Playing poker with a pair of 3s

In another example of how private sector unions benefit their members, Axa UK employees are threating to strike over an end to defined-benefit pensions:

Unite's national officer, Dominic Hook, said: "The move to end the defined benefit pension scheme at Axa is appalling and unjustified. Long-serving staff now face the prospect of having to work an extra five years to get the same level of pension and [the move] puts all the investment risk on to the staff."
He added: "The decision by Axa is unacceptable and industrial action will be among the options being discussed with members if Axa refuses to reconsider its proposals."
There's one slight problem with Mr. Hook's threat. The final salary scheme has been closed to new members since 2003 - ten years ago. The only employees still on this scheme have been with the company for over 10 years. Axa reports that 2300 staff are affected, which looks to be about 30% of employees.

If I were a newer member of staff at Axa, on a defined contributions pension, I'd imagine that my sympathy for staff on a massively superior defined-benefit scheme would be rather limited. Note that they keep any benefits accrued to date, this proposed downgrade would only affect the benefits they earn from now onwards. Just why I should strike, and lose a day's pay, for the benefit of someone earning much more than I do, is not entirely clear to me. I'd imagine the company would also secretly be happy to have an excuse to performance-manage expensive staff if they strike for any significant length of time. After all, what are they going to do if Axa don't give in? Quit? Where are they going to find a job with even vaguely comparable benefits?

I'd respect Dominic Hook more if he were honest about the situation:

"Our members recognise that they have very little leverage in this situation, but nonetheless feel betrayed by Axa.. mumble, mumble, fat cat executive salaries and the bleeding lips of the starving poor, mumble, mumble, ... they can impose this change but they can't make us like it."
I suspect, though, that such a declaration would make Unite's impotence clear, and lead many members to wonder exactly what their union dues are buying them. If Unite actually had the interests of the majority of Axa workers at heart, they'd be lobbying the Government to up the Bank of England's inflation target and make it stick to it, in order to give savers (and hence yields) an income more than derisory.

Reflections on uptime

A couple of conversations this week have made me realise how "uptime", and its unloved stepchild "downtime" are misunderstood in today's world of the always-on Internet. I thought I'd blog a little about this and see where it went. First, the case of fanfiction.net.

This conversation was with a buddy in NYC who is an avid fan-fiction reader. She (and fan-fiction readers are disproportionately "she") was complaining about the site fanfiction.net being down for an hour or two, during which time she was going cold-turkey being deprived of new chapters from her favourite authors. When quizzed further, she admitted that the site was down some time between 1am and 3am NYC time, so perhaps she actually got more sleep than she would have otherwise... anyway, her complaint was "why is fanfiction.net always going down?". So here's my attempt at an answer.

fanfiction.net is hosted by Tiggee, so costs real money to run. The site has some ads - Google's AdChoices - but they seem to be tastefully done and not in-your-face. Neither reading nor uploading fanfic costs anything, so ad income has got to cover the entire cost of running the site. As well as Tiggee's fees for hosting this also has to cover the time and trouble of the site maintainers. Downtime means a loss of ad revenue as well as readership, so the owners are going to want to minimise the downtime but not spend too much money doing so. Assuming 5TB of storage and 30TB/month bandwidth, a sample hosting company like Cloud Media will charge you about $3700/month. Let's assume then that it costs $4000/month to host the site as it stands, and that ads bring in a steady $8000/month in revenue (about $7 / hour).

My friend reports an informal estimate of fanfiction.net being down maybe 4% of the time she checks (ignoring rapid re-checking in the 15 minutes after she sees that it has gone down). This would be costing them $320/month in lost ads. This isn't worth getting out of bed for.

Not all hours of downtime are equal, however. Web browsing follows a roughly diurnal curve: working in GMT - note that summer times skew these results due to some nations not observing daylight savings time - at GMT midnight, which is the trough, people are coming in to work in Japan. If you have some control over your downtime (e.g. for system upgrades) you can schedule it in the window of 5am - 8am GMT when virtually none of your likely audience in English-speaking countries is awake except for die-hard nerds. The opportunity cost of your scheduled downtime is probably halved, or more, so that $320/month loss drops further.

Is it even worth trying to stop unscheduled downtime like this? Your hosting company is already taking care of what outages are in their control (bad hardware, network misconfiguration etc.) and mistakes on their part will result in a refund of your hosting fees for outage time outside their Service Level Agreement. You can probably assume that they'll give your hosted machines something like 99.9% of uptime, which is a little bit less than 1 hour of downtime per month. All you have to worry about is misconfiguration or performance problems of the software you run on their hosted machines, which most often happens after you - the site owner - have made a change. There are occasions when your site falls over spontaneously (e.g. because you've run out of storage space) but they are few and far between. Setting up an alerting system which pages you if your service goes down outside your normal working hours would require a substantial technical and financial investment, and probably wreck your sleep patterns.

The usual way out of this corner is delegation, but here the information economy prices work against you; even a spotty part-time sysadmin who has no idea what he's doing would cost you $2500/month to have on-call. Unless you can pool him with a number of other sites to amortise his cost and increase his utilisation, there's no point parting with your cash. This is why people tell you that adding each "nine" of reliability (going from e.g. 90% to 99% or 99% to 99.9% uptime) increases your costs exponentially - you need new layers of people and systems to a) prevent downtime occurring and b) react extremely quickly when it happens. For situations when your downtime losses are close to your uptime income and costs, it's far better to accept the downtime, fix it during your normal working hours, and be extremely conservative in operating your site within its allocated storage and bandwidth limits. Only make changes when you have to, and ensure you're around and watching closely for several hours after the upgrade.

The conclusion? The reason most "free" websites have a somewhat unreliable uptime (between 1 and 2 "nines" i.e 90-99% update) is that it's simply not economically worth their while to pay the additional costs to be down for shorter durations or fewer occasions. You get what you pay for. Of course, there are situations when downtime costs are not close to operating costs - I'll be addressing that in my next blog.


When it's time to grow a pair

My sympathies are (to some extent) with Nathan Graziano who has an 8 year old son occupying the marital bed space where he should sleep:

There's already a dude sleeping in my spot.
The dude is my 8 year-old son sprawled out beside his mother, his small mouth open as he enjoys his slumber on my side of the bed.
"Shit," I'll mutter as I make my way back, blanket in hand, to the couch.
He makes a mistake, however. It's not your side of the bed, Nathan. By any reasonable assessment, it's your son's side of the bed. Possession is 9/10ths of the law, but the other 1/10th is the willingness to enforce your rights. Nathan, you are making no attempt to enforce the natural rights you have to the company of your wife and the marital bed. You have voluntarily given away all this to your son, in exchange for not having to put your foot down.

His excuse for this pusillanimous behaviour?

I'm the father, and I should take care of the situation, lay down the law and tell the boy, "No more." But I don't. I’ve never been good at being The Heavy.
It is not unusual for sons to grow up with a healthy fear of their fathers, and I don't believe this is a particularly bad thing. For many boys, they learn to respect authority through fearing their father's wrath.
Right. This is what a "father figure" is supposed to do - provide guidance to his children, and providing an eventual sanction against the children going off the rails. When it's absent - well, we've seen what happens to areas where a high fraction of children do not have fathers present. Nathan Graziano, if you are not prepared to be a father to your son, I assure you that you will revise this opinion when he starts looking for someone who can be. Revelling in his status of "useless with tools, only recently learned to put air in a tire, and I write poetry" is not doing his testicular fortitude any good whatsoever.

Hat tip to Amy Alkon who notes in the comments:

Being "the heavy" is called "parenting."
I believe my parents' willingness to do this is what helped me grow up to be somebody who makes her deadlines and pays her taxes and is generally personally responsible.
If you can't do this, you should have used birth control.
Not nice. Not subtle. But, you know, she's on the money.


A car crash of a commodities broker

It's with no little schadenfreude that I read that Jon "where's my seatbelt?" Corzine (past co-head of Goldman Sachs, New Jersey state governor, head of collapsed financial firm MF Global) is finally facing some legal demands for compensation as a result of the MF Global collapse:

[ex-FBI director Louis] Freeh said the officials breached their fiduciary duties to shareholders and failed to act in good faith, wiping out more than $1 billion in value by the time of MF Global's October 31, 2011, bankruptcy.
"The company's procedures and controls for monitoring risk were lacking and in disrepair," Freeh said in the lawsuit, filed on Monday night in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan. "Corzine engaged in risky trading strategies that strained the company's liquidity and could not be properly monitored."
I find it interesting that Corzine - a Democratic politican and fund-raising bundler for the Democrats - has not faced any public inquiry or admonishment for the MF Global collapse. There's certainly no reason to think him involved in criminal wrongdoing, since it sounds as if MF Global's commingling of client funds as it tried to stay afloat happened a fair way down the management tree, but he certainly seemed to be pursuing a reckless course of investment. Betting the farm on European sovereign debt back in 2011 was an "interesting" choice of investment. Did Corzine and his board actually realise that a realistic shift in risk could wipe out their firm? If so, they were reckless. If not, where in the name of all that is holy were their risk controls?

Corzine is supposed to know how to manage risk. His alma mater, Goldman Sachs, is famous for being scrupulous about risk which is presumably how they avoided going down the bad mortgage debt plughole back in 2008:

Our first question was direct: Who’s the best risk manager on Wall Street? Hands down the answer was Goldman Sachs.
Either Corzine wasn't paying attention in all the Goldman Sachs board presentations on risk, VaR etc. and relied on someone else knowing what was going on (Hank Paulson, perhaps?), or he understood risk but didn't think it applied to MF Global, or he understood risk, knew it applied to MF Global, but didn't care to act on this.

The New York Times for one thinks that Corzine may end up having to pony up some dough:

That [Delaware law] means Mr. Freeh can seek to recover for a breach of the duty of due care by showing gross negligence on the part of the leaders of MF Global.
That is still a high standard, requiring something akin to proving recklessness by Mr. Corzine. But unlike a suit against the directors, which would probably be dismissed quickly, this claim has a reasonable chance of surviving a motion to dismiss that would allow it to proceed toward a trial. A public airing of MF Global's plunge into bankruptcy is probably the last thing Mr. Corzine wants, so the settlement value of the case is higher.
Corzine's 2011 testimony to Congress appears to lean towards option 2 ("I understood risk but got it wrong") but I would agree that probably the last thing Corzine wants is his decisions being aired in detail in court. Freeh is probably in with a good chance of a settlement. Sadly this means that we the public will be denied the chance of a financial post-mortem on exactly how someone as experienced as Corzine could screw up risk so badly.

Mind you, it may explain why he didn't properly assess his personal risk from not wearing a seatbelt.


About that Scandinavian welfare model

It seems that even the Scandinavians have realised that cradle-to-grave welfare can't be as comprehensive as people might like. Witness what happens when a member of the Danish Parliament spent time with a welfare recipient to see how hard her life was. Joachim B. Olsen, a politician from the Liberal Alliance skeptical of welfare payments, surprisingly found that many of his concerns were actually founded in fact:

The 36-year-old single mother, given the pseudonym "Carina" in the news media, had more money to spend than many of the country's full-time workers. All told, she was getting about $2,700 a month, and she had been on welfare since she was 16.
Even the famously tolerant Danes ended up raising an eyebrow at this and similar stories. It turns out that Denmark has a high fraction of the working-age population on long-term disability, a similar situation to the UK. The government has raised the proposal to remove that life-time status guarantee for under-40s unless they really are completely physically or mentally incapable or working. Does this sound familiar to UK readers?

The trigger for concern over cases like this is the remorseless progress of adverse demographic changes in Denmark: 18% of the population is over 65, and not enough people are working:

In 2012, a little over 2.6 million people between the ages of 15 and 64 were working in Denmark, 47 percent of the total population and 73 percent of the 15- to 64-year-olds.
While only about 65 percent of working age adults are employed in the United States, comparisons are misleading, since many Danes work short hours and all enjoy perks like long vacations and lengthy paid maternity leaves, not to speak of a de facto minimum wage approaching $20 an hour. Danes would rank much lower in terms of hours worked per year.
From the article, it seems that the Danes don't mind their relatively high tax rates, but they are simply not enough to cover the ever-increasing costs of welfare when sourced from a flat or declining tax base.

When working full time gets you less income than being on benefits, why work? So far the Scandinavian countries have managed because of a good work ethic, where people work because they think they should. In P. J. O'Rourke's "Eat The Rich", a Swede points out to O'Rourke that the hostile weather conditions have effectively eliminated the genes of the lazy. This is less true in Denmark than in Sweden, but Denmark should be regarded as a bellweather - it's a short drive over the bridge from Copenhagen, Denmark to Malmö, Sweden. I wonder how much longer political pundits in the UK will hold up the Scandinavian countries as a welfare model to emulate?

Curiosity doesn't just kill cats

In the wake of the shoot-out with the alleged Boston bombers in the streets of Watertown, Esquire has some timely advice from Lt. Col. Robert Bateman who actually knows a thing or two about bullets:

If you are in a place where you hear steady, and sustained, and nearby (lets call that, for some technical reasons, anything less than 800 meters) gunfire, do these things:
  • Go to your basement. You are cool there.
  • If you don't have a basement, go to the other side of the house from the firing, and leave, heading away from the firing. Do not stop for a mile.
  • If you do not think that you can leave, get on the ground floor, as far from the firing as possible, and place something solid between you and the firing. Solid is something like a bathtub, a car (engine block), a couple of concrete walls (single layer brick...nope).
  • If you are high up (say 4rd story or higher) just get away from the side of the building where the firing is taking place. You will, mostly, be protected by the thick concrete of the structure.
But for cripes sake, do not step out on to your front porch and start recording a video on your iPhone, unless you actually have a death-wish, or are being paid significant amounts of money, in advance, as a combat journalist/cameraman.
He points out that nearly everything you see in movies and TV about gunfire and bullet impacts is completely wrong. Bullets don't just get absorbed by walls; anything with a reasonable amount of gunpowder behind it will smash multiple bricks with ease, and sheetrock (plasterboard) will barely slow it down. This is why, when EMS crews pull up to the scene of a shooting, they are very careful about positioning the engine block of their vehicle between them and anyone holding a gun (civilian or police).

Remember the Empire State Building shooting last year? Nine bystanders got nailed by bullets fired (16 rounds in total, from handguns) by the responding police officers, and the associated ricochets and fragments when those bullets hit walls, pavement and street furniture. That only the two Boston gunmen and one police officer were hit in the exchange of over 100 rounds of gunfire at Dexter and Laurel is a minor miracle:

David LaRocca, a local sculptor, was in the kitchen of his Laurel Street studio, where he lives and works, when he heard the first series of pops.
Instead of ducking for cover, he went outside to see what was happening, certain that he was too far away to be hit.
"I heard the pop, pop, popping. I could see the activity," LaRocca said, who stood on the sidewalk outside his house while looking down the street to site of the action. "I heard whizzing sounds. But then I later figured it was bullets going by me that I was hearing."
David LaRocca has hopefully learned how much he didn't know about gunfire, and he's lucky that it wasn't the last lesson he ever learned.

The sound of gunfire should be a cue to anyone to get low, get behind cover, and get the heck out of Dodge.


The White House is insecure!

The online version, anyway. If you attempt to visit https://www.whitehouse.gov/ (i.e. a secure web connection) and your browser is any good at all, it will warn you:

You attempted to reach www.whitehouse.gov, but instead you actually reached a server identifying itself as a248.e.akamai.net. This may be caused by a misconfiguration on the server or by something more serious. An attacker on your network could be trying to get you to visit a fake (and potentially harmful) version of www.whitehouse.gov.
Looks like the White House is using Akamai Edgesuite to handle their traffic - which must be substantial - but someone has misconfigured their Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) setup. The Akamai load-balancing server a248e.akamai.net should normally know that the Internet address (IP) 69.22.158.X means that the user is trying to connect to www.whitehouse.gov, and therefore it should give the user a copy of the digital certificate showing that it is allowed to serve requests for www.whitehouse.gov; unfortunately, it doesn't yet seem to have that information.

While I'm here, I note that the White House is acutely aware how difficult people find it to spell President Obama's name correctly, as evidenced by the "keywords" list on the site's home page:

"President,Barack Obama,White House,United States of America,44th President,White House history,President Obama,Barck,Barek,Barak,Barrack,Barrak,Obma,Barack"

If the White House IT team is reading this blog - please fix this. Go talk to Akamai, they can tell you how to generate the right certificate with appropriate settings and get it installed on their servers. While you're listening, stop sticking UTF-8 encoded characters on your page when perfectly valid HTML entities exist.


Unforced errors

For an alleged political genius, President Obama sure has been making political errors recently. One can only surmise that he's not actually that good at politics.

Exhibit one: Margaret Thatcher's funeral. The funeral of a major statesperson of one of the USA's traditionally close allies, but no official White House representative was sent:

Normally, that would prompt attendance by a high-level figure in the US government — if not the President or Vice-President, a high-ranking Cabinet official. For instance, why not send John Kerry, the Secretary of State tasked with maintaining good relations with close allies like the UK? Instead, the US delegation will consist of two men who would be traveling as private citizens to the funeral already [James Baker and George Schulz from the Reagan administration], essentially giving an official policy of ignoring the event and snubbing the other world leaders attending it.
There's certainly no reason to expect Obama himself to have travelled to the UK for the funeral, but there's no shortage of administration officials he could send. Instead: zip, nada. The Republicans aren't so dumb: the Republican House speaker Boehner sent a delegation of Republicans to represent Congress:
"Margaret Thatcher was one of the greatest champions freedom has ever known, and her funeral gives Americans and friends around the world an opportunity to pay final respects," Boehner said. "I'm pleased that Congressman Blackburn will lead a House delegation to Baroness Thatcher's funeral to communicate our prayers and condolences to her family and the British people."
The Boston marathon bombing would have been a perfect excuse to avoid sending anyone - except that these decisions were taken before Monday's explosion. Oops. This is a serious snub to the UK government, and it's a politically stupid decision. Regardless of your feelings about Thatcher's politics, she was one of the dominant politicians of the late 20th century. It would cost nothing to send Kerry (or, heck, Biden) to the funeral. Instead, Obama - rightly or wrongly - appears to be letting his well-publicised dislike of the UK rule his political pragmatism. Machiavelli would have chastised him, and rightly so.

Next, let's look at his focus for the past 4 months: gun control. This hasn't turned out as he hoped, as his gun control bill got shot down in the Senate:

Due to procedural steps agreed to by both sides, all the amendments considered Wednesday required 60 votes to pass in the 100-member chamber, meaning Democrats and their independent allies who hold 55 seats needed support from some GOP senators to push through the Manchin-Toomey proposal.
The final vote was 54 in favor to 46 opposed with four Republicans joining most Democrats in supporting the compromise. With the outcome obvious, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, cast a "no" vote to secure the ability to bring the measure up again.
Meanwhile, four Democrats from pro-gun states voted with most Republicans in opposition.
Obama couldn't persuade 8% of his own party to go along with his gun bill, failing to pass it in a Senate nominally under Democrat control. I mean, what the heck? His team must have know that those (gun-affectionate state) Democrats weren't going to vote for the bill as is - three of them have elections coming up within a year - what was it that made him try to push it through regardless? Hope that the Senate Republicans would come to his rescue? Good grief.

The common factor in both these issues appears to be Obama's belief that he is above the grubby business of politics; he doesn't have to negotiate, compromise, or schmooze with people he doesn't like in order to get things done. Unfortunately, politics doesn't work like that. His Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, would never have made these kind of mistakes. Bill was (and is) one of the great political animals, friendly to everyone no matter what their politics or interests. He knew that doing something for someone was a favour which he could later call on when he needed it. He would never have let a state funeral of a major ally go by without ensuring his administration was represented. Heck, as Yes, Prime Minister noted, a politician's funeral is an ideal opportunity for politicians from many countries to get together without press scrutiny and thrash out all their outstanding issues without the usual press scrutiny.

Hillary Clinton must have been rubbing her hands with glee watching President Obama screw up like this. She has her flaws, no doubt, but has taken many lessons from her husband's political successes - lessons that Obama doesn't seem to think apply to him.


Wild speculation about the Boston Marathon bombings

What we know from the TV footage: the first bomb that triggered went off just over 4 hours after the marathon started (the clock shows 4:09:53 a few seconds after the explosion in this video footage near the finishing line) at 2:57pm local time. The second bomb went off approximately 12-13 seconds later as you can see in this second video which covers the relevant timespan. You can also see that very few windows near the first bomb are broken, which indicates that the blast either wasn't that powerful, or was focused away from the buildings. Those are the facts.

The next level of information are the reports, and let's remember that first reports are always wrong but we're later i the news cycle so these reports should be reasonably solid. Two other devices are reported as having been recovered. There have been 3 deaths so far, about 130 injured, many limb injuries and amputations. This implies that the devices were not that big. In terms of explosive power they were probably a bit smaller than the 7/7 London bombings where the devices were in backpacks and killed an average of 13 people each - the 7/7 bombs all detonated in confined spaces, which amplified their effects. The Boston bombs detonated in relatively open areas, with the ground reflecting some of the blast up and away from people. They may have been hidden in garbage cans, causing increased shrapnel (and hence limb shredding) but restricting the blast effects which hit the respiratory system and heart, causing fatalities. One of the Boston fatalities was reportedly an 8 year old child - their bodies are more vulnerable to trauma, so the 3 fatalities is more like 2 in comparison to the 7/7 average.

The casualty count was also likely lowered by the presence of many medics near the scene, allowing them to intervene in the seconds and minutes after the explosion, stop potentially fatal bleeding and clear obstructed airways. They would have had emergency kits targeting heart attacks, asthma and similar afflictions of exertions, but the airway management apparatus and plentiful oxygen would have been key in fighting off shock (under-oxygenation of the body) which is a classic killer in trauma.

I saw one particularly messy photo at The Atlantic (you can find it if you search for it, no doubt) of a gentleman with his lower leg gone - flesh and muscle stripped off the bone halfway down the shin, and foot missing entirely. That's going to hurt, no doubt, but it's not going to kill you - the guy looked reasonably alert as he was wheeled away. His lot is much better now than ten years ago. We've had ten years of the Sunni militia, Taliban and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards proxying through Shia militia with IEDs; immediate management of explosive trauma, long-term rehabilitation and the sophistication of prosthetic limbs has made great strides in that time.

If there were four bombs, and hence two duds, it's going to be interesting to see how they were triggered and detonated. Were the duds due to trigger failure or to bad detonators? I find it interesting that the two bombs which detonated were 12 seconds apart - were they on timers, or was there a cellphone trigger for each? Was the intent to scare the crowd away from bomb #1 and have them gather near bomb #2? If so, the timing was off - the 12 seconds was barely enough for people to collect their wits and start to move, let alone travel 100-200 yards. It's also interesting to speculate why the bomb wasn't timed for just after the first runners were crossing the finish, when the crowd and media interest would be at the peak. Where were the other two bombs, and when might they have been intended to explode?

For a more informed take on the composition of the explosives, though, I'm waiting for the expertise of The Register's Lewis Page who will no doubt weigh in on the matter with the benefit of his background in bomb disposal.

You'll notice I have not speculated on the identity of the perpetrators of this outrage. I doubt we'll really know anything for at least a few days.


Cognitive dissonance on late-term abortion

One of the more distasteful stories of this year in the USA: the murder prosecution of Pittsburgh doctor Kermit Gosnell for the death of a 41 year old woman during an illegal late-term abortion. By itself the story seems tragic yet not massively newsworthy. There arose two problems from this, however. The smaller problem is that it seems that late-term abortions were quite the feature of Dr. Gosnell's clinic, there were fridges full of parts of aborted babies, babies born alive had their cervical spines snipped with scissors to ensure they didn't survive, and non-white women got a far lower standard of care than white women:

"Like if a girl – the black population was – African population was big here. So he didn't mind you [the non-qualified assistants] medicating your African American girls, your Indian girl, but if you had a white girl from the suburbs, oh, you better not medicate her. You better wait until he go in and talk to her first. And one day I said something to him and he was like, that's the way of the world."
The prosecution has been demanding the death penalty in this case, though I suspect their chances are rather slim.

The greater problem was that the US (and UK) news media showed very little interest in covering what should have been a sensational trial:

There has been a concerted social media campaign in the last week to persuade the mainstream media (with the notable exception of Fox News, bloggers and friends) to do their job and actually start reporting on the trial. But why the reluctance to report in the first place? Blogger Trevin Wax proposed eight reasons:
6. The Gosnell case involves the regulation of abortion clinics.
Whenever we see news stories about abortion, the clinic must be portrayed as under siege from anti-abortion extremists. But it is impossible to spin this story in a way that will keep people from pushing for policy change and further regulation of Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics.
7. The Gosnell case exposes the disproportionate number of abortion clinics in inner cities and the disproportionate number of abortions among minority groups.
Whenever we see news stories about abortion, the discussion must be framed in terms of providing “access” for low-income, minority women. But it is impossible to spin this story in a way that keeps people from wondering if perhaps some abortion providers are "targeting" low-income, minority women.
It's possible to support a woman's right to have an abortion up to the legal limit, and yet feel very, very concerned about what Dr. Gosnell was doing. Point 6 hits the nail on the head. The last thing that strong proponents of abortion want is any increase in scrutiny and regulation of abortion clinics. It's one of those societal aspects that most welcome being "out of sight, out of mind." If people are forced to confront what actually goes on in at least some of those clinics, it may just cause some problems in the current general support for abortion in the USA.


Provoking Kirchner - you can't win

The DT reports that inviting Argentine Premier Cristina Kirchner to Thatcher's funeral is "another provocation":

Héctor Timerman, the Argentine foreign minister, has previously accused the British government of inflammatory gestures over the Falkland Islands, including the "militarisation" of the South Atlantic.
"Why do they invite me to a place I hadn't planned to go?" he told local radio after Baroness Thatcher's family invited the Argentine government to send a representative, saying it would be "amusing".
I wouldn't be surprised if there are bouquets in the shape of West and East Falkland, just to ram home the message.


Levelling down

The authors of the famous "equality is everything" text "The Spirit Level" argue in CiF that Margaret Thatcher failed to realise that equality is good for business:

International studies of OECD countries suggest a close relationship between the decline in trade union membership and the rise in inequality. From a peak of 13 million in 1979, trade union membership had declined by 30% by 1990, and is now not much more than half what it was. In a world where most media talking heads come from the top few percent of income earners, unions are not only important in wage bargaining, they also provide some of the few well-informed voices whose job it is to speak on behalf of the less well-paid.
Good gravy, I hate this kind of reasoning. Let's take it apart, shall we?

Trade unions benefit the below-average at the expense of the able. Given a free hand and a reasonably well-functioning employment market - the latter is important - an employer would rather pay his better employees more, and his lower-performing employees less, or indeed just fire the lower performers. This would be to the benefit of the employer and the benefit of the better-performing employees, but the detriment of the below-average employees. As it stands, the employer can only really pay his workers according to the amount of work he or she expects to get out of a below-average performer; otherwise, since the employer pays better than his competitors, he will attract poorly-performing employees like flies to jam. Such poor performers are remarkably hard to identify at interview; by the time they've been in the job several months, it's too late and the union won't let them be fired. So they're happy, but the employer (saddled with them) is not, and neither are their co-workers who have to cover for their inadequacies.

Now, we may argue that the welfare of the poor performers is more important than allowing employers and good performing employees to thrive, but let's be honest that this levelling-down is what we're doing. I've worked in unionised government and industrial workplaces where unfireable drones infested the environment, and it was terribly depressing to see the dragging-down effect on those workers who could have otherwise done well and risen rapidly. I've also worked in union-free brutal capitalist firms which hired and fired at the drop of a hat, and the ever-present threat of being fired was hard on people - but then, the firm thrived and made profits which yielded rather good bonuses for the hard workers. You may think that a unionised private firm is "safer", and it is - right up to the point where it fails completely and goes under, and everyone is fired. At this point all the union can do for you is stand around and blame "the management" for mismanaging the firm. They are suddenly completely irrelevant, just when you need them the most.

As for the argument that the media voices the concerns of the rich, and the well-informed unions are needed to counteract this advantage - bollocks. Union leaders spout just as much claptrap as journalists in the Guardian, Daily Mail, BBC or Telegraph. I can't remember the last time I saw the Beeb or Grauniad making an anti-worker, anti-union point. Why would they? Journalists and BBC employees are unionised too. Union leaders have the right to be heard, and indeed I'm all for getting Bob Crowe and Dave Prentis on the air as often as possible in order to shred the claims they use to rabble-rouse, but let's not kid ourselves that they are any better "informed" than anyone else.

I was also surprised to see authors such as these trotting out the standard misquotes:

Thatcher's infamous failure to recognise the existence of society was a double failure. A growing body of research now shows that the quality of social relations is among the most powerful influences on the happiness, health and wellbeing of populations in the rich countries.
Interesting that they don't reference the original Thatcher quote source (an interview with Woman's Own magazine). I wonder why that is? Possibly because its actual content and context doesn't quite fit their narrative:
... and so they [people who expect the Government to help them with a problem] are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation....
It sounds to me as if Thatcher was correctly pointing out that there is no one entity you can point to and say "this is society"; as such, the onus is on the authors to prove that such "society" as she referenced actually exists as a meaningful entity. Waving around an abstract and undefined concept such as "quality of social relations" is a rather weak refutation. For allegedly academic authors, this is fairly poor work. If this was a conference paper under review, I'd reject it out of hand for poor sourcing and unconvincing arguments. But this is CiF where "facts are sacred"...

Breaking the African-American block vote?

It's rare to see a politican do something actually novel and courageous. US small-government Repulican Rand Paul went to the predominantly black Howard University in Washington D.C. to spread an unusual message for a Republican:

Paul reminded the crowd the GOP has always been the party of civil rights and voting rights, but also the party of limited government. "When some people hear that, they tune us out and say: he's just using code words for the state's right to discriminate, for the state's right to segregate and abuse. But that's simply not true."
Bear in mind that the article is written by a self-proclaimed conservative black chick and so can't be regarded as a neutral point of view, but the basic facts are undeniable. Paul went to an environment that anyone would regard as explicitly hostile to Republicans in general, and white privileged Republicans in particular; he didn't apologise for who he was, but rather made a case to the audience that it was in their interests to vote Republican.

The last time Obama spoke at Howard University (a short drive from the White House) was in 2007, before he was president. Why should he speak there now? He knows that the black vote leans massively to the Democrats. Why waste time with solid voters when there are many marginal voters to chase? This is the calculus of politics, and it's what is guaranteeing that issues of real and particular concern to African Americans are of little concern to both Democrat and Republican politicians. Republicans know that the black population won't vote for them anyway, and Democrats know that the black population will vote for them regardless.

I hope that the Howard University students want their concerns to be taken seriously by politicians. To make this happen, they have to make it clear that their vote is up for grabs to whoever can deliver on those concerns. This same phenomenon, I am sure, relates to why inner-city areas in the UK languish in poverty; Labour can rely on those votes, so will spend the minimum possible in money and political capital to keep the inhabitants from outright revolt. The Conservatives and Lib Dems know they will never gain those votes no matter what they do, so why try?

If you want something from a politician, you have to have something to negotiate with. This "something" is your vote. Go cavort with your politician's opponents, let him know you're doing it, and you'll be amazed how quickly he appears to gain concern for your well-being.

Skeet shooting Gangnam style

There's been much hemming and hawing about whether the US and Japan should attempt to shoot down any North Korean IRBM launched as a test outside the North Korea border. The US is bigging up its ABM capability and claiming that it certainly could shoot down such a missile if it wanted to. Japan has been spinning up Patriot PAC-3 interceptors and its Aegis destroyers. But should the US and Japan actually shoot at a North Korean Musudan if Kim Jong "Chubbycheeks" Un actually lets one loose?

Darn tootin' they should. This is a great information-gathering exercise. We are fairly certain that if NK fires a Musudan that it's just a demonstrator, so there's no particular pressure to nail it, but it will be a great validation of the sensor-and-shooter systems set up around North Korea. They should pick the element of their defensive system for which they have the least concrete performance information and fire a couple of munitions from that system at the IRBM. By all means they should keep more reliable interceptors in reserve, and fire those off once the questionable interceptors have entered the killing zone, but their primary aim is to monitor how well those questionable interceptors react to a typical IRBM target. This is not a manufacturer test, it's reasonably representative of the distances and climb profile of a real nuclear-armed IRBM, and the exact launch time is not known, so it should give the USA and Japanese military good data on how well their systems would actually react to an IRBM launch.

Normally you'd worry about giving defence performance information to your opponent in a situation like this, but North Korea's sensors are likely so poor that the US and Japan can pretty much make up whatever they want to tell the world about when the missile was detected, what interceptors were fired and what actually happened at the interception. When they show the footage of the interceptor striking the missile, don't believe that they're showing you any significant amount of the information they've actually gathered from the launch.


Linus Torvalds to probe accounting irregularities at the Bank of England

Ok, I lied. The truth, however, is no stranger than fiction. The Financial Conduct Authority, replacement for the spectacularly ineffective Financial Services Authority and hence desperate to prove itself, has decided to investigate the recent (short-lived) IT meltdowns at RBS, NatWest and the Royal Ulster Bank:

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which took over regulation of financial services companies at the start of April, said it had begun an enforcement investigation into the breakdown, which affected accounts at RBS, NatWest and Ulster bank; the latter two are also part of the RBS group.
The authority said it would "reach its conclusions in due course and will decide whether or not enforcement action should follow that investigation". If it does find that there were systemic failures behind the technology problems, the bank could face a fine, or individuals could be censured and banned.
They've got no idea what they're doing, have they?

There are almost always systemic failures behind any publically visible technology problem. Such problems are not random - to be so visible, they have to be the result of significant infrastructure failures. Examples might include:

  • locating all the serving infrastructure within one physical location, which loses power due to an external failure (power company error / overly curious cat in the transformers / large bird in the overhead lines);
  • multiple locations for the serving infrastructure but a failure in the software which routes queries to the best location;
  • rolling out a software change to all locations at once, or at least without a suitable gap between locations to detect problems;
  • employing inept monkeys to write business-critical software;
  • anything involving words from the list "Capita", "Fujitsu", "Accenture".
What intrigues me is how the FCA thinks it's going to improve matters by "investigating" the problem. Believe me, RBS / NW / RUB have already gone over the causes of these incidents with a fine toothcomb - even if the IT management didn't care about the systemic problems which led to these outages, the odds of the FCA employing actual experts in the area are painfully low. If you're a very talented software engineer, or (better) a software engineering project manager with decades of experience and knowledge of fsck-ups, why the heck would you work for a government salary for the FCA? If they brought in known experts on risk and critical systems to lead the technical aspects of the enquiry, such as John Rusby or Anthony Hall, I would listen to what they had to say. Chance of this happening? Zero.

I do like - in principle - the idea of "banning" individuals from future involvement in UK bank IT, but fear that the chance of actually identifying the truly dangerous individuals - every large company has several at least - is negligible. Every experienced software engineer has joked about revoking someone's licence to code/commit code to source control/write documentation, but that kind of constructive dismissal would never fly with management. I don't see the FCA changing this. If anything, they'll be directed at programmers whom the current management wants to get rid of anyway. It's a great idea to let them fire the programmers with cause ("the FCA blamed you for the outage!") and hence avoid vesting the programmers' contractual restricted share units.

I would bet £100 (my limit on sure bets) that the final FCA report will a) contain a number of platitudes about general software engineering practice and risk management and b) repeat near-verbatim the contents of already-existing RBS, NW, RUB reports into the incidents. Total amount of new information: epsilon (as near to zero as makes no difference).

I'm hoping against hope, however, that the FCA has the testicular fortitude to publish at least substantial subsections of the internal bank reports into the failures, despite no doubt inevitable cries of "security risk" from the executives involved. It would make no difference to the public, but it would give the critical systems community a fascinating set of data points on current practice in retail banking IR systems and the failure modes thereof.


Insurance as a legislative aid

I've just found this article from late 2012 (after the Sandy Hook shooting) where the Daily Beast's Megan McArdle examines the proposals for making gun owners carry insurance. Given the increasingly puritanical calls from the BMA about alcohol / fat / tobacco / salt and making their consumers "bear the cost" of their indulgences, it's instructive to examine how well this approach works for gun owners.

Megan McArdle argues that mandatory liability insurance for gun owners won't work out quite as people intend:

Accidental death and injury rate from guns is fairly low, compared to both other gun incidents, and other categories of accident: 14,000 injuries and 600 deaths in 2011. This sounds like a lot, but in a population of 300 million, a lot of people die each year from almost anything: dozens of kids a year drown in buckets.
The focus of this law must clearly be homicide. Except - wait! people who commit homicide with guns don't often legally own the gun, and therefore will have at best a "relaxed" approach to owning insurance for the device. Many people commit suicide with guns, but again it's hard to imagine that they're going to be overly concerned about buying and keeping that insurance; and to whom would the insurance pay out? It also turns out that even for really obvious and easy-to-police items, it's hard to ensure that owners have insurance:
One in seven drivers in America is uninsured. That's despite the fact that they are driving a large, hard-to-conceal object which is regularly inspected by the fleet of parking and traffic enforcement professionals hired specifically by governments for this purpose.
You can view the idea of "mandatory liability insurance for gun owners" in two main ways. One is as a subversive attempt to make gun ownership more expensive, in order to reduce the number of law-abiding gun owners. The other is to provide a fund to compensate the victims of gun crime.

It would be interesting to apply this approach to other indulgences. I understand that there's a certain problem with criminal damage and assaults arising from drinking in British town and city centres. So let's only allow adults over 18 years old to buy alcohol from pubs and clubs if they can present proof of alcohol liability insurance. The insurers will look at age (under 30 years of age indicates disproportionate likelihood to cause trouble), gender (males more likely to cause problems to others than females), previous criminal convictions (of course) and presumably employment status - full time employees are less likely to get pissed and commit acts of violence because come Monday morning they'll be lining up with other unemployed people. Maybe there would be different levels of insurance; the lowest level lets you order a glass of wine, then progressively higher levels of insurance are required to be allowed to order strong lager, tequila shots, and the top-end insurance would allow you to drink vodka + Red Bull. In the event of alcohol-caused criminal damage, your insurance would pay out to cover the costs of the injured parties.

Perhaps I shouldn't give people ideas.


Don't cross Mrs. Justice Thirlwall

Life with a minimum of 15 years for Philpott. Ouch. Her full sentencing remarks bear reading.

Their wages and their benefits went into your account, you controlled how money was spent. Your suggestion that this was a joint account and this was a normal family arrangement was frankly ridiculous. These two young women were not even permitted to have a front door key.
It has been said on your behalf that you were a good father. Lisa Willis said so as did others. They said you loved your children. I cannot give that description to a man who acted as you did.
I accept you have lost 6 children. I very much regret that everything about you suggests that your grief has very often been simulated for the public gaze.
To reach that period I must identify the determinate sentence you would have served had I not imposed a life sentence. The determinate sentence would have been one of 30 years' imprisonment. I am required by parliament to halve that to reflect that were this a determinate sentence you would serve only half
Crikey. I'm guessing that no legal eagle is going to touch an appeal here with a 10 foot pole. I mean, where would you even start?

Incidentally, I don't get the objections to the sentence and claims that it's too short. I didn't know minimum terms for manslaughter sentences ran anywhere near that high.

Mick Philpott, when your own sister yells "Die, Mick, die" you know you have a public sympathy problem.


Zoe Williams on Philpott - that didn't take long

Sure enough, the Philpott verdict is barely out the door when Zoe Williams is wailing about the implications in Comment Is Free:

But the [Daily Mail] paragraph that had me churning with impotent rage was this one: "Michael Philpott is a perfect parable for our age: his story shows the pervasiveness of evil born of welfare dependency.
All is proceeding as I have foreseen. Zoe is terrified, and apparently impotent. Gosh, Zoe. If only you were a major columnist in a leading UK newspaper, eh? Then you might be able to shape opinions in the same way that the Daily Mail does.

Anyway, let's leave Zoe's puissance aside and address the substance of her complaint:

It is vitriolic, illogical depersonalisation to ascribe the grotesqueness of one wild, unique crime to tens of thousands of people on benefits. When any section of society is demonised on irrational grounds we have to take that seriously
Indeed we should. But the Daily Mail is not (at least explicitly) saying that all welfare dependents are Philpott; rather, that Philpott is a phenomenon who required the welfare dependency culture to exist. After all, he burned down his house in the intention of obtaining a better one - and who gave him that house, and who would have given him a replacement? Why, the welfare state. Without the welfare state, Philpott's horrific crime would have had no purpose. Now we shouldn't therefore condemn the welfare state out of hand - the highest purpose can be turned to evil by a suitable twisted mind - but let's not fool ourselves that the current benefits system was anything but necessary to Philpott's plan.

So what of the tens of thousands whom the DM tars with the brush of welfare dependency?

At the weekend the Baptists, Methodists, the United Reform church and the Church of Scotland came out against the six myths routinely spread, by politicians, about the poor: that they are lazy, addicted to drink or drugs, not really poor, cheat the system, have an easy life, and that they caused the deficit. Set down on paper, they are astonishing, laughable. And yet these ideas are pervasive, written across the landscape of this miserable Tory Narnia.
The UK unemployment rate is 2.5M. That is, 2.5M people are looking for work but cannot find it (and hence, must exist on benefits). It seems reasonable to assume that unemployed people and poor people have a substantial intersection - let's say that 2M unemployed people are poor. "Tens of thousands" is on the order of 1%-2% of this number. The DM claims that 1%-2% of unemployed people are taking the piss. Does this seem unreasonable? Heck, of the tens of unemployed people whom I've know reasonably well over the past few years, several (~ 10%) have been taking the piss. This is not a reason to demonise the remaining 98%, but Zoe fails to refute the numbers presented by the DM.

What about "troubled" families?

We're told there are 120,000 "troubled families", costing £9bn – the troubles relating to crime, drink, drugs and antisocial behaviour – when, on closer inspection, it turns out there are 120,000 poor families
Guess what, Zoe? The Philpotts were not poor by any reasonable description. There was a poverty of aspiration, and certainly a moral poverty, but they had taxpayer-funded accommodation and plenty of welfare payments. That Philpott chose to spend the money on himself rather than his children was not anything that the State could affect. Again, assuming 15M families in the UK, you're talking about 1% of the population causing significant trouble to its neighbours. Every village of 100 families knows one or two families who take the piss, cause trouble, reap benefits and do nothing - or worse than nothing - in return. £9bn is £75K per problem family. Assume that every problem family occupies most of a community police constable's time, and you're more than half way towards that cost before any property damage or theft is taken into account. Does this £9bn now sound such an unbelievable number?

Zoe also misses a trick in her conclusion:

So much current political rhetoric relies on accepting the idea that the poor differ in fundamental ways, that they care less for their children, that they are less honest, that they are more stupid.
Perhaps it does. But no such rhetoric is necessary in the UK. All that a politician need do is point to the examples of Mick Philpott, Heather Frost and similar fecund work-shy beneficiaries of the benefit system and ask "is that what you want your taxes to support?" If Zoe Williams wants to protect the poor, and she should, she should come up with proposals that will channel taxpayer funds away from these unsympathetic examples of welfare dependency. Your move, Zoe.

Uncomfortable truths from the Philpott killings

While we wait for Mrs. Justice Thirlwall to sentence hopeless self-obsessed chav arsonist Mick Philpott it's worth reflecting on how this case relates to the current debate about benefit payments in the UK. Indeed, I find it best to focus on this rather than the current mitigation being carried out:

Anthony Orchard QC, representing Philpott, said: "Despite Mr Philpott's faults he was a very good father and loved those children. All the witnesses, even Lisa Willis [Philpott's former mistress], agree on this. There's no evidence at any stage that he deliberately harmed any of them.
Lord have mercy. I think I just threw up in my mouth a little. While realising that Orchard QC is doing his job in mitigating for his client - and Heaven knows it's a job few would want to undertake - the chutzpah in this claim makes one's eyes water. We are apparently to trust the character judgement of a woman who felt led to shack up with Philpott - while he was already married to Mairead. And yes, I concede that he did not deliberately harm them, but I'm sure that Orchard QC is aware of the ins and outs of involuntary manslaughter including such by gross negligence. Intent to harm is not required. Showing that "the defendant's negligence was gross, that is, it showed such a disregard for the life and safety of others as to amount to a crime and deserve punishment" would seem to have been a slam dunk in this case. When the families of both Philpotts regard justice as having been done by the convictions, you know you're on a bit of a loser of a case.

The mother's QC is also clearly out of ideas and trying a similar line of mitigation:

Shaun Smith QC, for Mairead Philpott, said there was no evidence "any of these children were in any sort of danger or peril prior to that night [of the fire] whatsoever".
This falls into the "not particularly true, and spectacularly irrelevant" category. Philpott's previous 7 years in chokey for attempted murder of a former girlfriend, and violence in every relationship since (according to the judge) should at least raise an eyebrow, even if it wasn't enough for Social Services to get involved.

It feels wrong to turn to the Mail for my facts, but those facts do seem to be rather damning:

Of the six children pulled dead or dying from the Philpott family home in the early hours of the morning of May 11, 2012, only ten-year-old Jade was wearing pyjamas. Jack and Jesse, eight and six, were in their underwear while Duwayne, 13, was in his jeans, as was John, nine. As for the youngest, Jayden, just five, he was wearing his full school uniform.
Right, so Philpott didn't care whether his children were comfortable in their beds. At least he ensured they didn't go hungry?
"The children would be given a quarter of a bun each with a bit of hot dog or burger in it, served with chips," he said. "There never seemed to be enough food to go around. Little Jayden just lived on chips."
Apparently not. He seemed to be able to afford a large TV or two, though. So apart from neglecting, starving and failing to clothe his children, Philpott was a very good father. Well, there was the whole burning-six-of-them-to-death-with-arson thing but let's not dwell, eh?

Sorry. There's something about this case that makes me see red.

Back to my original point, and I promise I had one. For backers of the current benefit system, this case could not have come at a worst time. When they wave their hands and say "cuts are bad, children will suffer and starve", the obvious rejoinder for their political opponents is to point to this case. "Hey, it seems that providing free housing and an alleged £60K/year of benefits (across all his children, presumably) isn't enough to prevent children starving, because scumbag parents like the Philpotts spend the money on themselves." This is of course unfair as a generality. There are relatively few people like Mick and Mairead Philpott in the UK with sprawling families, complete unwillingness to work, and a total dependency on benefit payments. Like it or not, though, people on near-minimum-wage paying income tax will be looking at these cases and thinking "hang on, just why am I working to provide these arseholes with a comfortable work-free life?"

It remains to be seen what impact cutting benefits to a family like the Philpotts will have. I have a horrible suspicion that, however their lifestyle changes, it won't be much to the detriment of the father nor to the benefit of the children. Regardless, the Philpott case is going to be the spur for further changes to the welfare system, presumably on the lines of "something must be done! this is something, therefore we must do it."

As for Mick and Mairead Philpott, I don't see them getting much leniency out of Mrs. Justice Thirlwall (aka Dame Kathryn). She has already stamped on Orchard QC trying to argue that the 1978 attempted murder was an isolated incident. In a impotent rape appeal case last year the defendant's argument that his victim wasn't really vulnerable didn't fly with her either:

O'Keefes lawyers said the vulnerability of his victim was not an aggravating factor and argued his sentence should be reduced, at the appeal court.
But Mrs Justice Thirlwall slammed this argument as a 'startling submission'. She said: "Not only is it startling, it is wrong. This application to appeal sentence is refused."
Not a dame to mince words. I look forward to her sentencing remarks tomorrow.

Update: Zoe Williams is first out of the gate defending the benefits system.


Do you have a right to be heavy?

As with many air travellers, I have in the past been forced to share a significant fraction of my seat with parts of my overflowing neighbour. As a result, I can only applaud Samoa Air's move to charge passengers by weight:

Air Samoa's rates range from $1 (65p) to around $4.16 per kilogram. Passengers pay for the combined weight of themselves and their baggage.
Samoans are famously large, ranking number 2 in the world for fraction of adults overweight. Air Samoa operates small and medium-sized planes where passenger weight is a substantial fraction of the aircraft, so they are in the top right corner of special cases. It will therefore be extremely interesting to see how this plays out.

I would expect there to be an immediate flow of heavy or luggage-laden passengers from Air Samoa to other airlines on the same routes. In parallel, of course, lighter and luggage-light passengers and families with small children would probably find Air Samoa a more competitive fare. As the cabin composition changes and the mass of passengers relative to space, it's quite possible that Air Samoa will find itself having to charge a minimum price per seat to cover its costs. Other airlines will be looking very carefully at the results - you can just imagine o'Leary of RyanAir salivating at the opportunity to offer prices "£5* to Dublin return!" with the caveat in 2 point text "(*) for passengers weighing 10lb and under".

If this spreads more widely, to the point where passengers on certain routes have no choice but to pay by weight, I can see several consequences. One is that the airport loos next to the check-in desk will be much more heavily used. Perhaps they'll need to charge £1 per person entrance as a result. Airport food will become more expensive as it becomes more expensive to check-in with food on your person or in your baggage. I wonder if airlines will need to re-check weights just before passengers board, in case they leave the heavy contents of their hand luggage with a friend before they check-in and then re-pack the bag before going through security. It's all going to be vastly entertaining.

Soon enough, surely, some large gentleman is going to sue the airlines claiming that they are (price-) discriminating against him based on his medical condition causing him to be overweight. I have no idea which way this claim is going to go, but I'm fairly sure the lawyers will get substantial fees in any case.

Still, if it means that I don't have the large rolls of fat from Mr. Smith billowing over the seat handle into my lap, I look forward to other airlines adopting this pricing technique post-haste.