Trust Us, We’re the Government

The Transportation Security Administration in the USA licenses two companies to design luggage locks which can be opened without damage by TSA agents if they need to search a case. The TSA has a set of master keys — the correct one to use should be indicated on the lock, for example, saying “TSA002”. If the agents need to open a case which has an unapproved lock, they will break in.

I have no idea how many master keys have been issued, but they are in use at 450 airports, so the number must be in the thousands. And are all TSA employees so well-rewarded and motivated that they are incorruptible? No.

TSA-lockTherefore, I imagine that professional criminals got copies of the keys as soon as they were issued, if not before. But then the Washington Post innocently published a photo of the master keys, which allowed smart amateurs to code up a 3-D printer file. You can now download it and print your own, working, master keys.

Now, anyone with an interest in security would have predicted this exact outcome when the idea of a “secret” key for everyone’s baggage was suggested. A security mechanism with a “back door” which can be opened by officials can always be opened by criminals too.

And guess what the security agencies are always asking for? A “back door” into secure computer products. Of course, they say, access would only be granted to highly-trusted officials. Nobody else would know the secret codes. Absolutely not.

The lock on your luggage is supposed to prevent the contents being stolen, or at least, to keep them private. (One TSA agent was sacked after he left a note in a passenger’s suitcase, congratulating her on her ‘sexy” underwear.) The little lock icon in your browser’s address bar indicates the same purpose: you can reduce the risk of criminals stealing from you, and you can keep your browsing private.

For some people, it’s more than that, a matter of life and death. If you lived in, say, Saudi Arabia, you would really, really want your communications to be secure. They crucify or behead bloggers there.

Every time the CIA or GCHQ or the like try to lobby politicians, asking for back doors to be made legally compulsory, security experts point out the stupidity of the idea, and the weakness of the argument in favour of them, which usually amounts to “Wooo! Terrorists!”. Just the other day, the French government responded to their spooks to say that back doors were out of the question. But they always come back.

In the UK, there’s a new government-approved standard — Secure Chorus — for voice encryption. And guess what: it doesn’t so much have a back door as a gigantic back hangar door that you could fly a jumbo jet through. It’s not compulsory though. Yet.

Traditional intelligence and policing work is hard. It can work, but it needs time, manpower and loads of money. The intelligence agencies will keep asking for back doors because they think it would make their job easier. Collateral damage to citizens is not a consideration. Just look at the tens of thousands of thefts per year in American airport baggage handling.


Who Am I?

I wanted on line access to my income tax records, so I had to register with a commercial identity verification service. Of the ones in the scheme, I chose the good old Post Office, because Prime Minister Corbyn is going to re-nationalise it, as in civilized countries like France and Germany.

The Post Office web-based process is simplest, because you only need to prove you have a mobile phone (for two-factor authentication); a credit or debit card in your own name; a passport; and a UK driving licence. For the banking bit, they charge 0p to the card to ensure that it exists, but for the passport and driving licence, they can look them up in the government databases.

Except they can’t. The system doesn’t accept a licence issued in Northern Ireland, although it looks as though they might have thought about it: there’s an “Issuer” field, but it’s disabled.

qrcode.annaghvarnPlan B, then, was to use the Post Office Android app. It worked, but it all seemed… odd. First, you use the app to read a QR code which the website shows you. Then, the app brings up a camera window, which you use to photograph your passport. Finally, another camera with a head-and-shoulders outline, which you use to frame a selfie. Or two, rather, because it wants you to move in a three-dimensional manner between shots to prove you aren’t a flat photograph.

Then it uploads the results, and some humans (probably) in an office somewhere try to read your passport details and compare the selfie with the passport photo. Mine failed the first time because the passport image wasn’t good enough. Passports won’t sit flat, so the next time I put it under a sheet of glass.

With the app, you only need the passport, not the driving licence, because it’s a “more secure” process. Hmmm. Maybe.

Head in the Cloud

plate cameraI’ve just counted, and I have 43,478 digital photos. That’s 112Gb of storage, which isn’t actually a lot these days. Buy a new PC today and it will probably have 500Gb or 1000Gb.

Of course, you’d be crazy to keep your irreplaceable photograps only on your PC, especially if it’s a laptop that can be lost or stolen. And hard drives break. (Sometimes software — even system software — goes beserk and renders the data inacessible but at least you can usually recover it.)

So, like a good nerd, I back up my photos. The master copy is on a home server, but there is a duplicate on an external drive, and another copy on a swappable caddy that slots into my laptop. I also make a DVD copy of the new photos every so often, even though I know that writeable DVDs have a lifetime of only around 10 years.

But I can’t help feeling a bit like the old yokel who keeps cash under the mattress “because he doesn’t trust the banks”. I should be backing up my photos to the “cloud”, or as I prefer to think of it, to someone else’s hard drive.

There are many services available, but the free ones don’t remotely meet my needs for storage space: I’d need to use a paid service. I took a look at CloudMe as an example, and 200Gb (barely enough) costs €14 a month, €168 a year. (I picked CloudMe because their servers are in civilized Sweden and they have good encryption and Linux software.)

Right now, that would buy me a 5Tb drive with USB3, and I imagine that it will be cheaper next year, or I’ll be getting more storage for the same price. Drives don’t last forever, but all I need to do is buy a new one every year, and I’d still be saving money.

There is a risk though. All my data would be in the same physical location; in one house anyway. If my house burned down, or an airliner fell on it, or — I don’t know — one of my neighbours was playing with EMP devices, I’d lose all my photos. I might need to think about this a bit more.

Je Suis C̶h̶a̶r̶l̶i̶e̶ François

In a way, it’s a relief that Pope Francis has come out with an outrageously anti-progressive statement about restricting free speech. I’d been lulled into an idea of him being quite a nice guy — possibly the least evil Pope in the history of the Papacy — but I’m now reminded that he is the dictatorial head of an organisation responsible for ignorance, misery and poverty throughout the world.

If you missed it, Francis said that free speech was OK, except when it comes to mocking religion. In fact, he made the bizarre comparison between mocking religion and cursing his mother, and even indicated that violence was a normal response.

I wonder what he thinks of the case of Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1000 lashes in public flogging for “insulting Islam” in Saudi Arabia. (Since 1000 lashes would kill a person, they’re compassionately giving him 50 a week.) Pope Francis presumably thinks he deserves it.

When I was growing up, it was popularly held that “you should not mock someone’s sincerely-held beliefs”, and at first I didn’t think to challenge that. But I began to think “but what if the sincerely-held beliefs are completely stupid?”. If someone really thinks that Queen Elizabeth is a monstrous lizard, might we not be a little scornful?

If someone believes that there’s a big man in the sky who watches their every move, it’s worth a laugh, surely. If some people sincerely believe that they have the right to regulate who falls in love with whom, they’re setting themselves up for mockery, don’t you think?

If you mock my sincerely-held beliefs (assuming I can think of any) I might shrug. I might even quietly ask myself if the mockery is justified. But I wouldn’t be outraged, because I’ve been educated to have a scientific point of view in which all beliefs are provisional, pending disproof.

The reason that religious people get so angry at mockery is that they invest their whole sense of self in whatever package of ideas they have come to believe. I don’t think mockery can change most of them, but if it exposes the ridiculous side of their “sincerely-held beliefs”, it might nudge others away from falling into the trap.

Hebdo Cover

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.
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.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.)


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” []. 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.


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!