Precious Life

(I live in Northern Ireland. Today the religious extremist Bernadette Smyth was found guilty of harassment of Dawn Purvis, director of Belfast’s Marie Stopes pregnancy advisory clinic.)

It seems to me that there is one basic core in the intractable differences between those who consider abortion to be acceptable under certain circumstances and those who oppose it unconditionally. That is, that the extreme anti-abortionists believe that at the instant of conception, the fertilised egg is morally equivalent to a human being. It’s a religious belief, based on the soul.

But the idea that the soul enters the fertilised egg at conception has only been generally accepted among Christian believers in relatively modern times. That concept was discussed throughout the history of the Christian church, but the mainstream view was different: that “ensoulment” was a gradual process.

In the main, Christians were following classical Greek thought. The early Christian church used Greek concepts and methods of debate to codify its theology, and the medieval church absorbed literature from the Islamic world, where scholars translated and expanded classical material.

The idea of a gradual ensoulment was described by Aristotle. He believed that a growing embryo started with a “vegetative” soul, acquired an “animal” soul as its body functions and complexity increased, and finally became a “human” soul, capable of thought and moral decision-making. Perhaps biologists today would see the analogies.

The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas followed the Aristotelian concepts, and wrote that although abortion was morally wrong, it was not equivalent to murder. (It seems that Aquinas thought that Aristotle’s “human” soul only arrived at birth.) The Christian church took this view, except for a three-year period from 1588 to 1591, when Pope Sixtus V declared that abortion was a religious and civil crime at any stage of conception. His successor Gregory XIV modified the rules so that they did not apply if the fetus was “unformed” (i.e. early pregnancy).

It was only in our great-gandparents’ time, 1869, that Pope Pius IX stated complete opposition to abortion at any stage of pregnancy, although having read his Bull ‘Apostolicæ Sedis’, I don’t think that it is totally clear that he was actually overthrowing Aristotle and setting “ensoulment” at the instant of conception. However, that’s how it has come to be seen. (Pius was also the Pope who declared himself infallible, a year later, in 1870.)

Even though there was considerable separation in theology between the Roman Catholic Church and other branches of Christianity, you can trace to Pius all current ideas of conception as the exact beginning of full human existence. Fundamentalist Protestants and all.

This new belief is what drives the current gulf between religious people and the rest of society over abortion. Unfortunately, it perverts what should be the real debate. And I think there should be a debate.

The thing is that abortion is not a moral question with a clear-cut answer. Certain instances where religious law has been replaced by civil law are completely clear. Gender discrimination is bad. Hate crimes are punished. Marriage is an option if you like that sort of thing. But abortion is more complicated.

I think the complication is because laws have to be precise, and biology isn’t. Perhaps the end points are definite enough: an unfertilized egg cell (or a sperm) is not a baby, but a newborn baby is a baby (obviously). Flushing the former down the toilet is not a sin (Christians who think that was Onan’s sin should go back and read their Bible). Killing babies is bad though.

But, is a newly-fertilized egg cell a baby, as the more extreme religious believers have been claiming? I would say not. So I don’t regard it as immoral to destroy that cell with the relevant drug, any more than losing a tooth (or a kidney) is a sin. There comes a point though — ah, but where? — when the law has to draw a line. It should probably be more complicated than a simple time limit, but that is what the real, intelligent discussion should be about, not the number of angels on the head of a pin.

commissario montalbano

Sicily 2014

Sicily, September 2014

Thursday

I don’t know if there’s a concept of “off-peak” discounts in the airport business, but budget flights always seem to either depart very early in the day, or arrive late at night. Well, the latter is the case for the Ryanair flights from Dublin to Comiso in Sicily.

The other factor is that airline delays accumulate during the day, making later flights less punctual, and so it was with ours. We were late. The rental car had been booked with Hertz, Ryanair’s partner, but it turned out that they had no office in the airport. We were collected (along with a couple of German customers) and transported the short distance to their base, between the airport and the town.

Ponte IrminioThere was only one person at the desk, and a queue of renters, meaning more delays. Then when we got “our” car, one of the Hertz personnel stopped us. Wait! The car has no petrol. He took us down the road to an automated filling station and filled the tank, then back to Hertz. At last, we were off.

We’d arranged to meet our property owner, Simona, in Modica, rather than at the apartment itself. (Or rather, she had arranged it. Perhaps she doubted our ability to find the address.) In order to get to Modica, we had to drive across one of the world’s highest motorway viaducts, the Ponte Irminio. I’d been a little nervous about that, but in the dark it was practically a non-event. (It features in the Commissario Montalbano titles.)

After the pick-up in a Modica car park, we followed Simona and her team to the apartment, which was every bit as delightful as we’d hoped from its on-line images. When they left, it was after eleven, and we hadn’t eaten for quite a while, but Simona had very thoughtfully provided spaghetti and tomato. We discovered that the gas stove in the kitchen needed matches to light the rings, but fortunately, the outdoor kichen corner had a two-ring cooker with electric start. We cooked and ate our pasta in the garden before midnight.

PricklyGelatoFriday

Simona had also provided tea, milk, and jam with “toasts” (an Italian abomination, sorry, innovation: crispy, insubstantial bread). I had brought a little coffee and some brioche. Breakfast was sorted, but we’d need more supplies. Marina di Modica has one small food store, but the larger neighbouring town of Pozzallo has supermarkets. I’d done some research and located the Co-op. We explored the seafront and shopping streets of Pozzallo, had lunch in the oddly-named “Squitty” food bar, and then went to the Co-op and bought a few essentials. On impulse, Grace added a prickly pear (or “Indian fig” as it is in Italian) to the basket.

After loading up the refrigerator, we took a walk down to the shore. Marina di Modica has a promenade with gardens, and our 200-metre direct route to the coast put us at the mid point of it. To the left is the core of the village, but we turned right. Stopping only to buy a gelato at Fiore, we walked along the coastal path until the chimney of la Fornace Penna came into view. Grace picked a ripe prickly pear from one of the many fruit-bearing cacti, but found it to be even more prickly than the supermarket version. Their fine barbs easily penetrate the skin and break off.

La Fornace is a piece of industrial archaeology, a large factory ruin from the early 20th-century, but it was built like a cathedral. Striking as the ruin is though, my real reason for wanting to see it was for its role in the Montalbano films. It plays the part of the “Mànnara” a focus for alfresco prostitution. With the sun getting low and golden and the sky dark behind the structure, I got some good photos.

Mànnara
We had dinner in one of Marina di Modica’s pizzerie. Excellent, and ridiculously cheap.

Saturday

BeachAfter a lazy start, we went down to the beach, had a paddle, and then a stroll around the village. But having had a good Italian lunch of bread, cheese and tomatoes, we took to the car for a trip to Ragusa. There’s free parking in Piazza della Libertà (right in front of the Fascist-era offices of the Guardia di Finanzia) which is only 500 metres from the baroque cathedral, San Giovanni Battista, of “new” (i.e. post-1693) Ragusa.

Some more walking took us to the edge. Ragusa is separated from Ibla, the older part of town, by a steep valley. Motorists have to do sweeping hairpins, but pedestrians like us could go down and up the many flights of stairs. Well, we stopped at the lowest point for a beer, before taking the upward climb again.

At Ragusa’s other cathedral, San Giorgio, there was a wedding in progress, or at least immanent, waiting for the bride. The wedding car was parked at the bottom of the steps, a tiny, red Fiat 500. The church and piazza often feature as background to Montalbano, as does the nearby Circolo di Conversazione. At the far end of Ragusa Ibla, there’s a pretty public garden, with various baroque buildings, and eventually, a view over the valley.

RagusaRagusa

We had dinner and then began the vertically-challenging walk back to the car, attempting, mostly unsuccessfully, to capture the fantastic night panoramas of the two parts of the city spilling down their hillsides. There were three different newly-wedded couples having photographs taken against the nightscapes.

Circolo di Conversazione Circolo di Conversazione
Ragusa Ibla Ragusa Ragusa

Sunday

Sunday being a day of rest, it was decided that we’d go to the beach. It’s great to have a beach within walking distance. I’m not the world’s most enthusuastic sea bather, but I was persuaded, and we went for a swim. Twice! Then a beer at the beachfront bar, which was better. We went back to the apartment for lunch and then back to the beach for the afternoon.

bar Sud, Marina di ModicaMarina di ModicaMarina di Modica

As we walked along the prom towards Fiore for a gelato, we saw that there was a market in progress. I bought sandals! Then gelato. After the ice-cream, Grace inadvertently bought a coffee “con panna”, rather than “con latte”, but enjoyed it enormously. It was mostly whipped cream.

Monday

SiracusaThe plan was to take a trip to Siracusa. The plan could have done with more detail than that, to be honest, but we drove to the city and then drove around a bit looking for parking. We found a place near the bridges to Siracusa’s older part, the island of Ortigia. It turned out to be rather expensive in the end, but not worth worrying too much about. And there were toilets.

SiracusaWe took lunch at pretty much the first place we came to, since it was past two o’clock, and then explored Ortigia. The winding lanes of the medieval street plan are quirky and interesting, but the open plaza in front of the cathedral is the most impressive baroque space we saw on the whole trip.

The cathedral itself is one of those recycled religious spaces. Originally a Greek temple to Athena, under Roman rule it was dedicated to Minerva, and then the Byzantines made it a church, until the Arabs converted it to a mosque. Then the Normans made it a church again. In the eighteenth century, it was built up with the current baroque façade and portico, although in the early 20th century some of the baroque walls were stripped to reveal Athena’s massive Doric columns.

It cost us €2 to get into the cathedral, but it was pointed out that we then got discount on a visit to either of the two catacombs on mainland Siracusa. We toured the rest of Ortigia, and then set out for Santa Lucia and her catacombs, being the nearest.

Fonte AretusaAfter a brief detour into Lucia’s church, we realised that the catacombs were accessed from an octagonal oratory opposite. This was erected over the saint’s tomb in the baroque period, and its construction involved destruction of some of the upper layers of the catacombs. But those were just the graves of ordinary Christians, so they didn’t matter.

The irony of it all is that when the building was put up, Lucy’s tomb was already empty. Her remains were stolen by the Longobard Duke of Spoleto in the 700s and then had an itinerant and badly-doumented history, from Abruzzo to Byzantium to Bourges to Venice. In 1981, the Venice bones, supposedly of Santa Lucia, were stolen but recovered. Siracusa still wants them back.

The tomb tour took us past half-past-five, which, puzzlingly, is the time that antiquities close in Siracusa. It meant we were too late to get in to see the famous Greek theatre, but we walked that way anyway, hoping to see at least something, even by peering through a fence, but no, we saw nuthin’. (Well, hardly nuthin’. You could just see the quarries of the Latomie.)

It had been a long walk across a hot and dusty modern city and I felt like leaving. We drove home, and went out to one of the other pizza places in Marina di Modica. This proved to be as good as their competitor across the street, and the staff were very friendly. We got free limoncello.

    Siracusa Siracusa

Tuesday

Lunch at home, before setting out for nearby Punta Secca, or “Marinella” as it pretends to be in Commissario Montalbano. The Commissario’s house (normally a B&B when not in action for filming) had removals men working. I wondered if they were preparing it for a new series.

Casa Montalbano Punta Secca

Enzo's Montalbano
A short walk along the promenade led us to the Commissario’s lunch-time restaurant, Enzo’s, but it was closed. A menu on the wall showed that “L’Antipasto del Commissario” was a steep €20. I think they’re milking it. A couple of beers by the sea wall, a walk on Montalbano’s beach, and some photos of the lighthouse, and we had sampled all of Punta Secca’s delights. We moved on, to Scicli.
Selfie at Montalbano's
It looks a bit like “Sicily” but it’s pronounced “Sheekly”, and it’s another regular set for filming Montalbano. The town hall is the front door of police headquarters (with the obvious “Municipio” cropped out), and the mostly-dry river courses have featured too. We found the latter to be full of cats. It is my theory that you’ll have either cats or water, but not both.

Scicli Movie set

ScicliI liked the scale and mixed baroque-medieval ambience of Scicli, especially as the sun began to go down and become golden. When we completed our tour, we decided that it was essential to sample real Sicilian cannoli. It was puzzling that we had never seen any displayed in pasticcerie, and didn’t see any here, so we went in and asked. “Avete cannoli?” “Certo.” Of course. Are you mad? We certainly sell cannoli. But they are not on display. They must be made fresh.

We sat down in the piazza to eat them. Delicious, but rich, and larger than I expected.

 Scicli ScicliScicli

la Grotta, ScicliWe’d seen “La Grotta”, a restaurant in a cave, on our tour of the town, and decided to try it for dinner. Our timing was perfect, in that we got an unreserved table just before the place filled up. It really is in a cave. Grace had fish soup with couscous, including an entire giant prawn, while I had pork.

Wednesday

For our last full day, we decided not to do too much travelling. We drove the short distance to Pozzallo, and took a look at their main shopping street, without finding anything to buy. At “Tropical Sandwich” we sampled the other Sicilian foodstuff we’d heard about, the arancini. Although there were several varieties on the menu, they only had the basic type with ragu inside, but those were good.

PozzalloWith stuff in the fridge to use up, we thought dinner at home would be the best idea, and Grace suggested buying some fresh fish. We were in Sicily, after all, although there would be a slight compromise, since I’m not a fish person (e.g. giant prawns). In a pescheria, we first asked after tuna, but there was none. Our similar options were salmon and swordfish, and I asked innocently for two swordfish steaks. Well, the swordfish torso that the fishmonger brought out was a large as a human’s, and he cut two generous slices, over 750g in all. That came to a handsome €19, but what the hell, we bought it and drove home.

A swim (for Grace), a final walk around the village, and purchasing a nice white wine for our fish took us home just as the sun was setting. Since we had no real idea about the best way to cook swordfish steaks, Grace opted for frying in olive oil (they barely fitted in our pan) while I did a tomato and pancetta sauce.

The fish was delicious, but between us, we could only consume about three-quarters. Rather than bin the remainder, I put it on a plate and we went out into the quiet streets to find some cats. They loved us. “Friends for life” said Grace, but then she doesn’t know cats like I do.

One of the other remnants in the fridge was a pair of mini bottles of prosecco. At midnight, we took them down to the shore and toasted our holiday. Cin-cin!

  Marina di Modica Marina di Modica

Thursday

Our landlady was due before ten to check us out of the apartment (the bottle of wine, prosecco and finishing off our limoncello the night before may not have been wise). But we were ready to go on schedule and the apartment was presentable. “‘Til the next time,” said Simona. I’d go back in an instant.

ModicaModica is another of the UNESCO-listed baroque towns, and we’d only glimpsed the modern outskirts as we’d arrived the previous Thursday. It was also on the way to the airport, although our deadline (returning the hire car) wasn’t until six. With no real idea of the geography of the town, I simply drove towards “Centro” and then looked for parking. It wasn’t a perfect strategy, but we struck lucky and came upon free parking at Viale Medaglie D’Oro, with another of the high motorway bridges almost above our heads.

ModicaIt was only a short walk to Corso Umberto I, the main street of the old town. That is the “low” old town, because there is also a “Modica Alta”. We went into the cathedral and when we came out, the terrace outside was being used to film… something. There was a group of dancers, some pretend musicians with plastic trumpets, two girls with hula hoops, and two traditional mafiosi. I’d already seen from the tourist tat that there must be an image of the old mafiosi as lovable rogues with moustaches, red scarves, berets and sawn-off shotguns. That’s what these two were like. No mention of drugs, bombs or murder.

The next step was to visit Modica Alta. Or rather, lots of steps. Lots and lots. But it’s worth it for the views and the architecture. At the base of the long flight of steps up to San Giovanni Evangelista, there was a pizzeria where we had full-sized pizzas for lunch, before descending (mainly by road this time) to the lower town.

I noticed that visitors could go into the cloisters of the town hall. There was a little art exhibition too, which kept us amused for a few minutes andthen we prepared to leave. But what was that noise? A sudden thunderstorm, torrential. The courtyard quickly became a pond, put we were under cover under the arches. We waited it out, and when the rain eased, went for a coffee.

MafiosiModica

It was still raining a little when we finished, and we walked briskly to the refuge of the car. We dried off with the car’s heater and then I programmed the sat-nav to get us back to Hertz. It did choose an idiosyncratic route, cross-country along some dirt tracks, but I can’t complain, since we emerged exactly at the right point. The Hertz people took us the few kilometres to the airport.

Modica Modica
Modica Modica

Friday

There shouldn’t really have been a “Friday” on this blog, but out flight was late arriving at Dublin by about an hour, making it one in the morning by the time we’d disembarked. (Our outward flight had also been late, by about 20 minutes.)

We got on the shuttle bus for the Blue car park, and it took us right up to our parking spot. The car keyfob disarmed the alarm and sprung the doors as expected and we loaded the luggage and took our places for the trip home. But disaster! Opening the doors was the last gasp of the depleted battery. The engine would not start. By this time, it was after one-thirty.

I’d seen that the kiosk at the gates to the car park had been manned with a live person, and I set off to seek help (several hundred metres away). But before I’d gone far, I saw a tow truck approach, and watched as it pulled in. There was another driver suffering from a flat battery! The tow truck man said “Sure, no bother,” when I told him I needed help too, and he came over right away and jump-started us.

After that, it was plain sailing, although I was paranoid about stalling before the battery was recharged. I took Grace to her house first, and then I came home to mine. I went straight to bed. It was 04:10.

Man Walks In Front Of Car With Flag

This is a blog I published on the 8th of May 2008, or roughly six and a half years ago. It notes the ridiculousness of sticking bits of paper to your car windscreen. Well, as of this month, British drivers no longer need to display a tax disc, but in Northern Ireland there’s still a requirement to show the “MOT” or roadworthyness disc. NI civil servants still stuck in the Victorian age? Hardly surprising.


It’s not unreasonable that older cars should be subject to annual roadworthiness testing. In Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, we have a scheme that’s far superior to the one in Great Britain. There, the testing is devolved to the motor trade, where the garage which tests your car is also allowed to do any repairs. That’s a recipe for conflict of interest.

In Ireland, it’s a government agency that does the testing. Completely impartial.
mot-disc
For a few years, the Northern Ireland test certificate has included a perforated disc that you could tear out and stick to your window alongside the tax disc. But as of the start of this month, displaying the disc has become compulsory.

That’s about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. How long would it take me to edit and print a fake one on my computer? “Ah,” says the civil servant who thought of the idea, “But the police have a computer in their car and can look up your registration to see if you are legal.”

Exactly! Whether or not I’m displaying a disc is completely immaterial. The real record of my test is in the government agency’s computers, not in a piece of paper. For the same reason, it’s equally ridiculous that the car has to display a tax disc anyway. In fact, the police have a camera system that can read car registrations automatically, and check that your tax is current, and send you a court summons in the post, all  without human intervention.

But you still have to stick a piece of paper to the windscreen, or face a £200 fine. Fine.

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