Faster, Pussycat

babbageWhen a Linux system starts up, it calculates the processor speed. (I don’t know why. I can’t imagine timing loops going on in the kernel.)

In the early days of ‘mini’ computers, manufacturers invented the term “MIPS” — “million instructions per second” — for marketing purposes. “Or processor does more MIPS than yours, nyaah nyaah nyaah.”

Commentators pointed out that the number of instructions per second meant different things on different processors. One company’s machine could easily be faster doing real work than another’s which had a higher MIPS rating. One response was to try to compare speed to a specific standard, for example “VAX MIPS” after Digital Equipment Corporation’s VAX mini.

More cynical observers simply redefined MIPS to mean “meaningless indication of processor speed”.

Another feature of that heady period of computer innovation was the language. I don’t mean Pascal and Ada; I refer to the spoken language of nerds as documented in the “Hacker’s Dictionary“. There were useful terms. For example, software might not be working because it is “broken” — contains a bug — or it might not be working because it is “brain-damaged” — designed wrongly from the start.

I still tend to use some of the words (in my head, at least), one of which is “bogus”. In normal English, it means counterfeit or fake, but in Hacker there’s a wider meaning, including useless or incorrect. “Man, your hashing algorithm is totally bogus.”

(I think I remember Bill and Ted using “bogus” in the Hacker sense. This and other Hacker terms leaked into Californian slacker culture. Excellent!)

The Linux indication of processor speed, printed out on startup, is “bogomips”.

(I’m trying to resurrect a tiny laptop I pulled out of a skip a number of years ago. A 300MHz Mobile Pentium MMX processor, coming in at 600.84 bogomips. In comparison, my everyday computer has two processor cores, each rated at 4991.12 bogomips.)

Without a Paddle

“Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of madness.” Words along those lines are often attributed to Einstein, but then the internet is awash with things he didn’t say. Him and the Dalai Lama.

Anyway, the Labour party had a disastrous time in the UK’s 2015 general election. Since the party had won three successive elections since 1997 under Tony Blair, some people in the party believe that the way to win elections is to be more Blair-like. That is, more right-wing.

That’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of history. In 1997, John Major’s incumbent Conservative government was in disarray, widely considered to be corrupt and incompetent. Major himself was derided as weak and foolish. By the time of the election, many moderate Conservatives had lost faith in the party and were ripe for poaching.

I say “many”. But because of the UK’s peculiar first-past-the-post voting system, small swings in electoral support cause big changes in the representation in parliament. The Conservative share of the total vote fell from about 42% to 31% compared to the previous election, while Labour’s share grew from 34% to 43%.

If we accept the one-dimensional model of political allegiance, we might guess that Blair’s right-wing “New Labour” successfully attracted the votes of some disillusioned Conservatives, while retaining the majority of its traditional centre-left support.

By 2001, at the next general election, the Conservative party was in better shape — slightly — but the new leader William Hague was doing little to improve their electability. Blair’s New Labour won again, with a share of the vote only slightly down from 43% to 41%. But the real headline news of the election was the drop in turnout. In 1997, 71% of voters had participated. In 2001, it was only 59%.

What was happening? A general lack of faith in the political system? In politicians? Whatever it was, Tony Blair carried on doing what he was doing, even though his personal popularity was in decline. His decision to involve the UK in the Iraq war of 2003 was controversial and unpopular, particularly among long-standing Labour supporters. At the next general election, Labour’s share of the vote had declined again, from 41% to 35% and the turnout was only a little up, at 61%.

By the next election in 2010, the Conservative party had been under the leadership of David Cameron for five years. Cameron had worked to modernise his party and to some degree had managed to suppress the “swivel-eyed loon” faction. In contrast, Gordon Brown had become leader of the Labour party (and hence Prime Minister) but had little charisma and low popularity. His policies continued to follow the right-wing New Labour line.

Labour leadership candidates 2015There had been a huge global economic crash under Brown (first as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister) which had been caused by financial institutions trading recklessly in risky debt. The bankers had believed that their clever financial products protected them from risk, even though that was mathematically impossible. The crash was inevitable, but in spite of the clear evidence of bankers’ incompetence, the Conservatives claimed that the Labour government were to blame. (And have continued to do so.)

So Labour’s share of the vote declined again, from 35% to 29%, while the Conservatives became the largest party in parliament, having gained 36% of the vote. They didn’t have a majority, but formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. (The latter had 23% of the vote, a modern record for them, but only 8% of parliamentary seats, again a quirk of the first-past-the-post system.)

The new government proceeded to inflict “austerity” on the nation. That is, reducing government expenditure and cutting taxes. In effect, a strategy of “trickle-up economics”, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The argument for “austerity” is that it is required in order for the government to balance its books and not get into debt. In fact, it actually depresses the economy and reduces government income from taxation, making the debt problem worse. Few economists think that “austerity” is a smart idea. I suspect that even Conservatives don’t buy the logic of it, but they like the result: lower taxes for the rich.

You’d think then that by 2015 and the latest general election, the Labour party would be ideally positioned to inspire the electorate to reject austerity and vote for prosperity. After all, millions of people were financially worse-off after five years under the coalition government. But that wasn’t the approach the party took. Instead, the party leaders decided to campaign on the basis of “nice” austerity. Conservative austerity, but not being quite so nasty to the poor and disadvantaged.

It didn’t work. Admittedly, the Labour party’s share of the vote increased from 29% to 30%, but they lost 26 parliamentary seats. The Conservatives increased their share of the vote too, to 37%, and gained enough seats in parliament to have a small majority. The most sensational results, though, were the gains by the Scottish National Party, and the losses by the Liberal Democrats. In almost mirror fashion, the LibDems went from 56 seats to 8, while the SNP went from 6 to 56, but the causes were probably not exactly the same.

Traditional Liberal Democrat supporters probably deserted the party because of its part in the coalition government. The party leaders argued that their presence in government had “moderated” Conservative policies, again trying to make austerity “nicer”.

The situation in Scotland was more complex. Labour and Conservatives had campaigned against independence for Scotland in the 2014 referendum, which reinforced the impression that they were indistinguishable. I also suspect that Scots who had voted against independence on the basis of promises for more devolved powers were feeling betrayed when the new devolution proposals fell short of what they believed had been offered.

But the SNP also offered a clear, socialist, anti-austerity message. The result was their landslide, and 50% of the vote in Scotland. A party which could reproduce that result across the UK would end up with a huge majority in Parliament.

The Labour party has a choice now. Continue doing the same thing over and over; or adapt to the politics of 2015.

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.

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.


candleOn this International Holocaust Memorial Day, I was musing to myself about what turns normal people into the perpetrators of genocide, not just in Nazi Germany, but in Bosnia, Rwanda, and many other places. It seems to me that one fundamental flaw in the human personality is obedience to authority.

In 1963, the psychologist Stanley Milgram published the findings from his now-famous experiments, which were designed to push subjects to the limits of obedience. A disturbingly-high fraction of the subjects carried on, even when they believed that they were inflicting serious pain, perhaps lethally, on the “victim”.

It’s all to easy to believe that our own behaviour would have been different. We would have been one of the rebels, surely. Maybe so. For myself, I know that I am inherently contemptuous of authority but my life has been safe and uneventful. If my courage was put to the test, would I belong to the Righteous, or would I be a tacit accomplice?

Milgram was actually inspired to probe compliance the year that Adolf Eichmann was tried for his war crimes, and the atrocities of the Holocaust came to mind again. But I don’t think that the sin of obedience explains everything. For one thing, Milgram’s subjects were under immediate pressure to comply, unlike the majority of participants in genocide. And they didn’t hate and despise the people who were suffering (they thought).

In the Nazi Holocaust, people had already been educated to see the victims as “√úntermenschen”, subhumans; and this relates to another major flaw in human nature. We all have an instinct to identify “our” group and fear outsiders. Research has shown both that this xenophobia is completely inherent to the human psyche, and trivially easy to manipulate. Test subjects assigned randomly to a “team” always demonstrate an unconsious bias that their random team-mates are better people than those on other teams.

In fact, that’s exactly what fascists use to persuade people to do their dirty work: they use the random fact of your nationality to make you think that you’re part of their team. Are you “proud” of being whatever nationality you think of as yours? It makes you fascist-fodder.

These then are my two resolutions for International Holocaust Memorial Day: I will refuse to obey authority; and I will have allegiance only to one group, all of humanity.

Post-It Notes

PostboxPost Codes were introduced in the UK in the nineteen-sixties, although parts of Fermanagh weren’t absorbed into the system until the eighties or later.

Rather than adopting a five- or six-digit numeric system like most countries (such as the American Zip Code), the Royal Mail idiosyncratically developed a letter-plus-number system based on postal districts.

And it’s a fucking shambles. There is no consistent format – although the commonest is two letters, two numbers, space, one number, two letters (call it AA99 9AA), there are numerous variations. London formats are either AA9A 9AA or A99 9AA. Oh, wait a minute, they can also be AA99 9AA. Or A9 9AA. Other large cities — Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham etc. — generally have the A9 9AA form, but there’s no way to tell a priori if a city is “big” enough to be coded that way.

It’s impossible to design software that can validate a post code, except by exhaustively testing it against each known type, and Royal Mail introduces new ones from time-to-time, so you have to keep up. One programming website facetiously suggests that if you’re writing code to handle addresses, the only way to determine if a post code is correct is to have the software print and post a letter to it, and see if it arrives.

Royal Mail devoted a lot of advertising to educate the public in the post code scheme, and it’s become part of the fabric of life. Most of us add the post code when we address a letter.

Only one major organisation doesn’t use post codes: Royal Mail. The system is so unworkable that they had to develop a new, 5-digit numeric system called Mailsort for delivering mail.¬† Just like American Zip Codes.

Here Comes The Sun

Arch of Constantine, CanellettoToday, 28th October, is calculated to be the exact anniversary of the battle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome, where rival Roman Emperors (and brothers-in-law) Constantine and Maxentius personally led their armies against each other in the year 312. Maxentius made some bad tactical decisions and his forces lost badly to those of Constantine.

The victory allowed Constantine to become sole Emperor of the Western Empire, and during his reign Christianity was first legalized (in 313, along with all other non-Roman religions) and then gradually grew in respectability and importance. (It is commonly thought that Constantine made Christianity the Empire’s official religion, but that step occurred much later under Emperor Theodosius.)

Late in life, and struck with a serious illness, Constantine registered himself as a candidate for Christian baptism, a process which would have required a period of religious instruction. However, he died soon after. Later Christian sources embellished the story of his death to the point where it’s hard to work out what really happened, but it’s certainly possible that he was baptised a Christian before death.

Christians of the time, and in later centuries, were so grateful for Constantine’s support that his pro-Christian measures tended to be exaggerated and his adherence to traditional Roman religion ignored. As with many prior and subsequent saints, fictional episodes and embellishments were added to the story of his life.

One of these is probably the best-known story about Constantine. Prior to the battle at the Milvian Bridge, it was said, Constantine had a vision or dream, in which God told him to have his troops put a divine symbol on the front of their shields. In some versions, it’s the cross. In others, it’s the Chi-Rho monogram. Constantine was told “Through this sign, conquer.” And the rest is history.

The preceding paragraph isn’t history though. It’s a Christian fairy story. At the time of the battle, Constantine was promoting the Roman cult of Sol Invictus, “the invincible Sun”. After the victory, the new government of Constantine commissioned a triumphal arch opposite and framing the large statue of Sol Invictus, with sculptures relating the story of the battle.

Constantine’s victory arch still stands in Rome, and you can read the graphic novel strip of his exploits in the sculptures. And there, in the section showing the battle at the Milvian Bridge, you can see that the soldiers actually do have a divine symbol on the front of their shields. It’s the Sun sign of Sol Invictus.