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.)


A Whiter Shade of Pale

I don’t much like Google’s data-slurping, and have set my default search engine to DuckDuckGo, but I’ve continued to use Google’s maps. (I do also use Openstreetmap, and even Bing Maps sometimes.)

But, maybe it’s my old eyes, but Google’s map colour scheme is now so washed out that I find it almost unusable. Road edges are light grey on a white background, for example. I’d imagine that someone who is genuinely vision-impaired would find the product totally useless.


To check that the problem wasn’t with some “feature” of Firefox, I tried Chromium (the slightly-less snooping-enabled version of Google’s Chrome) but the maps looked the same. However, my internet searches revealed that there is a High Contrast extension for Chrome, and it works perfectly.


I couldn’t find a similar add-on for Firefox. There are configuration settings for Accessibility, but they affect all sites, and only work if you have a high-contrast desktop theme. Firefox is adopting a new framework for extensions, supposedly compatible with Chrome, so maybe High Contrast will become available.

But the question remains: what do the Google map developers think they’re playing at?

Floating Voter


I’ve voted in every election I’ve been eligible for since I came of age. I don’t quite know how many that would have been, but maybe twenty to thirty.

And I’ve NEVER voted for a candidate who was elected. I think that’s because I genuinely vote by conscience in that I choose the candidate whose views or whose party policies most closely coincide with my own. My own opinions obviously are very unpopular: democracy, justice and equality.

Well, to be honest, once I voted “tactically”. I voted for David Trimble, UUP First Minister of Northern Ireland, who was at risk of losing his Westminster seat to the more extreme DUP. I had some sympathy for Trimble, who had struggled to get his party to vote to give him a mandate for negotiating power-sharing in Northern Ireland. (In contrast, the DUP — like their opponents/partners Sinn Féin — don’t have to bother getting formal membership approval. The party leaders do what they like.) Trimble was defeated and lost his seat as MP.

One one other occasion, I “spoiled” my ballot paper by drawing on an extra box at the bottom and writing “None of the above” in it. That was when the only candidates in my constituency were from the four main sectarian parties (SF, SDLP, DUP & UUP) in Northern Ireland.

I call those parties “sectarian” and won’t be voting for them based on the fact that each has a non-negotiable policy on the future status of Northern Ireland. I realise that, technically, that isn’t the same as being sectarian, but in the context of Northern Ireland, it certainly is, and the parties gleefully exploit it. Hence the previous election pacts between the UUP and DUP, pursuing sectarianism and relegating actual policy differences to insignificance. SF wanted similar pacts with the SDLP, which rejected the approaches, to the party’s credit.

I could vote for the non-sectarian Alliance Party, but I find their economic and social values too right-wing. They also allow members to vote against party policy by “conscience” without sanction, and these issues tend to be about gay rights and other equality matters which mean something to me.

In the upcoming election, that leaves me with Greens, the Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee, and Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol. While the last is undoubtedly true, I don’t think a single-issue party is for me. Even if they remember to turn up.

I’d probably vote for a Corbynista Labour candidate if one was allowed to stand, and hence the “Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee” — candidates who support Labour, but want the party’s Northern Ireland ban to be abolished. Is that also a single-issue party? Although they do come out against Tory “austerity” (“austerity” means “economic illiteracy”.)

I agree with the Green Party about a lot. They’re anti-austerity, pro-democracy, pro-people, pro-choice, pro-queer and pro-environment. Though I think the party’s opposition to fracking is childish and uninformed, based largely on shit off the internet. I oppose fracking too, but because it’s a fossil fuel, even if it’s a far less harmful fossil fuel than coal or oil. Lurid fears of contamination are not something I share, but regardless, the investment should be in renewables instead.

Where does that leave me? 1 & 2 preference votes are going to have to be the two parties last-mentioned. I’ll see on Thursday how I feel.

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.

Nation Status

I was in Barcelona for a few days recently, my first visit. It’s an exciting and vibrant city, full of culture and history; and rich in facilities and activities for the many tourists.

Signs and notices are usually in both Catalan and (Castilian) Spanish, and often in English too, for tourist purposes. Being interested in languages, and unfamiliar with Catalan, I was intrigued with its differences and similarities compared to other languages. Some words are like their Spanish equivalent, but others are like the French and others like the Italian. (I don’t know any Portuguese, but I’ll bet there are parallels there too.)

Catalan is treated as the first of the two official languages in the region, a reflection of Catalan nationalism, and I saw lots of examples of “l’Estelada”, the pro-independence flag, on apartment balconies and elsewhere.

Fine. Why not? If they want independence, why can’t they have it? After all, there was a referendum or something.

Coat of Arms of CataloniaBut I got to thinking. I’m generally an anti-nationalist, because nationalism is always based on myths about history, ethnicity and identity, generally with right-wing flavouring and a dash of xenophobia. The whole idea is “WE are not like THEM” and that’s always flat wrong. Really, we’re all alike. Fascists love nationalism, of course. It’s a great tool for persuading people to do as they’re told.

I grew up in Northern Ireland, and became utterly disillusioned with all forms of nationalism at an early age after witnessing its effects. I have absolutely zero emotional attachment to either a “British” or “Irish” identity, and I think that an avid devotion to either is a sign of inadequate personal development. Meaning in life should come from within, not from an imaginary relationship with thousands of people you’ve never met.

So why didn’t I instinctively group Catalan nationalists with the bigots I knew from home? Why did Catalan nationalism seem benign? In one word: ignorance. Mine, that is. I had no idea that opinion in the region is split roughly equally between those who favour independence from Spain and those who oppose it; and I still have little understanding of the issues which are argued.

I’ll try to learn my lesson and not assume that everyone else’s nationalism is harmless, although, of course, it might be. I’ll remember my ignorance and not rush to judgements. And watch out for fascists.

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.