Thursday, 23 March 2017

Student politics

Are you on the left, or are you on the right?
Do you need trigger warnings or are you robust?
Is there a rape culture?

When I was at university, the questions were different.

Are you a bridge/chess/go player or a hockey/rugby/soccer player?
Does quantum mechanics make your brain hurt?
Why is there 20 times as many male student as female (and in maths, 400 to 2).

Times change.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

A car and a knife

The terrible events of today - five deaths and 40 injured - remind me of the days when I worked in London. Then the threat was the bombs of the IRA, and you can still see the transparent plastic rubbish bins that replaced the metal ones to make it harder to plant a bomb. And we occasionally heard a bomb going off.

But today there's a silver lining. The murderer (I don't actually know just yet whether he was a terrorist or just a nutcase) didn't use a bomb; probably had no notion of how to make one. All he could use was a car and a knife. Because anyone can get a car and a knife.

In America, pretty much anyone can buy a semi-automatic rifle, which can fire as quickly as you press the trigger. And, of course, any amount of ammunition that you like. If the murderer had had access to explosives and guns, the butcher's bill would have been much higher.

In America, some folks argue that you're killed just as dead with a knife as with a gun. They're missing the point. Access to guns increases the casualty count.

A dream

Last night, I dreamed a strange dream.

I had to write software for a satnav. My part of it was the core engine - not the user interface. So I had to work out the best route from A to B. So far, a rather ordinary dream.
But what made this a strange drean, is that I worked out an algorithm for doing it, and when I woke up, I remembered the algorithm, and it seems to me to be workable.

So here's the algorithm.

Suppose you want to go from Snodgrass Road, SW1, London to McMurray Street, Endinburgh.

I happen to know that to go from London to Edinburgh, you go up the A1. I know that, because I have a mental map in my head of the major cities in the UK, and I know, roughly, how to get from one to another. So the problem now reduces to: How to get from Snodgrass Road to the south end of the A1, and how to get from the north end of the A1 to McMurray Street. You see, I've now reduced one big problem to two smaller ones.

To get from Snodgrass Road to the south end of the A1, I'd go up the Edgware road (A5) then around the M25. Again, I've reduced that problem to two smaller ones. And you keep opn doing this until you've got the whole route worked out.

Then, if that calculation was fast and there was time to spare, you could try small variations on the route, to see if changes made it faster.

Here's what I don't know.

Is this a good algorithm? Is this how existing satnavs do it? And why on earth did I have this dream in the first place?

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Flying hazards

I'm glad to say, I haven't flown for a couple of decades, and I hope I never do again. It isn't that I have a fear of flying - it's the awful discomfort, the intrusive searches and the terrible ennui.

And now I see a new rule. If you're going from any of a dozen middle-eastern airports, to the USA, you're not allowed to carry laptops, cameras, tablets and suchlike in the cabin.

When I used to travel, back in the early 1990s, my accompanying computer(s) was what kept me sane. But that's not the problem.

If there's a terrorist hazard in carrying such a device from a middle-eastern airport to the USA, how come there isn't the exact same hazard from any airport to any other? I mean, if Joe Badperson wants to blow up an airplane, and he knows about this ban, so he'll fly from London to Hamburg and blow that up instead.

Either this new rule is more security theater, or else it isn't wide enough and we should expect a similar ban to become universal.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Fun with Barclays, part 2

After my call on Friday, I was told I'd be called back at 3pm today. Of course, that didn't happen. So at 3:30, I called them, and after being passed around twice, I got to talk to someone who could actually help. She sent me an email with my passcode, and I signed up for being able to see my statements online (I had done this before, but they changed their system so all their customers had to go through it again).

The email with my passcode was formatted for reading with a browser, of course. Most emails are. But some give a nod to the possibility that the email reader isn't a browser. This wasn't one of them.

Why don't I read emails in a browser? because that is so *obviously* insecure, I can't understand why anyone does it. The browser is a complex piece of software, so therefore liable to being hacked. My email reader (alpine) just shows me the text of the email - it cannot run java, javascript, flash, active content or whatever other compromisable elements they're putting into browsers this week.

That's why I see dozens of attacks via email each day.

So after the registration was done, I said I had two complaints, and I was transferred to the complaints department. And I complained about the formatting of the email. And about the failure to call me at the time I was told I'd be called.

She took down my complaints, and said I'd be sent £25 for the inconvenience.

And I have to wonder why Barclays have decided to reward anyone who complains about anything at all with a gift of £25. Don't they realise that they are incentivising complaints?

Maybe I should complain about that.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Fun with Barclays

I wanted a copy of my credit card statement. Simple, huh?

So I logged on to the Barclaycard Business web site. It asked for my username and password, and three digits of the PIN. I gave them. No joy.

I tried again. No joy.

I tried the previous username and password. No joy.

I asked for a password reminder. It gave me nothing useful.

I asked for a password reset. It asked me things like "name of your first girlfriend" and I gave it the answers which are complete lies because I don't really want it to use the truth (which could be known by other people). No joy.

I tried using  Chrome instead of Firefox. No joy.

After half an hour of trying different things, I gave up and called them on 0800 008 008.
That got me, via an automated menu system, (after some security questions) to ... the wrong department. More security questions, and then I spoke to a person, who was able to tell me that it's another wrong department. And I was transferred again. At last, I was at the right department, and Catherine Lapaz spoke to me.

She explained that they've changed their system, so there's no way it could have worked. Hurrah, the problem wasn't that I'd misrecorded the details. She said they'd told me about this in a letter. Well, they do send me letters, pretty much every month, telling me stuff that I don't think many people care about, and I must have missed it.

So can she get me onto the right system? No. Not till Monday. Sigh.

So why did this obsolete web page still exist, allowing me to try and try and try to log in to it, which could never have worked? Why is that page, a trap for Barclaycard users, still there?

Apparently, only some people have been migrated; the Mastercard people like me. Visa users are still on the old system. Sigh.

So why can't it tell me, as soon as I try to log in, "You're a Mastercard user, you can't use this old system". I had wasted about an hour trying to make something work, that could never have worked.

I've raised an official complaint. And I asked Catherine, "What's my complaint reference number?" So that I can call back about it if necessary.

She couldn't give it to me. She can only raise the complaint after the call is over. It's almost as if she can't use her computer while she's using her phone.

I promise you, the people in charge of these systems have never tried to use them, it's never occurred to them that they ought to test them to see how they appear to their customers, and possibly they don't care.

USA health

One important indicator of human health, is life expectancy. We all want to live longer, I think, and it's a measure that's easy to define and difficult to fudge. And this is still rising in western democracies; over 80 and counting. Except in the USA, where it's 79.

It is rising in the USA, but a lot more slowly than in the other countries. Why is this? I'm guessing it's because the USA is the only country that doesn't have a universal healthcare system.

I don't know how good these statistics presented below are; it's difficult to get good comparative statistics, and some people just make up their own facts. But if the figures below are true, that would help explain why so many people would rather live in Europe.

Why doesn't the USA have a universal healthcare system? It's hard to understand. The USA is a particularly religious country, so you'd expect that the people would want for the richer to help the poorer, the healthy to subsidise the sick. But it would seem that's not so.
US healthcare would seem to be expensive and ineffective.

Economic theory helps to explain this. In a country like the UK, healthcare comes from a single provider, who therefore has huge market power and is able to get good deals on drugs and services. In the USA, no one healthcare provider has any leverage with the drug companies or medical service providers, and that would tend to push up prices. In addition, because healthcare is usually via insurance, the insurance companies take a slice of revenue from the healthcare spend.

The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was a move in the right direction, but even that is now being reversed, and replaced by ... we don't know what, but I suspect healthcare is about to get a lot worse for the middle and working classes when the American Care Act (Trumpcare) gets passed.