Recession Depression

If the UK’s economy is actually recovering, most ordinary people haven’t noticed yet. They still feel worse off than before the economic crash, and the pay statistics suggest that they’re dead right.

osborne dunceBut if the longest recession of modern times is actually coming to an end, of course the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is claiming the credit. So what did he do? He slashed welfare and public services and put a huge number of people out of work, bringing unemployment to its highest level in decades.

Now, you might ask, how is that supposed to help the economy? So would I. High unemployment does tend to reduce inflation, given that it makes those in work more insecure and less likely to demand higher wages. But that wasn’t Osborne’s argument.

What he and his party colleagues concentrated on was government spending and government debt. One outcome of the financial collapse was that the previous government “bailed out” failed institutions using large amounts of borrowed money. This made the government’s debt much larger than it had been previously, although far from being the largest it had ever been. Osborne set the reduction of that debt as one of his priorities.

The other aim was to balance the government budget. Under the previous government, expenditure had always exceeded income: result — misery. Well, not exactly. Few British governments have ever had a budget surplus, and never for an extended period. Still, Osborne set budget balance as his other target.

How well has he done? Poorly. D-minus. To Osborne’s surprise, cutting public expenditure and putting people out of work causes government income to fall. (Less income tax, less sales tax, less corporation tax, etc.) The government budget has remained stubbornly in deficit, and the debt has increased more rapidly than before. By the time he comes up for election, Osborne’s “success” will see the debt rise by about £450 billion, or over 10% more than under the previous government, which he often criticizes as profligate.

There is only one conclusion: the Chancellor is incompetent. That’s hardly surprising, since he and his colleagues couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery. (The vendor would charge them double for installing catapults.) You might think that surely, a man would have to be at least minimally competent to have such an important government role, but I’ll make a prediction and the truth will out.

When George Osborne decides to leave politics, will he get a well-paid job somewhere else? Of course he will. He has many friends in business and finance (especially bankers). But will it be a real job, where he has to manage, make decisions and actually be in charge? Of course not. They may be a bunch of bankers, but they’re not stupid. Osborne will get the kind of job where he only has to turn up a few times a month to discuss “strategy”. It would be crazy to let him run things.

False Balance

Gaza city burningThe BBC is obliged by its charter to present “balanced” reporting of news, something that makes it unique in English-language broadcasting. Sometimes that shocks right-wing politicians into spluttering indignation. They’re much more accustomed to the unquestioning support of Britain’s press and the wealthy proprietors.

(Often there are assertions that the BBC has a left-wing bias, but to challenge that you only have to look across the roster of journalists and editors: overwhelmingly white, male and upper- or middle-class. Many previously worked in the right-wing press. Hardly a hotbed of revolutionary fervour.)

But people in the BBC have a problem with “balance” when they interpret it only as “telling both sides of the story”. In the case of climate change, this has meant giving equal prominence to the views of one unqualified denialist versus those of thousands of scientists. Admittedly, that particular issue is being reported more accurately now that everyday evidence of climate change is right in front of our noses.

The quest for “balance” is affecting how the BBC reports the current situation in Gaza. Every report of air strikes by Israeli forces has to be bookended with their justification for it. In fact, the Israeli assertion that the campaign is an attack on those firing rockets is blandly repeated, unquestioned.

Even accepting the naive notion that there are just two sides to the story, the BBC journalists are ignoring the possibility that both sides can be in the wrong. Firing homemade rockets randomly across the border into Israel is absolutely wrong. Firing missiles into population centres in Gaza is absolutely wrong.

Not that the consequences have been equivalent. Hundreds dead and thousands maimed on one side and no casualties on the other. And surely the real story for journalists on the Israeli end is to ask “why are they really doing this?” Why wage war on a defenseless and destitute population in the name of stopping terrorist rockets? Some investigation and insight would be proper journalism, and truth needs no “balancing”.

I’m not a journalist, but I have drawn my own conclusions. First, rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah is anathema to the current Israeli government. When three young Israelis were murdered, the government quite shamelessly exploited their deaths by blaming Hamas, in defiance of all logic and probability. Palestinians were rounded up, and some killed (“resisting arrest”, presumably), to harass Hamas into responding.

Whether the subsequent rocket attacks were started by Hamas or some even more militant group is hard to tell, but they provided a pretext for military action, the ultimate purpose of which is to destabilize Hamas-Fatah relations and keep the Palestinians weak.

That’s my take on the motives, but will the plan work? Will it make Israel more secure and let the citizens of Ashdod and Ashkelon sleep easy at night? Of course not. It’s a stupid plan cooked up by a corrupt and incompetent government with no respect for law or human life. Progress can only be made when Israeli voters choose a government which is honest and moral. But that doesn’t happen often, in any country.

Nice Indie Label You Got There. It Would Be A Pity If Something Were To Happen To It.

Google EvilA forthcoming foray in Google’s campaign to take over the internet is a music streaming service, a competitor to Spotify.

There were rumours for a long time, but official word is out now. Google has done deals with “the majors”, the three corporations who account for about two-thirds of global music sales. The rest, “independent” labels of all sizes, well, that’s another story.

It appears that Google was offering them less favourable terms than to the majors — less money, in other words — and they weren’t having it. In fact, a confederation of independent labels has petitioned EU competition authorities to examine the situation. Good luck with that.

But the most shocking aspect is that Google threatened to ban independent labels from YouTube if they didn’t sign. That’s not just rumour. A YouTube executive has now confirmed to the Financial Times that indie music videos will begin to disappear “within days”.

I’ve often posted links to YouTube music videos on my Facebook page. It’s a way of letting people know what I like or what I feel like. Generally, those won’t have been music on major labels, although that was just a reflection of the kinds of music I like, not a political choice.

Now it is though. I won’t be promoting YouTube for music videos any more. It’s possible that the indie labels will come up with something, or maybe migrate en masse to one of the other services, such as Vimeo. But if the music is the thing, there’s always BandCamp and SoundCloud as well.

Sold

I’ve just been reading about eBay’s security breach, in which names, dates of birth, phone numbers, physical addresses, email addresses, and “encrypted” passwords were copied from servers. Naturally, the company is trying to put a brave face on things — while asking users to change passwords “as a precaution”.

(I say “asking users” but they haven’t asked me. The only information I have is from the press.)

But when you do log on to eBay to change your password, you’ll find that there is a 20-character limit on its length. A minimum password length is fine, but a maximum rings alarm bells, raises red flags, and causes other miscellaneous symptoms of concern. Here’s why.

The proper way to do passwords is to use a hashing function. This is a mathematical process whose most important feature is to be one-way. That is, you can transform a password into its hash, but you can not transform the hash back into the password.

If that’s hard to understand at first sight, think of a system where the password is a 4-digit number, and the hashing function is “add up the digits”. So 1234 transforms to 10, but you can’t get the digits back if all you know is 10. (In reality, a hashing function shouldn’t give the same hash for different passwords, so anything like this one would never be used.)

In real systems, a new password is put through the hashing function and the hash is stored. Then when the user tries to log in, the supplied password is put through the hashing function and the result compared with the stored one.

When you design computer systems for millions of customers, the amount of storage which you need is a concern. You don’t want to waste space: it costs money and slows things down. In the case of eBay’s database, the analyst or designer would have specified maximum lengths for the data — for example, you know the maximum size that a phone number can be.

So just 20 characters for the password, then? No, but wait! You aren’t storing the password. You are storing the hash, which is a fixed-length number, regardless of how long the password was.

Why the 20-character limit then? The worrying possibility is that eBay are storing the password itself. It’s not clear if their wording implies this, in saying that the stolen data contained “encrypted” passwords, or if they were simplifying to avoid having to explain what hash functions are.

There are online systems (e.g. Tesco) which do store the users’ passwords, encrypted with a reversible algorithm, allowing the password to be easily recovered. This is universally recognized to be very, very poor security practice, because if (when) the data is stolen, the hackers can very quickly generate a full list of passwords. (Most of them will be “password” anyway.)

If a database of password hashes is stolen, it’s not impossible to recover the passwords, but it’s difficult, and likely to require massive amounts of computation. That’s why GCHQ & the NSA have supercomputers. A basic hashing function is rarely used on its own either, with features added (such as “salt”) to make it more difficult to crack.

The typical attack on a hash is to take a list of possible passwords (e.g. “password”) and try each one in turn. First, you’ll use a dictionary of common words (e.g. “password”), or maybe a list of known passwords from elsewhere (e.g. “pa$$word”. You thought you were so clever.) If you run out of ideas, there’s nothing for it but to exhaustively try all combinations of letters and symbols allowed, starting at aaaaaa, then aaaaab and so on, all the way up to ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

That’s why it’s a fundamental law of computer security that a long password is a good password. The computation for the hackers trying to crack it increases exponentially for every additional character. A 20-character limit on eBay is bad in itself, but could also be hinting at a deeper problem.

xkcd on password strength

Bustin’ Out Dead or Alive

JailbreakI recently was donated an “obsolete” iPhone 3GS, which had been behaving erratically occasionally, and its owner upgraded to a later model. I don’t “do” Apple, for a number of reasons, but took the phone to tinker with, and perhaps learn something.

I don’t buy Apple products, essentially because I don’t like the company’s attitude. I don’t like the way that everything is locked down and restricted; and I don’t like the way that consumers, software developers, and even mobile carriers are relentlessly exploited for cash. (Let’s all shed a tear for the poor mobile phone companies.)

I realize that most of the consumer victims of Apple are perfectly happy with their purchases. They believe the higher prices are because they’re buying “quality” and when they’re jumping through hoops to do things the Apple way, they don’t actually know that there is any other way.

Take iTunes, for example. There’s no fundamental need for you to have a special software application to buy stuff off the internet. A web browser is fine. But using the same software application to manage your phone for backups and updates and to buy media from an online store and to play stuff on your PC and to download apps is just MENTAL. No software developer would have come up that concept, except in this case where the objective was to lock your iPhone to one store and one account.

As you probably know, there is a process to break an iPhone free from Apple’s monopoly store, “jailbreaking”, which makes use of flaws in the system. Every time Apple plugs a hole, the hackers find another one, and so it goes.

RedSn0wIn my case, with a phone several years old, there was a well-established range of jailbreaking options and many a tutorial on the net. I chose a polished hacking utility called “redsn0w”, which subverts Apple’s firmware update to install jailbroken system software and an independent app store, Cydia (named after Cydia pomonella, a “worm” or larva often found in Apples). I’m a long-term user of Debian Linux, and was amused to see that Cydia uses a version of Debian APT to install packages.

From Cydia, I got a utility (“ultrasn0w”) to unlock the phone from its mobile carrier as well. Mobile companies lock phones to ensure that they get the contract and call revenue, but I’m sure that Orange got their money’s worth from that phone long ago.

Let me finish with another Apple story. I did once buy one of their products, a USB keyboard. I was fed up with the poor quality of PC keyboards, with their cheap, rub-off legends, and the Apple one was better-made, and looked stylish. So stylish, in fact, that you couldn’t actually type on it, since the keys had the feel and travel of those on a 1980s calculator. But here’s the Apple bit: it came with a USB extension cable (in case the built-in cable wasn’t long enough). But the two USB connectors to join the cables were made with a non-standard “key” and notch, to make sure that you couldn’t use the free extension cable with any other bit of USB equipment. Now that’s just plain nasty.

Amsterdam, Alstublieft

Amsterdam was Grace’s idea. I’d never given the place much thought, even though there are cheap(-ish) direct flights with EasyJet. But anyway, with a shared pizza and bottle of wine, we took to the laptop and booked flights and hotel.

Sunday

Airport security is a nonsense. You knew that, right? It does almost nothing to protect the passengers, and little to deter terrorists. Maybe the authorities think that it reassures the travelling public, but since the constraints are so arbitrary and stupid, I doubt if that works. I had to take my belt off: a strip of canvas. My transparent bag of gels and liquids was two centimetres too large, which is a security risk because… um?

And beware — EasyJet are really strict on the “one item of hand baggage” rule. Grace had to stuff her handbag into her cabin suitcase.

Hotel de ParisStill, the flight was uneventful and punctual. I had researched the transit options on arrival. The usual method is the train to Centraal Station, but I’d discovered a bus route (Conexxion bus number 197) which took us direct to Leidesplein, and a short walk to the hotel. In fact, the bus goes right past our hotel, but as we discovered, won’t stop at it. We got out at the stop after, a slightly longer walk.

If you’ve arrived here after searching for “Hotel de Paris, Amsterdam”, I do recommend it. The staff were friendly and helpful; and the room clean, well-equipped and cosy. Compact though, especially the bathroom, but fine for two people. Our room was on the street side, meaning there was tram noise until 12:30, plus a few inebriates straggling home after, but if you want silence, don’t choose a hotel in a city centre.

After a brief turnaround, we walked the short distance to Leidesplein. We knew that the streetsCanal running SE from there are packed full of restaurants. And the competition is so high that many have people outside to hassle passers-by. Grace didn’t care for that much. We picked a pizzeria and packed in a pizza each.

After dinner, we explored at random and came to Rembrandtplein, another lively area. We took a foray into the famous or infamous Red Light District. I followed Grace into a female-oriented sex shop. Tasteful. She said it reminded her of the big Apple store on Leidesplein. iVibrators all around. Nearby, prostitutes were posing in their red-lit windows.

Then we got happily lost, but eventually found our way back to Leidesplein, and liked the look of the bar at De Balie, a political-activist cinema (Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina had been there a month previously at the showing of the movie “A Punk Prayer”). De Balie has beers on tap from Brouwerij t’IJ, all of them 8% and upwards in strength.

Monday

RembrandtIt was raining when we got up, but the plan was to “do” the museums, so we would be indoors. We were going to buy the “I Amsterdam” card, which gives free entry to many museums (although not the Rijksmuseum), free transport and a canal cruise. From the maps, we knew that there was a tourist office to buy the card on Leidesplein, but we were amsterdammned if we could find it. You’d think that making the place conspicuous would be the first requirement for a tourist office. Anyway, we walked on to the museums and found the we could buy the card in the museum shop.

However, the was a huge queue (in the rain) at the Rijksmuseum. We decided to try the Van Gogh museum first (free on the card, and with priority entrance). We were able to join the shorter queue, but still had to stand for ten minutes or so in the rain.

It was interesting, but I decided in the end that I generally liked the non-Vincent paintings in the collection more than his. There were works by artists known by Van Gogh, or who had influenced him: Monet, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec. I even liked Gauguin’s better. Upstairs was a collection by Félix Vallotton, famous in the 1890s for his political and social woodcuts in stark black-and-white. I liked these, and his paintings, more than Vincent’s too.

When we left (after lunch in the museum cafe) we found to our suprise that the queue at the Rijksmuseum had almost gone, and we were soon inside the huge railway-station-like hall. Probably the most popular exhibits in the galleries are the Rembrandt paintings, and the large “Night Watch” must be the top one. I don’t think that we saw absolutely everything, but museum fatigue was setting in.

However, there is one Amsterdam museum that everyone talks about: the Anne Frank house. We jumped on a tram andDe Splijff set off for it. When we got there, some time after four, the line of people waiting was hundreds of metres long. I think closing time is five, so we had little hope of getting in. Grace checked with the ticket office, where the helpful chap suggested booking a specific time slot on line for the following day.

Disappointed, we wandered off, arrived at Dam square and to cheer us up, did some window-shopping among the upmarket make-up and fashion franchises in De Bijenkorf. In the cafe, I used their free wifi to check on the Anne Frank bookings and found that, contrary to what had been suggested to us, the earliest available bookings were on Saturday, five days away. Since we were going home on Thursday, we had to accept that it was a failure. Tip for visitors: book your slot before leaving home.

It’s a short walk into the Red Light District, where Grace dragged me into the Greenhouse Effect coffeeshop. We bought a ready-made spliff (no rolling skillz between us) of a “mild” variety. I felt very little effect. Grace became a little sick, and we had to go out for air.

We walked back towards our home zone. Off Leidesplein again, we chose a restaurant at random, a place called Tong Ah, which was mediocre in the end. I ordered Kung Po chicken, only to be told that they had run out of it. In retrospect, that was not a good sign, regardless of whether it was kung, po or chicken which they did not have. I asked for duck instead. When it arrived, it wasn’t bad, but had been chopped up on the bone, so most pieces contained bone fragments. I don’t know if that is the traditional Chinese way, but I didn’t care much for it.

After leaving, we had the remains of the spliff for dessert, and I took the giggling Grace home via Café Soundgarden, in the same street as our hotel. I think Soundgarden must be Amsterdam’s equivalent to The Menagerie in Belfast: scruffy, even seedy, but a meeting place for musicians and like-minded freaks. We liked it.

Tuesday

Albert CuypmarktWe thought we might go to club Paradiso in the evening, a gig by Tinariwen, and set off to reconnoitre. On the way through Max Euweplein, where the casino, Hard Rock Cafe and Aran Pub are, we noticed B&B cafe and had a nice breakfast. Then we took the canalside path and emerged right beside Paradiso, which is a converted church. There seemed to be nowhere to buy tickets or anything, but at least we knew where it was.

Buddhist templeAccording to the guidebooks, the Albert Cuypmarkt is excitingly diverse and multi-ethnic. Well, not all that exciting, but it is a large, trashy street market, which is OK. After walking the length of it, we got a tram to the old town centre and explored their Chinatown, including a visit to the Buddhist Temple, or at least the public hall at the front. We like multi-ethnic.

Next it was to a very different recommended destination, the De Gooyer windmill. You can’t actually get into the windmill, but the attached building, a former public baths, is now the home of the biggest small brewery in Amsterdam, Brouwerij t’IJ. We’d already tried their beers (recommended) and tried a couple more.

de Gooyer WindmillUnfortunately, the brewery pub doesn’t serve proper food (you can buy a plate of cheese for four euros) and we had been hoping for lunch. But after beers, we bought a couple of supermarket sandwiches instead, and walked the short distance to the zoo, entry being free with our “I Amsterdam” cards. The unique feature of the zoo is that some of the enclosures are open to visitors, a highlight being the big, red, furry ring-tailed lemurs. You can get right up close. And in an indoor enclosure, you can walk among fruit bats, birds, small monkeys and tiny mouse lemurs.

Fortunately the gorillas are kept behind armoured glass, because the dominant male of the group is a huge, terrifying creature. And one of his family demonstrated another behaviour I wouldn’t want to be near: eating his own fresh shit. I couldn’t get that image out of my mind.

We took a tram back and took a rest before going out. Again, having read the guidebooks and websites, we had a destination in mind. A very short distance from the hotel is the Blue Pepper restaurant, which is widely considered in the sources as one of the best Indonesian restaurants in the city. And one of the most expensive, but “what the hell” we thought. There is only room for about twenty diners, but it wasn’t busy and we got a table. Excellent food and Amster-damn the expense.

We hadn’t kept a tight enough timetable to go to hear Tinariwen (early gig) but we wondered if Paradiso would be open as a club afterwards. No. We had no plan B, so we had to improvise. Or wander indiscriminately, which is quite similar. We took a tram to the Red Light District and made another tour. It was later at night than the previous time so more of the girls were showing their wares. We had a couple of drinks and made a visit to a coffeeshop to sample more of their product.

It was then that we realised that it was almost twelve-thirty and the trams would be going off duty. And, in fact, we just managed to miss the last one from outside the Royal Palace. There is a night bus service, which our free travel included, but we didn’t see any and set off on foot (Grace in heels). It took a long time to get home, but not a single night bus came along. In the hotel, we finished off the spliff. (Next morning, I was horrified to read in the hotel’s visitor booklet that it is strictly non-smoking. Bad, bad people.)

Wednesday

Canal cruiseThe previous day had been Pancake Tuesday, and the Dutch pannekoeken are famous, but we hadn’t got our act together to eat any. Partly, I claim, this was because we were very confused by the presence of a building on Leidesplein with a large, illuminated “Pancake Corner” sign, and yet it was actually a sports bar with beer, television screens and no pancakes in sight.

de BalieHowever, one of our finds that night had been the actual Pancake Corner cafe round the corner, and that was where we went for breakfast. We both had bacon pancakes. Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

Fully refreshed and fortified, we walked down the Singelgracht canal, crossed at the Rijksmuseum and came back up to the Blue Boat Company, one of the options for our free canal cruise. It’s pleasant enough and mildly informative, and at least it saves walking (which we’d been doing a lot of). We did get to see the IJ, which felt almost like the open sea. We passed close to the replica sailing ship, the Amsterdam, which I hadn’t seen mentioned in any of the guidebooks. It might be worth a visit.

The plan for the afternoon was shopping. The “9 Streets” is an area West of the centre with a grid of streets and canals, and more boutiques and clothes shops than you could shake a stick at. We did them all and Grace very nearly bought a party dress. (She looked beautiful in it.)

Somehow we managed to make the walk home longer and more random than necessary, but after a break in our room, we went out for dinner. Our destination this time was very close, the “Eat At Jo’s” cafe which is part of the Melkweg club. The food is simple and filling with a kind of hippy vibe, and quite economical. Next to the cafe their gallery had a photo exhibition “Freaks Come Out At Night” [http://www.milanboonstra.com/freaks.html]. Yes. Yes they do.

It was a pleasant evening, although one beer outside in the square was enough for my icy metabolism. We resorted to the bar in De Balie, for farewell-to-Amsterdam drinks.

Thursday

We had to be out of the room at the crack of dawn (ten) to catch the bus to the airport from Leidesplein, but we made it with time to spare. The flight home was a little early too, bringing us back to the Northern Ireland rain. Welcome home!

Live Long and Prosper

NimoyMr Spock, Leonard Nimoy, has been diagnosed with lung disease, at the age of 82. He says that he gave up smoking 30 years ago, in his fifties, say. Presumably, like many people, he’d started in his youth, so he probably had at least a 30-year smoking career.

But the statistics say that immediately you give up, your risk of smoking-related diseases starts to decline. By 82, Nimoy probably wasn’t much more likely to get chronic pulmonary obstructive disease than a lifelong non-smoker.

On the other hand, Nimoy has spent his entire life in Los Angeles, and that can’t be healthy. Here’s how I know.

I did part of my pilot training at Long Beach airport, in the greater LA conurbation. One morning, I got up and looked out the window, and the famous “Holywood” sign on the hillside was unusually clear and sharp.

I got in my plane, a Socata Tampico, and set off on a training flight eastward, over Anaheim and Corona, toward the rough, desert-like lands east of the mountains. And suddenly, visibility declined, as if I’d flown into a slight mist. A smear of greasy, yellow stuff began to collect on the front windshield and roll off upwards with the airflow.

I climbed up a few hundred feet into clear air. It was obvious what had happened. Weather conditions had temporarily blown the LA smog away from the city, and through the valley in the mountains where the Santa Ana river flows (and the Riverside freeway). The yellow gunge was what was going into the lungs of the city’s inhabitants every day.