RBS meltdown - Edinburgh, not Mumbai

All is revealed: in his letter to the Treasury Select Committee, Stephen Hester admits that the batch payments screw-up happened in the Edinburgh office:

The initial reviews we have carried out indicate that the problem was created when maintenance on systems, which are managed and operated by our team in Edinburgh, caused an error in our batch scheduler. This error caused the automated batch processing to fail on the night of Tuesday 19 June.
India is in the clear. All the frantic briefing by the RBS UK IT managers has been in vain - the finger points squarely at Edinburgh.

Credit to Hester, he's declining his bonus this year before anyone raises the issue. You can bet he's not pleased though. I'd be pretty annoyed if some clowns in the IT department had just cost me £2.4 million. I'd bet he's going to send a troubleshooter to that office, equipped with a sharp axe and a very high quota for necks. In a sense, this is possibly the best outcome for RBS because at least Hester is motivated to find out whose actual fault this was:

I will ensure a full and detailed investigation into the causes of the problem, overseen by independent experts and reporting to the Board Risk Committee and then the improvements we will make subsequently.
We will publish relevant findings from this investigation in due course.
If I were a mid-level or senior manager in IT at RBS Edinburgh, I'd be doing some CV polishing right about now. The published findings should make very interesting reading and be a near-required citation for papers in risk engineering and business-critical systems conferences.

I'm not sure about the Mail's characterisation of this letter as "grovelling". It seems pretty solid and workman-like to me, high on content and low on spin. In fact, I'd say it confirms Hester as a pretty good head of RBS and the Government should look at slipping him some additional compensation in a year or two once the fuss has died down. Heaven knows I don't envy him his job.

Update: Dominic Connor at The Reg has top tips for surviving the oncoming storm, aimed at RBS IT grunts. Helpfully, though, he addresses management as well:

If you're a senior exec at RBS
You're only reading this because someone printed it out for you and other media are quoting us. That's because your IT staff trust random tech journalists that they’ve never met with the truth more than they trust you.
Genius. Read The Whole Thing.


Thank God for the TSA's vigilance

The TSA - fearlessly guarding America's frontiers and shanking elderly starship captains.

Winner of "best comment": rezzyboy

Was George Takei anywhere in the vicinity????

RIM - all over bar the shouting

I'm going to go out on a limb here and hazard a guess that RIM is dead, along with Blackberry. Delaying Blackberry OS 10 until 2013, thereby missing out on the Christmas rush? They must be seriously slipping on internal delivery dates to make the delay announcement 6 months before.

RIM have taken a near-dominant position in business email and handed it out for free to anyone that wanted it (by the look of things, for now, Apple and iOS). They have forced their loyal retail consumers to go elsewhere for anything approaching an up-to-date smartphone; I've played with a Gingerbread full-keyboard device from Verizon and it's quite the match for anything RIM currently sells, never mind what Ice Cream Sandwich / Jelly Bean bring to the party. What is going to RIM announce in 6 months time that will trump what Apple and Google are shipping now?

For RIM, it's all over bar the shouting. A steady decline in market share until they are bought at an insulting discount for what few marketable patents they have. If I were a good engineer in RIM, I'd be reaching out to my buddies in Apple and Google right about now.

How to fill out a customer satisfaction survey

Courtesy of the inimitable James Lileks, trying to help Panera improve their customers' experiences:

Accuracy of your order. When you ask for coffee you get an empty cup and directions to the urn. The way the lady held out the cup so I could take it was highly accurate and professional.
Availability of the menu item you wanted. Well, I wanted calorie-free pizza, and they don’t have it, but that's my problem.

My personal rule of thumb is that a company from whom I've bought something moderately expensive gets three minutes of my time for their online survey. If five minutes have passed and I'm only 30% of the way through, it's 50-50 as to whether I blaze through the rest of the questions with deliberately misleading multi-choice answers and subtle abuse in the text sections, or I forward a ranting email to their head of customer service pointing out that they're not paying me for my time helping them, and if they want any useful information they can bloody well spend some time making the survey as short as possible. The bastards.


Damn those rich foreign students!

Oh no! University entrance standards are slipping! British universities are admitting foreign students at a lower standard than domestic students!

And exactly why are the universities overseeing this deplorable slide in standards?

Universities were accused of profiteering by rejecting tens of thousands of British teenagers, currently sitting A-levels, so they can fill places with more profitable foreign students.
Ah, the money imperative. Quelle surprise. But what's this?
Universities say that even the new £9,000-a-year tuition fees for British and European Union students do not cover their costs, and they need to turn to foreigners who are charged 50 per cent more.
It seems that stopping this slide in standards is going to result in either more taxpayers' money going to the universities to support domestic students (yeah, that's going to happen) or fees rising for said domestic students. Oopsie.

I'd bet this is one subject that any self-preserving politician won't touch with a bargepole. Any MP who grandstands about the issue clearly has no intention or prospect of serving in a government in the next decade.

The Baltic Sea USO - what's going on?

That's Unidentified Seabed Object, just to be clear. So I've been following the earlier Daily Mail articles about this strange rock formation on the bed of the Baltic, thinking "yeah, yeah, Face on Mars territory." Except that now it seems that there's an additional wrinkle:

Professional diver Stefan Hogerborn, part of the Ocean X team which is exploring the anomaly, said some of the team's cameras and the team's satellite phone would refuse to work when directly above the object, and would only work once they had sailed away.
He is quoted as saying: 'Anything electric out there - and the satellite phone as well - stopped working when we were above the object.
Now, let me say that my immediate working hypothesis is that Stefan is enjoying screwing around with credulous journalists. However, just supposing that he's reporting the actual facts, what's going on?

I think the most likely explanation involves the Soviet Navy; there's a long history of Cold War submarine activity with seabed-crawling Soviet mini-submarines, and the Swedish Navy depth-charging them. Maybe, just maybe this artefact is the result of some mid-1980s activity that buried Soviet (nuclear?) hardware under rocks and sand, broadcasting a significant RF signal for some as yet unknown purpose. The Russians are unlikely to admit any involvement unless actually confronted with the retrieved device.

Or maybe aliens crashed their spaceship into the sea, and this expedition will retrieve it. I've seen the second X-Files movie, and know that this never turns out well. Time to go short of Sweden?


Cargo cult journalism

If you want to see a demonstration of cargo cult journalism, look no further than Vanessa Allen in the Daily Mail writing about the RBS / Natwest payments system failure. For context, compare and contrast it with The Register's exclusive article on it from earlier today (which The Mail references).

Compare Anna Leach in The Reg:

The main batch scheduling software used by RBS is CA-7, said one source, a former RBS employee who left the company recently.
A second former employee, familiar with RBS's use of the CA-7 tool, confirmed that the majority of batch processing at RBS was performed using the software and fingered a failed update as the cause of the problem:
Staff who oversee batch scheduling for RBS are based in India:
At least some staff overseeing CA-7 batch scheduling software used by RBS are based in India as this job advert for a CA-7 admin in Hyderabad, dating from February this year shows:
Fairly well sourced and clear. Now let's compare Ms. Leach's output with Ms. Allen's:
The flawed computer programme that led to chaos for millions of RBS customers was being supervised by an IT support team in India, it was revealed last night.
Last February, RBS advertised for a series of key jobs, paying between £9,000 and £11,000 a year, in the Indian city of Hyderabad. That is way below what an equivalent worker would be paid in Britain.
The Mail article can be summarised as "OMG, dirty foreigners are stealing our jobs and wrecking our banking system." The Reg is far more nuanced: "this is the system involved in payments, it's reasonable to suspect its involvement in last week's problems, at least some of the support staff are in India and RBS seemed to know back in February that it needed more staff there."

You can just bet that the CA-7 staff in RBS will be doing their utmost to blame Hyderabad for the failed update. You can equally be sure that RBS management will do and say anything to avoid the implication that offshoring support to India caused the problem. Frankly, however, I'm inclined to take RBS management's side. ("How do those words taste coming out of your mouth?" "Like vinegar.") If any CA-7 work were retained in the UK, it would have been the development side. Contrary to popular opinion in the software world, it's the developer's responsibility to ensure adequate testing of their changes. They may rope in the testing and release team to help them, but they are the ones who made the changes and so they are the only ones who can realistically determine the necessary scope of pre-release testing.


Thank goodness for the TSA...

The TSA were diligently screening all passengers passing through JFK Terminal 7 on Saturday morning, spotting any metallic items with their carefully calibrated magnetometers. Until someone finally realised why not a single passenger had caused the machine to bleep that morning:

The chaos at Terminal 7 was caused by screener Alija Abdul Majed, who had manned Lane No. 1 during the morning shift with no idea his metal detector had no juice, sources said.
Higher-ups at the Transportation Security Administration finally discovered the security boondoggle at 9:44 a.m. — leaving the Port Authority with no choice but to call for a complete evacuation of the international terminal that is home to British Airways, Cathay Pacific, United Airlines and others.
Well, that's not really true, is it? If they had any reason to suspect that the disabling of the scanner was deliberate, they should have immediately arrested the responsible screener and grilled him. As it was, this was a pure cover-our-backsides action, security theatre at its best. No-one really expected to find a suspect item on any of the passengers re-screened -- and anyone who had successfully taken a suspect item through security would have had plenty of time to hide it before re-screening and pick it up afterwards.

Congratulations, TSA and Port Authority. You took a security snafu and used it to make it clear that you really don't intend for these procedures to contribute to actual passenger safety, merely as a continued source of government funds for your activities no matter how useless and annoying.

This must be some meaning of the word "glitch" of which I was not previously aware

Let's recap what we know about the NatWest/RBS banking outage: looking at The Register's assessment on Friday we see:

The screw-up has been pinned down to a flaw with payment-processing software, and primarily means that bank balances don't register inbound payments.
This problem hit on the 18th of June (a Monday), and so presumably was the result of a Sunday code roll-out. Since this hit so many customers, it's clearly not an intermittent problem; I'd be fascinated to learn who in the RBS/NatWest IT management OK'd a general deployment of this code version. I'd also be interested to learn why it couldn't be immediately rolled back once the problem was apparent - perhaps there was a data schema change involved, so they did the schema upgrade over the weekend downtime and then enabled it on Monday, but for some reason didn't have a verified reversion plan in place. Oopsie.

I particularly liked:

Customers were further infuriated after NatWest charged them for ringing its emergency helpline by initially providing an 0845 number instead of a free 0800 number, although the bank later said it would reimburse the cost of the calls.
where NatWest compounded an already massive technical failure with an entirely avoidable PR failure. Good job guys! I hope someone in PR is going to get a P45 for that particular decision.

It's easy to be wise after the fact, but releasing new software versions to a small set of customers to identify problems just like this is not exactly an unknown approach in software engineering. Nor is having a verified rollback procedure to revert the change when disaster has become apparent. Since it took until the weekend to deploy a fix, my bet is that it's not actually possible to deploy a software upgrade when RBS's systems are in operation, and that the broken payments system is tied to enough other currently-functional systems that downing it for replacement would have made things even worse.

I'm really looking forward to a technical post-mortem here, though I suspect the RBS lawyers and senior IT management will do their damndest to prevent it becoming public due to "propietary technology concerns" or similar weasel words. If I were writing it, though, it would go something like this:

  1. We were told to deploy (new feature X) by June 4th;
  2. Development and testing took longer than anticipated, and on June 13th we were instructed to deploy it by June 18th or face the consequences;
  3. Our software passed all the relevant tests (which were inadequate, because good testing is the first thing that a development team skimps on);
  4. We had a rollback plan (but did not verify it, because we never use them);
  5. We deployed the software in our standard release plan (upgrade the data schema over the weekend, verify the data integrity, then push the upgrade on Sunday night);
  6. Early on Monday morning our pagers and phones starting ringing off the hook;
  7. We attempted a rollback and discovered (unanticipated issue Y) which meant the rollback would not work;
  8. We entered a holding pattern and put together a bugfix that could not be deployed until Saturday since downing the system would have made things even worse;
  9. There followed five days of customer support hell;
  10. We downed the systems on Saturday, applied the bugfix and tested extensively, with everything now appearing fine;
  11. We opened for business on Monday and everything worked just fine.
Follow-up actions for IT management:
  1. Find a suitable scapegoat middle-manager and fire them;
  2. Announce "lessons will be learned";
  3. Appoint a new Director of Business IT Risk who happens to be a mate of one of the RBS board;
  4. Splurge some money on whizzy IT release software and associated consultancy that doesn't make a blind bit of difference;
  5. Move their own personal bank account to a UK bank with some grasp of how to run financial IT.

I'm not entirely sure that getting the Government, or even the FSA, involved is a good idea though. There is going to be plenty of hauling-over-the-coals going on in the RBS IT department without regulator intervention -- and, let's face it, designing and testing business-critical software systems is not exactly the FSA's line of expertise. "There's no problem so bad that government intervention can't make worse", and all that.

It also occurs to me that the best way for RBS to prevent a reoccurrence of this is to pay Good Money to find and recruit a small number of really good engineers from Google, Amazon, Microsoft etc. (all famed for their uptime and reliability - yes, even Microsoft) and give them free rein to fix software, processes and people. Give them a large, meaty bonus conditional on measurable reliability improvements and comprising a significant proportion of RBS shares. Perhaps this is one case where public and FSA wouldn't object to large "banker bonuses".


Wonderful aphasia in the DM

An otherwise unremarkable article about a family in negative equity being slightly shafted by the HS2 route is given colour by the journalist's poor English and/or the sub-editor's poor proof-reading:

Some homes on the train line route face being the subject of a Compulsory Purchase Order by the network - which pays an aggravated valuation of each house.
I rather suspect you mean "aggregated" there, Tammy Hughes..

Still, let's look at the story now we're there. So is the rail line forcing them out of a modest semi?

But they discovered the planned HS2 network high speed rail link between London and Birmingham will pass through their 13 acres of land - just 130-metres from their home.
Oopsie. This is in Warwickshire, and the house is a sprawling 7-bedroom affair. The house was mortgaged for 600K at the height of the property bubble in 2007, but now is only (optimistically) worth 400K. The father of the family died, which is tragic, and yet didn't have a life insurance policy that would pay off any significant amount of the mortgage.

You have to feel sorry for Vikie (sic.) the mother of the family, as it's clearly a hard situation to be in. Nevertheless, if you were intending to spend all your money and borrow up to your limit to get a house of that value, wouldn't it have been a good idea to set aside £50/month for a life insurance policy that would have paid off most of the house?

The real meat is tucked away at the tail of the article:

A spokeswoman for HS2 said: 'We have advised the Shanks' family that their building has not been identified for demolition or as being at risk of demolition in our assessments to date.
'According to the land ownership information we have obtained from Land Registry, the line does appear to pass through some of the land associated with the Shanks’ property.
'Until further design and planning work has been completed we are not in a position to confirm the extent of the land that would need to be acquired.
Ok, so what's the fuss?
'We have advised the family that if it did become necessary to buy land which they own, they would be fully compensated for it.'
Hmm. This smells like the family trying to press-blackmail HS2 into giving them a lot more money than their house is technically worth...


Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it...

...specifically, the Argentinian diplomats who are optimistic about enlisting Plaid Cymru support for their claim on the Falklands (based on the Welsh emigration to Argentina many decades ago) should have read up on the Bluff Cove attack on Sir Galahad where a large number of Welsh Guardsmen were killed.

Sure enough, it seems that Plaid Cymru weren't that interested:

Mr Llwyd confirmed the meeting had taken place, but he said he firmly rebuffed the approach to join Argentina's campaign.
He told The Daily Telegraph that he had "no interest" in helping the South American country with its battle to win support for its claim to the islands.
There's a politician who can recognise a millstone before someone tries to hang it around his neck.


Ofcom - so far out of their depth they need a diving bell

We're getting more and more of our news online, and Ofcom is getting concerned about balance:

The watchdog said more Britons than ever were getting news from online sources and this must be included in assessments of the nation's media. It found that Facebook and Google News are used by almost a fifth of people who access the internet for news, while 57 per cent view the BBC's online news coverage.
BBC1 and Radio 4 were named the most used news services in broadcasting, while BBC News Online, Facebook and Google were voted the most used news sources on the internet.
That seems to square with my experience (though I'd be fascinated to compare the BBC Online and Radio 4 viewing figures). So what are Ofcom worried about?

Ah, here we are:

Google, the BBC and Facebook should be included in reviews of media ownership, regulator Ofcom has ruled.
Ofcom want to examine the level at which Facebook and Google "own" news media. Well, Ofcom my friends, I have news for you. news.google.com specifically, since you cited that as an example. You do note how every single news story there is just a brief summary and has a link to the website (Globe and Mail, ABC News, USA Today, CBC.ca) where the actual news story takes place?

And Facebook - Facebook as a news originator? They're concerned about people recommending links to news stories to their friends on Facebook? Just what, exactly, do Ofcom think they should be doing about this? Apart from anything else, Google and Facebook aren't even UK organisations (does Facebook even have a UK office? I'm sure they must have, but I bet it's tiny) but quite why Ofcom thinks it's their business to meddle in social media content is quite beyond me.

So, who are Ofcom? Here is Ofcom's organisation chart as of 2010. The chief exec is Ed Richards, whom the sadly defunct blog "Drinking from Home" identified as a bit of a political hack:

Prior to Ofcom Ed was Senior Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister for Media, telecoms, internet and e-govt. Before that he was Controller of Corporate Strategy at the BBC. He also worked in consulting at London Economics Ltd, as an advisor to Gordon Brown MP and began his career as a researcher with Diverse Production Ltd, where he worked on programmes for Channel 4.
That's pretty damning. How about the others on the board? Steve Unger from the Strategy, Chief Economist and technology group: here's his arrival announcement:
Steve Unger has been Director in the Competition Group where he has led many projects, most notably the current Pay TV Market Investigation. He joined Ofcom in 2003 as Director of Telecoms Technology having been Head of Network Analysis at Oftel.
Prior to this he worked in industry – for two technology start-ups, both of whom designed and operated their own communications networks, and as a consultant advising a variety of other companies on the commercial application of new wireless technologies. Steve has a Physics MA and a PhD in Astrophysics.
At least he's from the science side of the divide (Physics MA? that's Oxford or Cambridge) and is clearly a smart guy - on the other hand, he's been in Government for over 10 years, and frankly is going to be somewhat out of date. Working for two startups and then becoming a consultant means that neither startup worked out particularly well for him (otherwise he'd have stayed and cashed in). "New wireless techologies" back then would likely be WCDMA (aka 3G) and presumably the advice was "dive in with both feet, what could possibly go wrong?"

Hilarously, the org chart shows the positions of directors of Technology Strategy and Network Infrastructure as "vacant". Fantastic. Just the kind of organisation you want to be commenting on and trying to control Internet content.


Tax to save Europe!

Polly is on fine form today. Her screed arguing that Europe's best hope of saving itself is to tax the snot out of the wealthy stands as an almost canonically Polly article.

It's fairly clear what direction Polly thinks Greece should go in:

But anti-austerity was the only message. Either default on debt or repay only once solid growth makes it feasible: more austerity leads back down the death spiral vortex.
Problem is, Polly, this isn't really an either-or: defaulting outright, or deferring payment of promised interest until later will be treated the same way. Once Greece has defaulted once, who'd lend them money again for the next few years? And when no more money is coming in, and the wealthy have fled the country, how is Greece going to fund its promises to the poor, the sick, the pensioners? The results of anti-austerity look awfully like the results of austerity to me.

And here comes the attack on the Eurosceptics:

David Cameron on Monday yet again wagged his finger emptily at Germany, telling it to intervene, a bizarre stance from one who shares its austerity policy. In all the years of behaving badly to its neighbours, Britain has never been so ignored or so irrelevant to the key decisions taken by its vital trading partners.
In the same way that the captain of the Carpathia was irrelevant to the sinking of the Titanic, certainly Britain was irrelevant: Cameron has no power to make Germany intervene. (Mind you, it doesn't seem as if anyone else in Europe has much influence on Angela Merkel, so I'm not sure why Polly's singling out Britain.) Perhaps it would be better if Britain were lashed to the mast of the slowly but inevitably sinking S.S. Euro but it's not obvious why this would be so.

Never fear, though! Polly knows where Greece and the other heavily-overspending Eurozone countries can find their saving fiscal intervention:

Hollande proposes a £120bn redirection of EU funds to an emergency growth programme: he should throw in the CAP, too.
Because all that money is just floating around, and redirecting it to various parts of the European economies would in no way affect other parts of those economies that would otherwise have been the beneficiaries...
Abolishing tax havens, co-ordinating fair tax instead of destructive competition, ending secrecy of wealth and property ownership, cutting defence overspending by France, Britain and Greece: politically hard decisions are easier if social democrats can inspire people with the value of standing together, not falling apart.
I'd be really interested to see what tax havens Polly thinks the Eurozone can abolish. "Co-ordinating fair tax instead of destructive competition" sounds like "stop those bloody Irish from attracting lots of external investment which is the only thing keeping their economy from sinking without trace" and "ending secrecy of wealth and property ownership" seems like an attractive first step in the process of taxing the snot out of the wealth and property of the rich; because causing a massive trans-European liquidation of property and share assets to pay tax bills couldn't possibly make the economy worse, right?

She saves the best until last:

In wartime bonds are issued to finance a national emergency by encouraging (or, from the rich, coercing) investment in a time of crisis.
In war, Polly, you have an enemy that you and your populace believe you can defeat. It's not an open-ended commitment. Until the European governments address the problem that their liabilities are growing much faster than their income, no realistic level of additional income is going to make a difference to the imbalance. I'm afraid you'll find that the people who have the money have a much clearer-eyed view than you of the kind of problem this is, and they have the option to move elsewhere if they think their governments are looking too avariciously at their money.


Demented pork prejudice

I must admit, I'm a little fond of pork products - there's nothing quite like a piece of pink protein-packed pork pie to put the pep in a pre-prandial snack. I therefore viewed with some disdain Haringey, Bradford and Luton schools, among others, who deny pork to any of their pupils. They "don't want the risk of staff or pupils coming into contact with it".

I see. Presumably the next step is to ban meat all together in order to avoid any risk that a vegetarian staff member or pupil may inadvertently be exposed?

There is a refreshing admonition from John Benjamin of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to whom pork in schools is a non-issue:

"Children at mainstream school who are bothered would probably have packed lunches," he said to the Sunday Telegraph. "Children who are comfortable with using the same cutlery and crockery as everyone else would choose their dishes from the options available. It is live and let live - we are certainly not calling for this."
He didn't actually say "what the hell is wrong with you people?" but I'd bet he was thinking it.

Various MPs are not amused at these bans, and rightly so. It's fairly clear that either these schools are either pandering to what they think Muslim pupils and staff would want, or school administrators are playing a "more Islamic than thou" game.

Personally, I'd say that you can have my pork chops, bacon and ribs when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers. One of the bright points of that article is that it reveals the existence of National Pig Association. Annual associate membership subscription is £20.42 a year and includes a copy of the industry’s leading pig magazine to your door every month (UK only). Readers, you know what to do.

[Tagged "censorship" because it's clearly censorship of food.]


451 - illegal post

An inspired RFC from Tim Bray of Google: he proposes an additional code in the 400 (client error) series to cover content that cannot legally be made available to the client. Yes, I'm aware than 95%+ of readers have already dozed off, but bear with me.

Which 400-series code does he choose to represent this? 451. I'm not sure what the late Ray Bradbury would have thought of this, but my sneaking suspicion is that it would have tended towards approval.


The Countryside Olympics

Danny Boyle wants to open the Olympics by transforming the stadium into the English countryside. I see vast satirical horizons opening. I'm recommend a formation of dancing sheep, a musical chorus of chirping blackbirds and mooing cows, a procession of tractors with farmers growling "Get orf moi laaaaand", and finishing off with a flock of starlings taking a crap all over the Argentine team and their Malvinas badges.


The landmines of maps serving

I was intrigued by Apple's announcement that it was moving away from Google Maps to its own mapping solution in iOS6. This is a serious step up for Apple. If you do the math that shows that a basic 256-color map view on a 640x960 screen is 610KB, you're looking at having to provision over half a MB of serving capacity for each map query per second. Look at what Apple high-bandwidth content that Apple serves currently: OS updates (say, 100MB/user/week, but really cacheable) and iTunes streaming and sales (say, 2 songs at 5MB per user per week). I can well imagine Apple Maps tripling their traffic levels, which is significant enough, but the other point is that maps data is very user-sensitive in the way that even iTunes sales are not: a delay of 30s in a 1 minute download of a music track is annoying, but delaying interactive map views by 10s will really bug people trying to find their way around a new city.

I foresee a lot of pain for Apple's data centre team in the first month or two after iOS 6 rolls out, and not a little user annoyance.

Update: (20/6/12) as the esteemed Mr. Worstall has linked this, I shall expand on the detail a little. Yes, if you compress the image (e.g. via PNG) you could easily shrink the bandwidth required to 1/2 or 1/3 of the uncompressed, depending on how "busy" the map image is. However, nothing is for free. If you want to serve compressed images, you either have to pre-compute and compress every image you might possibly want to serve (which can turn out to be a big, big storage problem when you consider different zoom levels and image viewing options) or you have to compress on the fly and hope that you get reasonable cache hits. The former strategy takes stupid amounts of disk (which is slow to read); the latter takes stupid amounts of processing power and therefore reduces the number of users that each server in your datacenter can serve.

Compared to this, serving iTunes tracks is easy because everyone gets the same track data and caching the popular tracks (Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Flanders and Swan) helps you avoid the slow disk reads.


That Spanish bank bailout

Thank heavens there was €100bn floating around the Eurozone that no-one knew what to do with; good thing that Spain managed to find it and take it to shore up its banks.

Where did they find these funds again?

The Eurogroup said the funds could come from either from the eurozone's temporary rescue fund, the EFSF, or the permanent mechanism, the ESM, which is due to start next month.
Mmm. OK. So this is the solvent Eurozone members (I'm looking at you, Germany) bailing out Spanish sovereign debt (held by the Spanish banks) by the back door. Somehow I don't think this is going to go down well in Germany when the taxpayers realise they're in for €1000 per head of a "recapitalisation" into banks backed by Costa del Sol property that's still plunging in value.


Where there is small crime, there are bigger crimes

I'm with Sir Terry Pratchett on this. A man who would do this to a dog is a man to whom the police should pay attention. One has to wonder, what else is he capable of and what would set him off?

The details are instructive:

At around 3am, he struck the dog around 20 times on the head with a hammer. No explanation was given in court.
When even your defence brief is unwilling to touch one of your actions with a ten foot pole, you know you're a pretty repulsive excuse for a human being.

My inner libertarian rebels against keeping this man in jail because of what he might do; however, I fear that it is a near-inevitability that eventually a human is going to be on the wrong end of his temper.


Censoring Fahrenheit 451

You just couldn't make this up: a book publisher censoring a book about book-burning. The late and great, great Ray Bradbury recalls, in the 1979 Coda to Fahrenheit 451:

Only six weeks ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel [Fahrenheit 451]. Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with censorship and book-burning in the fu­ture, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony.
If Ballantine Books had any integrity, I would hope that they cast the offending editor out of the nearest window. I would hope further that their offices back then were at least on the 30th floor, so that the editor had time to reflect on the irony of his mistake.

I am delighted that Bradbury lived to see an era where the staggeringly rude and yet wonderful Rachel Bloom could record and broadcast to the world an extremely suggestive and sexual video about her and the master of future fiction. (Not safe for work. Really, I'm not kidding. Not in the slightest. Minimum safe viewing age probably about 80 years. Just fantastic. Use headphones.) Nevertheless, censorship hasn't gone away: "damn" is just fine these days, but I fear that militants of other groups are thriving. Hands up who thinks this couldn't happen today:

...the university wrote back that they hardly dared do my play — it had no women in it! And the ERA ladies on campus would descend with ball-bats if the drama department even tried!
Grinding my bicuspids into powder, I suggested that would mean, from now on, no more productions of Boys in the Band (no women), or The Women (no men). Or, counting heads, male and female, a good lot of Shakespeare that would never be seen again, especially if you count lines and find that all the good stuff went to the males!
I wrote back maybe they should do my play one week, and The Women the next. They probably thought I was joking, and I’m not sure that I wasn't.
In my dreaming moments, I can see just this scene playing out in a student union meeting somewhere. Then the ghost of Bradbury descends and smites the offending head-up-arse-earnest "progressives", thundering a denounciation that shrivels what remains of their souls...

Don't hide your bucks, Argentinians

Encouraging economic news from Latin America, where President Kirchner of Argentina is giving up her last US dollar account. It turns out that, in a nation of 9% official inflation and 25% actual inflation, people are unaccountably keen to hold dollars rather than pesos. How strange.

Dear Cristina is only too pleased to explain her reasoning for the switch:

"I've just had one fixed term account in dollars for some time," President Fernandez said on Wednesday.
"And I've decided to put it in pesos, it's more profitable to have it in pesos."
Yes, I'd imagine you could get a great 8%-10% interest rate on a peso account; I can't imagine that dollar accounts pay any interest, given the demand for them and bureaucracy-induced cost of operation:
People wanting to buy dollars have to give their national identity and tax number, which must then be approved by the national tax agency (AFIP) before the transaction can go ahead. [...] Argentines wanting to travel abroad must prove their money was obtained legally and tell the tax agency when and where they are going, and why.
And yet, Cristina, people are clamouring for dollars. Why might that be, do you think?


Making meetings work

A 2009 article from paulgraham.com is doing the rounds this week, identifying why meetings annoy a substantial subset of their participants. The 30 second summary is that most meetings are organised by people who spend a lot of time in meetings and hence are used to doing non-meeting work in small blocks (context switching fairly quickly). Participants, notably people who make things or write software, are used to and most productive in an environment where they have long uninterrupted time to focus on getting things done. Putting a meeting in the middle of that block of time causes a disproportionate loss of productivity (a 1 hour meeting in the middle of a 4 hour morning more or less trashes the entire morning's productivity).

The remedy recommended, which I'd heartily endorse, is for the "maker" people to set aside "office hours" for meetings, one or two chunks of time in the week when they are fully available for meetings and hence won't be planning any deep-dive productivity session. Scheduling meetings outside those times should only be done rarely and for a really good reason.

I have encountered many types of meeting, organisers and participants in my time, and the article rings very true. Doing any interesting software development or testing requires a good 30-60 minutes to get really engaged, focused and productive. An interruption after that time provokes the same kind of reaction as waking a sleeping baby - serious grump and sociopathic behaviour.

I would go further, though, and encourage meeting organisers to think hard about who they invite to meetings. Too often I've seen half or more of the meeting participants figuratively asleep in their chairs - they don't see any value in listening to one or two prima donnas drone on, but daren't refuse to attend. Personally I'd require the organiser to shoulder the burden of proving the value of attendance: unless you can make a good case why each attendee needs to be physically in the meeting (instead of reading the meeting notes), they should be at best an optional invite.

Just to show there's no favoritism, if the organisers adopt this model then it's incumbent on the attendees to prepare themselves; they should read the agenda and prep notes (circulated at least a day before the meeting) and come ready to offer specific opinions and solutions, rather than try to catch up as the meeting occurs.

According to Miss Manners, if a meeting organiser refuses to provide a meaningful agenda but insists you come, you are quite within your social rights to spend the entire meeting breaking wind loudly. (Admittedly I skim-read her book, but I'm sure I picked up the essentials.)


Missing the point on Madoff

Charles Ferguson (why no hyperlink to the name? does he have commercial interests or connections that the Guardian may be ashamed of promoting?) writes in the Grauniad on the Madoff Ponzi scam and why he thinks major banks should be prosecuted for staying schtumm.

I particularly treasured:

But suppose a senior executive at Goldman Sachs, UBS or JPMorgan Chase had called the SEC and said: "You really need to take a close look at Bernard Madoff. He must be working a scam."
But not a single bank that had suspicions about Madoff made such a call. Instead, they assumed he was probably a crook, but either just left him alone or were happy to make money from him.
Just suppose the bank had made such a call. Can you imagine the opprobrium, court cases and financial damages had they been wrong? (or unable to prove themselves correct, which is much the same thing in a libel trial). And what benefit would accrue to them for such whistleblowing? Staying quiet and refusing to deal with Madoff was the least worst option for them.

Instead, Charles, let's talk about the complete dysfunction of Mary Schapiro's SEC that allowed Madoff to operate for over a decade despite widespread misgivings in the financial industry. What the heck was the SEC doing? How did it totally fail to detect Madoff's too-good-to-be-true results and draw the obvious conclusion? It isn't as if this was a tiny fund in Podunk, NY beneath the SEC's radar. Madoff ran a huge hedge fund. What was the SEC doing when it was "regulating" this fund where investors lost $50bn?

Charles Ferguson, blinkered moron that he is, completely misses the actual culpable idiots in the SEC in his pursuit of the "big banks". Charles: the big banks were merely responding rationally in the environment that civil litigators and the SEC created. Whose fault is that?

Stable Spain

Spain claims it is "stable":

'We're stable': Cash-strapped Spain's finance minister says nation is back on track despite claims it asked IMF for massive €300BILLION bailout
When reading this, I couldn't help but think of the Rules of EMS:
64. Asystole is a very stable rhythm
and perhaps while we're here should modify:
63. Less than 8, intubate (GCS score).
63a. If the Finance Minister lies, recapitalize.