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To the Daily Mail, Genghis Khan was a fellow-traveller

October 3, 2013 Leave a comment

The simple fact of the matter is that capitalist democracy, for all its crippling limitations, has been immeasurably less oppressive and a lot more democratic than any communist regime, whatever the latter’s achievements in economic, social and other fields.

- notorious communist Ralph Miliband.

Hat tip to @durrant_james on the Twitters.

How To Calibrate A Booze Up So You’re Halfway Likely To Die

September 2, 2013 1 comment

So Dan Nolan was wondering how much beer it would take to kill you.

It turns out the answer (LD50) is 42.5 cans in an hour, or 61 cans in a 24-hour day for a normal drinker, or 96.5 cans in a 24-hour day for a heavy drinker who hasn’t yet developed serious liver damage.

But don’t take my word for it, the model is here for your edification: Too Much Beer Will Kill You Just As Sure As None At All.xlsx

Bands of distinctions

July 15, 2013 2 comments

I an a civilised gentleman with a fine reputation; my father has a reputation as a smart bastard who stirs up shit. He also introduced me to the delightful and amazing Kirstie MacColl and by proxy, Johnny Marr.

I feel the need to stick up my dad’s Trayvon commentary, because it needs a home.

This train wreck of a trial is a bit like a Korean airliner crash. It takes a series of errors to get there, but given the people involved, they surely will. A bad law puts the jury in the position of deciding what was going on in Zimmerman’s wretched brain. The jury selection process results in a jury of ladies who might find an encounter with a black hoodie frightening. And then they are told that if they have reasonable doubt about what was going on in Zimmerman’s mind, they can acquit him. The verdict is not a surprise, but it underlines the shabby nature of American law- making and enforcement for the 216 years since a revolution based on a twin commitment to slave ownership and tax dodging, masquerading as a freedom struggle.

Quick and unoriginal Eurovision thought

May 18, 2013 1 comment

Eurovision is massive in Australia, probably more so than it is in much of Europe – despite the fact that there aren’t any Australian participants, we don’t get to vote, and it’s shown on time-delay. Which is odd.

Of course, its importance is symbolic. Eurovision was first shown in Australia in 1983, which was exactly the point when the first generation of Australian-born people of non-British and non-indigenous descent (*) was in the ascendant (since from 1946-1973, migration policy had moved from ‘The Empire’ to ‘any country you like as long as you’re white-ish’).

Australia was shedding old stereotypes about national background, stiff-upper-lips and machismo, and forging its own identity with a nod to all the cultures from which the population was now derived. Combining row-of-tents campness with a near-total match to white Australians’ homelands, Eurovision couldn’t have worked better as a totem of the New Australia.

The White-ish Australia policy has now been dead for almost exactly as long as the British Australia policy had been in 1983, and again, the country has changed substantially and for the better for it. Sure, there are still plenty of bigots, but Asian cultures are now a massive part of the Australian mainstream.

It occurs to me that what we really need now, to cement and mark this, is some kind of massively campy event that somehow nods to both Australia’s multiple European heritages and the Asian heritage of New New Australians… Any ideas?

* yes, I know there have been Chinese and German Australians for almost as long as there’ve been white Australians and for much longer than there’s been a country of Australia. But mass migration was overwhelmingly from the British Isles until after World War II.

Thanks for all the fish

April 18, 2013 1 comment

The news from the horrible (and immensely stupid: who the fuck would allow a chemical plant to be built literally next door to a school) West fire in Texas today, with its “70 injured, no I mean 70 dead, no I mean 5 dead” just reminded me of this brilliant commentary on newspaper reports of tragedies.

(from Dirk Gently; if you’ve not seen the BBC adaptation, do. And if you’ve not read the books, stop reading now and don’t come back til you have):

They started at forty-seven dead, eighty-nine seriously injured, went up to sixty-three dead, a hundred and thirty injured, and rose as high as one hundred and seventeen dead before the figures started to be revised downwards once more. The final figures revealed that once all the people who could be accounted for had been accounted for, in fact no one had been killed at all.

A related thought in my brain, which was very much shaped by the 1980s British rationalist writer community, in the light of Mr Dawkins being a dick on Twitter as usual. We’d like to imagine that if Douglas were alive today, he’d be in the camp of the Iains and Terrys, but there’s at least a possibility he would have ended up with the Martins and the Richards.

Fuck.

Categories: Media Tags: , , ,

Consistency, aviation and discrimination

April 14, 2013 4 comments

The average woman weighs less than the average man, as does the average child. This is undeniably true.

By far the most important cost for the average aeroplane flight is fuel, which is directly dependent on total take-off weight. This is undeniably true.

The average woman joining a passenger aeroplane flight carries more luggage than the average man, and families with kids carry more luggage still. This is also undeniably true, as is is the fact that women are still far more likely to be primary carers.

So the current model under which fuel costs for passenger aeroplanes are based on the total weight of passengers, but excess charges for luggage are based solely on luggage weight irrespective of passenger weight, is grossly sexist on aggregate. Small people with luggage (overwhelmingly women) are subsidising big people without luggage (overwhelmingly men).

Now, you could argue that this is an unavoidable consequence of micro-level decisions and not deliberate discrimination, but if you did you’d be an oaf.

Laws in western countries agree, rightly, that an establishment that makes decisions that end up with men being overwhelmingly privileged and women being overwhelmingly shafted, despite those decisions not being expressly gender-based, is a discriminatory establishment.

I can’t see how this could possibly fail to apply to airlines. The sooner everyone joins up with Samoan Airlines and the weight scheme kicks in, the better…

Categories: Transport

Because you’re all desperate for JB’s views on Maggie

April 9, 2013 3 comments

Wasn’t going to blog on the demise of the most important British political figure since Winston, but since everyone else has and this blog is being archived by the British Library (I know, right – nobody tell them I’m Strine now), I thought I’d stick this originally-an-FB-comment line up there.

I grew up in the South of England with a very leftie Welsh mum and a centrist Northern but financial-services-working-dad. So from a very young age my take on Mrs T was always that she was ruining where everyone was from – good for the family bottom line, but that we should be kinda ashamed of that and it wasn’t a way to run a railroad. Or country.

Among people who are just full-on middle-class southeners, when it comes to Thatcher, there’s a tendency to adopt a “something must be done, this is something, therefore this must be done” approach. The UK economy did need structural reform in 1979, like other developed economies. But it didn’t have to be carried out in such a cruel and downright wasteful fashion.

Callaghan’s government was bringing in labour market and regulatory reforms – they were the main cause of the whole Winter of Discontent thing. Had they won in 79 you could reasonably have expected something like Australia or Canada today, with necessary reforms made but labour rights protected and no outright destruction of communities and generations of people. 

It’s a terrible shame the implementation was left to a bunch of outright class war fanatics instead, who decided the best use of the immense windfall from North Sea oil was to pay dole and sick benefits for millions of people they had written off as members of society. 

(then of course a generation later, her heirs say “why are we paying these toerags dole and sick” while pretending not to know the answer is “because that was our policy all along”…)

She also helped invent Mr Whippy ice cream, which absolves a lot of sins. Also Falklands, obviously.

Categories: Bit of politics

PR leaders and their downfalls

March 12, 2013 2 comments

Tony Blair was selected to win elections for the Labour party, by giving good PR face and convincing people that Labour wasn’t terrifyingly left-wing any more, despite being way to the right of most activists and MPs.

David Cameron was selected to win elections for the Tory party, by giving good PR face and convincing people that the Tories weren’t terrifyingly right-wing any more, despite being way to the left of most activists and MPs.

Tony Blair led the UK into a deranged war based on his messianic belief that it was The Right Thing, Dammit, going way to the right of almost everyone who was in any way involved with or a supporter of his party. And he was thrown out as leader only many years later, once he was actively unpopular with the public-at-large by an even greater margin than his party.

David Cameron has implemented a right-wing agenda, certainly no leftier than John Major’s government, despite being in a coalition with the Lib Dems. He has had to fight tooth and nail to get his party to do anything which has even the slightest smack of centrism, and so mostly hasn’t. Yet, despite all the above, and despite being vastly more popular (“less unpopular” might be fairer) with the public than his party is, they appear to be seriously considering turfing him as leader already.

I’m not quite sure what this proves, although “Labourites are Stockholm victims and Tories are a terrifying angry mob who nobody in their right mind would seek to lead” is probably up there.

Yes, it’s a Nerdy Poll Analysis

March 2, 2013 Leave a comment

If you like nerdy dissections of UK by-election results based on over-analysis of post-election opinion polling, combined with random abuse directed at almost everybody involved (but especially UKIP, because obviously), then you’ll probably like my latest piece at Liberal Conspiracy.

Pharma hackers gonna pharma hack, 2013 edition

February 28, 2013 2 comments

I was Googling for an old Banditry post yesterday, as part of a discussion about that new ‘people lie about their drinking’ study. Eventually I found it, only to discover that I’d linked to a (London) Times article, and that therefore the paywall had ruined the whole thing (curiously, even though the Times now shows unregistered users the headline, lede and first sentence for new articles, it completely screws up on old ones). So I more or less gave up on the post [*].

While Googling, I was rather surprised to discover the amount of content that I’d apparently written about the availability, acquisition and applications of various medicinal substances (link will hopefully die in a few weeks as Google updates itself). I briefly considered the possibility that in a fit of poverty and/or drunkenness I’d decided to set up my own online pharmacy, then remembered that I’m based in the country with some of the tightest controls on prescription drugs in the world so that would be rather silly. Rather, I’d been hacked.

I’ve been blogging for more than a decade now, so this isn’t the first pharmaceutical spam I’ve experienced: but it is the most insidious.

Creepy crawling

The hacked pages are tainted only to Google’s crawler – if you or I or anyone in the world who isn’t Google’s crawler click through to them, then they appear as originally intended, both in the browser and in the source code. So the spam-merchant gets to benefit from my PageRank without doing suspicious things to my traffic stats or making suspicious links appear on my actual site, which has been the giveaway for previous hacks. They also, cleverly, didn’t go  for an out-and-out hack of all pages, so if you google for “johnband.org” or search the site for a specific term that isn’t drug-related, then you’ll get the correct result, with no indication that some of the pages (mostly tag pages, category pages, and monthly archives) exist to Google only as pharmaceutical billboards.

Conveniently, Google has a funky-cool Fetch As Google tool, described here by their engineer Matt Cutts, which allows you to see exactly what the Googlebot sees when it crawls any page on your site. Sticking the affected pages into the tool confirmed that Google was still seeing them as pharmaceutically compromised. And that they’d been this way since last July-August.

So, I junked my evening plans and settled in for a night of Fun With WordPress, PHP, MySQL, Unix Permissions And Google. Which is my favourite sort of fun, obviously.

Hope, cruelly dashed

The top Google hit on the pharma hack, from blogger Chris Pearson, was an extremely well-written summary which described an identical problem to mine. “Result!”, I thought. So I followed Chris’s steps, only to discover that absolutely none of them worked. The trouble is, the pharma spammers are cleverer bastards than I’d thought: once the tricks of your trade are readily visible with a quick Google, you’re at a disadvantage. And Chris’s post dates from April 2010. Three years of malware evolution later, although his macro-level points are still worth a read, the actual techniques described were way obsolete.

Bugger.

So I Googled a bit more, mostly finding sites that repeated Chris’s solution, but eventually happening upon a couple of write-ups that were closer to my problem – at least, in the sense that they also found none of the things Chris describes, nor any of the obvious hacks I’ve experienced before like a doctored .htaccess file or dodgy-sounding access permissions, nor any changes to the main WordPress database… at least, none of the changes that anyone has noted online.

The most comprehensive, although perhaps the least comprehensible unless you’re ultra-techie, was a post from Shaun Green from February 2012. Short version: the current version of the hack creates php files with names that sound like they should be real WordPress files, and distributes them throughout your WordPress install but especially in the wp-includes folder so that they’re almost impossible to find and tell apart from real WordPress files without doing extremely nerdy things.

I’m not really a deep-level coder, so following all of Shaun’s steps sounded rather painful. And my install didn’t contain the specific filenames he lists (https.php and class-sftp.php), so I would have had to literally retrace his steps rather than just following his conclusions.

Instead, I went for a slightly lower-tech option. Everything in the wp-includes folder is a standard WordPress file, which shouldn’t have changed since installation. The same is true for everything in the wp-admin folder, and for everything in the WordPress root folder except for wp-config.php (which I’d already checked to make sure it wasn’t compromised). So I downloaded a vanilla version of WordPress 3.5.1, deleted everything from my install except for the wp-content folder (where themes, plugins and pictures are stored) and wp-config.php, and then copied the untainted files across.

One quick check on Fetch As Google later and – hurrah! – the pharmaceuticals had all disappeared. Now all I need to do is wait for Google to update its cache, and everything should be back to normal.

Gone forever?

While the problem was solved in the short term, it clearly wasn’t solved in the long term: I’d started with an uncorrupted WP installation, and someone had managed to corrupt it. So – after doing the basic password changing things, obviously – I installed Wordfence and Better WP Security. If you host your own WordPress blog (anything that isn’t on wordpress.com), then so should you. Wordfence is the equivalent of an antivirus program for your WordPress install; Better WP Security automates a whole bunch of handy lockdown and obfuscation tricks. Wordfence threw up a few vaguely suspicious files associated with some of the themes that were installed, so I deleted them; everything was then fine.

I’ve also set up Google Alerts that notify me if any new content appears on johnband.org containing various spammy keywords (the usual suspects), which obviously won’t be much use until the current spam-buggered content is removed, but will then allow me to kill any future infections before they’ve completely ruined my search results. I’ll update this post in the event that anything else occurs. If I remember, I’ll update it in a couple of months if nothing else has occurred, since zero is sometimes a helpful data point.

TL/DR: Was quite painful, could have been much worse. If this happens to you I definitely recommend the “for every folder which shouldn’t have changed since WP was installed, delete the folder and reinstall” approach, although do check the database and fix any issues there first. And set up the security things even if this hasn’t happened to you yet, because it probably will.

[*] Short version of post I was going to write: epidemological studies into alcohol-related harm are also based on self-reported consumption, so while it’s likely that everyone drinks more than they say, it’s also likely that alcohol is correspondingly less bad for you than those studies have shown, by about the same margin – unless we can come up with valid reasons why people would underestimate in one sort of study but not the other. Also, News Corporation are still unimaginably bad at digital strategy.