The Power of Denial

Someone from the Red Cross describes our NHS as a humanitarian crisis.  Oh dear.  OK, bit of commentary in the media, politicians spin it.  No big deal.

But then someone from the NHS denies it, thus invoking the Power of Denial to make it a much more serious story, less likely to be relegated to a footnote in Current Affairs by next week.  And it’s not even an unqualified denial.  Whoops!

My first reaction: how silly to rise to the bait.  But was it deliberate?  One shouldn’t attribute to Conspiracy what can be explained by Cockup, but in this case I’m not at all sure.

Trump’s first triumph

One of the many thoughts I composed in my head but never got around to posting was a reaction to the election of Donald Trump.  An optimistic reaction, mixing tongue-in-cheek (to wind up some – probably most – readers), benefit of the doubt, and a few realistic hopes for how his presidency might lead, intentionally or otherwise, to real improvement in the world.

It’s too late for that now.  He’s made so many appointments I’d have to dig into them before taking a Panglossian view on his rhetoric about surrounding himself with the best people.  He still has the outsider’s potential advantage that, if he chooses, he can better afford to stand up to Vested Interests – including those who control purse-strings for US politicians of both parties – than his predecessors in modern times.

On one matter of foreign policy he’s sent a message which is both clear and constructive.  He is not in favour of warmongering around the world where his country has no business.  Like provoking civil war and supporting terrorist and rebel groups on a my enemy’s enemy basis.  The most obvious potential beneficiary of that is Syria, where the hope and expectation of Western intervention launched and subsequently fuelled a devastating civil war.

Trump gets elected, and after just a couple of weeks the rebels in Aleppo finally cut their losses.  Another couple of weeks and we get a ceasefire backed by Russia and Turkey, and for the first time the Western-backed rebels seem to have dropped their show-stopper precondition that Assad and his government be booted out.

Coincidence?  Even if we attribute Aleppo to pure military victory, the change in the rebels’ stance is surely not unconnected with Trump’s election.  Trump has sent them a clear signal that the leading warmongers in the West – like John McCain in the US or Andrew Mitchell in the UK – won’t persuade our governments to step up military involvement.

Of course that doesn’t mean peace: it remains to be seen to what extent that can happen, and indeed whether Russia and Turkey can make a better job of it than the West’s interventions in other countries (above all Iraq).  The key point right now is that the US – and by extension the West – no longer stands in the way of peace.

A little secret

Yahoo admits to a billion customer records being compromised.  The numbers are staggering, but the news of the exploit is mundane.

Doubtless the raw numbers are very largely inactive accounts.  People who long-since stopped using Yahoo accounts.  People who signed up with some other company that subsequently got borged by Yahoo.  People who once signed up to access some service but never used the accounts.   Etcetera.  Just as with social media numbers (even just the number of followers of this humble blog), to be taken with a big pinch of salt.

Nevertheless, that’s a billion signups.  Allowing for fakes and duplicates, that might be a nine-digit number of real people who once answered security questions.  That’s a bunch of answers that, unlike passwords, travel with the user across multiple services, not just online but also those you might access by other means such as the ‘phone or even face-to-face.  The name of your first pet or your primary school are no more secure than the classic mother’s maiden name.

And now a billion such records have leaked.  Give or take: we don’t know how many users ever were genuine, nor how many such questions and answers each genuine user disclosed.

So what does it mean if you’re one of the billion?  If someone wants to steal your identity, your security questions and answers have passed from the realm of something they have to research to something easily automated.  Well, we don’t know that for certain, but it’s certainly a risk that can no longer be dismissed.

You’d better change your security questions everywhere that matters.  What do you mean, you can’t remember which questions you signed up to Yahoo with twenty years ago?  Don’t tell me you can’t change the city of your birth, or the initials of your first lover.  Oh dear [shakes head].

And even if you’re not one of the billion, you may already have started to get the phishing emails purporting to be from yahoo (or others) about changing passwords.

I’ve argued here before that security questions are not fit for purpose.  Perhaps the Yahoo leak might help persuade the world to stop using them for things that matter!

A lesson from Castro

With Castro dead, the world can draw another line under the Cold War.  I have no intention of trying to comment on his life: a complex subject on which I have nothing really to say.

But the reporting of his death reveals an interesting split, between those who revered (or at least respected) him and mourn his passing, and those who hated him and danced on his grave.  The former being Cubans in Cuba, the latter being Cubans in Miami.  Plus a handful of  global Cold Warriors on either side, who will dismiss the other side with a quasi-religious fervour.

Could that split between a home population and expats in the West be the exact same phenomenon that led us into fighting and provoking so many disastrous wars, particularly in the middle-east, in recent years?  At various times, our media have presented us with articulate expats from countries we’ve openly invaded (like Iraq and Libya) or meddled more quietly in and stirred with agents provocateurs (like Syria), in support of our campaigns.  Those would be their countries’ equivalent to the Miami Cubans dancing on Castro’s grave.  And that’s where our narratives of our wars come from: when our powers-that-be want war, they can find some extreme but articulate expats and present them as the voice of ordinary people.  Only once the die is cast do some in our media start to question dodgy dossiers and claims.

New Toy

Damn, I seem to be blogging so rarely I might as well not be here.  I guess too much of what I have to say is being said elsewhere, or falling victim to can’t be arsed syndrome.

So a little domestic event.  Today I have taken delivery of a shiny new fridge-freezer, to replace the one bought in 2005 (when I moved from a furnished to an unfurnished apartment) and which has been malfunctioning increasingly badly.  Of late the temperature regulator was completely dead and the pump on full blast 24/7 regardless of settings, so it would ice up within a week of defrosting, and everything was too cold.

[really boring paragraph you probably want to skip] Unusually (for me), I went into Currys in person to order the new one rather than order online.  That’s because it has to fit under a shelf at 144 cm above the floor, and I wanted to see and measure one described as 143cm tall – which is the model I eventually bought.  It fits nicely in the space, and like the old one, is low enough to use the top as my spice rack.  The new one has slightly more fridge and less freezer space than the old one: a 60/40 split rather than 50/50 heightwise.  The biggest drawback in the old one (back when it worked properly) was a shortage of even reasonably high shelf space in the fridge, which would tend to get more than a bit overfilled after a big shop.  Now I’ll have space to stand things up easily, as well as a useful extra shelf in the door.  As for the freezer, I think I can live with a little less space.  The main difference is that the top drawer (of three) is a more a tray, and will do nicely for the wine cooler sleeve, icecubes, and miscellaneous small things.

Seeing the new one in action, I’m struck by two things.  One, it’s blissfully quiet, even compared to a well-behaved older model.  Two, the light inside is seriously cold: clearly a LED.  I guess that’s the march of technology, and makes it not entirely a bad thing I had to replace the old one.

One more observation.  In researching my options for replacing the old one, I saw all refrigeration equipment on sale today is advertised as both CFC-free and HFC-free.  Does that mean the recent treaty on HFCs was just hot air, with the industry having long-since left them behind anyway?

I blame Google

When google comes under attack, I’m usually one of the voices in the peanut gallery defending them.  That’s because most of the attacks on them, particularly the anti-trust stuff involving regulators, is grossly ill-informed and follows an Agenda that seeks to subvert Google’s central purpose of supplying the best possible search results for the person searching.

Now I’m going to attack.  It may be true (as I’ve argued here before) that there’s a certain historic inevitability to the Enclosure of the Commons.  But that doesn’t excuse Google’s crucial role, particularly in the demise of the Usenet commons.

The suicide and resurrection of an online community in which I participate has reminded me of that.  It started on November 3rd, with an an announcement that a set of discussion boards was to close on Nov 17th.  Just two weeks notice: quite a large number of boards and a thriving community. The reason given was problems with old/unmaintainable software (which had indeed left a lot to be desired), but we suspect that the more fundamental reason was that the website (which has, in other areas, a number of paid staff) was losing money.

Why they didn’t try to sell the boards – with community intact – to whomsoever thought they could make a go of it – eludes me.  But that’s now water under the bridge.  And it may be a long-term blessing, if a highest bidder might’ve been under financial pressure themselves and perhaps trashed the site with intrusive levels of advertising.

Of course, discussion turned to ideas for how it might be replaced.  My own preferred option of a decentralised solution – individual blogs with an aggregator to focus the community – was a non-starter on that timescale, even if it could in principle have gained traction in the absence of time pressure.   But someone else had a practical solution: they set up an alternative site at a new domain with well-chosen name, and phpbb driving a replacement set of boards.  They announced it within hours of the closure notice, and rapidly gained traction.  The community has been rapidly migrating to the new site, which now also has tremendous goodwill.  Early days, but it seems we have a level of continuity, albeit with archives about to be relegated to what may be found in dusty attics.

So what has this little tale got to do with Google or Usenet?  Well, the old boards originated in January 1998.  The second half of the ’90s was precisely when lots of websites were making a land-grab for online discussion fora, and a rising non-techie user base would follow the best-advertised route oblivious to inherent limitations like private (often quixotic) control and single points of congestion and failure.  As soon as a community moves from the Usenet commons to the private gardens – walled or otherwise – of a website, it becomes vulnerable to all kinds of things, like a rug being pulled.

Google’s role comes in their own land-grab, and in what they did to Dejanews.  Actually, come to think of it, the first time I ever heard the name Google was in that context: they were a company that had bought Dejanews.  So now the folks who run the fantastic Usenet search engine now also have web search, and … it turns out to be rather good, returning results more-or-less as good as Altavista but without all the clutter and crap that had made Altavista a pain to use.  Nice!

But it turned out to be part of a much more sinister agenda.  Google Groups started life as a WWW gateway to Usenet: all good.  But the waves of new users coming through Google weren’t being told that: they saw web fora, with thriving communities.  If memory serves, it was the whole of Usenet (less some of the wilds of alt.*) that had been hijacked in an audacious land grab.  Old-timers found ourselves fighting a losing battle against the impression that the whole thing was Google’s territory.  Google were far from the only people doing that (and public mailinglists got similar gateways), but they were unique in owning Dejanews.

But Dejanews itself disappeared.  Or rather, became just a tab in an integrated Google search frontend.  Then the tab wasn’t even labelled “news”, which took on the obvious meaning it still has today.  Then the “groups” tab vanished: after all, the content was Google Groups, and that’s just Web content like any other, right?  Over the following decade or so, Usenet content simply vanished, increasingly much of it literally so.

The community mindshare had been grabbed, except for old-timers.  Search had been lost gradually and the community, like a boiling frog, had failed to react to incremental changes and create an alternative.  In the face of such trends, the will to put much effort into other things like newsreader development and combating the rise of spam, also waned.  The land grab has happened, the commons are lost, we live in a world of private gardens.  Worse still, many including the biggest (Facebook) are walled off against us: access is limited to their registered users!  And it’s very largely all Google’s fault.

If I can be arsed I may post a followup to this, proposing a new alternative.  It won’t be Usenet: that ship has sailed.  It will be based on aggregation and syndication of distributed content, under the control of individuals.  Damn, am I fighting the same battle I pooh-poohed Moglen for?

We are ten!

Damn.  I’ve let the tenth anniversary of this blog pass without noticing 😦

Still, it was only a couple of weeks ago: it’s still anniversary month.  Readers mug enough to follow the blog can raise a glass of your choice of tipple to celebrate our coming of a certain age.  Cheers!

Funeral

I have today attended my uncle’s funeral.  I’m not entirely clear on the details of his illness (and in any case, it’s not mine to share), but he seems to have gone very rapidly from good health to dead.

Both the service and the meal afterwards were big affairs, with over 100 mourners headed by his immediate family.  The service was Lutheran, and the less said about it, the better.  The meal was more inspiring, in that several people who had known him well had things to say.  I knew some of what they said, but much of it was new to me and showed sides of him I hadn’t really known.  In retrospect, he was the contact I really should have gone to for advice around the end of last century, when I had some of my best ideas but failed to make them into a workable business.

I’m still in Sweden for it, and have been revisiting some of the places and people I first knew when I lived here as a child and in summer holiday (and work) visits through my teens, but have not revisited for many, many years.  One of those people being my aunt, who has featured before in this blog and who chided me for my recent lack of activity here.  That part of my visit has been a huge pleasure, and tomorrow I’m taking time out to enjoy the forest and lake before heading home on Friday.  Sadly the hotel – the only one in town – is a let-down: I think one needs to have transport and stay out-of-town.

RIP Gunnar Magnusson.  The last of his generation of my late mother’s bloodline.

The tail that wags a very big dog

Our new Prime Minister famously said “brexit is brexit”.  The general media responded straight away with “but what is brexit?”.  OK, they’re onto the troubles with it.  No need for me to say anything more.  Right?

Well, something less than half-right.  They’ve grasped the Humpty Dumpty nature of the word “brexit”.  But they’ve failed miserably to follow through and consider the implications.  Dammit!

So what’s the problem?  Brexit is a coalition of differing views, ranging from on the one hand some who see it as an opportunity for more trade and more immigration (like Tim Martin, who had “vote leave” messages printed on beer mats at Weatherspoons, a chain of about 1000 pubs, predominantly big ones in city locations), right through to outright racists and xenophobes who won’t be satisfied until their streets are purged of anyone speaking foreign.  Plus of course a general protest vote.  No outcome is going to satisfy all the brexit voters.  Indeed, it seems unlikely even to satisfy a majority.

So now a majority – the 52% – have a sense of victory and entitlement to their agenda.  Among them, the outright racists have been making the most noise: within 24 hours of the result they’d screamed “traitor” at Boris (who had been so bold as to hint that brexit didn’t necessarily mean closing the doors to all immigration), and even at Farage.  There were also posts in public fora prophesying blood in the streets if any doors remained open.  How things have changed since Enoch Powell!

That’s an agenda claiming – and believing they have – a 52% electoral mandate, yet not really representing even the whole of the BNP/UKIP.  Give them their isolationism and we can rapidly slip back to poverty, and with less food or energy security than even in the 1970s.  Deny it to them and it seems most unlikely they’ll shut up.

Even the Tory party’s internal troubles, which the referendum was intended to deal with (hence the gerrymandering in favour of Out), seem unlikely to go away.  Mrs May is making a valiant attempt by putting brexit leaders in charge, but some of the backbenchers will surely be back on the warpath as soon as there’s any whiff of compromise in the air.

Thought experiment.  UK general elections give us a choice of several parties and candidates to vote for.  A party that gets 40% of votes cast becomes a clear winner.  If we voted 48% for the status quo (Tories) and 52% for all other parties, that would give the Tories the biggest landslide victory of any party in our history. And that’s how the referendum campaign was conducted: on the “in” side a lacklustre status quo, on the “out” side a coalition of different agendas each with utopian promises they had no expectation of having to deliver.

Well, we voted 52% for the array of promises that were “not the status quo”, and could be handing that 52% not to the mainstream opposition (Labour, or perhaps the SNP – the opposition party with a real mandate in its home turf) but to a loony-fringe party that happens to shout loudest.

And perhaps the worst of it?  Whereas Tim Farron (libdem leader) promised to make it an election issue for positive reasons, Labour hopeful Owen Smith is doing exactly the wrong thing jumping onto that bandwagon with an entirely negative and condescending “you got it wrong” message.  Cameron already alienated enough people to tip the balance, and Smith is consolidating that alienation.  I hope Corbyn firmly beats him.

Lessons not learned

The Chilcot report is due tomorrow.  I don’t expect to read it, so like most of us I’ll hear what the media see fit to report from it.

They’ve already been telling us it’s likely to disappoint anyone expecting it to blame The Liar.   That would fall outside its terms of reference, so any finger pointed at him is likely to be of a secondary and probably tangential nature.  There’s also a suggestion floating around that the current Labour leadership crisis has something to do with it: the Party wanted a more compliant (interim) leader than Corbyn in place to respond to Chilcot.

With the passage of time and the principal warmongers no longer in post, this probably means there’ll be little appetite for further investigation, and The Liar will be off the hook, facing no more than criticism at a level he’s well-equipped to brush off.  A dismal contrast to the vigorous pursuit of much lower-level perpetrators of Bad Things in pre-1945 Germany, up to 70 years on from their crimes.

This may be a lot more than a mere injustice.  We’ve not merely made a horrendous mess of Iraq, but also destabilised the region, pretending all the while that we were the Good Guys.  No wonder there’s the hatred and despair that’s led to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant!  A token of contrition and act of justice – like putting The Liar on trial – might be the last opportunity in a generation to defuse that justified resentment and make a start on winning back “hearts and minds”, so that the Islamic State is not succeeded by something yet more brutal arising out of the same sense of grievance and monstrous injustice.