We're all going to drown

The BBC reports that the global sea level is rising and we're all going to die:

The study's headline conclusion is that the polar ice sheets have overall contributed 11.1mm to sea level rise but with a "give or take" uncertainty of 3.8mm - meaning the contribution could be as little as 7.3mm or as much as 14.9mm.
14mm a year! That's over 5.1 meters per century! Vast areas of low-lying land will be inundated! We're all doomed!

Oh, wait:

Another author, Dr Hamish Pritchard of the British Antarctic Survey, said: "The next big challenge - now that we've got quite a good understanding of what's happened over the last 20 years - is to predict what will happen over the next century."
So it's 14mm (worst case) over 20 years. 70 mm (7 cm) in a century. Whoop-de-doo. Can we please put the myth of catastrophic sea rise to bed?

I particularly liked the comment:

The findings are in line with the broad range of forecasts in the 2007 assessment by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In 2007 they had 15 of the 20 years of data already, and they were trying to forecast the final 5 years. Colour me unimpressed. Forecast 20 years in the future with reasonable accuracy, and maybe we'll listen. What does "broad range" mean, anyway? Presumably not "claimed range"?


Break open the popcorn!

This should be interesting: a gay French-Algerian man is planning to open the world's first gas mosque in Paris:

Mr Zahed says the mosque, situated in a Buddhist chapel in Paris, will also break another Islamic taboo by refusing to segregate women and men.
You have to admire the guy's minerals, even if you don't personally agree with his life choices. I can imagine that the reaction from Paris's resident Muslim community is going to be, erm, "spirited". Hope the congregation at the new mosque can afford good security, because I think they're going to need it.

So this is going to be an interesting choice for the more conservative-minded French citizens. Do they condemn him as a gay marriage proponent, or do they applaud him for confronting militant Islam and sexual segregation? It should be fascinating to watch. Good luck, Mr. Zahed, and I strongly suggest you ensure you have good home security and a fully paid up life insurance policy (before the insurance company finds out what you're doing)


It's not prejudice if it's accurate

An expat friend of mine, acquainted with my political prejudices, sent me a copy of a magazine that his child brought home from school. His child is in the US public school system, and anyone who considers the US public education system to be a bunch of lefty commie pinkos would find their hearts warmed by the magazine's content. The magazine in question is "Scholastic News" (November 19, 2012, Edition 3), published in Missouri by Scholastic, Inc. The lead article is on Obama's re-election:

President Barack Obama will lead the U.S. for four more years. On November 6 he was elected to a second term as President of the United States. Obama is a Democrat. He defeated Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate. [So far, so good]
Obama was first elected President in 2008. He made history as our country's first African-American President. [Well, technically, African-American-Caucasian since his mother Ann Durham was mostly of white English ancestry.]
When Obama took office, many Americans were out of work. [And when he was re-elected, about the same percent were out of work: 7.8% in Jan 2009 vs 7.9% in Oct 2012].
He put together a plan to help save peoples' jobs and create new ones. [And what a triumph that was, see above.] He also signed a new health-care bill into law [which is making firms move full time workers to part time in order to avoid huge additional employment costs] and ended America's war in Iraq [which was drawing to a close anyway; in the meantime, anyone want to mention Afghanistan?]
"Whether you want to start a business, be a great doctor, or build something that's never been done before, I want to make sure that our young people have the chance to do it," Obama told Amiri. [And then he'll tell them they didn't build that.]
Good grief. Scholastic wouldn't know political neutrality if it was shoved up Scholastic's corporate posterior. Even The Guardian would be ashamed to publish a piece like this as news.

Scholastic is a company with $2bn annual revenue, 9500 employees worldwide, quoted on the NASDAQ (SCHL). Interestingly it looks like they took a real bath last week since investors are worried about the effect of federal spending cuts on them. I wonder whether their attempts to promote Obama are related to this?


Let's give control of the Net to China and Russia!

Following on from the European Parliament voting to keep the Internet out of the hands of the ITU, we have the Chinese "People's Daily Online" "editorial team" arguing for the opposite - placing ICANN firmly under the thumb of the ITU. One can only imagine about the divergence between the opinions of the People's Daily editors and the Communist Party leadership; I suspect you'd find it hard to slip a sheet of rice paper between them.

It's fairly clear what the Chinese want:

More and more countries are beginning to question the U.S. control over the world's Internet as the international resource should be managed and supervised by all countries together.
Note that, as per the Europarl vote "more and more countries" does not seem to include many of the countries which actually respect freedom of speech. And what will this change consist of?
As a big country on the Internet, China opposes the U.S. unreasonable and unilateral management of the Internet, and seeks to work with the international community to build a new international Internet governance system.
"Governance". Well, we've seen the Chinese and Russian approaches to governance in their countries and the great contributions that they have made to human rights and freedom of speech. This sounds like just the approach that the Internet could benefit from, don't you think?

I submitted a comment to the People's Daily article, since they have a comments box. Oddly, no comments have yet made it through moderation. How strange.


Napolitano chutzpah

Who is the USA's greatest ally? Britain? Canada? Poland?

Apparently, the answer is France:

According to the l'Express report, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano reportedly did not deny the allegations [about hacking French government emails] when asked point-blank about them.
"We have no greater partner than France; we have no greater ally than France," Napolitano reportedly answered, at the opening of an interview with l'Express.
Speechless. A little hyperbole to extract oneself from a sticky situation is acceptable, but this is comparable to the President of Poland reminiscing about the congenial border relations with Germany, or the Chinese Premier inviting the Japanese Premier for a cordial tour of Nanking to celebrate their nations' shared past.

For the record, I don't think that even the most ludicrously optimistic and Europhilic UK government minister would have made this claim. Quite why Napolitano thought she'd get away with it is beyond me.


Europarl in "doing the right thing" shocker

It pains me physically to do this, but I have to applaud a recent Europarl vote: specifically, where the European Parliament is pushing back on the ITU's attempted Internet power grab:

[The European Parliament] believes that the ITU, or any other single, centralised international institution, is not the appropriate body to assert regulatory authority over either internet governance or internet traffic flows," the resolution reads. It was passed by a large majority of EP officials.
For those of you not following this event in detail, the UN-based International Telecommunications Union (which wouldn't know "innovation" if it sidled up and bit it on the arse) has been pushing to be more involved in Internet regulation. This has notably been led by such bastions of freedom and democracy as Russia and China.

Where global Internet regulation really matters is the Domain Name System (DNS), the process whereby a name such as "www.facebook.com" gets translated into a series of numbers such as (the "IP address" of the site). There is a hierarchy of servers providing this look-up, but they end up at the 13 Internet root name servers. If a user in (say) Russia wants to look up information about feminism, she will conduct a Google / Bing / Baidu search for the relevant terms. Baidu will probably not have very many hits, but Google or Bing should point her to relevant sites. With luck, those sites will support the https protocol so anyone eavesdropping on her connection can see that she has connected to an IP address that matches the campusprogress.org site, but not what she is reading about.

The only way that she can normally connect to the campusprogress.org servers is to use DNS to convert the campusprogress.org name to the corresponding IP address. If Russia (via the ITU) can gain control over DNS globally, it can prevent campusprogress.org from obtaining an IP address - and hence shut it out of public awareness. Those in the know can certainly connect to it by entering the IP address directly, but that address form is a lot harder to remember and propagate than the name. The advent of IPv6 will make this even more of an issue. How I suspect this would actually play out is that the rules around purchasing a domain name, and who can serve on one, would suddenly mushroom. There would be various approval processes, codes of conduct, the ability of the ITU to yank or reassign domain names in an essentially arbitrary process... exactly what you expect to happen when totalitarian and bureaucratic organisations get their hands on a global system.

What really bugs me about the ITU power-grab is that it violates the engineering maxim "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The only way the Internet is "broken" from the ITU's perspective is that a) America retains an "unhealthy" amount of theoretical power over the infrastructure of the Net, and b) "unaccountable" organisations like the IETF define the standards by which the Net operates. What it can't articulate is how it would "improve" matters in any tangible way other than by giving governments more control over the Net infrastructure - and I would be fascinated to see an elaboration on this point that goes beyond waving around the phrase "democratic accountability" like a dead cat.


Why is helium now so expensive?

With one of the last remaining Zeppelin operators closing its doors due to rising helium costs, you might wonder why helium is so expensive in the first place when we've been happily filling party balloons with it for the past 15 years at rock-bottom prices.

As you might guess, government is involved:

Though new private helium production plants are set to come online in the coming years —including a Wyoming plant expected to open later this year — private industry hasn't been as interested in producing helium as Congress hoped. Until more companies begin producing helium on their own, consumers are left with spiking prices and tightening supplies.
Under the federal system, those prices are unstable partly because they have less to do with supply and demand than they do about the need for the government, under the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, to pay off the cost of creating the Federal Helium Reserve
Because most of the world's helium is produced in the USA (principally Texas) the US Government gets to set helium prices, and for the past 15 years those prices have been low in an attempt to get rid of the US Federal Helium Reserve - currently around 10bn cubic feet of helium. Now that the US Government has to pay off the multi-$bn cost of creating the reserve in a fairly short time, prices have to spike. Nice one.

I knew helium was produced by uranium and thorium decay, but didn't realise that many natural gas fields contain reclaimable helium. Neither did I realise that escaped helium doesn't just go up to the atmosphere - it is so light that it escapes Earth entirely. So reclaiming it from the atmosphere is out.

For those arguing for greater Government involvement in industrial planning, consider what a mess has been made of an effective near-monopoly position in helium which has no effective substitute in many of its uses.


Proper engineering: Iron Dome

Ignoring the rights and wrongs of the current Israel-Hamas contretemps, what has been interesting is the performance of Iron Dome, the Israeli counter-rocket missile system.

Iron Dome tackles an odd problem which occurs due to the economic asymmetry between Israel and its guerrilla opponents (here, Hamas). It is relatively cheap for Hamas to acquire rockets, smuggle them into suitable locations and fire them at Israel. The rockets have a substantial terror value; you never know when they will be fired, where they will hit, and there is only 15 seconds or so of warning. If they do hit housing areas then casualties are nearly guaranteed

Iron Dome's two key features are therefore 1) providing a relatively cheap guided missile capable of intercepting and destroying an unguided rocket with a high probability of success, and 2) only aiming at rockets which are likely to endanger civilian areas. 2) is reasonably straight forward - it's just an evolution of counter-battery radar which plots the initial trajectory of a mortar or rocket to locate the firing point. Instead of going backwards, however, it plots the trajectory forwards to identify the probable area of impact, and is programmed with a map of vulnerable versus deserted areas so it knows which areas to defend.

1) is trickier than you might think; it's no good destroying the body of a rocket if the warhead is still mostly intact, since it will continue in its ballistic path and do damage when it lands. There's also a variety of potential rocket targets:

  • Qassam: man-portable, up to 100Kg weight, 20Kg warhead, up to 20km range;
  • Grad: truck-mounted, banks of up to 40 tubes, rockets up to 70Kg weight each with 20Kg warhead and range up to 20km;
  • Fajr-5: truck-mounted, 900Kg rocket with 175Kg warhead, range up to 75Km.
Iron Dome "Tamir" missiles therefore have to be able to disable the largest possible target while still being cheap enough to be a reasonable trade-off for the cheapest missiles (around $800 for a Qassam, presumably plus $200-$500 cost of smuggling it to the right place in Gaza). Tamirs cost around $50K each.

To date in this phase of the conflict, around 800 rockets have been fired by Hamas with a single fatal hit (3 civilians). Iron Dome has been intercepting around 30% of these; presumably 2/3 of all rockets land in unoccupied areas, which doesn't speak well for either their accuracy or skill at aiming.

The economic calculation from the stats we have so far is therefore that firing about 800 Qassams will cost around $800,000. Israel will need to expend 240 Tamirs at $12 million cost, and can expect one hit with a civilian cost of, say $3 million. So the cost ratio is about 16:1. This is not great, but it's certainly far better than previously where no missiles would have been intercepted, 240 missiles could have landed in civilian areas and say 100 of them would cause damage at $50,000 and 10 would have killed 2 civilians so $2 million each - $5 million + $20 million = $25 million. Israel has therefore halved the economic damage of rocket attacks, not to mention nearly eliminating the terror value.

What Hamas has done in this attack is given the Israelis priceless data on real-life volley attacks. Rafael Armaments can continue to tune their algorithm for which rockets to intercept, and improve the performance of Tamirs in effectively wrecking missiles that they intercept. The other issue is that Iron Dome functions as an extremely effective counter-battery locator; the Hamas rocket launching teams will be under rapid attack from artillery and air platforms (drones, Apache or Cobra helicopters) and will have to be lucky to manage a series of attacks without being pounded.

This isn't the end of rocket attacks on Israel. It isn't even the beginning of the end. But maybe it is the end of the beginning.


Sex, lies and mortars

Uncle Jimbo at Blackfive nails what's made me feel very uncomfortable this week:

A US ambassador and 3 Americans are killed and the media can't be bothered to even ask why.
A couple of Generals screw around and they hit full over drive.
I try not to give conspiracy theories much credence, on the principle that governments can't organise a piss-up in a brewery let alone an elaborate conspiracy, but it's hard not to view the current Petraeus - Allen - Ward blowups as fantastically well-timed for the purpose of burying Benghazi-related news.


Just forgive the debt

Occupy Wall Street has come up with a novel idea: buy distressed debt and forgive it:

OWS is going to start buying distressed debt (medical bills, student loans, etc.) in order to forgive it. As a test run, we spent $500, which bought $14,000 of distressed debt. We then ERASED THAT DEBT.
Fantastic, surely? We can sort out the USA distressed debt at a stroke!

Not quite so fast, though: a commentator puts his finger on the wrinkle:

But I do have a question. If you can buy debt, can individuals buy debt, even our own debt?
Just curious. It would seem to me to be a great Idea for us to buy our own debt, then forgive it.
Yes. You can buy your own debt. If you owe $14,000, and the debt holder only thinks they are going to get back $500 net after their expenses in hounding you, they will sell your debt for $500 and not care who pays that. Except - well, except that if you have $500 free and clear to spend buying back your debt without selling off any goods, the debt holder is going to think that they can get back more than just $500. So they will want (say) $800 instead. And around we go.

If Occupy Wall Street went into this business in a big way, they'd increase the demand for purchase of distressed loans. So the price of distressed loans would rise. So the debt holders wouldn't be willing to sell $14,000 of distressed debt for $500 any more. In fact, it would be in the debt holders' interest to exaggerate the expected return from the loan (say, if they didn't really expect any money back after their expenses), and get $500 for free from Occupy Wall Street. Oopsie! Once again we see that asymmetric information is a bitch.

There's also the not inconsiderable problem that the person owing $14,000 has just received an effective gift of $14,000. Guess what? That's taxable! Say, 25% federal tax plus 2%(?) FICA plus 5% state tax - he now owes nearly $4500 in taxes. And since he's unlikely to have $4500 in assets if that debt was only values at $500, where's that going to come from? If you thought a bank holding your debt was bad, wait until it's Uncle Sam instead.


Iranian military pilots - politically reliable, militarily worthless

Two Iranian Su-25 Frogfoot pilots intercepted a US Predator drone over the Gulf and attacked it.How did this attack turn out?

According to the Pentagon, two SU-25 jets intercepted the Predator drone and fired "multiple rounds".
They missed their target, and the drone was guided back to base.
That sounds like a cannon engagement. Predator cruises around 90mph. Frogfoot is a slow-flying (600mph maxium) high aspect ratio plane that can probably manage a low speed around 180mph (given that the A-10 has a stall speed of 140mph). So with a 90mph closing speed, a target that cannot practically evade due to the lag in command times, and a cannon firing 50 rounds/second, neither of the Su-25 pilots could so much as register a hit.

I bet the Israeli defence ministry is hoping that the Iranian SAM commanders are equally competent.

The scale of the US debt

The ineffable NickM at Counting Cats weights into the US debt problem with a superb post providing some scale to the problem:

But let's look at the headline figure: the USA is 16 trillion, 240 billion, 420 million in debt (plus some "loose change"). Now I have a background in physics and astrophysics so when I say a figure is astronomical please believe me. I say "loose change" because I assume that is the way government thinks of it
bear in mind this is the sort of loose change you can buy a small warship with, not a can of Coke - this is government loose change
He does the maths and conjours an image of a stack of dollar bills just over 1.1 million miles high. Let's be generous and replace those $1 Washingtons with $100 Franklins. That's still 11,000 miles high - if you stacked them horizontally then you could go halfway around the world.

As NickM points out, each man, woman and child in the USA is currently personally responsible for over $50K in US debt. Just for avoidance of doubt, there is absolutely no way this is getting repaid in the next couple of decades. Why should it? As long as the US taxpayer can cover the interest (a mere $1K/person at 2%) and there's not an obvious go-to second-strongest economy, the debt-holders are just going to roll over the loans and be grateful for what they have.

Of course, this means that the debt will not shrink. It will grow, because the US politicians (and most of the population) realise that they can spend more than they earn with essentially no consequence. So that $16tn will grow, and grow, and grow... No longer is the amount of debt the main consideration in the USA's economic strength; rather, it's the ratio of debt interest payments to GDP.

At some point some of the other major G7 countries are going to recover economically and want capital for major products (e.g. oil pipelines, fusion reactors etc.) So they're going to be touting for significant amounts of capital at an attractive 4% rate. So the US is going to have to up its effective returns to 3%. So the weight of their debt has just increased by 50%.

Then someone looks at the ever-aging retirees of the USA, and the ever-increasing cost of Medicaid and private funding (leading to a reduction in estate and sales taxes), does the math and refuses to believe that the USA is even going to have the revenue to pay the debt interest. So the risk increases, and the USA has to up its rate of return to 5%. So the weight of their debt has just increased by another 65%.

This may be 10-20 years in the future, but when the world's biggest economy is on a trajectory to effectively default on its debt interest payments, we should start worrying about it right now.


Minimum wage experiment - San Jose, California

I just stumbled across this in the US election coverage: it seems that the city of San Jose, California is going to raise the minimum wage from $8/hr to $10/hr.

Measure D supporters argued that raising the wage floor in San Jose from the current state hourly minimum of $8 to $10 with annual inflation adjustments is a moral necessity in pricey Silicon Valley. San Jose State sociology students hatched the idea that quickly gained labor union support.
Sociology students? Moral necessity? You couldn't make it up.

What could possibly go wrong?

Here is the San Jose unemployment rate: coming down to about 9% from a 13% peak in 2010. I would wage a quid or two that in 6-12 months you're going to be looking it climbing above 10% once more.

US Presidential Elections - basically right

As per my prediction, it's Obama with Ohio and Pennsylvania. Florida at this point looks tight (Obama by 0.6% with 3.5% of precincts left to report) but not quite tight enough to trigger a recount, so I'll concede that point.

It remains to be seen what happens with Benghazi when Obama's investigation finally reports...

I can't help thinking that come January, when the USA hits the "fiscal cliff", Romney is going to be kind of glad that he lost.


US Election Day

For all those commentators referencing the BBC poll that confirmed Obama as a firm favourite in nearly all other countries: have you considered that the job of President is to defend his country from what all other nations want from it?

In particular, UK commentators (and last week's Question Time guests, I'm looking at you) should remember that 236 years ago America established exactly how much weight to give to British opinion in its political affairs. The demented 2004 Operation Clark County stunt by the Guardian should have clued you in to this:

Even the director of Clark County's board of elections got into the debate. She was widely quoted as saying: "The American Revolution was fought for a reason."

Just sayin'.


No more cake, no more ponies

An outstanding rant today by Sarah Hoyt: We've Come To The End of Cake

When government offers you free stuff while at the same time demanding you pay taxes on the penalty of jail, all it's doing is taking your money, removing its cut, then giving it back to you. ("Nice economy you got here, shame...") Which means in the end you’re poorer, but bureaucrats have more power.
Read the whole thing. Why we're broke, and why it won't get fixed for a long time (if ever), in a nutshell.

US Presidential elections - best guess

Obama squeaks out a win, taking Ohio and Pennsylvania, but probably losing Florida.

A decent interval after the election (1-2 weeks) the report on Benghazi surfaces in the mainstream media and someone like a Panetta underling takes the fall for failing to send military forces or properly inform the President.


Is China more legitimate than the West?

A provocative title for sure, as Sinophile Martin Jacques argues that the Chinese government may enjoy greater legitimacy than Western governments:

Now let me shock you: the Chinese state enjoys greater legitimacy than any Western state. How come?
In China's case the source of the state's legitimacy lies entirely outside the history or experience of Western societies.
He argues that China is all about Chinese "civilisation", an entity outside any one particular government or leader, a multi-thousand year cultural epiphenomenon. A government holding together such a huge area and spread of cultures can only be achieved with strong central control and repeated pushback on any behaviour that may undermine that central control in any way.

Where Jacques' true colours come out is when he attempts to tackle the issue of Chinese censorship and oppression:

If the Chinese state enjoys such support, then why does it display such signs of paranoia? The controls on the press and the internet, the periodic arrest of dissidents, and the rest of it. Good point. Actually, all Chinese governments have displayed these same symptoms. Why?
Because the country is huge and governance is extremely difficult. They are always anxious, always fearing the unforeseen. Anticipating sources of instability has long been regarded as a fundamental attribute of good governance.
For "anticipating sources of instability", I assume he includes: and so on.

I was a little confused about why he would argue all this until I read Martin Jacques' biography:

He was editor of the [Communist Party of Great Britain]'s journal, Marxism Today from 1977 until its closure in 1991 [...] a visiting professor at Renmin University in Beijing [...]
Suddenly it all becomes clear why Jacques is an apologist for mass-murdering censoring oppressing control freaks - it's his profession! I particularly enjoyed a hagiography on Jacques on Graham Stevenson's "Communist Biogs":
Despite having clearly been at odds with the basic approach of the Communist Party for, at the very least, ten to fifteen years (some might wonder if it had been all along, and how that worked!) Jacques finally left the party in 1991, citing his horror at the level of financial subsidy provided to the British Communist Party by the [Communist Party of the Soviet Union].
Perhaps he thought they ought to have taken Chinese yuan rather than Russian roubles? I note that 1991 was when European Communism was effectively dead and buried, with German reunification in full swing. I guess he wanted to jump to a communist allegiance with more of a future. There's also an interesting note about think tank Demos:
He, and others with roots in what would become New Labour launched "Demos", seen as a cross-party think-tank, which soon gained offices and funds. He had planned Demos from at least a year or so before the final dissolution of the rump CPGB.
So for anyone wondering why Demos pieces can lean so far left and verge on the totalitarian, it's because the founders had some considerable form in that area.

It amuses me that the BBC sees fit to publish this piece, but I can't imagine them publishing a similar piece e.g. by Nikolaos Michaloliakos of Golden Dawn arguing that national fascism is essentially more democratic than the European Parliament. Can you?


Memo to Giles Fraser: the economy is not local

I swear, I don't set out to give Giles Fraser a hard time, but there's something in the combination of self-righteousness and ignorance found in his Guardian articles that makes it hard to resist ripping him a new one. Today, for instance, he complains that Tower Hamlets has very rich people and very poor people, and that there's some connection between these two situations:

We were told by the Thatcherites of the 80s that wealth would trickle down. Tower Hamlets is proof positive that it doesn't. If anything, it flows the other way. Have a walk around Bow and Whitechapel and Bethnal Green. Then go to the great glass towers of Canary Wharf, still in the borough but in all other ways another world completely. No, wealth is sucked upwards, it doesn't trickle down.
Where to start? How is the wealth "sucked upwards" in Tower Hamlets? Who is taking the wealth of the poor people? By definition, being poor, they don't have much wealth. The only way I can think of that money is taken from the poor is where people working full-time on minimum wage pay 20% income tax - and here's an idea, let's stop making them do that. But Giles doesn't touch on this, for some reason.

At the other end of the scale, even the worst scumbag BarCap investment banker is going to be paying an average of 40%+ NI and income tax on his salary and share units. Their expensive houses attract high council tax. They spend their money in local shops on convenience groceries, bottles of wine, cigars etc. Their offices employ people to do low-salary jobs, but at least they are real jobs, and those people are disproportionately likely to come from nearby because their minimal transport costs and time make it more feasible for them than for people commuting in from Slough or Luton.

Everything that is wrong with Fraser's reasoning in one sentence:

The gap between rich and poor widened with every passing year and with huge social consequences.
There's no bloody connection, Giles. Beyond envy, the effect on poor people of their rich neighbours becoming richer (assuming that their extra money is not actually taken from the poor) is positive - the trickle-down may not be huge, but it makes a difference. They put more money into the local economy. Nation-wide, more rich people means increased tax income which means more money for the Government to piss down the nearest drain - sorry, funnel into spending programs to alleviate poverty. And we've seen how successful throwing money at poverty has been.

Giles, if you want to improve the lot of poor people in communities like Tower Hamlets, you should be asking pointed questions about the standard of their schools and their staff's ability to throw out troublesome pupils and crap teachers in order to give the fighting chance at an education to the rest of the students. You should also look at who is committing the local crime that erodes the spirit and resources of the community; I'm almost sure that it's not banker Algernon Smythe, but rather rodent-like teens Lee Jones and Duwayne Barrie who are stealing pension books, vandalising cars and breaking windows of impoverished residents who can ill afford the loss.

I note that Fraser doesn't quote any figures about the employment rates, incomes or benefits paid to the poorer Tower Hamlets residents over the past 5 years. Perhaps he's concerned it might detract from his case?


Theresa May - in need of remedial math

As regular as 'flu season, and about as welcome and good for society's health, the UK Home Office is trying to justify data retention and web snooping:

Plans to monitor all Britons' online activity are needed to help society fight crime and "save lives", Home Secretary Theresa May has said.
"Save lives", you say, Theresa? Oh yes, and she has the figures to back it up:
Of the 30,000 estimated cases last year where the police made an urgent request for communications data, between 25% and 40% of them resulted in lives being saved.
Let's take the low end of that estimate. That's 7500 lives. The most plausible way to save lives with information is to prevent suicides. In 2009 the UK had 6.9 suicides per 100,000 persons, or just over 4100 for the population of 60mm. So Theresa is saying that without this information (which they already have the rights to), the suicide rate would have tripled? My arse.

I would love to know if this is a Home Office press officer mangling the figures, or a deliberate overstatement to try to press the Home Office case. Either way, it's a completely bullshit stat. So what nefarious plans are they trying to justify?

Under draft plans, service providers will have to store details of all internet use in the UK for a year.
But Mrs May said the police would only see the details if they had a "clear case" and investigative justification.
It was a myth it would allow the government "to read everyone's e-mails", she added.
Well, not mine, that's for sure. I use Gmail and I use https for everything. But what does "all internet use" mean?
  • headers of all IP packets originating from UK-based IPs?
  • URLs and parameters from all (unencrypted) HTTP GET requests?
  • all DNS requests passing through UK ISP DNS servers?
In terms of data size, this isn't huge. If you're only logging a (2 x 2 byte) IPv4 source + destination for each TCP packet, at an MTU of 1500 bytes that's 2.5KB per 1MB of transmitted data. With, say 10mm daily Internet users in the UK, with an average of 20MB downloaded and a 1:10 upload:download ratio that's 50GB of data. But that information is no use to you, in practical terms; for web browsing and webmail, which is the only behaviour that really tells you anything, you need to know the HTTP GET request (URL and parameters) which can easily be 250 bytes a time. For, say, 50 GETs a day for your 10mm users, that's 125GB. So that's pretty practical to store and search through.

What they actually intend to log is hinted at:

... the scope of the proposed powers would be limited to the "who, when, where and how" of communications.
So that's source IP ("who"), timestamp ("when"); "where" is a bit fuzzier. Do they mean "where the request is being sent" (i.e. destination IP) or "where the sender is" (physical address or phone number tied to the sending IP)? I suspect "both" is the answer here. And "how" could mean protocol (http/https/ftp etc.) but in practice I think it means "requested URL and parameters".

What I do find interesting is the justification:

She said the authorities' ability to keep track of suspects was being increasingly "degradated" by the use of new technology such as social media and encrypted messaging services.
because these proposals do nothing to solve the problem that Facebook, Google+, Twitter, GMail, Outlook.com can and usually do operate under https protection. This is, in practical terms, unbreakable without either a) a huge computational effort, b) planting a keylogger or other snooper on the suspect's computer, c) compromising a root certificate authority and perpetrating a man-in-the-middle attack on SSL connections or d) serving a warrant on the relevant serving company to obtain the unencrypted content. None of the proposals address this.

I'm sure Ms. May is merely repeating the talking points given to her by the weasels at the Home Office, but they are frankly risible. Her alleged concern for the public's worries is also rather thin:

In response, Mrs May said the public was "justifiably" concerned about who had access to the data and they should be a second stage of "extra scrutiny" by Parliament for other public bodies.
If the only thing standing between me and my privacy was the technical expertise of Parliamentary scrutiny, I'd pull off my clothes and stand at Speaker's Corner.