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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Ukraine conflict: Russia charges pilot over deaths.

Posted on 10th July 2014

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This BBC story really blows the cover on Russia's true position about what is going on in Ukraine.

Russia's official position has always been that the pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine are nothing to do with them, that they are not supporting them (with weapons, supplies and intelligence), and that it is a Ukrainian problem.

Now, however, they have charged Nadiya Savchenko, a helicopter pilot who was fighting in a volunteer battalion against pro-Russian separatists near Luhansk in east Ukraine, with complicity in the murder of two Russian journalists who died in this fighting.

The legal situation is very clear. Russia has no jurisdiction over what happens in Ukraine. Unless Russia disputes Ukraine's sovereignty in eastern Ukraine, which they say the do not, then they have no grounds to enforce Russian law there. The most that they can do is charge her with illegal entry into Russia (Ukraine claims she was taken into Russia against her will by the s separatist rebels, but Russia claims she entered Russia voluntarily). Also, if they think the woman committed some crime, they could ask Ukraine to prosecute her, or refer her to the war crimes court in The Hague.

So, time for the bullshit to end. Russia should either formally dispute Ukrainian sovereignty over eastern Ukraine, and declare war (which will produce a significant response from NATO), or let the woman go and get their fingers out of the Ukrainian dispute.

Why Are These Refugees Being Processed For Asylum In Cyprus?

Posted on 3rd November 2015

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This BBC report shows that something is seriously wrong with Britain's attitude to refugees. The report describes how the refugees are unhappy, and are protesting, about their treatment. I can understand why.

These refugees seem to have been very clever (it could also have been an accident, but probably not) by arriving at a UK RAF base in Cyprus. The base is British sovereign territory, and according the the Dublin Regulation their applications for asylum should be processed by the UK, for residence in the UK. Now, however, they are being processed by Cyprus, for residence there.

I really do not understand how this can be. They want to live in Britain, and the rules say that is what they should be able to apply for. In addition, Cyprus is a small country, much more easily reached by refugees from Syria, and they therefore already have more than their fair share of refugees. Britain, on the other hand, is much harder for the refugees to reach, and because of this Britain has relatively few refugees.

I don't know what kind of legal manoeuvring the UK government has been making to side-step their responsibility to these refugees, but it seems to me that it is neither actually legal nor moral. It is time for Britain to step up.

Who Can We Trust With Our Data?

Posted on 3rd November 2015

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The latest drama in the hacking saga, this time at Vodafone in the UK, really makes me wonder if anyone can be trusted with our confidential data.

The most recent hack in the news was of Vodafone UK, as reported by the BBC here: details of around 2,000 Vodafone customers were accessed. Before that there was TalkTalk (the latest BBC report is here), where hackers accessed around 1.2 million email addresses, names and phone numbers and 21,000 unique bank account details. At the beginning of October, hackers stole personal information on about 15 million T-Mobile US customers and applicants, as described in this BBC news story. Almost two years ago, payment details from up to 40 million credit cards were stolen through a hack of card payment machines in the stores of US retail giant Target (described in this BBC report). Remember, these are just a few examples (a lot of hacks do not get reported, especially when the targets are banks). So clearly, we cannot trust the companies with which we do business to keep data about us safe.

We ought to be able to trust our governments to keep our data safe (especially as they are hoovering up data (both legally and illegally) like it's going out of style, but no, it seems that we can't. This BBC report is just one of a series about a data breach in April this year at the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM): initial reports were that data about 4 million people were stolen; more recent reports are saying it is 21 million (which is 6.5% of the nation's population!). More recently there was a hack, purportedly by Anonymous, of the US Census Bureau in which hackers pulled down information on thousands of users, including email addresses, phone numbers, addresses, usernames and password hashes (i.e. encrypted passwords). The data includes information on Census and other federal employees, as well as members of organizations with user accounts for submitting audits to the site.

It really seems that no-one is able to keep data about us safe.

This inability to ensure data security just adds to the concerns (due to issues of privacy and censorship) that are regularly voiced about data collection in the modern world. One recent example, described in this BBC story, is that the former head of GCHQ (the UK equivalent of the NSA) has said that "Internet firms" (by which I assume he means Internet Service Providers - ISPs) should be forced (by legislation) to keep users' data. Another example is the ongoing story about Facebook and the Safe Harbour Agreement (an international agreement that recognised foreign and private data protection processes as "good enough" to meet European data protection standards), reported here by the BBC; the Safe Harbour Agreement was ruled invalid in early October 2015 by the European Court of Justice, clearing the way for Facebook to be taken to court for sharing personal data internationally. There are two separate issues with both cases: these firms should not, in principle, be collecting such data about anyone without just cause, and most certainly not when it cannot be guaranteed to be kept securely.

Since I work in IT, I do understand that there is no system which is 100% secure, but the ease and speed with which some of the recent hacks have been achieved means that basic efforts are not being made. The degree of protection that is afforded our private data does not meet my basic Terms and Conditions. Either do better, or stop keeping so much data about us.

South Korean Government Enabling Paedophiles?

Posted on 3rd November 2015

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This (a BBC news story) is a pretty sorry tale. The South Korean government has withdrawn a phone app, "Smart Sheriff", from the market and is recommending exisating users to change to an alternative. Smart Sheriff had been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times inside South Korea.

One of reasons this market is so big in South Korean is that the government there mandated in April this year that all children's mobile phones must be monitored. Smart Sheriff was developed by a group of telecoms companies called the Korean Mobile Internet Business Association (Moiba), and seems to have been the government's recommended app.

It turns out that Smart Sheriff is not actually very Smart. Its security is described as "catastrophic" in two reports, one by the University of Toronto and the second by software auditing firm Cure53. It seems that children's personal details were not stored securely and that the parental filters were easy to disable.

So, in summary, it doesn't do its job properly, and whilst failing to work it leaks confidential data. Paedophiles (Pedophiles to any American readers) must simply love this app. A great job all around!

The EU is Good for Britain

Posted on 22nd October 2015

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The discussion about Britain's membership of the EU is starting to heat up, with positions and facts coming from people other than politians, at last.

As described in this BBC report, the Bank of England has published the results of their analysis. Their conclusion is that there are negative and positive effects from the UK's membership of the European Union, but that on balance, membership is beneficial for Britain.

Also, recently, the CBI (the Confederation of British Industry, the main representative of employers and industry in Britain - more information here and here) have finally climbed off the fence regarding the UK's EU membership (as reported by the BBC here). They say "... there are problems with EU membership but that these are greatly outweighed by the benefits..." Most of the CBI's members want to stay within the 28-country EU.

These two pro-European positions really should not surprise anyone. The economic benefits of membership are significant, and will continue to grow. Just bear in mind what Britain's modern economy is based upon: it is no longer a major exporter of agricultural products; it ceased to be a net exported of minerals centuries ago; the contribution from manufacturing is negligible; Brits are mainly exporters of services. Services covers a multitude of different things, but service exports from Britain are dominated by financial services (banking, insurance and investment services). The single European market for goods has existed for many years, but the single European market for financial services is really only now being constructed, and once it is, Britain will really start to reap rewards. Do we really want to exit the EU just as it starts to pay-off?

Also, bear in mind that a lot of financial services business flows through Britain because it is seen around the world as a gateway to European markets: a business friendly, English speaking channel to invest in the EU. Stopping that flow of business would really be a case of cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

There is a general perception, in continental Europe and in Britain, that Britain is a reluctant member of the EU. As a Brit living in continental Europe, I agree. This reluctance is analysed in more detail in this report in The Economist. Euro-sceptics abound, and there are news stories almost every day about the interference from Brussels in how the UK is run. The Economist suggests that Britain has it pretty good in the EU: "That Britain has the least-regulated labour market and second-least-regulated product market in Europe. The most damaging measures, such as planning restrictions and the new living wage, are home-grown". This means that "Brexit" will not solve all Britain's problems.

I am sure that virtually every reader knows that politicians cannot be trusted. So why are people so surprised by the suggestion that British policians are being "economical with the truth" when it comes to where the blame lies for Britain's troubles? It was a tried and tested technique for despotic regimes around the world (The Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran, to name but a few) to divert attention and blame onto external players and away from themselves; if it works for despots, why not for mainstream politicians?

Time to stop complaining about the EU gravy train that Britain is on, and get ready to make the most of the next course.

Problems in Australia with Feral Have-Beens

Posted on 5th October 2015

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It seems, according to this BBC report, that a geriatric cat lady (Brigitte Bardot) and a musician that no-one has heard of for years (Morrissey) have been causing the Australian government some headaches. I don't understand why the Ozzies even care what they think.

Feral cats are a huge problem in Australia. They are threatening a number (at least 120) of native species with extinction: "Our native species are simply not equipped to coexist with feral cats; they did not evolve alongside predators like the feral cat", said Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews. Basically, these cats are pollution caused by humans, and it is time to clean up the mess.

I have to wonder whether these two bleeding hearts have ever met a feral cat. They are not like cuddly household moggies; even pet cats are vicious and selfish (a once read a story about a cat-detective, in which the cats' nickname for humans is "tin openers" - that says it all), but feral cats are in a class of their own.

Even Americans Now Believe In Global Warming

Posted on 28th October 2015

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Finally it seems that climate change is now accepted by the majority of Americans, according to this article in Bloomberg Business.

The latest opinion poll data shows that three quarters of Americans now "accept the scientific consensus on climate change": 90% of Democrats and 59% of Republicans. This is despite the fact that the Republican party is the main source of climate-change denial propaganda in the US, due to the huge influence of energy industry lobbyists on Republican party policy.

The people have spoken. Time for the Republican party to join the 21st century, and start representing the views of their voters.

More About Exxon Becoming A Climate-Change Denier

Posted on 28th October 2015

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Another report, from The Los Angeles Times, describes how and why Exxon (now Exxon Mobil) changed from one of the leaders in climate-change research and a public believer in global warming to an apparent skeptic and manipulator of public opinion on climate change, as already mentioned in this posting.

The report cites archived company documents and the recollections of former employees. It seems that Exxon realised around 1990 that a change in public opinion towards more concern about climate change would probably lead to onerous and costly regulations of their industry.

This is the kind of thing that gets industry a well-deserved bad name. Scientific evidence, and the well-being of the planet and its population were ignored in order to make a bigger profit. The company and its officers should be punished for what they did. The problem is that they were doing what the law requires company executives to do: to maximise profits and shareholder value, which is something I have already discussed here. Until corporate law and stock exchange regulations are changed to bring social and environmental responsibility into the mix of their duties, this sort of thing will inevitably continue.

There is, of course, something else that could and should be changed to help prevent this kind of corporate dishonesty and manipulation of of public opinion: the whole system of corporate lobbying in US politics. Why should companies be able to buy influence to the degree that they do? It is undemocratic (in a country that claims to be the world's champion of democracy) and simply wrong.

Advertisements Slowing Web Access

Posted on 15th October August 2015

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This BBC story highlights a growing problem with web access, especially from mobile devices, and puts the spotlight on the implicit deal that we all make in order to get "free" service from many web-based services.

We have all experienced how frustrating it is trying to access web-sites, with all the advertisements vying for your attention. As the BBC report describes, sometimes ads block the content you want to view; sometimes the control to dismiss an ad doesn't work, or is hard to find; the time to load pages is increased by the time needed to load the ads (especially as the ad servers are often very slow); but also, very importantly, the ads are using up our (sometimes very expensive, e.g. when roaming) bandwidth.

The deal that we have, by default, agreed to is that, in exchange for a free service (whether it is the use of Facebook, a news service, messaging, or whatever) we have agreed to receive ads. If you check a site's Terms and Conditions, it will usually say "By using this site, you agree ....". So I can understand why the providers of free services don't want us using their service when we have ad-blockers installed.

Well, here are my Terms and Conditions:

  • The ads must not stop the service working. This means no pop-ups which block the content I am trying to view, and should not reduce the screen real-estate of my device to unusable amounts.
  • The data overhead of downloading the ads should be limited. I would suggest no more than 50% of the total bandwidth be used for ads.
  • The ads must not prevent me from being socially responsible when using the web in public places. This means that videos should not play unless I click them, or at least not auto-play with sound.

These Ts & Cs should hold true for all devices that I use.

I suspect that web-service providers and advertisers cannot all be trusted to stick to such rules, so I think the answer is regulation. The problem, of course, is that the Internet is international, and no one jurisdiction is able to regulate it, but I think this problem has to be able to be solved (in the same way as for the less socially acceptable types of porn, and for money-making scams).

Global Warming – More About What our world will be like

Posted on 5th October 2015

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I already wrote about what our world will become like (here) as a result of global warming. Here are some more thoughts, to make the picture clearer.

The population of our planet has already passed the 7 billion mark. As I hope you already understand, the root cause of global warming, as with almost every pollution problem, is that there are too many people on this planet. Experts have stated that they expect the population to reach a plateau of around 9 billion; you might wonder about the basis of this estimate.

Population pressure causes shortages of food and water; it decreases food quality and safety: it increases the incidence of disease and the rate at which new diseases evolve; it increases the incidence of wars; it increases the number of migrants and refugees; and it causes financial instability. None of these conclusions should come as any surprise: these are all problems that we have already, and the highest incidence of them is mostly correlated with areas where population most heavily exceeds the ability of the natural world, and our infrastructure, to support the population (i.e. not always places where absolute population density is highest, but places which simply cannot support the population levels - like Africa, parts of the Middle East, China, etc.).

The estimate of 9 billion people is based on the limitations on our ability and willingness to breed, caused by the side-effects of those population levels. This is not a firm figure, but only an estimate, based on many assumptions. So, the question that you should now be asking yourself is, how much deterioration in your heath, financial well-being, and general quality of life will be enough to prevent you from producing excessive numbers of children?

Of course, the problem with these assumptions is that people have various different motives for having offspring: cultural and religious, financial, etc. These motives are impacted differently by the pressures that I have described above: some people will choose to have more children if they believe that their chances of survival are reduced, thus exacerbating the reduction of health and quality of life for all of us.

Personally, I think that things will need to get much worse than the experts are assuming before Earth's population stabilises. Is that world the kind of place where you want to live, and where you want your children to grow up? If not, then maybe it is time to rethink your system of beliefs.

Videos Of Police Breaking The Law

Posted on 3rd October 2015

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I tried very hard to be shocked when reading this BBC report; it didn't work; this is, after all Brazil where such violations are common, if not exactly normal.

Thank goodness that a member of the public had the presence of mind to video the police planting a gun in the dead teenager’s hand. Without such hard evidence, the authorities would have been able to use the "your word against mine" defence.

It did remind me that, here in Germany, it is against the law to knowingly video police in the execution of their duties. Given the way German law is enforced, any citizen presenting such a video as evidence of police malpractice would probably be charged (as well as the offending officers). The existence of this law in Germany embodies a huge assumption: that the main priority can be on protecting the rights, privacy and security of the police, because "we know that they would never break the law", so the rights, privacy and security of the public do not need the added protection of videoing of the police. Whilst this is probably close to true now, can we assume that it will always be true? As a member of the public, I think I would feel safer knowing that videos of police are legal, and can be used for my protection.

Segregation of Refugees?

Posted on 3rd October 2015

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Not surprisingly, the assimilation of large numbers of refugees into Germany is not without problems, as described in this BBC story.

Germany is busy doing the right thing regarding the refugees: allowing them in, members of the public welcoming them as the trains bearing migrants arrive, creating temporary camps and processing centres, finding long-term accommodation for the newcomers, organising collections of second-hand clothes and shoes (winter is coming, and already it is colder here than most of them will have experienced), finding additional funds for welfare and training, and finding them work.

The story above describes a "mass brawl" at a migrant camp, which took a lot of time and effort to bring under control. My reaction to this outbreak of violence is that it demonstrates a lack of gratitude and respect for their hosts. Some German politicians however, seem to think that it is somehow Germany's fault, and that we should segregate the different ethic and religious groups to prevent further unrest.

No, no, no! These refugees have come to Germany, and to other countries, with the intention of living here. That means that they are expected to integrate into German culture. In German society there will be an even more diverse ethnic and religious mix, including exactly those same groups as in the camps. This inter-cultural intolerance and violence is their (the refugees) problem, and it should not become our problem. If they can't demonstrate that they can live in peace with other refugees, then I guess that they are not going to fit in here, and should look for another home. I don't tolerate fighting between guests in my apartment, and I don't see why we should tolerate it between guests in our countries.

It is not that I do not welcome the refugees; I do, but I expect them to behave as responsible guests once they are here.

Don't Eat Whitebait!

Posted on 3rd October 2015

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This recent story from the BBC got me thinking.

The story describes how recent tests in the Thames showed that 75% of flounder, which are bottom-feeders, had plastic in them (in their gut), whilst only 20% smelt, which swim in the water column, were contaminated with plastic.

One of the thoughts that occurred to me was that the risk to humans eating such contaminated fish was low, as we usually gut fish before eating them. This thought was very quickly followed by the realisation that this was an extremely selfish position. I also remembered that I love to eat whitebait, which are eaten whole (with the guts), and that animals and birds who eat fish (osprey, heron, seals, dolphins etc.) also usually eat fish whole.

Nevertheless (bearing in mind my moral and ecological concerns about plastics polluting our seas) I think it is only sensible that I stop eating whitebait.

We Have All Been Eating GMOs Without Realising!

Posted on 21st June 2015

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This story on Fox New is very worrying.

Similarly to the situation with cheese (described here), it seems that we have all been eating Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) without even knowing it. Yet again, big business and our governments have done this without drawing attention to it, so that no public discussion has taken place, and consumers cannot make informed choices. Unsurprisingly, "People are outraged when they find out they are eating experimental products without their consent".

The figures are quite shocking: today, in the USA, the corn (maize) crop is 88% GM, soy is 94% GM, canola is 90% GM, cotton-seed is 90% GM and sugar beet is 95% GM. Don't kid yourself that living in Europe protects you, as US food products and ingredients (e.g. corn-flour) are widely exported.

Thorough testing of GMOs has not been done: according to Martha Grout, M.D., President-Elect of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, "We have not fed a group of humans GMO foods for their whole lives, and another group non-GMO foods for their whole lives, with sufficient numbers to determine statistically whether the two groups are different in their health status or development of illness".

What is especially worrying is that food safety testing is not even designed with the special risks of GMOs in mind. When a new strain of GMO is developed, not only does it need to be tested for safety, it also needs to be regularly retested to ensure that no mutations have occurred. Also, because a common technique for genetically modifying organisms uses plasmids. which are relatively easily passed between organisms even of different species (they can be carried from one species of plant or animal to another by bacteria), each new GMO should be tested to confirm that this will not happen "in the wild". This web-page discusses GMO testing, and concludes that GM food safety testing is currently “woefully inadequate”.

Given that the western world is suffering from so many health issues (increasing incidence of allergies, diabetes, heart and circulatory problems, various kinds of cancer etc.), maybe it is time to take a more serious look at GMO products for possible causes of these ailments; maybe they are not all 100% due to lifestyle and diet.

Google Faces Off With French Regulator

Posted on 23rd September 2015

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Google has decided to make a stand (as reported in this BBC story). Good for them!

As I previously mentioned in this post about extraterritorial legislation, the French data protection authority, CNIL, ruled that Google must censor search results on all its search services, not just European services, in accordance with "right to be forgotten" decisions.

What gives CNIL the authority to order the censoring of search results in other legal jurisdictions (e.g. the USA, China, Australia and Russia)? Someone certainly needed to stand up for the rights of Internet users around the world; I am glad that Google has the courage to do what is necessary.

Censorship is one of the major scourges of the modern Internet (the other being the erosion of net neutarlity), and it must not go unchallenged. Go Google!

Global Warming Deniers Are At It Again!

Posted on 23rd September 2015

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The deniers of global warming have been spouting their propaganda again, as reported in this BBC story.

Republican US Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, a senior member of the House Energy Committee, has said she will reject the Pope's plea to tackle climate change, because "The jury is still out saying man is the cause for global warming, after the earth started to cool 13 years ago".

Well, Mrs. Blackburn, here is a news flash for you:

  • The jury is not still out. There is widespread consensus in the scientific community that global warming is real, and caused by humans.
  • The latest data on the cooling shows that it was less significant (the earth cooled by less) than previously thought.
  • The latest data also shows that that cooling period is now over, and the planet is now getting warmer again.

I do find it worrying that the Pope, whose main area of expertise is religion, not science, is better informed about climate science than a US Congresswoman whose job should include knowing about climate science (but then again, she has absolutely no scientific qualifications or experience, and has also rejected the theory of evolution).

Robots For Sex

Posted on 15th September 2015

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I am totally bemused by this article from the BBC. A campaign has been started to ban the use of robots as sex toys.

It seems to me that the whole point of robots is to perform tasks that are either unpleasant or dangerous for humans, and sex as a profession seems to qualify on both counts.

Although I have serous concerns about robots for combat (as discussed here), and believe that controls are needed to ensure that Isaac Asimov's laws of robotics are incorporated in all AI machines, I really do not see any inherent harm in the use of robots as sex toys. Their use in such roles should reduce the number of (mostly) women trapped in such demeaning and dangerous (due to STDs and violence) work.

Would Dr Kathleen Richardson prefer that we continue with the way things are now; would she want her own daughters (I actually don't know if she has any) to work in the sex trade?

Her idea seems to be be based on the fear that robots for sex "will contribute to detrimental relationships between men and women, adults and children, men and men and women and women". Well, Dr. Richardson, where is the proof? Studies on the impact of pornography suggest otherwise. My personal opinion is that people who have damaged relationship skills for whatever reason are probably less likely to be further damaged by playing out their fantasies with robots, rather than with real people.

Exxon Knew About Global Warming in the 1970s!

Posted on 23rd September 2015

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Big Oil is starting to look more and more like Big Tobacco. These two reports (from Wired, and from Inside Climate News) describe how Exxon knew, from their own in-house reseach, that Global Warming existed, and was caused by human activities, back in the 1970s.

Despite being in possession of clear scientific evidence, the company, one of the biggest oil companies in the world, decided to become a "climate change denier", casting doubt on independent research, and thus maximising their revenues over the last four decades. Where are your business ethics, Exxon?

Why We Should All Accept More Refugees

Posted on 11th September 2015

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Following my previous post about the disgraceful attitude of Britain and France to accepting refugees, I read a useful analysis from the BBC about which countries are best suited to take refugees, and also an interesting article in the latest edition of The Economist.

The BBC article looks at different countries' abilities to take refugees from the perspectives of GDP, economic growth, total population and population density. Germany clearly comes out as best able to absorb refugees, but Britain and France also score quite highly. There really seems to be no excuse.

The Economist makes a sound case that an influx of refugees is good for the host country, so again, no excuse.

So, not only is taking in refugees morally the right thing to do, but several countries which are not pulling their weight are well able to take more migrants, and doing so will benefit the host countries.

There are, of course, other countries who have some moral responsibility towards the refugees. The USA is one; they obviously feel some responsibility, given the amount of money that they have been pouring in. They are the main architects, over the last 50 years, of the political landscape which has helped create the current crisis (Britain and the other colonialist nations share this blame). The USA really needs to step-up and help clean up the mess they created.

Russia is another nation with a major responsibility. Russia is Syria's main ally, and have propped up the Assad regime for decades. Of course, the problem is that Syrian refugees do not want to go there, and it is hard (and dangerous) to get there from the Middle East.

Diplomatic relations with Russia are broken at the moment, due to the Ukraine crisis, and it is unlikely that the West can persuade them to do their share. Also, their economy is in the toilet, and they can not easily afford the impact of thousands of refugees. The USA, on the other hand, is amenable to diplomatic pressure; the main blocking point is that the US presidential election campaign is already in full swing, and an influx of refugees would be hard to sell to an electorate already obsessed with migrants from Mexico and other countries to their south. Nevertheless, other nations should be pressed to share the load; even Australia (not the most refugee friendly nation) has agreed to take in increased numbers of Syrian refugees.

There is one more killer-argument for being more refugee-friendly. The world is changing: environmental disaster is looming and there are wars all over the world; economic growth is mainly in Asia, changing the distribution of wealth amongst nations. One day people of the (currently) rich nations of Europe and North America might become refugees themselves, and need to be taken in by other nations. Doing the right thing now, and setting an example for other nations, might mean a better welcome if/when that time comes.

Three Green Cities in the USA.

Posted on 15th September 2015

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This article on "Think Progress" highlights an interesting and encouraging trend. Aspen, famous as a ski destination, is the third city (after Burlington, Vermont and Greensburg, Kansas) to be able to supply all its electricity needs from renewable sources: a mixture of wind, hydroelectric, solar and geothermal.

Admittedly, Aspen is small: its permanent population is only 7,000, although with many more during peak tourist times, but it is nevertheless good news that one more place has eliminated a major source of atmospheric carbon.I am sure, however, that the residents of Aspen are still driving their fossil-fuel-driven cars, pick-up trucks and SUVs, so there is still much to be done to save the planet.

Greensburg is even smaller than Aspen, but Burlington is larger, having a population of around 45,000. To make a real difference, however, the same trend needs to be repeated in larger cities, and in more countries.

As the article describes, the move to renewable energy was made possible be the dramatic reduction in the cost of renewable energy, a drop that seems set to continue.

Of course, what would actually make much more difference to US carbon emissions would be an increase in the prices of petrol (gasoline) and diesel to the levels that Europeans pay, and the widespread introduction of energy efficiency in homes and businesses (energy efficient household appliances and air-conditioning, plus insulation against both heat and cold). Currently the USA comes pretty high in the rankings of per capita carbon emissions by country, and one of the reasons is that fuel for vehicles is so cheap there.

The UK and France are disgraceful!

Posted on 8th September 2015

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This BBC story really highlights the differences between nations.

Germany has welcomed the refugees (mostly but not exclusively from Syria) with open arms; Austria too. Ordinary citizens went to the main railway station in Munich to welcome them, and to hand out clothes, children's toys, etc. to the new arrivals. The German government has said that it plans to accept 800,000 refugees (1% of Germany's population) this year, (meaning probably a similar number next year). Admittedly there are people against the migrants, but the nation is overall in favour.

By contrast, France has said that they would take 24,000 refugees; Britain has said that they will accept 20.000. I do not understand how these two nations (with similar populations and levels of wealth to Germany) can think that these numbers are enough, and that they are fair. It makes me ashamed to be British.

This refugee problem is likely to continue for years. The problems in Syria are not going to be resolved soon. Similar problems exist in Iraq (due in part to IS), Afghanistan , South Sudan, Yemen, Eritrea and many other countries. War, drought, famine and religious strife are part of the modern world, and are the fall-out of misguided aid and political intervention by western nations in the rest of the world, and also in part the effects of global warming. The causes will not recede any time soon, and the richer nations need to change their attitude and come up with systematic solutions to the problem of mass migrations.

Britain and France need to "put their money where their mouth is": time to join the world community rather than just heckling from the side-lines.

Still Using Larium!

Posted on 1st September 2015

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This report, from the BBC, is one of several recent stories about Larium.

The writer describes his experiences from 1998, but the side-effects of Larium were already very well known in 1995, when I was prescribed it for a business trip to French Guiana. I and a group of people went to Kourou for acceptance testing of our project for the ESA. Like in parts of East Africa, parts of South America also have drug resistant malaria, and Larium was the only option. In the end, I think that no-one in my group took their Larium, because of the side-effects, some of which can be very long-term, or even permanent; we decided to risk it (mostly we were indoors, and lots of insect repellent was used).

1995 is now 20 years ago, and the British Army is still using Larium (according to this web-site, it was introduced during the Vietnam war, which ended in 1975). It makes me wonder how effective our forces are when operating in malarial zones.

Admittedly, there hasn't really been much progress in anti-malarials since Larium was introduced, so in some scenarios it is a choice between Larium and nothing. Nevertheless, it seems like the military continue to treat our soldiers like cattle, or guinea pigs; things haven't really improved since the days of agent orange, or the deliberate exposure of servicemen, after the second world war, to nuclear fallout.

The situation with anti-malarial drugs is one of the big problems in medicine today. Malaria seems harder to fight than HIV, and the lack of effective drugs ranks with the growth in drug resistant bacteria (if we discount self-inflicted life-style and diet-related problems like obesity and heart disease).

University Places Are Wasted On These People!

Posted on 25th August 2014

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The people described in these stories, from the BBC and from The Atlantic, really don't deserve to have places at university.

What they describe is a growing trend in education in the USA. The BBC story covers the case of students at Duke University who refused to read an assigned book because they feel they "would have to compromise [their] personal Christian moral beliefs to read it" (the book deals fairly explicitly with homosexual relationships). The story in The Atlantic, which is rather more comprehensive, talks about law students at Harvard asking professors not to teach rape law, and also describes the lengths that professors now need to go to to avoid offending their students (and to avoid the resulting complaints).

I have serious problems with both the above examples:

  • In the case of the students at Duke, I am worried that students hold opinions which are so shaky that they can be threatened by reading about people who hold, and live by, contradictory views. People whose opinions are so easily swayed are probably not even qualified to vote. The idea that people should not have their beliefs challenged is based on the same flawed rationale as the drive by some parents to exclude the teaching of evolution in schools.
  • The case of the Harvard law students is even more worrisome. It seems that we are educating a new generation of lawyers who don't meet even the most basic requirements of professionalism. If I hire a lawyer to defend me, or to file a civil suit against someone, I expect that they will be properly versed in all legal issues which might be relevant to the case, and be prepared to argue about these in court. The world is full of strange people, holding odd beliefs, some legal and some not, and we have an expectation that professionals are properly informed about these (to the extent that it is relevant to their jobs) and will be able to to their jobs in situations where these weirdnesses impinge on them.

Bear in mind that we are not talking about dodgy third rate universities here. According to this review, Harvard ranks second in the USA, and Duke is at number 8; these are the places where future leaders of government and business are educated. To some extent I blame the universities for failing to enforce standards of education: censorship has no place in education.

Time to stop coddling these students. Maybe they should be thrown out, and their places given to someone who would properly appreciate the privilege of a good education.

Law Enforcement Differences Between Britain And The USA

Posted on 23rd August 2015

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This BBC report gives me some hope: it shows that Britain has not yet become completely like the USA.

The report describes am incident in Clapham South (a suburb of South London) in which a man was shot by police. The key differences that struck me are:

  • The initial police visit was by unarmed officers, and when a problem was identified which might require armed officers, they had to be sent for (pretty much all police are armed in America);
  • There is no suggestion (at least so far) that inappropriate force was used by the police (every case of police shooting a suspect in the USA seems to result in accusations of police violence);
  • There is no mention, nor even a clue, of the person's ethnicity (in the USA you usually know).

My only concern is, how are we supposed to know if the police used inappropriate levels of force of we don't know whether the suspect was black or not?

Union Social-Media Activity Causes "Disruption For The Public"?

Posted on 23rd August 2015

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I was really rather shocked when reading this report from the BBC.

Apparently, a new piece of proposed legislation in the UK, the Trade Union Bill, currently in the consultation phase, is seeking to limit trade-unions' use of social media by requiring two weeks notice if they plan to campaign via social media during a strike. The proposed measures do not limit individual trade-union members use of social media, only use by the unions themselves.

The UK government's rationale for this piece of censorship is to reduce disruption for the public. So, let me get this straight:

  • striking is OK, even though it is much more disruptive to the public than any social media actvity;
  • advertising on social media is OK, even though it is disruptive (time wasting);
  • political campaigning on social media is OK, even though it is disruptive (time wasting);
  • cat videos, and messages saying "share if you love your mother too!" are OK, despite being disruptive;
  • social media postings by retards whose IQ and language skills mean they are unqualified to publish anything on the Internet are OK, despite being disruptive;
  • postings on social media about strikes, made by individuals are OK;
  • but postings on social media about strikes, made by trade-unions are not OK, despite probably being no more disruptive than those by private individuals.

No wonder no-one trusts politicians. They don't even respect the voting public enough to put together a plausible lie when "justifying" undemocratic and unjust behaviour.

E-life After Death!

Posted on 23rd August 2015

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This BBC report describes something that I find quite disturbing, and could eventually mess up the Internet. Apparently this is not the first attampt at this kind of AI avatar system.

There is a new web-site, Eter9, which will learn about your social media activity by scanning your posts, can post on your behalf, and then continue posting online for you after your death. Not only is this rather creepy, but it means that you won't know if the posts that you are reading are even written by real people.

If services like this take-off, as more people die, an ever increasing proportion of social media Internet traffic will be generated by avatars of dead people. I already consider that a large part of social media content is time-wasting junk, and it seems that this will be getting worse; I seriously doubt that an AI avatar will have anything to say which will interest me.

Game Over!

Posted on 18th August 2015

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I am really becoming convinced that the majority of the human race wants to commit mass suicide This recent story from the BBC is the latest evidence.

In a previous post on this subject, I wrote a definition of the conditions under which AI and Robots become dangerous. I said: "If you build autonomous (i.e. AI-based) robots, and give them the ability to change their design, and to replicate themselves, then without a system that ensures that the laws of robotics are always programmed in to the machines without alteration, it is game over for the human race". Well, guess what researchers have now done: precisely that!

I am sure that AI will be applied by the people who will control it (more likely to be politicians than scientists) to solving thoroughly worthy problems: world peace, global warming, world hunger, pollution of our environment, etc. The trouble with all these problems is that the primary cause is clear: too many people. So the obvious solution will be to reduce the human population, possible to zero.

Do you want to live in a world where humans are culled by machines to limit the damage that we do to the planet? I sure don't.

Yes, Lying is a Crime!

Posted on 18th August 2015

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What a bizarre statement. In this BBC story about the Glasgow garbage truck crash on 22nd December 2014 in which 6 people died, is a statement by Ronald Conway, the lawyer for the family of one of the victims: "Telling lies is not a crime; telling lies to the medical profession is not a crime.".

Although it is not a crime in every circumstance, it is a crime in quite a few situations. Mostly, in cases where a statement to a medical professional forms part of a claim for money (e.g. an insurance claim), an investigation of a crime or an application for a licence (basically any case where the statement results in assignment of responsibility), then lying is a crime.

Based on the above definition, it seems to me that the truck driver, Harry Clarke, lied in circumstances that made lying a crime, and more than once. It may seem harsh, but I feel that he should be punished, not least to discourage others from doing the same.

Banning of Strong Decryption?

Posted on 10th August 2015

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The UK government has stated more than once that it wants to ban strong decryption. The most recent report on this is this one from the BBC.

You may think it odd to find this blog in the thread on espionage, but it is not really: the government wants to prevent the use of strong decryption so that they can spy on us all (to protect us against terrorism, tax evasion/avoidance etc.).

Strong encryption is used in many places: WhatsApp, Apple's iMessage and Skype are some of the most well known, but banking and financial services are another area of our lives that depend on keeping data secret.

So why am I so against government having the ability to spy on my data? After all, they are only suggesting that it be used after a legal warrant has been granted. Well, here is my "off the top of my head" list:

  1. Despite laws and other rules, spying happens without warrents, not only by the US NSA, but also by the UK's GCHQ, and we only find out about it through the efforts of whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowdon;
  2. Governments around the world have a really poor track record of keeping secret information secret (a recent example is the breach at the US OPM [Office of Personnel Management] where the personal information of at least 21.5 million people seems to have been stolen), and any law that allows government to collect data about me is just a pathway to making my data public;
  3. I have a right to privacy, and government only has a right to breach that if they can first prove that I am a law breaker (the right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty);
  4. The last government attempt to limit or undermine encryption technology for security reasons opened back-doors for hackers. This one will do the same, since if the law prevents me from strongly encrypting my data, it is not only government which will be able to hack into it; criminals will also be able to steal it.

The idea of only allowing weak encryption, to enable government to spy on us for whatever reasons, is akin to a law requiring us to leave all our homes and cars unlocked so that the government can search them whenever needed: the whole concept is disproportionate, and in violation of our rights.

This BBC story highlights the kind of thing which can happen with weak encryption. In this case, the lack of security is due to incomptence and irresponsibility by Globalstar (there is simply no encryption), but the results will be the same if weak encryption is used. The Globalstar satellite-based system is used to keep an eye on trucks, cars, containers and ships as they move around: that could include both valuable cargo (e.g. armoured cars used for cash transport) and hazardous cargo (e.g. toxic or radioactive waste). The lack of adequate security (lack of strong encryption) means that not only can criminals and terrorists find out where items are, but they can spoof Globalstar's system into thinking that they are somewhere else; all this makes stealing valuable and dangerous goods very easy.

Think about another scenario: you lose a significant amount of money due to a hacking attack on a financial institution, so you sue them because their cyber-security was not good enough. Their defence is that weak encryption is now mandated by law. Now your only recourse is to sue the government for enacting stupid laws: good luck with that!

The bottom-line is that we need strong encryption. Nowadays, the Internet is deeply embedded in our daily lives: every day more so. The data on the Internet and in computer systems in general needs to be safe, when stored and when in transit. If your government makes it illegal for you to use strong encryption, you have options: get a mobile phone in a different jurisdiction, move any servers out of reach of the new laws, change your cloud storage provider, and may other choices. I hope it doesn't come to that.

More BBC Errors and Typos

Posted on 27th April 2014

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The Beeb has been at it again.

In this story, about a planned new British Icebreaker, the author talks about how an "early design concept for the new ship has been drawn up by naval architects, but this will need to be finessed. I have a feeling that they meant something other than finessed.

In this story, about nuclear fusion research, the author writes that "in 1997, scientists pushed 24MW of energy into Jet [Joint European Torus] and managed to get 16MW out". Whilst these numbers are indeed not bad, 24MW is a measure of power (rate of energy) not of energy; you cannot have 24MW of energy. This is about as scientifically stupid as the Star Wars statement (by Obi Wan Kenobi) "never underestimate the power of the force", and space ships in dodgy ScFi movies tavelling at speeds measured in lightyears (a lightyear is a measure of distance, not speed).

In this story about a Nigerian rapist who has been sentenced to death by stoning, there is a statement that he "admitted raping the girl but said he had incited by the Devil". I find that inserting the overlooked word "been" between "had" and "incited" greatly improves the sentence.

No Tax Havens?

Posted on 1st August 2015

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I haved written previously in this blog about tax, and most especially about unfairness in the tax systems around the world.

The BBC have just published this report, which seems like a rather poor attempt to shed some light on the issue of tax havens and tax avoidance. It is interesting mainly because of the assunmptions that it documents, and because it misses the main point.

The first person interviewed is obviously an apologist for tax havens, as he is chairman of the Cayman Islands Stock Exchange. He makes some statements about the issue, but sheds no light at all. His arguments seem empty or circular.

The second person interviewed in the piece is the founder the Tax Justice Network, which campaigns against tax havens, so his allegiance is clear. He says something quite staggering: "Suppose we have a company that is registered in the Cayman Islands, but which trades in the UK. If the UK wanted to ask a question about that company, first of all it has to find a good reason why it needs the information, and secondly the Cayman Islands have to have a good reason to link that company to the UK". Well yes, I should hope so. If you want non-public information about any person or organisation, whether within a jurisdiction or cross-border, you most certainly should be required to provide a reason; the same rules as if you want to search a property or tap a phone. Any tax cooperation rules that erode this basic right to have to justify intrusive investigation (spying) are most certainly not acceptable. It is worrying that the Tax Justice Network seems to think otherwise.

British Member of Parliament, Margaret Hodge actually seems to be onto something when she says that tax avoidance has hit a raw nerve, but seems to have misread the root of the issue of public opinion, in my view. Yes, of course, everyone thinks it is unfair if they are taxed, and other people avoid paying tax. Right there is the key: "fair".

People think that tax should be fair, and right now it is very far from fair:

  • Rich people can pay less tax than poor and middle-class people;
  • International companies can pay less tax than other companies, but if they don't use these legal loopholes, they end up being penalised (paying more) just because they are international;
  • Internationally mobile workers are similarly penalised, having to pay tax in multiple jurisdictions, and then claim one tax bill as a deduction against another (getting the money back a year or two later);
  • The assumption of guilt until innocence is proven (the police may not but the tax man may!).

Fairness of the taxation system is not only a reasonable expectation, but a legal right. It is also a precondition for companies and individuals to come clean and play by the rules. Make the rules fair, and people will stop looking for loopholes and using tax havens; try harder to enforce unfair rules (e.g. by closing down tax havens) and people will find new tax havens and new loopholes.

Remember, almost every reader of this blog has engaged in tax avoidance (claiming deductions against your tax bill), so maybe it is not such a heinous sin after all.

Skype/No-Skype

Posted on 31st July 2015

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Microsoft continues its incredible streak of abominable service.

When Sheryl first bought her Windows 8 laptop, she was rather disappointed to find that Skype was only available as an App (for the Metro interface) rather than as a normal desktop application (as on all other versions of Windows). I can understand why they wanted to have a Metro version, but what is wrong with offering a choice, when it costs them so little effort?

Just recently Sheryl needed to make a call over Skype. Her computer informed her that she first had to install the desktop version of Skype, as the Metro version had been replaced and was now obsolete. There was no grace period, no early warning and no option to make an emergency call before doing the update; all this to take away what she had (which worked, after a fashion) and replace it with what she wanted in the first place.

This kind of behaviour shows a callous disregard for customers and service, bad software design, and bad deployment policies. Why are Microsoft even still in business?

They Can't Update My Computer If It's Unplugged?

Posted on 31st July 2015

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Today was the last day of term for Sheryl's kindergarten. In preparation for 4 weeks of downtime, the head of the kindergarten ordered everyone to unplug everything, for safety.

After work many of the staff went for drinks, partly because some of the teachers are leaving. During the celebrations, Sheryl mentioned that she had not unplugged her computer. IT support is done remotely from Berlin, and they tend to schedule major updates for during the summer vacation. One of the teachers expressed shock: "They can't do updates if my computer is unplugged?". It wasn't just that one teacher; the head of the kindergarten had to go back to work and plug in all the computers and smart-boards that had been unplugged on her orders.

Mozilla blocks Flash by default on Firefox browser

Posted on 15th July 2015

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All I can say to this news, reported by the BBC, is about time!

Adobe Flash has always been a complete security nightmare: a constant string on updates (many of which fail to install properly). The updates are often in response to new security threats, and often introduce as many security vulnerabilities as they fix, but sometimes they are simply to ensure that Flash developers using third-party development tools are unable to develop for the latest version of Flash. Plus, the update installer always tries to reset your preferences to automatically install future updates (not on my system!).

Flash does allow you to make nice web-sites, but actually pretty much everything that you can do with it are easily possible using other tools and plug-ins (especially since the advent of HTML5).

I certainly won't be sorry if this news marks the beginning of the end for Flash, and, judging by the comments from Facebook's newly appointed security chief Alex Stamos, I am not alone in my views.

An Outbreak Of Stupidity

Posted on 14th July 2015

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There seems to have been a mass outbreak of stupidity. Perhaps people are trying to qualify for a Darwin Award (click here for the official Darwin Awards site).

In this story on the BBC, a singer from the boy-band Rewind collapsed from heat exhaustion (he survived) because he was wearing 12 layers of clothing on a flight, presumably trying to save on luggage costs. Doing this in the winter is one thing, but trying this in the heat of recent days is pure madness.

In this BBC report, a boy in South Africa died after having his face sliced off by a road sign. The minibus in which he was travelling hit a sign while traversing a narrow street. While the bus was still moving, he looked out of a side window to see what had happened, just in time to be hit by the next road sign.

The next story, also on the BBC, describes the death of a 16-year-old boy who climbed on to a freight train and died after touching overhead power lines.

Whilst the stories are sad, and the friends, families and fellow passengers have my sympathies, nevertheless, these people were all being stupid. This kind of thing seems to be becoming more frequent. Are we as a race becoming more stupid?

More on Gun Control

Posted on 9th July 2015

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I thought I would share this video with you. One of the best videos that I have seen in a long while.

Some of you may have seen the video clip already, as it has gone viral on some social media since it was posted.

This guy, Jim Jefferies, is an Australian stand-up comedian. He seems to be pretty brave, as he is performing for an American audience when he decides to discuss gun control (but seems to have survived). His routine is very funny but nevertheless factual and to the point.

Some of the language might offend some people (he is, after all, an Australian).

Is The Case For Nuclear Power Sound?

Posted on 7th July 2015

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This Telegraph story neatly highlights the contradictions in the case for nuclear power, and the hypocrisy in the UK government's attitude to renewable energy.

There is huge pressure at the international diplomatic level, from the scientific community and from ordinary citizens for governments to increase the proportion of our energy that comes from renewable and carbon-neutral sources. The world is in a frantic attempt to stave off the full scale of global warming, and all the economic and environmental side-effects of it. We are not changing the way we generate electricity and how we use resources (most especially how we deal with garbage) fast enough. Governments are all dragging their feet, and constantly demonstrating that they understand neither the urgency of, nor the science and technology behind, this transformation.

So let's take a look at the reactor project at Hinkley Point. While some of you may be anti-nuclear-power, most of you probably think that at least it has no carbon footprint. This is simply not true. The construction of nuclear power stations, which have to be built to very high standards for a planned operating life of 25 or more years, is very energy (carbon) intensive. Similarly for the construction of fuel rods (the centrifuges which purify nuclear fuel are very energy-hungry) and other consumables. Then all the spent fuel rods and irradiated material created during operation and during decommissioning have to be stored or reprocessed; some needs to be stored (and monitored) for thousands of years (and scientists and engineers are still trying to create a viable and proven method of safe long-term storage of nuclear waste). All this effort to build, operate and clean up nuclear power plants adds up to a huge energy/carbon cost, without even considering the radiation risks of such plants.

The new reactor at Hinkley Point is due to get loan guarantees (which will reduce the cost of borrowing to finance the project on the open market) from the UK government. In addition, EDF, the operators of Hinkley Point, are "guaranteed a price roughly double the current market price for every unit of electricity [they] generate". That is expensive electricity; the news of this coming at a time when the UK government is busily reducing subsidies for many other forms of renewable energy, most of which are smaller, per unit of energy, than what will be available to EDF. The need for such huge subsidies is the proof of the energy/carbon costs of nuclear power.

My view on all this would probably be a little less jaundiced if I was convinced that Hinkley Point formed a part of a well researched and analysed strategic plan for energy supply (and consumption) over the next half century. I feel that there is probably a place for nuclear power in such a plan, in part to provide security of energy supply, along with other big projects like tidal barrages, and increases in wind and solar generation. I would like to believe that such a plan exists, but actually I think the government's actions point more to the influence of industry lobbying.

Hey, people, this is the future of our planet, and the lives and health of our children and grandchildren that we are gambling with here! Time to grow a backbone, discover some moral fibre, and do the right thing!

More Extraterritorial Legislation

Posted on 6th July 2015

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One of the things that I often complain about is extraterritorial legislation. There is a lot of it about, and the main source of it is the USA.

In case you are unaware of it, some examples include:

  • The US tax department's insistence that all US citizens file a tax return (for their whole life!) even while living and working exclusively overseas. Failure to comply may result in loss of citizenship and/or denial of entry into the USA.
  • The US tax department's regulation that anyone who lives outside of the USA who marries a US citizen also living overseas must register with them and receive a US tax number, and data about this non-US citizen's income must be filed to the IRS by their spouse.
  • The Helms-Burton Act, under which even companies which are not based in the USA may have any of their US assets seized if any part of the company does business with Cuba in defiance of US anti-Cuba sanctions.
  • The decision by an EU privacy watchdog that the "right to be forgotten" (which is only a right within the EU) must apply to all of Google's search engines around the world, thus reducing freedom of information for all nations' citizens.

My girlfriend has long learned to live with filing tax returns in both the USA and Germany, although the US filing is much more complex (despite that she never owes tax to the USA) and more stressful. Now she has received a letter from her German credit card company, asking for her US tax registration details. Apparently the credit card company may be penalised if they fail to provide this information; in other words, they are being blackmailed into complying with the US legislation (only for their customers who are US citizens, at least so far).

It is not just that such extraterritorial legislation is passed, and no-one seems to have any moral issues with their own country doing so; it is also that it is allowed by other countries to be enforced. Our governments around the world are enabling foreign governments (mainly the USA, but also others) to enforce their foreign laws on us. Our governments are thus complicit in the erosion of our rights and freedoms.

Some of us live in countries with written constitutions which guarantee certain rights, while others have a more complex underpinning to basic rights. On top of that, we all have laws which similarly define our rights in various areas. It seems, however, that what we think our rights may be are affected by foreign legislation, and also sometimes by the nationality of our spouse. As far as I am concerned, this situation is not acceptable.

Who Put This Idiot In Power?

Posted on 2nd July 2015

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I am serious! Which of you voted for David Cameron and the Conservative Party at the last elections? The man is an idiot, a liar, and a sneaky snake.

The latest gem is described in this BBC report. In it he says that he is prepared to wait until after the British referendum on EU membership before renegotiating the EU treaty.

Leaving aside the small matter of it being a good idea to find out what the British people think before taking any action, his detailed statement is totally nonsensical. He said he wants "irreversible" and "legally binding" guarantees that EU law will be changed at some point in the future. He seems to think that we have all forgotten the main reason why the EU treaty needs renegotiation: that every member has a right to veto any decision, which mean that no-one is in any position to give "irreversible" and "legally binding" guarantees about any matter.

I am guessing that his game-plan is to be able to declare that the EU were not willing to comply with his small and perfectly reasonable request for guarantees, so that he can get unreasonable in the way he deals with them.

I am generally horrified with how the whole EU membership/treaty issue has been dealt with by the Conservative Party. At the last election, all the main parties worked hard to de-emphasise the EU issue, to ensure that it wasn't the basis of people's voting choice. Then, just after the election, the Chancellor George Osborne said the new Conservative government had a "very clear mandate" to renegotiate the UK's relationship with the European Union, as described in this BBC story. I don't think so, Mr. Osborne and Mr. Cameron; you have a clear mandate to get a mandate, and nothing more.

As a Brit living in continental Europe, mostly travelling and working in the Euro-zone, I find it hard to understand how British people do not see the benefits of full and committed EU and Euro membership. I have more than a kilogram of change from many countries, from my pre-Euro business travelling, all of which is now dead money; most of those problems are now things of the past. The free movement of labour in Europe also has direct impact on my work life; if Britain leaves the EU, or radically alters their terms of membership, I may have no choice but to change my citizenship (thank you so much!).

One of Britain's biggest industries is financial services, and that industry is competing in Europe with one hand tied behind their back, because Britain is not in the Euro.

Time to wake up and smell the roses!

The Pope Will Chew Coca Leaves

Posted on 2nd July 2015

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I can see a lot of people getting very upset by the news that, when he is in Bolivia, the Pope plans to chew coca leaves, as reported in this BBC story.

I do understand that chewing coca leaves is a very different thing to snorting cocaine, and also that coca is a hot political issue in Bolivia. Coca tea and chewing coca leaves are traditions in Bolivia (although being traditions does not automatically make them OK), but the practice has been under pressure in recent years because of efforts by the US DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency). Bolivia has now distanced itself from the DEA programme, and made the DEA's practice of burning coca crops illegal in the country.

Nevertheless, there will of course be the usual crop of ignorant people, especially in the USA, who do not understand the distinction, and will see the Pope's position as endorsing cocaine and fuelling the drug problem in the USA. I have a suggestion for those ignorant people: watch a different news channel (Fox News is not helping you with your ignorance), do some basic research on the Internet, and maybe even try reading a couple of books.

There has been lots of debate about "illegal drugs", and will be much more. There are some good arguments on both sides, mixed in with heaps of propaganda (and it doesn't matter who does it, nor what side they are on: I hate being lied to and misled). Nevertheless, one pretty solid fact is that the biggest problems caused by illegal drugs are not caused directly by the drugs themselves, but (directly or indirectly) by them being illegal.

US Supreme Court Blocks Changes To The Clean Air Act

Posted on 2nd July 2015

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I am very disappointed by the US Supreme Court. In a recent judgement, reported in this BBC story, they blocked the US government's attempt to toughen the Clean Air Act.

The US government had attempted to toughen the rules on emissions of toxins, including mercury. The court ruled that the government must factor in the costs of compliance. This has all the hallmarks of industrial lobbying, and is extremely one-sided.

If the court thinks that cost has to be included, then benefits must be given equal weight, even though it is very difficult to do for environmental issues. Cost/benefit analysis is a standard tool used by business and government to assist in decision making, comparing the costs of making a change to the benefits of that change, but to succeed it requires that everything can be evaluated in terms of money. Measuring the benefits of a cleaner environment in terms of money is hard; indeed it can be hard to quantify environmental improvements even in environmental terms: exactly how much will cleaner air improve the amount of toxins that humans and other life are exposed to (and what are the benefits in terms of quality and duration of life, and productivity) and how quickly?

Nevertheless, we have to try. Ignoring these issues is what got our planet into the state it is in today. If we don't have the science to get accurate estimates of the benefits, then we need to at least make some rough estimates.

What To Do About Those Confederate Flags?

Posted on 25th June 2015

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There has been a lot in the news lately (e.g. here, and here) about confederate flags. The problem is not with Dukes of Hazard style rednecks painting them on their cars or flying them at their homes. The problem is confederate flags being flown from State Capitols and other official buildings; one state, Mississippi, has the confederate flag as one panel of their state flag.

Not being American, I don't really understand why this problem exists in the first place. Why are people so proudly celebrating a group of states which fought a war with the rest of the USA, and lost; don't they understand that it is over? Are there some moral or social values that the confederate states embodied which should be preserved and celebrated? The only values that spring to my mind when thinking about the confederacy are slavery, elite-ism, and the uneven distribution of wealth.

The US government seems to be in a quandary about what they should do about these flags. What a shame that there is nowhere else in the world where they can look for a suggestion; somewhere that had something similar in recent history. Oh, hang on a minute, there is. How about Germany, and the Nazis? Not only are Nazis now frowned on by mainstream German society, but their symbol, the swastika, is illegal in Germany and Austria, as are other Nazi-associated symbols. It seems to have worked, and no-one is complaining about losing their rights. So, Mr. Obama, there is your answer: make the confederate flag illegal.

Mass Extinction is Now!

Posted on 21st June 2015

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This BBC story really brings home how bad things have become. A new scientific study shows that vertebrate species are disappearing at a rate 114 times faster than normal. Since 1900 more than 400 additional (higher than the expected number) vertebrates have disappeared. Bear in mind that that number is just the species that we noticed the extinction of. Another study puts the number much higher.

Just to be clear, we are not talking about all extinctions, but only vertebrates, so excluding insects, arachnids, crustaceans, worms corals, bacteria and amoeba and the like. So, the study only describes as small fraction of the total rate of extinctions. Some non-vertebrates are species upon which we depend, directly or indirectly for food: bees, corals, and some soil bacteria, to name but a few.

The study compares the current situation with the event, 65 million years ago, that wiped out the dinosaurs, along with the majority of other species on earth at the time.

If we continue abusing our planet as we currently are, the natural world will be all but wiped out, and humans will likely be one of the species to be wiped out. If the human race survives, our population will be enormously reduced, our civilisation destroyed, and life will become unpleasant and incredibly hard.

This is the future that we are building for our descendants.

Dutch Citizens Win Case Against Their Government

Posted on 25th June 2015

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I recently posted here about a class action suit by Dutch citizens against their government. The latest news, here, is that they won the case, and the court has ordered the Dutch government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2020.

I consider this to be excellent news, and hope that their example is followed around the world. Britain, the USA, and Australia are all overdue for some enforcement of accountability, and some more aggressive environmental targets. Sadly, I can't see this working at the moment in China, another of the world's heavier polluters.

Political Correctness Gone Mad

Posted on 21st June 2015

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Sometimes I don't recognise the society in which I find myself. This BBC story, describes how a Utah baseball team cancelled their 'Caucasian Heritage Night' for reasons of political correctness.

The event was anyway only meant as a bit of fun; a tongue-in-cheek opportunity to poke fund at the white-Caucasian way of life, but was cancelled because of a recent massacre of black church goers in South Carolina.

Odd, but I haven't heard of any other ethnic groups cancelling events that celebrate or otherwise highlight their ethnicity because of the events in South Carolina. So what they seem to be saying is that it is OK to highlight and even celebrate your ethnicity and culture if you are black (African-American), Hispanic, Indian, or Chinese, but certainly not if you are Caucasian.

That is what I hate about this fashion (yes, it is a fashion: a fad) to be PC about everything. It is influencing our social events, our language (don't call that person fat; he is just gravitationally challenged!), our clothing, indeed almost every aspect of life. Plus, there are plenty of pitfalls between one country and another (In South Africa black means of African origin; coloured means mixed race or originating from the Indian sub-continent - try using American-style PC English there and see how much confusion you can cause!).

Germany Blocks Al Jazeera Extradition

Posted on 23rd June 2015

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All is right with the world. Germany is, after all, at least as bureaucratic as I thought. This BBC story reports that a court decision has blocked the extradition of the Al Jazeera journalist, Ahmed Mansour.

The real proof of bureaucracy is that it was necessary for a court to make this decision. I would have hoped that the police could make the decision that the extradition request or the regime requesting it did not meet the necessary standards, and a court would only need to be involved if Egypt lodged an appeal, but that is not how things work in Germany.

Still, in the event, the German authorities did finally say all the right things about the case. Germany's moral integrity is intact, along with their status in the world bureaucracy rankings.

Is It OK To Eat Cheese?

Posted on 21st June 2015

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A friend sent me the link to this story on io9 about cheese-making. I was shocked: I thought I knew about how cheese was made, having made it myself.

I thought cheese was mostly made with rennet, a by-product of slaughtering calves for veal. For many people this is already morally unacceptable, or at least questionable, but I don't have a problem with it. I like veal, and don't mind that animals are slaughtered to provide my meat. As the article describes, increasing demand for cheese, and decreasing supplies of calves stomachs to provide rennet mean that demand for real rennet outstripped supply a long time ago.

So nowadays, most cheese is made using GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms): bacteria which have been genetically modified to produce rennet. Now, many people have issues with even the existence of GMOs, let alone the consumption of food produced with them. I consider that at least some of the arguments against GMOs have merit.

What to do? I really love cheese. I describe myself as a cheese addict. My ideal dessert is cheese and crackers. Sheryl is also addicted to cheese, and often says that almost all meals are improved by the addition of cheese. The idea of giving up cheese is not going to be given any serious consideration in our household, whatever I think about GMOs. Also, I have never seen labelling on cheese which identifies whether it has been made with GMO-produced rennet or with natural (from calves) rennet, so I can't avoid GMO-produced cheese by reading the labels.

It is interesting, though. There are people around the world protesting about farmers growing GM-crops, and the risks of releasing GMOs into the wild, but it seems that agri-business and our governments slipped this one by us (it has been going on for years - since the 1970s!). Seems like you can't trust anyone, but that shouldn't be news to anyone.

More on the Maltese Hunting Season

Posted on 15th May 2015

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After my previous blog about the vote in Malta on the spring hunting season (which passed) there have been some developments. Two incidents were recently in the news:

  • A 16-year-old Dutch boy, on vacation in Malta, was slapped, and then shot with a shotgun, by a Maltese hunter. The hunter was arrested and charged. According to this report, this was the third incident in which a hunter was charged in this year's spring hunting season.
  • A bird shot by a hunter fell into a school yard amongst a group of children, as described in this report. Apparently, the children (aged between 7 and 10) were "traumatised". This seems to have been the final straw, and the hunting season was then closed early.

One has to wonder whether this kind of incident forms part of the Maltese hunting tradition, which was used to attempt justify the environmentally unsupportable decision to allow the spring hunt.

Perhaps I should be a little clearer about where I stand on all this. I am not against hunting. What I am against is hunting involving undue cruelty, hunting of endangered species, hunting during breeding and migration seasons, and hunting by people who do not have the necessary skills to do it safely and within the legal constraints (i.e. people who cannot avoid shooting Dutch boys and species of wildlife that are not in season).

Lax German Legal Standards

Posted on 21st June 2015

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The Germany described in this BBC story doesn't seem to be the one that I know.

I know that the main thrust of the story is about how Al Jazeera is the victim of a vendetta (maybe) by the Egyptian government, and their journalists have been subjected to possible unjust punishment for doing their jobs as journalists; that is actually very interesting and sad. The thing that struck me, however, is that Germany is executing an arrest warrant issued by the Egyptians, which Interpol rejected because it doesn't meet their standards, but apparently is good enough for German law enforcement.

The Germany that I am familiar with is the home of bureaucracy (they behave as if they invented it); the land where police chase you down the street for crossing on a red, and come to your house to stop tree surgeons because you failed to get permission from one of hundreds of affected neighbours; the land where you can't buy a car unless you are registered as resident with the federal government; the land of "ordnung muss sein". The idea that this country has laxer standards for extradition than Interpol is, quite frankly, shocking.

The world is full of regimes of questionable morality: lacking in democracy, where the rule of law is, at best, spotty. Should any civilised nation be, in this age, prepared to extradite a suspect (or in the case of the Al Jazeera journalist, a convicted, in absentia, criminal) when certain conditions (guarantees that the person will not be tortured or executed) and certain standards of proof are not met? Time to renegotiate those extradition agreements, I think.

Dutch Citizens Sue Their Government

Posted on 15th April 2015

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This BBC story describes how almost 900 Dutch citizen have filed a class action suit against their own government for failing to protect them from climate change.

I think this is an excellent development, and the Dutch example should be followed around the world. Most governments will claim they they are acting to deal with climate change (both to limit the amount, and to deal with the effects), but are they doing enough? Scientific opinion is pretty consistent on this: they are not. Court orders may raise the priority of climate change (and other environmental issues) in the minds of our governments, and compensation payments will perhaps make the cost of doing more cheaper than not doing enough.

Maltese Bird Hunters

Posted on 15th April 2015

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Recently there was a referendum in Malta, as reported here by the BBC, about whether to outlaw spring bird hunting. Malta has an exemption from EU regulations, which allows them to hunt specified numbers of turtle dove and quail. In fact, many other species are shot "by accident" during this spring hunting season, which coincides with migration and breeding seasons for a number of protected and endangered species; impacting bird populations in other countries.

One of the main arguments for continuing to allow spring hunting was that it is a Maltese tradition (I am in Malta at the moment, and can assure you that the Maltese are very proud of their traditions), but the fall-out of this tradition is not only on Malta. Do the Maltese hunters have a right to drive bird species into extinction in other countries, or indeed any species? Is tradition a sound argument?

It was also a tradition of the K.K.K. to harass and murder black people, female genital mutilation is still a tradition in parts of Africa, and it was also a tradition that rich people from colonial nations would go to Africa to hunt big game, but I don't think most people would argue now that tradition justifies these acts.

It seems that whenever it comes to a choice about acting in an environmentally responsible manner, there are always excuses: tradition, cost, economic growth, or just downright inconvenience. It is time to stop accepting excuses, while there is still a natural world to protect.

Hypocrisy Over Russian Spying

Posted on 27th April 2015

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I found the hypocrisy behind this BBC Article a bit too much. Apparently it is a huge problem that Russian hackers were able to access White House computer system last year and were able to read President Obama's unclassified emails.

Well, what goes around, comes around, as they say. If you think it OK for the NSA (in cahoots with UK and Australian government agencies) to spy on foreign governments, organisations and individuals, and even (in contravention of US law) on US citizens, then I guess it must be OK to be spied on in return.

The USA needs to clean up their act, and demonstrate that they have done so, before that "holier than thou" attitude is going to fly.

Should We Preserve Our History?

Posted on 10th April 2015

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I see from this BBC story that some people are getting worked up into a state by the offer for sale of a uniform which may have belonged to Hermann Goering, a famous Nazi. It is being suggested that the uniform should be burnt rather than sold.

Whilst I understand the arguments about glorifying Nazi people and their crimes, and have serious questions in my mind about what kind of person would want to buy such an item, it is nevertheless a piece of our history: a reminder of past evils that we should be actively avoiding repeating, not suppressing.

How would the burning of this uniform be any different from the destruction by IS of Assyrian antiquities in Iraq (described in this BBC report), the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes in the University of Cape Town (described in this BBC report), or the destruction by the Taliban of the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan (described in this Wikipedia article)?

Our history is littered with crimes and atrocities; the only reason we think our history is less evil than it actually is, is due to propaganda. The human race are shockingly bad at learning from the mistakes of history. We will have even less chance of learning from our shameful past if we destroy the evidence and reminders of our past failures and embarrassments.

Bad Christians

Posted on 10th April 2015

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There has been a lot of news coverage recently about new state laws in the USA, purportedly in defence of religious freedom. Such laws have been passed in Indiana and Arkansas. This report on CNN is about moves to enact a similar law in Georgia.

In the CNN report, some people actually state that they are Christian; for the others simply remember that Georgia, Indiana and Arkansas are all predominantly Christian, there are crosses on the walls of several locations in the report, and the language used by the people interviewed when talking about their religion is clearly Christian.

So Christians then, but apparently Christians who feel quite comfortable ignoring the laws, instructions, teachings and examples (parables) in the bible. When the interviewer reminds one woman that the bible instructs us to love one another, she replies that you can "still love someone and not serve them". The interviewer valiantly tries again to invoke the contents of the bible, reminding her that one of the ten commandments is "Thou shalt not commit adultery"; "If someone had committed adultery, would you serve them?"; she replies "Yes". This same woman, however, would not knowingly serve gays.

This must be some new meaning of the word "Christian" of which I was previously unaware. Christianity is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ (Duh!), and generally, therefore, what is stated in the new testament takes precedence over what is written in the old testament; all the stuff against homosexuality is in the old testament. In the new testament, by contrast, we find statements including: "Judge not, lest ye also be judged", "forgive those who trespass against you", "love thy neighbour as thyself", and much more in that vein.

It makes you wonder how many of these so called Christians have actually read the bible. I think they need to have a new name, maybe "Christians who don't believe in the bible", or how about "Christ-tards"?

In some Moslem countries, misrepresenting the teachings of Islam to the same degree as these so called Christians misrepresent Christianity would earn you a stoning for blasphemy from passers-by. Actually, that idea has possibilities .....

China, the USA & Global Warming

Posted on 23rd March 2015

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I suppose I should be encouraged by the news that China is becoming more focused on reducing carbon emissions, as reported in this BBC report. So why am I not?

The reason is that it displays the usual self-centred human nature that continues to undermine attempts to save our planet. The only reason that the Chinese government is changing their attitude is that the problem is effecting China itself, and more than the global averages. Still, something is better than nothing, results are probably more important than motives, and China is not significantly worse than other nations in this respect.

Another thing that is shocking is the statistic in the story, that "China and the US together produce around 45% of global carbon emissions". These two nations comprise about 25% of the world's population, yet they account for nearly half of the world's man-made carbon emissions. I think it might be time for China to reduce its dependence on coal, and for the USA to discover energy-efficient appliances and lighting, and energy-efficient house design. My shower gets up to temperature in a few seconds, but a typical shower in the USA takes minutes, simply due to badly designed plumbing.

Legal Hypocrisy

Posted on 23rd March 2015

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I found the contents of this report on "in5d" very hypocritical.

It seems that research has shown that CBD (Cannabidiol, one of the components of marijuana which is not psychoactive) is effective in the treatment of cancer. It also turns out that "In 2003, the United States government filed a patent on CBD as an antioxidant and neuroprotectant useful in the treatment of disease". Despite this, marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug in the USA, and the government's position is that marijuana has "no currently accepted medical use".

If it has no medical use, then why did you patent it for medical use? If that is not hypocrisy, then I don't know what is.

Under US law, money made from illegal drugs may be seized. I think this is a good solution: if the US government ever makes any money from its CBD patent, without first legalising marijuana at least for medical purposes, then that money should be confiscated (I will look after the money, if no-one else will).

Guilty by Metadata

Posted on 12th February 2015

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We should all be worried by this story on the BBC.

Jeffrey Sterling has been found guilty in the USA of espionage, on the basis of metadata proving that he communicated repeatedly, by phone and email, with a reporter who later published classified information. The metadata shows who was communicated with, but not the content of those emails and phone conversations. That is like you being convicted of terrorism, because you often talked to your neighbour who later turned out to be a terrorist.

The rule in most western nations is "innocent until proven guilty", and I don't feel that Jeffrey Sterling's guilt has been proven. His legal rights have been trampled in the name of national security. There are countries where he might have expected such cavalier treatment, but in the USA? I am not saying that he is definitely innocent, but I am most certainly saying that his guilt has not been proven.

The whole issue of metadata came to public attention after the Edward Snowden leaks, when security agencies in various countries attempted to justify their collection of data about our communications by saying that mostly they were only collecting and storing metadata, not the message content itself. Well apparently, metadata is enough to convict people, so that assurance is not very reassuring.

Warning: this message will self-destruct in five seconds.

Protect and Survive

Posted on 12th December 2014

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When I was growing up, many people were extremely worried about the threat of nuclear war. Some people built nuclear fallout shelters in their houses or gardens, and stocked them with supplies. There was the "Ban The Bomb" movement: there were anti-nuclear demonstrations, protest songs, protest music festivals, etc. There was also an excellent movie, Dr. Strangelove, which some readers may have seen; although humorous on the surface, there was a serious theme of how easily things could get out of control and lead to nuclear annihilation.

This story in The Guardian makes me wonder whether we are headed for another bout of such worry. It seems that a number of experts in the field believe that the world is prone to a nuclear war, started either deliberately or by accident, due to the number of ready-to-launch nuclear weapons, some held by rogue nations, some held by governments that are less than stable.

If this happens, at least we could hope that the British government will come up with some more plausible propaganda than in the 70s, when it produced "Protect and Survive". This was held in reserve (not published for years) in case needed, and basically lied to the public about what they could do to survive, in order to keep them off the streets and have them die tidily at home.

Apparently We Won't Learn

Posted on 12th December 2014

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I got depressed reading a recent report on the BBC (which has since been edited to completely change the focus, and no longer contains the depressing quotation). I was even more depressed reading this BBC report.

The first report contained a statement that Russia feels that European gas consumption is growing too slowly. I am depressed because the world is supposedly focusing its efforts on reducing the use of fossil fuels to limit the amount of global warming. The situation is depressing because it seems that Europe's gas consumption is still growing, because of the assumption by Russia that it will continue to do so, and the fact that Russia seems happy to continue to supply any growth in consumption, irrespective of any environmental imperatives to not do so.

The second story describes the efforts to find and exploit new oil reserves in Somalia.

As I discussed in this posting, we already have more fossil fuel reserves than we can afford to burn if we are to avoid catastrophic environmental consequences, yet we continue to explore and exploit more. A few generations from now, the survivors of our species will look back on this generation and ask "how could they be so stupid and selfish?". Do you have an answer for them?

Say Goodbye to the Northern White Rhino

Posted on 16th December 2014

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This story from the BBC is very sad. One of the Northern White Rhinos at the San Diego Zoo has died, leaving only five alive in the whole world (one more in the San Diego Zoo, one in a zoo in the Czech Republic and three in a Kenyan wildlife reserve). Attempts to breed them in captivity failed, although now it is reported that in vitro fertilisation will be tried to keep the species from extinction.

My attitude to species extinction may seem harsh to some readers. I consider it to be a crime, more serious than genocide against ethnic groups of humans. Who is responsible for this crime? We (the human race) are responsible, through over-hunting, habitat loss, pesticides and other pollution, and the introduction of alien species (species from other parts of the world). We have already been responsible for the extinction of thousands of species (see this page for lists of extinct species). The rate of species loss seems to be increasing, and we can expect that many of the species currently endangered (I counted 20118) will also become extinct over the next few decades.

Of course it is easy to state the obvious fact that humans are responsible for the vast majority of extinctions, but who will hold us accountable, and how? We can't even catch, try and convict war criminals, for which there are at least international treaties (what people call "international law") and international courts. In the environmental arena we have no legal or pseudo-legal framework, and thus no consequences. Also, the size of the groups of environmental criminals are huge (pretty much every one of us), and it is not practical to prosecute the whole human population of the planet.

I am not obsessed with blame and punishment, but I am interested in there being a process of answerability as an incentive for people to behave and live more environmentally responsibly, but what we actually are left with is that our ancestors will pay for our crimes, by being forced to live in an impoverished environment, with vastly reduced choices of diet and limited opportunity to enjoy the natural world. Soylent Green, here we come (maybe not a great movie, but looking like an accurate prediction of our future). Is that the life that you want for your grandchildren?

AI and Robotics: A Threat to Us All.

Posted on 4th December 2014

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There have been a lot of stories about, and a general rise in popular interest in, robotics and AI recently. There have been robotics competitions, and rethinking of the famous Turing Test of Artificial Intelligence. Recent space projects have involved at least semi-autonomous functioning, due to the impracticality of remotely controlling devices at vast distances.

I have always been concerned about this area of technology, but have been accused of paranoia by my friends and colleagues. Now Prof. Stephen Hawking has shared that he is also worried (as reported in this BBC story), and has said that "efforts to create thinking machines pose a threat to our very existence".

Isaac Asimov first defined the laws of robotics in a story in 1942. The laws are intended as a safety feature, to ensure that robots do no harm to people, and do what they are told.

I have worked in the field of robotics (robot vehicles for military uses), and I know that Asimov's laws of robotics are generally completely ignored by researchers in robotics and AI. That is like building fast cars without brakes.

If anyone doesn't believe that robotics are being developed for the battlefield, check out this article in Popular Science.

If anyone finds the plot line of Terminator too fanciful, check out this BBC article about a project to connect robots to the Internet so that they can learn from public sources and each other. Sounds a lot like SkyNet to me.

I think the description that really puts the risks into perspective was written by Philip K. Dick: "Second Variety". It is a short story, also made into a movie called "Screamers". The message is clear. If you build autonomous (i.e. AI-based) robots, and give them the ability to change their design (already being experimented with in AI machines), and to replicate themselves (already being seriously considered by scientists and engineers), then without a system that ensures that the laws of robotics are always programmed in to the machines without alteration, it is game over for the human race. Of course, it only takes one rogue government, terrorist group or company to not play by the rules, and the rules become useless.

Maybe you also think I am being paranoid, but Stephen Hawking is a very smart guy, and he is worried. You at least owe it to yourselves to read Second Variety, or watch Screamers before you dismiss this.

Ebola: Coming Soon to a Town Near You.

Posted on 19th October 2014

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There has been a huge number of stories in the news lately about Ebola: one of the latest is this story on the BBC. The report is of a speech by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia. She makes the case that everyone has a stake in the fight against Ebola. My opinion (and I am not alone in this) is that the problem is that the rest of the world is complacent about the risk, and so not enough is being done.

The complacency is illustrated by this BBC report, in which the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) blamed the infection of a health worker in Texas on a "breach of protocol", a statement made before a thorough investigation. That investigation might yet show that the CDC's protocols are inadequate to contain the disease. Given that health workers continue to get infected in West Africa despite attempts to implement containment protocols based on the CDC's, two health workers in Texas have been infected (as described in this BBC story) and that a health worker in Spain has also been infected (as reported in this BBC story), people should be looking seriously at the possibility that Ebola's transmission mechanisms are more effective than the containment protocols assume.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been warning for some time that the mortality rate for people catching this particular strain of Ebola is 70%, not 50% as previously thought, and that the number of people infected is being significantly under-reported. In a recent bulletin from the WHO, covered in a report by The Guardian, they say that there could be as many 10,000 new cases of Ebola a week, within two months. Whilst the majority of these cases will be in West Africa, don't feel too cocky: it is coming to the country where you live too. Scientists have calculated that there is a 75% chance the virus could be imported to France by October 24th, and a 50% chance it could hit Britain by that date (as reported here by Business Insider).

There are reasonable grounds to believe that the better health infrastructure in Western countries will prevent an out of control outbreak of Ebola in North America and Europe (note: reasonable grounds, not a guarantee). Nevertheless, infected people will continue to arrive from elsewhere, and health workers will continue to get infected by patients: belief that it will be otherwise is naive. The richer nations will send more health workers and military personnel to West Africa to help fight the disease, as we should, and some of those will be infected, and will be repatriated for treatment, helping to spread the disease.

Another mechanism by which Ebola will spread is refugees. There is already a problem with refugees arriving in Southern Europe (Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain) from North Africa. Currently many of them are from Syria and North African states, but my guess is that there is already a wave of refugees on the move from West Africa, yet to reach Europe, and that eventually some of them will bring Ebola with them.

What the world desperately needs is a vaccine to protect against Ebola, and drugs that are effective in treating Ebola, but those are both not yet fully developed and tested.

I have been saying for a few years that such a health crisis is inevitable, and that history warned us it was coming. The history of the development of human civilisation is a series of (largely out of control) growth spurts, which end with a plateau as population becomes limited by some disease or other. Advances in medicine, sanitation and standards of personal hygiene have overcome each of these limitations, and allowed the start of another growth spurt. Ebola seems like it might be the latest growth-limiting disease.

From an environmental perspective, Ebola may be a good thing (and not just for Fruit Bats). Global warming, species loss, habitat loss, water and air pollution are all caused by people: by there being too many people. A pause in the growth of, or even a small reduction in, human population and our consumption of resources will maybe give the natural world a much needed breather. Of course, none of that makes it any easier if you are lying on a bed in an isolation ward suffering from Ebola, or if you lose a friend or relative to the disease.

Is there anything that you can do? Well, there are some things: choose your travel destinations carefully, whether for business or pleasure; think carefully before shaking hands or kissing cheeks in any society where the disease may be present; don't lie about your potential exposure when entering a country or being quizzed; and if you get sick, don't hesitate, but report it to a medical professional.

Paying It Forward

Posted on 23rd September 2014

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I see the news in this BBC article to be good news, but it raises some interesting points.

The article describes how the Rockefeller Brothers Fund plans to divest itself of its investments in fossil fuels and reinvest those funds in clean energy. It will do this along with other members of a consortium of about 650 individuals and 180 institutions. The total divestiture will be about $50bn. For some initiatives in clean energy, this will represent a significant amount of seed-money. For the fossil fuel industry, the loss of funds will be less drastic, as there will be plenty of other sources of investment to take up the slack. There will probably be a rise in the market value of clean energy stocks, and a slight and temporary fall in fossil fuel stocks.

The interesting thing is that this represents a decision to be ethical (in at least one important respect) in business. I made my position on this clear in my comments on Mark Carney's call for more ethics in business, here. My comments are supported by the fact that the membership of this consortium are pension funds, religious groups and big universities, so mostly not for-profit companies (the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is also not actually a classic for-profit company). Changing the rules (laws) for business to provide incentives for ethical behaviour (removing the penalties for it) is still a vital and urgent step, if we are going to save our planet and right some of the wrongs perpetrated by big business and non-transparent governments.

To highlight how important and how urgent the situation is, take a look at this BBC story. The main point in the report is, as stated in the headline, that per capita, China is now a bigger polluter than Europe. I wouldn't want those of you who live in Europe to get all cocky about that, because it is in part due to the "pollution elsewhere" impact of imports (from China, amongst other places). In the story is a quote from a scientist (Prof. Le Quere) with a nugget of information that everyone on the planet should be told: already the existing reserves of oil, gas and coal [if burnt, will produce emissions that cause us to] exceed the 2 degrees [global warming] target, and that this message has not been understood by politicians. "We have not accepted that we will not be able to burn all this fuel, the scale of action that is required has not sunk in."

If we are not going to be able to burn the fossil reserves that we already have, without destroying our planet, why are we spending so much money and effort exploring to find yet more reserves? Why is all that effort being put into developing fracking (a very polluting and energy inefficient source of oil) in North America and the UK? Why are people fighting over the ownership of oil-fields in Africa and the Middle-East, and not far off fighting over oil reserves in the South China Sea? Why are so many countries building new fossil fuelled power stations?

The answer to these questions is simple but depressing. We are going to burn those reserves, and much more, because we, the human race, are collectively too stupid to decide not to. Individual humans are clever; collections of humans are not: groups of humans do not pass most of the psychologists' tests of intelligence.

Boris Gets Tough!

Posted on 26th August 2014

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Whilst I see nothing wrong in principle with getting tough with terrorists, I think that Boris Johnson (Mayor of London) might have gone too far with his statement, reported in this BBC story.

I was going to write in reasonable detail about what is wrong with his ideas (reversing the presumption of innocence until proven guilty), but the BBC has updated the story and it now covers the subject in detail.

I do find it hard to accept that an experienced and successful politician such as Boris Johnson could consider a system of guilty until proven innocent as a "minor change" to the law. Perhaps he lives in a different Britain to the one where I grew up, maybe on the planet "Shoot first and ask questions later". Either way, I think the original photo tells it all, although the BBC has also updated that to one where he is not in a full-on rant.

Navigation system gets lost!

Posted on 24th August 2014

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Sometimes you just have to laugh, and reading this story was one of those times.

The ESA is in the middle of a programme to launch about 30 satellites to create a sat-nav system (like the US GPS system). Sadly, the latest two satellites, launched on Friday 22nd August, have ended up in the wrong orbit. It makes you wonder how the ESA are going to help navigate us to our meetings, hotels, vacation destinations, etc. when they can't even park their satellites in the right orbits.

John Lennon's Killer is Safer in Jail

Posted on 24th August 2014

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After reading this piece in the BBC news, I felt sad and sympathetic - for about 1 nanosecond!

John Lennon's killer has been denied bail, for the 8th time. What I don't understand is why he even applies for bail. For some things, people have long memories, his name is well known and his photo is widely available. How long does he seriously think he would survive outside of jail?

Not that I am saying that I approve of such acts of vengance, but, given human nature, someone is very likely to try to rid us of this embarrassing excuse for a human being, if he is let out.

I don't want to be rescued by these guys!

Posted on 24th August 2014

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This BBC story is rather worrying.

My girlfriend Sheryl is a fan of an American TV show, Chicago Fire, about a fire-brigade house in Chicago. From the show you get a strong impression that fire-fighters are brave, well trained, competent, and clever, and I am sure many of them are, but the above news story, in which two firemen got electric shocks while supporting a charity run (they had to pour ice-cold water from above on the runners as they passed), because the ladder was too close to overhead power cables, paints an altogether different picture.

Your life in their hands? I would rather not.

Jewish Anti-Semitism?

Posted on 24th August 2014

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This BBC story was interesting.

About 300 people, survivors of the holocaust and family members of other survivors, placed an advertisement in the New York Times condemning Israel: "As Jewish survivors and descendants of survivors and victims of the Nazi genocide we unequivocally condemn the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza and the ongoing occupation and colonization of historic Palestine".

If anyone else had made such a statement, Israel would have condemned and dismissed it as anti-Semitic, but that argument does not hold water when the critics are Jewish victims of Nazi ethnic cleansing.

It is long past time that this point was made. What Jews suffered at the hands of Nazis, the centuries-long history of persecution of Jews all around the world, and what Israel has suffered due to attacks by Palestinians, although cruel and inexcusable, do not justify what Israel has done to the Palestinians. For Israel to deserve the sympathy and support of the rest of the world, it needs to show that is holds the moral high-ground, rather than behaving like another rogue nation.

Bank of Scotland guilty of double-billing

Posted on 24th August 2014

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The situation described in this BBC story is utterly outrageous.

A court has just ruled that mortgage customers of the Bank of Scotland were unfairly double-billed when they fell into arrears, although the bank plans to appeal.

What the bank did, when customers fell into arrears, was what is called capitalisation: the arrears amount (including and surcharges for being in arrears) were added to the capital amount owed. This standard practice has the obvious effect of increasing the amount that customers owed, and the time it would take to pay it back. This all seems perfectly fair.

The problem was that the bank then continued to pursue the arrears as unpaid charges (presumably including additional late fees) and in some cases even started repossession action against the borrowers.

The judge seems to have been quite scathing in his judgement, and rightly so. I suspect that the bank may appeal on technicalities, because as far as I can see, there is no way to see this as anything other than double-billing.

A "bribe" to close a bribery prosecution

Posted on 7th August 2014

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I found this BBC story rather amusing.

Bernie Ecclestone, who runs Formula 1 racing, has been in court since April on a bribery charge. The BBC report describes how a deal has been reached, whereby charges will be dropped against Mr. Ecclestone in consideration of a payment of €100M: the case is closed with neither a guilty nor an innocent verdict.

Excuse me for being naïve, but isn't it at least a little hypocritical to close a bribery case with what is, in effect, a bribe?

Also, the payment seems rather small. The original bribe was €33M, and impacted the control of Formula 1, which is worth rather more than the €100M that Mr. Ecclestone paid. Bernie Ecclestone is, according to the report, worth $4.2bn (€3.15bn), and so could probably have afforded to pay more.

I suppose we could chalk it up to the oddities of German law, of which there are more than a few: many cases have no jury; if you are sent to prison for debt, there is an exact formula for how long a sentence to clear a given amount of debt; all law enforcement is done by the police (there is no system of bailiffs for local laws, so police are involved in cases of unpaid tax, if you recycle improperly, if you do laundry on a Sunday - illegal in some areas - or if you fail to get all your neighbours' permissions before trimming a tree which overhangs several gardens, to name but a few examples).

Net-neutrality under threat

Posted on 3rd August 2014

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This BBC story is deeply troubling. It describes how Netflix, one of the the big names and trend-setters in video streaming, has agreed to pay telecoms operator AT&T to ensure its content is delivered to users smoothly. Netflix has already reached similar agreements with Verizon and Comcast. The agreements are despite Netflix being opposed to paying fees to broadband providers for priority service, since it believes in net neutrality, the principle that all usage of the Internet is treated by carriers with the same priority.

Many people do not really see what all the fuss is about. The fact that Netflix has agreed to pay shows that it believes many carriers do not (or soon will not) have enough capacity to provide an adequate Internet service for video streaming users, without implementing a priority policy. So why do so many people believe, like me, that it is wrong to pay for priority service?

This other story, also on the BBC, illustrates the downside. The extra money that carriers are receiving through their priority deals with the likes of Netflix is not being used, as we might have hoped, to increase overall Internet capacity; probably the extra funds are not enough to improve service for everyone, and non-priority customers would certainly not be happy about also paying more for less of a share of the total capacity. In order to provide Netflix and other streaming users with the quality of service that they need, carriers need to downgrade service to other users: in this case, subscribers to a 4G "unlimited data" plan which Verizon no longer want to sell (but there are already quite a number of subscribers to this plan).

I have similar issues with my own ISP in Germany. At certain times of day, some kinds of high bandwidth usage are throttled back, to ensure adequate service for priority traffic.

In the USA, the regulator, the FCC, tried to enforce net neutrality, but a court ruled that it doesn't have the authority. This means that US Internet users can look forward to their service being downgraded so that ISPs can support their premium streaming customers.

As far as I can see, the best way to address this is for a collective law suit (a class-action suit) by ordinary subscribers against their ISPs for breach of contract. The main problem with this is that all subscribers' contracts are full of caveats and limitations to subscribers rights, all heavily biassed in favour of the ISPs and their financial interests. The good thing is that there is such a thing as de facto terms of contract: if a service or other benefit or right has been consistently granted in the past, for a significant time, it can become an enforceable term of contract; a certain quality of service or amount of bandwidth is, for many subscribers, just such a de facto term of contract, and if ISPs reduce the quality of service, it could be enforced at law.

Lets just hope that some subscribers have enough sense to get together and sue, using a law firm that really knows their law.

Windows 8? No Thanks!

Posted on 23rd July 2014

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My girlfriend bought a new laptop about a year ago: an Asus, running Windows 8. The hardware is quite nice, but the operating system is a nightmare.

Having started out with Windows 8, she upgraded to 8.1. The upgrade failed, and she took it to the shop, where they rolled it back to the original 8.0 version, and told her to try the upgrade again. Eventually she succeeded in upgrading to 8.1, but nevertheless needed another trip to the shop to fix another problem.

If you want to use OneDrive (the Microsoft cloud drive) and Office 360, you basically need to set up your user account to be connected to a Microsoft email account. Now she has a problem with that connection: she gets a message that she needs to verify her (local) account, but the verification process doesn't work, and neither does the work-around that we found on the Internet.

On top of that, the system seems to spend about half its time doing updates, which often lock the machine up, and take hours (sometimes even days). This means that the PC is only usable about half the time, and she can never rely on it working when she needs it. This experience is not unique to our machine.

Based on this experience, I could not even consider using Windows 8 for my work. I need a machine that works whenever I need it, with no hassle.

For my work I use a Windows 7 laptop, which is pretty reliable. Most of the major bugs have been fixed (although there are still some bugs with MS-Office 2010). The only reason that I use Windows at all is because I need full document compatibility with the people that I work with (customers and colleagues), otherwise I would use Ubuntu Linux.

By way of comparison, we have an old laptop (bought in 2006), which is broken: the camera, the WiFi, the SD Card Reader, the battery and even the keyboard are broken. It will no longer run Windows (you can't install Windows because you cannot type in the licence key, due to the keyboard fault; the Windows that it used to run stopped working, also due to the keyboard errors), but it runs Ubuntu Linux just fine (connected to mains power and with a network cable, of course), and is fast (booting, logging in, shutting down, opening documents for editing, or opening media files are all faster than the Windows 8 machine). I used to use this machine when I travelled for work: I used Linux when I could, and when I needed Windows I would start a Windows-XP virtual machine on the Linux laptop, and even that was faster than the new Windows 8 laptop!

I remember when Windows was new, and the concept of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) was its unique selling proposition. Now, Microsoft seems to be focussed on WYGIWYD (What You Get Is What You Deserve) or WYGIWIGFY (What You Get Is What Is Good For You - at least what Microsoft thinks is good for you), and when you get it is when the machine, and Microsoft, gets around to it.

"The British have little sense of pavement etiquette"!

Posted on 20th July 2014

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This BBC story really surprised my, because of the way it shows how different perspectives change the way that the world looks to different people.

The article contains the statement that "the British have little sense of pavement etiquette". As a Brit living abroad, I must disagree.

I live in Germany, where most people are not brought-up with a sense of other people and their need for somewhere to walk too. Ask any Briton or American who lives in Germany about the pavement etiquette and you are likely to hear a torrent of horror stories about not being able to get off of trains because locals are trying to get on before disembarking passengers have got off; about locals who simply stop after getting off a busy escalator and block the people behind who continue to be delivered by the escalator; people who just stop in the middle of busy pedestrian traffic, or even while crossing a street; the groups who feel the need to walk six-abreast down the pavement; and of course, the Englishman's favourite, the fact that the locals can't queue (if queuing is really needed, there will probably be a machine which will issue you a ticket with a number: your place in the queue). Of course, there are exceptions: some Germans are incredibly polite in the way they walk, but in general it can be really shocking and stressful to newcomers.

Over the last year or so, I have spent a lot of time working in South-East Asia. Their pavement etiquette also sometime shocks. Certainly they have no idea how to queue, but also they allow you a much smaller volume of personal space (I spent my first week in Jakarta constantly expecting someone to barge into me on the pavement, but they never do, although they do get really close as they dodge around you at a brisk pace).

There are certainly plenty of things that I don't like about the UK (which is why I don't live there any more) but I certainly do like the pavement etiquette, and I miss it when I leave Britain again.

Rebels assumed civilian aircraft were avoiding the area

Posted on 20th July 2014

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Since I posted the comment about the Malaysian Arlines' jet shot down in Eastern Ukraine, I have found a new story from the Associated Press.

There is one very pertinent statement in their story: "the rebels ... had assumed civilian aircraft were avoiding the area and that anything in the air was hostile." Apparently information about this assumption was posted online before the shooting down of MH17, on social media, and therefore accessible to both airlines and air-traffic-control.

All this really begs the question: why did the people responsible for aircraft routing continue to assume that flights over the conflict zone were safe, in contradiction to the evidence available (and common sense)?

The main thrust of the AP story is that the rebels used only half of a missile system: only the SA-11 launcher, and not the central radar command to which is is meant to be connected. They apparently don't have the central radar command units, which help to identify the aircraft detected by the launcher's targeting radar (using, for example, IFF). This is a bit like driving a car that has no brakes.

Airlines divert flights away from eastern Ukraine

Posted on 18th July 2014

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This BBC story reports the crash of a Malaysia Airlines jet (flight MH17) carrying 295 people in Eastern Ukraine., probably shot down by the pro-Russian separatist rebels. In it, and also in this story, also on the BBC, is reported that the air route over the conflict zone in East Ukraine is now closed.

I do feel a little sorry for Malaysia Airlines, still suffering from the aftermath of the loss of flight MH370, which disappeared en route from Malaysia to China in March and still has not been found.

What really worries me is that airlines continued to fly over a conflict zone (there has been fighting there for quite a while) even after the shooting down of a Ukrainian military transport on 14th July 2014, as reported in this BBC piece.

People seem to have assumed that a commercial flight at 10,000m (about 30,000ft) would be out of range of any missiles that the rebels had, but the military transport was flying at 6,500m (21,325ft): if they have missiles that can reach 6,500m, they can also probably reach 10,000m. So why did the airlines and air-traffic control continue flying through this danger-zone when it was clear that the flights were at risk? Apparently saving a little money on fuel costs is more important than passenger safety.

I am sure that Malaysia Airlines will try to claim the cost of their lost aircraft on flight MH17, and the passenger compensation costs, from their insurance company. I do hope that the insurance company gives them a really hard time over that claim, because, in my opinion, it is at least in part Malaysia Airlines' fault.

New Analysis of Organic Food Health

Posted on 14th July 2014

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This BBC story doesn't give very clear answers, and highlights that science is a political process, like so much in the modern world.

Some new research has been published, which shows that organic foods are "higher in nutrients and lower in pesticides" than conventional foods. The story refers to the new research as a meta-analysis, meaning that existing research data was re-analysed, rather than being based on new sampling and measurement of food content. There is nothing wrong with meta-analyses, as the original studies tend to be focussed on specific nutrients and pollutants, and only by combining them can broader conclusions about the health benefits of food be drawn.

The conclusions of the new research differ from the last two studies on this subject, mainly due to the existence of new and more comprehensive input data.

Some scientists, however, disagree with the results, including Prof Tom Sanders, head of the Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences Division at King's College London's School of Medicine. He says "This article is misleading because it refers to antioxidants in plants as if they were a class of essential nutrients, which they are not. In terms of macro-nutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat), the organic products contained less protein. Other nutrient differences were trivial and well inside the normal range of variation that occurs with different varieties, soil types and variations in weather."

It seems that the progress in nutritional science in recent years has largely passed Prof Sanders by. The claimed health benefits of organic foods are not that they contain more macro-nutrients (protein, carbohydrate and fat), as he suggests, but that they contain more good micro-nutrients (antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, for example), and less pesticides and heavy metals. Using Prof Sanders criteria, the most healthy meals would be things like steak and chips (fries), and not many nutritionists would claim that was a super-healthy meal. We could all live on super-concentrated meals like astronaut food and get all the macro-nutrients that we need, and I don't think that we would be healthy as a result.

The new story does contain some sensible stuff, of course, such as the statement that "Ultimately, we all need to eat more fruit and vegetables, regardless of whether they are organic or not, to form part of a healthy balanced diet, which will help protect health."

The real problem that the statements by Prof Sanders and others highlight, however, is the way science works. Just because a study shows evidence of something (whether that a new kind of subatomic particle exists, that global warming is real, or that organic food is more healthy than non-organic food) does not mean that it is automatically accepted into the accepted body of scientific "knowledge". Sometimes vital and ground-breaking research is simply ignored by other scientists. Often scientists disagree, and perform additional research to disprove the disputed findings, but even if the attempts to disprove fail, the disputed research may not be accepted for decades (or longer). The history of science is full of examples of this. Sometimes the root cause is that some scientists simply cannot understand the new research; sometimes because they have vested interests in the new research being wrong.

A good example of politics in science is the fact that Albert Einstein (a very clever scientist and the author of some key scientific work) never accepted quantum mechanics (which is the cornerstone of much modern science and technology), because it is based on the uncertainty principle (first postulated by Heisenberg - that is the original Heisenberg, not the methamphetamine king from Breaking Bad). Einstein said that he couldn't accept "that God throws dice". Science eventually moved on despite objections from Einstein and others, but the development and acceptance of quantum mechanics was delayed by the objections.

'Breathing' tax at Venezuela's airport

Posted on 11th July 2014

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A real science fiction scenario is described in this BBC report.

Maiquetia International Airport in Caracas is now charging a fee for the right to inhale clean air. Ostensibly this fee (US$20) is to pay for the new air conditioning system which cleans the air using ozone, to eliminate airborne bacteria.

As radio presenter Daniel Martínez tweeted: "The toilets don't have water, the air-con is broken, there are stray dogs inside the airport, but there's ozone?"

The situation is so very like that in many Sci-Fi stories, where basics for life, such as water and air, are charged. Is this the first stage in the introduction of some horrific brave new world? I do hope not. It makes me think of a planet described in the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, which has a problem with the volume of tourists, who always want to take away souvenirs, to the extent that visitors and their luggage are weighed on arrival and departure, and you need to get a receipt each time you use the toilet; excess weight is removed surgically at departure.

Environmentally Unfriendly Australia

Posted on 18th July 2014

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Australia is not looking very green, based on this story and this story from the BBC.

In the first, we read that the Australian government is in the process of repealing the carbon tax that was introduced by the previous government. As pointed out in the article, Australia is the world's biggest polluter, per capita, (due in part to lots of air-conditioning, the lack of an effective rail network and very big engines in their cars) and clearly needs to do something to reduce carbon emissions, but everyone is whining because it costs money. Well (Duh!), of course it is going to cost money, but you don't have the right to live cheaply by polluting my planet. Do I need to sue the Australian government for damage to my health, life-expectancy and life-style, to encourage them to get their priorities right?

The second story describes the death of a 4m-long (13ft) great white shark, which died off the west coast of Australia. It seems to have choked to death by swallowing a sea lion. Whilst the death of the shark was probably not preventable, and was a natural event, there is mention in the story that, although great white sharks are a protected species in Australia, there is a controversial cull under way aimed at reducing attacks on humans. How can you protect a species, and then cull it?

Both these stories highlight a basic problem with green policies (wildlife preservation, pollution reduction, preservation of natural resources, etc.): people and governments are happy to support green policies only as long as it is not inconvenient to do so; if it costs money, creates risk (to health or life) for people, or impacts life-style, then forget it! There are, however, almost no green policies that do not have such negative side-effects; renewable energy costs more, recycling costs time and money, and wildlife puts people at all kinds of risk.

It really is time to stop looking for easy options to save our planet, and "bite the bullet". Saving the environment will impact our lives (and finances), but failing to do so will impact them even more.

Dishonesty from the pesticide industry

Posted on 10th July 2014

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This BBC story is worrying enough anyway, but highlights some downright dishonesty by Bayer, the maker of Imidacloprid (a Neonicotinoid pesticide).

A Bayer spokesman said "Neonicotinoids have gone through an extensive risk assessment which has shown that they are safe to the environment ...".

No, Mr. spokesman, that is not what science does; science cannot do that. Science can show that some things are not safe. In the absence of proof that things are not safe, it is assumed that they are safe, but being safe is not proven. Recent history is littered with examples of things that were assumed to be safe, but were later shown to be unsafe (DDT and Agent Orange are a couple of notorious examples). Many medicines that were tested (in extensive clinical trials) and used to treat patients, were later withdrawn because they were shown to be dangerous (due to side-effects) or simply ineffective.

The pharmaceutical and pesticide industries are science based, and I find it hard to believe that companies. like Bayer, in these industries do not understand what science can and cannot do: the difference between not proving something is unsafe, and proving that it is safe. So, how about a bit more honesty from such companies? Otherwise the public will start to think you are as bad as Big Tobacco.

Missing air quality targets by 20 years

Posted on 11th July 2014

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This BBC story really makes me despair.

EU states made a commitment to meet targets on pollutants from diesel cars and trucks (including, importantly, NO2) by the year 2010. Such pollution causes tens of thousands of deaths each year in Britain.

Client Earth, air quality activists, are taking the UK government to court over their failure to meet the committed targets.

Now, however, it looks like the UK will be lucky to meet these targets by 2030, and quite possibly not even by then. So, not much of a commitment, is it?

The bizarre thing is that, up to now, the UK government had been saying that all parts of the UK would be in compliance by 2025. That is already 15 years after the committed date, but they seem to think that is good enough. Well, I don't think that 2025 is good enough, and 2030 is even worse.

This kind of side-stepping of commitments seems to be a growing trend with governments around the world, and not just with promises about the environment (carbon emissions, energy efficiency, fishing quotas, wild-life reserves, etc.) but also on other topics (peace treaties, stamping out trade in conflict diamonds, spying, budget deficits, health care, infrastructure and returning antiquities to their country of origin).

I guess that none of us can claim to be surprised to discover that politicians cannot be trusted to keep their word, but at some point we need to push back against the lies and bullshit.

Everyone is at fault in Polish abortion case

Posted on 10th July 2014

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No-one comes out smelling of roses in this BBC report.

The doctor, Professor Bogdan Chazan has a right to his beliefs, and to refuse to perform an abortion, but he most certainly does not have the right to impose his beliefs on his patients. If patients have a right to an abortion, as they do in Poland, then he has an obligation to correctly inform patients of those rights, and to refer patients to another doctor who is willing to perform one. It seems that he did not refer the patient in question to another doctor, and also seems to have lied to her about the law on how late in a pregnancy termination is allowed. Yes, he deserved to be fired.

The government seems to have failed in its duty to provide adequate information to patients about their legal rights to abortion. There should have been information leaflets easily available (i.e. on display) at the doctor's surgery. Given what happened, it seems that the patient did not know her rights.

The patient also has to take some responsibility. Why didn't she get a second opinion? In the end, she had the baby, even though she didn't want to (she had good reason, due to her child's chances of survival because of facial and head defects being slim), because Professor Chazan refused her an abortion.

Bad Science on the BBC

Posted on 10th July 2014

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I am really starting to wonder where the BBC finds their science writers.

This story about some recent research on malaria highlights the problem. In it is the statement "The study found that malaria-infected parasites could bury into bone marrow, where they escaped the immune system and caused disease." This is pure nonsense.

Malaria is a disease caused by parasitic protozoans (a type of unicellular micro-organism) of the genus Plasmodium. It is carried by certain species of mosquito (also a parasite - maybe that is why the author, Helen Briggs, is confused). There is no sense in which there can be "malaria-infected parasites" in a host (human) body, since the plasmodium parasites are the disease.

Is it any wonder that the general public is confused about science?

Human Rights in the USA

Posted on 9th July 2014

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The USA has been having some bad luck and bad press lately.

Not only did they get knocked out of the World Cup (but at least they put up a better fight than Brazil, last night), but also there was

  • this story about a California Highway Patrol officer beating up a woman who was walking on the free-way,
  • and this story about mentally ill inmates who died from abuse in custody.

It seems that human rights are not so well protected in the USA. Maybe what is needed is that some large and powerful nation with whom they have strong economic ties (like, maybe, China) to put their foot down with the Americans and make future trade agreements dependent upon improved human rights in the USA (just like the USA has tried so often with China).

Changing Someone's Ideology?

Posted on 9th July 2014

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This video clip on MRC TV got me thinking.

The Muslim lady who got the panellist so fired up asked (paraphrasing) why nothing was being done in an ideological sense to combat Islamic terrorism, given that the root cause is ideology. The important question is, can anything be done to change radical ideology (of any kind, not just of Muslims)? Does history contain any successful examples of non-violent means to change people's ideology?

If we look at government policies towards immigrant in Britain & France, there is a distinct difference: Britain's approach has always been based on pluralism and tolerance (you can live how you want as long as it doesn't impact other people - no deliberate attempt to change ideology); France believes in integration (if you want to live in France, you need to live in the French way). Given recent protests and violence, it is clear that neither approach works. In both countries there are examples of children of non-radical immigrant parents becoming radicalised and engaging in terrorism. Neither social pressure and legislation to conform in an ideological sense (the French approach), nor ideological change by immersion and osmosis (the British approach) seem to be achieving the change of heart that was expected.

If we look further back, we can compare the introduction of Christianity in Africa to that in South & Central America. In Africa it was done with missionaries: there was lots of violence, but mostly not for the purpose of changing hearts and minds (more for the purpose of introducing the rule of law, to create a suitable environment for business), and it didn't really work (politics in Africa is mostly still tribal, and there is lots of corruption, violence and terrorism). In the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of South & Central America the task was achieved with a great deal of violence, but it seemed to work, at least to some extent (there are still problems, but mainly not due to ideology).

When the Moors were driven out of Europe, Christianity was reintroduced. This was not a hard-sell, as the Europeans were allowed and encouraged to practice the religion that had been suppressed with violence under the Moors.

Communism in China is another example of failure to change hearts and minds. Despite living under a communist system, most Chinese people are at heart capitalists (and Confucians, I would argue) - indeed they may well be the best capitalists in the world. As communism is slowly being eroded away, they are able to follow their hearts again, despite years of often quite violent religious and ideological suppression.

The Balkans gives us another dramatic lesson. They were melded into a artificial communist nation by violence. Once the iron curtain collapsed, they reverted to their true natures, and shocked the world by how different the various religious and ethic groups were and how much they hated each other.

Finally, think about Ireland. Despite what many people think, the troubles are nothing to do with religion. About 2,500 years ago, the Gaels arrived in Ireland. Despite sharing a religion (Celtic paganism) with the existing inhabitants of Ireland, they had a different ideology. These differences persist today, despite Christianity having replaced paganism, and there is still tension and violence to this day. Neither war nor peaceful means (both have been tried) have bridged the ideological divide.

So, history doesn't give us much reason for hope. Non-violent approaches to changing people's ideology don't seem to work, and even violence doesn't always succeed (if any reader has some counter examples from history, please share them). Sometimes people appear to change, as in China and the Balkans, but still the old ideologies and religions persist through generations. Paganism was never really stamped out in Europe, despite some very violent suppression: it went under cover inside the Christian church (there are lots of elements of paganism which have been absorbed into Christianity).

The core problem is that people are very adaptable, and can hold on to their core beliefs under very tough conditions, for an extremely long time. It seems to be that civilisation is only ever painted over the top, and once the need to conform is removed, people revert.

Many Doctors Can't Handle Statistics!

Posted on 7th July 2014

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This BBC story, based on a book, "Risk Savvy", by Gerd Gigerenze, is very worrying. It is quite a long article, but worth reading.

Gerd Gigerenze is the director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy in Berlin, and is an expert in uncertainty and decision-making.

What the book and the article say is that a huge proportion of our doctors do not properly understand and cannot manipulate basic statistics. This is shocking and worrying because modern medicine is completely dependent upon statistics:

  • They are the tool used to identify which organism causes a disease;
  • They are used to balance the risks of treatments, and even diagnostic techniques, against the risks posed by diseases, to help decide whether and how to treat and how to diagnose, and at what age to begin standard screening procedures (e.g. for breast, cervical and prostate cancers);
  • They are used to decide which treatments to use, and whether new treatments should be introduced;
  • They are needed to explain risks to patients, and to make prognoses ("How long have I got?", "Will I die?", "Will I still be able to ...?", etc.).

In western cultures medical doctors have very high status: they are used to being able to dictate to patients (I don't accept this from my doctors, but many people do), and they are automatically considered trustworthy and well-informed (a doctor is one of the people who can authenticate your photo when you applying for a passport). It seems that maybe this god-like status is not always deserved.

Doctors have to complete a long and arduous eduction in order to qualify. Once qualified, they are expected to keep their medical knowledge up to date (lots of reading, and attending conferences) - in this respect their situation is similar to my own and other professions. What seems to be missing from this major educational programme is basic statistical skills (some of which are really only common sense).

I don't see any chance if this shortfall in statistical skills being corrected any time soon, so what should we all do? The answer is to ask your doctor questions, and not accept their advice as gospel. If you are not happy with what your doctor tells you, get a second (and even a third or fourth) opinion. Use the Internet (with the obligatory pinch of salt) to inform yourself of your options and the risks you face. If your doctor has a problem with you having your own opinions about your health and treatment, get a new doctor. You also have the option to report your doctor to your heath insurer and/or the appropriate medical board if you feel that they are being unprofessional.

An Obsession with Democracy

Posted on 4th July 2014

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This article in The Economist attempts to diagnose the ills of the Arab world. Its position seems to be that the modern interpretation of Islam is at the root of the problem: that religion is preventing democracy, free-market forces, education and religious and social pluralism.

One of the things that struck me about the article is that the author seems obsessed with democracy, both as a good thing in itself, and as the cure for many of the ills of the modern world. Not only is this position not justified in the piece, but it seems in contradiction to historical background given at the beginning of the article.

In the heyday of the Arab world their society was ruled by dictators and royalty. During this time they made enormous contributions to science, art, literature and architecture: we have Arab civilisation to thank for our system of numbers (they gave us the number zero, essential to modern mathematics), most of the ground-work in astronomy (the development of which was stunted in Europe by the influence of the Roman Catholic Church), technology for navigation and much more. If you want to see an example of Arab architecture, visit the Alhambra (and compare the Arab parts to the section that was reworked by the Spanish after they drove the Moors out of Spain - the Spanish architecture is horrible in comparison). All this was achieved without democracy; the same is true of most other great civilisations in history: China, India, the Incas, etc.

The article in The Economist mentions Indonesia as an example of a successful Muslim nation with a working democracy, but they do have some significant problems (endemic corruption, and their currency took a major dive about a year ago), and they are most certainly not Arabs. Successful Arab states in the modern world are generally not democratic: the UAE and Saudi Arabia, for example.

Democracy is one of the obsessions of the modern world. The western civilisations have exported it around the planet by various means. As the colonies of the great western powers evaporated, we "gifted" the newly independent states with constitutions and democratic systems. We continue to export it, for example in Iraq and Afghanistan. We shouldn't be so surprised when it doesn't work; it doesn't work so well in the west either. The systems of government in the USA and much of Europe can at best be described as pseudo-democracies, and often fail to deliver government "by the people, for the people".

I am not saying that democracy is inherently bad, but I am saying that it is not necessarily right for every nation, every society and every religion, and I am most certainly saying that it is not an essential prerequisite for a wealthy, happy, productive, educated and pluralist state, operating under the rule of law and with sexual and religious equality.

Part of the problem, however, is that western civilisations have done too good a job of marketing the idea of democracy as the cure for all ills. This means that people around the world want, and believe that they need, democracy in order to be happy and successful. I think we might have "sold them a pup".

Beware all statistics which you didn't manipulate yourself!

Posted on 3rd July 2014

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This BBC story should be required reading for everyone, but most especially for all journalists and bloggers.

It describes the risks of implying cause and effect relationships between statistical phenomena just because there is a correlation between the data. It refers to a web-site which gives a host of examples of spurious statistical correlations. One of my favourites is "Number people who drowned by falling into a swimming-pool correlates with number of films Nicolas Cage appeared in".

Not only are the examples very entertaining, but it reminds us that statistical justifications and explanations should always be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Facebook manipulated you

Posted on 3rd July 2014

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Are you upset about what is described in this story on the BBC? You should be.

Facebook conducted a study on around 700,000 of their users, in which they manipulated the feeds they received (news and postings from friends) to make them happy or sad, without their permission.

Facebook said there was "no unnecessary collection of people's data", but that is not the point. They were censoring people's access to information.

So, you cannot trust Facebook. Perhaps not so surprising, but in this case totally unacceptable. As British Labour MP Jim Sheridan, a member of the Commons media select committee, said, "if there is not already legislation on this, then there should be".

Moral Disability and Tuberculosis

Posted on 3rd July 2014

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This report on the BBC really causes me to doubt the competence of politicians to make rational and moral decisions.

The story describes new research which suggests that the culling of badgers to control the spread of TB in cattle will never work, and that other existing control measures are also insufficient. The study recommends a new strategy be defined.

One of the facts highlighted in the BBC story is the use of testing for TB to limit the spread of TB in cattle. The test currently used does not reliably detect TB in the early stages of infection, meaning that infected cattle can infect other beasts in the herd before their disease is detected. Duh!

What is made clear by the story is that the whole strategy for TB control in dairy herds in the UK (and therefore probably elsewhere too) is based on bad science and bad control techniques. This should not be a surprise to anyone; a small amount of reading on the subject leads to this inevitable and obvious conclusion.

My real question is, how can such a dodgy scientific case be used as the justification of a programme (now finally cancelled, thank goodness) for mass culling of badgers? The culling programme is difficult enough to justify at the best of times, but how on earth can such a morally questionable activity be implemented on the basis of such a thoroughly incomplete and unsound scientific background?

I recently posted some comments, here, on a recent call by Mark Carney, the new governor of the Bank of England, for more ethics in business. How about more ethics in politics?

The right to be forgotten, in action

Posted on 3rd July 2014

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This story on the BBC describes the results of someone (who it is is not clear) exercising their "right to be forgotten".

I have strong opinions on this topic, described here.

Since I do not approve of this kind of back-door censorship, I am posting the link to the BBC journalist's blog (which Google says will no longer be shown in search results for clients in Europe) here, and encourage others to do the same.

Caribbean coral reefs could vanish in 20 years

Posted on 3rd July 2014

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This report on the BBC reminds us all that our planet is not healthy.

The story describes the findings of a recent study, which concludes that many of the Caribbean's coral reefs could vanish in the next 20 years.

The cause seems to be overfishing and disease, leading to a reduction in the populations of sea urchins and parrot fish, both of which graze on algae. The result is that reefs are being swamped by green algae, killing off the coral and thus eliminating the other reef-dwelling species.

All this is just more of the same bad news. Another BBC report, here, presents an overview of the impact that the human race is having on planet earth, describing humans as a "super-organism" and likening us to slime-mould and ant colonies. One of the key problems with this super-organism is that, whilst individual humans are intelligent (self-aware and able to learn from experience - two of the key scientific tests for intelligence), the collective whole does not seem to be: the human super-organism does not seem to be self-aware, and it constantly demonstrates its inability to learn from experience.

If the human race does not solve this basic problem, in particular limiting the irresponsible exploitation of natural resources due to individual self-interest, there really is no hope for our world.

Extraterritorial law enforcement over Microsoft emails

Posted on 3rd August 2014

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Although I am no fan of Microsoft, as you may have guessed from some of my other posts, this BBC story makes me feel a little sympathetic towards the company.

A court in the USA has determined that Microsoft must hand over email data of some clients, stored on servers in Dublin, the Irish capital, outside the USA's legal jurisdiction, needed as part of a drug-trafficking trial in the USA.

The latest case is only the latest stage in the battle, and Microsoft intends to appeal again, so the issue is not yet closed.

The thing that I find bizarre is that Microsoft is currently fighting this case in the US courts. I would have thought that the Irish courts would have a strong opinion about who has jurisdiction over data held on servers in Ireland, and a court order from an Irish court barring Microsoft from handing over the data would be easy (and cheaper) to achieve.

I really think that it is time that someone stood up to the USA and its extraterritorial legislation and law enforcement, and this case seems an ideal test case.

ISPs take legal action against GCHQ

Posted on 3rd July 2014

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This story on the BBC gives me some hope.

GCHQ is the British central signals surveillance agency. They have a long history of being embroiled in rows about legally and morally questionable activities, the latest being that they were coordinating electronic spying activities with the NSA, related to the NSA's Prism spying programme.

It is good to see that at least some ISPs are taking some legal action, finally, to protect the privacy of our Internet data.

The Right to Impose your Religion on Others

Posted on 30th June 2014

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I find this BBC story worrying in so many ways.

At root, it seems to be a basic clash of principles: a Christian-owned company in the USA has won an exemption from some of the provisions of Obama-Care, so that they don't have to pay for free contraception for their employees, due to their religious beliefs. It also seems to strike a blow for religious freedom.

A closer look at the issues tells me that the decision is against religious freedom. Groups whose beliefs are anti-contraception have won the right to impose their beliefs on another group: their employees.

My first question is, since when is running a business a valid exercise of religious beliefs? Where do we draw the line? The next thing might be the right to withhold tax money that would be spent on treatments which are in contradiction to religious beliefs. This is a slippery slope. The whole idea of the rule of law is to create a society where everyone is required to behave in a way deemed acceptable by everyone else, and these kinds of exceptions undermine that principle.

What about other belief systems and things like blood transfusion, vaccinations, genetic screening, gene therapy, cloned organs for transplants and stem-cell treatments? The news article states that the judgement does not apply to other forms of healthcare, but the chances of it not being used as a precedent for other situations are very slim. The basic liberal principle is that people should be given as much freedom as possible, as long as it doesn't impinge on the freedoms of others (for example, this principle prevents people arguing that they have a right to make human sacrifice because their religion requires them to), but the ruling described above clearly does limit the freedoms of the employees.

Also, what about the need for population control? Controlling population helps to ensure my rights: to a good and healthy life for me and my offspring. Now, it seems, religious groups have the right to undermine population controls by limiting access to contraception, thus limiting my rights and the rights of my offspring.

I do hope this judgement gets overturned, and quickly.

UK has accepted 50 Syrian refugees

Posted on 30th June 2014

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Wow! Britain has accepted 50 Syrian refugees! Give yourself a pat on the back, and sleep soundly.

To remind you of the right perspective, in this story from the BBC, the caption under the photo says it all: "Million of Syrians have fled their homes because of the conflict".

So Britain has accepted less than 0.005% of the total Syrian refugees. That is a little more than the number of migrants found dead from asphyxiation on one migrant boat by the Italian navy, as reported in this BBC story. Already this year, 60,000 migrants have landed in Italy (although most are from Africa – Syrian refugees have more direct routes for migration).

Call me negative, if you want, but I think that maybe the UK government isn't doing enough.

Political Self-Interest In Action

Posted on 30th June 2014

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This story on the BBC really drives home what is wrong with politics: "Labour leader Ed Miliband has urged people in Scotland to change the UK for the better by rejecting independence".

Scotland has always been a stronghold for the Labour Party in Britain. If Scotland becomes independent, Labour will get fewer votes, and significantly fewer seats, in elections for Westminster. An independent Scotland will mean almost no hope of a future Labour government for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So, what we have here is a desperate attempt by the Labour leader to ensure his political future: he is protecting his career; most certainly not the moral high-ground.

Excuse me if I don't take your opinions on Scottish independence seriously, Mr. Miliband.

This is what is Wrong with Politics

Posted on 24th June 2014

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This story really illustrates what is broken with our political systems.

The story describes complaints of how, so public opinion believes, politicians of all parties are using the National Health Service (NHS) as a pawn in their politics: designing policies simply to win votes, rather than doing what is actually best for the NHS.

The basic problem is that, for these politicians, being in politics is their career, leading then inevitably to act to get re-elected, rather than in the best interests of the country, let alone the world, so that they can keep their jobs.

One of the side-effects of this situation is that voter choice is undermined: the policies of most parties are often indistinguishable from each other, when it comes to what should be key election issues. Of course, when a party gets elected, what they actually do bears no relation the the policies touted at election time. There are loads of ready made excuses: other more urgent issues, financial constraints (blamed on the previous government), bowing to "overwhelming public opinion", political interference from the EU, the results of studies by experts, etc.

One way to reduce some of these undemocratic practices would be to have more referenda, like they do in Switzerland and California. This would allow the separation of decisions on policy (dealt with in referenda) from decisions on who implements the policies (the elected government).

Another way (perfectly compatible with the use of referenda) would be to bring an end to the existence of career politicians. What is wrong with a system akin to that used for jury service. People in private business, science, charities and even the military could be appointed, based on the skills, experience and track record, to serve a fixed term in government, after which they are guaranteed their old job back.

Without some radical changes to our political systems, our democracies are essentially broken. There is so much corruption, so many vested interests, so many people elected based on how much money they spend to get elected, and so many people elected on the basis of personalities rather than policies. Most worryingly, there are huge amounts of cowardice amongst politicians: they are not willing to make those unpopular but necessary decisions, for fear of losing the next election.

Time for a change, I think.

True Costs of Running an Electric Car

Posted on 30th June 2014

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This BBC story describes how the cost of running and electric car will rise, because the UK government is reducing subsidies. Free charging at at all public power points is to be withdrawn.

An odd decision, given that we have a growing environmental crisis, and the current official position (which does, admittedly, have some flaws) is that electric vehicles are more environmentally friendly than diesel or petrol driven ones.

The reason why bad policy decisions like this are made is two-fold: the UK government has an almost zealous commitment to free market economics, and the relative running costs of electric versus conventional vehicles do not represent true costs.

The true costs of conventional vehicles include the immediate and deferred damage to the environment, and thus to health, and the using up of dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. All the while that these costs are not passed on to the relevant consumers, any arguments based on economics are flawed, and in fact downright dishonest

.

So please, let's either level the playing field, or just forget the economic arguments.

Death and Dog Poop on Flights

Posted on 24th June 2014

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I found the contrast between these two stories rather bizarre.

Whilst visiting her family in Chicago, my girlfriend heard about a case, reported here, where a guide dog (seeing-eye dog in American English) got sick on a domestic flight in the USA and pooped in the aisle, twice on the same flight. The smell was so bad that the flight was diverted, and the mess was cleaned up on the ground, before continuing to its destination.

In contrast, whilst I was flying back from an assignment in Bangkok on a Qatar Airways flight to Doha, the man sitting one seat away from me died, and the flight was not diverted. I couldn't find a news report about the event (maybe one is available in Arabic). The unfortunate traveller, from Saudi Arabia, was fairly old, and obviously sick; he had some medication with him for his condition. His, son, travelling with him, asked the cabin crew for oxygen for his father, when he started to have breathing difficulties, but the regulations did not allow them to administer oxygen or other medication. Eventually the father seemed to improve a little, and with the help of his son, attempted to go to the toilet (less than 2 metres from seat to toilet). The effort of this movement was too much for the gentleman: he collapsed half in and half out of the toilet and eventually died.

When he collapsed, I checked the moving map display, and decided that we would probably be diverted to somewhere in India or Pakistan, but we were not. I don't think that diverting would have saved him, but I am surprised that they didn't try.

I do have to say that the cabin crew, and the medical staff who were passengers on the flight, tried valiantly to save him, administering CPR (which is very physically demanding work) and defibrillation for over an hour. Eventually they left him on the floor of the galley area where they had been treating him, covered him with a blanket, and carried on with the normal business of the flight: serving refreshments and breakfast.

The son, and the rest of the family of the deceased, have my deepest sympathy.

It does make you wonder, though, what the criteria are for diverting a flight: what kind of medical emergency qualifies for an unplanned landing?

Foreign Languages Shortfall for Business

Posted on 24th June 2014

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I have to wonder whether any of the people at the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) referred to in this BBC News story ever actually went to school. They certainly didn't go to my school.

I remember making my subject choices at school. I was not particularly good at languages at school, but even then (many years ago) I understood that languages might make a huge difference to my work options. The problem was that I was not given the option: to do a foreign langauge in the 6th form, I would have had to drop one of my science classes. That really defeats the object, To use a foreign language to make me more employable in a science or engineering job, I need both the language and the science education.

When politicians say that "more children [are] learning languages", what they really mean is that more are learning languages instead of science, rather than in addition. This is typical a politician's answer: the appearance of relevant facts, but not actually relevant, and the appearance of doing something to improve education, when in fact making it worse.

The whole topic of languages in addition to science or engineering subjects is not even addressed in the BBC article, so maybe I should blame the BBC, and the author (Judith Burns).

Trust your doctor, not Wikipedia?

Posted on 13th June 2014

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I find this story rather disingenuous.

Whilst I agree that there is a lot of rubbish (propaganda, lies, rantings and badly researched material) on the Internet, Wikipedia is one of the better sources of data. Most of the entries are written and/or reviewed by experts in their field, whether medical, scientific or technical. If there are errors, they tend to be corrected reasonably quickly.

My own experience of doctors is that their knowledge is often not up to date with the latest medical research; in fact, quite often, more out of date than what I find on Wikipedia. Not so long ago, doctors at one of the leading hospitals in Munich wanted to perform two separate surgical procedure on me that not only did not address my medical issues, but one of them was based on unsound research (and has since been withdrawn).

Given the lack of expertise in the medical profession, thank goodness for Wikipedia and other sources on the web.

Of course, some common sense should be applied. The Internet should be used as one source of information, in combination with that from your doctors, but the days when we could blindly accept our doctors' advice are over.

My attitude to this is simple. I am not simply a patient; I am the customer, and should be treated as such. My doctor is not is charge of my health and its treatment; I am. When I get contradictory information about my health, I need to be convinced by my doctor (or he needs to be convinced by me). If my doctor can't work in this way, I will find one who can.

More Ethics in Business.

Posted on 13th June 2014

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This story, from a few weeks ago, raises an interesting dilemma.

Mark Carney, the new governor of the Bank of England, says that bankers should be more ethical in the way that they do business. This is not a new idea: business leaders in all industries have been asked to be more ethical, more green, and generally more socially responsible many times in recent years.

Whilst I think that this is a very good idea, and a prerequisite for success in many recent drives to make the world a better place (less prone to financial crises and less polluted, and with less tax avoidance), we seem to be forgetting something rather important.

Business leaders are answerable to their shareholders, and to the regulatory arms of stock exchanges and similar bodies. Their answerability is very clear, and very simple: to maximise profit. If they make decisions which do otherwise, they can be fired, fined, and even barred from office.

If we want business leaders (bankers and other executives) to be more ethical, we therefore need to change the rules under which they operate. We need to not only take away the risk of punishment and censure for "doing the right thing", but also to forcefully incentivise being more ethical. Any system of incentives needs to be strong enough to outweigh the loss of income which results from decisions which reduce (or even just defer) profits, remembering that senior executives get very large bonuses based on performance (i.e. the profits and turnover of their companies).

So, Mr. Carney, please devote a little more attention to the changes needed to enable this more ethical approach to business. Without those changes, it is all just wishful thinking.

Pro-Gun Propaganda Debunked

Posted on 13th June 2014

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I found this article very interesting.

The whole issue of guns is very political in the USA, with the pro-gun lobby issuing lots of propaganda, in the form of statistics and other "statements of facts". It is nice to see someone challenging this propaganda.

In summary, the article says:

  • Myth #1: They're coming for your guns.

    It is clearly not practical to confiscate the 310 million privately owned guns in the USA.

  • Myth #2: Guns don't kill people - people kill people.

    There is a clear correlation between the number of people with guns, and the amount of gun murders. This strongly suggests a cause and effect relationship.

  • Myth #3: An armed society is a polite society.

    The facts show otherwise. Gun owners seem to be less polite and more aggressive.

  • Myth #4: More good guys with guns can stop rampaging bad guys.

    Again, the facts show otherwise. There have been no cases in the last 30 years where an armed civilian has stopped a mass shooting.

  • Myth #5: Keeping a gun at home makes you safer.

    Wrong again! Having a gun at home is strongly correlated with more risk.

  • Myth #6: Carrying a gun for self-defence makes you safer.

    Surprise: not true! Carrying a gun radically increases your chances of being shot or even killed.

  • Myth #7: Guns make women safer.

    Also not true! The chances of a woman being killed are much much higher if her parter (or ex-partner) owns a gun.

  • Myth #8: "Vicious, violent video games" deserve more blame than guns.

    So how do you explain why Japan is so much safer (in relation to gun homicides) than the USA: 1000 times safer?

  • Myth #9: More and more Americans are becoming gun owners.

    The actual trend is for more guns to be owned by fewer people. Why do these people need so many guns (an average of 7.9 per private gun owner)?

  • Myth #10: We don't need more gun laws - we just need to enforce the ones we have.

    The fact is that many gun regulations have loopholes, as a result of NRA lobbying (e.g. online gun sales do not require a background check).

So, not world peace, then.

Posted on 11th June 2014

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I just had to laugh when I saw this story.

The winner of the recent Miss Universe Thailand competition has resigned her title after a press row over her statement that certain political activists "should be executed".

At least it makes a refreshing change from the usual statements by contestants during beauty competitions that they believe in, or will work for, world peace.

I suppose we shouldn't take her opinions too seriously, as, apparently, she is "too fat". If we have learned anything from Hollywood, it is that only really beautiful people have opinions that we should listened to.

Senator Ted Cruz renounces Canadian citizenship

Posted on 11th June 2014

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I find myself rather bemused by the sentiments behind this story, describing how Senator Cruz has renounced his Canadian citizenship.

Senator Cruz's aide Catherine Frazier said: "Being a US senator representing Texas, it makes sense he should be only an American citizen". How exactly does it "make sense"? Is there a suggestion that, while acting as a US senator, he cannot be trusted to have appropriate priorities? If that is so, renouncing his Canadian citizenship has hardly removed all his sympathies and ties to Canada. It has not changed the fact that he was born there, and was possibly educated there and has family and friends there. Did he, as part of the renunciation of his second citizenship, have the Canadian parts of his memory excised: does he now say "about", rather than "aboot"?

The American press, and by implication the American public, does seem to be particularly obsessed with "foreigners" holding political office: it is impossible for anyone not born a US citizen to be president (bad luck, Arnold Schwarzenegger). I find it odd that the USA, the champion of democracy and equal rights (for people of different religions, ethnicity, political beliefs, sexual orientation, etc.), is so attached to policies about its politicians which are, essentially, racist.

In the modern world, more and more people are geographically mobile, and live and work in countries other than their land of birth and citizenship. Time to change the rules and public expectations on this issue. The issue is not really any different than someone holding more than one job at a time: you require (often in a contract) that they deal professionally with any conflicts of interest that arise. If you can't trust someone to put the country where they hold political office first in the exercise of that office, then I have a radical idea: don't elect them in the first place!

Are our governments taking the environmental crisis seriously?

Posted on 11th June 2014

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A couple of recent stories really do make me wonder whether our elected representatives have "lost the plot":

In the first story, there is upset that many ministers failed to attend the recent conference in Bonn on Global Warming, despite having previously committed to attending, despite the agenda warranting their attendance, and despite the fact that we have an environmental crisis. One of the nations which did not send a ministerial delegate was Britain.

The second story describes how grants designed to protect the countryside by providing habitats on farmland to support wild plants and animals have been controversially switched to pay England's farmers to grow beans and peas. Stephen Trotter, of The Wildlife Trusts, condemned the decision to allow grants to peas and beans: "Nitrogen-fixing crops improve the soil but don't help wildlife at all."

These two stories really do not show the kinds of government commitment and priorities that are needed. Wake up, you people, and trying being "representatives" of your electorate, rather than dictators!

The right to be forgotten

Posted on 4th June 2014

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There has been a lot of news lately about "the right to be forgotten":

As pointed out in the last of the above news storied, there has been a flood of requests to be forgotten. Some of the examples given in the second story seem completely inappropriate. I have several issues with this whole situation.

Why only Google?

Why has Google, of all the search providers, been singled out to implement this "right to be forgotten"? If it is really a right, why do we only have this right when people search for information about us using Google? I didn't think that rights were supposed to work like that.

Why only search providers?

The whole point of the court ruling is that obsolete information about us should be hidden (or censored, as Jimmy Wales correctly labels it). So why is the ruling not about the actual sources of that information: the articles containing the obsolete information? I really don't see why it should be the responsibility of Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.

Since when do we have a right to be forgotten?

The language now being used about the supposed "right to be forgotten" suggests that it is an inalienable human right. Sorry, but it isn't, and I don't think that it should be. There are existing laws (laws governing libel) which protect us all from the publishing of false and misleading statements. If published information is correct, then it is legal to publish it.

There are existing legal mechanisms to suppress certain information: juvenile criminal records and information which people (e.g. potential employers and banks) might use to form illegal prejudiced opinions about us. Apart from that legally supported censorship, data about us is generally in the public interest. I do want to know if a convicted child molester becomes my neighbour; I want to be able to find out if someone has been bankrupt before I lend them money; I want to know if someone has a criminal record before offering them a job. I feel that I have a right to find this information on the Internet. I do not feel that my rights to protect myself, my family, my company or employer, and my assets are ensured by this bizarre court ruling.

What about my rights as a publisher?

I also do not feel that my rights as a blogger are protected by this ruling. Admittedly, I still have a right to publish what I choose, as long as it is accurate and fair, but what good is that if my blogs are censored out by the search provider due to a request to be forgotten by some whinger. Blogging is dependent upon search providers, and there is no point in publishing material if it then censored.

As many sources of news change to online only, due to the costs of print-based publishing, and many new sources of news and opinion spring up on the Internet, this kind of legally sanctioned censorship could threaten to undermine the validity and coverage of online information, and impact our way of life. This ruling must be overturned, and soon.!

They don't even know if this doctor is qualified!

Posted on 23rd May 2014

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I find this story really rather strange.

The doctor in question, Dr. Daniel Ubani, practices medicine in Germany, but was working as a locum in the UK when he killed a patient by prescribing 10 times the safe dose of a morphine-based pain killer to David Gray. Dr. Ubani was tried in Germany, and convicted of causing the patient's death by negligence in 2008. He was also struck off in the UK, meaning that he can no longer practice medicine in Britain. Mr. Gray's family are not happy with the punishment, a nine-month suspended sentence, and I can understand why. They want him brought to trial in the UK, but The European Court of Human Rights says no.

The bizarre thing is that the family of Mr. Gray say that the court in Germany "don't even know if Dr Ubani is qualified", because no "effective investigation" was conducted. Germany is one of the most bureaucratic countries in the world, including requirements to provide documentary proof of qualifications (usually the original certificates), and the idea that the court could not or did not check Dr. Ubani's qualifications is simply mind-blowing.

The other oddity is that normally cases are tried in the jurisdiction where the supposed crime is committed, which is the main reason why extradition treaties exist, but in this case, because legal proceedings were started in Germany first, Germany seems to have had jurisdiction, which has been confirmed by The European Court of Human Rights. If this creates precedent for other types of case, it may create loopholes for many criminals.

Global Warming News

Posted on 23rd May 2014

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Forest Carbon Loss Underestimated

This story just reminds us how little we know about our planet, and how inexact science can be.

It seems that previous estimates for loss of "locked-up carbon" in forests, due to deforestation, has been underestimated. It seems that, in addition to the direct loss due to the trees which are felled, the remaining forest is degraded, causing carbon loss in the unfelled trees.

Not only is this bad in itself, but it calls into question recent forestry practices which attempt to limit environmental damage and carbon release by various partial logging strategies.

In the immortal words of Arthur Dent: "So this is it. We're going to die."

Water goes 'missing' with snow loss

If, despite the story above, you still think that your understand how our planet works, check out this story.

It describes how recent research shows that, as more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, due to global warming, less of the water makes it to the rivers. Yes, that is even if the same amount of water falls out of the sky.

The researchers are not completely sure where the missing water goes (maybe it evaporates before reaching the rivers, or maybe it soaks in to the ground to become ground-water), but the effect is real. Given that so many rivers have less water in nowadays anyway, due to too much being taken by humans (from the rivers and lakes directly, and from ground-water) for human and agricultural uses, this is likely to become a real problem.

Are you doing your bit for water conservation? Here are some (mostly very easy) tips to conserve water.

Primary pupils to learn about world of work

Posted on 2nd May 2014

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Did I misunderstand, or is the eductaional system really that stupid?

This story describes a "new" initiative to have people go to schools and explain about their jobs. The supposedly new part is that the pupils will get an explanation of "how lessons relate to their future careers".

Excuse me, but isn't that the very reason for having people come and explain about their jobs? Such visits have been going on for a long time, in many countries, under several guises (parents coming in to talk about their jobs, organisations volunteering and professionals being invited by the schools). Seriously, in all this time, no-one thought that maybe the whole point was to explain how studying, and the choice of study subjects, related to careers and career choices?

Heat from the sea to warm historic house

Posted on 23rd May 2014

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This story is a piece of good news for the environment. More of this, please.

The National Trust, which manages the UK's historical legacy (buildings, parks and forests) has installed a heat pump to heat Plas Newydd (in Wales) using heat from the nearby sea (you can see from one of the photos in the story how close the sea is to the house).

The heat pump can provide 300kW of heating, cost the National Trust £600,000 and is expected to save around £40,000 a year in operating costs. I consider this a step in the right direction, but I do hope no-one is fooling themselves that this is a completely carbon neutral solution.

The manufacture, transport, installation an commissioning of the heat pump uses energy and valuable materials. The energy to operate it, even though much less than the system it replaces (an oil-fired boiler) is only as green as the energy supply company provides (currently not so green, but improving slowly). So not only will it take some years to pay back the financial investment in the heat pump from reduced heating costs, but it will also take some time before the project pays back it's carbon-debt!

Nevertheless, well done The National Trust!

Oh my god! Americans have guns!

Posted on 2nd May 2014

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Whilst I have the deepest sympathy for the father (and indeed all the family and friends) of the dead boy, quoted in this story, his statement beggars belief.

Diren Dede, 17, of Hamburg, was shot dead in Montana by Markus Kaarma, while Diren was trespassing in Markus' garage late at night.

Diren's father, Celal Dede, said that he would not have allowed his son to study in the US had he been aware of the lenient gun laws.

How can anyone be unaware, in this day and age, of the lenient gun laws in the USA? Hasn't he heard of Columbine, and all the other shooting incidents at schools and other locations? Hasn't he seen or heard any news about the various attempts (mostly failed) at federal, state and city level to control gun ownership? Is he really not aware of the power of the NRA as a political lobby?

I don't feel that the fact that Diren's parents are immigrants to Germany from Turkey is any excuse. Maybe if they had instead come from Apha Centauri that would explain how they had missed the decades of gun problems and political battles in the USA relating to guns and their licensing and control.

The other thing that I find bizarre is the suggestion that the father would have forbidden his son from going to the USA if he had known. Really? The son was 17 years old; almost old enough to vote and buy alcohol! Hasn't he heard that there are three ways to get something done:

  1. Do it yourself,
  2. Pay someone else to do it,
  3. Or forbid your children from doing it?
Global Warming News

Posted on 2nd May 2014

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Fossil Fuel Subsidies

This story is very worrying.

World governments are supposed to be trying to reduce the "carbon footprint" of energy production and other industrial activity, to combat global warming. We are awash with reports and recommendations from the UN and IPCC, telling us clearly and firmly that there is a global crisis, and that we need to change our ways and reduce our use of fossil fuels.

Now we have this data from the IEA (International Energy Agency) showing that (in 2012) the global subsidies for fossil fuel production and utilisation far exceeded those for renewable energy. The incentives to the energy industry seem to be pushing them in the wrong direction, so no wonder things are not changing much.

The article makes this telling point: "Fossil fuels may account for 80% of our total energy consumption, but they hardly represent a nascent industry in need of a helping hand."

Those subsidies are being paid from our taxes, and I, for one, would like to have a habitable planet on which to enjoy my retirement. How about you?

What did you think would happen?

Posted on 27th April 2014

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This story describes the plight of an American tourist visiting North Korea.

He arrived at immigration in North Korea, and tore up his visa while shouting that he had "come to the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) after choosing it as a shelter".

What on earth did you think would happen? Which travel guide told you that North Koreans have a good sense of humour, are cool when you insult their country, and are happy to turn a blind eye to law breaking. Oh yes, and they all speak excellent English, right?

Unless the DPRK are lying through their teeth about what happened, I don't see much basis for sympathy for this idiot's situation.

Legislating against Blasphemy

Posted on 27th April 2014

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I feel very sorry for Mr. Masud Ahmad, whose unfortunate story is described here.

His situation (accused of blasphemy) got me thinking about the inherent hypocrisy of legislating against blasphemy.

The Koran (Quran) teaches that Muslims must be tolerant and respectful to other religions. Given the enormous differences between various religions (the number and nature of their gods, and their basic principles and doctrines), it is inevitable that something that is a basic tenet of belief to people of one faith can be in contradiction to the beliefs of people of other faiths. How, then, can you be tolerant of the existence and beliefs of a faith, and punish statements that contradict your own beliefs as blasphemy.

To put this more simply: laws against blasphemy are against the teachings of the Koran. This is strange, since most of the countries with laws against blasphemy are Muslim.

Christianity and Judaism have no such rules about religious tolerance, although Christianity does have examples and parables showing such tolerance. Luckily the days of laws against blasphemy in Christian (and the one Judaic) countries are over. If that changes, then we will all have cause to be very worried.

Global Warming News

Posted on 23rd April 2014

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Japan and China

Japan and China are slowly getting warmed up for a war (an increased chance of war is one of my predicted results of global warming).

This story describes how Japan has started building a military radar station near the disputed islands (the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands) in the South China Sea.

Last year China declared an "air defence zone" requiring foreign planes to notify Beijing of flights over a huge swath of the East China Sea near the disputed islands. This February China started enforcing new regulations requiring foreign vessels to ask China's permission to fish within much of the South China Sea, an area encompassing island groups also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and others.

This week China siezed a Japanese ship because of a pre-war debt, as described here.

The islands themselves are of almost no value, but their possession is the key to controlling vast swathes of oil, gas and fishing areas, and such resources are in short supply and becoming critical in our over-populated, over-exploited globally warming world. It doesn't matter who is right and who is wrong, nor who starts shooting first. War is never good, is a huge source of pollution, and the more crowded our world is, the more people will suffer. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

Renewable Energy in Europe

This story describes recent reversals in the drive towards renewable energy in Spain and the rest of Europe.

Spain gets a very large proportion (49.1%) of its energy from wind and other renewable sources, due largely to easier planning permission, government grants and tax breaks.

Now, however, due to financial pressures, this favourable tax and regulatory climate has changed. Other European countries (apart from Germany and Britain) have similarly scaled back their subsidies and investment in renewables. All this in the news just 10 days since the UN called for "a trebling of the planet's use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power". Did these governments forget that our planet is in crisis?

Global Warming - What Causes It?

Posted on 1st April 2014

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With all the recent media attention on global warming, some of you may be wondering what causes it.

The Mechanisms

Energy reaches the surface of the earth from a number of sources: the sun, geothermal energy, and non-renewable energy generation by humans. The sun is by far the largest source of such energy, and the rate at which solar energy reaches the earth is amazingly constant.

The problem is the rate at which energy escapes from the earth. Greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide and methane – methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere slow down the rate at which energy can escape from the earth (the greenhouse effect), and cause warming. Some solar energy is also reflected by the oceans and most especially by snow and ice, which is one reason why scientists are so concerned about the loss of polar ice.

The increase in the levels of greenhouse gases is being caused by the human race burning fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal and wood), and by the release of methane (melting permafrost, caused by global warming, and leaks of gas from gas wells and pipes).

The Root Cause

Of course, humans have been burning fossil fuels since the discovery of fire, but it wasn't a problem until recently.

The thing that has changed, and made a tolerable pollution problem into a crisis, is that the population has increased so dramatically: world population is now around seven billion, and still growing. Global warming is caused by there being too many people. Even if the nations which contribute most to greenhouse gases (Australia, China, the USA and Western Europe) were to immediately reduce their pollution levels to amounts in line with the rest of the world, we would still have a global warming crisis.

What Can You Do?

There is a saying: if you are not part of the problem, then you are part of the problem. It is time for all of us to take action to deal with the problems that we have caused. Global warming is not someone else's problem; it is yours and mine.

The most important single thing that people can do is: have fewer children. People are the cause of pollution. Children born now will be 36 years old by 2050 (the latest date by which the predictions in the IPCC report are expected to come true), by which time they will be creating their full load of greenhouse gases and other pollution. What gives you the right to take away the right to life and to damage the quality of life of me and my children, by having a large family? What gives you the right to make other species extinct, by having a large family?

Some of you may argue that you have religious grounds for having large families. Do you really think that you will be rewarded in the afterlife for helping to destroy our planet?

There are other things that you can do, which will have faster effects, but will only buy us a little more time if the population of planet earth continues to grow. These include more recycling, and better energy use (less energy, and more of it from renewable sources). From a global warming perspective, energy from nuclear, wind, hydroelectric and bio-fuel sources are good; gas-guzzling cars, coal and oil, air-conditioning, inefficient household appliances and inefficient lighting are not good.

I already live a much lower impact life than most: I have high-efficiency lights throughout my home, I have modern high efficiency (energy and water efficient) kitchen appliances, I do not have a car (I use public transport and use my bike), and I recycle a lot (metal, plastic, glass, paper, electrical/electronic equipment, etc.). I know that I need to do more. What are you going to do?

Global Warming - What will our world be like?

Posted on 31st March 2014

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a report about global warming, identifying the scale of the global warming problem, and some of the impacts. I know that most ordinary people will not read the report (it is huge, and not written for laymen), and will instead get their information from the news and the Internet, so I thought I would put some of the data in perspective.

Most of the predictions are for changes by the year 2050. These are bad enough, but please remember that change will continue after 2050, and by the end of the century the impacts will be even more severe.

If you want to see some of these environmental impacts in more human terms, I recommend two movies: Soylent Green and Silent Running. Please don't dismiss them just because they are "science fiction". The role of serious science fiction is to explore the social, environmental, economic and political consequences of technology and other influences in our world, and in some cases these pieces of fiction do a pretty good job of predicting.

Changes in Crop Yields

Most parts of the world will get warmer, and some parts will get wetter. This will have dramatic impact on crop yields, which will vary from place to place.

The first graphic in this story shows the predicted change in gross crop yields around the world. There are are some places (Canada, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe New Zealand, and Russia) where yields are expected to increase, but these predictions do not take into account the changes in crop pests due to climate change. Most of the world will see reduced yields (including the USA, a major food exporter). Crop yields for maize, rice and wheat are all expected to be reduced in the period up to 2050, with some projections showing losses over 25%.

Some agricultural land will become non-arable or only marginally arable.

One thing that this picture doesn't make clear is that crop species will have to change is some countries to adapt to the changed climate. This will mean changes to the diets of billions of people.

Food will get more expensive, and there will be shortages. Also, expect that more of your food will come from intensive farming rather than wild or natural sources (less free-range eggs, more GM food, farmed fish and vegetables grown under glass).

Pests and Diseases

Already we are seeing changes to the distribution of crop pests and diseases. This will get worse. Expect to see tropical diseases like malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever spreading in Europe and North America. Expect to see more invasive diseases amongst wild species (e.g. lethal tree fungus) in places like Britain. Expect more invasions of scorpions, ants, termites, hornets, etc.

As a result, expect there to be more need to control such pests (with resulting increases in the use of pesticides), and inoculations for a wide range of diseases becoming standard in many countries.

Weather

There are already many parts of the world where outdoor temperatures reach hazardous levels: especially Africa and the Middle East. For those of us who don't tolerate high temperatures well, there will be increased risk of heat-stroke, and there will be an increase in the rate of temperature-related deaths of building workers in some countries.

All this will increase the costs, and decrease the productivity, of outdoor work (agriculture and building). Air-conditioning (itself a contributor to global warming) will become more necessary for office work around the world.

In some regions there will be major increases in rain (and snow), and increases in flooding. In others there will be less rain, with associated desertification. There will be more extreme weather: thunderstorms, tornadoes, typhoons/hurricanes, and high winds. There will be increases in the rate of erosion of coastlines in many regions.

The permafrost is already melting in parts of Russia and North America (making some land impassable, and releasing methane – a strong greenhouse gas).

The Oceans

Sea levels are already rising, and this will continue; how much is not yet clear. Low lying areas (like the Eastern seaboard of the USA) will see significant loss of land. Some nations may choose to introduce dykes and other expensive measures to protect coastlines, meaning the loss of natural coastlines.

Coral reefs are being killed by increased acidity (caused by dissolved CO2) and temperature. Coral reefs are key breeding grounds and food sources, and their loss will impact the whole oceanic ecosystem,.

As temperatures change, fish populations will need to adapt by changing their geographical ranges, moving nearer the poles. Such migrations are not without their risks, and some populations will not succeed; other fisheries will suffer significant loss of productivity as they migrate. Migratory species (eels – already in decline – salmon, sea trout and tuna) are likely to find it particularly hard to adapt their ranges in response to climate pressures. So, not only will seafood availability change to new locations, but there will be a (hopefully temporary) did in fishery productivity.

Changes in fishery locations and productivity will have huge impacts on dependent will species: whales, dolphins, seals, and seabirds.

Fresh Water

Fresh water supplies (for drinking and washing) are already in short supply in much of the world. As rainfall patterns change, and many parts of the world become more arid, this will get much worse. Water rationing (already common in some areas) will become more common for many people. Even in countries which have enough water, the lack of national water grids mean that water is often not available where it is needed, and this can be expected to get worse.

The increased costs of water will make crop irrigation prohibitively expensive for some (e.g. in California). This will impact food price and availability, and the economies of some areas.

Clean water is a key enabler for hygiene, and water shortages will have side-effects on the health of populations and the spread of diseases like cholera and typhoid.

Migration

The report predicts that there will be increased migrations of people due to climate change.

Migration brings with it all the usual associated political and social problems. Migrants are usually not welcome at their destination, and are often barred from entry into new countries. Across the world there are existing issues with migrations, whether actual or attempted: Mexicans and Filipinos entering the USA, refugees from the war in Syria and Africa trying to get into Europe, and migrants from Asia trying to enter Australia. The creation of new waves of economic migrants trying to enter richer countries will not be any better received, even if the root cause is pollution caused by those same richer nations.

Wildlife

Species loss will continue, and indeed accelerate; lost species can never be replaced, and extinction is the worst crime that the human race has perpetrated on the natural world.. This will mean loss of genetic diversity, and result in more risks to food security (wildlife is still a key source of genetic material to enhance crops with pest resistance and improved yields).

There will generally be less wildlife around us. Those of us who love walks in the woods, scuba diving, fishing, hunting and other activities that bring us close to nature are going to be disappointed.

Whilst many fish, birds and human beings can migrate to adapt to the changed world, land-based wildlife cannot migrate so easily anymore. There are many natural and man made barriers to wildlife migration. Large mammals will be especially hard hit, but extinctions will be very high amongst all land based wildlife.

Similarly, due to the lack of truly wild and unoccupied land, and their lack of mobility, plants will be largely unable to migrate, and many extinctions will occur.

War

The human race has well established techniques for dealing with lack of resources (water, food, energy resources and uneven wealth distribution): war. Just look at today's world, and at recent history: Israel/Palestine (about land and water), Iraq (invaded, many argue, because of oil), Sudan (originally perhaps an ethic issue, but now about oil), UK/Iceland (the cod wars), and China versus the rest of South-East Asia (the islands, through which control of oil and fisheries are decided).

I don't have high hopes that the human race is suddenly going to grow up in the next few years.

That means that we should expect that climate change caused by global warming will be the trigger for more war, and probably the root cause of much terrorism (as in Nigeria, where at least some of the terrorism is about oil revenues). From a distance, it is going to look really stupid, since war is horribly polluting and will only exacerbate the problem of global warming.

The prospect of us fighting over the last scraps of food and water, to the point where we, and 99% of the species with whom we share (not so graciously) the planet, become extinct, does not seem so implausible now. I do hope that at least this one prediction, made in so many science fiction movies and books, is wrong.

Global Warming - Do you finally believe?

Posted on 31st March 2014

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There has been lots of news coverage in the last week about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been meeting in Yokohama.

A key conclusion is that changes in climate have already caused impacts on natural and human systems. This report includes some useful maps showing expected impacts on crop yields and climate.

Maybe now the deniers will shut up, and we can get more focus on actually dealing with the problems that will result from global warming.

The Sovereignty of Gibraltar - More Historical Perspective

Posted on 31st March 2014

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Since all the fuss in the news last year about Spain's claims to Gibraltar, there have been a couple of interesting stories about Spain's territories in North Africa: Melilla, and Ceuta. These Spanish enclaves add a bit of perspective to the dispute over Gibraltar.

Melilla

Just like Gibraltar, Melilla was fought over a great deal, and was controlled variously by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians (Punic), the Romans, African and Arab rulers, the Berbers, the Vandals, the Byzantine Empire, Visigoths, and the Portugese.

It arguably became Spanish in 1497, although the fighting continued until 1775.

Ceuta

Similarly, Ceuta was the much fought over, and controlled at various times by the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Visigoths, the Byzantine Empire, the Berbers, other Moorish invaders, and the Portugese.

It officially became a Spanish territory in 1668.

Summary

So, in summary, these two enclaves have been Spanish about as long as Gibraltar has been British, and Spain's claims to them seem to be about as well founded as Britain's claim to Gibraltar. Morocco wants both territories to be returned to Moroccan rule, but Spain doesn't seem to be taking their claims and complaints seriously.

Such hypocrisy does not deserve to be taken seriously.

UK Government, on Arctic Drilling: "... not our place ..."

Posted on 27th July 2013

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I read this BBC News story this morning. I was incensed when I read it; I still am now!

The UK government's official position is, it seems, that since the UK is not an Arctic state, it is not its place to tell Arctic states which resources they could extract.

How about a little analogy to make it clearer? Your neighbour is damaging your environment by constantly burning things upwind of your washing line and the patio where your family likes to sit on warm evenings. Now the neighbour has applied for planning permission to store hundreds of gallons of used engine oil on his property, and you are concerned about leaks impacting your property and health. Would you believe that you have some rights to limit your neighbour's behaviour, to protect your health, lifestyle, and the value of your property, and that of your family?

Actually no, strike that; this is not an analogy at all, it is exactly the same situation (except the scale of the impact, and the type of law at issue). So, the UK government believes that in such a situation, by extension, you have no rights to protect your health, lifestyle, and property.

The USA has frequently used the description of places being "in our own back yard" to justify military action; although this phrase has been often abused, in this case it is valid: the Arctic is our back yard. Europe lies next door to the Arctic; it controls our climate, provides much of our fisheries, and is vital to the lifestyle and health of Europe's population. The UK government, however, says that it believes it has no right to take action; Arctic states can do what they want, no matter what the impact on Britain and the rest of Europe.

Well, Mr. Cameron, if that is really your postilion, it is clearly time to give up Britain's armed forces and foreign policy. You have chosen to abdicate responsibility. So, hand over complete control of Britain's armed forces to NATO, and delegate all foreign policy to the EU, as you and your government are clearly not competent and willing to exercise that control yourselves.

If you are not willing to participate in saving the planet, and standing up for your own constituents, the least that you can do is to stand aside while someone else does those jobs for you.

The Sovereignty of Gibraltar - A Historical Perspective

Posted on 8th August 2013

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There has been a lot of fuss going on recently about Gibraltar: diplomatic rows, shots fired by a Spanish ship, delays at the border crossings due to additional border checks, and threats of a €50 charge for crossing the border.

The most recent (of many) BBC news story is here, and the story contains links to older stories.

This story contains a mini-overview of the history of Gibraltar:

  • "How long-running is the dispute over Gibraltar?
  • Extremely. The Rock has been fought over for centuries. First Spain battled Moorish invaders. Then it lost Gibraltar to an Anglo-Dutch force in 1704. The Spanish, despite formally ceding it to London in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, have wanted it back ever since. Under Franco, Spain cut Gibraltar off by sealing its frontier."

This article gives rather more detail about the history of Gibraltar. To summarise:

  1. Before 711 AD, Gibraltar was variously occupied by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians the Romans, the Vandals, and the Visigoths; so, not Spanish (Spain didn't exist as a nation in those days anyway).
  2. With the Islamic conquest of Iberia in 711 AD, Gibraltar became a possession of the Moors, so also not Spanish.
  3. In 1462, Gibraltar was captured by Juan Alonso de Guzmán, 1st Duke of Medina Sidonia, so finally arguably Spanish (in 1469, the crowns of the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united by marriage, officially marking the founding of Spain as a nation - Spain was not properly unified into a single kingdom until the 18th century). During the time that Gibraltar was Spanish, Spain was fighting all over Europe, annexing or defending territory, including trying to invade England (the Spanish Armada); apparently all of that was perfectly fair, except if Spain lost.
  4. In 1704 a combined Anglo-Dutch force captured the town of Gibraltar, Under the terms of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht Gibraltar was ceded to Britain in perpetuity. The Spanish still claim that Gibraltar is theirs, despite having signed it away in 1713.

So, Gibraltar was Moorish for 751 years, "Spanish" for 251 years, and since then has been British for 300 years. It was lost by Spain through military action, fair and square, in a time when such territorial conflict was normal between nations, and Spain negotiated and signed away Gibraltar. I do not understand how they expect their territorial claims to be taken seriously. Perhaps Spain might instead consider agreeing with Britain that Gibraltar be given to an Islamic state, as the successor to the Moors?

Bank repossesses wrong house; owner wants $18K

Posted on 27th July 2013

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According to this story, a bank in Ohio repossessed the wrong house while the family were away. The family returned to the house to find that the locks had been changed and many of their belongings were missing.

Home-owner Katie Barnett wants the First National Bank of Wellston to give her $18,000 for the lost items, but she says the bank wants her to show receipts for everything that's missing; it seems that the bank doesn't believe her.

Time for a reality check, First National Bank of Wellston. $18K is a bargain for the bank. Take the deal while the offer is still on the table, because:

  1. Mrs. Barnett can argue that she had all the receipts, but the bank took them while clearing out the house.
  2. If the bank don't reach a deal, she can file criminal charges (which will cost them more than $18K, once legal costs and fines are paid).
  3. She can also file a civil suit for damages. Whatever she can make the court believe is the cost of the damage that the family suffered (loss of property, temporary impact on life-style, stress/peace-of-mind, etc.) will most likely be augmented by punitive damages (i.e. multiplied by 3 or 4 to discourage others from making the same mistake), plus, of course, legal costs again.
  4. There is the small matter of bad PR (which has already started with the various news articles - if I were a customer of the First National Bank of Wellston, I would be strongly considering "voting with my feet"), the financial impact of which could easily exceed $18K.

There is an expression which seems applicable here: "When you're in a hole, stop digging".

The fuss about the Royal Baby Name

Posted on 25th July 2013

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To be honest, I don't much care about what name the royals choose for the new baby. "George Alexander Louis" seems as good as anything.

I did like Sheryl's idea that they should name him Trayvon, but it somehow seems an unlikely choice.

At least the lucky parents are smarter than Becky Anderson (of CNN). She stated on air that she preferred (and had bet on) "Albert". That would have made the poor child a "Prince Albert" (the genital piercing). What a great start to life that would have been!

What has happened to the BBC?

Posted on 24th July 2013

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What on earth has happened to the BBC News? The BBC were once the bastion of good English, but those days seem long past; they have gone the way of CNN and Fox News.

Nowadays the reports, whether online or on TV, are full of ungrammatical headlines (e.g. "Thousands attend Brazil youth Mass"), typos and spelling errors, American English and journalistic mistakes.

So-called private jet

I am not sure which category of error to file this under, but in this story By Emma Simpson (the story has now been corrected - about 12 hours after being posted) it was stated that the fraudsters spent their ill-gotten wealth on extravagances including a "private jet". A cursory examination of the photo from the story (left) shows a twin-engined plane with propellers!

The text description of the photo, provided by the City of London Police, is still "private jet", which also makes me worry about the quality of the UK police force.

I thought it was a little odd, as I was reading the story, that they paid so little for a jet (£350,000), which prompted me to look again at the photo.

Another annoying trend is that of talking down to the audience, especially on the TV News. I know that most TV channels have a target English comprehension level (like a "reading age"), and that they limit the complexity of the grammar and vocabulary to meet this target, but I am getting awfully tired of being talked to as if I am 12 years old (or even younger on some channels).

Does someone know of a TV news channel where grown-ups can go to get their news?

Guilty until proven innocent

Posted on 21st July 2013

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This report from the BBC should have all Britons worried.

The UK government are not alone in trying to cut down on the amount of tax evasion and tax avoidance that goes on, in an attempt to increase tax revenues. The proposed new rules will mean that the tax office (HMRC) will demand payment in advance for any disputed tax bills, and will be empowered to take the money directly from the bank accounts of "the debtors". It is estimated that about 33,000 people who invested in tax avoidance schemes will be affected.

Just to remind you, tax avoidance is the taking of legal measures to reduce your tax bill. So now the government is going to require people to pay in advance for disputed tax bills, and pay the money back if you are able to prove that you are within the law.

What about that most basic of legal rights, to be considered innocent until proven guilty? What other rights are the UK government planning to cancel in their search for money?

It is times like these that make me think that Britain needs a written constitution, like they have in the USA.

"No Double Taxation" Agreements

Posted on 21st July 2013

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There has been lots of news lately about tax, both personal tax and corporate tax:

So, there is a strong focus by governments on maximising tax revenues, and a steady shift in public opinion against individuals and companies who avoid or evade tax.

I know two people who have been charged with tax evasion in Germany (tax avoidance is the legal minimisation of tax liabilities; tax evasion is the illegal avoidance of tax payments), going all the way to arrests and strip-searches at work, home raids, the seizure of records (paper and electronic) and computer equipment, criminal charges and civil debt proceedings.

Those of you whose tax affairs are more conventional may ask why people get into these situations; why not just pay the tax and avoid the hassle? If only it were that simple.

Many freelance contractors work in many different countries, and, unless very careful, can end up owing tax in multiple tax jurisdictions. Although there is the "183 day rule", meaning that if you live and work in any one tax jurisdiction for less than half a year, you do not need to pay personal tax there, this rule can be interfered with if you were liable for tax (resident for tax purposes) in that tax jurisdiction the previous year (or even the subsequent year). This means that it is relatively easy to have tax bills in two different countries for the same tax year. Because the tax years in different countries are not aligned, it is even possible, although rare, to have tax liabilities for the same period in three countries at once!

So, you might ask, what about all those "no double taxation" agreements? Well, they work like this:

  1. In some jurisdictions (such as in some parts of Germany), freelancers and small businesses are assessed for tax in advance (before the money is earned, and before it is known to whom tax is owed), and this must typically be paid in advance.
  2. Only once the whole tax year is complete, is it possible to file a tax return, and have the tax authorities calculate how much is actually owed. Your tax liability will be calculated on the basis of your worldwide income for the whole tax year (all money that you earned in all tax jurisdictions, including interest and dividends). Eventually you will get a tax bill from each of the tax authorities (lets assume just two of them, for now).
  3. Once you have an actual tax bill from the authorities in each tax jurisdiction, you can claim one tax bill as a deductible against another. Ideally you will want to claim the smaller one as a deductible from the larger one. Whilst you can claim income tax from one tax bill against another, you generally cannot do so with health care. pension and other mandatory social insurance costs, so you may just have to pay those twice (actually the situation for social insurance costs is very complex, and people who move for work are severely financially penalised in this regard).
  4. When they get around to it, and after appropriate validation of the bills, the tax authority will (usually - there is no guarantee, and you may need to go to court to enforce your rights) pay you back the second tax bill. If you are dealing with a tax authority which requires prepayment of tax based on estimates, it can easily be three years between when you pay the first bill, and when you get the double tax back, and during most of that time, you will be out-of-pocket by two tax bills, and two sets of social insurance costs.

Please bear in mind that total deductions (tax and social insurance) in places like Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia can be around 50% of your income (especially since initial estimates for prepayments err on the high side), and that paying tax in two such jurisdictions therefore leaves you nothing to live on, for up to three years.

Can you afford to live on fresh air for three years (or even just one year)? I think very few people could. So, even if you don't approve, perhaps now you understand why people don't always pay tax.

Of course, the situation is a little different for corporations. That needs a post of its own.

United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC)

Posted on 17th July 2013

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Whilst reading this artcle about Yahoo and their attempts to demonstrate how little they had cooperated with the NSA regarding the Prism spying programme, I found a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).

I find the existence and purpose of the FISC to be both worrying and bizarre. As you can read here, the court was established by the US Congress in 1978 to "oversee requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the United States by federal law enforcement agencies" (mostly requests by the NSA and the FBI).

Normally, the requirement for law enforcement and surveillance agencies to obtain a court approved warrant would give us all a nice feeling of safety; the feeling that our rights were being upheld. It seems that is not justified in this case. The FISC is outside of the normal judicial system: judges are appointed solely by the Supreme Court Chief Justice, without confirmation or oversight by the U.S. Congress. There is no effective judicial oversight, and the whole process is highly secretive. Requests are almost never refused (during the 25 years from 1979 to 2004, 18,742 warrants were granted, while just four were rejected). There are strong suspicions of pro-government bias in the court.

Yes We Can - Read Your Emails

One thing which I find odd is that the Prism programme was (apparently) approved by the court at all. US government statements have assured us that Prism does not spy on US citizens or US residents, but the court has the remit to "oversee requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the United States". If this is so, their only interest in Prism would be cases of spying on foreign nationals who are not resident in the US, whilst the are temporarily in the US (only a subset of the activities of Prism). There actually seems to be no judicial system for approval of spying on foreign intelligence agents when they are outside of the US. Where is the system to ensure that espionage is conducted in accordance with the laws of those other countries having legal jurisdiction over the surveillance targets, and to guarantee the constitutional rights of those foreign nationals? The answer, of course, is that the USA does not care about the laws in other countries (including their allies), but the USA are not alone is this.

Is this really the kind of world that you want to live in?

The Laws of Physics

Posted on 20th July 2013

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I have just been reading an article by the BBC correspondent Jonathan Amos (about neutrinos spontaneously changing their type in-flight).

Yet again, the story refers to the "Laws of Physics". I am very very disappointed. Despite what you may have learned at school, and have seen in movies and TV, there are no laws of physics, and the mission of science is not about the discovery of a set of underlying rules.

Do you really believe that the real physical world follows rules? Don't you always know that, when you hear something like "that can't happen. It is against the laws of physics" it will turn out to be wrong, and that nature is always stranger than any set of man-made rules?

What science is, at its core, is a set of models of the physical world. For those of you who studied some basic physics at school, the concept of a model is easy to illustrate. You learned at one stage that light is a wave, and probably did some experiments to compare the behaviour of waves in water to that of light. Then you learned that there are situations where the wave model of light is not correct, and that light is also, sometimes, a particle. The trick (when it came to passing tests and exams) was to know in which situations to apply which model. Later you might also have learned about quantum mechanics, which is a model which combines both the wave and particle models.

Science is producing ever better (more accurate comprehensive) models; that is the job of science.

Why is the distinction between a model and a law so important? Mainly it is about public expectations, and proper understanding of what scientists are telling us. Models are inherently approximate; they are based on some degree of abstraction, in order to reduce complexity. Models always have limitations of accuracy, and of the scope of their applicability (the situations in which they apply - just like you learned about light, at school). If you think of science as the constant improvement of models of the physical world, it is easy to accept that scientific opinion may be inaccurate, or downright wrong, and that scientific opinion may evolve over time. It is much harder to accept that scientific opinion may change, if that change is presented as a change of the "laws of physics".

So please, Mr. Amos (and indeed all of you), try to use more accurate and meaningful terminology in future; then maybe science won't be seen as such a disappointment by so many.

If you want to read a little more on this subject, try the first few paragraphs of "Modern Physics", "Our Models & Physics Laws Are Not Absolute", and "How the Laws of Physics Lie" (an excellent review and overview here).

International Law

Posted on 17th July 2013

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Just to be clear, this article is not about Israel and the settlements. I do have strong opinions about about both subjects, but that discussion is for another time.

This morning I was reading this article on the BBC News site. In it I found this statement:

"About 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this. "

Under normal circumstances, when something is against the law, such as stealing or crossing the road when the pedestrian light is red in Germany, it is totally clear that it is illegal. If the matter is not clear, then a court can decide.

The statement that Israel disputes that the settlements are illegal highlights a basic issue with so-called international law: that basically there is no such thing. Wikipedia has a page about international law (here) which states that "International law is consent-based governance", and therein lies the problem. There are, of course, exceptions: some international law has teeth, with a system of courts and enforcement, but mostly international law is enforced only in cases where the nations concerned choose to comply.

To illustrate the problem, one only needs to look at a few recent cases (there are many many more, but these four should make the point):

  • The recent smog crisis in Singapore and Malaysia, caused by forest clearance fires in Indonesia. The affected nations do not seem to have any legal recourse.
  • The horrific war crimes committed in the Balkans war. Although individual criminals have been captured and brought to trial in Den Haag, this has largely been achieved without support from nations such as Serbia, and no legal penalties against nations (as far as I know) have been implemented, only against individuals.
  • The notorious Prism spying programme operated by the US NSA, which seems to be in breach of the law in most European nations. There is frantic diplomatic activity, but no international legal action because there is no legal framework for such action.
  • The continuing whaling activity by the Japanese whaling fleet. The world seems to agree that it is wrong, for a variety of reasons, but it continues, mainly because there is no legal system for declaring it illegal and enforcing such a declaration.

Of course, there is the United Nations. They can decide to declare something illegal (on a case-by-case basis), and to authorise action, but any permanent member of the Security Council can veto such a motion, and such vetoes happen often (the crisis in Syria is a good example). Even if the UN manages to pass a motion, there needs to be some nation prepared to enforce the motion (such as when the USA invaded/liberated Iraq); if no-one is prepared to act as policemen (or vigilante), then nothing will happen.

Nations which do not play by the rules, such as North Korea, are often branded as "rogue states". Based on the widespread habit of ignoring and manipulating international law, it could be argued that almost all nations should be labelled as rogue states. Two criteria are often quoted as measures of the quality of nations: democracy, and the rule of law. Isn't it time that the leading nations of the world started to lead by example, and took the concept of the rule of law more seriously?