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Apr 052016
 

During a recently on-line rant about anti-abortion terrorists, I happened to trip over some statistics on the rate of mortality during childbirth (the “Maternity Mortality Rate”) from the WHO. And being the kind of person that statistics interest, I spent some time looking into them; indeed I got so interested I transcribed some of the raw figures to generate a pretty graph :-

mmr2

This obviously excludes many countries – what we could call the developing countries. The countries included (which you’ll have to peer closely in order to see – sorry about that) are all rich. At least relatively speaking.

Just look at the USA! Down with the also-rans amongst what could be called the relatively dysfunctional countries at the fringes of being considered “developed”. Now you could argue that there is something special about the reason why the USA doesn’t have a single-digit MMR like the overwhelming majority of developed countries. I can think of a few possibilities myself :-

  1. Perhaps the USA is the only country in the world to tell the truth about it’s actual MMR and all the other countries are lying. Perhaps. I am not going to argue there isn’t a bit of shady practices going on with the figures in some cases, but these figures are produced by statisticians and as an overall group statisticians don’t like lying about numbers. Yes there is the old saw about “lies, dammed lies, and statistics”, but the source of that distrust is the twisting that politicians apply to statistics to support their lies.
  2. Perhaps the USA didn’t read the instructions from the WHO properly about what kind of deaths to include in their returns and they’re including deaths that other countries wouldn’t include. But whilst I’ve not read the instructions from the WHO about this, I have read other instructions on statistics and they usually go into excruciating detail about what should and should not be included. It’s possible that the USA handed this little job over to a complete dumb-arse, but it doesn’t seem very likely.
  3. The WHO is anti-American and decided to inflate the figures. This is just laughable – the WHO isn’t going to risk getting called out by doing something so obvious even if it really was anti-American.

Sometimes the most obvious reason is the real reason – and here the most obvious reason is that the US health care system sucks.

There is additional evidence to show that – the WHO figures cover years other that 2013, and the US figures are consistently bad and getting worse.

But how can this be? The USA is one of the wealthiest countries in the world that spends a ridiculous percentage of it’s annual GDP on health care. It also produces many healthcare innovations and undoubtedly has improved maternal care at some point with some new technique. The really rather obvious (although it really needs to be tested) is that healthcare in the USA is divided into three.

There are those who have full insurance, and this group probably gets pretty good healthcare.

There are those who are covered by government schemes and this group probably gets reasonable healthcare.

And there are those who fall between the cracks – they’re not covered for various reasons – and their care is abysmal and probably limited to emergency care only. Which can sometimes be too late.

But when you come down to it, if you are pregnant it may be worth avoiding the USA until you’ve given birth. And if you’re already in the USA, it may be worth thinking about a long break somewhere where they have a healthcare system that doesn’t suck.

Apr 152014
 

One of the interesting aspects of Heartbleed are some of the criticisms of OpenSSL, the relevant developers, and open source.

Isn’t this the fault of the OpenSSL developers?

Yes, but …

Whilst it is very easy to blame the OpenSSL developers, and ultimately they were the ones who made the mistake of introducing this vulnerability, it is not quite that simple.

What has become clear is that the OpenSSL is chronically underfunded with less than four active developers (only one of whom is full time). This is despite the fact that OpenSSL is probably in roughly 1/2 of all software products including products from technology giants such as Cisco, IBM, HP, Lenovo, etc.

If OpenSSL is underfunded, everyone who makes use of the library in their products should look into why they should not be contributing towards the product. Surely every one of the technology giants could afford to contribute the cost of one developer each towards the project?

Isn’t this the fault of the open source methodology?

No.

Every time a vulnerability crops up, someone blames the development model for the vulnerability. But when you come down to it, both open source and closed source projects contain vulnerabilities.

In theory it is possible for open source to be more secure. Because the source code is publicly available, it can be audited by independent researchers. And that is effectively what seems to have happened – a Google researcher found the vulnerability and informed the OpenSSL developers of the problem.

What went wrong is that the audit happened after the release of the code. To be more secure than closed source, open source needs to be audited before the code is released. Perhaps some automated system that checks every code check in.

Is it the fault of the C programming language?

No, it’s the programmer’s mistake.

But C does make it easy to make mistakes with memory handling although we have to remember that half of this bug was a different sort of mistake – trusting user supplied data. And no matter what kind of language you are using, if you trust user supplied data then attackers everywhere will be chortling.

Back to C’s memory handling. C is a very old programming language and expects the programmer to safely deal with memory management. The best programmers can do this safely, but even those programmers have the occasional Friday afternoon and most programmers are not that good.

A more modern system programming language such as Go or Rust would be very helpful in reducing the possibility of certain types of errors, and there’s a great deal to be said for switching to one or other.

But OpenSSL is written in C, and switching now would be very difficult especially as the OpenSSL library needs to maintain compatibility with hundreds or thousands of programs written to call functions within a C library. Even if that compatibility problem were overcome, rewriting OpenSSL in some other language is an enormous amount of work which is hard to do with just four developers.

Mar 132014
 

When atheists start poking fun at religion, we constantly get told that we should stop insulting the sensitivities of the religious. And we should stop trying to convert them. But :-

  1. Trying to “convert” the religious to atheism (or stop believing in infectious imaginary friends) is exactly the same as what the religious constantly try to do to atheists.
  2. Atheists think they have evidence to show that religion is at best morally neutral, and at worst has a definitely negative effect on humanity. If you see an evil in the world, isn’t it your moral duty to try and minimise that evil?
  3. You guys started it first. Which is what this posting is all about …

You will burn in hell.

Ignoring for the moment that hell doesn’t exist, threatening someone with eternal torture is going to wind up even the most placid. It may well be that your religion promises eternal punishment but we know about the obsession gods seem to have with torturing unbelievers. It’s probably best to concentrate on the less unpleasant aspects of your religion.

Have you heard of Jesus?

To quote another atheist: No, I was born under a fucking rock.

What with people banging on your door asking whether you believe in Jesus, people shouting about him in the local shopping centre, constant mentions of religion in the media, etc, it is impossible to escape the ever present blanket of religion. Unless of course you are as dumb as a rock. 

Do you believe in Satan?

What? So because we don’t believe in your infectious imaginary friend, we might believe in your infectious imaginary friend’s imaginary enemy? Nope. We don’t believe in any imaginary friends (gods, devils, other spirits).

Where do you get your morals?

From society just like you do. We (and society) teach children by example and punishment that certain behaviours are not acceptable – “don’t hit your school friends”, etc. Most of those morals can be found in holy books, but the books aren’t essential.

There are no atheists in foxholes

This one is insulting to my family because my grandfather was an atheist; and possibly became so whilst fighting with the rear guard at Dunkirk. It certainly didn’t make him a believer. 

atheism is the ultimate intellectual suicide

I’m not entirely sure what this is supposed to mean, but it’s pretty sure that it’s  fancy way of saying that atheists are thick. It’s perfectly reasonable to think so (if wrong in many cases), but coming out and saying so is unnecessary. 

The supplied link is quite amusing as he goes on to prove that atheists don’t exist. I guess I must have disappeared in a puff of smoke, so I wonder how I carried on writing this? A question: There is no proof that Trolls exist and there is no proof that Trolls do not exist. Do they exist?

Kill Atheists

Now it’s pretty certain that the kind of religious nutters who advocate killing atheists are on the lunatic fringe of all religious people, but it contributes towards a climate of hate towards atheists. 

Feb 272014
 

The Daily Mail has decided to attack Harriet Harman in relation to her involvement with the Liberty organisation when it was known as the National Council for Civil Liberties (it is still formally called that). Liberty (in the 1970s) allowed an organisation called the Paedophile Information Exchange to affiliate with Liberty.

Personally I feel it is more than a little unfair to target Harriet Harman in this way, and I’m not exactly one of her fans.

In retrospect, it is clear that Liberty were very mistaken in being associated with PIE (and PAL). But their support was not unconditional – it is clear that their support was limited to suggesting that society should consider whether consensual sex between an adult and a child was necessarily damaging.

Or in other words whether a 16-year old woman who sleeps with her 5-year old boyfriend should be painted the same colour as a predator such as Jimmy Saville. However it seems that many of PIEs leaders were the kind of predator that would have gotten along well with Jimmy.

Liberty terminated their relationship with PIE by 1983 and the current head of Liberty issued an apology for the relationship: “It is a source of continuing disgust and horror that even the NCCL had to expel paedophiles from its ranks in 1983 after infiltration at some point in the 70s.”

So like many organisations, Liberty made a mistake in the 1970s and have apologised for it. But what about Harriet Harman?

Harriet Harman was the legal officer for Liberty at the time – she didn’t head the organisation and probably had no more than a small say in the direction of the organisation as a whole. If she knew about the connection to PIE, and objected, she would probably been told the liberal lefty equivalent of “shut up and soldier on”. Picking on Harriet Harman is unfair … it is the organisation that was at fault not her.

And indeed Patricia Hewitt‘s apology for Liberty’s association with PIE clearly indicates that Harriett Harman had very little say in whether Liberty accepted PIE’s affiliation or not; and indeed her work had nothing to do with PIE.

As always we can see the Daily Mail is conducting little more that a witch hunt against those who hold views not on the extreme right.

Dec 022012
 

If you were to pop into a Leicester Square cinema to watch the latest episode of the James Bond saga (Skyfall), and notice a small group of non-descript people pissing themselves with laughter at the most inappropriate moments it is entirely possible you have spotted a works outing from SIS. Because James Bond is about as far as you can get from a genuine SIS intelligence officer as you can possibly get.

That is not to say that Ian Flemming was not aware of what he was doing when he created the James Bond character – he was part of Naval intelligence during the war, and undoubtedly met many intelligence officers as well as officers from more “activist” agencies. The closest British agency that James Bond might be a member of is the old war-time SOE. And even there, his activities are far too public and extreme.

If anything, James Bond most closely resembles another fictional character: The Cleaner from the film Nikita. Whilst James Bond seems charming, he is in fact a cold blooded killer. A psychopathic tool wielded by the British government, and sent into situations where a “cleaner” is required.

James Bond was always envisaged as an entertaining character getting involved in many exciting adventures whereas real intelligence work is probably quite boring … ignoring the possibility of getting caught of course! Intelligence agents on the other hand may be involved in slightly more exciting activities, but any agent who starts to live too an exciting life is likely to get dropped by his or her controlling officer like a hot potato.

Real intelligence work is supposed to be secret; any operation that becomes public knowledge can be considered to be a failure. The purpose of an intelligence service is to gather intelligence. And to do so secretly.

That is not to say that covert operations are not always a bad idea, although they do have a poor reputation. Perhaps because only the poor ones get known about. But such operations are not what intelligence services are about, or what they are good at. The clearest demonstration of this were the strained relations between SIS and SOE during WWII which were not simply because some SIS officers did not like the young upstart, but because SIS and SOE operations were different and could sometimes have a negative impact on each other.

And back to James Bond. Does the fact that he has very little to do with the real SIS mean anything? Only if you want the James Bond films to be a documentary on the activities of SIS; if you want entertainment, he certainly provides that.

Everyone has their own favourite actor playing James Bond, but I think this is a mistake. All of the actors playing Bond have been quite talented; it is the story that makes the difference, and the tone of how the story is told. Different Bond eras have different flavours; the Sean Connery era was serious with a touch of humour, the Roger Moore era become so humorous that it was verging on becoming “Carry On Spying”, and the later Bond films went back to being serious. Perhaps even more serious than the early films.

Which you prefer is down to your personal tastes, but my liking is for the more serious films.

There are claims that James Bond is misogynistic, which is understandable but completely wrong. He is a mirror of the society that he finds himself in – if he seems misogynistic, it is the society that is misogynistic. After all we never see the real Bond; he is always playing a role to fit in as an upper-class twit.

And as for his sexual adventures, there is more than one hint throughout the films that more than a few of his “conquests” are to do with his job, and that he might prefer to have nothing to do with certain women. It is interesting to compare how people react to real characters such as Cynthia who also exploited her sexual conquests.

We always seem to think of upper-class twits as being like Bertie Wooster, but they were not all like that. It is easy to overlook the past when the upper-class twit actually had considerable power, but that is when the world’s largest empire was built – the British Empire. And upper-class twits had a considerable amount to do with the foundation of that empire.

Whether James Bond is an upper-class twit or is just pretending to be one, we will never know. But it is a good disguise.

As to how he is invulnerable to bullets, we will never know.

 

 

 

May 112010
 

There are those who claim that the possibility of the Tories and the Liberals combining into a coalition, or worse Labour and the Liberals combining into a coalition is undemocratic because it would not be what the public has voted for.

Perhaps, but it is no less democratic than a parliament with a clear majority. We do not have right to select the Prime Minister, just our representative in parliament. We expect our representative to vote for (actually technically it’s not vote against) the leader of his or her party. It is interesting to note that there is nothing in our system that allows for MPs changing parties – if you voted for a Labour party candidate, he gets elected and then immediately joins the Tory party, there is nothing to be done – your representative has been chosen even if you do not agree with his defection!

In reality, it is the elected MPs who decide who the Prime Minister is to be. What effectively happens is that the Queen (or King) selects a candidate Prime Minister. Although the Queen could pick whatever MP she wants as Prime Minister, in practice she selects the obvious choice – basically the leader of the majority party (or coalition). The Prime Minister then takes a “Queen’s Speech” to parliament and the MPs either vote in favour, or against – in which case the Prime Minister basically isn’t accepted by parliament so has to resign and force another election.

The key worry of those who claim that we could end up with an undemocratic result is with the possibility of a Labour-Liberal coalition – a “coalition of the defeated” – forming the next government. Is this fair ?

If you put add together the Labour, Liberal and nationalist MPs, they more than outnumber the Tory MPs, so even under our current electoral system, the hypothetical Labour-Liberal coalition is actually more representative of the will of the people than a Tory government.

After all, all the major parties have lost this election – Labour, Liberals, and Tories. The Tories have the largest number of MPs but not a majority. They cannot claim to have won this election any more than Labour can, because under our system “winning” is effectively having more than 326 MPs. And they do not.

If we end up with any coalition, it will be a coalition of the defeated. And yes the possible Tory-Liberal coalition is just as much a coalition of the defeated as a Labour-Liberal coalition would be.

Oct 042009
 

One of the things that comes up online in the debates on the whole US vs UK methods of health care, is the amount of research that takes place. One of the arguments the far right in the US makes is that the US is doing all the research on health care because places with socialist health care systems do not spend much on it.

Well it so happens that I work at a relatively minor University in the UK, and although I do not spend a great deal of time looking around at what the researchers do, I am aware that at least one research group is engaged in research in the health area (specifically looking at developing drugs). So I was curious to look into just how much medical research goes on in a country with a socialist health care system that some claim means spending practically nothing on medical research.

The first thing to bear in mind when it comes to research is that you can come up with a list of gadgets that has “US” down as the inventor, but things are rarely that simple. Often inventions are based on earlier research done by somebody else.

Secondly, whilst the UK health care system is socialistic, the pharmaceutical sector is private and quite healthy. Out of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies (listed by Wikpedia), 4 are US-based, and 6 are European based. Of the European based companies only 1.5 are UK-based (one is listed as “UK/Sweden”). One of the UK-based companies spends in the region of $6 billion per year on research and development; bettered only by one of the US-based companies (although figures for the amount spent is not available for some of the companies).

So lets’s see if we can add up the spending on medical research in the UK :-

Organisation Year(s) Spend
Medical Research Council 2008/9 £704 million
The Wellcome Trust 2008/9 “over £600 million”
BUPA UK (private health care) 2008/9 £1.5 million
Cancer Research UK 2008/9 £355 million
NIHR/PRP (NHS Research) 2008/9 £912 million
UK Pharmaceutical R&D 2008 $12 billion
AMRC members (including Cancer Research UK) 2006/7 £791 million

Whilst looking around for the figures above, I can across an interesting claim by Cancer Research UK – of the top 20 cancer treatment drugs in use around the world, 19 of them came about in whole or partly because of research funded by Cancer Research UK.

Excluding the rest of the AMRC members (for which I only have 2006/7 figures), the total here is some £2572 million in one year. This amounts to £42 per person per year. Or $67 according to today’s exchange rate. Plus added to that is the total spent by UK pharmaceutical companies which amounts to $12 billion a year – increasing our per person spend to $267. Of course we’re also not including the percentage of funding that US pharmaceutical companies make that is due to the drugs purchased by the NHS – doesn’t that also count as spending by the UK on medical research ?

The US overall apparently spends $95 billion on medical research which comes out at about $316 per person per year. Quite a bit more than the UK spends. But the US is richer, and we’re underestimating the UK spend on medical research and not counting European research at all which is partly funded by the UK.

Even if the UK does spend significantly less than the US, it certainly does spend a lot on medical research so the idea that a socialist health care system will cause spending on research to practically cease is wrong. Besides none of this number crunching tells us anything about how effective the spending is.

May 152009
 

So we have had a week since the Daily Telegraph stretched out the entrails of the mother of Parliaments for the public to pick over, and what has happened ? Not a lot.

A few MPs have paid some money back as though they had been caught sneaking biscuits out of the jar from their mother’s kitchen. A tiny number have lost their second job.

Has anyone been fired ? Has anyone been suspended pending an investigation ? Are the allegedly corrupt MPs still able to vote in Parliament ?

The majority of MPs who previously sat idly by whilst a few were riding the gravy train as hard as they could are now just standing around whinging about how the public is assuming that all MPs are corrupt. They are not actually doing anything constructive like refusing to cooperate with the Parliamentary process until the “corrupt” ones are excluded.

The key here is quick action … not waiting for some careful review to come up with something in a few months, but action now. It does not have to be permanent action – simply exclude those “corrupt” MPs and appoint a bunch of real vicious individuals as a review board, and make the “corrupt” MPs explain their mistakes in front of the board and explain why they should be allowed to continue as an MP. Sure that is harsh on the border-line cases, but being harsh in these circumstances is good.

And if at the end of the review process everyone is still an MP, the political system may never recover.

More ridiculously, the Tories seem to have decided that what really gets up the nose of the public is the cost of the political system. It is really rather amusing to watch the Tory leadership run off down the wrong road as fast as they can for political advantage because it is not the cost that is annoying the public, it is the tendency for some MPs to milk the expenses system for as much as they can get.

One of their suggestions to reduce the cost of the political system is to reduce the number of MPs … this sounds to me like an attempt at reducing the amount of democracy we have in this country. With our ‘first past the post’ system, the more people an MP represents, the less representative he (or she) is of their constituents. If you compare (using some very rough figures) the number of people each MP represented in 1800 and today, you get one MP for every 15,000 people in 1800 and one MP for every 100,000 people today.

That sounds to me like a gradual erosion of how democratic Parliament is supposed to be (and yes I know that the 1800 MPs were probably more corrupt and less representative than today’s). We need more MPs not less.

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