Saturday, October 31, 2009

Nutt Sacking

So Professor David Nutt has been sacked by Alan Johnson, for pointing out that the evidence on drugs doesn't say what the government would like it to say, and is predicting a backlash. Mark Easton says "there may be significant fall-out". Good.

It seems to me that the best evidence we could have that independent scientific advice is truly independent is that, when it's ignored by the government for political and ideological reasons, it results in a public bunfight. Not that dissent is quashed to avoid embarassment for the politicians. This should be a public scandal - "Government Scientific Advisor Fired For Disagreeing" - the sort of shoot-the-messenger idiocy that lead the Soviets into Lysenkoism.

I doubt anyone is naïve enough to believe that the Executive actually want independent advice - they want to claim to have taken independent advice, and they want to be supported, but that's cargo-cult decision-making. It's the child sitting (on a pile of cushions) on his dad's chair, peering over the top of the desk, looking intently at a "report", and "evaluating" it - he's seen his dad do the same thing, and he knows how he has to look, but not why or what's going on behind the scenes.

Scientific advice isn't there to provide a veneer of legitimacy; its role isn't to support extant policy decisions; its internal disagreements aren't justification to give "equal time to both sides" or to pick the one which best fits your prejudices. Scientific advice is there to provide a sound basis for rational decision-making.

Ignore it at your peril.

- KoW

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Google Moves The Gherkin

Not sure if that's anything like "tickling the pickle", but take a look at the map here.

A little off, perhaps? Yes, just a bit...

It looks like someone's changed the address of SwissRe...

... and that's broken the map generation.

One might think a 600ft glass-and-steel tower would be hard to misplace, but Google seem have managed it...

- KoW

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Carriers redux

Following on from yesterday's post about the carriers, another possibility occurred to me last night: perhaps the two JSFs purchased for evaluation have been evaluated - and found wanting?

If that were the case, we might see the more radical of the two cutting options - if the Fast Jet squadrons have taken a look at the F-35, and don't like it as much as the Typhoon, that would halve the number required. If the Fleet Air Arm feel similarly - or the Royal Navy wishes to, well, spend its money on boats - then it could well be just 30-40 purchased to provide a mobile air superiority capability.

It's still expensive to run a small fleet of aircraft, though, so viability is still a question...

- KoW

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Carry On Carriers

On page 18 of tonight's London Lite there's a very short story entitled "Navy can't buy jets for carrier". The story doesn't appear to have reached the BBC yet. The gist is that, although there were two Queen Elizabeth class (CVF) carriers ordered, there won't be sufficient budget to put JSF on both - so one may "become a commando craft".
This seems odd. For years, the government has allegedly been committed to "about 150" JSF - OK, the rising costs made that more like 120-130, but even so... A full complement for both carriers is 70-80, and the balance would be for the RAF and an attrition batch. If, as this story implies, the numbers are now being cut, where does the cut fall?

Two possibilities spring to mind:
  • There is a huge cut, down to 40-60 JSF, which will be flown only by the Fleet Air Arm and from a single carrier - saving £5-6bn?
  • There is a more modest cut, down to perhaps 80-100 JSF, and the RAF will still get theirs - as well as Typhoon - saving £2-4bn?
I can't think of any other options - though I'm happy to concede that they may exist. In either of those cases, however, something is badly wrong. The RAF has little need for a STOVL aircraft, and maintaining two separate parts/maintenance/munition supply chains is ridiculous. Or, the big-cut option... that makes more sense, but is it going to be sustainable? There are well-known integration problems for munitions onto the JSF - it basically won't fire anything we've got, so we have to either pay hundreds of millions in integration costs or buy AMRAAM/Sidewinder/etc.

Could this be the first step to the UK pulling out of JSF? It's expensive, it's pretty much the antithesis of sovereign capability - look how long it took Lord Drayson to get "guarantees" over source code access - and we've got basically nothing for sinking £1bn into R&D as a "tier 1 partner". Italy and Israel got better deals for far less...

Will CVF end up as a helicopter carrier?

Modern choppers don't suffer the old limitations - a Merlin has a 1400km range compared to 1600km for a STOVL JSF, provides tactical airlift which is sorely needed in both war and humanitarian operations, and is already in service allowing for whole-fleet management.

There's a lack of deep-strike and air-to-air capability, but can those be provided by other means? For fleet defence, we've already got the Type 45s and could, no doubt, fit Sea Viper to the carriers; for deep-strike, UAVs or Storm Shadow/TLAM perhaps? The only thing you're losing is the ability to park off the coast of Baddiestan and pick a dogfight in their airspace - that might well be a pragmatic choice, given that they can't attack us without running afoul of the fleet's air defences.

I wonder why the story was buried so deep in a free paper, though. Maybe nobody cares.

It doesn't bode well, though, if defence equipment spending is being cut back. If there is fat in the budget, it's the huge number of civil servants - a third of the Whitehall total according to one report - not the forces themselves.

- KoW

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With a hell of a shout, it's "Out, brothers, out!"

In South Yorkshire, fire crews are striking and so are the buses. The TFL Bully has quit - though I wonder if that's the last of that story, given that the RMT has averaged something like one strike ballot per working day this year. BA's flight crews are balloting for a strike. Three more days from the CWU posties.

Are there any groups of public sector workers who don't fancy a crack at "negotiating"? If When the government caves in, you can bet there'll be a lot more...

Still, at least there's no chance of another Sunny Jim - I think we're stuck with a Gloomy Gordon until next year.

- KoW

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Why regulation CANNOT work

There is an interesting paper discussed here on derivatives and computational complexity - the paper makes the case that, while it may theoretically be possible to value a CDO, in practice it is likely to require intractable amounts of computation. They reduce the pricing problem to the Densest Subgraph problem, which is believed to be NP Complete (read that as "impossibly slow" if you're not interested in the details), and also show that some deliberate fraud in the CDO construction would be undetectable. Essentially it would be the same difficulty as factoring a large number - which is so hard it's used as the basis for cryptosystems.

The paper is an interesting read, and suggests that neither counterparties nor regulators nor ratings agencies could hope to know the true situation, even after the fact. That obviously implies a lot more risk than people were expecting. Hindsight is 20/20, eh? Future regulations will hit the same problem, though - there are some theoretically calculable things that you just can't work out fast enough, and we're not talking "a few days" here, we're talking "billions of years". The FSA can't do the risk calculations here, and nor can anyone else.

Ken's comment down at the bottom of that blog post makes a much more important point: it's possible to construct undecidable derivatives. I'd have gone one step further, had a paper C which pays out if B doesn't - making it superficially similar to A - and have the holdings consist only of C. With that chain, the solution isn't just unknown, it's unknowable: C will pay out if - and only if - C doesn't pay out.

This is fundamental computation theory, closely related to the Halting Problem and some mathematical results (Russell's Paradox, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem). If the FSA had infinite computing resources, they still couldn't solve it. No matter how smart the people involved are, or how fancy the techniques, or how shiny the machine room, it's impossible. Truly, mathematically, impossible.

It follows from this that Mervyn King is completely right: the solution is to firewall the retail banks from the risks in the market. You can't tax, or risk-weight things which cannot be calculated. If two "casino" banks want to tie themselves in knots over undecidable derivatives, fine - their lawyers can make money negotiating a solution, and if one or both collapses, so be it. But the banks we rely on have to be insulated - and this can be done.

Undecidability only exists in "sufficiently powerful" computation models. Arbitrary derivatives are clearly sufficiently powerful. Long positions are not, even when the companies and funds own shares in each other. The solution, and it's a nice simple one, is to work out what instruments a retail bank can safely trade in, and limit it to only those things. You could even let the bank invest some small amount of its assets in a dodgy-as-you-like hedge fund - with the proviso that it can expect to lose 100% (but no more) of its investment and plan the risk accordingly.

Northern Rock may still have collapsed, of course - it made very poor lending decisions - but its assets would have been snapped up as a going concern. All people would have noticed is a change in the letterhead on their statements. Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers couldn't have affected the high-street banks, as they wouldn't have been allowed to gamble on them - and the other investment banks (Goldman Sachs, et al) and their shareholders would simply have had to eat their losses. Rather than the taxpayer.

- KoW

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Are we depressed yet?

Alex comments on the BBC's volte-face (here to here) on the GDP predictions and makes an interesting point: a huge proportion of the GDP is government spending (from the £175bn-ish 2009 deficit), so the real economy is doing much worse. The BBC got the pre-announced figures but those were 60 basis points too high - a bit over £8bn (two weeks' deficit) of economic activity by my reckoning.

One thing I'd add, though: despite blowing £20m of borrowed money every hour, the government still isn't spending enough to rig the GDP figures.

The implication is that the deficit would need to be about half as big again, £260bn or so, to mask the decline in wealth creation. Of course, if they were able to borrow that much, they could give £30k/year to 2.8 million people... Hey, Gordon, I think I've solved the unemployment problem! (At least until the bailiffs arrive...)

- KoW

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(Silver)Stoned to death?

According to the BBC report here, Donnington Park has effectively given up on hosting the British Grand Prix - let alone exclusively for the next decade. With luck, it'll be back to Silverstone - but Bernie Ecclestone should make it clear that there will be a British Grand Prix no matter what. We have enough tracks in this country, a long tradition in all forms of motorsport, and millions of fans: if Brazil's and Italy's fans are enough to guarantee a race every year, so should we be.

Donnington yesterday pulled a £135m bond issue, presumably because there was no chance of raising that much money... I wonder what that says about the regular government debt auctions. No money out there? Government already borrowing it all, and at a better credit rating? Investors worried about inflation or a Sterling crash eating the value?

- KoW

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The honourable member for Morley and Rothwell is a pillock

Colin Challen MP tabled this Early Day Motion about a week ago, full of the usual eco-nonsense. Amongst other things, he discusses:
  • "the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration for a stable planet"
  • "the need to reduce this level to 350 particles per million or below"
  • "the majority of money spent on reviving the economy should be on green measures and that at least two hours of prime time television per week should be used to explain the gravity of the crisis to the public"
  • "domestic flights should be phased out by the end of 2010"
  • "that a speed limit of 55 miles per hour should be introduced"
Well, it's probably better than Eastenders, but I think the even the State Broadcaster would object to that level of indoctrination. Though, as one wag put it, "Two hours per week? So he's proposing a reduction. Excellent!".

I'll leave off the logical error or needing to reduce the "safe level", since it's obvious what was meant. Isn't it great, though, that we can be Saved if we get the level down to 350ppm? Not 351ppm, or 349ppm, of course... those are poisonous. As Harry Hill might say, "what are the chances, eh?".

That number is a political one, with little or no science behind it. Science doesn't produce neat figures, because the universe isn't neat, so where did it come from? The simple fact is that there is no critical tipping point or runaway positive feedback - if there were, at one of the many points in Earth's history when CO2 concentration was higher, they'd have been triggered and we wouldn't be here to argue about it. That's how positive feedback works: it doesn't suddenly decide to stop and go back, it goes on accelerating forever. If the change slows or reverses, the system exhibits negative feedback, end of.

So where did that number come from? The IPCC's made-up political target is 450ppm. That's a pretty big difference for anything other than sticking a wet finger in the air and guessing.

Why ban flights? Why 55mph? Some cars at 55mph produce more CO2 than others do at 70mph, so this isn't purely about the environment. If it were, you could simply ban (or punitively tax) higher emissions rates no matter how they were produced. That might actually result in innovation and job creation as people find ways to do the same stuff but better/faster/cheaper. So why create a fatuous link between speed and carbon dioxide? To buy the political support of the anti-car lobby? To push a personal agenda?

Look at the measures proposed: arbitrary and irrelevant limitations on behaviour, two hours of propaganda per week. Doesn't that sound rather like Soviet Russia? We're spied on through ubiquitous CCTV cameras and RIPA powers, can be searched without probable cause ("section 44"), can be imprisoned without charge for a month (and let's not forget that it was nearly 42 days!)... does that sound like Great Britain to you?

Or is this one of those Early Day Motions which nobody cares about and which serve only to waste taxpayers' money?

(Hat tip to Dizzy)

- KoW

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Alcohol and ID checks

This morning's Metro letters page has Carole from Gloucester telling us that it's a "Fact" that it's an offence to purchase alcohol for someone under 18, or to sell it to someone under 18, and that's why a 44-year-old man wasn't allowed to buy alcohol because his wife looked under 25 and she didn't have ID.

This statement about the law is, of course, true. It's also, to some extent, completely irrelevant. It's a law, and laws change. Specifically, that one was changed in the Licensing Act 2003 to make the penalties much harsher and much broader. The penalties on the Standard Scale are up to level 3 (£1000) for the child and up to level 5 (£5000) for the adult.

It's an offence for the supermarket manager, the supermarket cashier, the person buying the alcohol, and the person receiving it - so, potentially, £16k in fines for a single bottle of adult fizzy pop. Doesn't that seem a little... steep? Those are eye-watering penalties for a cashier or bartender, and the fact that a prosecution will almost certainly mean being fired (not to mention the record being retained forever thanks to yesterday's decision), are ample to ruin lives. Is that really justified for letting a kid have a bit of booze?

It's almost as if the government implemented exponentially higher penalties because the "problem" wasn't being addressed sufficiently. Remind anyone of the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Simple fact: teens want to be adults and so will try to smoke and drink. If you let them, there's not really much harm - arguably it's better than letting them turn 18 and go out on a bender; if you try to stop them, you destroy lives for an ideology.

- KoW

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EC insists banks pay larger bonuses

On page 2 of City AM this morning is a story entitled 'EC gets tough on derivatives'. Apparently the European Commission plans to drive more derivatives trading onto exchanges and hence "under the gaze of regulators".

I think this is great. New categories of exchange-traded instruments means loads more front-office IT work doing exchange connectivity, more autotrading, and - since it's not possible to get everything 100% perfect at 8am on Day One - a lot more opportunities for arbitrage and high-frequency trading. The banks or hedge funds with the quickest developers and the sharpest quants always have a new market to themselves for a while, and make a ton of money off the low-hanging fruit. I expect to see some great short-term (<1s) opportunities where price movements in the underlying asset aren't reflected in the derivative price but there is sufficient liquidity on the exchange to execute a trade. Which, of course, means more profits for the bank (yay!) and large bonuses all round (yay!).

Good to see that the Law of Unintended Consequences is still in effect!

- KoW

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Something for the CWU to think about

While dismissal of an employee during an official strike is automatically Unfair, that carries a minimum penalty of £2700 and a maximum of £66,200 (only typically reached for extremely high earners).

Sacking 30,000 workers and keeping the temps on would therefore cost between £81m (a quarter of Royal Mail's 2008-2009 profits) and £1.99bn (less than a third of the Royal Mail pension deficit, and about a fifth of its gross revenue) in fines. An award of 12 weeks' pay at £30k per annum, for 30,000 workers, would cost £207m.

A swing of 21,208 votes would have given a majority voting not to strike in the recent ballot, and mass sackings would certainly affect the willingness of people to strike.

In a recession, with 3m officially unemployed (and about the same on incapacity benefit or the like), you do not have the public's sympathy, the costs of unlawfully firing you can be met, and there are many people willing to do your jobs without union "protection". Just a thought. Not a pretty one, admittedly, but there's nothing inherently special about people who deliver letters.

- KoW

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Autumn of Wrath

The Summer of Rage is fashionably late, it seems, but it has started. The Autumn of Wrath is here.

Tory Bear hit the nail on the head. People are outraged about bank bonuses, MPs' expensespostal strikes, the recession, lavish wasting of public funds, the police stateflagrant law-breaking by politicians, feral chavs... it's not being addressed, and it's spilling out in all directions - the Trafigura/Carter-Ruck gagging order, the TFL bully, Jan Moir...

Twitter is playing a large part simply because the news travels so quickly - assuming six degrees of separation and one minute to re-tweet, awareness of a story can cross the world in five minutes. The stories themselves are generally in the mainstream media, but there are no more "good days to bury bad news". The dead-tree press are, to their credit, reading the mood well and increasingly using online sources. The morning's Metro still feels like it contains two-day-old news - the same stories as the Lite and Evening Standard the night before, which were on the wire by breakfast - but it's still fresh to the majority of the population.

Predictions for the next few months? Nights are drawing in, and the recession is going to see cut-down xmas parties: people are going to be cold, wet and miserable, and will probably spend more time following the news. They'll have lots of time. Redundancies and strikes will dampen moods still further - I'm betting the RMT is out in London before xmas (possibly over the ponytailed git's "unfair" sacking), and RMT and/or ASLEF disrupting national rail wouldn't surprise me; the postal service is pretty much gone now as we've missed the union's "last posting day" for cards and presents. Other public services might strike as well - there are already signs, and they seem to feel they deserve job security and pay rises, which aren't on the cards.

It probably won't kick in until the quarterly bills arrive in January/February/March, but the price of energy is going to cause another blow-up when people realise just how much staying warm cost them in the winter - are you sure about those green energy subsidies, Mr Miliband?

While ever this lame-duck government remains in power, people are going to keep finding abuses of taxpayers' money, civil liberties, the law (particularly ironic when officials break any of the myriad new laws they've introduced in the last decade) and natural justice... and nothing is going to be done about them, which will only fuel the rage. A slap on the wrist here, a fine there, an apology, an inquiry - nothing.

The people of this country are metaphorically baying for blood... if these abuses continue long enough, that adverb will become "literally".

And I don't mean "OMG, I, like, literally died of shame!"... I mean literally.

- KoW

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Climate Maths

Right, I'm getting fed up with this. This morning's metro has a quarter-page ad for the government's ACT ON CO2 campaign, explaining that I should use less water in the shower. Yes, water, that well-known carbon emitter.

According to this campaign's FAQ, "Over 40 per cent of CO2 emissions in the UK come directly from what individuals do – for example, using electricity in the home and driving cars. That means we can all make a difference. If every home can install 270mm loft insulation, it would save 3.8 million tonnes of CO2 – the same as the annual emissions of around 650,000 homes."

OK. Maths time!

A typical person breathes about 7-8 litres of air per minute, 11000 litres per day.[source]. Sanity checking, this means that a person would breathe all of the air in a lift once in a few hours, which seems plausible.

Using the ideal gas law, pV = nRT, we can calculate how much air this is in molecular terms. Pressure (p) is around 1 atm (by definition) or 100000 Nm-2. Volume (V) is 11m3. R is the gas constant, 8.31 Jmol-1K-1. T is the temperature, let's say 293K (20 degrees Celsius / 68 degrees Fahrenheit). Solving for n, we get 452 mol of gas.

The air we breathe out contains approximately 4% more CO2 than the air we breathe in.[source] This means that 18 mol of the gas is CO2. The reason for using the mole (~6.03x1023 molecules) as a unit is to simplify calculations: CO2 has a molecular weight of ~44 g/mol (12 for the carbon atom, 16 each for the oxygens) and so 18 mol of CO2 weighs 795g (1.75 lbs). Let's round that to 800g / 0.8kg as these calculations aren't accurate enough. That's on the same order of magnitude as the food and water intakes, so it seems plausible.

A typical person produces 800g (0.8kg, 1.75lbs) of CO2 per day.

Now, the fun begins. There were approximately 6,790,062,216 people in the world in July 2009. [source] A bit too much precision, there - let's call it 6.8 billion now. Multiplying 6.8bn people by 0.8kg/person/day and 365 days/year gives us 1986 million tonnes of CO2 per year. Can't really support four significant figures, so let's round it to 2000 million tonnes.

The human population of Earth produces 2000 million tonnes of CO2 per year simply by breathing.

Hang on, though. That rounding was 14 million tonnes! Let's go back to our ACT ON CO2 quote. A mere 3.8 million tonnes is the annual emissions of 650,000 homes, so that rounding error would be the emissions of 2.4 million homes - about a tenth of the UK. Wow!

Talking of those 650,000 homes, though... their 2.2 inhabitants will each produce 0.292 tonnes of CO2 per year, so 0.42 million tonnes of CO2 - 10% of their total emissions - is produced by respiration. Is that supposed to be scary? That we breathe as much CO2 as we waste through not having 9" thick loft insulation?

The government wants us only to emit 159 million tonnes of CO2 per year by 2050. Bit of a shame that the UK population exhales over 18 million tonnes of CO2 per year - more than 11% of the total.

Even more telling: the UK's entire current "carbon budget" - for power, transport, and everything else - is the same as the amount produced by the Chinese population simply breathing.

More than a tenth of the "damage" we do to the environment is through respiration; I'm inclined to think that such small multiples are irrelevant. Exercise and sex greatly increase respiration volumes - by more than a factor of 10.

Your breathing during heavy exertion, 150 litres/minute, accounts for more than twice as much CO2 production as everything else in your life put together - driving, flying, importing non-seasonal vegetables, technology, heat and light, etc.

How about we stop worrying about trivial amounts of CO2 and just get on with living?

- KoW

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Climate quackery

I just stumbled across this from the BBC: "[In 2007] the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report concludes it is more than 90% likely that humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases are responsible for modern-day climate change."

Pretty damning, huh? Except it isn't. ">90% likely" is another way of saying "<10% that this could happen by random chance" or, as it's often shown in scientific papers, "p < 0.1". Or, rather, that's how it might be shown in scientific papers if they were published with such loose bounds - but they're not. The publication standard for most reputable journals is 5% significance. My supervisor once described it thusly: "if you haven't proven it to 5% significance, you haven't proven it". And with good reason - no journal's reputation could survive long if it published, on average, one incorrect study each issue.

One- and two-sigma errors crop up all the time. In a moderately-sized physics class, you would expect one student to get a result two standard deviations from the mean, not through incompetence but through random errors. With a "science" as complex, fuzzy and politicised as climatology, p<0.1 is a null result.

The BBC also has this graph of atmospheric CO2 readings from Mauna Loa from 1958 to date:

Here's my rather less scary one from the same data:

Note that the population of the world reached 3 billion in 1960 and 6 billion in 1999, so the atmospheric CO2 per person is down over 40% in that time! Hardly convincing, prima facie, that people are the problem.

Then, of course, we have this BBC piece telling us that the hottest year on record was 1998 and that temperatures have been stable for the last decade - and will quite possibly decline over the next 20-30 years. I'll not mock the secret models which have utterly failed to predict any of this, but suffice to say that if you put garbage in, you get garbage out, and it's not a good idea to set policy based on garbage.

So, yeah, "global warming" (or "climate change" as people prefer to call it now that it's not actually getting warmer) is very much unproven. And yet... we're forced into using mercury-filled lightbulbs, taxed through the nose for petrol and flights, "encouraged" to use renewable energy sources as our politicians argue over whose hair-shirt is hairier and who can cut emissions the most.

History will judge harshly the current mass-hysteria over climate: "they actually thought they were saving the world"

- KoW

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Prince Philip is right

While the Duke of Edinburgh mostly provokes rolled eyes and sighs with his gaffes, he is always forthright with his opinions - something sadly lacking these days. His latest comments, on user interface design, as quoted here by the BBC, are spot-on.

I'll just quickly add a smutty innuendo about his idea of making love involving either "lying on the floor, with a torch in your teeth, magnifying glass, instruction book" or "employing a grandson at age 10 to do it for you". There are Laws on the internet, after all ;-)

I have here two remotes, one for my (Wharfedale) TV and the other for my (Sony) DVD player. The TV control has 45 buttons, the DVD has 44. They look like abraded, battle-scarred hedgehogs. It's traditional at this point to quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and I'm a traditionalist, so: "Perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Are those 89 buttons all needed? No. I've a master's degree, and more than a decade's experience, in computer technology and I've no clue what half of them do! Of the ones I do understand, a bunch are completely useless:
  • I have a phenomenal memory for numbers, but even I can't remember what chapter to skip to in Basic Instinct if I want to watch Sharon Stone crossing her legs! DVD cases no longer contain a chapter listing card. The keypad is therefore worthless and would be better replaced by a non-volatile memory in the player (or perhaps on a memory stick) that lets me select bookmarks and remembers them when I put the disc back in.
  • The DVD control has buttons for a TV: volume up/down, AV, power. All completely useless as I don't have a Sony TV!
  • The eject button on the DVD player remote is actively harmful. I can't put a disc in from 20 feet away, so why let me eject the one that's in there? If I have to go to the box to put a disc in, I can press the button by the disc tray!
  • The TV control has a bunch of buttons which don't even seem to do anything - "subcode", "mix", "mode", "time", "p.std" and "ssm". Your guess is as good as mine!
Those buttons are mostly identical looking and feeling, suggesting that they are of equal status - which clearly isn't the case. Look at any old remote and you'll see half a dozen buttons with the silk-screened legend rubbed off the rubber pad (and the pad cracked at the sides in a really worn one). It'd be better to put half, or two thirds, of the buttons onto on-screen menus - where they can be given tooltips or even a "help" button to explain their function. This isn't rocket science. This is geeks designing for other geeks, not for the people who will actually use the product, and even they don't know what most of it does.

(Subtitle for the techies: it's EMACS vs Vi when the world wants Pico.)

- KoW

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Robbing Peter to pay Paul

The BBC reports that TA training budgets have been cut, saving a pathetically small £20m.

For those who don't know, the Territorial Army's "weekend warriors" are already serving in Afghanistan, yet now those in the UK will have no training for the next six months. It's already been reported that general army fitness levels are insufficient for the hot-and-high environment of Afghanistan - ground altitudes in Helmand province can reach 10,000ft, where the air is noticeably thinner - and that some troops have arrived in theatre without ever having practiced with their weapons (particularly grenade launchers, but also rifles, as I understand).

There is one inevitable and, frankly, obvious outcome here: more British troops will be killed because training was cut back.

Gordon Brown can try to score points off General Dannatt in the press with beancounter quibbling over the precise numbers of troops in theatre, but the simple fact is that one cannot say that 7999 people isn't enough but 8000 is. It doesn't work like that. While a small force and a large one may both achieve the same goal in the end, the larger force will likely do it with fewer casualties. It therefore follows that we should not be fiddling around the exact number to deploy, we should deploy twice as many men and vehicles and do the job right.

- KoW

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They think it's all over

The Guardian reports that government-funded1 think-tank NIESR disagrees with George Osborne's pension figures, and doesn't feel that they'll raise as much as he wants. They may even be right. I've an assessment of the pension situation of my own waiting to be written-up, which doesn't paint a nice picture for the state pension.

The sixth paragraph in that article is an absolute jewel, however: "Opposition politicians said the miscalculation cast doubt on Osborne's fitness to be chancellor."

O RLY? Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition are united behind their Shadow Chancellor, the Lib Dems are (as ever) irrelevant, so should one draw the conclusion that even hardcore Labour supporters consider themselves to be in Opposition now? A Freudian Slip, perhaps? The choice of Phillip Inman to pair that line with a quote from Alistair Darling does amuse...

(Hat tip for the article's existence to Ben Wegg-Prosser and, I think, Flying Matters - not sure now where I got the retweet!)

- KoW

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Nanny knows best!

Today's Metro (p30) and the BBC (Wednesday night) have a story about Nottingham City Council's expansion of fixed penalty notices.

"Offences such as leaving a car engine running [...] attract fines from £50 to £300."

WTF? It's an offence to leave a car engine running? It's expensive, certainly, at £1.29/litre, but how the hell is it a crime needing punishment?

I suppose they're going to ban turbo timers (devices which keep the engine idling to allow a turbocharger to cool down gradually) as well? Given that engines are hopelessly inefficient just after starting, forcing people to stop and restart their engines when their passenger pops into a shop for a one-minute errand, will pollute more, waste fuel, waste battery power, wear out starter motors and generally make life worse. So that'll be another stealth tax - in the same vein as speed bumps - from government deliberately inflicting damage on motor vehicles...

Apparently these fines will be meted out - unaccountably, no doubt - by "Community Protection Officers". That raises the question of whether they exist to protect the community, or to protect something from the community, because I don't think fining people for keeping their engines ticking over or leaving their bins out is particularly public-spirited.

A thought for such authoritarian governments: you are accountable to us, not we to you.

- KoW

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Defence Spending Clarification

As the point has been raised, I should clarify one of my earlier points about defence spending.

I believe that the MOD has far too many desk jobs, and probably still would even if it had only one civilian for every ten squaddies in the field. I've not seen the figures, but I'm inclined to believe that 25% of the departmental budget is wasted on personnel and pointless faff, and that it's probably a reasonable savings target.

However, I do not believe that any such savings should be returned to the Treasury or used to pay for current operations.

The current level of defence spending (~2.3% of GDP) is a peacetime fantasy: it implicitly assumes that nobody will ever attack us or our foreign interests, and that if they do, we'll have some warning. Which we never have had in the past. Conflicts look predictable in hindsight, but this is a Black Swan fallacy. Given the lead times required to develop arms and to ramp up production (and, analogously, to recruit and train people), this is a luxury we cannot afford to take. It's telling that the last time the spend was this low was in the wake of the Great Depression - and meant we were caught flat-footed later that same decade when WW2 started and we had to spend extra in lieu of preparation time. Lend-Lease nearly bankrupted the country.

We must use the defence budget to ensure we have balanced forces ready and equipped to operate against plausible enemies in any battlespace - maritime, aerial or land. Just because the last couple of skirmishes have been against poorly-equipped tribesmen doesn't mean that the next one will be: Iran has a decent air force and Russian "double-digit" SAMs, to pluck an example from the press. Or if we have to enforce a naval blockade against Somalia or North Korea - Admiral Nelson would be spinning in his grave at the thought that we didn't have enough ships to do that.

- KoW


Death of a postman

So the CWU have voted 3-1 to strike, then. That's going to work out well for them.

The postal service has been unreliable and, quite frankly, bordering on useless for weeks, and now it's going to be stopped entirely. Fair enough. We're mostly managing without postal service at the moment, and you're going to force us to go cold turkey.

Like many people, I do my banking and credit cards online. I get a phone bill occasionally, but I never open it, as it's paid by direct debit. As are my council tax, insurance and utilities. If I get things by mail order, they come by courier. Airline tickets are emailed and printed (and are e-tickets anyway). The only thing I've desperately needed in the post this year - an employment contract - turned up five days late on a first-class stamp.

The post is not fit-for-purpose and striking is not going to make it so.

What do we need a postal service for, anyway?

- KoW

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Cutting defence spending is a mistake

The BBC is reporting that the Tories want to cut defence spending by 25%. This is foolish. Defence spending (as a proportion of GDP) is already at its lowest point since the 1930s.

The MOD has, like it or not, already made huge spending cuts - the 1992 recession, the Strategic Defence Review in 1997, and through Gordon Brown's well-known aversion to defence while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, its budget has been slashed by around 50% in real terms in two decades. Other departments have picked up the "slack" and blown the cash on... what?

One must remember that we are fighting a war at present, and that like no other department in government, the MOD has personnel killed by the enemy almost every day.

I agree with Dr Liam Fox that there are far too many staff in Main Building and, in particular, at Abbeywood, both uniformed and civilian. Defence procurement is a horrendous mess, and - literally - billions have been wasted through inefficiencies.

That money should be spent on equipment, not slashed from the budget.

The MOD is, at best, struggling to pay for its commitments. Lord Drayson's Defence Industrial Strategy has been almost completely side-lined, Bernard Gray's damning report into defence procurement has been buried, and it's likely that cuts will come to "big ticket" projects if the budget is cut further.

I don't support the view that Afghanistan is "the war", it's just "a war". While support and equipment for front-line troops (which is generally a euphamism for the army) is vital, and Dr Fox has rightly pledged to maintain the spending in these areas, there are strategic challenges for which we are completely unprepared.

We're hopelessly underprovisioned for both strategic (C-17/A400M/Hercules) and tactical (Chinook/Merlin) air-lift, long-range strike (strategic bombers, aircraft carriers), defending commercial shipping (T-23s are good, but there aren't enough to go around and FSC is already late) and ground-based air defence; we'll lose our suppression/destruction of enemy air defence (SEAD/DEAD) capabilities fairly soon, sacrificed on the altar of "stealth".

We cannot put enough boots on the ground, jets in the air or boats in the water to handle even the small conflicts we find ourselves in. If something like the Falklands kicks off again, we probably couldn't handle it. Our most-similar neighbour, France, already spends more (as a proportion of GDP) than us, and President Sarkozy has guaranteed this for the future. We should not cut back our defence spending as a response to the sort of economic problems which are likely to cause wars, not avert them!

Defence of the Realm is the first duty of government.

Without that, there is nothing to govern.

- KoW


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Old Professions

Last week, Harriet Harman insisted that a foreign government take action against a website that's legal both in its jurisdiction and ours.

As far as I'm aware, prostitution is still legal in the UK. Having an opinion about a service most definitely is! And yet here we have one of the most powerful politicians in the country creating an international incident over something she personally dislikes, on the flimsiest of excuses (very few prostitutes are trafficked...).

Tom Miller, Labour PPC for Woking, has suggested that since the site isn't doing anything wrong and is in a foreign jurisdiction, Ms Harman should take matters into her own hands with an illegal (in both jurisdictions) Denial of Service attack. WTF? Is that not Hate Speech?

I wonder how long before the Internet Watch Foundation is either replaced, or leant-on, to block access to Politically Undesirable sites such as PunterNet. As most ISPs in the UK - covering something like 98% of users - accept the IWF blacklist, that would be a rather trivial step... and yet another towards 1984.

Here's a radical notion: websites don't create demand for prostitutes.

A review site simply makes the existing market more efficient by providing a basis for price information, and might even reduce consumption by adjusting the supply curve. Not that I expect our business-illiterate government to understand that argument...

(Hat tip to Dizzy, for Tom Miller's imbecilic contribution to the debate)

- KoW

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Epistemic Paradox

Metro (p7) this morning has a quote from the charity Kidscape: "As criminal record bureau checks bring to light only convictions, cautions and reprimands, a sex offender who is active - but has not been found out - passes through the safety net". For this reason, they say vetting should be tightened.

Aside from the fact that an Enhanced CRB already also shows "soft evidence" (undeniable unsubstantiated rumours that weren't sufficient to attempt a prosecution, and spent convictions), this argument holds about as much water as a particularly leaky colander. It fails on fairly basic philosophical grounds - person X may be a kiddy-fiddler (ontology, "what is") but if nobody knows that (epistemology, "what is known"), they can't cause a vetting failure. That bears repeating.

If a paedophile has not been found out, no amount of vetting will block them from working with kids.

In fact, in a classic piece of security failure, the more trust is placed in vetting schemes, the more likely people are to slip through the cracks. If nobody is vetted, parents and co-workers have to rely on their judgement - judgement honed by years of experience and æons of evolution - as to who to trust and to what degree; if someone is vetted, "obviously" they're safe, so there's no need to be alert. One can easily envisage a child porn ring using something like the Carnival Booth Algorithm to defeat any sort of vetting: all they need is one person who can slip through the net and they all get the resulting abuse pictures.

The new Vetting and Barring scheme is particularly stupid, as it is a one-time check with no expiry or revocation. Such things are like gold to a determined attacker: "cast iron" proof of safety based on out-of-date evidence. The more the government tightens its grip, the more people slip through its fingers.

To paraphrase something a rather wise site security officer once told me: "everyone who's ever been arrested for spying held a security clearance, it's not proof of anything".

- KoW

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

When £3k is more than £83k

I once had an argument with someone who took a nominal amount of time, multiplied it by the internal billing rate of the company's engineers, and the number of employees, and came up with a 'cost' of £83k in order to strike down a proposal.

This seems to be a fundamental misconception that occurs time and time again in large companies and in government: that something denominated as a currency is somehow money.

Money only exists at boundaries. Boundaries between people, boundaries between organisations, boundaries between countries, but boundaries nonetheless.

Aside from the fact that essentially nobody was actually paid at the internal billing rate, they were all on salary anyway. No matter whether they spent the time watching an installer's progress bar, picking their noses, talking at the coffee machine, or actually working, they'd be paid exactly the same amount.

The alternative suggestion related to a saving of only £3k, but £3k of incremental spending on energy bills: extra money that would have to be spent, that would have to leave the company. A transfer of wealth from us to the energy supplier.

My counterparty in this argument thought that, since £83k was much bigger than £3k, it was self-evident that his way was better. I disagreed. The £83k never existed, never would exist, and was merely a figment of some fevered imagination.

Now, at full utilisation, where time really was money and a delay would cost us sales, the internal billing rate would be a floating currency, with an exchange rate of around IB£2 to £1 - a sign that inflation had already bitten - but it was treated as though the IB£ was pegged 1:1 to Sterling and was somehow real rather than an accounting abstraction.

It got me wondering about where else such ideas crop up, and helped crystallise some arguments I'd been pondering for months. More to come.

- KoW


And besides, the wench is dead

The SFO case against BAES has been praised by the former Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith. "The Serious Fraud Office intends to prosecute BAE unless it pays a fine." according to the BBC, and the story was leaked to the press on Thursday morning.

The allegations are certainly serious, but this whole affair stinks. "Give us a billion pounds or we prosecute"... targetted leaks to embarass the company and harm its share price (the worst performer in the FTSE 100 for most of Thursday, down 5% just after opening)... how is this any better than the man claimed to have been blackmailing Letterman?

Surely, if you have a good case that someone has done wrong, you prosecute them? Maybe allow them to admit guilt after being charged and get a lesser punishment for saving the effort of a trial... but to start out with dirty-tricks negotiation of what the plea-bargain will be seems... wrong.

It also suggests that maybe the SFO's case is nowhere near as strong as they'd like, and so they have to rely on anti-arms-trade sentiments and public embarassment as they can't prove it in court.

Thinking along those lines, why might that be? Well, the BBC Today programme claims that the prosecution is to be under the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act, 2001. Slight problem there, in that said Act is an Irish law! No doubt they mean Part 12 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act, 2001 - the same law they'd previously accused BAES under. Yes, that's right, the same people accusing the same company again, but for a different incident - shades of the "we'll keep prosecuting until we get a conviction" attitude over Saddam Hussein's trial?

Let's look at some facts.

The Act in question received royal assent and came into force on 14 December 2001, in the wake of 9/11. The Tanzania deal was made in 2001 (before October, when the ICAO commented on it), the South African one in 1999. I'm told that the Romanians investigated the allegations and found no evidence of criminal activity. No idea about the Czechs, but that's starting to look awfully thin: someone may have done something that was legal at the time but would now be illegal, therefore they should pay us a billion pounds for having not broken the law in the past? Or is the law retroactive - despite there being no hint in the wording and a strong tradition against ex post facto laws?

Then there's an issue of jurisdiction. Nobody is suggesting that bribes were paid in the UK, and if bribes are legal (as is the case for much of the world) where they were paid, what business is that of the SFO? The UAE has extremely strict policies on drug-taking - is it reasonable for them to prosecute people in Brighton and Amsterdam? Should US citizens drinking beer at 18 in the UK be locked-up for underage drinking when they return home (sober) to a 21 drinking-age? It seems to be a somewhat idiotic form of cultural imperialism, yet ironically it's widely supported by soi disant liberals and left-wingers - presumably because of a personal distaste for the military-industrial complex.

Even if the law is valid and applies in these cases, how strong is the evidence? Arms deals are notoriously shady, and usually involve government help on one or both sides. Is the SFO really expecting to get testimony from Saudi princes, senior foreign government officials, and the accused themselves? The UK MOD won't even let the NAO have full and accurate figures, so it's a bit unlikely that their foreign counterparts will suddenly decide to admit to accepting bribes.

So what sort of case does the SFO have? I once heard a very wise quote from a detective sergeant: "If you can't prove it without a cough, you shouldn't try and prove it with."

- KoW

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... but some are more equal than others

The BBC have an interesting story about Harriet Harman flouting the Highway Code. I always thought that one was required to stop and exchange insurance details (a note under the wiper blade if the other car was unattended, and report to the police), not drive off with a Do You Know Who I Am comment to a witness.

The date was given as 3 July, yet the law requires the police to be notified within 24 hours at most - so the fact that this is three months later and the police are investigating it now doesn't look good...

(Hat tip to Guido)

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About this blog

This blog will be explicitly political. I'm apathetic about party politics and uninterested in smear campaigns, but the abuses of the last decade need to be brought to book.

Particular interests, and forthcoming posts, include: defence (funding, strategic challenges and political interference), economics (housing, the ongoing recession, and taking a systems-engineering approach to economics), personal freedom (the police state, ID cards, databases, the myriad stupid laws introduced to control and curtail our lives), transport (trains, planes, and automobiles), science & technology (video games, computers, software), environmentalism (Green is the new Red) and sundry posts on funny/stupid/random events.

Expect some guest rants, too.

- KoW