Terrorism vs your free time

It seems to us that every time a terror attack happens in the UK and the media look into the perpetrators’ backgrounds the same problem appears: there weren’t enough resources to watch all of the suspects all of the time. For the sake of this discussion let’s assume that this is true. It is also safe to assume that terrorism is not just going to go away, nor, from the present evidence, even decline. We need to plan for a future in which terrorism from people within our country is an ever-present threat.

Our society needs to ask how important it really is to track those amongst us who might be in the process of becoming terrorists. If, as we believe, the answer to that is that it is essential, then we need more resources for the task. What we propose is for the government to call for part-time volunteers to be trained as suspect watchers. If there truly isn’t enough money to increase the number of full-time, professional surveillance personnel then this would be the only way to bring more resources to bear upon the constant pressure of potential internal terrorism which our country faces. We feel this is a pragmatic approach to an ever-present threat.

The UK has a great tradition of volunteers stepping up when needed and we feel sure that if the government called for volunteers to carry out surveillance duties there would be a good response. At first it would be a slow process and something of a burden on the system, as to get them operational they would need vetting as well as training, but eventually it would lead to a much greater ability to keep track of, and to gather intelligence about, would-be terrorists.

We envisage that the volunteers would only be doing surveillance – either electronically or in an anonymous way from a distance – so there would be little risk to their safety. On no account would they be expected, trained, or authorised to engage directly with anyone they were watching. Their expenses for meals and travel, etc., could be paid, but they would receive no salaries – they would be giving their time for free.

If all this sounds too much like a scene from 1984 then we need to remember that everyone in the UK is already being watched by one of the highest number of CCTV cameras per capita of any other country in Western society. So do we really need more surveillance? It would seem so, at least for a small segment of the population which wants to destroy the rest of us.

If surveillance has to grow in our society, we also feel that it would be better for it to be carried out by volunteers rather than by more professionals. As an unpaid volunteer your motivation would have to be the safety of yourself and of your fellow citizens. Yes, there will be the curious, the nosey and the bored who are just looking for something to do, but whatever their reasons for volunteering they would have to be judged on how well and effectively they performed their task.

We are personally impressed by the number of attacks that law enforcement and intelligence agencies have prevented in the UK. However it must be disheartening for them to work so hard and then be overwhelmed by the number of suspects who come up on the radar, and the agonizing choices they then have to make of where to apply their finite resources. In our opinion, preventing terrorism should not have to depend on a cost-benefit analysis. The potential damage to people’s lives, to our society and to the economy is too great. So if the government’s Magic Money Tree is truly dead then it is time for volunteers to step forward and to give practical support to our dedicated law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Little Charlie and the medical establishment

Our hearts break when we see poor little Charlie Gard lying in a hospital bed in London on a ventilator because he can’t breathe for himself, and hear the desperation of his parents as they fight for the right to do what they think is best for him. Our one hope is that the system can change because of Charlie.

The current system makes a complete mockery of the idea of ‘parental consent’. Disagreements between hospitals and parents over how to treat their sick children have always happened, and they will continue to happen. But the worst possible way to try to resolve them is to do what we do now – take the matter to court, where inevitably the decision will favour the medical establishment. Parents who are coping with the nightmare of a seriously sick child such as Charlie should not have to hire lawyers to defend what are supposed to be their parental rights. We need to set up some other body where parents, doctors and hospital administrators if necessary can state their views in a plain straightforward manner and without the need for legal representation. Then, if things cannot be agreed between all parties involved, the default position should be in favour of the parents unless it can be proved that they are abusive.

To return to the case of Charlie, we find it odd that in spite of one medical expert claiming that it is ‘likely’ that he is suffering, no published pictures of him show him to be in pain or discomfort. Of course this may be out of respect for him and also so as not to offend public sensibility, and we can appreciate that, but the obvious question to ask is that, if, lying in that specialist hospital, he is indeed suffering, then why? Why are they, with all their expertise, not treating him in such a way as to ensure that he is not suffering?

As writers of this blog we of course do not know if he is suffering or not, but we certainly do not accept at face value the claim that he is. Therefore, we would like to ask one question of the experts who make that claim: would you stake your career on your testimony?  In other words, if it can be proved at a later point that he was not suffering, would you be willing to resign from the medical profession? If the answer came back yes then we would have more faith in what they were saying.

However, we are fairly certain that in this case no expert would be willing to stake their career on this matter. One reason is that Charlie has such a rare disease. We wonder if anyone in court asked the medical experts present if they had ever examined another baby with this condition before. Most doctors, even those who care only for infants, will never see a baby with Charlie’s condition in their working lives.

Let’s be really plain about this. For a so-called expert to say that they are sure is not good enough in this case. Even for them to say they are really sure is not good enough. They need to have absolute certainty based on previous experience, which in this case is not possible.

So what we are left with is a very ugly suspicion: when children get sick and are taken to hospital, and if it sadly turns out that they will not recover, then the hospital may see them as a bed blocker and act accordingly, with all of the resources – including legal resources – at its disposal.

In our opinion, as Charlie can receive no further treatment where he is, this whole situation could be resolved by allowing his parents to take him where they want to for treatment. Then, even if that treatment is not successful, at least they will have the small consolation that they had tried everything they could for their son. No institution, no state, should have the right to deny them that.

How much money is too much?

In a previous blog we commented on fire safety in light of the horrific fire at the Grenfell tower block. Since then an interesting fact about the responsible council has come to public attention, or has perhaps been more clearly emphasized:

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) – the council responsible for Grenfell Tower – had, at the time of the fire, some £270 million in the bank.

We accept that it is wise for all of us, not just councils, to keep some liquid assets available for a rainy day. We do feel, however, that £270 million would pay for an amazing amount of rain… With that kind of money it would seem they were almost in business to make a profit.

Having such large sums of cash can create problems in itself. The first question to address is at what point do you stop amassing money? Our personal experience is that truly rich people never seem to feel they have enough money no matter how much they have. The second question is when, and on what, are you willing to spend it? For RBKC at least, it would seem that £270 million is not enough for them to have; they still had to try and save some £200,000 on cladding for Grenfell Tower.

We cannot wrap our minds around the reality of having £270 million in the coffers and yet deciding to ‘save’ £200,000 by opting for a cheaper, less safe, lower standard of cladding than the type previously recommended and agreed to. It is also interesting that no-one involved in making that decision actually lived in the tower block.

To stop this practice of councils hoarding so much money our first inclination was legislation, but after sombre thought we realised that legislation is no substitute for good sense and reasonable, humane behaviour. It is one of our great fears that our society is quickly reaching the point where the more laws we have, the less will actually get done and the fewer problems will be addressed. No, the real issue is one of never wanting to spend the savings and when that happens the money, except for accruing interest, is rendered completely useless.

Let’s look at a relevant example. On the first morning after the Grenfell Tower fire the council could have called temp agencies throughout London requesting about 100 people. These temporary employees could then have been equipped with suitable council ID, clipboards etc., and with written instructions on how to talk to the people affected by the fire and who had losses, human or otherwise, as a result of it. They could have noted names, addresses, what and who they had lost, their accommodation needs, etc., but above all could have provided a sympathetic, listening ear for them, while taking down their stories. They could have coordinated relief efforts, sorted and distributed donations, organised temporary shelter, and provided vital information to those beginning the search within the tower. It could be argued that such roles would require specialist training, but looking at what actually happened on that and subsequent days shows that the people who did all these things were just members of the local community – ordinary people, doing what had to be done.

Perhaps we can forgive the fact that no-one on the council had the idea to get representation on the ground, although surely anything would have been better than nothing. However, is it possible that someone had indeed had the idea but was told that there was no budget available to hire 100 temporary employees? And what about the £270 million? Ah, well that’s all in long-term investments, earning yet more money…

Large amounts of money, whether saved by individuals or councils, become almost holy – they can’t be touched, they must only increase, they become a ‘precious’.

So we would really love to know just what it would take for RBKC to spend only half of their £270 million on the people whose tax payments have contributed to that pot of cash. A tornado? A hurricane? Total flooding up to 20 feet? For it to affect the rich population in the Borough? What?

In our opinion it is totally unreasonable for any council to have this much money in the bank. We do not know how true they are but there are many stories of people dying of thirst in the desert who still had water in their canteens. Our saddest thought is that RBKC feels that having this amount of money is a proud achievement. Well pride goes before a fall.

The Issue of Nuclear Weapons

One of the reasons we started the Talk is Mostly Cheap blog is that we are continually amazed by what doesn’t get discussed in the mainstream media, and we feel strongly that others should be as alarmed as we are by this. What isn’t discussed is as worrying as what is being discussed, and one subject in particular which is being overlooked is the justification for nuclear weapons. In discussing nuclear weapons we are not advocating their proliferation and we do not approve of the whole concept of mass destruction. But Pandora’s Box has truly been opened, so we need to see the situation clearly and understand it as best as we can.

Nuclear weapons and their M.A.D. (mutually assured destruction) policy have been around for a while now; in fact the first test of an atomic bomb happened 72 years ago this month. A few large nations have nuclear weapons and most small nations do not – as far as we know.

To understand why smaller countries would want nuclear weapons, even in limited numbers, we need to ask under what circumstances almost any other country (and by that we mean other governments) would approve, or at least not criticize, their use of such weapons. What comes immediately to mind is invasion. If a country sees an invading force crossing their borders and they reasonably believe that they will be overwhelmed and will face a hostile occupation of unknown length and severity then a few even small to moderate size nuclear weapons could go a long way to greatly slowing or stopping the invasion. We feel it is human nature to go with what is known rather than the unknown, so many would say better some radiation and fallout with blast damage than being occupied.

This is not such a strange idea as it seems. Why was the neutron bomb, which has greatly reduced blast damage but is more lethal to the living, developed? Why are major nuclear powers currently developing warheads in which the yield or blast force can be dialled back?

Let us emphasise again that we would much prefer it if all nations could get along together. But until that day comes we actually support having nuclear weapons in the UK. The British armed forces are amongst the best in the world but they are rarely properly funded or equipped and would, in their current state, be hard pressed to hold off a full-scale invasion. Having nuclear weapons in the UK means that few countries would consider invading us knowing that, if pressed too hard, we could push back much harder. We realise, of course, that the argument could be made that without the cost of our nuclear programme our armed forces could be more than adequately funded and equipped. But there seems to be very little political appetite for such a change, and we are living in an increasingly hostile world.

That being said, we also agree that certain countries should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons, even though when thinking about this we find it is difficult to select any criteria for denying them which would not go against those nations which already possess them. The criticisms we could make against any particular country which wishes to acquire nuclear weapons would also apply to the past history of western nations, Russia and China.

So we don’t want the availability of nuclear weapons to spread but it seems that in reality this can only be enforced upon weaker countries. As always, the strong do what they want, and nearly everyone is aware of at least one country that holds nuclear weapons in secret (never mind that it is one of the worst kept secrets…). Are there any others that hold secret nuclear weapons?

The plainest way to say this is that we don’t want the insane to have these toys. But late at night when it is dark the thought comes that sometimes the sane become insane…

The best news so far is that we are all still here and have not yet destroyed the world under a mushroom-shaped cloud.

The Mania for Mars

Everything we hear from the space industry these days is about going to Mars – they have a real mania for it. So we have to ask, is going to Mars in person a good idea? Yes, we think it’s a great idea, but now is the wrong time. There are many problems which will have to be addressed before people can live on Mars and in our opinion these problems should first be solved in the far safer environment of the Moon.

The first of these is how people will live safely on Mars, where, unlike the Earth, there is very little atmosphere to protect them from solar radiation. This is similar to the Moon – just as on Mars, people living there would also have to be protected from radiation bursts from the sun. The Apollo moon missions had a plan for this which only gave them a few minutes’ warning to try and protect themselves. We are glad a radiation burst didn’t happen while the astronauts were exposed on the Moon, but this also means we still have no experience of dealing with such an event. We need a tried and tested way to protect people before any mission to Mars. This should be trialled by a moon colony – a much safer place to do so as a rescue mission to the Moon will take only days rather than the months it would take to reach Mars. Similarly, a real long-term colony on Mars may have to be situated beneath the planet’s surface, and this again would be easier and safer to trial closer to Earth on the Moon.

The next problem about going to Mars is the practicality of getting there. We loved the film ‘The Martian’ with Matt Damon, but noted that the ship in which the crew returns to Earth is massive and almost luxurious. This would certainly be ideal for the crew’s sanity and safety over the many months the Mars journey would take, but in reality we cannot launch such a ship from Earth. We could build it here but it would be too heavy to get off the ground. The Saturn V rocket that got the Apollo spacecraft into Earth orbit was the biggest, most powerful rocket ever built, and it still holds the records for the heaviest payload launched and the largest payload capacity placed into low Earth orbit. However, anyone who saw the videos sent back by the crews of the Apollo missions, or who has seen ‘Apollo 13’, knows that what the most powerful rocket ever built can actually get out into space is tiny. It is definitely not big enough for even a single person, plus all the supplies they would need, for the far longer journey to Mars.

Hollywood has done us a favour in showing us huge spacecraft crossing vast distances, because that is exactly what we will need to build. If we can assemble space stations in Earth orbit we can also assemble spacecraft in orbit. But around Earth space is filled with junk and more is being added every day, making it a hazardous area (think about the film ‘Gravity’). The Moon on the other hand is still pristine so it would be quite safe to assemble large spacecraft in lunar orbit. Although it will be a massive undertaking to launch from Earth the number of rockets needed to build a really large, Mars-mission-worthy spacecraft in lunar orbit, at least once Earth orbit has been left they can basically coast the rest of the way, pulled by the Moon’s gravity.

Dreams are good for civilization – that is how we got to the Moon in the first place. Just as they did then, someone of stature needs to stand up now and say “We are going to have a moon colony by this date”. Yes, it will be expensive. Deep in the darkest recesses of our hearts we sometimes feel the reason lunar missions were halted was that there was no money to be made there. We hope to be proved wrong.

Science fiction can lead to science fact but so far we have a lot more fiction about getting to Mars than fact. Rather than a mania for Mars, we suggest this mantra: Moon then Mars, Moon then Mars, Moon then Mars.

Computer Security

NB:  We don’t have any connections with the computer security industry and we don’t own stocks in any computer or security companies.

Let’s play a game called ‘Let’s all be honest about computer security’. So – does anyone believe that computers are secure? Honestly? No, we didn’t think so.

We can think of our homes as an analogy. Still being honest, we want our homes to be secure enough to protect ourselves and our belongings from break-ins, or at least if there is a break-in, for the perpetrators to be identified and captured. We live in a newer house where the doors are very secure, although a determined person with a sledgehammer would find it easy enough to break in through a window. However we feel that this is reasonable security which would encourage a would-be burglar to find a softer target, unless, of course, they were motivated by the certain knowledge that we possessed something of considerable value. As we don’t, it is unlikely that anyone will try to gain unauthorised access to our home.

Returning to computers, and still being honest, we feel it is not too much to ask of large companies with ample resources to secure their computers to a reasonable degree. Sadly, however, based on recent experience, it seems that this is more than they can, or are prepared, to do. It would appear that for many companies computer security on a corporate level does not become really important until it affects their revenue – then it becomes a full-blown panic.

We are not without sympathy for these companies. We know someone who has turned off automatic updates for their (very well-known) operating system. They recently asked us to do some work on their machine and we found hundreds of updates waiting to be installed, of which roughly half were security related. Patches to operating systems can be a good thing, but patches on top of patches are getting ridiculous. Some operating systems have become so complicated that no one person knows them completely.

Now, being honest again, in order to prevent computer break-ins someone needs to know all the places where people might gain unauthorized access to the system. Recent events have given a strong indication that programmers and operating system makers don’t know all of these places in the software and systems they have created. Many weaknesses have only come to light because hackers have found these weak points. Whether we like it or not, computers and all they provide are deeply lodged into our society and our economy. They have to be made more secure.

Thinking of the security of our home again, we feel that if we wanted to make our house more secure we would need a person guarding it twenty-four hours a day. At that level of security only the most skilled and highly motivated burglar would even attempt a break-in. Do we need to change the way we think about computer security and do something similar for that? We propose that for real computer security we need people watching a program twenty-four hours a day that is looking for any unauthorized activity on computer servers, databases etc.

We already know that machines watching machines doesn’t work: one famously painful example was when the Democratic Party in the United States had a large amount of e-mails stolen. But would that have happened if there had been staff constantly monitoring access to their e-mail server? Or even better, if anyone wanting to read their e-mail had been required to be personally authenticated by a member of the monitoring staff? Yes, we know that would be a huge pain and would slow everything down, but it would also ensure they had some of the most secure e-mail in the world.

There are two basic economic facts which underlie this problem. Computers are relatively cheap for businesses because their capital costs depreciate over time. On the other hand, staff salaries are one of the biggest expenses a business will have. But, in all honesty, can companies really afford not to employ people to monitor their computer security?

We predict that those who apply people to this problem will come out ahead of those applying almost infinite security patches, but we will be happy to be proven wrong.

Scotland, separatism and Brexit

Having had personal experience of the referendums held in Québec we feel it is time for us to comment on the question of Scotland separating from the United Kingdom. To be perfectly clear from the outset, let us state that we feel strongly that Scotland should stay in the Union. This is why.

The French peoples of Québec were a conquered nation. They lost the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the French army sailed away never to return and by the end of 1763 the people of what had been New France had new English masters ruling over them in the new Province of Québec. Accommodations were made between the two and history moved forward until the separatist Parti Québecois took power in the provincial government with the express platform of separating from Canada. Over the course of 15 years and two referendums they came very close to succeeding (or rather seceding).

What we notice about Scottish politicians is that they seem to act in the same way as the ones in late 20th century Québec. We are bemused by this as the Scots are not a conquered people, at least as far as the act of Union is concerned. Yet Scottish politicians seem very angry, as angry as those in Québec were as a result of their being a conquered people. Does this mean that in order to pursue separatism it is necessary to create a sustained political anger? If this is the case the Scots will have a problem – one that eventually defeated the cause in Québec – which is that anger is difficult to sustain over a long period. Eventually it becomes artificial.

Another thing we should state at this point is that we are pro-Brexit. So how can we be pro-Brexit, separating ourselves from Europe, and yet be against Scottish separation? Some things are visceral and sharing an island with another nation for hundreds of years is definitely visceral.

As we are two nations sharing one small island it was confusing to say the least to hear the politicians of the Scottish Nationalist Party wanting on one hand to leave the United Kingdom and on the other to re-join the EU. As the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change the more they stay the same. If this part of their argument hasn’t struck you forcefully, it should. They are a supposedly separatist government wanting desperately to re-join one of the most non-separatist organizations in the world. Apparently this was also quite confusing for many Scottish people and it helps to explain the loss of seats suffered by the SNP in the June election. One Scots voter interviewed on TV said precisely that – why leave the UK only to join the EU? His feelings were that if they were going to be independent then they should be truly independent.

It is possible the SNP were using this as a soft-sell approach to separatism – support us and vote to leave the UK and then by re-joining the EU we’ll ensure your standard of living will be maintained, as the euro and the EU will be there as a safety net. The Scots however are not stupid and they saw this for what it really was – just trading one Union for another. True nationalism does not care about things or about money – it is purely and simply the love of a country. This is a difficult concept for Western governments in the 21st century.

We have one more statement to make and no matter how gently we try to express it, it still sounds harsh. In the present Western world the only real independence is economic. If governments want freedom they need to concentrate their efforts on their economies. Interestingly enough since the Parti Québecois realised that concentrating on separatism rather than on providing good government would not work for them Québec has become a stronger, happier and more prosperous province. Our hope is that the Scottish parliament will now recognise and accept the same thing, and that a prosperous and happier Scotland will remain in the United Kingdom, keeping our island whole.