Red Tape

Just heard businesspeople debating the EU issue.  Unlike most of the crap we’ve been getting from both sides, this discussion aimed to be somewhat informative.

It was chaired by the BBC’s Evan Davis, with a panel comprising two business leaders from each side, and a guest from the Swiss business community to bring insights from a prosperous European non-EU perspective.

The pro-EU panellists basically said what I’d expect: their businesses benefit hugely from not having to deal with red tape in their everyday dealings with the rest of the EU.  One of them was in manufacturing, and drew the contrast between just shipping something vs having to fill tedious forms for every item exported outside the single market.  Whether and to what extent brexit would affect her business surely depends on politics (of 27 countries), and if you take the Gove vision of out-of-the-single-market, hassle-free exports would look like an early casualty.  The other was in financial services, on which subject the most interesting observation came from the Swiss guest: Swiss companies have to establish EU-based subsidiaries to export their financial services!

The Anti-EU panellists were more interesting: their gripe was with EU red tape.  Between them they provided three examples:

  1. Data Protection rules constrain the first speaker’s business of direct marketing.  Hmmm, Americans in his line of business complain of that too.  Perhaps he imagines brexit will exempt us from rules that bind US companies doing business in Europe (even if lobbyists could persuade a UK government to adopt rules more spam-friendly than our current ones)?
  2. The other speaker is a financier, and one of his investee companies struggled with an inordinately long approval process for a new drug.  Well, he may have a valid point, but how could brexit help him?  Pharma research involves big investment (that’ll be why they needed a financier), and needs to sell into big markets.  So I would imagine their top priorities will be EU and US[2] approvals, regardless of brexit.  If the UK process departs from the EU one, that’s just more red tape and expense.
  3. A health-and-safety rule: executive office chairs have to have five legs/wheels[3] at the base to give them stability (yes, four swivelling legs with wheels really is hazardous).  Hmm, well, they all do have that, everyone in the industry works to that standard.  Is anyone realistically going to try and change it?  We can of course still get a four-legged chair without wheels.

So, that’s the red tape that bothers them.  Is there a developed country anywhere in the world without broadly similar rules?  Oh yes, the US lacks data protection, and one or two states[4] are safe havens for spammers.

A particularly interesting nugget came when the chairman asked the Swiss guest about having to abide by EU standards without legally having a say in them.  He replied that in fact swiss business does effectively have a say.  Like anyone else, they can lobby, and if they present a reasonable case for something, the EU is receptive to it.  One might almost conclude that only the Brits get obsessed with legal niceties over reasonable practicalities.  On the other hand, he also pointed out that domestic politics within any of the EU countries may get in the way of them doing any particular deal you might expect – and that the brexit campaigners are assuring us will happen.

[1] (footnote removed, I thought better of it).

[2] I wonder if the much-feared TTIP might help with that, perhaps with a streamlined or even unified process to get approval both sides of the Atlantic?

[3] I wasn’t quite clear on the details.

[4] Notably Florida, unless I’m out-of-date or misremembering.

War Requiem

This weekend I’m in Exeter for the last of three weekends rehearsing Britten’s War Requiem, to be performed in Exeter Cathedral on Saturday, April 23rd.  A fantastic work, and I anticipate an exciting concert.  Strongly recommended to music lovers.

This is my third concert with the EMG symphony orchestra and chorus.  The previous two, Mahler’s 8th symphony and Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony, have been amongst the most exciting in my life, due both to the music and to the group and inspirational director.  She is alas leaving after this concert, having got a new job in Germany, so we just have to hope the group can find a worthy successor.

In the past I have found Britten to be much easier (to sing) than it sounds[1].  That’s based on shorter to middling-scale works such as the Hymn to St Cecilia, Rejoice in the Lamb, and St Nicholas.  The War Requiem is different: it is genuinely as challenging as it sounds to perform.  It’s intensely rewarding: studying the work reveals much more than just listening to it of the (pacifist) composer’s horror of war.  And it shows a work whose stupendous imagination could make it a lot more than any performance or recording I’ve heard, including the composer’s own.

[1] There’s a whole thesis to be written on what is easy or hard in music, vs what you’d think just by listening.  For example, Bach is hard, and much of Beethoven is fiendish.  On the other hand, Verdi’s spectacular requiem must be one of the easiest big works in the repertoire.

Public wifi menace

A couple of days ago, I was looking up a bus timetable from my ‘phone.  All perfectly mundane.

The address I thought I wanted failed: I don’t have it bookmarked and I’ve probably misremembered.  So I googled.

Google failed too.  With a message about an invalid certificate.  WTF?  Google annoyingly[1] use https, and I got a message about an invalid certificate.    Who is sitting in the middle?  Surely they can’t really be eavesdropping: with browsers issuing strong warnings, they’re never going to catch anything sensitive.  Must be just a hopelessly misconfigured network.

I don’t care if someone watches as I look up a bus time, I just want to get on with it!  But it’s not obvious with android how I can override that warning and access google.  Or even an imposter: if they don’t give me the link I wanted from google, nothing lost!

So has my mobile network screwed up horribly?  Cursing at the hassle, I go into settings and see it’s picked up a wifi network.  BT’s public stuff: OpenZone, or something like that (from memory).  This is BT, or someone on their network, playing sillybuggers.  Just turn wifi off and all works well again as the phone reverts to my network.

Except, now I have to remember to re-enable wifi before doing anything a bit data-intensive, like letting the ‘phone update itself, or joining a video conference.  All too easy to forget.

Hmm, come to think of it, that broken network is probably also what got between me and the bus timetable in the first place.  That wasn’t https.

[1] There are good reasons to encrypt, but search is rarely one of them.  Good that google enables it (at least if you trust google more than $random-shady-bod), but it’s a pain that they enforce it.

Spring

Apart from rapidly-lengthening daylight hours, the progression of the flowers, and the gradual migration to warm-weather clothes, today I have encountered a couple of very specific signs of the season.

First, after several hours of rain this morning, I went out in the afternoon.  In the damp post-rain air, I suddenly caught the strong whiff of the wild garlic, the first real treat of the year available for foraging.  I shall enjoy collecting and eating it over the next few weeks.

Second, I seem to have a nightingale in the back garden.  OK it could also be a near neighbour, but on balance of probabilities I think it’s my garden.  It’s a noisy bugger, though one of the nicer noises in this or any other place I’ve lived.  I’ve just finished my evening meal and was serenaded.  Damn, the glass of wine was right, but I should’ve been out on the terrace with a young lady!  Alas, I fear for any innocent little bird in a garden where the neighbours both sides have cats.

Somebody Else’s Problem

The late, great Douglas Adams described the “SEP field”.  Something may be huge and blindingly obvious and right in front of you, but it’s somebody else’s problem so you don’t see it.

I’ve seen a bug report for a cryptographic function.  Nothing too unusual there you might think, but there’s a twist.  Any fix we could ever implement would not be a fix, but rather an ugly hacked workaround for somebody else’s problem.

Let me explain.  The bug concerns memory that may have contained secrets.  To free it after use, we wipe the potentially-sensitive data:

    memset(buf, 0, bufsize);
    free(buf);

Now the bug there isn’t in our code, it’s in the fact that some compilers and settings might optimise out the memset leaving the sensitive data in freed memory.

How to fix that?

Introduce dummy code that re-uses the buffer after memset?  Not just horribly inefficient, but difficult to guarantee that can’t also be optimised out, either by the compiler or by another developer who sees this useless code.

OK, what about a nightmare of #ifdefs to target compilers?  Erm, no thanks.  If something’s in a widely-supported standard like ANSI or POSIX, the last thing we want is to replace it with a maintenance nightmare of proprietary hacks.

So fix the build to disable optimisation compiling the source file in question?  Not really a solution: downstream folks building and distributing the software may have their own build setups independent of ours.

An altogether better solution-in-principle would be some #pragma that could be standardised across compilers and could disable optimisations within a source file.  It could maybe affect the entire source file that declares it, or ideally it could scope arbitrary sections of code in the manner of #if / #ifdef.  But that’s Somebody Else’s Problem.

Blessed relief

After about six months, the scaffolding is gone from next door.  When it went up I naturally supposed they’d be completing the work before the traditional storms of around October/November.  Down on the road in front were not one but two lorries to take it away!  The banging started uncomfortably early this morning, but was the last.  The ghetto-blaster wasn’t a devastating development in the workmen who had been installing insulation next door, but a one-off.  It blighted an online meeting at noon today, but fortunately I wasn’t presenting anything and stayed on mute.

Next door are the second house on this road to have had such insulation installed recently, and both had scaffolding up for many months while work took place only occasionally amid long intervals of inactivity.  Presumably something has to be left for long periods, on a principle something like leaving paint to dry before the next coat.

Now I can fully open my bedroom curtain again without the risk of workmen watching me in bed.  And my front terrace area is no longer the base of their scaffolding, though I think it’s still somewhat covered in debris.

Passiontide

Our next concert in Plymouth is Bach’s St John’s Passion.  That’s at the Guildhall on Sunday, March 20th, and I have no hesitation recommending this wonderful work to readers in the area.

Having said that, there is one thing wrong.  We’re to perform in English using the new Novello edition.  It’s a new translation, and in a couple of places the words are a very poor fit to the music.  It comes with some bullshit about aiming to sound like the original German, so for example we’d have similar vowel sounds and hence vocal colour on important notes.  That’s pure nonsense: it does no such thing.  Furthermore, it’s not really a new translation: in places it’s identical to the old, and in others it’s much closer to the old translation than either is to the German text.  I can only conclude that the sole reason for the “new” translation is to assert copyright on a score that would otherwise soon be out of it.  Which begs the question: who are the bigger cultural vandals: ISIS or Novello?

Also on the subject of seasonal music, I sang in another easter concert yesterday.  I didn’t blog about it because I was recruited for it at the last moment, and wasn’t clear on the details in advance.  The easter music included Stainer’s Crucifixion and Vaughan Williams’s five mystical songs.  A nice little event in a nice village church.

People’s Front of Judea

(The title is of course from the gentle send-up of loony fringe politics in the Life of Brian).

Our referendum doesn’t just have two opposing sides, it has a bunch of opposing teams on the “out of Europe” side.  Not to mention opposing views among them of what Britain might look like and what direction it might take outside the EU.

That leaves our electoral commission with a bit of a dilemma.  Some horribly unfit-for-purpose rules say it has to hand various resources – like public money and TV airtime – to each side in the campaign.  In order to do so, it seems to have to designate one of those “out” groups as the official campaign, at the expense of the others.  That’ll leave the losers crying foul.

Here’s a plea to them.  Give it to Farage’s lot.

Farage will be insufferable anyway.  Not that I can really blame him in the circumstances: this is the consummation of his entire political career.  And he’s media-friendly: he’ll get  more airtime than pretty-much anyone else regardless of the electoral commission’s decision.  And he’ll tell bigger and more blatant porkies than the mainstream politicians, with a straight face.

If he doesn’t get the money, he’ll not just be ubiquitous, he’ll have a real grievance.  That might in itself make him as unstoppable as Trump: the more outrageous he gets, the more popular it’ll make him.  Better he have the rope to hang himself than to hang the country.

A Hollow Crown

Our prime minister returns triumphant from Brussels, his enemies vanquished.

Or perhaps, he returns triumphant from annoying his friends, bringing with him ammunition for his enemies.

Or does he play a double game against all of us?  But more on that later.

His brief speech we heard on the radio news this evening actually sounded genuinely interesting in parts.  The story told in the media has been consistently different.  Doubtless both based on an element of truth and spun from there.

The big story the media concentrate on (though what they say may not be entirely accurate) is about curbing benefits to migrants, on the face of it something entirely reasonable.  Or rather, something utterly preposterous: it’s only because our benefits system is monstrously broken that EU rules (accidentally) apply to it in the first place.   Germany, for example doesn’t have our “in work benefits” problem.  But instead of fixing it, he inflicts  gratuitous discrimination on (some) foreign workers, in the hope that one more wrong piled on to the mess might make a right.

It’s supposed to reduce net migration.  That seems unlikely to happen.  Farage & Co are saying so, and the nutters are much more dangerous when they’re also right about an issue.  I expect Cameron will pull a rabbit or two from his hat to wrong-foot them ahead of the referendum, but this fundamental point won’t budge.  Two wrongs make an anti-right.

Which brings me to the conspiracy idea: is Cameron in fact saying one thing but working for the opposite (as The Liar did over hunting)?  He has gerrymandered the electorate, conveniently setting aside a manifesto pledge to extend the vote to Brits long-term abroad (who may naturally have the strongest reasons to vote stay) and will also exclude EU citizens resident and working in the UK (ditto).  He’s promised everything the Europhobes asked for in terms of re-formulating the referendum question and terms of the debate, yet no word on conceding to the (europhile) SNP on the subject of the referendum date not clashing with their election.  In short, he seems in his actions to be working for an exit!

Time will tell.  But on a personal level, should I get out now, ahead of a time when there might be serious barriers to a move?  Ugh.

Oh, and if you pay more child benefit to children in the UK than in their home countries, doesn’t that risk incentivising foreign workers to bring their complete families?  So they burden our schools all the more, and become altogether more likely to remain here long-term or permanently. Unintended consequences, or misleading reporting?

Stealth Debit

Last January I gave my dad a gift subscription to The Economist for his birthday.  He had been a subscriber for many years, but somehow lost it when his life was dominated by an altogether more serious problem.  It’s the ideal birthday present for someone who’s never been easy to buy for: not merely absolutely right for him, but also something that can be repeated each year thereafter.

A week ago he ‘phoned me, having noticed that the end date of his subscription had moved a year, to January 2017.  Great, that’s exactly as intended, but he wondered if I’d renewed.  In fact I hadn’t: I’d been awaiting contact from The Economist about renewal.  Hmm … if they haven’t asked either of us to pay, who do they suppose is paying?  Or do they have one of those billing departments that gets into a terrible mess?

Checking my bank accounts, I find I had indeed set up a direct debit, and yesterday it was debited for another year’s subscription.  OK, fine, but isn’t it customary to send at least a courtesy email notifying me ahead of a direct debit?  Not a big issue: I’d intended the payment anyway and had ample funds in the account.  But I’m mildly p***ed off not to have been warned.

Perhaps they fear losing a subscription?  That would put them in the same game as scammers who seek to sign you up by stealth to something you don’t want.  Not a happy thought.

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