Wednesday 28 November 2007

Purely anecdotal, I know.

Did anyone else notice an increase in phishing emails a few days ago? You know, about the time our lords and masters lost our bank account numbers? And before they announced it, too.

By the way, just how cynical does a politician need to be to distract attention from their endemic incompetence by announcing that they've broken anti-corruption laws?

Monday 26 November 2007

Predictive text.

Got this text message from my wonderful wife:

You going to be good any time soon?

Thank you, Nokia.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

The wisdom of Amazon.

First, a recommendation: Diary Of A Wombat by Jackie French is an absolutely brilliant children's book: wonderful illustrations by Bruce Whatley, a nice simple little story, a very cute wombat, and highly amusing for the adults reading it.

I stumbled across it when buying The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay, one of the greatest and funniest children's books ever written. "Aha!" said Amazon. "You like Australian children's books with animals in them? Try this!" And I did, and it's brilliant.

Thing is, I have now bought two kids' books containing wombats. And this precedent has had a profound effect on my Amazon account. When I visit the site now, I'm confronted with a list of recommendations: Wombat Goes Walkabout, Wombat Divine, Swim, Little Wombat, Swim, One Woolly Wombat, and, of course, Possum Magic.

Amazon should investigate murders.

The wisdom of the ages.

Look, Mohammed. If you won't go to the mountain, you're not going to see the mountain. Simple as that. It's not coming to you. No, it's not. I don't care what the proverb says. It's a bloody mountain. Going to places is not its thing.

So, are you going to the mountain?


Are you sure?

Fine. No mountain for you, then.

Now sit down and shut up.

Tuesday 20 November 2007

Me and twenty-five million others.

Well, isn't this just lovely? If you live in the UK, you could hardly fail to have heard about this today, but, for the rest of youse, here are the salient points.

The National Audit Office were doing some sort of audit on Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs. So some flunky at HMRC helpfully burnt some of the data to be audited on to a couple of CDs and put them in the post, presumably because neither HMRC nor the NAO have heard of the Internet. The CDs never arrived at NAO. After they failed to arrive, it turned out that they had just been sent by standard unregistered unrecorded delivery. They're as missing as missing can be. Oops.

On the discs are HMRC's entire Child Benefit database: the names, addresses, previous addresses, bank account details, dates of birth, National Insurance numbers and children's names and dates of birth of 7.25 million families — that's about 25 million people. Oops again.

Oh, but don't worry: they're password protected. In the Windows sense, no doubt.

Gordon Brown has proven one tiny way in which his government is better than Blair's: the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, announced this in the Commons today. Under Blair, he'd have announced it in four months' time.

Another improvement over the usual: Paul Gray, the chairman of HMRC, has resigned. It's sad that it's actually become unusual for someone responsible for an almighty country-screwing travesty to accept that responsibility, but it has, so thank you to Mr Gray for doing the decent thing.

And one final little blessing: the courier company used were TNT, not the Royal Mail. The police say that they currently have no reason to believe that the discs are in nefarious hands rather than simply lost by incompetent ones. And the police are probably right about that, for the next couple of hours — now that the Chancellor's told the world what's on those discs, we'd better hope against hopes that whoever finds them isn't a bastard. But, if the Royal Mail had been entrusted with them in the first place, we could be absolutely one-hundered-percent confident that the discs had been stolen by professional criminals.

As it happens, I know a professional auditor. He travels the world, auditing firms. As I understand it, that's the usual way of doing things: you're going to audit someone, you go round and audit them, in their office. Asking them to send you information and promise really sincerely that it's genuine just doesn't quite cut it, and we should be concerned that this appears to be how the National Audit Office is doing things. But the NAO is in London and HMRC's Child Benefit Headquarters is in Newcastle, and we all know how London civil servants feel about setting foot in [shudder] The North.

Mr Darling said they should not even have been sent in the first place, as a junior official breached all Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs standing procedures by transferring them via couriers TNT to the NAO.

This just isn't good enough, is it? These systems are supposed to have at least some protection from criminals, but it turns out that the only thing stopping a lower-rung tax monkey from burning the entire database to disc is a rule that, you know, you're really supposed to obey, if you'd be so kind. What if someone decides to break the rules? Why is this data even accessible from a PC with a burner on it? Why are HMRC's computer systems not set up simply to disallow the copying of certain classes of data? Come to that, what's with the bank account numbers? They're used by automatic computer systems to make automatic payments, so, once they've been input, there is simply no reason why a human being need ever see them. What these missing discs should contain under "Bank account number" is "XXXXXXXX". You know, like on all my credit card receipts. Jesus wept.

I've said for a while now that it's no good opposing the ID Database scheme, because defeating it just for now isn't good enough: the idea keeps coming round again and again, under different governments, so the very concept, not just today's suggested implementation, needs to be utterly defeated. And the way it'll be utterly defeated is that, once it's been running for a few years and proven to be unworkable, unreliable, corrupt, insecure, and useless for good things but very useful for bad things such as locking up innocent people, then the public will turn against it. You need the streets to be piling up with rubbish before anyone'll vote for Thatcher.

I wonder if this be the start of it. It surpasses even my cynicism: I'd imagined that the Government would need to actually get the ID Database up and running before they started to give practical demonstrations of just what a Bad Thing it is. Apparently not.

Monday 12 November 2007

A problem with self-esteem.

Thanks to Laban for this gem:

A LOTTERY scratchcard has been withdrawn from sale by Camelot - because players couldn't understand it.


To qualify for a prize, users had to scratch away a window to reveal a temperature lower than the figure displayed on each card. As the game had a winter theme, the temperature was usually below freezing.

But the concept of comparing negative numbers proved too difficult for some Camelot received dozens of complaints on the first day from players who could not understand how, for example, -5 is higher than -6.

So they withdrew it? If I were running Camelot, we'd've responded by launching a new range of scratchcards featuring surds. Root-2 over 3 and root-3 over 2 — which is higher?

The main purpose of this story, as far as anyone can see, is to report to the whole world what an utter dolt is one Tina Farrell of Levenshulme.

The 23-year-old, who said she had left school without a maths GCSE, said: "On one of my cards it said I had to find temperatures lower than -8. The numbers I uncovered were -6 and -7 so I thought I had won, and so did the woman in the shop. But when she scanned the card the machine said I hadn't.

"I phoned Camelot and they fobbed me off with some story that -6 is higher - not lower - than -8 but I'm not having it."

Ms Farrell appears not to have grasped that whether she is having a mathematical truth has no effect on it.

"I think Camelot are giving people the wrong impression - the card doesn't say to look for a colder or warmer temperature, it says to look for a higher or lower number."

Now, this is the true brilliance of the deranged. She understands that -8° is a lower temperature than -6°, but thinks that -8 is a higher number than -6. Has she never guessed why we use those numbers to denote those temperatures?

"Six is a lower number than 8. Imagine how many people have been misled."

Yes, just imagine.

This is, of course, evidence of just how crap a British education is these days. But, fun though it be to take the piss out of her over it, not because this woman can't count. Everyone has trouble understanding some things; Lord knows there was plenty of stuff at school I didn't get my head around (though that was usually because it was boring). For Tina Farrell, it was maths. Fair enough. She's hardly alone. The chances of her having had a decent maths teacher are pretty low. But, aside from that, there's a more fundamental problem with her education.

She doesn't even have a maths GCSE — and anyone who's sat one will know just how incredibly bad you need to be to fail it — yet, when faced with Camelot, a company who run the National Lottery and therefore, one might reasonably assume, know a thing or two about numbers, her reaction is to stamp her foot and insist that she's right and they're wrong. This is a woman who has never been taught that she can be wrong. About anything. Even stuff she admits to knowing nothing about.

This is the problem with the cult of self-esteem. If you never tell kids they're wrong for fear of upsetting the poor little dears, this is what you end up with. And this is, in fact, what we have ended up with.

Tuesday 6 November 2007

One of those things.

Here's one of the most interesting bits of legal trivia
 I've ever stumbled across:

There is ... a byelaw prohibiting people living in Cheyne 
Walk, Chelsea, London from keeping wombats

But of course.