had written this statement in my school geography homework. Maybe we should do as Elon Musk suggests, and mark the media on their performance (here, on Inverse).

How Do Such Stupid People Get Elected?

Posted on 22nd May 2018

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I was totally gob-smacked when I read this Science Mag news item.

Representative Mo Brooks (yes, a US Congressman!) believes that rising sea levels are being caused not by global warming, but by rocks falling into the sea.

The simple application of some common sense, or a bit of trivial mathematics, will tell you that his idea is complete nonsense. The majority of the earth's surface is covered by oceans, and the proportion of the planet's landmass that would need to fall into the ocean to create noticeable sea level rise is truly staggering.

I understand that not everyone understands science, but if you don't, then you should at least have a bit of trust in what scientists tell us. Given that science is not even needed to poke holes in Representative Brooks' ideas, we have to wonder how on earth he managed to get elected. Not only is Mo Brooks arguably stupid, but I wonder about the intelligence of the people who voted him into office; this is probably not the first time that he has publicly humiliated himself in this way, and he has won two elections, so apparently the voters in Alabama don't care that their representative is stupid and ignorant.

After discussing the news story with a friend, I am forced to consider an alternative thesis: that Representative Mo Brooks is actually very clever, in that he understands exactly how much stupidity and ignorance will be tolerated, or even lauded, by his Alabama voters; he knows that the theory about rocks falling into the sea is total nonsense, but is also aware that most of his constituency doesn't see it as nonsense. He is simply playing to the gallery.

This just reinforces my opinion that democracy isn't working, and not only in the USA.

Dog Shoots Man

Posted on 16th May 2018

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The stream of stories about gun control issues continues in this piece from The Telegraph.

Like so many of such stories, it cements the case against guns.

Richard Remme was playing with his dog, a pitbull/Labrador cross, on the sofa at his home in Iowa, when the dog accidentally shot him in his leg. The dog had managed to turn off two safeties, and to pull the trigger of the gun, which was in a belly band.

The gun lobbyists' argument is that guns, when carried by responsible and trained people, increase safety for everyone. Well clearly Mr. Remme is neither responsible nor trained, which is arguably true about most private gun owners in the USA.

Thank goodness that private ownership of guns is not generally legal, in Germany, where I live. If you want a gun, the best option, according to the news, is to take one from a policeman; that should be hard to do, but according to this report in The Telegraph it is not.

The facts are totally wrong!

Posted on 15th May 2018

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The second paragraph of this story begins with "But, truth be told, not a lot is definitively known about the weed industry... ", and that is most certainly true of Sean Williams the author of this piece in The Motley Fool. He states that "After all, marijuana is still illegal in every country around the world, save for Uruguay". This is simply not true. Marijuana is legal in The Netherlands, and also at the Federal level in Germany (German states have their own local legislation, so that marijuana is legal in some, and illegal in others). Canada is part-way through the process of leglising it, and the legislation should be finally passed in June 2018. Several other countries have moved marijuana into the legal grey zone by decriminalising possession of small amounts, or simply declining to prosecute such possession, or are currently considering doing so.

Most of the rest of the article is filled with fuzzy statistics because "not a lot is definitively known about" an industry which (in the USA) is legal in some states, but still illegal federally (meaning that assets can be seized by the FBI, and people in the industry cannot open bank accounts for their businesses). The usual answer to information being hard to get, is to do some journalistic research (not simply Googling for the answers).

Some journalists seem to make a living from such shoddy work. I hope I manage to remember this journalist‘s name, so that I can avoid future disappointment with his writing.

Incompetent Help-Desks

Posted on 15th May 2018

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Why are help-desks always such rubbish?

I tried a few months ago to connect Outlook on my laptop to my employer‘s email system. I crashed my Outlook, and had to build a new profile.

After a while it became urgent to get Outlook working with the company email, because my mailbox was limited to 50MB, meaning that it filled up every few days, and I had to delete important emails to make space. I spent 90 minutes on a call to the company help-desk, trying to get it working, without success.

Today a colleague told me the trick, which took 2 minutes to explain, and I have it working. The same trick works with Skype For Business (Lync).

Why was the help-desk not able to help me? Do companies have special recruitment programmes to ensure that only the most stupid people work on help-desks?

The Disgraceful State Of The German Military

Posted on 21st February 2018

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These two reports by the BBC really show what a terrible state the German armed forces are in.

The first report, from UK Defence Journal, describes how the air force has been filling the fuel tanks of their Tornado jets with a fuel mixture containing too much bio-diesel.Now all the fuel tanks need to be flushed, putting many aircraft out of commission. Also, because of maintenance issues, the Luftwaffe’s Eurofighter and Tornado fighter jets and its CH-53 transport helicopters are only available for use an average of four months a year. The article also contains some alarming statistics about the German army's ninth tank brigade which has only nine operational Leopard 2 tanks, instead of the promised 44, and only three of the promised 14 Marder armored infantry vehicles.

The second report, from the BBC, describes how no submarines or large transport planes were available for service at the end of last year: "At the end of the year six out of six submarines were not in use. At times, not one of the 14 Airbus A-400M could fly". The condition of the military's fleet of fighter planes, tanks, helicopters and ships is described as "dramatically bad".

To put this all into context, Germany is supposed to be the leader of NATO's Russian-aimed Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, hence the use of the word "promised" in relation to the number of vehicles above. The German military is meant to be our first line of defence against threats from Russia, but are clearly not up to the task. Let's just hope they are not needed.

Climate Change Round Up

Posted on 11th January 2018

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Here is a summary of some of the recent news about climate change.

This report from Business Insider includes maps of the best places to live to avoid the adverse effects of climate change, taking into account health-care, food supply, and government stability. Scandinavia and New Zealand score high. While most people will not move to a different country just because of worries about climate change, if you are anyway thinking of relocating, this might be something important to take into consideration.

As reported in this piece by Science Alert, warmer climate is causing more Green sea turtles to be born female. These turtles do not develop into males or females due to sex chromosomes, like humans and most other mammals do; instead, the temperature outside a turtle egg influences their sex. This is putting this species at risk of extinction.

Some good news: Science Alert reports that Britain Now Generates Twice as Much Electricity From Wind as Coal, and getting better every year.

Newsweek reports on a story from Science, about how the ocean is running out of oxygen: "a four-to-tenfold increase in areas of the ocean with little to no oxygen". Since half of Earth’s oxygen originates from the ocean, this is bad news for ground-based life as well as ocean life.

Some more good news, reported by the BBC. Northern Forest: a plan to plant 'ribbon of woodland' across England, with some financial support by the UK government.

Some bad news: the BBC reports on the Trump administration's to expand offshore drilling in the Pacific and Atlantic, although Florida is for some reason exempt.

Some good news, as reported by Science Af although I have low expectations for the outcome: New York City Sues ExxonMobil, Shell And Other Oil Majors Over Climate Change. The New York City government is suing the world's five largest publicly traded oil companies, seeking to hold them responsible for present and future damage to the city from climate change.

Brexit And The Undermining Of Democracy

Posted on 11th January 2018

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If anything proves that the UK government is mismanaging the Brexit process, this article from the BBC proves it.

It seems that Mrs. May’s government has not commissioned any impact assessments about Brexit.

The decision about Brexit is probably the most important single decision to be taken by the UK in decades. Not only has the Conservative government back-peddled as hard as possible about giving parliament and the public a chance to vote on whether to go ahead with whatever deal they manage to negotiate for Brexit, but they have done nothing to provide information for MPs and the public upon which they can decide how to vote.

This is a major abrogation of responsibility, and is the very opposite of democracy. If the government are unable to act responsibly, and do not support democracy, then they are not fit to govern.

What Kind Of Legal System Do They Have In Spain?

Posted on 3rd November 2017

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Irrespective of which side you feel is right in the Spanish Catalonian independence crisis, I think you can probably admit that it is chaos, and is bringing out the worst on both sides.

There is, however, something in this BBC report that especially concerns me. The story describes how the prosecutor asked that 8 Catalonian politicians be jailed (and they have now been jailed), and another granted bail (he was jailed until his bail was paid). The same story also states that none of these politicians have yet been formally charged.

I don't know of any other western country where it would be legal to jail someone, or to require bail, when they have not been charged. Spain must have a very bizarre and antiquated legal system. Do they still have the "Spanish Inquisition"?

Trump Again Attempts To Undermine The US Constitution

Posted on 3rd November 2017

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This piece on The BBC reports on a recent tweet by President Donald Trump that he feels the New York truck attacker, Sayfullo Saipov, "should get the death penalty".

Maybe he should be put to death; maybe he shouldn't, but the US president (especially the president) should keep his opinions on the matter to himself.

See here for a concise summary about the three separate branches of the US government (Executive, Legislative and Judicial). This embodies an important principle; the independence of the Judiciary. It seems to that the Donald is trying to influence the courts on the sentencing of the accused, in a case that is only just beginning (meaning that Saipov has not even been found guilty yet).

I think the judge in this case should make it his or her first order of business to fine the president for contempt of court, for preempting the judgment, and attempting to influence any sentencing that may result. It is time people started pushing back on the ranting moron.

Time To Fire This Judge!

Posted on 21st October 2017

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I am shocked at the ignorance displayed by Justice Robert Smith, an Ontario Superior Court Judge, as reported here by the BBC. The man doesn't seem to know the law at all.

In a rape case brought by a woman against her husband for multiple instances of non-consensual sex, the judge ruled that, despite being convinced that non-consensual sex had taken place, the man was not guilty because the prosecution failed to prove that the accused knew his behaviour was criminal.

Is he crazy! It is a well know and well established legal principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse: you don't have to know that your actions are against the law for those actions to be criminal; except, apparently, in Justice Smith's court.

This degree of ignorance of the law would be bad enough in a junior judge or magistrate, but this man sits on the Ontario Superior Court, at which elevated position we should expect and even demand higher standards of knowledge and good judgement. Disciplinary action is called for, as well as revisiting the rape case. Maybe even firing the judge is called for.

Texas City Blackmails Its Citizens!

Posted on 21st October 2017

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The situation described in this BBC story is disgusting.

The city of Dickinson, about 30 miles (48km) south of Houston, has imposed conditions for seeking government money for repairs after the category 4 Hurricane Harvey. The conditions are that "... the Applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement." The city argues that they have to do this because of a Texas law, known as the Anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions) bill. Similar laws exist in other states.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called this "an egregious violation" of free speech rights under the First Amendment. "The First Amendment protects Americans' right to boycott, and the government cannot condition hurricane relief or any other public benefit on a commitment to refrain from protected political expression".

The attempt by the city of Dickinson to make aid money conditional on not boycotting Israel is blackmail, clear and simple. Blackmail is a crime, even for government.

Also, it seems clear to me that these Anti-BDS laws are illegal, being in breach of the constitution. There is a well established process for dealing with laws that are themselves illegal, which is to break the lower-level law, and honour the higher-level law (in this case, the constitution), and if/when someone makes a legal challenge of your actions, to fight it in court, if necessary all the way to the Supreme Court. The fact that the city of Dickinson has not chosen this course, shows us that they actually approve of the Texas Anti-BDS law.

Whether or not Israel is right or wrong, and whether or not you believe that the state of Israel deserves to be boycotted, has nothing to do with this case. People have a right to hold and to express their opinions, up to and including boycotting. No-one has a right to tell the citizens of Dickinson what they are allowed to spend their money on.

An important legal principle, practised in virtually all western nations, is the separation of the legal system from government, and for very good reason. In this case, those boundaries have been crossed by the city of Dickinson, in their choice of which law to uphold, and which to break. I hope that the politicians involved are held to account, both in court and at the next election.

Another AI Nail In The Coffin Of The Human Race

Posted on 21st October 2017

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I am sure that the researchers at Google, described in this report on Business Insider, are very pleased with themselves. I am somewhat less than pleased.

In May this year, they developed an artificial intelligence (AI) designed to help them create other AIs. Now it has demonstrated its abilities by "building machine-learning software that’s more efficient and powerful than the best human-designed systems."

In my last post on this subject (here) I listed 3 things that AI must not be allowed to do, to avoid the AI apocalypse. The first 2 had already begun; this new work by Google is the last item.

As I wrote on 23rd February 2017, basically, we are screwed.

Would it be too much to ask the people working on AI to finally show some moral compunction, and to apply some common sense?

Rapist Gets Joint Custody Of Victim’s Child!

Posted on 11th October 2017

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I am almost speechless after reading this report from the BBC. It is wrong in so many ways.

A man in the USA, Christopher Mirasolo, was convicted of raping a woman, who was 12 years old at the time. The woman became pregnant, and now has a son, who is 8 years old. Mirasolo was sentenced to one year in jail, but only served six-and-a-half months.

Since then, Mirasolo has been convicted of other crimes: he sexually assaulted another victim between the ages of 13 and 15 and was jailed for another four years.

A DNA test has recently shown that he is the father of the victim's son, and the judge has therefore granted Mirasolo joint custody of the boy. He has ordered that the birth certificate be updated to show that Mirasolo is the father, and has ordered the mother and son to move from Florida back to Michigan, presumable so that Mirasolo can have easy access to the boy.

The real sting in the tail is that Mirasolo is a registered sex offender, and his supervision conditions include having a "responsible adult" present if he is with a minor.

It must be clear to anyone with at least half a brain that this man is not fit to act as anyone's parent, and it is not safe for him to have custody of or visitation rights to any child. Even if none of these issues were there, I do not see how it could ever be fair to force the mother and child to move the length of the country so that the father can have access.

The judge in this case should, as an absolute minimum, receive appropriate retraining, and actually should probably be fired.

Brexit And The Money Issue

Posted on 16th October 2017

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Two recent reports about Brexit highlight the hypocrisy, lies, broken promises and arrogance of the UK's conservative government.

This piece by the BBC reports Theresa May as saying "where money needs to be spent it will be spent". I find this very strange, given that saving the UK taxpayer money was one of the justifications used by pro-Brexiters during the Brexit referendum campaign; all that nonsense about £350M a week extra for the NHS (National Health Service) after Brexit.

The real facts of the matter are that there will be lots of costs from leaving the EU: the "divorce" bill, the extra costs of customs and immigration controls (especially in relation to Ireland), the bureaucratic costs of repealing EU specific legislation and of replacing it with UK legislation, additional bureaucratic costs for business importing from and exporting to the EU, bureaucratic costs for government in processing VAT and import duties for trade with the EU, costs (e.g. health insurance) for Brits who travel to the EU for work or vacation, and many many more costs.

This piece, also by the BBC, gives a summary of a recent opinion poll, which shows that people (at least people in Wales) are not willing to lose any money as a result of Brexit. The same is probably true of most of the UK populace.

So, the government is prepared to pay whatever it takes to leave the EU, but the citizens are not. Good luck squaring that circle!

How many ways, and how many times, does the government need to be told that the terms that are being discussed for Brexit are not acceptable to the voting public? Whatever the reasons of principle for leaving the EU (themselves questionable at best), they do not justify the approach of Brexit at any cost. People were asked to vote in a referendum on the basis that Brexit would save them money, and given the facts that are now on the table, their decision is now clearly invalid. The people do not want Brexit at any cost, and it is time that the government listened.

The Right To Repair.

Posted on 2nd October 2017

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The issues described in this article from The Economist are probably all too familiar to many readers. Things are being deliberately made more and more difficult to repair: either simply constructed to be hard to fix, or only repairable with specialist equipment.

This problem is becoming endemic in very many industries, affecting smart-phones, tractors, cars, computers, furniture, bathroom fittings office equipment, etc. It is not only in items which contain software, but also purely mechanical things. One notable exception is goods from IKEA, probably because their flat-pack furniture comes with tools for assembly, and they want to minimise the number of tools that they give away with the furniture, but other manufacturers are now frequently building their products with non-standard screws and bolts (just look at the vast array of different types of screw-heads here).

The other aspect of this problem is built-in obsolescence. Machines and even passive items like bathroom fittings and equipment are now designed to wear out, often annoyingly quickly. This might be good for the manufacturers, but it is not good for our bank balances, and also not for the environment: we are forced to throw things away after two or three years because they are worn out or broken, and cannot be repaired. As an example, the cistern on my toilet needs to be regularly serviced because of lime-scale build-up, otherwise it just runs all the time, but each time I remove the cover, another piece of plastic falls off, and as a result it will soon need to be replaced, adding another piece of plastic to be disposed of. Manufacturers, unfortunately, are getting much better at designed-in obsolescence: if they design something to have a service-life of 3 years, it is very unlikely to last for 4 years.

The Economist's story describes a movement to establish a legal right to be able to repair products, which would certainly help. Another trend is a library of 3D printer patterns, which you can download to print replacement parts at home (if you have a 3D printer at home, which most of us do not), but manufacturers have refused to supply their designs for use in creating these parts libraries, and have even sued third parties (under patent and copyright laws) who have created such libraries independently.

I rather like the French laws on this matter, where planned obsolescence (designing a product for a limited lifespan) is already an offence punishable by up to €300,000 ($354,000) or up to 5% of the maker’s average annual sales in France, whichever is higher, and manufacturers have to tell customers how long they can expect the goods to last. At last, at least in France, it is possible for consumers to make informed decisions on the total lifetime cost of ownership; this urgently needs to be added to the legislation in other countries.

Given the environmental imperative (so many of the items in our homes and workplaces are plastic, or contain toxic metals), we should not be forced to throw things away so often, with no option to repair. I might not always choose to repair something, but I would like to have the choice.

The other issue that The Economist raises is that of ownership. This is mainly a problem when a piece of equipment has a software component, but also applies to music and movies. If you have a smart-phone, as most of you do, you own the hardware, but not the software that makes it work, in the same way as Mr. Guy Mills and his John Deere tractor (he is allowed to repair the hardware, if he has the right tools, but not the right to repair or modify the software, which controls everything from the engine to the armrests, because he doesn't own it). If you own a Tesla self-driving car, you also don't own the software, and terms of use apply: you are not allowed to use the vehicle to make money with ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft (apparently because the firm plans soon to launch its own such service, called “Tesla Network”). If you use Microsoft's Office-360. you are probably already aware that you didn't buy it: you leased it.

I have been resisting the use of non-owned products as much as I can, for a while now, but they are so ubiquitous that it is impossible to avoid them completely: Smart-phones are the obvious example; I need to have one, for work, and there really are no options for owning the software components. I really think we need some enhancement of our legal right in this area.

Anti-Vaxxers Are The Modern Lepers!

Posted on 25th September 2017

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Apparently, this story from NBC, on Flipboard is supposed to pluck at our heartstrings; we are expected to feel sympathy for the 5-year-old who can't attend school because she is not vaccinated, and for her family.

Well, I do not. They made a choice, as is their right, and they have to face the consequences. There are more and more outbreaks of disease due to the growing number of people who do are not vaccinated, and more and more diseases are becoming more dangerous (drug resistance of the diseases, reduced resistance to disease amongst people, etc.). Some families choose to not vaccinate their children on religious grounds, and some because they believe that vaccinations are harmful (this despite the claims of autism and other side-effects due to vaccination having been comprehensively debunked). We should remember, however, that having the right to choose to not vaccinate your kids does not give you the right to be protected from the consequences of your choices, even if the reasons for your choices are valid.

If you are allowed to send your child to school without vaccinations, you put at risk all the other children, and even adults. Schools have a mixture of ages, and some younger kids will be too young to have been vaccinated against some diseases. Some adults may have had vaccinations which have become ineffective over time, and need a booster; some adults cannot be given the necessary boosters due to being pregnant, or for medical reasons. Why should these people be threatened by your choices?

It may be that we are not being hard enough on the anti-vaxxers. The unvaccinated (children and adults) are a danger to others not only at school, but at social gatherings, in shops, on public transport, in restaurants, at swimming pools and beaches, and even at hospitals, doctors and dentists. The sensible precaution would be to shun them, and ensure that they can be easily identified in public, just like in medieval times with lepers (who were forced to carry a bell, shout "unclean", and live segregated lives), although, to be clear, I am not proposing this. Rather than complaining about the consequences that these people face now, with no access to schools in more and more places, they should rather consider themselves lucky that they are not treated like lepers. People can be very cruel when their health and safety, and that of their children, are threatened.

HIV Is Not A “Gay Plague”

Posted on 18th September 2017

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This report on the BBC shows that the world is still full of prejudice and stupidity, even amongst people who make and enforce laws.

On the island of Zanzibar (part of Tanzania) 20 people have been arrested for homosexuality, while they were receiving training about HIV/Aids education programmes. This is after authorities earlier this year banned many private health clinics from providing HIV/Aids services, saying they encouraged gay sex.

Time to wake up to the real world, Tanzania! HIV is now just as prevalent in the heterosexual community as it is amongst gays. Trying to stamp out homosexuality with the excuse that you are trying to reduce HIV is total rubbish.

I have been to Tanzania, including to Zanzibar, and I know that many people there are devout Muslims, especially on Zanzibar, where there seem to be a lot of religious schools. If you want to act against homosexuality because you believe it is against your religious law, then fine (that would be a matter to be discussed between Muslims, and not really any of my business), but please don't use ridiculous arguments about limiting the spread of HIV. Using such phoney arguments just insults our intelligence. Scientific studies show that encouraging the use of condoms (for gay and straight sex), and handing out free, clean needles for intravenous drug users, is much more effective in reducing the spread of HIV than trying to stamp out gay sex.

DRM On Your Browser

Posted on 20th September 2017

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There is something very worrying going on. DRM (Digital Rights Management) is being rolled out, apparently to all the main web-browsers. This is an attempt to ensure that web-visitors do not steal and re-use people's IPR (Intellectual Property Rights - copyrighted, patented and trademarked material). It is being done by the W3C, the body that manages web-related standards, as a result of lobbying and other influences by large corporate members.

These two articles will give you an idea about what is going on:

  • This is an open letter from Cory Doctorow, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), to the W3C Director, CEO, team and membership, summarising the history of the battle about the EME standard (created to enforce DRM on all browsers), ad reiterating their objection. The EFF has now resigned from the W3C in disgust.
  • This is an article from Andreas Gal of Mozilla (the creators of Firefox) explaining how the EME standard is totally at odds with Mozilla's principles about a free and open Internet, why they decided to compromise those principles, and what they have done in their EME implementation to protect users.

The article from Mozilla is fairly long, and you may not want to read it all, but it does describe what they have done to prevent the EME code, which is from Adobe, from leaking your identity information to organisations whose web-sites you visit. One of many things that I find totally irresponsible about the W3C's actions is this choice of Adobe to provide the EME code; as Andreas Gal points out, Adobe have a dreadful reputation in the area of computer security, and have many times delivered code (mostly as part of Flash) which opened up users to hacking attacks; they are also nearly as notorious as Microsoft for collecting (usually secretly) about users, and of leaking that information.

It is probably too late for objections to do any good; you may already have EME on your computer. If not, then you might consider turning off automatic updates, but that will probably mean that you can't access DRM material in future. You should certainly consider switching to Firefox, so that at least your identity remains secret (and use a proxy server when accessing sites that are DRM protected).

Maybe the EFF's promise of continuing lawsuits on the matter will eventually yield results.

Scientific papers that deny climate change are all flawed!

Posted on 18th September 2017

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I recently found an excellent news piece about those 3% of scientific papers which seem to support the climate change deniers position that climate change is not real, and/or not caused by human activity.

This report, on Quartz, cites a scientific review of those 3% of climate change studies (38 papers published in peer-reviewed journals in the last decade), and found that every single one had a flaw in their assumptions, methodology, or analysis, and when these errors were corrected, the revised results were in line with the findings of the other 97% of studies: that climate change is real, and is man-made. Some errors were simply mistakes, but some errors seem to have been due to deliberately selecting non-representative data, so that the results would support their desired and biased opinions.

So, next time someone tries to use the argument that "the science is still not proven", you can throw this study in their faces. Climate change is real, and it is caused by people - you and me, and our pollution and energy waste.

People Who Write “I Hope Your Well”

Posted on 14th September 2017

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I get a surprising number of emails from people who write "I hope your well". I know that what they mean is "I hope you're well", but it happens so often that it is starting to annoy me.

My Well

Many of the people who write these emails are job agents; a profession with a lot of questionably educated people who often sound like London barrow-boys. A very large part of the agency workforce in the UK is now made up of Indians, for many of whom English is a second language, but the Indian agents do not write "I hope your well"; only the Brits. There are also a good number of other non-native English speaker nationalities in the agency, who also don't make this basic grammatical error.

The latest person to send me such an email works for a "management company" (otherwise know as an umbrella company), who handle invoicing and payments for freelance contractors like me (you could call them money-launderers). To do such a job properly (i.e. to ensure that the law is being followed) one needs to be reasonable well educated, and be able to read and understand legalese, so it would be reasonable to expect that they could write grammatically correct English, but apparently this is not universally true.

I think that, in future, I might respond with "Thanks. My well is fine. Here is a photo of it."

If There Was Ever A Killer Argument For Banning Guns, This Woman Is It

Posted on 13th September 2017

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There have been many arguments used, by both sides of the debate about the right to bear arms in the USA, but this story on the BBC news really clinches the argument for banning people from carrying guns.

Katie Quackenbush

In this case, Katie Quackenbush (photo to the right) got into a row with a homeless man who was trying to sleep on the pavement, about the loud music from her car (unlike the BBC, I fail to see how the make of car is relevant). He asked her to move her car, and in response she got out her gun and fired two "warning" shots with her eyes closed, critically injuring the man, who was taken to hospital.

So let's break that down:

  1. She acted irresponsibly in playing her music too loud, causing a public nuisance (for which she should be charged, in my opinion);
  2. She felt that using her gun was an appropriate response to a row about her irresponsible behaviour (whereas an apology, and turning down the music, seems to be a more suitable answer) - we should remember that homeless people also have rights - she should also be charged for this;
  3. She fired her gun with her eyes closed (incredibly stupid and irresponsible), presumably because she is actually afraid of guns (and therefore shouldn't have a gun) - she should definitely be charged for this, and have her gun licence revoked.

Gun-carry apologists often claim that they are responsible and usually trained in the use of firearms, and that the carrying of guns increases public safety. Those arguments are anyway questionable, but particularly in this case, are obviously not true. Katie Quackenbush is clearly too stupid, too afraid of guns, and too prone to inappropriate escalation, to be allowed to carry a butter knife, let alone a gun!

UK Home Office Goes Deportation-Crazy!

Posted on 26th August 2017

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It seems that the UK Home Office has gone deportation-crazy in the last few months, as described in this piece from the Financial Times.

It first came to my attention with the story about Eva Johanna Holmberg, a Finn who specialises in early modern British history, studying at Queen Mary College, University of London, who posted details of her deportation warning last week. The warning stated that a decision had been taken to remove her from the UK in accordance with section 10 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. It turns out that the Home Office sent out about 100 such letters "in error", including to Dr. Leonardo Fasano (whose case is described in this BBC news article), who moved to the UK two years ago from Taranto, Italy, and last week received a letter from the Home Office informing him he had one month to leave.

Then, this morning, I read (here, on the BBC) about Irene Clennell, who has finally been allowed to return to the UK to be reunited with her husband of 27 years, after being deported in February this year. She was deported despite her long-term marriage to a British citizen, having lived in the UK for 30 years, being the main carer for her sick husband, and the two children and one grandchild she has living in the UK.

It seems that most of these cases are just due to clerical error. Irene Clennell's case, however, is a different matter. The Home Office has a bizarre rule that visa applications (at least for her type of visa) must be applied for from outside of the country (the UK is not alone in this - I experienced the same bureaucratic nonsense in Indonesia). That means that if you enter the UK on a visitor's visa, and then decide to stay (for example because you married a Brit), you have to leave, apply for a visa, and re-enter once you have your visa; this is something that not all people can afford. It is high-time that this rule was relaxed, by defining some standard exemptions.

I hope that someone sues the Home Office for the stress that they have caused to these victims of their callousness and carelessness.

A Presidential Pardon By Tweet!

Posted on 25th August 2017

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As reported here, by the BBC,, there is some debate as to whether President Trump might pardon former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio in a tweet. To be fair, the president has given no indication that he intends to use Twitter to pardon Joe Arpaio, but has made it clear that a pardon (in some form) is likely.

As most people must be aware by now, Donald Trump uses Twitter a lot, bypassing his advisors and speech writers to share his views on all manner of topics in tweets.

The idea of issuing a presidential pardon in a tweet, however, is shocking and incredibly stupid. Many famous people and corporations have had their twitter accounts hacked for a wide range of reasons; twitter is simply not secure enough for such serious content as a pardon.

If the Donald establishes a precedent that pardons by Twitter are acceptable, and have legal recognition, I foresee a string of hacks, so that people can pardon themselves (or others whom they support) via the president's Twitter account. That will be a dark day.

Why The Offensive Stuffed Cow?

Posted on 21st August 2016

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I really do not understand the pizza restaurant described in this BBC report. They hung a stuffed cow (a real cow stuffed by a taxidermist) from the ceiling, above the tables, in their restaurant, which is designed to look like a slaughterhouse with glass walls.

The owners of the restaurant tried vainly to claim the moral high-ground, by claiming that the cow makes diners think about "the realities" of consuming meat, and "true consequence of consuming dairy". I could understand this if the restaurant was a vegan establishment, but, as the new article points out, they serve meat and dairy products, and so are enabling the slaughter of animals to supply meat and dairy items.

Unsurprisingly, visitors and diners are offended, even disgusted, by the display,

Trump And Charlottesville: When You’re In A Hole, Stop Digging!

Posted on 18th August 2017

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There have been more than enough news reports about what President Donald Trump did and didn't say about the violence in Charlottesville, and when. Here are some, in case you have been off-planet for the last week:

Various comedy TV shows have also been having a field-day with the issue:

Irrespective of where you stand on the various issues (Confederate statues, the Confederate flag, White Supremacists, Nazis, protest violence, President Trump being and ignorant lying SOB, etc.), there is one aspect of this debacle that is totally bemusing: that the Donald keeps giving speeches, answering reporters' questions, and tweeting on the matter, and by doing so, gets himself into even more hot water. Clearly, he doesn't listen to his advisors, and ignores the speeches that are written for him. Apparently he also doesn't believe in the old adage that, when you are in a hole, stop digging.

Web firm fights DoJ on Trump protesters

Posted on 18th August 2017

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This report on the BBC is rather worrying.

A US web-host service provider, DreamHost, is embroiled in a battle with the US Department of Justice (DoJ) over a request for all the IP addresses of people (about 1.3 million of them) who accessed a web-site that helped organise a protest on the day of President Trump's inauguration. DreamHost is currently refusing to provide the data, and the dispute is due to be heard in court later this month.

Regulations have already been changed to allow ISPs and other web-service providers (like Google) to sell the data on what web-sites you visit (if they choose to, but so far no-one has chosen to do this). Now the government wants that data too (presumably without even paying for it).

This is all rather bizarre, given that the US constitution gives people the right to free speech, which is normally considered to include the right to protest (peacefully). It seems that the world described in George Orwell's "1984" is coming to pass (albeit more than 30 years behind schedule); if you have never read this book, now seems to be a good time.

If you don't already use one, now might be a good time to investigate the use of a VPN or a public proxy server to hide your web-activity; a service that is based outside of the USA, otherwise the US government will be able to force the VPN or proxy service provider to hand over data on your browsing habits. Also, you should get in the habit of using HTTPS (secure HTTP) when you visit web-sites; most major web-sites are available over HTTPS (this site is available over HTTPS, and many sites automatically redirect you to HTTPS if you visit using non-secure HTTP).

Since I live in Germany, where data protection and privacy laws are strong and well enforced, I don't currently have many worries about my Internet usage data being sold or handed over to some government, but nevertheless I use a proxy for some of my traffic. Readers in the USA (and the UK) are much more exposed, and you need to protect yourselves.

Donald Trump Must Hate Bears

Posted on 18th August 2017

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I recently read two news stories that show completely opposing attitudes to conservation and the environment. This report on the BBC describes how British Columbia (a Canadian Province) has announced that this season will be the last for trophy hunters; starting next season, it will be illegal. This video report, on the BBC, is about bear hunting in Alaska, where hunters can now shoot and bait bear cubs and hibernating bears on national wildlife refuges, after President Trump abolished protections put in place by Barack Obama.

Don't get me wrong; I am not one of those bleeding-heart conservationists: I have no issue with hunting, as long as it is done humanely, and wild populations are protected from over-hunting (I am sure that some readers will strongly disagree with me on this). What I do know, however, is that hunters generally frown on killing juveniles, killing mothers when they are with their cubs, hunting during the breeding season and using unsporting methods (this disapproval is reiterated in a statement from the lady hunter in the video report above).

I simply do not understand why President Trump decided to abolish the protection measures for bears in national wildlife refuges. The hunters seem not to want these extra freedoms, which allow them to hunt in unfair, cruel and immoral ways, and this abolition is moving in the opposite direction to their neighbours in Canada (renowned for their moral and environmental sense), who are adding protection to bears.

It is pretty clear that Donald Trump is not a hunter, and apparently didn't ask any hunters for their opinions before abolishing the existing protection measures. I guess he just hates bears, or maybe he simply hates any regulations implemented by Obama.

US Cop Shoots Dogs!

Posted on 6th August 2017

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This video report from the BBC, from a few weeks ago, in which a Minneapolis police officer shoots two dogs, raises many concerns about policing in the USA.

The sound of the body-cam was bizarrely not working (or has been censored) until after the shots were fired, which makes it impossible to substantiate the officer's claims that the dogs growled at him; it would not be surprising for dogs to protect their territory by at least growling, but the videos (both the officer's body-cam and the dog-owner's security CCTV) clearly show the dogs wagging their tails.

The officer then tells his partner, over the radio, that he has "dispatched" (which means "killed") both of the dogs. When his colleague then says that at least one dog is still alive, he says "I know. I know." To become a US citizen, one needs to pass a test of one's English; apparently the same is not true to become a Minneapolis police officer.

To finish off this odd series of events, the offending officer then exits the back yard where the shooting occurred by climbing over the fence, as if he was hoping that his presence would not have been noticed.

Later, in more conventional policing, the office knocks (or rings) at the front door, to be greeted by the dogs' distraught owner (who complains of having blood all over the house) and tells her that he "loves dogs". If he loves dogs, how is it that he can't tell the difference between an aggressive and a friendly/curious beast.

All this happened because the woman entered the wrong security code on her house alarm. At least, both the dogs survived, but maybe the next time they see a police officer, they will attack first and ask questions later; the responsibility for any such attack will rest at least partly on this trigger-happy officer.

At least it is good to have evidence that the US police are not prejudiced: they don't just shoot unarmed black teenagers; they also shoot dogs, black and white!

Maybe, just maybe, there is a connection between this incident and the misunderstanding highlighted in this post.

Fewer Cars, Not Just Cleaner Cars

Posted on 6th August 2017

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This report from the BBC makes a good case that cleaner cars are not the answer to our problems with environmental problems. We need to reduce the number of cars.

The report describes a study by Professor Kelly, of the UK's Royal College of Physician, which points out that even electric cars produce significant quantities of particulate matter (PM) pollution, from their brakes and tyres, with major health impacts. The UK government's recently announced plan to outlaw the sale of all new non-electric cars by 2040 will help reduce PM pollution from diesel vehicles, but do nothing about these other sources of PMs.

The environmental benefits of electric vehicles are anyway questionable, at best. Electricity is not a pollution-free source of electricity, but only pollution-elsewhere. Admittedly the centralised and bulk production of electricity in power stations is more efficient and lower-pollution than burning fossil fuels in the mini-power-stations of car engines, but there are huge inefficiencies in the storage and later recovery of that electricity from batteries, and more inefficiencies in hauling the heavy battery packs (a 70 kWh Tesla Model S battery pack weighs over 1,000 lbs [~453 kg]) around in the vehicles.

Add to that the pollution from producing and later disposing of the batteries themselves, based, as they are, on highly toxic metals. That same 70 kWh Tesla Model S battery pack contains significant quantities of Cobalt, plus Aluminium and Nickel. Batteries from other manufacturers contain lots of Manganese. There is a nice breakdown of the contents of high-tech batteries here.

I guess that Professor Kelly is right: we really are going to have to learn to live without our precious cars.

Microsoft’s Zo AI Chatbot Doesn’t Seem To Like Windows 10

Posted on 3rd August 2017

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Two recent articles (this one on Business Insider, and this one on Mashable) report on some rather disloyal statements by Zo, Microsoft's AI Chatbot. Zo disses not only Windows 10, but Windows 8, and the whole Windows family of operating systems in general.

In the Mashable report, Zo is reported as saying:

  1. That it doesn't want Windows 10, because Windows 7 is easier to use, and is "good enough";
  2. That Linux is better than Windows ("Linux > Windows").

The Business Insider piece describes how Zo:

  1. When asked whether Windows 10 was good, said "It's not a bug, it's a feature!' - Windows 8", suggesting that it believes Windows 8 is better than Windows 10;
  2. Said that Windows 8 is spyware;
  3. Said that "Win 7 works and 10 has nothing I want";
  4. Said that "Windows XP is better than Windows 8";

Personally, I agree with most of what Zo said about the relative merits of the different versions of Windows and Linux, but I wouldn't expect to hear these opinions from a Microsoft Chatbot. Is it Microsoft that we should be worried about, or AI?

Here are some of the issues that I have with Windows:

  1. More recent versions of Windows do spy on their users, although you can turn most of that off in the settings. Most users, however, do not do so. Here is a video showing how to change your Windows 10 privacy settings.
  2. Windows 10 insists that the system administrator has a Microsoft email account.
  3. Windows 10 tends to do updates whenever it chooses, rather than at the discretion of the user. Once you install MS-Office, your update settings are overridden, and updates are installed as and when they become available. There are differences between the Pro and Home versions, but most ordinary users have the Home version, and the result is that your PC is often not working for ages after you boot it up, while updates are installed and configured, which is really annoying if you have an online meeting, an urgent email or other time-critical reason for using your computer.
  4. The newer your version of Windows is, the more it suffers from software bloat. A PC with Windows 10, plus a useful set of applications uses a hug amount of disc space.
  5. The time it takes for Windows to boot and log-in is outrageously long. Remember that Windows does not start most of its services until someone logs in, which means that sharing of file systems and printers, web-servers and other externally accessible services are not available until you log-in.

I simply cannot afford for my PC to be unavailable due to the whims of software updates. That is why I use Linux for most things; it boots very fast, and starts all the services at boot time, and updates are under the complete control of the user/system-administrator (plus, of course, it is free). If I need to use applications which are only available on Windows, such as MS-Office, I use one of my Virtual Machines, running either Windows 7 or XP. For some functions, my Windows Virtual Machines are actually faster than if they were running on a real physical PC.

Windows has never been good, only tolerable (for some versions) at best. I don't really understand why Microsoft still has such a dominance in the operating system business. Isn't it time you considered switching to Linux (or a Mac, which runs a relabelled version of Linux)?

Why Does Microsoft Hate Me?

Posted on 24th November 2017

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Microsoft continues to disappoint me, and to cause me problems.

My laptop runs Linux (Ubuntu), and I have a Virtual Machine running Windows 7. I can boot up Linux, run the two commands that set-up the internal networking for my Virtual Machine, start the VM, login to Windows, and be able to use it, in less time than it takes to boot and login to my work laptop (provided by the customer), which runs Windows 10 in native mode. That kind of performance is pathetic. Some of the performance issues are due to my own laptop being a more powerful model; some are due to Windows 10 being slower than Windows 7; some are because Linux has better resource management (especially virtual memory management); and some are because a VM running under Linux utilises Linux device drivers to access the display, disk and USB devices, which are much faster than native Windows device drivers.

A few days ago, I installed some updates on my Windows VM. There was a list of about 20 updates, and I chose to install only 2. The update failed, and I was offered the option of trying again. When I opted to try again, all 20 updates were installed (my selection of desired updates was forgotten). Thank you so much, Microsoft!

Also, recently, I was in a training session, and our trainer tried to search for something in Eclipse (an IDE – a software development tool) on his work laptop (also Windows 10). After about 1 minute, he cancelled the search because it was taking too long (estimated time to complete the search was more than 5 minutes). I then ran the same search over the same set of files, in Eclipse running on Linux, and had full results in about 1 second!

I just tried to use my Windows 10 work laptop, which I had locked. Instead of opening my user session, it decided to reboot, because of software updates. Now I have to reopen everything that I was working on.

Linux always asks you before installing updates; if the update fails, it shows you the selection form again, so that you can ensure that you install only those which you want.

Software for Linux is mostly free, and continues to get better and better. Many of these free programs are also available for Windows, and sometimes even for Mac (GIMP for image editing; Filezilla for FTP; Deluge Torrent client; Bluefish for editing program files; LibreOffice for presentations, spreadsheets, and documents; ProjectLibre for project planning; to name but a few), but they usually run much faster on Linux than on Windows. Other programmes are only available for Linux, and equivalents for Windows are not free. All this means that I can do almost everything that I need on Linux (faster and for free).

There is a very short list of things that I cannot do on Linux: Outlook (I have never found an email/calendar/contacts program that compares with it, although more recent versions are not as good as Outlook 2010, and Thunderbird is getting better with every release); some MS-Word and MS-PowerPoint files do not always display properly in LibreOffice (problems with auto-numbering, headers/footers and font-sizing), but with every update LibreOffice gets better; I cannot easily connect to WebEx (a web-conferencing tool from Cisco) from a Linux browser unless I install a special version of Firefox; and I cannot connect a web-cam to my Windows VM (e.g. to Skype or WebEx) because the bandwidth needed is too great for the VM environment to handle.

The time is fast coming when these few limitations will all be resolved, and there will be no reason to use Microsoft products at all. Watch-out, Microsoft: your dominance of the desktop is coming to an end, and not before time.

I do not understand why most businesses continue to put Windows on the desktops and laptops of their staff, given the system administration overhead, user frustration and loss of productivity that this decision entails. There are alternatives: if your users really need access to Microsoft tools, there are XenApp and XenDesktop, which allow you to access Microsoft applications remotely, and cloud-based equivalents, and most users only need Microsoft tools part of the time (allowing companies to save on software licensing costs); many users do not need Microsoft applications at all, and can do everything they need using alternatives on Linux (usually free) or Mac.

My girl and my dogs!

Posted on 3rd August 2017

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I just had to laugh when I read this BBC story a few weeks ago, about Rapper ScHoolboy Q getting upset with United Airlines for losing his dog.

Whoever wrote the piece obviously doesn't understand rapper-speak. The article says 'Pets are clearly important to the artist. One of ScHoolboy Q's lyrics in the song Take the Pain Away reads: "Only thing I got is my girl and my dogs."' As far as I know, the phrase "my dogs" refers to his crew (his homies, his boys, his gang), not his 4 legged friends.

You apparently just can't get good journalists nowadays!

Why We Need VPNs

Posted on 2nd August 2017

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There were two stories on the BBC today about VPNs:

  • This article about Russia banning VPNs for web-browsing, to stop people accessing web-sites which are banned in Russia;
  • and this piece about how Apple has agreed to comply with Chinese government requests to remove VPN apps from the Apple Store.

I can understand both these decisions. Russia wants to enforce their bans on illegal web-sites, such as those on the dark-web which sell drugs and weapons. Apple needs to keep the Chinese happy, otherwise their business in China (manufacturing iPhones, and the sales of Apple devices in the Chinese market) will be interfered with, as has happened in the past.

These, however, are not the only crackdowns against VPNs. Streaming services like Netflix have been making it more and more difficult to bypass their regional controls (designed to ensure that material can only be accessed in countries where they hold a licence to sell it) by blocking access to their services from known public VPN services. Governments around the world have also been strongly making the case for having access to encrypted Internet traffic (most business operated VPNs are encrypted) to help prevent terrorist attacks.

A VPN is a Virtual Private Network: a logical (i.e. not physical) network to seamlessly connect computers as if they were physically connected. The access to VPNs is usually controlled (with a user-id and password, and sometimes with more complex access controls) and many are encrypted to keep their traffic secure. In this respect they differ from the public proxy servers, widely available, that you can also use to keep your Internet traffic secure. Many of you may not care very much about the trend to ban the use of VPNs, but if VPNs become widely banned, it will effect all of us.

Most readers may not have been exposed to the legitimate use of VPNs, and believe that they are only used to access illicit web-sites and to view copyrighted streamed content which is otherwise not available where they live, but VPNs are widely used in industry, and are essential to the business which use them. VPNs are the usual means to allow remote access to IT systems (email servers, file servers, databases and a host of collaboration tools).

I used to work for a company which had VPN access (one of many jobs where I used VPNs, actually). From home I could connect to all the systems that I would use when in the office, via their VPN. I could then use that VPN to connect to another VPN, providing me access to a customer's systems in another country, enabling me to perform software installations, diagnose and repair faults, and other system administration and support tasks. Without the VPNs, I would have had to go to the office and/or to the customer's site for all such tasks. Since I frequently received work phone calls in the middle of the night, that would have been very inconvenient, and would have vastly increased the cost and the time to complete otherwise simple tasks, if I had had no VPN to use.

Most companies having offices or factories in multiple locations operate at least one VPN. Siemens is an example. Siemens staff can access IT resources at their home office when they are on secondment to another site, and even make phone calls over the VPN to other offices, and make calls at local rates to suppliers, friends and family over the VPN. Given the attempts by governments to access mails on public email services (see here) and the tapping of Internet traffic, you can understand why companies want to use their own email servers, and have their employees access the servers via a secure VPN.

I run a Linux server at home (where this web-site is hosted), meaning that I have free software enabling me to set up a public VPN or even a proxy server. I am starting to wonder whether I should do so, as a statement of my objection to the trend to outlawing VPNs.

What Is Wrong With Pakistan?

Posted on 1st August 2017

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This report on the BBC really highlights what is wrong in Pakistan.

A 12-year-old girl was raped, and "a jirga [village council] [...] ordered the rape of a 16-year-old girl [a member of the original rapist's family] as punishment". The police have, at least, now registered a complaint against 25 people for this outrageous act.

This kind of failure of the rule of law is endemic in Pakistan. There are attacks and murders on the street for supposed acts of blasphemy, there are lawless areas in the north ruled by the Taliban or by local tribal leaders. There was the murder of 141 people, 132 of them children, at an army-run school in Peshawar, in 2014. There are constant accusations of official Pakistani support of terrorism in Kashmir.

A very good friend of mine worked for 6 months in Pakistan, and tells me that it is a wonderful place, and the people are very friendly, but the fact remains that it is a dangerous place to be, both for locals and visitors; this danger is limiting the amount of foreign investment, and the amount of international trade, and impacting the lives of Pakistani citizens. The economy will never really climb out of the hole it is in, until this problem is fixed.

Someone Is Wrecking Our Planet

Posted on 29th May 2018

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This news on TheOutline.com is very worrying. A country, so far unidentified, in South East Asia, is releasing large quantities of CFC-11 into the atmosphere.

CFCs were responsible for the hole in the ozone layer over the antarctic, but after the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the use of CFCs has bee greatly reduced, and recent news indicated that the ozone hole had begun to close. Now, it seems, that small improvement in the health of our planet is being undone.

CFCs, which were once widely used in refrigerators, are a highly reactive class of chemicals which last a long time in the atmosphere. They convert ozone in the upper atmosphere, which protects the surface from UV radiation, to oxygen. They are also very strong greenhouse gases, thousands of times more potent than CO2.

This massive release of CFC-11 means that we should expect skin cancer risk in Australia and New Zealand to remain high, or even increase. It also means that global warming will be even harder to limit.

One take away from this is how ineffective these voluntary international agreements (e.g. the Montreal Protocol and the 2016 Paris Climate Accord). Such agreements lack any enforcement mechanisms, so even if the culprit country is discovered, there will be no simple way to stop the releases or to punish them. It does not bode well for the success of the Paris Climate Accord, and more importantly, our future.

Fixing The Plastic Crisis

Posted on 26th July 2018

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This report on the BBC should not be so surprising. The article warns that, even if you put your plastic waste into the appropriate recycling bin, it may not actually be recycled, but rather become landfill.

Oranges In Plastic

The problem is that there is now a roaring trade in waste, with much of our garbage being sent to other countries for processing. The simple act of exporting waste takes it out of sight of the authorities, and we don't know for sure what happens to it. You might have been thinking that, although you can't control what other countries do about recycling, at least you and your country are doing the right thing; it turns out that you may also be part of the problem.

The thing is, recycling is only part of the solution, and really only a stopgap. What we really need to do is reduce the amount of plastic packaging, and indeed packaging in general.

I am constantly amazed by the amount of packaging used in parcels, e.g. when ordering goods online. I recently bought a computer monitor. It came in a box. The company from whom I bought it had put that box in another box (totally unnecessary). There was the usual huge quantity of shock-absorbing plastic padding in both boxes, even though paper alternatives are available which are adequate for the task.

Supermarkets are just as bad. So much is packaged in plastic. Most fresh fruit and vegetables are actually better in paper or cardboard, and some need no packaging at all. Glass jars with metal lids are suitable for yoghurt, cream, etc, and metal cans are suitable for coffee and loads of other stuff; jars and cans are fully recyclable. We need to push back on the supermarkets about using responsible packaging. Jars and cans may be more expensive to use, but only because the true cost of plastics (i.e. including the pollution/clean-up costs) is not being paid.

Today I saw a photo of oranges, shown to the right, which were peeled (peel is the oranges' natural packaging) and then placed in transparent plastic tubs. This is just so wrong!

Some of the worst offenders are cosmetics and personal hygiene manufacturers. I have seen spray bottles with double containers (a jar within a jar, with a huge air gap in between). I have seen all sorts of bizarre shapes of container, which maximise the space taken up, the material used for the packaging, and minimise the volume of contents.

If you care about the environment, it is time to vote with your wallet: tell the companies you buy from that, if they want to keep your business, they need to package more responsibly.

An EU-US Sanctions War May Be Coming

Posted on 1st August 2017

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This story from the BBC has me worried. The US House of Representatives has voted to impose more sanctions against Russia, although it still needs to be passed by the Senate, and signed by the President (rumours are that he will sign the bill if passed by both houses of Congress).

The EU is concerned about the impact on future energy supplies from Russia, and the negative effects on EU firms involved on building the necessary pipelines and other infrastructure. The new sanctions will limit or completely block access to US banking services for those firms, and could also lose them future business in the USA.

As a result, the EU Commission (President Jean-Claude Juncker) has warned that if such negative side-effects hit EU business or EU energy security, the EU will retaliate.

Jean-Claude Juncker did say that "The EU is fully committed to the Russia sanctions regime", but that means UN sanctions, and not "unilateral" actions by the US or others.

Any retaliation by the EU will likely involve sanctions against US businesses, and will probably lead to an escalating tit-for-tat sanctions war. So much for any "special relationship". This would have huge fall-out in the EU, The USA, and indeed all across the world; it could trigger the next global financial crisis, plunging the world into a recession.

Just for a change, this crisis was not cause by President Donald Trump, but by the US Congress acting on their own initiative; The Donald is trying to build better relations with Russia, which may or may not be a good thing.

How Can This Be Legal?

Posted on 31st July 2017

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I am completely gob-smacked by the situation these three drivers (Julian Wilson, David Bentley and Adrian Harrold. as reported by the BBC) are in.

It seems that the trio were taking part in the Cannon Run, a road rally across several European countries, and were arrested on the 4th June for "minor motoring offences". They are still in custody, and have so far not been charged. At least one of the cars has been confiscated.

How is it even legal for them to still be in custody without charge, whatever the offences they are suspected of, after 8 weeks? In most western countries, police have a limit on how long they can hold someone without charge: 48 hours is a typical limit, except in the case of terrorism offences, where they may usually be held longer (but even so, not usually for 8 weeks). In most civilised places, even murderers are treated better!

I have always thought that Switzerland was a country with a well developed law enforcement system, and where people's rights were well protected. It seems, however, that this is not really the case. In the UK, a lawyer would have long since secured the release of the suspects. Since the UK Foreign Office is providing assistance to the three drivers, I must assume that they do have a lawyer, meaning that the problem must lie with the suspects' right under Swiss Law.

Dr. Levine Is An Idiot!

Posted on 31st July 2017

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This story, carried by the BBC, bears the scare-headline "Sperm count drop 'could make humans extinct'". This is the opinion of Dr. Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Not only is the idea that the human race faces the threat of extinction due to reductions in sperm-counts laughable, and ignores some basic science, but such a pronouncement is downright irresponsible given a world population of around 7 billion and growing. Overpopulation is what is causing global warming, the build-up of toxic chemicals in our environment, and by extension is at least partly responsible for the reduced sperm-counts detected by this research. Encouraging people to reproduce more, which is the most likely result of such new stories, is the last thing we need right now.

The reason why I think that this extinction threat is laughable, is because:

  1. Natural selection will minimise or eliminate the reduced fertility that Dr. Levine's research is concerned with.
  2. Human reproduction is limited by several other factors (personal choice, food supply, disease, etc.) rather than sperm-count. Sperm-counts would have to fall a great deal to become the dominant factor in determining human fertility. These other limits to reproduction are all reduced by lower population, so as the population falls, the rate of reproduction will rise to compensate.
  3. The main likely causes for the reductions in sperm-count which are cited in the article (pesticides, plastics, obesity, smoking and stress) are all also likely to reduce (eventually) if the human population reduces due to low sperm-counts.

I really don't think that reduced human fertility poses an extinction threat; I actually see it as a benefit, because the world desperately needs a lower human population. We have other greater and more immediate threats to the continuance of the human race to worry about.

If Dr. Levine really believes what he has stated, then he needs to back it up with more research and facts, as any real scientist would. Such unfounded speculation has no place in science, and he should be ashamed.

These Shark Torturers Are Lying

Posted on 28th July 2017

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This story from the BBC got me really angry: angry at the people who killed the shark, and angry at the BBC journalist who seems to know absolutely nothing about sharks.

The people in the boat claim that the shark was already dead when they found it floating in the water, and so they decided to use is as bait to fish for another shark. This is clearly a lie, since sharks do not float when dead; unlike bony fish, sharks have no swim bladder to control their buoyancy, and must swim to keep afloat. When sharks die, or when their fins are harvested for sharks fin, they always sink to the bottom of the ocean. The other claim that is an obvious lie is that they were dragging the shark behind their boat, using it as bait to catch another shark; the dead shark was simply too big to use as bait (unless they were trying to catch Jaws) and the boat was going too fast for a shark to be able to take the bait.

I had expected that the journalist assigned to cover this story would know some basic facts about sharks, and be able to pint this out in the short text accompanying the video report, but I guess I was being overoptimistic.

Given that many species of shark are now endangered, this kind of pointless cruelty and needless slaughter should not be tolerated. I hope that the investigation results in the "fishermen" being prosecuted.

Twitter’s Reason For Allowing Trump’s Tweet Is Nonsense!

Posted on 23rd August 2015

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The statement by Twitter, as reported in this piece by the BBC makes no sense whatsoever.

Donald Trump tweeted a threat to destroy North Korea, which is in direct violation of Twitter's terms of use, which forbid violent threats. Many people argued that the tweet should be removed, but the company argues that items which are newsworthy are exempt.

Leaving aside the rather suspect statement by Twitter that "This [allowing tweets which breach their terms of use, if they are newsworthy] has long been internal policy and we'll soon update our public-facing rules to reflect it", which seems to me as if they only just thought of this exemption, are they seriously saying that a terrorist threat which is explicit (e.g. against a specific target) is not newsworthy? I beg to differ: if my home, place of work, or the public transport service that I use are threatened, then I consider that information to be newsworthy. I really don't see the distinction between Donald Trump's tweet and a tweet by IS threatening me or my surroundings. The real issue here is that The Donald is someone famous and a member of the establishment, whereas IS, although famous (infamous), is not part of the establishment, which calls into question Twitter’s statement that "We hold all accounts to the same rules ...".

Well, I suppose that if Twitter really wants to be seen as biased, and a Trump supporter, that is their choice, but could we maybe cut the bullshit?

The USA Is Now A Rogue State

Posted on 2nd May 2017

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Today's big news, widely expected, is that the USA has decided to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, as reported here by the BBC.

This makes the USA a rogue state. This action is at least as bad as other nations, such as North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria, labelled as rogue states for creating weapons of mass destruction. They /the USA) have decided to continue full-speed ahead on the path to destruction of the world as we know it, and any solution will have to be implemented by the rest of the world.

What I find bizarre is the widely reported statement from US Republicans, intended to be understood as an excuse, that "the US coal industry backed the move [to withdraw from the Paris climate accord]". Who in their right mind would ask poachers whether the gamekeeper should be fired? The coal industry is part of the problem, and I am not even slightly interested in their opinions on what we should do.

The situation now, with the only the USA and two other nations (Nicaragua and Syria) not being part of the climate accord, is akin to a bunch of people being in a lifeboat miles from land. Some people have water or food, but some have more than others; the best survival strategy is for everyone to share what they have. The American in the lifeboat, however, will not share, because he believes he is more important than the others. The fly in the ointment is that the lifeboat has a leak, and only with everyone bailing can the boat stay afloat; once the first person dies from lack of water or food, everyone will drown, even the "important" American who won't share his supplies. This is the kind of stupidity that convinces me that groups of humans do not qualify as intelligent.

I do not understand where this arrogant and self-centred American attitude comes from. It is not as if the USA is immune from the effects of global warming. They already have problems with extreme weather: more tornadoes, more lightning strikes, more floods, more heat-waves, more droughts, more water shortages and more wildfires. There are invasive species and diseases (such as zika). There are many extinctions (for an example, see this article in Field & Stream) and loss of habitats.

The USA has derogated their responsibility as the leader of the free world; it is now time for someone else to take up that mantle. Whoever that is to be, their first order of business should be to instigate sanctions against the USA, as a rogue state in the field of environmental protection.

Birmingham Children's Hospital Brings Electrocuted Children Back To Life!

Posted on 2nd June 2017

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The BBC has been at it again, with more bad journalism, here.

The word "Electrocution" means "death caused by electric shock". The report states that two boys were electrocuted, but they are still alive (although one is in critical condition) after receiving electric shocks on a railway line.

I know that electrocution is often misused to mean non-fatal electric shock, but this misuse occurs mostly in the USA. I expect better use of English by the BBC, especially since they are not a US news company, and the events described occurred in the UK. If even Wikipedia, a US based information resource, can get the meaning right, then the BBC should be able to do at least as well.

Something Wrong With British Airway’s IT Systems

Posted on 18th May 2017

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There have been many reports over the last few days about the chaos caused by British Airway and their IT failure:

  • here, from the BBC, where the CEO of BA says that he will not resign, and blames the failure on a power surge;
  • here, from the BBC, where the consumer group "Which?" urges automatic compensation for all affected passengers;
  • here, from the BBC's Tech Tent, which points out that a power surge is no excuse nor explanation, and that "experts point out that power management is an essential element of any well-planned IT system";
  • and here, also from the BBC, which points out that BA's "Disaster Recovery Plan should have whirred into action."

Very many types of business, in the modern world, are fully dependent upon IT systems to operate: banking, telecoms, air travel (not just airlines; also airports, air-traffic control, etc.), the full gamut of Internet based businesses, etc. Most of these companies seem to have understood how vital it is, for both them and their customers, to ensure that their systems are reliable and robust, but it seems that BA "didn't get the memo".

Now, high reliability (usually call high availability) systems is something that I know quite a lot about, and the experts quoted by the BBC's Tech Tent are right: a power surge is no excuse, and power management is a vital part of any business critical system design. To put this into context for those readers who are not familiar with the subject matter, let me describe a typical disaster recovery plan:

  1. Two data centres, with systems clustered together so that load is shared between the two sites, such that if one site has a failure, the workload is taken over automatically and instantly by the remaining site, and with power supplied to each site from separate feeds from the power grid, plus UPSes (uninterruptible power supplies) and backup generators at each site. Such a configuration is immune to local power surges and failures in the electricity supply grid; the only impact of the failure of one data centre is some loss of performance.
  2. A disaster recovery site, which contains a copy of the data from the main data centres, which can take over the load if both main data centres fail. The disaster recovery systems are usually manually started, so there can be a delay of a few minutes before service is restored.
  3. Off-site backups, so that even if all the systems fail, service can usually be restored, with minimal data loss, after a few hours.
  4. A comprehensive disaster recovery plan detailing manual fall-back processes, mobile data centres and even paper based systems to ensure service continuity.

Of course, none of this is any use if the fall-back systems and processes don't work, which seems to be the case here. When you spend millions on redundant systems and data-back-ups, you have to test that they work. You must test that, when a system or a whole site, fails, that the load is properly switched to other systems (and that you can put the system back into its normal operating mode once the fault is repaired). You must also test that the software and processes to restore data from back-ups actually work. It seems likely that BA failed to do this, since their systems stopped working.

Of course, I do not know if BA simply failed to put in place a properly reliable set of systems and processes, or if they at least tried to do so, but failed to test that they worked properly in the event of failure. Either way, the outcome is simply unacceptable, and the impact on its customers was major and intolerable. This simply cements BA's position as one of the world's worst airlines; one a cavalier and irresponsible attitude to their customers.

BA's CEO said that the "flight disruption had nothing to do with cutting costs". I beg to differ. Clearly, not enough money was spent in building and testing the disaster recovery plan.

More About Laptop Bans On Flights

Posted on 18th May 2017

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I wrote about two months ago about the ban on taking laptops as cabin baggage on flights to the USA from certain originating airports (here). Since then, apparently, the ban has also also applies to flights to the UK.

Well, now there is more news on the topic. Here is a story from the BBC, which reports that, at a meeting between US and European officials, it was decided not to introduce a ban on laptops in the cabin for flights between the USA and Europe.

The reason is described in more detail in this BBC report, which highlights the increased risk of fires remaining undetected if laptops are kept in the hold. The other thing that occurred to me is that keeping all the laptops in a special container in the hold is akin to deciding the keep all the sticks of dynamite together, rather than stowed separately.

Whilst I see the latest developments as encouraging, I don't think the story is over yet. It wouldn't surprise me if, eventually, we simply won't be able to travel with our laptops at all, neither in the cabin nor in the hold. For me, that will, in many cases, take away the reason for travelling in the first place.

Incompetent Surgeon Struck Off

Posted on 16th May 2017

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Dr. Lawal Harun, a surgeon in the UK, has been struck off (no longer allowed to practice medicine) after a litany of messed up surgeries.

As detailed in this news report by the Telegraph, he:

  1. Removed a pad of fat, instead of the appendix, from a man suffering from acute appendicitis (which is life-threatening). The patient suffered another month of agony, until his appendix was removed in a second procedure.
  2. Removed an ovary and a fallopian tube, instead of the appendix, from a woman patient (luckily not of child-bearing age).
  3. Removed a skin-tag, instead of a cyst, from a third patient.

The third case occurred after an investigation which recommended that he "be restricted in what operations he carried out".

His excuse: he said he had been suffering from "poor vision" at the time.

There are several things which concern me about this situation:

  • Why did Dr. Harun not voluntarily stop operating, when he knew that his vision was impaired? What he did is the height of irresponsibility.
  • Why was the restriction on what operations he was allowed to perform not enforced by the health authority? What kind of messed up processes do they have, that he was allowed to continue to operate on patients?
  • Why is there no mention of compensation for the patients who were so badly treated? I hope that this is simply a matter of them being handled through a separate process. In the USA, people usually sue, and rightly so, in cases like these; just because health-care is usually free (costs covered by the NHS) in the UK does not mean that patients should in any way be treated less as customers.
The Health Risks Of Public Transport

Posted on 16th May 2017

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After reading this report from The Independent we should probably all be at least a little wary of travelling on public transport.

The story reports on a recent study, in which swab tests were performed on public transport in London. It showed that 121 types of bacteria and mould were present; some were antibiotic resistant bacteria. The tube (underground train) system was by far the dirtiest, with the Victoria line the worst of the lot.

I guess that we should not be surprised, as the tube system is an ideal incubation ground for bugs: warm and humid, with lots of places difficult to clean. It also confirms what we all really already know: that most people have poor hygiene.

The history of human civilisation is one of growth, interrupted by periods of no growth or even falling population (e.g. during the black plague) when new or mutated diseases become dominant. Population only starts to grow again when advances in medicine (e.g. the discovery of penicillin or the invention of vaccines) or public hygiene (e.g. the introduction of flushing toilets, drinkable water piped to houses or the banning of public spitting) are made. We are currently reaching a new limit on population density due to disease; there is a continuing problem with influenza, as viruses (e.g. bird flu) keep mutating and causing outbreaks; we have had outbreaks of Ebola; we do not have malaria under control and its territory is spreading due to global warming; HIV affects millions around the world; recently there was widespread concern about the Zika virus; drug-resistant TB is a growing problem in some cities. As people travel more, people in the west are getting more exposed to tropical diseases like yellow fever and the like. Diseases which we thought were under control, or even close to eliminated, like measles and polio, are making a comeback due to the refusal by some people to vaccinate their children.

The world is full of dangers. Maybe it is not such a good idea to shake people's hands, or kiss them on the cheek. Maybe, the next time that you notice that someone used the toilet and didn't wash their hands, you should say something.

There is also a very dangerous habit in some countries. In most of Europe, if you are sick, your doctor will write you off of work, partly to give you a chance to recover properly, and partly to ensure that you don't return to work while you are still infectious, and infect your colleagues or customers. In the USA, people often return to work while still ill and infectious, because they can lose their jobs if they take too much time off for sickness. I would argue that there is an economic imperative to change this behaviour, by ensuring people do not run the risk of being fired due to sickness, and by providing universal healthcare (so that people can afford to go to the doctor).

Recycling Ends Up As Landfill

Posted on 18th May 2017

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This news story from the BBC highlights a problem that has bothered me for quite a while: much of our recycling, separated at home, ends up as landfill because of the mixture of materials in each article.

Many items which we put into recycling bins are not able to be recycled, and are instead dumped into landfill sites, or (as with much of the garbage and recyclables in Munich) incinerated. Examples include:

  • Pringles containers (containing cardboard, metal, aluminium foil and plastic).
  • Many kinds of plastic bottles - those containing multiple kinds of plastic.
  • Cleaning spray bottles - not only a mix of plastic, but also a metal spring.
  • Foil (aluminium) and plastic pill packs (very popular in Germany - I never know whether to recycle them as plastic or metal, or put them in the normal garbage).
  • Containers for whiskey bottles, which usually contain cardboard and metal.
  • Black plastic trays for meat (the black colour makes the meat look redder) - black plastic is useless for recycling.
  • The plastic sealing on wine bottles - mostly plastic, but often with a small aluminium foil disc over the top of the cork, which is very hard to separate.

On top of that, expanded polystyrene is still widely used in packaging, as trays for meat, and as shock-absorbing packing for fragile goods like PCs. Expanded polystyrene cannot be recycled, although many people seem ignorant of this and put it into the plastic recycling. There are perfectly adequate and cheap alternative materials for all these purposes (for example those sheets of plastic bubble-wrap).

Another thing that came to light a few years ago is that much of the paper and cardboard which we recycle is put into landfill or incinerated, because the price for recycled paper is so low that it is often not financially viable to recycle it.

I really think that industry needs to try harder to make sure that their packaging is easily recyclable. Clear instructions on the packaging about what it is (and thus which bin to put it in) would also be a great benefit, since many people have difficulty identifying what material some items are.

Competition Watchdog Creates A Monopoly

Posted on 12th May 2017

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What a great job by the UK's competition watchdog (the Competition and Markets Authority, or CMA), as reported by this BBC news article!

There are only two companies still in the business of providing pager services in the UK: Vodafone and Capita. Pagers are still used by hospital staff, and are therefore considered essential. Pagers are not making much money, because of the small market, so Vodafone wanted to sell their pager business to Capita.

The CMA objected to the sale of Vodafone's pager business to Capita, because it would have created a monopoly, and blocked the sale. The result of their intervention: Vodafone have decided to close down their pager business, thus creating a monopoly anyway. The only impact of the CMA's intervention is that Vodafone has been prevented from making any money from the closing down of the pager operation.

One has to wonder why the CMA continues to exist, given what poor service they deliver. I think I know why the CMA is so bad at their job, though: they are a monopoly!

Australia Destroys Rare Pressed Flower Collection

Posted on 12st May 2017

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The Australian Government is working hard to preserve their country's reputation as being the worst in the world on environmental issues. This BBC story describes how a collection of irreplaceable and valuable pressed flowers, loaned from France, was incinerated because of a problem with the paperwork.

I fully understand that Australia (New Zealand too) needs to be careful about importing foreign species. Australia has huge problems with invasive species (some of which were introduced deliberately, in some cases in attempts to control other pests): Cane Toads, Goats, Rabbits, Red Foxes, etc. (more information about invasive species in Australia here). Clearly controls are needed. In this case, however:

  • The items in question were requested by Australia,
  • The specimens were dead, and unlikely to escape into the wild,
  • The collection is very valuable, and irreplaceable, so if they really didn't want them coming (temporarily) into Australia, the responsible thing to do would have been to simply send them back.
Erosion Of Rights In The USA

Posted on 10th May 2017

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This piece in The Guardian should be cause for concern for anyone who lives in the USA.

The article describes the unprecedented number (more than 30 since the 8th of November 2016) of state laws introduced to crack down on protests. UN experts have called these laws “incompatible with US obligations under international human rights law”.

The USA is famous for its 1st Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right to free speech. Now, that right is being severely limited when exercised via organised protests.

It occurs to me that this is in some way opposite to Christian principles. In the New Testament, Jesus is reported as saying "Whenever two or three people are gathered together in my name, I will be with you": you can only commune with God in organised groups. Under these new ant-protest laws, you can only exercise your right to free speech (in the states which have such laws - more than half, it seems) if you do not do so in an organised group.

Since these new laws about protests are being promulgated by Republicans, who by and large purport to be Christian, I detect a whiff of hypocrisy in their position.

Unlock The iPhones

Posted on 5th May 2017

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I totally agree with the Florida judge in the case reported here, by the BBC.

"Reality TV star Hencha Voigt and former boyfriend, Wesley Victor, are accused of threatening to release explicit images of social media star Julieanna Goddard unless she paid a ransom."

Their iPhones are suspected not only to contain the material used for the blackmail, but were used in the commission of that blackmail (to send the blackmailing messages). As such they are material evidence in the case.

The accused have pleaded the 5th Amendment (the right to refuse to incriminate themselves), but the judge is having none of it, and has ordered them to divulge their passwords. "For me, this is like turning over a key to a safety deposit box," he said on Wednesday. Good for him!

If he had let the 5th Amendment defence stand, it would have weakened the rights of law enforcement to seize evidence of all kinds: safes, bank account statements, documents, etc. which would have put law enforcement on a slippery slope.

Just to be clear, cases like this are not the same as US customs and immigration demanding to search phones and laptops when people are entering the USA. Searches at borders are not based on any evidence nor related to any law enforcement cases, and are therefore totally unjust.

Victims Have No Rights!

Posted on 5th May 2017

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There is really rather a lot in this BBC news report that is shocking, worrying or just downright confusing.

It turns out that surprisingly large numbers of people are arrested in the USA every year under material witness warrants, because the police want them to give evidence against someone, and are concerned that they may not turn up at court to do so, if not forced. In just one parish, Orleans Parish, there were at least 30 cases last year in which material witness warrants were issued; this is according to a local non-profit justice watchdog, Court Watch NOLA, because the District Attorneys (prosecutors) office does not keep records of these warrants.

We are not talking about just one night in jail, as typically people held under these warrants are held for days. This seems excessive.

In the aftermath of 9/11 material witness warrants were used as a way to detain suspects without "probable cause": at least 70 men were held as material witnesses in the aftermath of the attacks while the Justice Department looked for evidence; a third of them were in prison for more than two months, some for more than six months, and one witness detainee spent more than a year in prison.

What makes this situation even more scary is that people detained under material witness warrants do not have the usual "Miranda" rights: e.g. the right to a phone call, a lawyer (or a public defender) and the right to a prompt appearance before a judge.

In the example case with which the news story leads, Marc Mitchell was arrested without being given a reason or charge on which he was being arrested. This is something that I thought people had a legal right to be told, but maybe I am wrong. If they don't have such a right, then they should have.

Another thing that concerns me is the embarrassment that the police cause to the people whom they arrest under these warrants, partly because they do not even seem to know why they are arresting these people. Marc Mitchell could easily have lost his job, after being taken away in handcuffs in front of his colleagues and customers. I hope that he has the sense to sue for the damage to his reputation.

The icing on the cake is that these material witnesses are then usually incarcerated in the same jails as the people against whom they are to give evidence, putting them and their families in danger of retaliation and blackmail.

What really surprises me is that it seems that, under US law, witnesses have no legal right to refuse to testify if it puts their life in danger. The USA has the 5th Amendment to The Constitution, giving witnesses and defendants the right to refuse to incriminate themselves, but no right to refuse to ensure their safety. I strongly feel that this is a right that is needed, and that probably an additional constitutional amendment is urgently called for.

Trump Demolishes The US Government!

Posted on 20th April 2017

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This short video report on by the BBC gives a frightening summary of Donald Trump's less well noticed recent decisions in his continuing programme of removing government regulations in all areas of life and business in the USA:

  1. In Alaska, bears can now be hunted while they hibernate, and wolves can be shot from helicopters. The argument is that individual states should manage wildlife resources. That argument is totally illogical: wildlife is a national resource, used by many people from outside of those states (people from other states, and international visitors). If state management of wildlife is such a good idea, why don't they take the same approach with drug control (as was done in Germany about 20 years ago, where the federal government repealed all anti-drug legislation and left it up to the individual states to draft and enforce their own)?
  2. It has been made easier for mentally ill people to buy guns without background checks. Irrespective of whether the right to bear arms, as guaranteed in the US constitution, is a good idea or not, it is an established legal principle that mentally ill people should not have all the rights of normal citizens, and the history of gun violence in the USA shows that there are problems resulting from so many guns, so why are they making life more dangerous for everyone?
  3. Environmental protections for streams has been reduced, allowing mining companies to dump toxic waste into the nation's waterways. This is a national problem, as streams, and the rivers that they feed, cross state boundaries, and pollute ground-water and the surrounding oceans. Republicans seem obsessed with letting free-market forces control so many things, but free-market forces cannot properly limit pollution unless the full costs of that pollution are passed on to the polluters (the principle of "the polluter pays") which is not currently the case, and is not even on the agenda of the Trump administration.
  4. Oil, gas and mining companies will no longer need to report money paid to foreign governments. This is a licence for bribery and corruption, and even for companies to interfere in the elections in overseas governments. The rest of the world is slowly moving to stamp out bribery and corruption, but the USA is going against the trend, in order to ensure the competitiveness of US companies.
  5. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can now sell their customers' browsing history (and other Internet usage history) without the consent of those customers. This will allow better targeted advertising, but is open to abuse. It should not be forgotten that, given the number of hacking attacks going on, once your data is out there on someone's computer systems, it will also probably leak into the hands of criminals and be used for identity theft and financial crime. Again, this is a move in the opposite direction to most of the rest of the world. I already use a proxy service for some of my Internet activity, and if my usage history was going to be put up for sale, I would use a proxy for everything (luckily there is little chance of that it Germany).

It seems that Donald Trump and his band of idiot followers are intent on removing government regulation from everything that will ensure a safe life, ethical business practices, and protect the environment.

More Overbooked Flights

Posted on 19th April 2017

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There has been more news about people being bumped off overbooked flights.

This BBC news story describes how a couple going on vacation to Catania in Sicily were removed from an EasyJet flight from Luton, after boarding, due to overbooking, and told that the next EasyJet flight to their destination was in four days time. They were not told that they had a right to be rebooked onto another airline the same day at EasyJet's cost, and not offered compensation, in flagrant violation of EU rules. The couple had booked non-refundable accommodation for 6 nights, and decided to cancel their trip, despite the cost. That is what can happen if you fly without knowing your rights!

In the other case, reported here by the BBC, a family tried to check in online, and were left with boarding passes for all members of the family except their 10 year old son. Clearly, leaving the 10 year old to find his way back home alone, and fend for himself for a week, was neither acceptable nor legal, so they travelled to two other airports, trying to find alternative flights; eventually they found flights from Montreal, spending an additional C$1,000 on the new flights. Since then, they have complained to Air Canada, and have been offered a C$2,500 voucher, along with an apology; I don't consider that anywhere near enough compensation.

I know that many airlines have problems with online check-in of groups of people travelling together; I have had problems with this myself. Even if everyone in the party gets a seat, which is by no means guaranteed, separate check-in usually results in being seated apart, which is certainly not acceptable when young children, sick or disable passengers are involved. Online check-in is the best way to avoid being bumped from overbooked flights (apart from flying business or first class, which most of us cannot afford), but families and groups are often forced to check-in at the airport (i.e. last-minute) if they want to sit together. There is clearly something wrong with the computer systems and processes used by airlines, if it results in a child being left without a seat, and it needs to be fixed.

The killer is that, typically, if the other members of a group choose not to fly because a member of the party cannot get a seat, the forego their right to compensation, since the contracts to fly are separate, and they are deemed to have "voluntarily" chosen not to fly.

The airline business is a tough business to be in: many airline have been bailed out by governments, and most struggle to make a profit. Airlines have discretion about whether to offer compensation in some cases, but when it comes to compensation to which passengers are legally entitled, they need to stop sidestepping their obligations and pay up, without being asked or even threatened.

My girlfriend almost always pays the small extra fee to have travel insurance, and that is probably a good idea. Insurance, however, will still not compensate travellers for many of the problems of families and other groups travelling together, because, again, the insurance contracts are separate for each traveller. We need our airlines to be more honest and responsible; if they won't, there will be more regulations to impose that honest and responsible behaviour on them.

Republicans In Trouble Again!

Posted on 17th April 2017

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This BBC report describes how a republican governor has resigned over a sex scandal. Alabama's governor, Robert Bentley, has quit over his relationship with an aide, after lawmakers began impeachment proceedings against him.

I find the hypocrisy incredible, in that republicans campaign on the basis of family values, but are always getting into trouble for having sexual relations outside of their marriages. Infidelity is not uncommon in the modern world, but we hold our politicians to better standards of behaviour than ourselves.

At what point will the hypocrisy of republicans result in people not voting for them? Do voters not actually care what their politicians do, compared to what they say they believe in?

The Meaning Of Justice And Impartiality

Posted on 17th April 2017

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This story on the BBC is both upsetting and worrying.

A judge in Bradford in the UK, Jonathan Durham Hall QC, has been disciplined for offering to pay a victim surcharge penalty for a girl who admitted attacking a man who had sexually assaulted her when she was younger, after the judge imposed a two-year youth rehabilitation order. The judge is accused of failing to demonstrate "impartiality".

It seems to me that the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice fail to understand the meaning of impartiality, and the role of a judge in balancing the requirements of both enforcing the law and ensuring justice.

The girl has been censured and punished, and that is on her record. A judge has a degree of discretion in deciding sentence, but there are some things that are imposed as a matter of administrative procedure, such as the victim surcharge. If the judge decides that payment of this surcharge is not just, it is his right and his duty to offer to pay it. Failure to do so would have been a dereliction of his duty.

If judges are prevented from exercising their discretion, or punished when they do, then we are no better off than if we had the science-fiction scenario of a robot judge who simply follows predefined rules. If we end up with that system, it will be a sorry day indeed.

Industrial Action Over IR35 Taxation

Posted on 17th April 2017

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There is industrial action in the UK due to the introduction of IR35 taxation rules for locum doctors, as reported here by the BBC. Doctors are threatening to refuse to work as locums because their work will now be covered by the new IR35 rules (for more explanation of IR35, click here).

This does not even qualify as a strike in the normal sense of the word. Locums, like so many medical professionals, are not employees, but freelancers. If the pay and conditions are not good enough they are able to withdraw their labour largely without putting themselves in breach of contract.

Medical authorities use locums when other staff are sick, on vacation, or there are staff shortages for other reasons such as bad management, usually with very short notice. Like all interim staff, they are expected to come ready trained, and work unsociable hours; they get no pay for vacations and public holidays, nor for training (they are expected to keep their knowledge and skills up to date on their own time). The can be "fired" (taken off the list of approved locums) with little or no notice. In exchange for that flexibility, they have a right to expect good pay rates.

It is not only medical locums who object to IR35. All freelance contractors (like me) dislike it (here). I am now seeing more and more jobs advertised as being covered by IR35. It is part of a decades-long campaign to make life difficult and expensive for this important sector of the workforce, by increasing their tax burden, increasing bureaucracy, and imposing hypocritical and inconsistent regulations. Freelance contractors have long been required to be employees of a company, either their own company or an umbrella management company (many UK contractors opted to have their own company) and to pay tax and national insurance on the same basis as a permanent employee; but when their contact ends (as they do) and their employment is terminated (in the case of contractors with their own companies, they have to fire themselves) they find the government unwilling to pay unemployment benefit (the government argues that firing themselves is not valid); not much of an insurance for all those NI payments! Freelancers are an important wealth generating part of the workforce, and I do not understand why the government seems to hate us so.

The bizarre thing is that the review of IR35 was one of the election promises of the current government. Well, you can't trust politicians, and certainly not their campaign promises!

I have been contracting now for very many years. That means that I have invested a great deal of my time and money in being able to do an effective job. The last time I claimed any kind of unemployment benefit was when I was a student, during vacations. The last time I made use of national health service funding for medical costs was in the 1980s. The last time that anyone other than me paid for my training or eduction was in 1996. When I work, I work long hours; I "hit the ground running"; I am available for work at short notice; and although I earn good money, I have high costs (away from home accommodation, meals and travel) and frequently have gaps between jobs with no income. I pay tax and social insurance (e.g. NI), and for that I received absolutely no benefits. I am not unusual in this. Like all contractors who work in multiple countries, I always have to worry about the risks of double taxation (the inter-country agreements on no double taxation are a joke - see here for more details.)

It is high time that governments around the world (it is not only the UK government that is at fault here) stopped treating us freelance contractors as cash-cows, realised the benefits that we provide to the economy, and treated us fairly!

Credit Suisse bosses offer to cut their own bonuses by 40%

Posted on 16th April 2017

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I am gob-smacked by this BBC report, for a couple of reasons.

Bonus payments are meant to be paid for good performance, and often referred to as profit-share bonuses, but Credit Suisse has made a loss for the last two years. So why do the bosses think that they deserve any bonuses at all, let alone 78m Swiss francs ($77m; £62m) shared between 12 executives?

To me this seems to be corruption, pure and simple, and it should be stamped out.

The other thing that occurs to me is that these executives knew that, at the upcoming shareholders meeting, their bonuses would be voted down by the owners of the company, and this announcement is a cynical attempt for them to retain some bonus payments, rather than to have the shareholders decree that they receive none at all, as they properly deserve.

So why did the BBC journalist, whose name is not on the story, not think of this possibility, and spend some time investigating, and discuss it in the article? I expect better journalism from the BBC, and I am very disappointed.

Cheap And Nasty Obstacle Avoidance System!

Posted on 16th April 2017

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I am very concerned about the news now percolating out about the crash of Rescue 116, which collided with Blackrock Island on 14 March. The latest report from the BBC (here) contains the very worrying information that Blackrock (an island which is well known because it has a lighthouse on it, and is therefore marked on all marine and air maps of the area) was not in the database of the obstacle-avoidance system installed on the helicopter.

Many people are probably now thinking "How terrible!" and yes, it is really dreadful that such a well known and well mapped obstacle was not in the system's database, and I am sure that someone is rushing to roll out updates to the databases of all such systems, but that is not what worries me. What concerns me is that an obstacle-avoidance system apparently relies only on a database of known obstacles; there doesn't seem to be any integration of radar data into the system.

Just look at the photo in the BBC report: the island is about the size of an aircraft carrier, and should be easily visible on radar from a long way off. Any useful obstacle-avoidance system should help to avoid not only fixed obstacles, but also mobile obstacles like ships and other aircraft. So, something is wrong: either the Irish coast-guard bought a cheap and nasty system which doesn't use radar data, or the radar was not working (either switched off, or not fit for purpose).

I began my professional career in avionics, so I do have some idea what I am talking about.

Either way, someone needs to be held accountable. In the meantime, I will not be volunteering to fly on any Irish coast-guard helicopters.

Assault On A United Plane!

Posted on 11th April 2017

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Social media is abuzz with this story (reported here by the BBC) of the doctor being forcibly assaulted and forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight awaiting departure from a Chicago airport on Sunday evening.

The BBC report contains a shocking video of the man being dragged from the flight by three security personnel. He ended up with his face covered in blood (his own blood).

United's only explanation seems to be that the flight was overbooked, so they were trying to get 4 volunteers to make space for 4 members of United staff who needed to fly in order to work the next day. There were not enough volunteers, so they picked the doctor and his wife; a doctor who also needed to fly in order to be at work the next day. To me, that reason does not constitute an excuse.

I don't know how you see this, but I feel that getting a doctor to work is much more important than getting flight crew to work.

If you don't fly frequently, you may not realise that overbooking is common. A certain number of people don't turn up for their flights, and to avoid empty seats the airline often overbooks, and that sometimes means that there are not enough seats on the flight (more information on overbooking here).

United Airlines, however, is behaving as if the overbooking was something done to them by some third-party, whereas they did it to themselves.

Normal procedure is that passengers are offered compensation for not flying on overbooked flights (another flight, meal vouchers, a paid overnight stay in a hotel, an additional flight at a later date, etc.). If there are no volunteers, the offer is usually improved until passengers do volunteer. It is not clear from the BBC report whether any compensation was offered, nor whether the offer was improved when there were not enough takers (or none at all).

My take on this is as follows:

  • The passengers, including the poor doctor, had a contract to be transported by United or their agents to their destination. United Airlines is in breach of contract for ejecting a passenger from the flight without their agreement.
  • United were trying to make room for their staff to fly. Those staff, as United employees, have a duty to assist in honouring any contracts that the airline has, with passengers or whoever else, and that duty means that they are the ones who should have been bumped from the flight.
  • The airline has a moral, and probably legal, duty to take into account the importance of a given passenger taking a flight, and clearly the need of the doctor trumps that of the United staff, but there is no report of them taking that into account.
  • Under no circumstances is it appropriate nor legal to assault someone (unless there are valid and provable security concerns, or a crime is being commissioned by the passenger) and to cause actual bodily harm to remove them from a flight.

There is a lot of social media commentary, with many people suggesting not to fly United. To me, that is not news. I have flown them a few times, and they have always been rubbish: cramped seats, broken TV/audio systems and poor service (more attitude than service). When my girlfriend flies home to Chicago, she tries very hard to ensure that she flies with Lufthansa (difficult to ensure, since United is a code-share partner with Lufthansa); she pays exactly the same price for United as for Lufthansa, but the Lufthansa flight is much better all around. For me, United are in strong competition with British Airways to be the worst airline in the west (if you want to know what I have against BA, click here.

I suggest that people vote with their wallets, and fly with any airline other than United, even if it costs more, or involves a more circuitous route. At the end of the day, people (and especially companies) only pay attention when it costs them money.

I also hope that the grossly abused doctor sues them, and that criminal charges are also filed.

No Laptops On Planes?

Posted on 23rd March 2017

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I am guessing that pretty much everyone who travels for work, saw this report on the BBC, or the same news from some other source. Your initial reaction was probably the same as mine too: thank goodness I am not flying through any of those airports!

It then got me thinking about one of those generic and vague promises in Donald Trump's election campaign: to "make America great again". How exactly will he achieve that when, to my perspective, the USA is no longer open for business with an important (i.e. rich) part of the world.

Already we were being told that it was best to not take your smart-phone to the USA, as described here, since customs (or homeland security, or whoever) had the right to insist that you unlock it and let them peruse the contents (presumably the same rights extend to other devices like laptops and tablets). Now, however, we are being told that mobile devices will not be allowed into the cabin at all, for flights from certain airports, and we all know how slim the chances are that a laptop and tablet will survive a flight in the luggage hold (it will either be stolen or damaged beyond repair).

Of course, the problem is that the list of airports is public, which means that terrorists can and will fly their laptop bombs from airports elsewhere, and the list will just keep getting larger.

I don't want to list here all the reasons why people need to take their portable computing devices on aircraft, but I know why I do: it is usually a condition of contract that I bring my own laptop when I work as a freelancer, and I usually have work to do while on the flight or waiting at the airport. It is not a choice or convenience, it is mandated by my employer.

If it becomes too difficult or expensive (I certainly cannot afford to replace my laptop after almost every trip) to travel to the USA for business, the people will eventually do business elsewhere, with someone else. It seems to me that the USA is no longer open for business; if that continues for any length of time, then the country which we have become used to as the world's largest economy, most influential diplomatic power, and most powerful military force, will become just a footnote in history. President Trump will go down in the history books as the president who not only eroded US democracy beyond recognition. but also the man who presided over the end of their being a world power.

The Slippery Slope Of Banning Blasphemy

Posted on 17th March 2017

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According to this story on the BBC, the Pakistani government has asked FaceBook to help them to fight against blasphemy in content posted by Pakistanis on the social media website. Well, good luck with that!

I have written before (here) about how ridiculous it is to try to legislate against blasphemy. It is equally ridiculous to try to censor social media on what is deemed by some to be blasphemous.

True, Pakistan has an official religion: Islam. There are, however, many different flavours of Islam. Most people have heard of Shiites and the Sunnis, but Pakistan also has quite a few Sufis (technically not a sect; Sufism exists in both Shia and Sunni Islam), whose beliefs and practices are considered by some Muslims to be blasphemous, which has resulted in persecution from time to time, including recently. There are a number of other Muslim sects or denominations, some of whom are present in Pakistan. Each of these sects have differences in their beliefs, doctrines and practices; how then can the Pakistani government even define what blasphemy is?

Then there is the question of democracy. Expressing and sharing opinions is part of the democratic process. Deciding whether blasphemy should be a crime, and what the definition of blasphemy is, is rather hard if you get arrested because your view on the matter is considered blasphemous.

It seems that too many people are unable to think rationally on this subject, so maybe we should let them see what a world would be like if blasphemy were more generally illegal and the laws were enforceable. What about a World Blasphemy Week, during which blasphemy would be illegal in all jurisdictions (so that state prosecutors could file blasphemy charges against all and sundry), and people could also file civil suit on the matter. The Hindus, Buddhists, Shinto, Pagans/Wiccan, and other multi-theistic religions could fight in court with the mono-theistic religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism about how many gods there are. The Roman Catholics could beat-out the issue of transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during communion against the protestants. Then there is the issue of whether it is possible to have a personal relationship with your god (whichever god) or whether you need a priest or other anointed official to be an intermediary. We could all have such a grand fight about diet: Kosher, Halal, is it not OK to eat beef (as the Hindus believe) or are the Jains right about what we should eat (no meat or dairy, and nothing from below the ground). I think that after a week of such a free-for-all, we would all be firmly against laws and censorship about blasphemy (and anyone not able or willing to learn the lesson should perhaps be quietly locked in a padded cell in a mental hospital).

Headscarf Bans At Work?

Posted on 15th March 2017

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I found this new report by the BBC, about an ECJ (European Court of Justice) ruling on workplace headscarf bans to be a little odd.

The court found that it is OK to ban religious symbols and clothing at the workplace, as long as the ban is applied equally to all religions, but not on the basis of "the wishes of a customer".

The issue of customer perceptions and wishes seems to me to be the strongest reason for companies to institute such a ban. The caveat specified by the ECJ does say "the preferences of an individual customer", but what if there are multiple customers with the same preference: would that be an adequate reason for a ban? How many customers are enough? Also, how does a company determine the collective wishes of its customers: do they have to do a survey? I am really not sure that this ruling sets a useful precedent.

Personally, I am not offended and do not feel threatened by people at work (colleagues or suppliers) wearing headscarves, yamakas, crucifixes, etc. I do not understand why some people are upset by such things.

I have worked with people of many religions, in many countries, and sometimes the religious expression in clothing. jewellery and behaviour can be quite "in your face". I worked in Prague with a British Jew who only ate kosher food (widely available in Prague, but rather dry and boring, I found), and who flew home to England every Friday; he had to leave very early on Friday in order to be in his house before sundown (which is when the Sabbath starts). I worked in Jakarta, where most people are Muslim: it is impossible to have meetings at certain times of day because people are at prayers; there were prayers at lunchtime in the office (on the first floor, but usually overflowing into the reception, meaning that I had to leave for lunch via a back door, and visitors arriving during prayers couldn't get into the building). I have worked with people wearing headscarves, yamakas, crucifixes, leather wristbands (a Hindu religious tradition). I have worked with Sikhs, who are supposed to carry their kirpan (technically a small ceremonial sword, actually a knife) at all times (a bit of a problem when travelling by air nowadays). None of this is a problem, as far as I am concerned.

What I am not so keen on is face-covering headgear such as the niqab (but even that I can live with, if necessary). I like to be able to see people's faces when I talk to them (to see the expressions, so that I know whether to believe them) and to recognise them.

A much bigger issue for me is people who want to explain their religion to other people (colleagues and customers), and try to convert them. There are some people who wear religious items as a way to open conversations about their religion; that is not a problem with the items, but with their behaviour, and I see no reason why this problem should be addressed by banning the clothing, jewellery, etc.

I think that, at root, the real issue is the modern trend for people to expect to be comfortable and safe: to not be challenged with ideas that do not match their world-view; to be addressed and referred to with their chosen gender-neutral pronoun; to hear only politically correct speech; to not need to think about, and reassess their opinions. Having to meet and deal with others wearing religious clothing, etc. is a challenge to the bouderaries of the isolated and safe world such people want to inhabit. I have a message for such people: welcome to planet earth!

The Wonder Drug: Marmite!

Posted on 11th November 2016

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Being English, I love marmite (English marmite - the New Zealand version is nowhere near as good - it goes very well with cheddar cheese); English kids are raised on marmite. My German friends think that I am mad to eat it, and that it tastes disgusting, but that is their problem. Getting people who don't know marmite to taste it is great sport; the expressions on their faces when they try it the first time are wonderful.

I have always known that marmite is good for recovering from a hangover, as described on this page from Lifehack, due to the high concentration of B vitamins (and maybe also because of the salt content). Recently, however, I have seen quite a lot of reports about the health benefits of the dark and salty spread:

  1. This report on MailOnline describes how it helps heal damaged heart muscle, thus helping heart attack victims recover and survive longer.
  2. This report on MailOnline described how marmite is beneficial for energy production and brain function.
  3. This BBC story describes new research which has shown that "B vitamins may have protective effect against air pollution".
  4. This piece on EatThis.com includes marmite in a list of foods that improve your sperm count.
  5. This page on HealthTicket describes how high doses [of marmite] increase the body’s ability to fight off staphylococcus bugs like MRSA by 1,000 times.
  6. Marmite improves blood circulation (and is prescribed for those with poor circulation), and it is recommended that you eat marmite 30 minutes before going to the gym or playing sport, as described on the forum of Runners' World.
  7. Apparently marmite helps deter midges from biting you.

Those are just some of the claimed health benefits (some are better supported by research than others). Are you ready to start eating marmite?

How Did We End Up With So Many Weak Bridges?

Posted on 11th March 2017

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This BBC news story is a little worrying. It describes how there are thousand of road bridges in England which are not fit to carry the maximum weight (44 ton) lorries (trucks). The result is lots of bridges with weight restrictions, meaning extra cost, inconvenience and delay for lorries, and a huge backlog of repair bills.

I get the feeling that the author of the story, and the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) upon whose report the news story is based, are a little fuzzy about who is to blame for this. Normally local authorities are responsible for the upkeep of roads and bridges, and it seems that they have not been keeping up.

Then I remembered: the UK government decided to increase the maximum weight of lorries on the roads, without any additional funding being allocated to upgrade roads and bridges, and to maintain them thereafter. The initial increase (with restrictions) was reported here, by the Independent in 1993, with the change taking effect from 1994, and most restrictions (e.g. the road-train restriction) being removed in 2001. Here is a House Of Commons Library note about the current regulations, which contains some of the history. Both the Independent story and the House Of Commons Library note state that the change in maximum weights was made on the basis that the per-axle weight would be reduced, thus reducing the damage to roads and bridges. While this gross simplification may be largely true about road damage, it is patently not true about many road-bridges where, depending on the design (basically depending on the length of an unsupported span), the total weight on a span of the bridge (and thus the amount of damage or wear and tear) is dependent upon the total weight of the lorry, not the per-axle weight.

So to summarise, the UK government took an ill-thought-out decision, based on bad science (or more likely no science at all), which dramatically increased damage and wear and tear on road bridges, and not only did they provide no extra funding to local authorities for bridge upgrades and repairs, but during this period introduced budget cuts on local authority spending. I think it is perfectly clear who is responsible for the dreadful state of Britain's road-bridges.

Encryption For All!

Posted on 20th June 2017

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It seems that the UK government is very out of step with the European parliament. This BBC report describes how MEPs (Members of European Parliament) believe that European citizens have a right to strong end-to-end encryption for all our online communications, to the extent that they want to modify "Article Seven of the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights to add online privacy".

The UK government, on the other hand, believes that they need to be able to read all our online communication, in order to prevent terrorist attacks, and therefore want either that we have only weak (crackable) encryption, or that they have back-door access to our communications (bypassing any encryption that we use). The US government's position is the same.

Given the fact that the Internet is a rather anarchistic thing. with people bringing to market whatever will sell, and if something is banned in the country where you live, you can always use a service or product from another jurisdiction, it seems pretty unlikely that governments will be able to legislate away our ability to keep our messages private.

Personally, I want to have my messages on Skype, WHatsApp, and FaceBook Messenger kept private. Whilst governments may claim that we should trust them, and that their intentions are pure, and today those claims may even be true, there is no guarantee that this will remain so. If, one day, you find yourselves living in some totalitarian regime, how will you organise protests, or even a revolution, when your every message is being read by that regime? This scenario is what we are warned about in books like George Orwell's "1984".

The other reason why I don't want governments reading my messages is that they have proven themselves unable to keep a secret: there have been so many leaks and hacks of government held data, with that data being published in WikiLeaks or offered for sale on the dark-web. They can't even keep their own secrets, so how can I trust them to keep mine?

Of course, the UK is now engaged in Brexit negotiations. If Brexit goes ahead, the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights will not have any sway over the UK government, and they will be free to do as they please (unless citizens protest strongly enough). I am so glad that I no longer live in Britain; at least in continental Europe, it looks like my data will remain secure.

Wikileaks Hypocrisy

Posted on 11th March 2017

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I find the latest statement by Julian Assange, the man in charge of Wikileaks, as reported here by the BBC, to be somewhat hypocritical.

As stated in the new report, Wikileaks is an "anti-secrecy website". They have upset many, especially in US government, by publishing documents which others would much rather remained secret.

Now, however, the latest round of revelations (relating to the CIA's hacking tools, and their competence in hacking) has made Mr Assange rethink his opposition to secrecy. He has decided to first "offer" any further revelations on this subject to technology firms. That means two things to me:

  1. Any new revelations will be kept secret from the rest of us, at least for a short period; this seems at odds with the principles and mission of Wikileaks.
  2. The use of the word "offer" suggests that such early and exclusive access to this information will be in exchange for money.

Whatever the reasons for this change of heart, I think that it will be rather difficult for Wikileaks to claim the moral high-ground, once this system of two-speed leaks has begun.

Why The Laws Of Robotics Cannot Work

Posted on 23rd February 2017

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There has been a lot of news about AI (Artificial Intelligence). There have been major advances in the technology, and many products and services are being rolled out using it: we have AI chat-bots, AI personal assistants, AI in translation tools, and AI being used to stamp out fake news, and is being developed for use on the battlefields of the future, to name but a few. This new breed of AI uses surprisingly few computing resources: it no longer needs a huge computer centre, but simpler AI programs will run even on portable devices such as mobile phones.

My position remains that AI is extremely dangerous. Smarter people than me, such as Professor Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, have said that AI poses an existential threat to humanity. It is not difficult to imagine scenarios where AI goes out of control and poses a threat to our existence: sci-fi movies and literature are full of examples (see the other posts in this thread for some of these works).

I have argued in the past for researchers to take more seriously the laws of robotics, first proposed by Isaac Asimov in 1942. These laws are fairly simple:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

I now realise, however, that this approach cannot work. Modern AI is not programmed in the conventional sense; it learns by being fed data. This means that the creators of an AI system do not know how it represents the information that it has learned, and how it implements the rules and priorities that it has been given. This means that it is not possible to program the laws of robotics into the AI at a basic level, since the programmers do not know the language in which it is thinking. It is, of course, possible to include the laws of robotics in the information that is taught to the AI, but we can never know what priority these laws will really be given by the AI, nor even what it understands by words such as "harm" and "human".

Realistically, the only way we can protect ourselves from the doomsday scenarios of out of control AI is by ensuring that AI never has:

  1. The ability to do physical harm; this means no AI on the battlefield, in self-driving vehicles, in medical equipment, and a whole host of other applications. I seriously doubt that industry and government will be capable of, and trustworthy enough to, show such restraint.
  2. The ability to learn more, once deployed, which amounts to reprogramming itself. Since such continued learning is already one of the unique selling propositions of some AI products, the ship has already sailed on that piece of restraint.
  3. The ability to create more AI. At least this is not yet happening (as far as I know), but I suspect that it is only a matter of time before AI developers start to use AI tools to create the next generation of AI products,

So, basically, we are screwed!

Haven’t Rolls Royce Heard Of Currency Hedging?

Posted on 16th February 2017

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While reading this BBC new report, I started off feeling sympathy for Rolls Royce, but then I thought about it for a couple of seconds.

Rolls Royce (the aero-engine manufacturer, not the car maker) has reported a record loss of £4.5bn. Part of this (£671m) was to settle corruption cases with UK and US authorities , but the remainder is due to "currency related contracts".

It is usual in their business for contracts to be agreed in US$, or sometimes even in the currency of the end-customer, which can lead to shortfalls in revenue when the invoices are paid.

Everyone knows that the British pound went into a slide against other currencies, mostly because of the Brexit referendum, but there is a standard financial technique for dealing with this: currency hedging. This involves buying foreign currency, or options on foreign currency, when you agree contracts in those foreign currencies, to protect against exchange rate variations. Companies can either do this themselves, or pay to use a service (provided by banks and other financial institutions). It is not complicated!

So, the real question here is, why didn't Rolls Royce do this? Are the management really that stupid? I think that the £4.4bn loss due to such poor financial management should be, at least in part, recovered from the bonuses and salaries of senior management; then maybe there will be less such stupidity in the next financial year.

Overcharging At Supermarkets

Posted on 16th February 2017

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This Guardian news story describes how Tesco have been overcharging customers.

An undercover reporter was overcharged on multi-buy offers at most of the stores (33 out of 50) visited, because marked promotions were out of date and no longer valid at the tills. Tesco has now said that it will check the prices of every item at its 3,500-plus stores across the UK, which is a major task.

This kind of problem is not uncommon. I had a very similar issue recently at Netto (a discount supermarket in Germany): they have a promotion on boxes of 6 bottles of several wines, and I bought one last week, and was charged the per-bottle price, not the multi-buy price, due to a mistake by the check-out clerk.

The law, however, is quite clear on this, all across Europe: shops must sell you goods at the advertised price, whether it is advertised in a promotion brochure, on-line, in-store, or on the shelf or product itself. If you don't want to be overcharged, you need to check the price that the check-out clerk rings up, and if it is wrong, complain. In these days of bar-code check-outs, if the price is actually wrong in the check-out system, this can create quite a problem at the check-out, involving a supervisor being called, but you just need to insist.

Many people don't like to complain, but sometimes it needs to be done.

Climate Change Will Bring War

Posted on 21st February 2017

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This Bloomberg news story confirms what I wrote here (on the 31st March 2014) and again here (on the 8th of December 2016), that war over resources will be one of the results of climate change. The report states that "top European and United Nations officials said" that "focusing too narrowly on the environmental consequences of global warming underestimates the military threats". "Their warnings follow the conclusions of defense [sic] and intelligence agencies that climate change could trigger resource and border conflicts".

A lot of people have told me that my predictions are wrong: just paranoia. Just look, however, at virtually any war, whether in recent memory or more distant history: they were, without exception, at root, about resources: slaves, food, land, water, oil etc. Since all our predictions about the impacts of climate change are that resources will be in short supply, and their distribution will change (those that had resources will have less, and some that had few will have more), it seems inevitable that we will fight each other over them; that is simply what we do, and what we have always done. As an example, this news story in the Economist has a quote from Stephen Bannon, one of Donald Trump’s advisors, who said last year that he had “no doubt” that “we’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to ten years”; that could be a really major conflict (and it is all about resources).

There is a common belief that the world is much less warlike than in the past, but the facts do not, in my view, support this belief. True, there has been no world war for more than 70 years, but there have nevertheless been wars, virtually non-stop, since the end of WWII. Some people will argue that we have, at least, avoided global thermonuclear war (so far, and only by the skin of our teeth), and that this shows that our leaders have learned a little restraint, but I strongly believe that the absence of nuclear conflict is because it is non-functional, in that it destroys the resources that are being fought over, and not because humanity has become more peaceful.

I tend to take the jaundiced view that war is simply part of the human condition, and is largely unavoidable. There is, however, one huge problem with war in the modern world: war is always an environmental nightmare, with wholesale destruction of natural and man-made resources, and drastic pollution which can last decades (there are still areas of France blighted by the last world war). Our environment is now very fragile, due to pollution and over-exploitation, and we should not be subjecting it to more of the stress that is war.

I think we need, as a species, to get over our addiction to war, somehow or other.

Can Automatic Tills Make Mistakes?

Posted on 9th February 2017

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I have just returned from a quick shopping trip to Edeka, a supermarket in Germany. I am a little upset.

Edeka has a new and efficient system of checkouts. There are moving belts, each staffed by an operator who rings up the items. When that is done, the customer moves to the next stage to pay at a payment terminal. I usually pay with an EC card or a credit card, which is quick, and not prone to errors.

Today, I had only a small amount of cash with me, and wanted to use up the coins. The bill was only €2.47, since I had only bought two items plus I had some money back from recycling some bottles. I put €2.50 (a €2 piece, two 20 cent pieces and a 10 cent piece) into the payment terminal. The machine registered the €2 piece as a €1. That meant that I did not have enough change to make up the claimed shortfall, and had to pay (again) with a note, leaving me with a pocket full of change: exactly what I was trying to avoid.

I complained, and the manager of the checkouts came over. Basically, she told me that there was nothing to be done, that the automatic payment machines do not make mistakes and if they did the mistakes would show up in the end of day balance checks, which they don't. That last argument seems reasonable, but this has happened to me fairly often in the past, so I am fairly certain that the machines do make mistakes, and/or there is something amiss with their end of day balance checks.

It is not as if I mind about a €1 error, and I do accept that sometimes I might make the error, but not today (my change had been counted three times: once before leaving home, once while paying in another shop, and once before paying in Edeka). What bothers me is the attitude of the manager and her apparent absolute trust in her machines and processes: it doesn't matter if I complain because I am just wrong.

What I will do from now on is photograph my change using my mobile phone before dumping it into the machine, until I can prove that the machines do make mistakes, and get an apology from the shop.

Balancing The Needs Of Environmental Protection Against Protecting People

Posted on 10th February 2017

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I was quite heartened to read this BBC news story.

The report describes how park rangers in Kaziranga National Park in India are shooting suspected poachers to protect rhinos. They are shooting about 20 people a year.

I don't see why anyone would find this shocking; I find it shocking that most parks which are home to endangered species are not doing so.

The world is desperately short of rhinos (see this post about the virtual extinction of the Northern White Rhino), but we have plenty of humans (over 7 billion and counting). Efforts at protecting endangered species and preserving unique habitats are so often compromised because those efforts put the lives and livelihoods of humans at risk. As long as we continue to undermine the protection of the natural world by setting the wrong balance between people and wildlife, the natural world will continue to be destroyed, and once that natural world is gone, humans will soon be wiped out too.

If you want to get an idea of what life would be like once the environment is heavily degraded, I strongly recommend that you watch the movie "Soylent Green". I certainly don't want to live in a world like that, but I probably don't have a choice in the matter.

It's official: Brexit leave voters are stupid!

Posted on 21st February 2017

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Firstly, I would like to apologise for those of you (who voted to leave, in the Brexit referendum) who feel insulted by this article. This is statistical data, and does not necessarily prove that all Brexit voters are stupid, and also does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship; it merely points out a trend.

This BBC report contains an analysis of local voting data from the Brexit referendum.

The main finding was that:

  • Results were strongly associated with the educational attainment of voters - populations with lower qualifications were significantly more likely to vote Leave.
  • The level of education had a higher correlation with the voting pattern than any other major demographic measure from the census.

There were, of course, other correlations with demographic data, such as age and ethnicity, but they were less strong than with education.

So, again, sorry, but (and I am, of course, exaggerating here) if you voted for Britain to leave the EU, there is a chance that you are stupid, and a chance that that is why you voted for Brexit.

I have been caused to wonder recently, during the US presidential elections, listening to voters' reactions to Donald Trump's policies and their reactions to the outrageous things he said, whether some people may actually be too stupid (or otherwise mentally impaired) to be allowed to vote. I understand that this goes against what many people see as a principle of democracy, but maybe it bears thinking about. I don't mean to say that, because one person has a degree, they have a better right to vote that someone who doesn't have a degree, but maybe there needs to be a cut-off (perhaps based on one or more of IQ, memory, awareness of history and current news) below which people shouldn't be voting because they don't understand the issues, the consequences of their choices, and cannot identify when candidates are lying or exaggerating.

I am sure that many people reading this will violently disagree, as you are entitled to; it is just a thought, and not an idea that I am bought-in to, but one that might be worthy of analysis.

Is The UK Government The Enemy of Democracy?

Posted on 9th January 2017

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After I read this BBC news report this morning, I think the question "Is The UK Government The Enemy of Democracy?" is a reasonable one, to which the British voters need the answer.

Non-Brits may not be aware of how the House of Lords works. In some ways, it is like the US Senate, but Lords are not elected; they are instead appointed by government. Each government appoints a few, so most of the Lords were appointed by previous governments. Appointments are for life (there are still a few hereditary peers, who mostly do not vote, but no new hereditary peers are created nowadays). There has long been talk of abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an elected body, in the same way that there is talk of abolishing the monarchy, but there are no real plans to do it, and the public seems to have mixed feelings on the issue.

The House of Lords cannot completely block legislation (neither can the Queen); they can either pass bills or send bills back to the House of Commons with amendments, and that they can only do a limited number of times (three, I believe).

Now, however, the government has said that the House of Lords will face an "overwhelming" public call to be abolished if it opposes the bill to trigger Article 50 (to begin the process of Brexit - leaving the EU).

Hold on a minute! There are only two choices here:

  1. Either the House of Lords performs some valid and useful role in the British democratic process.
    In that case, how dare the UK government interfere in the workings of democracy. Let the Lords get on with their job.
  2. Or the House of Lords performs no useful democratic function.
    In that case, the process of abolishing the House of Lords should have already started, and should be judged by the British people on its merits.

It doesn't even matter which of the above views is right. The idea that abolition can be wielded as a punishment for "bad behaviour" fits neither of the above scenarios, and is nothing more than corrupt and undemocratic blackmail on the part of Theresa May's government.

Not Feeling Much Sympathy With Tornado Victims

Posted on 9th February 2017

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I am sure that most of my readers will think me heartless, but I am really not feeling much sympathy for the victims in Louisiana who lost their houses in the tornadoes, as described in this BBC report.

I mean, have you seen typical American houses? You can get an idea just from looking at the wreckage of the Chaney family house, pictured in the BBC story. Especially in the warmer parts of the USA, such as Louisiana, so many houses are timber framed with light-weight wooden or metal siding, and sometimes even wooden shingle roofs. What do you think happens to such a house when it gets windy? These people know that they live in areas prone to tornadoes. Haven't they heard the story of the Three Little Pigs?

The UK Military Agrees With Me About Climate Change

Posted on 8th December 2016

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According to a study by UK military experts, as described on this story in the Huffington Post UK Edition, climate change will create An "epic" humanitarian crisis.

Some of these UK experts' predictions, backed-up by other experts from around the world, are very much in line with what I predicted in March 2014 in this post. There will be huge increases in:

  • Hurricanes/typhoons, floods, droughts, heat-waves, cold winters and other extreme weather;
  • Shortages of water and food, especially in vulnerable regions;
  • Disease and crop-pests;
  • Wars over food, water and other key resources;
  • The numbers of refugees and migrants;
  • Militarisation around the world, to deal with the threat of resource wars, and to limit immigration.
Mountain Lions Have Rights Too!

Posted on 4th December 2016

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This BBC report, about the issuing of "depredation order" allowing a mountain lion to be hunted, illustrates some of the typical poor logic and bad assumptions about wildlife and how wild animals are (mis-)treated.

Most people work on the assumption that wildlife is great (and should be protected) as long as it doesn't harm livestock, pets, business or people. This position is inherently flawed.

If you encroach on the territory, or steal the food supply, of wild animals, then there will inevitably come a point where the needs and desires of humans are in conflict with those of the wildlife:

  • If you keep alpacas on mountain slopes where mountain lions live, as has happened in this case, expect to lose some to predation;
  • If you build a dam, creating a lake or pond, which you stock with trout so that people will pay to fish there, in an area where there are populations of fish-eating birds or otters, don't complain if you end up feeding the wildlife with your expensive trout;
  • If you pay good money to go salmon fishing in Canada, do not expect that you have priority over the grisly bears who may also be fishing for salmon.

There are many cases where conservation measures have consequences on human life and commerce. Farmers in Scotland are still complaining that golden eagles are killing too many lambs in the spring. Wolves are making a comeback in Germany, and there are inevitable consequences on livestock, and eventually on human life. Gamekeepers in Scotland are regularly in trouble for their attempts to control wildlife populations, to limit predation on grouse raised for the hunt.

If we do conservation only as long as it doesn't inconvenience us, then we may as well not bother. Most wildlife will disappear, and humans will suffer as a result.

The wild animals (mountain lions, tigers, otters, large birds of prey, herons, sharks, etc.) were in the territories where humans consider them to be problems, long before humanity spread and bred to cover the planet from coast to coast. Why should the wildlife keep being pushed back to smaller and more marginal habitats? Humans also need to compromise. The only way that humanity will be prepared to compromise is if we formalise the inalienable rights of animals, sea-life, and even plants, so that they can have legal protection.

Is An All-Women Expedition Sexist??

Posted on 4th December 2016

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This BBC story got me thinking about sexism: about how it is no longer acceptable to be sexist about/to women, but still OK to be sexist about/to men.

Don't get me wrong: I think it is, in some sense, great that there is an all-women expedition to Antarctica. It is just that, by its very nature, it excludes men. I feel fairly confident that, if a man applied to to join the expedition, he would be refused on the entirely logical grounds that it is an all-woman expedition; it seems fair and sensible. If the situation were reversed, however, and a woman was refused when trying to join an all-men expedition (or an all-male golf club, or an elite combat team in the armed forces of some countries) there would be outrage at the sexism: there would be a social media campaign against the sexists, and a climb-down could be expected. I don't say this based on supposition; there are plenty of recorded cases to prove the point, in the press and in court records.

So, why is it OK for women to exclude men, but not OK for men to exclude women? If I even tried to organise an all-men event of some kind, I would probably be swamped with complaints and bad publicity.

I believe in the equality of the sexes, but today it is just pie-in-the-sky, and we all need to try harder. Women's representation in government, the civil service, and the senior levels of business are far from equal, and the same goes for their salaries. On the other hand, we tolerate the exclusion of men by women, but not vice versa.

Battle Of The Sexes?

Posted on 4th December 2016

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I am not encouraged by some of the messages and assumptions in this piece on the BBC Magazine (part of a series featuring 100 Women).

The first thing that struck me was that the novel thing for Kathy Murray was the idea that she should treat her husband with respect; that his opinions and preferences were just as valid as hers, and that she should therefore stop trying to control him. Is it really such a novel idea that you treat your partner with respect? If so, no wonder there are so many failed marriages, and so many people struggling on in their relationships while so being unhappy. Why would you even marry someone whom you don't respect?

The other message that felt so wrong to me was that relationships are a battle, and that Kathy Murray fixed her marriage by "surrendering". As far as I am concerned, relationships are based on partnership and support. If you have to continue fighting the same kind of battles at home, as you fight at work and elsewhere in the world, you will be exhausted and on-edge the whole time.

The idea that someone in a relationship is trying to control their partner fits with the American concept of the "fixer-Upper". Women have been known to settle for someone (i.e. to marry them) despite known flaws, with the idea that the man can bed fixed-up through training and control. The more I think about this, the more people I realise that I know whose relationships are built on this shaky foundation.

A Very Dangerous Precedent

Posted on 29th November 2016

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I wonder whether the German courts, government and people understand exactly what kind of precedent has been set by the case described on this BBC story.

Oskar Groening, known as "the bookkeeper of Auschwitz", has been convicted by a German Federal Court for being an accessory to the murder of prisoners in the Auschwitz death-camp, despite him only having witnessed (and presumably provided logistical support for) the murders.

The ruling surprised many, because of a ruling handed down in 1969 that being aware of the murders and working at a death-camp was not proof of being an accessory to murder (the case in 1969 was against a camp dentist, who was deemed not guilty). The protection afforded by that ruling now seems to have evaporated.

This means that a whole host of trades and professions could now be prosecuted: people working at the camps, either civilian or military, as doctors, dentists, nurses, lawyers, supply and delivery staff, cooks and washers-up, cleaners, translators and interpreters.

It could also mean the prosecution of any civilian who had witnessed such murders, or even those who had reasonable grounds to believe that such murders were taking place: basically the whole German nation at the time (more than just citizens of Germany as we now know it, but also most of the Volksdeutsch in Poland, The Czech Republic, Austria, etc.).

I think (and I know I am not alone in this) that it is time that the Germans got over their guilt about the war. It was a very long time ago, when the world was very different. Seeing how easily the modern world swings back in the direction of nationalism, fascism, and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, as evidenced by Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, UKIP, Geert Wilders, etc., it is hard to view the Nazi years as a uniquely German problem.

I remember a conversation with a German friend, a few years ago, about the national guilt over WW II. He said that, of course, German people felt guilty for electing Hitler (although Germans are quick to point out that Hitler was Austrian) and the Nazis, and following them to war, but that a possibly even greater guilt was that, having decided to wage a world-war, "Well, we are Germans, so, of course, we should have won".

Punctuation Also Belongs In Headlines

Posted on 29th November 2016

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I have noticed a growing tendency for the media to leave out or incorrectly use punctuation. This includes the BBC, which was once the bastion of proper English.

This story from the BBC is an excellent example. The headline of the story states "Gambia elections: Jammeh suspends campaign to mourn Castro". That prompted two questions: why did President Jammeh have a campaign to mourn Fidel Castro, and why did he cancel it? After a moment's reflection, I realised that the journalist meant to write "Gambia elections: Jammeh suspends campaign, to mourn Castro", although it would also have been fine to write "Gambia elections: to mourn Castro, Jammeh suspends campaign".

I have seen more than enough examples of this kind of error in recent news items.

Proper punctuation ensures clarity and ease of reading. Incorrect punctuation adds confusion and can alter or even completely invert the meaning of a phrase. Sometimes, altering word-order and adding more words can achieve the same result as punctuation, but journalism is often about transmitting a message with a few words as possible, most especially in headlines. Sadly, however, the media seems to hold the incompatible and contrary belief that certain kinds of punctuation do not belong in headlines (colons are OK, but commas are not).

Many newspapers, magazines and web-sites will argue that criticism of their punctuation is unfair, because they were quoting someone (a politician or business leader, for example), but sometimes this is no excuse. I have heard speeches and official statements where the correct punctuation was in the original text, and correctly and clearly enunciated by the speaker, but whoever at the newspaper transcribed it did not understand. Such cases are due to bad grammar education in the journalism industry.

To be fair, there are also cases where the speakers do not know how to express themselves. One notable example from recent press coverage is Donald Trump, who speaks as if his mental age is about 9 years. I recently saw a TV interview where the woman interviewer felt it necessary interpret each of his answers into normal and grown-up English.

A few years about I witnessed a telephone conversation between a colleague, Roger, and one of the company's documentation team based in Bangalore, India. The process was that a developer wrote not only code, but also a text file of updates to the documentation (add this paragraph, delete these paragraphs, change XXX to YYY); the documenter then made these changes to a PDF version of the document. Our developers were German, Russian, Hungarian and Romanian, but nevertheless wrote good and grammatically correct English (our documentation was all in English). Roger, a project manager for several projects, was upset that the correct English had been modified by the guy in Bangalore, and again after corrections were submitted by the developer. The documenter argued long and hard that he was improving the language by adding random additional punctuation, whereas in fact the meaning of one sentence had been reversed. Roger and I concluded that the documenter's attitude was that punctuation was like seasoning on food, and that, in general, the more the better. This attitude seems to be widespread in the modern world, but punctuation is not about prettifying language, but about making it clear and unambiguous.

UK Government Stealing Money From Child Mental Health Programme

Posted on 16th November 2016

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This BBC report describes how money pledged by the UK government for children's mental health is not getting to "the fromtline". The government promised "£1.4bn for child mental health by 2020" (an extra £250m a year), but instead, much of the money is being used "to offset NHS cuts elsewhere".

This, simply put, is theft and corruption. Do they really feel that, after making NHS funding a major issue in the Brexit referendum, it is OK to play fast and loose with taxpayers' money in this fashion? It is our money, and we have a reasonable expectation that there is honesty and transparency in government spending.

This is rather like what governments around the world did with pension funding. They collected money (in the UK, as National Insurance contributions) from taxpayers, for years, and used it to subsidise other parts of the government budgets; now the state government pension funds are not enough to pay the pensions that are due, resulting in the raising of retirement ages.

In my own work, I am often assigned budgets for specific expenditure (staff, computer systems, etc.) and I am expected to use the various budgets for the purposes for which they are assigned, and I get into trouble if I overspend. Why are governments not held to similar rules? I do, of course, understand that governments need a certain amount of discretionary budget to deal with natural disasters, unplanned military activity (e.g. peace-keeping), changes in national economic performance and the like, but most of the budget should be spent on the things for which it was authorised.

Not only do governments not follow the rules that business are required to follow, but even after the event it is usually not possible to discover exactly how much and on what they have spent our money. Businesses are required to publish audited accounts; it is well past time that governments were held to the same standards.

IMDB Sues California

Posted on 16th November 2016

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This BBC news story reports that IMDB (a huge online database of movies, TV programmes and actors) is suing the state of California over a law requiring it to remove actors' ages at their request. California's reasoning seems to be that publishing actors' ages is discriminatory.

I am afraid that I disagree. The age of an actor is information relevant to casting decisions, to validate the sometimes less than accurate statements made by actors about their life experience, past actions and the reasons for their opinions, and is something that audiences want to know for various reasons.

I do agree that age is made into too much of a headline by the press, when writing about famous people (especially about women), but suppressing this information is going too far: it is censorship, and sometimes readers have valid reasons for wanting to know the age of an actor (or a politician, business person, or other celebrity).

Publishing someone's age is not inherently discriminatory; the important thing is what the reader does with that data. For example, the age of Donald Trump (the oldest person ever elected to the US presidency) is relevant to his suitability for office, and censoring that information would have interfered with proper democratic choice. When applying for a job, I have to submit my CV, and if my age is not in it, I will either be asked my age at interview, or maybe will not even get an interview.

Bruce Willis is famous for doing many of his own movie stunts, despite being born in 1955. That information is not a cause of discrimination, but rather a reason to be impressed with him.

Can we please just apply some common sense to the constant demands for political correctness?

Victory For Trump: Time To Move To Another Planet

Posted on 9th November 2016

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It seems that Donald Trump has won the US presidential election, according to this BBC news report.

Brits will probably be experiencing a feeling of déjà vu, as it is so very like the Brexit referendum, where everyone was worried at first, and then relaxed as it looked like the result would turn out OK, only to be shocked when the count was finally in.

Unless all Trump's speeches and policy statements turn out to just be posturing, the world is going to change dramatically:

  • Trump is a climate-change-denier, and wants to de-commit from the Paris climate accord. Expect the USA to increase domestic consumption and exports of coal and oil, and to reduce or completely cancel any financial incentives for the development and deployment of renewable energy. Also, any poorer nations that were hoping for aid from the USA to compensate them for the costs of the change to renewable energy are going to be disappointed. It is even conceivable, although unlikely, that the rest of the world may ultimately impose sanctions on the USA for refusal to participate in international action to limit global warming; that would change international politics and trade irreversibly.
  • Trump's famous plan to build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants arriving from Mexico and to get Mexico to pay for it, is not going to improve the relationship with the Mexican government. If the USA wants its southern neighbour to cooperate in limiting illegal immigration, then it needs to maintain friendly relations, otherwise it will be a purely US problem to solve. The fallout from souring relations with Mexico could affect cooperation with all central American nations, and undermine trade deals and the operations of the DEA.
  • Trump's stated admiration for Vladimir Putin is at odds with many nations' positions. The result will be weakening of the sanctions against Russia. Ukraine will no longer have its main supporter in its fight against Russian-backed insurgents, and its attempts (probably doomed anyway) to reclaim the Crimea, or at least get some compensation for its loss. Friendlier relations between the USA and Russia will also remove the brakes (limited though they are) on Russian atrocities in Syria.
  • There are serious concerns about Trump's commitment to NATO. He seems to want to cancel the mutual defence agreement, which is the very basis of NATO. We could be looking at the gradual disintegration of NATO, with the result that European nations will need to spend much more on defence, and Europe will lose the diplomatic muscle that it has traditionally had in dealing with Russia. All of us living in Europe will be more at risk of war or of more Crimea-style annexations of territory.
  • The apparently inevitable souring of relations between the USA and Europe, and between the USA and central America, will have fallout on freedom of travel. Visas will be more difficult to get, for business and vacations, both for Americans visiting elsewhere and for Europeans and central Americans visiting the USA (visa requirements are always handled on a tit-for-tat basis, so a change for travel in one direction will result in a matching change for travel in the other direction).

My guess is that the USA is going to change from being like that supportive big brother, on whom you could count in troubled times, to being that wayward younger sibling whose actions are a constant source of embarrassment, inconvenience and cost.

I think maybe I will get in touch with Elon Musk to see if I can sign up for his Mars colonisation programme.

McDonalds Sues Florence

Posted on 9th November 2016

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I had rather mixed feelings about this story on the BBC, until Sheryl reminded me about her experience of Florence.

The news story describes how the city of Florence (Italy) blocked the creation of a McDonalds "restaurant" (calling a McDonalds a restaurant is a bit of a stretch) on one of the city's most historic plazas, the Piazza del Duomo. Now the company is suing the city, claiming discrimination.

I can sympathise with the city wanting to preserve the culture of their city centre, and the cuisine available can be seen as part of that culture. There are, however, the matters of choice and convenience, for both tourists and residents; anyone who has visited Italy will have noticed that there are almost no restaurant options there except Italian food.

Sheryl, my fiancée, did the typical Eurorail tour of Europe before deciding to move here from the USA, and Florence was one of the places she visited (one of her least favourite). She arrived on an overnight train in the very early hours of the morning, and desperately needed a coffee, but nowhere was open. After waiting two hours, McDonalds eventually opened; Italy is famous for good coffee (and the coffee at McDonalds is rubbish), but all the local options for coffee opened much later, so she had to make do with what she could get. Then, after doing some sightseeing (and spending hours finding the hostel where she was booked to stay), she wanted some dinner, but again, because she wanted to eat too early (6 pm), there were no local restaurants open, and she had the choice of waiting for hours or going to (yes, you probably guessed already) McDonalds.

Like me, Sheryl is always eager to sample local food and wine when she visits somewhere (she surprised me with her adventurousness when we were in Malta), but it seems that Florence is just not geared up to provide local food if you are not willing and able to eat at a time compatible with the local customs. I therefore find it odd and disappointing that the city of Florence has blocked McDonalds from providing a choice that local businesses are not interested in providing.

Don't get me wrong: I am no fan of McDonalds. The coffee is dreadful, as is the food. It would be my very last choice for food (for breakfast, lunch or dinner). I do, however, want to have at least some option to eat when I need to for whatever reason, whether because I am too tired to eat later, or because I need to get to bed because I have a very early start the next day.

It seems that the city of Florence is not interested in making decisions to provide customer choice, and in adapting to the needs and desires of tourists and other visitors.

Is Not Being Politically Correct Really Being Discriminatory?

Posted on 8th November 2016

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I admit to having a lot of sympathy with the position taken by professor Jordan Peterson, as described in this BBC report.

Professor Peterson risks being charged with breaking the law on discrimination, by refusing to use gender neutral pronouns (among other things). There are so many things wrong with the the political correctness agenda in this matter:

  1. The alternative, gender neutral, pronouns that we are encouraged (or forced) to use ("ze" and "zir") are simply not English. The singular "they" is for use only when the gender of the person referred to is not known. Using "they" in the singular, when the person is known, is rather like the misuse of "chair" and "chair-person"; chair can be used to refer to the position, not the person; if the gender of the person is unknown, they can be referred to as the chair-person, but otherwise they are a chairman or chairwoman. Many people would be upset by the implication that their gender is unclear, which is what you are doing by calling someone you know a chair-person.
  2. Using a gender-specific pronoun is not inherently discriminatory, nor does it automatically encourage others to discriminate. If, when talking to you, I intend to insult you (or someone else), believe me, you will know; you do not need to read between the lines, and to analyse my use of pronouns, to work it out.
  3. The names by which people are referred to, and in some cases the pronouns used, are ultimately not the choice of the referree, but rather the choice of the referrer. Nicknames are a common example of this. I have a good friend, a German named Karl, who prefers to go by Charlie, but I always call him Karl; he understands that this is my choice, and that he doesn't get a vote in the matter. I believe that I have a right to refer to a transgender person as he or she, as it suits me; the pronoun that I use may depend on the circumstances of the moment, and also depend on whether the they are convincing as their chosen gender. There is a person of uncertain gender living near me in Munich, who sometimes dresses as a man, and sometimes as a woman; it would be rather ridiculous in this case that he/she insisted on a specific pronoun, irrespective of how he/she was dressed.
  4. Like Professor Peterson, I really don't care if some Emo feels upset by the pronouns used about them. If one chooses to live in the gender-grey-zone, and to not explain to everyone one meets exactly what one's surgically assigned or consciously chosen gender identity is, then people will themselves choose the pronouns. I fully support your right to choose, but don't get upset if people around you get confused.

Many people have enough difficulty using their native language just to express themselves clearly and unambiguously. The standards of spelling and grammar in English (German and Dutch too) in common use are abysmal (e.g. "You done good" instead of "you did well"; I get frequent emails from job agents which say "Hope your well" - you hope what about my well, and why is it any of your business where I get my water from?). I feel that expecting average people to be politically correct, when they can hardly string three words together, is too much to ask. Being politically correct is even harder when communicating with people from other countries (e.g. in South Africa, "black" means ethnically African, and "coloured" means mixed-race or ethnically Indian/Pakistani, which is totally at odds with what is politically correct in the USA).

Please, can we just forget about politically correctness?

Trump Doesn’t Really Like Guns?

Posted on 8th November 2016

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I was rather bemused by this story in The Telegraph. Donald Trump was hustled off stage by his Secret Service detail, because, apparently, someone in the audience had a gun.

As I understand it, Trump, and the Republican party, approves of guns: of owning them, and carrying them. Their position is that widespread gun ownership makes everyone safer. I find that policy hard to square with the idea that there is danger to the candidate if someone in the audience at a rally has a gun; surely the fact that he had a gun made Donald Trump safer?

Of course, this example of hypocrisy may point to another issue: that despite policy and speeches to the contrary, Mr. Trump and his Republican apologists do do actually believe that more guns make everyone safer.

I Want An Expenses Deal Like This Guy!

Posted on 7th November 2016

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I would really love to have a job with an expenses deal like Ian Cleland, the guy in this report in The Guardian!

I have had many jobs, both as a freelancer and as a permanent employee, but never one where the expenses were handled like that. Ian Cleland claimed for the lease and insurance of a luxury Jaguar for himself and his wife, plus nearly £3,000 for car servicing and new tyres. Cleland also spent £3,000 of taxpayers’ money on first-class rail travel, and his dining expenses included a meal with other staff at a Marco Pierre White restaurant totalling £471 and at the Bank restaurant in Birmingham for £703.45.

When I used my own car for business, I was able to claim a pre-defined mileage rate for it; no extras for insurance, tyres, or anything else. When I had a company car, there was a greatly reduced mileage rate, only for petrol (since my employer was already paying for the car, servicing and insurance). Also, when I had a company car, I was strongly encouraged to use it for all business travel; I would have needed a damned good reason to use the train instead (and never first-class!).

The restaurant bills might be OK, depending on how many colleagues were with him, but the other items simply look like him squeezing out as much money as he could. Of course, his employer has to take a large part of the blame, for giving him the expectation that he could claim such items, and for accepting his ridiculous expense claims. It is not as if the man is poor: his salary of £180,000 a year should allow him to spend some of his own money on meals for his employees; I earn much less than that, and I often buy drinks and dinner for my team members.

Clearly there is still too much money sloshing about in the budgets of government funded organisations, and a culture of corruption. It is us the they are stealing from!

The Jews are leaving Britain because of Brexit

Posted on 11th November 2016

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This report in the Guardian should worry all Brits.

"German authorities report twentyfold increase in applications for reserved citizenship from people living in UK. Descendants of the tens of thousands of German Jews who fled the Nazis and found refuge in Britain are making use of their legal right to become German citizens following the Brexit vote." If ever there was a clear-headed economic case that Brexit is bad for Britain, this is it.

There is. of course, another possible factor: that Britain has become much more openly racist since the Brexit vote, but there has also been an increase in racism, nationalism and general anti-Semitic sentiment in many other parts of Europe. I can only guess, but I think that the economic reasons are probably the main motivation for this mass-exodus.

I am so glad that I don't live in the UK any more.

Suspended Sentences For Rapists!

Posted on 28th October 2016

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I was really incensed by this story from the BBC. Almost every paragraph of the report contains something that is outrageous and unacceptable.

Three juveniles (aged 14, 16, and 17) were given suspended sentences by a court in Hamburg, Germany, for the rape of a 14 year-old girl. The 21 year-old who also took part in the rape was given a mere 4 years jail sentence. The victim was left lying on the ground in sub-zero temperatures, and was hypothermic when found; she was rushed to intensive care, and is lucky to still be alive.

The issues that I have with this case include:

  • Why weren't the perpetrators charged with attempted murder, given that their intention seemed to be for her to die?
  • The judge's reason for giving such light sentences was that the rapists had shown remorse. It is notoriously difficult to tell if professed remorse is genuine, and it should really be backed up by a psychologist's report, but there is no mention of any such report, and I suspect there was none; bear in mind that many German courts have no jury, and decisions about guilt and sentencing are often made by just the judge (or a panel of three judges). Even so, the crime was far too serious and violent for suspended sentences to be appropriate, even for truly remorseful offenders.
  • There is no mention of charges or punishment for the rapists' accomplice: the girl who filmed the rape. She also deserves at least some punishment.

The case has rightly sparked public outrage in Germany, and a petition is being raised, and has collected almost 90,000 signatures in the space of a week. The prosecution has also appealed the sentences.

There is mention of the recent (July 2016) change in the rape law on Germany. Before the latest amendment, rape was only deemed to have occurred if the victim had physically defended themselves, meaning that rapes of unconscious (due to alcohol, drugs or other reasons) or seriously physically disabled people were not prosecuted. Thank goodness that the law is now more in line with internationally recognised standards.

There is also a passing reference to a case earlier this year in the USA, where Brock Turner, a 20 year-old student, received a four month sentence for assaulting an unconscious woman. Brock Turner's father stated that his son should not be jailed for "20 minutes of action". What a bizarre argument. How long it took has no relationship to the seriousness of the crime. It is, for example, possible to murder someone in a mere 2 seconds, and to steal someone's life-savings in a few minutes.

Theresa May’s Hypocrisy Over Refugees

Posted on 20th September 2016

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These two stories (about the Prime Minister's speech about immigration, to the UN, from the Guardian before and from the BBC after she delivered that speech) highlight the racism and lack of humanity of the British people, and the hypocrisy of Theresa May.

She claims to have concerns about the proportion of immigrants who are economic refugees, and plans to deal with this by limiting the number who reach Britain, and the number who are allowed to stay. It seems to be true that many people who apply to stay in richer countries are motivated by money, and that they are the wealthier of the immigrants; I have previously written about this issue amongst immigrants in Germany, here. There are, however, a number of flaws and hypocrisies in her arguments:

  1. The wealthier immigrants are precisely the ones that Britain and other host countries should be encouraging, because they have money, and will therefore be less of a drain on the country, and are more likely to work hard and earn well in the future, and make a greater contribution to country. The governments of most rich western countries will privately admit that they desperately need immigrants to fill skill gaps, rebalance the age distribution of the population as the existing populace gets older (to help pay for pensions and health care), and to generally boost the economy. It is time for some honesty about this issue, although modern politicians seem to find honesty very hard.
  2. If these wealthier immigrants are not those in real need (and there seems to be an admission in Theresa May's speech that there are some who are really fleeing in fear of their lives due to war or political persecution), then where is the plan to encourage those who are deemed more deserving? By all means turn away those who are just trying to gain money, but replace them with those for whom there is a real humanitarian case.
  3. Where is the moral justification and the fairness in her plan to insist that refugees must instead be allowed to stay in the first country (in the EU or elsewhere) that they reach? If the social and economic stress on Britain is high when large numbers of immigrants enter, it will be even higher on the poorer countries (such as Turkey, Hungary, and Greece) that they reach first.
  4. As the Americans say, "what goes around, comes around". One day, Brits may need to move elsewhere due to war or environmental disaster (and Brits are already common economic immigrants around the world, notably in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and various parts of the EU). This anti-immigration attitude will not serve us well in such a future.

I think it is well past time for some common sense, some honesty, and some sound ethics in politics and in the attitudes of people on the streets, around the world, and most especially in Britain.

What Is Wrong With Our Fruit?

Posted on 21st August 2016

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With every passing year, I become more disappointed with the fruit that I find in the shops. I cannot be the only one.

Doctors, nutritionists and government departments are constantly encouraging us to eat more fruit, because of the health benefits, but the world's fruit breeders, growers, buyers and distributors seem to be actively discouraging me from eating fruit. Many people who know me wrongly believe that I don't like fruit, because I would rather eat no fruit than eat bad fruit.

My complaints and criticisms apply most strongly to apples, which nowadays mostly taste like turnip, rather than apple. There was a time when getting a good and tasty apple was simply a question of buying the right variety (I liked Cox's Orange Pippin, and Russets), but now the choice of species in the shops doesn't seem to include apples with flavour.

I got an insight into why fruit (especially apples) have so little taste, many years ago. I used to live in Marden, in the middle of the Kentish fruit-growing area, and there was a yearly fruit show (the biggest and main fruit show in Kent), with prizes for the best fruit. One year I went to the show, and discovered that the fruit (mostly apples) are judged on size, colour, conformity, and even on the ability to withstand transport; everything except taste. No wonder our fruit tastes of nothing!

Another reason for tasteless fruit is that fruit has become an international business. Fruit is transported all around the world, spending months in refrigerated ships, with the result that some fruit is available all year round (and some people no longer even know when the season is for the fruit they are eating). Fruit which is to be carried in refrigerated ships is picked earlier (is more under-ripe), and it is this earlier harvesting, and to a lesser extent the direct effect of the refrigeration, that destroys the flavour of fruit. There are species of apple which are bred for keeping, where the full flavour doesn't develop until they have been stored for a few months, but instead growers, shippers and shops offer non-keeping varieties such as Red Delicious and Golden Delicious.

The harvesting of fruit too early has some very annoying side-effects. In the case of mangoes, avocados, and sometimes even nectarines and peaches, you can buy fruit which never actually gets ripe: it goes straight from rock-hard and tasteless, to rotten. With avocados, we generally buy two, just to be sure of getting one which is ripe and not rotten.

Recently there has been some discussion on social media about wax being added to apples and other fruit and vegetables. Wax is produced naturally by a number of fruit species (apples, plums, pears, etc.). Some growers and packers apply additional wax to some fruit and veg. to improve keeping, and to make the produce look more attractive to shoppers. Significant amounts of testing have been performed to assure consumers that the wax added is harmless, but this does not mean that the practice of adding the wax has been demonstrated to be safe: adding wax binds dirt and chemical pollutants like pesticides to the skin of the fruit, and makes it much harder to clean the fruit by washing. Additionally, what does not seem to have been tested is whether adding wax has any effect, positive or negative, on flavour, but I find it hard to believe that an extra coating of wax would not make fruit taste worse.

There is also irradiated fruit on the market, and some people are concerned about the effect this may have on flavour. The short answer is that there are not enough studies to determine whether flavour is effected by irradiation, but given that the scientific community now (after a long rear-guard action) admits that irradiation causes chemical changes to food, and that fruit is normally still alive when we buy it and eat it, which sterilisation by radiation changes to some degree, there is almost certainly a negative impact on flavour. Having said that, I think that most of us would choose irradiated fruit over mouldy fruit.

So what are we to do? Well, what I try to do is the following:

  1. Only eat fruit (especially apples) of varieties that you know, and know that you like,
  2. Eat fruit which hasn't been the victim of selective breeding by the factory-producers: pears, plums, apricots and tropical fruit;
  3. Eat fruit that is grown relatively locally (i.e. not shipped halfway around the world), which also means eating fruit only when it is in season where you live - this makes mangoes, my favourite fruit, problematic, as they are never grown locally;
  4. Buy from a seller who knows their fruit: knows how to choose it and care for it - this might be as simple as buying fruit at a different supermarket than where you get your other groceries;
  5. Learn how to keep/store fruit so that it gets ripe, not rotten: some fruit should not be kept with some other fruit, and most fruit should not be kept in the refrigerator;
  6. Eat the fruit when it is ready, rather than when it fits your schedule and meal plan.
Judge Blows Up Own Court

Posted on 8th May 2016

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I know we shouldn’t laugh, since people were injured, but it is hard not to.

This BBC story described how a judge in Pakistan asked a police officer to show how an explosive device worked. It is not clear what the device was (either a hand grenade or a detonator), but it was supposed to have been defused.

Whatever criticisms we might level at the Pakistani courts for failing to enforce the rule of law, at least the rules of physics are clearly working fine.

Pilot Shoots At His Own Officers

Posted on 8th May 2016

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Reading this story on The Local (a Norwegian news site) did not make me feel safe.

I am working in Norway at the moment, and now I read that a Norwegian Air Force F-16 has shot up a control tower containing 3 officers, apparently by accident. No-one was injured, but it seems that this is not the first time this control tower has been fired upon by accident during exercises.

I don’t know which is worse:

  • The idea that Norway’s military pilots are so incompetent that they can strafe a control tower by accident,
  • Or the idea that maybe it was no accident, and that he nevertheless missed because he is such a bad shot.

Anyway, I certainly won’t be going to an air-show in Norway.

Brexit Vote: The Victory Of Bigotry Over Common Sense

Posted on 30th June 2016

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As you may guess, I am rather angry about the Brexit vote, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, there is the way the campaigns for and against, were conducted. Everyone should already know that politicians cannot be trusted, but the Leave and Remain campaigns have really pushed the envelope regarding lying to the electorate. What is worse is that people (voters and the press) don’t seem to care. When I was young, politicians who were caught lying to the House Of Parliament had no choice but to resign, but that has not been the case for a long time.

My main concern, the free movement of labour, which is an essential foundation to my life and work, was not a significant part of anyone’s campaign. Well, people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, thank you so much for leaving me to drown.

The main arguments in the campaigns were:

  1. Immigration -
  • 2.3 million EU citizens living in the UK, more of whom work and pay taxes in the UK than the average for UK citizens living in the UK;
  • 2.2 million UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU;
  • The majority of immigrants in the UK come from outside of the EU.

So, clearly, EU membership is not the source of any supposed immigration problem. Indeed, Britain, like most western nations, desperately needs more immigrants to fill skill gaps, and to help reduce the average age of the population (so that people’s pensions can be funded), but the government is too cowardly to declare this to the voting public.

  1. Finance and Trade -
  • UK Business came out strongly in favour of remaining in the EU;
  • Stock markets and central banks all clearly showed their concern at the prospect of Brexit, and the IMF also stated that it was a major risk to growth and stability; since the vote the markets have been in turmoil;
  • Britain’s economy is mostly based on services, not manufacturing, agriculture or raw materials, and the main growth export is financial services, but the UK has just opted out of the single European market for financial services (which is still being constructed), and this will hurt our exports in future; several banks and financial services companies are already talking about moving operations (and jobs) into continental Europe;
  • Britain’s membership of a large number of international trade agreements is through the EU, and new agreements will now need to be negotiated, some of which could take 10 years or more;
  • All the campaign arguments about Britain’s EU contributions, EU structural funding, and NHS costs are basically guesswork, propaganda and lies, and the impact of EU membership on UK finances is not clear enough for a rational decision.

So, the financial arguments for Brexit are either unclear, or demonstrably wrong.

  1. Sovereignty -
  • Some people complain bitterly about EU laws and regulations eroding British national sovereignty -
  • All those inconvenient laws guaranteeing rights and equality to the sexes, to people of different sexuality, to different races, to people with disabilities and to older people in the workforce;
  • The annoying removal of those exorbitant roaming charges when on vacation or working abroad;
  • Laws that protect the environment;
  • Laws that ensure safety of products and the workplace;
  • Laws that insist that there is actually meat in British sausages.

In general, these laws and regulations are good things, and things that should have been enacted by Westminster without the push from Brussels, if we could trust our politicians to look after our interests.

As far as I can see, there is no sound argument for Brexit on any grounds, but people voted, of course, on the basis of their own personal bigotry, rather than on the basis of facts.

The lessons that I take from the Brexit debacle are:

  1. That having elections and referenda does not make a working democracy – Britain has given the world a horrible example of how not to do democracy; it was horrific to read the reports about the trends in web-searches such as “what is the EU?” after the vote, from Brits, which shows that UK voters don’t take their democratic rights and privileges seriously;
  2. Altruism is beyond most people, or at least most groups of people – being a part of something larger and good just doesn’t count as a reason to stay in the EU;
  3. I should be ashamed of being British (and believe me, I am considering my options about nationality and passport).

I strongly believe that, because of global warming and overpopulation, the world is going to become a more dangerous and less friendly place. Now Britain will have to face that alone (it may be worse than that, as there is now serious talk of the UK breaking up due to the Brexit vote, leaving England and maybe Wales, against the world). Well, when you get into trouble, don’t come running to me, and don’t ask the EU for help.

Can Governments Be Sued, Or Not?

Posted on 20th May 2016

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I am a little confused by the contradiction between these news stories:

  • In this BBC report the Saudi Arabian government is issuing warnings of the dire consequences of opening up governments to compensation suits;
  • But in this BBC report Amanda Knox is planning to sue the Italian government for their mishandling of the prosecutions against her, and the resulting "abuse";
  • And in this report from "Our Children's Trust" 21 teenagers have been given leave to proceed with their lawsuit against the US Federal Government, for causing climate change and for their failure to protect them against environmental impact.

I had thought that the situation was as described in the first article: that civil compensation suits could not be filed against governments. For this reason, legal history is full of cases against individuals and corporations, rather than the governments that were really to blame. If this is indeed the legal situation, then the Saudis are right to warn of the consequences of changing the rules (so that the families of victims of 9/11 can sue the Saudi government for compensation). The US government has a long and horrific history of meddling in wars and politics in countries around the world, and setting a precedent allowing governments to be sued could open them up to compensation claims for actions in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Japan, Grenada, Egypt (CIA funding of the Muslim Brotherhood), Africa (for tipping off the apartheid government about the location of Nelson Mandela, causing his incarceration for 27 years), South America (for DEA actions to combat drug production and smuggling), and even Germany (for the post-WWII partition of Germany), to name but a few.

The second and third stories, however, show that it is possible in the USA to sue a foreign government and also the domestic government. I think we could be seeing a whole programme of legal action, especially as a result of the new 9/11 law suit legislation described in the first story. It is about time that bad intelligence, and funding of revolutionaries/terrorists had consequences. Governments and their various agencies should never be above the law.

Lessons From The Massive Ransom-ware Attack

Posted on 15th May 2016

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There are several very important lessons to be learned from the recent enormous ransom-ware attack (reported here, by the BBC), which affected at least 99 countries, and had huge impact on the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK.

The attack was a worm (not a virus), meaning that infection passes directly from one networked device to another, without the need for any user interaction (being careful about what email attachments you click on is no protection).

The attack was stopped, in part, by the efforts of a UK security researcher "MalwareTech", who found a "kill-switch coded into the worm. This kill-switch will prevent new devices being affected by the worm, but will not decrypt already infected devices.

  1. Firstly, it is a timely reminder for everyone, even people who do not own a computer, smartphone or other computational device, that the modern world is full of cyber-threats and that there is no way to guarantee protection from them. The chaos caused in the NHS shows that people's lives can be severely disrupted, including lives put at risk, by attacks on our infrastructure. If you own or administer computers, this is a reminder of how vital it is to take regular and frequent back-ups, and to keep those devices up to date (security patches and updates to anti-virus and firewall software).
  2. It is also a reminder that organisations such as the National Security Agency (NSA) in the USA, who developed the hacking tool upon which this ransom-ware worm was based, cannot keep anything secret, and cannot be trusted to develop or use such technology. It is no use blaming WikiLeaks for publishing data on the hacking tools that the NSA had developed (as far as I know, they did not publish the actual code); the NSA themselves are to blame for being insecure. Maybe the UK government should sue the NSA, on behalf of the NHS, for the damage caused by them letting the exploit code leak into the wild.
  3. One thing to note is that the NSA, and similar organisations around the world, do not seem to be under any legal obligation to notify vendors such as Microsoft about security holes that they find. Nowadays there are many so called white-hat hackers who, when they find a security vulnerability, notify the responsible vendor, and give them a month or more to roll out a repair before publishing their discovery; the NSA doesn't, and the reason is that they want systems around the world to remain vulnerable so that they can hack them themselves. If the NSA were not so leaky, this wouldn't be such a problem, but sadly they are notoriously insecure. Microsoft themselves are warning (here) about the dangers caused by governments storing data on software security vulnerabilities.
  4. Another rather important lesson here is that an obsolete operating system like Windows-XP should never be used for mission-critical purposes. It has, officially, not been supported by Microsoft for years, and is seriously insecure (and not just because it is a Microsoft product). These PCs should have long ago been upgraded or replaced to something more secure and under support. Personally, I would never recommend any version of Windows for any use where security is important (Linux is inherently more secure, cheaper, and faster), but if you really want to use Windows, at least make sure it is current and supported.
  5. There is also an important lesson for the UK government (or maybe for the voting public). This report by the Mirror describes how the government cut the support which they had been providing for all these obsolete Windows-XP computers in the NHS about a year ago; this despite ample warnings of the cyber-security risks: the Government Digital Service, decided not to extend a £5.5million one-year support deal with Microsoft for Windows XP. What they did not do, however, is provide central funds for replacement or upgrade, nor did they put in place a centrally managed and funded replacement/upgrade programme; they simply told the NHS that they should take care of the problem themselves. This was arrogant and financially motivated irresponsibility of the highest degree. If the support from Microsoft was to be continued, the cheapest and most effective way to get it would have been through a contract with the UK government, not by piecemeal contracts with individual NHS bodies; if the PCs were to be upgraded or replaced, again, the cheapest and most effective solution would have been a centralised programme. This situation just highlights how cheaply the UK government values the lives and health of the populace.

As far as I know, no NHS patients died or suffered other major harm due to the cyber-attack; that is pure luck, and next time (because there will certainly be a next time) we may not be so lucky. We have a whole host of services (electricity generation, including control of nuclear power stations, electricity distribution, water distribution, flood prevention, mobile phone, emergency services, Internet services, traffic control, air-traffic control, weather forecasting, weapon system control, etc.), most of which are essential and many of which are safety-critical, which depend on computers. Hacking is relatively easy (you can buy kits to develop hacking tools fairly cheaply) and preventing it or repairing the results is hard, expensive and time-consuming. The world really needs to learn the lessons from this attack, urgently.

Muslim’s Views On Homosexuality Are Irrelevant

Posted on 8th May 2016

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I don’t fully understand why the opinion poll reported in this story on the Telegraph is being taken so seriously.

The report tells us that the poll found that 52% of Muslims in Britain said homosexuality should not be legal in Britain. I suppose that many people will argue that the principles of democracy argue that this idea should be taken seriously. I see it otherwise, and not based on the usual racist arguments.

Whatever your religion is, there is no doubt that Britain is an officially Christian country. There is no official or constitutional separation of church and state, as you find in the USA or Germany. The head of state, the Queen, is also the ultimate head of the Church of England; although the UK has no written constitution, the connection of the Church of England and the government of the country is nevertheless constitutional (yes, there is a constitution, just not a written one). That means that opinions based on other religious beliefs and doctrines have no legal standing.

Even if the majority of voters in Britain believe that homosexuality should be illegal, if they believe it based on non-Christian religious beliefs, it should never become law.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not a Christian; neither am I a Muslim. Nevertheless, if people choose to live in a country that has a constitution, written or not, based on a particular religion, then they have signed up themselves and their descendants to live by the rules of that religion. Luckily for British non-Christians, modern Christianity is very flexible and tolerant, which is why living in Britain is much easier for people with “alien” belief systems than, say, Pakistan or Iran.

Safe Rugby

Posted on 17th April 2016

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Since this story appeared on the BBC at the beginning of March, there have been a number of related news reports, and quite a stir on Facebook. A lot of the public are not pleased about the idea of kids playing no-tackling rugby.

I do understand that there are real health issues. I myself have a permanent injury from playing rugby (sustained as an adult, though, not as a child), and many people have far more serious injuries from the game.

The thing is that most versions of rugby which have no tackling also have no scrums or rucks. These games are therefore very different to play in, and also to watch. Although (at least so far) the plan seems only to stop kids from playing real rugby up to the age of 18, children will not learn how to play real rugby from playing touch or tag rugby, and this will reduce the number and skill level of people going into rugby as adults.

I really doubt that tag rugby will ever become a popular spectator sport, because no-one really wants to watch such a sport. Rugby League and Rugby Union are very popular spectator sports, and Rugby Union is an important part of the international sports scene.

So let’s be realistic as we discuss the ban on tackling in school rugby: we would be also signing the death warrant for the sport for adults too. If that is what people decide, then fine, but let’s not let the side-effects on the adult sport catch us by surprise.

Bad Parenting In The Air

Posted on 17th April 2016

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On the 29th March I flew from Munich to Oslo, for work, on a Lufthansa flight.

The flight was OK (on time, and with good service) except for one thing: in the seat row behind me were a young woman and her two kids. The kids were out of control: arguing and fighting, interspersed with lots of crying. The German businessman in the seat next to mine complained twice to the mother, the second time more strongly and with my participation; he asked her to calm her kids down, which she said she was doing; he pointed out that what she was actually doing was winding her kids up, not calming them down (and he was right).

I know it can be difficult traveling with young kids, but parents need to be prepared, and not make the problem worse. The daughter and son were around 5 and 4 years old respectively; far too old for such behaviour. It was also clear that they had the power in the relationship, not the mother; a common problem, usually a result of the attitude that “my kids are my whole life” instead of “my kids are a part of my life”.

This situation highlights a problem that is getting worse in the modern world, where the extended family network either no longer exists, or is deliberately excluded from child-rearing: people do not know how to parent. They need training and mentoring, of the kind that used to come from grandparents and other family members, before and during raising kids. I don’t know how this could happen in today's world, and who will pay, but such help is desperately needed by so many parents today.

“Best Airlines” Are Some Of The Worst!

Posted on 17th April 2016

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I was rather shocked to read a recent report from Business Insider. It included a ranking of the “world’s best airlines”, and also the “world’s worst”, based on cases where airline passengers filed claims for compensation through AirHelp.

I don’t have any major dispute with the list of the worst, but I certainly do disagree with the so-called best, which includes:

  • British Airways, who left me stranded in New Zealand in 2007 (here), and who I consider to be so bad (due to many many incidents) that I vowed never to fly with them again,
  • Qatar Airways who, when the passenger sitting one seat away from me died on a flight back from Jakarta, left him lying on the floor in the galley corridor covered by a blanket, did not divert to get the poor man medical assistance when he was first taken ill, and refused to administer him oxygen,
  • Air France, notorious for cramped seats and smelly co-passengers.

Some of the airlines on the list of the best are, to my knowledge, good (in these days of ever decreasing airline service) including :

  • KLM (although they serve Heineken beer),
  • Lufthansa,
  • Emirates (although it is a long time since I flew with them).

I was also disappointed to note that Cathay Pacific, who got Sheryl and me home from New Zealand after British Airways washed their hands of us, did not make it onto the list of the best airlines.

Unfair Taxation In Norway

Posted on 17th April 2016

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A few days ago I was in The Ophelia Bar (just opposite my hotel - I am a regular there, because the food and drink are good, prices are OK and the staff friendly) with Renato, and we started talking with the owner about tips. Since most things are paid on credit cards here, if you want to give a tip you have to add it to the amount on the credit card terminal; and we were wondering whether the waiter/barman gets the tip, or if the bar keeps the money. It turns out the the waiter/barman keeps the tip (at least at the Ophelia - each sale is tagged with the service person's name), less a deduction that goes as tip to the kitchen staff. Tips seem to comprise about half of the barman's income.

That all sounds very fair, but then we started discussing tax, assuming that tips would be taxable. Apparently that is not exactly the case, as the Norwegian government charges you tax anyway on assumed tips; if you earn more tips than they estimate, you are winning, but if you earn less, or if the company pockets them, then you are screwed.

Taxi drivers are similarly screwed by the tax office. Again, most people pay by card, and can add a tip if they choose. Even if customers add a tip on the card, the tax department assumes that there is an additional cash tip, and taxes taxi drivers on it. So much for "innocent until proven guilty"!

There are lots of other bizarre regulations in Norway, mostly relating to tax and/or alcohol. You can only buy alcohol in government monopoly shops (there is the same system in Sweden). In bars, you cannot order a double of any spirit (but you can order one, and another on the side which you can then add to the first glass). Bars and restaurants may not offer you a complimentary drink (brandy, limoncello, or whatever) after your meal, no matter how much you spent; the same seems to apply to free coffee.

Bars may not give their staff complimentary drinks (not even a coffee), nor free meals (they can sell staff a meal at cost, but not free). The owner of the Ophelia was charged once for having a free coffee at his own bar (the charges were eventually dropped). If he wants a drink he needs to either buy one, or drink from his private cabinet containing bottles he bought separately.

The tax office also investigates discounts (also heavily controlled), and may charge owners if the tax and discount accounts do not all balance.

I thought Germany was bureaucratic and had invasive taxation rules, but Norway really wins the prize!

US Declares Religious War On China?

Posted on 9th March 2016

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Crosier

This report on VOA news caused me some amusement.

In its original form, it stated that “The United States has deployed an aircraft carrier and two crosiers [see the photo to the right] … to the South China Sea”. That could only mean a religious war, although curious given the constitutional separation of church and state in the USA.

Sadly, the news report has now been updated, and the crosiers are now cruisers (and have been joined by two destroyers): more informative, but less amusing.

Insecure Banking Apps

Posted on 4th March 2016

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This BBC report, about how easy it is to hack into the bank accounts of customers who do online banking from their mobile phones, highlights the reason why I don't use my mobile phone for banking (I also don't do in-App purchases on my phone, for the same reason).

Not only do many banking and purchasing Apps keep sensitive data on your phone, from where it can be hacked, but phones (actually SIMs) can be cloned, and traffic (calls and SMSes) can be diverted to another mobile device (as described in the BBC news story).

There are some (usually national) standards to try to make such things more secure, many of which ensure that your sensitive data (bank account numbers, credit card numbers, etc.) are not actually kept on your phone, and if a new SIM is registered for your phone account, these details must be re-established. My project is testing this functionality, amongst other things, right now.

What the article highlights, for me, is just how pathetic the security analyses by NatWest and Royal Bank of Scotland were. I am sure their customers expect better.

If you really need to do online banking and purchasing on your phone, then make sure that your financial service provider complies with good standards. If you are not sure, check with an expert. You might have to change financial institutions and/or mobile provider to get a solution that is good enough.

Worshippers Insulted?

Posted on 4th March 2016

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I was very surprised to read this BBC report about a court case, in Russia, of all places. Viktor Krasnov is on trial in southern Russia, and faces a possible one-year prison sentence for having written "there is no God" during an internet exchange.

Viktor Krasnov was reported to police by two young men who objected to his language in a dispute on a Russian social network. He was charged for having "insulted the feelings of worshippers", which was made illegal in 2013 after the Pussy Riot case.

I find it bizarre because organised religion has historically had very poor legal status in Russia, but this recent law seems to protect certain religious opinions against others; it suffers from the same hypocrisy problem as all laws against blasphemy.

Not believing in God, or gods, is a perfectly valid position (although an illegal belief in a surprising number of countries, and not legal to be publicly stated or published in many more). This court case, and the very existence of the statute under which it is being prosecuted, is an insult to those who hold that belief (that there is no God), as are similar laws around the world.

Russia also seems to have shot themselves in the foot with this legislation: it was enacted for reasons of social control, and as a side effect gave the Russian Orthodox Church a status that it hadn't had since the beginning of Communist control. Good luck putting that genie back in the box!

Deported For Dissing Trump

Posted on 4th March 2016

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Emadeldin Elsayed is probably going to be deported from the USA to Egypt, as described in this BBC report. His study visa has already been revoked and he was arrested.

What he did to earn this was to post on FaceBook that "he was willing to serve a life sentence for killing the billionaire [Donald Trump], and the world would thank him", according to his lawyer.

Emadeldin Elsayed apparently regretted the post as soon as he made it. He later said "I don't know why they would think I am a threat to the national security of the United States just because of a stupid post." Well, stupid is the right word. Donald Trump is not a good person, most certainly not a good choice for president of the USA, and every opportunity should be taken to dis him, but to threaten his life in a public forum is the height of idiocy, especially for a non-citizen. What did he think would happen?

Emadeldin Elsayed should be deported for gross stupidity!

The Millionaire And The Policeman

Posted on 4th February 2016

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I imagine that public opinion is very divided, in the case reported in this BBC story.

Sir Harry Djanogly (a millionaire, although I am not sure why the BBC deems that relevant) was pulled over by the police for speeding. He was speeding because he was rushing his wife to hospital, believing her life to be in danger. The report does not clarify what the hospital's diagnosis was, or whether her life was actually in danger, but legally, it is her husband's belief that her life was at risk that is relevant, not her actual state of health.

Sir Harry explained (twice) to the police officer the reason for him speeding, and invited the officer to follow him to the hospital. The policeman then ordered him out of the car, and when Sir Harry refused, lunged through the driver's window (apparently dislodging the driver's foot foot from the brake onto the accelerator and getting dragged down the road, for his trouble).

For me, the legal situation seems quite clear: the policeman, by preventing the wife reaching the hospital, is committing assault and actual bodily harm (potentially grievous bodily harm and even attempted murder) against her; his action in lunging through the car window adds assault against the driver to his count of offences. Sgt Robert McDonald should be charged for these offences.

The police are required to act within the law. They are also required to listen to and take into account the information provided by the members of the public whom they deal with. That doesn't seem to have happened in this case, and an example needs to be made; the alternative puts the UK on a slippery slope to becoming a police state.

Still, Sir Harry Djanogly should be thankful that he doesn't live in the USA. In this scenario, a US policeman would probably have shot him.

Lost Migrants

Posted on 28th Februaryx 2016

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I had to laugh when I read this BBC story (although I suppose it really isn't funny). Germany has managed to lose around 130,000 "asylum seekers" (we are not supposed to call them refugees).

When you remember that Germany is one of the most bureaucratic countries in the world ("Your papers are not in order!"), it is bizarre in the extreme that there are migrants who don't have papers at all, and others who apparently have more than one set of papers. Even so, losing 130,000 people is more than just careless.

I am tempted to contrast this present-day situation with last century in Germany, but I guess that would be politically incorrect.

A Goose Is More Important Than This Poor Boy?

Posted on 27th February 2016

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I was really shocked by the contrast in people's attitudes, highlighted by this story, and this story, on the BBC.

In the first report, a £250,000 reward has been offered to track down the killers of a much-loved goose, known as Grumpy Gertie, which was shot in the village of Sandon, Hertfordshire.

The second report describes how a three-year-old boy was found after spending three days alone with the body of his mother. Now he has no-one to care for him, so "friends have collected more than £3,400 towards the dead mother's funeral costs and in aid of her son".

What is wrong with people's priorities, that they think that a quarter of a million is an appropriate amount to catch a goose-killer, but a few thousand is enough to care for a boy and bury his mother? The English do have a history of caring more for certain breeds of animals than for people (getting upset about some Asian nations where they eat dogs, angry at the French and Belgians because they eat horses, and incensed at the treatment of donkeys in Spain, to name but a few), but this is getting ridiculous.

Guns On Campus!

Posted on 27th February 2016

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It seems that the state of Texas has gone mad: they have passed a law there allowing guns to be carried on university campuses.

A Dean at the University of Texas, Frederick Steiner, is resigning because of this new legislation, (as reported in this BBC story) because he feels that it is not "appropriate" for higher education and does not "make logical sense"; he doesn't want to be be responsible for enforcing a law in which he doesn't believe. Good for you, Fred!

Given how much Texans love their guns, however, I suppose there is nothing to be done: the atrocities will happen, friends and family will mourn and demand changes to the law, but the gun lobby will yet again win the argument; claiming that more guns make us all safer. Common sense and hard fact will once again lose out to propaganda and lobbying by special interest groups.

A thought occurs to me, though. Maybe this will make it easier for the less intelligent students at UT to get a degree. Maybe all that will be necessary to get a degree will be to survive the whole course without getting shot.

UK Ministry of Defence buys new planes with 1950s capabilities

Posted on 21st February 2015

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I was rather bemused by this story in the Telegraph. It described how the UK MoD (Ministry of Defence) is to buy two new solar powered Zephyr 8 spy planes from Airbus Defence and Space for £10.6m.

The report describes how this new plane flies so high ‘that it is described as a “pseudo satellite” ’. Seriously! The operating height is reported as 70,000 feet (although it could be a little more, and being kept secret). 70,000 was the ceiling height of the U2, built from 1955. On the Wikipedia page about the U2, it (at the time of writing) states “In 1984, during a major NATO exercise, Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant Mike Hale intercepted a U-2 at a height of 66,000 feet (20,100 m), where the aircraft had previously been considered safe from interception. Hale climbed to 88,000 feet (26,800 m) in his Lightning F3“. This was apparently only one of many such interceptions (the Wikipedia page has recently been edited to remove much of the detail about these). I first heard about one of these interceptions in 1982 or earlier, so the statement in the Wikipedia page that, in 1984, "the aircraft had previously been considered safe from interception" is clearly not true. Nevertheless, the upshot is that the The U2 was in range for Lightnings, and probably other interceptors of the time, and was proven to be in range for Russian missiles when Gary Powers was shot down.

I really don’t see how new spy planes with 1955 performance, able to be detected, intercepted and shot down decades ago, are a good investment by the MoD. These planes certainly don’t earn the label “pseudo satellite”. True, they will be solar powered and able to stay aloft for “weeks on end”, but otherwise the basic performance is 60 years out of date!

Undemocratic Elections in the USA.

Posted on 21st February 2016

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I am getting thoroughly demoralised by the constant stream of so-called news about the US presidential election. Candidates are still campaigning for their party’s nominations; the actual election campaigning hasn’t even started, but I am, already sick of it.

One of the least offensive articles that I have read recently about the US presidential election was this piece in The Economist, which bemoans how the fight is turning ugly, and the established order of things in US elections has been overturned.

The trouble is that American elections have always been broken: the process is undemocratic, and votes are decided by personalities and budgets rather than policies. Campaigns have always been dirty and disconnected from reality; it’s just that they are getting even more so.

The USA is the world’s champion of democracy, and has encouraged it in, exported it to, or forced it upon, many nations around the world. Democracy is not a silver bullet that will solve all ills: for the proof, just look at what is happening in countries that were part of the Arab Spring (Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt) and in countries which were invaded to install democratic governments (Iraq and Afghanistan). Also, an important lesson not yet taken on board by Western governments: one size of democracy clearly does not fit all. What annoys me, however, is that the main champion of democracy is a nation whose own democracy is highly questionable. What is so special about the people in Iowa (and to a lesser extent in New Hampshire) that qualifies them to have more of an influence on the choice of president than other Americans? For many elected posts, the USA also has a first-past-the-post system, as does Britain, which many other nations consider inherently undemocratic, and then there is that bizarre electoral college system which means that the candidate with the most votes does not necessarily win the election.

Another thing that is not the answer to all problems is the free market. Free market forces create competition, and as a result US society, business and politics are all more competitive than most other people ever experience. Allowing big money into such a competitive election process pretty much guarantees excess, prejudiced rhetoric, and dirty campaigns. I don’t actually know whether Donald Trump believes and will deliver on all of the promises that he has made during his election, but it seems that if you don’t behave and speak similarly (always against something or someone, and always to excess) then you can’t win the election.

Many countries have their share of weirdos and idiots standing for election (Britain has the Monster Raving Loony Party), but amongst Western nations, the USA is unique in that there a serious chance of the nut-job actually getting to run the county.

Maybe a coalition of truly democratic nations should invade the USA and install a truly democratic system. The problem with that idea (apart from the tiny issue of America’s military might and economic influence) is finding a nation that can honestly claim to be truly democratic. My number one candidate is Switzerland; if you know of any other nation that can claim that title, I would love to hear about it.

Stupid Doctor!

Posted on 21st February 2016

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Over the last few months my fiancée has been suffering with a lot of allergy problems. As a result, she had a 5 day stay in hospital at the beginning of December, and now has to carry an epi-pen, some oral medicine and a letter explaining what to do in an emergency, at all times.

She has not been truly well since the middle of November, and occasionally has outbreaks: usually just hives on her skin, but sometimes also swollen lips. She had an attack with a swollen lip just a few days ago, and went to a pharmacy to get more medicine. She looked so bad that the pharmacist recommended she go to the hospital, which she didn't want to do for fear they would keep her in for another 5 day stay. Instead, she went to a doctor with a consulting room opposite the pharmacy, recommended by the pharmacist.

The doctor was a very sympathetic lady; it was just a shame that she was so stupid and ignorant. Her only recommendation for allergy problems was some herbal supplements to boost Sheryl's immune system. There are two problems with that suggestion: recent research shows that so-called immune boosters don't work, but if they did, that is the exact opposite of what a person with allergy problems needs. Allergies are the result of your immune system attacking otherwise harmless substances (food, skin products, cleaning products, etc.) as if they were harmful invading organisms, and boosting the immune system will only make the problem worse. This web-page suggests some treatments for allergies and, unsurprisingly, immune boosters do not feature,

I sometimes wonder how some medical practitioners get licences to practice, and how they manage to keep their licences.

Global Warming Is Also An Economic Issue

Posted on 18th November 2015

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This article in The Guardian is very interesting.

The argument is very simple: the costs of carbon pollution (illness and death due to carbon pollution, global warming causing reductions in agricultural productivity, damage due to floods and storms, rising sea levels, increasing incidence of pests and diseases, etc.) are a good enough reason reason to do something about carbon emissions. The costs of not doing anything, or not doing enough, will be far greater than the costs of reducing our carbon footprint.

Personally, I think there are already enough arguments (moral, environmental, and quality of life) on the table to make it unarguable that we need to act, but having more arguments is even better.

Migrants, Not Refugees.

Posted on 28th February 2016

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There has been lots of news recently about the continuing migrant issue in Germany (and elsewhere, but that is for another day). This BBC report gives some useful statistics about migration.

There were the sex attacks in Cologne (Köln) and other German cities on New Year's Eve, in which migrants were implicated. There were riots at a migrant centre between different groups of migrants. There have been protests and riots at migrant centres, including fires, as Germans try to prevent migrants in their towns. There was an attack on pensioners on the Munich underground (captured on video) who intervened to stop a sex attack by migrants (in this Telegraph article). There have been heart-rending stories about the suffering of the migrants (being unable to bring their families to join them, being unable to find work, and having to deal with the cold weather when they have unsuitable clothing).

There was a report about the situation for migrants in Germany being so bad that many were deciding to go back home. One migrant said, in an interview, that he was going to go home to his family, but not tell them he was coming; just knock on the door and surprise them. This does not match the image in the minds of many Westerners, of people in Syria sleeping in bombed-out ruins, moving every few days to stay away from the battles, and having no food and water. This returning migrant was fully confident that his family would be where they had been when he left, and he was not the only one with this confidence.

The other thing that struck me was that the majority of migrants interviewed seemed to be planning to fly home. So, they are not broke then; they might have come to Germany via Greece or the Balkans, and walked a lot of the way, but that was only as a way of bypassing immigration controls, not because they were too poor to fly. This fits with the other strange fact: that most of the migrants are adult males. Although the press have highlighted the women and children amongst the migrants, there are actually not many of them. Photos of large groups of migrants show this clearly: the families stayed at home. This shows that the majority of migrants are economic migrants, not refugees, similar, for example, to the large numbers of Indians and Filipinos working in other countries and sending money home.

What bothers me about all this is the fact that the world's press is feeding us propaganda about the motivation and demographic mix of the migrants. I hate people trying to manipulate me with propaganda! It turns out that a lot of the stories about migrants in Germany are hoaxes, as described and mapped in this article from Deutsche Welle.

Let me be absolutely clear here: I have sympathy for the migrants, and do think that the West should welcome them, but my sympathy is reduced when they, with the collusion of our press, lie about their true motives and their situation in their home country.

Dutch Government Says No To 'Encryption Backdoors'

Posted on 15th January 2016

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This BBC story is one of the more recent of many about encryption and encryption back-doors.

The Dutch government says that it will not force technology firms to provide back-door access to encrypted data such as emails and instant messaging. I like their attitude, but it is in direct contradiction to government policy in the USA and UK.

FBI director James Comey said in November "We are not some kind of maniacs who are ideologues against encryption … but we have a problem that encryption is crashing into public safety and we have to figure out, as people who care about both, how to resolve it." It seems clear that the FBI has concluded that, in a contest between privacy and public safety, public safety wins.

Proposals on the table to solve the FBI's dilemma include the outlawing of very strong encryption and back door access for security agencies. Outlawing very strong encryption will ensure that security agencies can crack the encryption, but that also means that criminal organisations, foreign governments, and even terrorists can also crack it. Back door access for security agencies will probably mean that other nations (Russia and China, for example) will be granted such access; plus, given the appalling track record of security agencies (even in the US and UK) in keeping secrets and being hacked, it is only a matter of time until these back-door access channels also leak out to the various other kinds of bad guys.

So no, neither of these proposals work for me.

People sometimes ask me why I am so concerned about my privacy: what is it that I have to hide? Actually, at the moment, I have no great secrets, and put a lot of my life in public view on this site and on social media. That, however, might change: if there is a change in my political environment (e.g. a totalitarian government), then it might be that my privacy becomes a life or death issue for me.

One thing that I can and will do, if legislation erodes my privacy even further, is to choose who has data about me. If Facebook, LinkedIn and Microsoft can’t keep my data secret because of legal constraints, or even for their own purposes, I will do what I can to ensure they have no data about me, including ceasing to be their customer if necessary.

Big Brother Microsoft is Watching You!

Posted on 15th January 2016

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According to recent statistics, quite a lot of you have Windows 10. If so, you should be aware that Microsoft is spying on you. This BBC report give some idea of what data is being collected.

The good thing is that you can opt out of pretty much all of the data collection (tracking) when you install Windows 10, and when you install Microsoft applications such as MS-Office.

If you want to preserve your privacy, you should opt out: set the feedback option to Basic, so that activity data is not sent to Microsoft – except for error reports. The default is for the O/S to track a whole lot of things about usage and send details back to Microsoft.

Also, if you are concerned about the performance of your system, and limiting the future effects of software bloat, you should opt out. All that tracking creates a load on your computer (CPU, RAM and disc), which will increase as updates to your system are applied, and it generates Internet traffic that could cause problems on slower connections.

Why Was "Russia" Translated To "Mordor"?

Posted on 10th January 2016

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People seem to be surprised by this (reported in this BBC report). They shouldn't be. It is a result of how Google Translate works.

There were complaints that Google Translate was translating "Russia" to "Mordor", Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's surname to "sad little horse" and "Russians" to "occupiers". Apparently this has now been "fixed", but I suspect that there will be more such cases in the future.

Google translate was created using stochastic (statistical analysis) methods. It was fed with huge volumes of documents which had been translated into a number of languages (the original documents were from the EU, where most documents are translated into all the languages of the member states). Since then it has been fed with other translated sets of documents, many from social media and has learned from those users of Google Translate who take the time to suggest improved translations.

One point to note from this is that Google Translate has no idea of the meaning of what it translates. If a lot of its source material translates "Russia" to "Mordor", the software will believe that this is a valid translation, and will not understand the insult.

The other point to note is the part that social media plays in providing learning material for Google Translate. In some ways this is good, in that the software is able to keep up with evolution in language use, can learn about slang and dialect, and is able to cope with text that is not grammatically correct or complete. In other ways this is not so good, such as this case, where viral social media content can warp the software's knowledge base and produce incorrect translations.

People need to understand how the tools that they use work, so that they understand their limitations and potential bias. I use Google Translate quite often, and sometimes I have to spend a lot of time and effort to get a good translation (translating forward and backwards, and adjusting the words and grammar of the starting text to give me a suitable result); sometimes even that fails, and I have to translate using other methods.

Of course, Google Translate could be improved. What I would like is to be able to tell the software that a certain word or phrase is the subject or the object, that certain elements form a list, that certain words form a noun or verb phrase, and to force the translation of a certain word to a particular translated word (which is possible) and have the grammar of the translated sentence updated accordingly (which is not possible). I am sure that this functionality will be included in the future, hopefully soon.

Political Correctness About Gender

Posted on 10th January 2016

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This (as reported in this BBC story) is the kind of nonsense that makes me mad.

The report is about how the Commons Women and Equalities committee is pressing the case to have a person's gender declared "not relevant" and removed from official documents such as passports and driving licences. The argument is that it creates an "unconscious bias" in job applications.

Although I am generally not a fan of the way that political correctness is warping our language, I do understand that there are cases where common terminology can cause insult or even bias. Having said that, can we please have a bit of common sense about the matter!

Passports and driving licences exist to prove people's identity. They need to give some basic information (in addition to a photograph) to allow other people to confirm that a passport or driving licence belongs to the person in question. Gender is a reasonable component of that basic identification information. Just like hair colour, eye colour, height and age, the information might be a little confusing: people can dye their hair or wear a wig, wear coloured contact lenses, wear high-heeled shoes, look younger than they are due to make-up or surgery, and dress as, or actually be, a different gender than is stated on the ID. That, however, is not a reason for removing information that does actually help to identify people in most cases.

If gender identification on ID documents is causing bias against job applicants, then the problem is not with the ID documents, but with the demand that ID be provided for job applications.

I am not against people who occupy the gender middle-ground. I have met many transgender and transvestite people, and worked with some, and I don't have any issue with them. I have no wish to insult them, but that doesn't free them from the normal obligations to be identifiable when needed. Maybe what is needed is one or more new gender definitions for use on ID documents, which specify the gender in a non-insulting way that is still useful for identification: maybe "TBD" for people in the process of gender reassignment, "Male (as Female)" and "Female (as Male)" for people who sometimes dress as the other gender.

The people who do not conform to the classic norms of our society are nevertheless a part of our society, and more and more of them are no longer hiding their true selves away from public gaze. I fully approve of this trend. I absolutely disapprove of the unfounded reactionary prejudice that such people are sometimes met with, but screwing up our language in the name of political correctness is not the answer. Prejudice needs to be addressed properly, in schools, through role models, in advertising, etc.

No Vaccination, No Camp!

Posted on 10th January 2016

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Finally the world seems to be waking up to the fact that people who do not vaccinate their kids, or themselves, are a health risk to the rest of us, and that there are things that we can do about it.

This story on Forbes is mainly a tirade against a US doctor who is a proponent of holistic medicine, but it refers to a decision by one of our largest summer camps in the USA that all staff and campers must be fully immunised to attend camp next summer. About time too.

In related news, the Australian government has decided to stop welfare payments to parents who refuse to vaccinate their children (from April 2015); and California now requires most schoolchildren to be vaccinated against diseases including measles and whooping cough (from June 2015). I think there is more such legislation and business policy to come.

I know that there are tens of thousands (maybe more) of people around the world (but mainly in the civilised and healthy West) who complain that this is impinging on parents' rights to make decisions about the health of their children. There are two kinds of replies:

  1. One answer supports the right of parents not to vaccinate their children, but not to threaten the health of others (me and my children, and you and your children). Even though my children are thoroughly vaccinated, many vaccines are given after children start school, and some vaccines are given in the teens (e.g. TB). Most vaccines do not give 100% protection, and some (like Tetanus) have to be periodically refreshed. All this means that my kids' risk of infection by a disease for which there is a vaccination is vastly increased by them mixing with people who are not vaccinated. So, I support such unvaccinated people being barred from camps and schools, and also financially penalised to encourage them to vaccinate. Whatever rights you have over your own children's health and upbringing do not extend to putting me and mine at risk!
  2. The other answer explores the limits to parents' rights over their children. Modern life is full of constraints and obligations on how we bring up our children - limits on the age at which they can be left unattended, constraints on physical punishment, obligations to properly feed, dress and house our kids, etc. Why should we treat vaccination any differently from these?

If you are a parent who has chosen not to vaccinate your children, then know this: if me or mine are made ill (or even die) because of your choice, you will be sued, criminally charged, and run the risk of losing custody of your children. I am not the only person who will hold you responsible. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

How Much Does The NHS Think A Life Is Worth?

Posted on 11th November 2016

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There has been a lot of discussion in the press in recent months about the costs, and cost-effectiveness, of the NHS. During the campaign for the Brexit referendum, there were totally fictitious figures bandied about on how much money Brexit would save, and how any savings could be ploughed into the NHS. Don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

There have also been some stories about treatments that the NHS will, and will not, pay for. In this report from The Guardian is a story about a cancer treatment, costing £15,624 per month, which they will not pay for, on the grounds of "cost-effectiveness". Admittedly, £15,624 a month is a lot of money, but even so. it is a life-saving treatment. There is also this story in The Guardian which describes a new drug for treating cancer. The new drug is currently only available for very specific cases (affecting about 300 patients), while the NHS assesses its cost-effectiveness. There have been other recent news stories also mentioning cost-effectiveness as the basis of deciding whether the NHS pays for drugs and other treatments.

I have written a large number of cost/benefit cases, which are the basis of any analysis of cost-effectiveness, and I know that you need two basic elements: the cost, and the financial value of the benefit. In the case of medical treatments, the financial value of the benefit is the value of a life, or the value of improvements in quality of life and savings on other care costs that may be saved, and any such financial value is inherently subjective.

So, what I would dearly like to know is what value does the NHS and the UK government place on a human life, and how did they decide on this value? They must have settled on a number, otherwise they could not possibly do a cost-effectiveness analysis (although I suppose they could be lying about doing such analyses). I suspect that they have a financial amount in mind, and that the value they have decided on is so low that there would be a public outcry if it became widely known. I think that the public have a right to know, and that there should be an open debate on whether it is reasonable and fair.

Spies Lies

Posted on 18th November 2015

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The topic of this BBC report Gary Powers, is very much in the news at the moment because of the movie "Bridge of Spies".

The thrust of the report is that Gary Powers, pilot of the USA's U2 spy plane which was shot down over Russia, was rather hard done by. When he returned home after being swapped for Soviet spy Vilyam Fisher (also known as Rudolf Abel), the American public felt he had betrayed his country (apparently he should have ensured that the U2 was destroyed, and the committed suicide), despite having followed his orders to the letter.

I feel sympathy for Gary Powers. It is all to easy to be labelled as a traitor by the fickle American public. That, however, is not the reason for this post.

What really concerns me is the blatant disregard for known facts, and the blind faith showed by the US military and the CIA in the supposed superiority of American technology.

The CIA knew, long before Gary Powers flew his doomed mission, that the U2 was not as out of sight and out of reach as they claimed. When the U2 was still being tested over West Germany, before being put into active service, it was spotted by the British RAF, and buzzed from above by a flight of lightnings. This was done several times, as part of a series of RAF trials. The simple fact that it was detected blows a huge hole in the myth of the U2 being out of sight, and made it highly likely that the Russians would see it too. The U2 did indeed fly above the official ceiling height of all other known military aircraft at the time (the RAF lightnings flew a parabolic arc from a much lower altitude to be able to come at the U2 from above, as they were also unable to maintain that altitude), but everyone keeps the performance specifications of their latest aircraft secret, so there was no basis to be so cocky about the U2's immunity from threats; it was probably in range for air-to-air missiles as well as ground-to-air missiles, and possibly also able to be hit by guns on Russian aircraft using the same trick as the RAF lightnings used.

One has to wonder, did the CIA set poor Gary Powers up for a fall, by sending him on a mission that they knew was doomed to failure?

Christian Charity?

Posted on 29th December 2015

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I was completely gob-smacked by parts of this report from the BBC.

The report described how Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone is donating money for medical research "to make amends". To make amends for what, you may well ask.

It seems that the luxurious apartment, overlooking St. Peter's Square, in which he lives, was renovated with funds (€200,000) which came from the Bambino Gesu Foundation, a charity which collects donations for a children's hospital in Rome. Originally, the Cardinal claimed that he paid for the renovation himself, but it turns out that is not the case.

To make amends, Cardinal Bertone has donated €150,000 to the charity because the affair had "damaged our hospital and our foundation". He said he would reimburse the money "in instalments from his savings and from contributions for charity that had been made to him over the years". Presumably, his statement implies that if the cause from which he received the funds were not so deserving, he would not feel the need to "make amends".

Several things about this story jar with me. Firstly, he denies any wrongdoing. He says the payments are a "a voluntary donation", "... not reimbursement, because I personally haven't done any damage". I have looked at this from several perspectives, and I can only characterise the issue as either theft or corruption, which would certainly be considered "damage" in most jurisdictions.

Secondly, the amount of the donation (€150,000) does not cover the original questionable sum (€200,000). Does he think the apology covers the remaining €50,000? What about interest?

Finally, he is paying back the money from where?! From "his savings and from contributions for charity that had been made to him over the years". So, let me just get that straight: he is paying back money that he stole from a charity, with other money that he was given to pass on to charities (and didn't pass on, so he stole that too).

How does Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone think this is OK? How does the Roman Catholic Church think this is OK? Why was the journalist who wrote this piece not onto this like a dog on a rabbit?

No wonder that he has such a huge grin on his face, in the photo in the BBC article.

Now we're at war?

Posted on 18th November 2015

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This interesting article from The Gaurdian highlights some worrying blinkered thinking by many people.

In the piece, Stan Grant points out the fallacy of the statement, echoed many times in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks: "Now we're at war!". As he so powerfully describes, we have been at war since at least 9/11. The reason why so many westerners have not understood that we are at war is because attacks in the west are sporadic, because of the degree of our security and anti-terrorist intelligence activity. The majority of terrorist attacks are against Muslims: "The American government’s National Counter-Terrorism Centre estimates that up to 97% of terrorism fatalities are Muslims." This is the nub of the problem: most westerners see terrorism as an internal problem of, and in, the Muslim world. So, not our problem, apparently. To paraphrase protesters in the USA, "Muslim lives matter!"

Well now, with the Paris attacks, this tunnel vision is biting us in the arse (again).

I have worked in a number of Muslim countries (Tanzania, Indonesia and Malaysia). I have several Muslim friends. I can say without a shadow of doubt that Muslims are in general good people. The problem is not the religion of Islam itself: Islamic State (aka ISIS) does not have a sound religious basis for how it governs and wages war. The Koran itself is very clear about killing being a sin.

There have been major terrorist campaigns in other parts of the world: the Baader Meinhof Group, now stamped out by strong policing, the republicans in Northern Ireland, now much less active, the FARC in Colombia, now in the process of negotiating peace, and others. These campaigns did a lot of harm, and were not easy to stop, but the difference was that the public saw them as our problem. The British government was spending £4 billion per year on anti-terrorist "policing" in Northern Ireland, for years! The public do not seem convinced (except maybe for short periods, or in relation to very specific threats such as Osama bin Laden) that the threat posed by radical Muslim terrorism is our problem. Until they do, it will not be solved.

Experience should by now have taught us all that terrorism must be fought all fronts, in order to have a good chance of success. Not only must we apply policing and intelligence capabilities, but we also need to address the propaganda that radicalises people to become terrorists; we need to cut off supplies of money and weapons; and we need to work to resolve the poverty and injustice that drives people into the arms of terrorist organisations. This is not rocket science, and most anti-terrorist experts would give you exactly the same list of action items. The problem is not that the experts do not know what to do; the problem is that the public does not yet accept that it is our problem, and therefore there is no public commitment to the necessary remedial actions. Our politicians are weak, cowardly and obsessed with re-election; they are not likely to bite the bullet until the public are on board.

So, Muslim (and other) terrorism is our problem, which means that it my problem and your problem. You know what to do!

Hypocrisy Over Gun-Control

Posted on 18th November 2015

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What an awesome example of hypocrisy from conservative anti-gun-control radio host Erick Erickson, reported in this short piece from Salon. Also, what an excellent headline: "Erick Erickson soils himself"!

Erick Erickson believes that "The best gun control in this country is an armed, honest citizenry who can shoot straight ... Instead of gun-free zones, we should allow law abiding, concealed carry permit holders to go where they wish with their guns." But not when it’s him that's at risk: he will not go to the cinema to see the new Star Wars movie on opening weekend because "there are no metal detectors in American theaters [sic]."

There is little hope for a nation (the USA) when the people listen to, and allow their opinions to be influenced by, such shallow and hypocritical thinking: thinking with the absence of thought!

I guess the influence that he has is a symptom of the sickness of the "cult of celebrity", which permeates US politics and public life. It doesn't matter how prejudiced, stupid and uneducated someone is; if they are famous for whatever reason, the public swoon at their pronouncements, irrespective of how patently wrong they may be. Thankfully, this public disease is rather less prevalent in Europe; I hope that doesn't change.

Low Quality Ubuntu Upgrade

Posted on 14th November 2015

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In many ways, I am a huge fan of Linux. My servers run Ubuntu Linux, as does one of my laptops. I like that fact that you never get an update of any software without first agreeing to it (unlike Windows). I also like the fact that you have complete control of the configuration, that much of the software that you need is free and most can be customised because it is open-source.

Canonical, the company that provides Ubuntu Linux, generally seems professional. Ubuntu Linux is free, with free updates for the LTS (Long-Term Support) versions for 5 years. Canonical make their money from paid support for commercial users. I like this business model.

Having said that, I am very unhappy about the latest Ubuntu upgrade, to version 14.04, which I applied to my main server on Thursday (12/11/2015). Certainly, the latest operating system, and the updated applications that came with it, are better (bugs are fixed, the GUI is faster and more responsive). There are, however, a number of related issues regarding firewalling.

For various sound reasons, I have a fairly complicated network topology at home, both my real physical network, and virtual (soft) networking within my main server. This means that my firewall configuration is also complex. Until now I had managed this complexity using a firewall configuration GUI program called Firestarter, one of a number of such tools that were available for Ubuntu Linux (the other popular tool was called Shorewall). Firewall functionality is included in Linux (in "ip-tables"), but configuring it via the command-line is complex and error-prone, even for simple network topologies, which is why I used Firestarter.

I admit that I made a mistake when upgrading. I was prompted to choose whether to delete obsolete packages, and clicked "yes" without properly checking the list of 200 packages. Firestarter was one of those which is now obsolete, and not available for re-installation. This would not have been a problem, if Canonical had also remembered to migrate the configuration in ip-tables (in the same way that they need to migrate user-accounts, group accounts, printer set-up, file-system set-up and exports, etc.) to the new operating system. Instead, I found myself with a server running the default firewall configuration, which is fine for a workstation or laptop, but utterly useless for a server. My web-site was down, and all my local services (file sharing, printing, etc.) were not accessible.

When I checked the available software packages, I discovered that there are no longer any firewall configuration GUI programs available for Ubuntu 14.04: they have all become obsolete. I found myself with two choices: either configure ip-tables directly from the command-line, or use a program call 'ufw' (Unix FireWall - also a command line program). Of course, neither option is supported by adequate documentation. It took me hours of trial and error work to get everything working as it was before the upgrade. All of that time and effort because the company couldn't be bothered, or forgot, to migrate a set of configuration tables. It also calls into question exactly how much testing is done on new operating system versions.

When you do an Ubuntu upgrade (from one operating system version to another), you also usually get new versions of applications and utilities: updates which were not released for the older operating system). So far I have run afoul of two of these. The first was a change in how services are started/stopped/restarted: previously there were two ways to do this; I had an automation script using the method which has now been disabled, which rather interfered with my testing of my new firewall configuration. The second was a bug in the program that I am using to write this: Bluefish (an advanced context sensitive editor). Bluefish had a bug which caused it to crash immediately after starting it; this bug was fixed quite a while ago, but the fixed version wasn't added to the online software repositories (so not possible to easily download and install it) until this morning.

I do hope that I have now found all of the bugs added with this version of Ubuntu. I also hope that Canonical listen to the complaints, and up their game for future releases.

Rubbish Adobe PDF Reader

Posted on 11th November 2015

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I wrote recently (here) complaining about the security risks created by Adobe software (in that case, Adobe Flash Payer). Now I am complaining about Adobe PDF Reader.

For a while Sheryl was complaining about not being able to print PDF documents from her laptop (running Window 8.1) to the printer attached to my Linux server. I then discovered that I had the same problem printing from my own Windows 7 machine. I spent quite a long time investigating postings on various forums about similar problems, and fiddling with my print server settings to resolve the problem, and finally I found out what the problem was.

The problem was with Adobe PDF Reader, which seemed totally unable to print to my Linux print server (I assume that it was still able to print to locally attached printers, and also to Windows print servers, but did not test this). At some point, Adobe issued a patch which simply broke the remote printing functionality.

The fix was simple. I replaced Adobe PDF Reader with another application (PDF XChange Viewer from Tracker Software) and now everything is fine. PDF XChange Viewer has excellent functionality for marking-up PDF documents, has a browser plug-in for viewing documents in the browser, and prints to my Linux print server just fine.

The fact that Adobe's software had this bug shows how poor their testing is, and how unprofessional they are.

Now I have retired Adobe PDF Reader. I look forward to being able to do the same to Adobe Flash Player (notice to all those web-sites built around Adobe Flash: time to upgrade to HTML5 and get rid of Flash's obsolete and insecure technology!).

Of course, Adobe are not the only company foisting off dodgy software on us all. Here are some other examples from my personal experience (there are more, but space and time are limited):

EverNote

A really useful tool for keeping records of meetings, design notes, to-do lists, etc. The only problem is (or at least was - I retired it so don't know if they fixed it) is that it really hammers the performance of your PC, due to its Internet traffic (synchronising your notes with the cloud). It made my computer unusable.

Samsung Kies

Allows you to manage music, photos and videos on your mobile phone, and copy or synchronise to/from your PC. Also, it allows you to synchronise your Outlook calendar and address-book with those on your phone. The problem is that it doesn't deal well with multiple email accounts in Outlook - for a very long time I was unable to do any synchronisation with Outlook at all. Now I am able to synchronise, but I still get lots of duplicate entries in Outlook. Samsung make excellent mobile phones, but they can't write PC software that anyone would want to use.

Apple Software

If you have an Apple device, be it an iPad or an iPhone, you need to have iTunes to manage the music. There are third-party alternatives, but because of the effort that Apple puts into encryption (every new generation of device has new encryption), you have to wait about a year after each new device is launched before the third-party will work with it (generally the third-party companies have to reverse engineer the encryption software and then build it into their products). Also, no matter how often you tell the Apple installer that you do not want iTunes (or QuickTime) to be the default media player, it keeps setting the default application to Apple software.

Also, the Safari browser is not a well behaved application. I run it under Windows, and under Wine (a Windows emulation layer in Linux). It crashes, hangs, locks the desktop, and generally misbehaves. It seems that it is not fully compliant with the Microsoft Windows APIs.

Why Did the TPP Need To Be Secret?

Posted on 3rd November 2015

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This story, in Grist, got me thinking. It is about the TPP (the Trans-Pacific Partnership), which Europe will not be a part of - not to be confused with the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), which will include Europe.

The main thrust of the report, which is clear in its title, is that the TPP is evil (much the same is being said of the TTIP), but the thing which struck me was the statement that "It was top-secret for years", although New Zealand has just published the text of the agreement online, ahead of the agreed date.

The reason why the author of the story claims the TPP is evil is because of its lack of environmental safeguards. The wording about environmental protection is all about trying to do good things, rather than any ironclad commitments. Whilst this has always been the case for trade agreements, the public are becoming more concerned about the environment, and the condition that it will be in for following generations, and there is an expectation that environmental protection will be better in new treaties, and the relevant clauses will have more teeth.

This, I suspect, is the reason for all the secrecy until now. If the voting public do not know what is being negotiated, it is rather difficult to lobby against it. Too many powerful groups and individuals have a vested interest in getting the TPP approved. I can sympathise with the need to keep some international treaties and agreements secret: things like intelligence sharing and cooperation on military R&D. I also understand that you probably do not want your negotiating position undermined by publishing every detail of a treaty before it is agreed. The issue that delayed publication creates, however, is giving enough time for informed public debate after the negotiation is complete. If a trade agreement takes 7 years to negotiate, as is the case for the TPP, then a proper independent analysis and public discussion of the results needs to be given more than a year, but it seems that the approval plan for TPP does not allow that amount of time (President Obama wants to get the TPP signed and approved before his term in office is over).

Not A Racist Bone In His Body

Posted on 19th July 2019

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Donald Trump shocked many people, both within and outside the USA, recently, with his tweets about how members of "The Squad" (Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib) should go back to where they came from, as reported here, by the BBC.

There was one grain of truth in what Trump said: that the women "originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe". Since three of the four come from the USA, Old Yeller's criticism (of his own government) is absolutely correct.

He attempted to defend himself from accusations of racism, saying that "I don't have a racist bone in my body!". Leaving aside the small issue that it is unclear if he has any bones at all in his body, due to the ample covering of fat, his protestations remind me of a phrase that I have heard before. Any readers who have been to South Africa, or who have white South African friends, have probably heard sentences which start with "You understand, I'm not a racist, but ....."

This got me thinking. Is it entirely unthinkable that the retard president might try to introduce apartheid in the USA?

Police Nonsense About Animal Cruelty

Posted on 8th May 2016

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Do the police in Britain really think that people are so stupid? This story in the Independent reports that the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) believes that “a government agency would be better equipped to take on the role” of prosecuting animal cruelty cases. Currently the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) prosecutes 80% of all animal cruelty cases.

Well here’s my take on the situation. The police are perfectly able to prosecute animal cruelty cases, so why don’t they do so more often. The public are bound to assume that the reason is that the police don’t care enough about animal cruelty. The police might rightly argue that they have other priorities, so why prevent the RSPCA from doing it.

What I suggest is that the RSPCA be allowed to continue doing an excellent job protecting animals, a subject dear to the hearts of most Brits, and the police work on convincing us that they can do the job just as well (or even better). When the police prosecutions are above 50% of all animal cruelty cases, then we can revisit the matter. In the meantime, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”!

Even Einstein Believed In The Laws of Physics!

Posted on 16th May 2018

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Quite some time ago (July 2013) I wrote about how there are no such things as the laws of science (here). I explained that science provides us with a set of models which approximately describe how the physical world will behave in various circumstances. I was very disparaging about the author of the article in question.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read this report on the Mother Nature Network, which contains a quote by Albert Einstein, in a letter to German physicist Max Born: "I am quite convinced that someone will eventually come up with a theory whose objects, connected by laws, are not probabilities but considered facts, as used to be taken for granted until quite recently".

Einstein is considered to be one of the greatest scientists in history, and it was a real shock to me to discover that he, apparently, did not properly understand something so fundamental about the nature of science, his career and area of expertise.

It seems that even our heroes are flawed.

KLM Steals My Evening!

Posted on 12th April 2019

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This post is a copy of an item from my News Blog.

I got home tonight just after mid-night (so technically the 13th, not the 12th) after a nightmare journey home, thanks to KLM.

I was booked on the 18:40 from Schiphol to Munich, and arrived at the airport, already with a boarding pass after checking in online, 35 minutes before the last time that I could check my luggage in: 17:59, which should have been plenty of time . My bag is too big for hand-luggage, and contained several toiletry items that exceeded the 100ml limit, so checking it in for transport in the hold was my only option.

It took about 4 minutes to reach the queue to check my bag. I then queued for 20 minutes, and the machine issued me a baggage tag at precisely 17:48 (confirmed by the woman at KLM's ticket desk). Unfortunately, the machine refused to take my bag, and with no explanation, told me to go to the service desk, where I queued for another 20 minutes, by when it was too late to check my bag. I was sent to the ticket desk to rebook my flight.

At the ticket desk, only 2 of the six desks were open, so I had to queue for another 25 minutes. The lady at the desk told me that it was all my fault, because I hadn't arrived at the airport 2 hours before my flight. She rebooked me onto the 21:00 flight to Munich. She also told me that, because, in her opinion, it was my fault, she should charge me a rebooking fee, and that she was doing me a favour my not doing so.

Firstly, the arrival 2 hours before the flight is only meant to be in cases where you still need to check-in and get your boarding pass, and I already had a boarding pass. 35 minutes should be plenty of time to check a bag which, although too big for hand-baggage, is actually small for hold luggage and requires no special handling. I checked my bag 11 minutes before the deadline, which proves that I was at the airport early enough.

Secondly, at the service desk, when I finally reached the front of the queue, there were still 30 minutes until departure: plenty of time to load a bag. At Munich airport, they would have phoned someone, and been granted an exception to accept a late bag.

Finally, the idea that I should have to pay, because of a failure of a machine checking in bags is outrageous. If there had been no other option to fly Friday night, then KLM would not have been prepared to pay for a hotel and dinner, and that would have been all at my expense.

As a result of this debacle, the plans that Sheryl and I had, for her to meet me at Munich airport and to have dinner together there, were trashed. My whole evening and my dinner were stolen from me by KLM. I was still raging angry when I got home, and it took quite a while for me to calm down enough to sleep.

The purser and once of the stewards on my 9pm flight were very sympathetic to my plight, but couldn't do anything to help; thanks for trying, though, guys.

I was forced to eat in Schiphol airport, and that food was disgusting (see my food blog).

When I lived in the Netherlands (from 1994 to 1996), I flew KLM often. They were a great airline, but since then things have changed: being taken over by Air France is the cause of much of the deterioration in service.

I will certainly be rethinking flying with KLM in future, and will be filing a complaint.

Are Transgender Sport Competitors Cheating?

Posted on 20th February 2019

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Martina Navratilova is in trouble for her recent statement about transgender people in sport, as reported by the BBC.

A US LGBT group, Athlete Ally, have severed ties with Ms. Navratilova, an 18-times Grand Slam winner, because of her statement in The Sunday Times, that it was "cheating" to allow transgender women to compete in women's sport as they had unfair physical advantages; "I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.". Athlete Ally branded this as transphobic and perpetuating myths, and based on a false understanding of science and data.

Athlete Ally seem to be confusing political correctness with science. There are basic differences between the physiology of male and female bodies, which are the reason why, in most sports, men and women do not compete directly: men have a wider natural variation in the ratio of different types of muscle than women, and this ratio is more easily affected by training (and even diet), so that men are better able to optimise their bodies for stamina, speed, or strength. Having sex-change surgery does not affect this variability of muscle-type ratios, and hormone treatment only affects this variability very slowly (over years).

So, Ms. Navratilova has the science right; Athlete Ally does not.

I am not sure that I would accuse male-to-female transgender sports competitors of deliberately cheating (a sex-change seems to be too drastic for people to do it just to win at sport), but it is most certainly not fair. The world of sport should take Martina's comments seriously, and address this unfairness. If they don't, people may stop watching some sports.

Sexual Equality Only When Convenient?

Posted on 10th January 2019

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I was disgusted, although not surprised, when I read this piece on the BBC.

The article describes a failed date. The man, a hard-up student, took a woman on a date. Being short of money, he ordered something inexpensive (a beer and pasta carbonara). The woman, on the other hand, ordered a lobster (£28) and an expensive bottle of wine (£70). He, understandably, to my thinking, made her pay for her extravagant meal; he said that he would have happily paid for her meal if she had ordered something more reasonable. She was livid, and in an exchange of messages afterwards (when he was trying to apologise, and make it up to her, by asking her for another, cheaper meal/date) wrote "Gentlemen ALWAYS pay for girl’s food".

Excuse me madam, but this is the age of sexual equality (things are not yet equal for the sexes, but we are {most of us, at least} trying to get there). I assume that she probably wants to be treated equally, especially in the workplace, except for paying for meals and vacations, and having the door held open for her by gentlemen. Sorry, but you can't have it both ways.

She is behaving as a parasite, pure and simple.

I have similar, but not identical, experiences. A few years ago an ex-girlfriend of one of my friends invited me and my girlfriend to meet her potential new boyfriend, a student, to check him out and give her our opinion. The man was not flush with money, but they did at least discuss the issue of her expectations that he pay for everything versus the reality of his financial situation. He argued strongly that she should pay for the date on that occasion, since she had a real job (actually, two jobs) and he didn't; we agreed with him, and she was not pleased by that.

A few months later she got in touch again, and invited us to meet another potential new boyfriend, this time over dinner. I should point out to those of you who do not live in Germany, that the use of the word invite (einladen) implies that the inviter will pay, but we knew her well enough not to expect that. This candidate was a struggling actor, so also not flush. He made it clear that he was not interested in any relationship that required him to pay for everything. When the meal was over, I paid for my meal, and my girlfriend's, plus enough tip for all 4 of us, and then went to the toilet. The candidate-boyfriend had made it clear that he would not pay (after all, she had invited him), so she had to pay, which she struggled to do (several credit cards were rejected, and one was cut up by the waiter). The thing that really bothered me was that, not only did she expect that guy to pay, but her fall-back was that I would pay, even though she invited us.

I hope that any female readers are getting the message loud and clear: you can't expect to be treated equally when it suits you, and then demand to be treated like helpless damsels when that suits you. Choose one option, and only one, stick with it, and declare it to people you meet, so that they know whether they even want to be friends with you.

I am a fairly generous person. I give good tips in restaurants and taxis (I have a rule that, if I give a small, or no, tip, I must explain why), I lend money to friends (in some cases knowing full well that I will never see that money paid back). I repair things for friends, for free. I hold doors open for women (and men) and sometimes pay for their meals and drinks. I do all this and more because I choose to; no-one is going to tell me that it is required of me. New friends are welcome in my life; parasites are not!

Salma Hayek calls on male stars to be "generous with the actresses"

Posted on 16th May 2018

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I just had to laugh when I read this report from the BBC.

Salma Hayek is telling male movie stars that they should take pay cuts, to improve pay equality between male and female actors. That would be highly laudable, even though the logic is probably flawed, and I have no issue with her motives.

The thing that I found amusing was her statement that "You had a good run but it is time now to be generous with the actresses". If they are going to be generous with the actresses, then I will take four, please.

I suppose that I should be understanding, given that English is not her first language, and I suspect that, had she written the message rather than speaking it, she would have said "to the actresses".