The joys of hard drive death

The IRS (US tax service) ex-head Lois Lerner has been under the spotlight in the past year about the IRS allegedly targeting organisations for audit based on their political allegiances. Apparently Tea Party related organisations were much more likely to be targeted than left-leaning organisation. Lerner retired from the agency in September last year, but the Republican party has unsurprisingly been chasing her. Lerner took the 5th at a hearing in March, refusing to testify to avoid the risk of incriminating herself, so the investigators have been looking for other sources of information.

Of course, most communication these days is done by email, and the IRS is no exception. The obvious place to start in finding the details of Lerner's involvement - if any - would be to trawl her email. Except that this appears to be difficult:

Today, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) issued the following statement regarding the Internal Revenue Service informing the Committee that they have lost Lois Lerner emails from a period of January 2009 – April 2011. Due to a supposed computer crash, the agency only has Lerner emails to and from other IRS employees during this time frame.
Oopsie. Still, these things happen occasionally. It's just bad luck, right?

The IRS has 89,500 employees. It's not unreasonable to estimate that every one of them has an email account, and most of them have a computer. Say they have 70,000 personal computers on their network. Every computer has at least one hard drive. A hard drive's average life is 2-3 years; let's say 1000 days. On average, if you have 1000 hard drives, one will be failing each day. In the case of the IRS we'd expect to see 70 hard drives a day, nearly 500 per week, failing. Hard drives failing are a completely normal part of IRS IT operations.

Given that, you put together an IT system that lets your executives lose all their emails whenever their personal computer hard drive crashes? This seems... not the approach one would normally take.

What I find interesting is an IRS note from 1998 announcing that they were standardising on Exchange:

The new e-mail package will use Microsoft Exchange Server Version 5.5 along with the Microsoft Outlook 98 desktop product. The IRS will switch over to the new system during the next 12 months
I'm assuming that by now they've done several migrations to more modern versions of Exchange. By 2009 they should have been on Exchange 2003 at least, maybe 2007. A user's emails would be in folders on replicated central storage, not just on a personal machine; the Outlook client would copy mails from the central storage to the local computer for speed and ease of access, but they would remain in the central storage precisely because personal computers fail all the time. Suppose the power supply exploded, or the motherboard shorted, or coffee spilled into the CD-ROM drive slot, or the user has to get email access out of office hours (e.g. via Outlook Web Access) - there has to be a way to get to their data when the PC is not available. The replicated storage copies the data to several physically separate machines, using a scheme such as RAID which lets you trade off the number of copies of data, read performance and write performance.

What I would believe, and I should make it clear that this is pure speculation, is that someone was deleting old emails off the replicated storage for some purpose; perhaps for perfectly legitimate purposes. They ended up deleting much more than they expected. Once this was discovered, they tried to recover the data from the daily / weekly tape backups that were almost certainly being made from the central storage. When they did this, they discovered that for the past 1-2 years the backup data being written wasn't being written correctly - taken from the wrong source, missing indexes, taken from a source that was being updated as it was being read, whatever. This was so embarrassing given the amount of money that they were spending on their storage and backups that they cooked up a story about a hard drive failing and hoped no-one would ask any inconvenient questions. Bad luck, boys!

If the details of IRS's excuse haven't been mis-reported - a possibility we should not reject out of hand - then either they have a painfully badly assembled and operated IT system, or someone is telling pork pies.



I really shouldn't follow cases like this; it's terribly bad for my blood pressure. Let's assume that you're a law graduate training to be a barrister. You're doing badly in your exams because you go out drinking and partying every night. What do you do? Apparently, "party less and study harder" is too passé - the hip modern approach is to accuse your boyfriend of a series of rapes and assaults:

The allegations made by Rhiannon Brooker meant Paul Fensome was arrested, charged and held in prison for 37 days.
Following an 11-week trial, the jury of 10 men and two women at Bristol crown court on Thursday found Brooker, who has an eight-month-old child, guilty of perverting the course of justice. She was given bail but could be [my emphasis] jailed when she is sentenced later this month.
Could be? I'm not sure that there are the words. At minimum, Brooker should be given the same sentence as Mr. Fensome would have received given the rape sentencing guidelines which looks to be a 15 year starting point (Repeated rape of same victim over a course of time or rape involving multiple victims) with one possible aggravating factor (ejaculation) and one possible mitigation (sex with victim before offence). The guidelines for perjury regarding rape notes that "If there is any question as to whether the original allegation might in fact have been true, then there is not a realistic prospect of conviction, and no charge of perverting the course of justice should be brought" so the CPS is clearly convinced that the accusation was indeed false rather than not provable. The sentencing guidelines indicate aggravating factors (premeditated, persistent, arrest of innocent person) and indicate a likely sentence of 1-2 years.

Giving this woman a non-custodial sentence would send an appalling message to other women who falsely accuse their innocent boyfriends of rape to get out of a sticky situation. The message would be "it's worth a try - in the absolute worst case where you get found out, prosecuted and convicted you still won't see the inside of a jail." I'm hopeful (though not certain) that her potential career as a barrister has come to a screeching halt, but despite her 8 month old baby this woman needs to spend serious time in jail. Her reckless accusations were a gnat's chuff from jailing an innocent man for a decade or so, and as a law graduate there is no question that she knew the consequences of her accusations.

WAR has not been helping their case:
A War [Women Against Rape] spokesperson said the prosecution of Brooker was "completely disproportionate", adding: "Time and again we see police resources diverted from rape and put into prosecuting women instead."
First, would anyone like to point to a "Women In Favour of Rape" group? No? Then let's focus on this "spokesperson"'s assertion. Yes, the police put resources in to prosecuting women like this. They happened to persuade a jury, beyond reasonable doubt, that Rhiannon Brooker made up these allegations and tried to send Mr. Fensome (poor bastard) away for a good number of years as a sexual offender, thereby giving him a sporting chance of being stabbed to death in the shower or having boiling hot cocoa poured over him. This seems like the sort of crime that we would expect the police to prosecute, n'est ce pas? Or should the police never prosecute women for crimes where men are the victims?

God. If Mr. Fensome happened to throw WAR's spokesperson into a manure pit and I was on the jury, I'd declare him innocent and ask for the prosecution witness to be put to death. If WAR want to help women who have been raped, they can start by ensuring that juries don't think that rape accusations can be motivated simply by spite: give women who make false accusations some skin in the game by giving them a realistic prospect of spending years in jail for this kind of perjury.


Marcela Trust update: 2013 accounts

The Marcela Trust has sent in their accounts for their fiscal year ending July 2013 so I thought I'd take a look to see how our favourite salt and sugar haters are doing. For comparison, have a look at my analysis of their 2012 accounts.

A quick summary:

  • Their donations this year were £300K to the Camelia Botnar Foundation, £170K to Fauna and Flora International (like last year, for their Western Transylvania work and to fund their student at Cambridge), £20K to the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre and £7.5K to support the annual exhibition of the Society of Portrait Sculptors; these were funded in the usual way by restricted donations (totaling just under half a million quid) from OMC Investments which holds all the money that the Marcela Trust distributes.
  • Nothing was sent to CASH or Action on Sugar this year; perhaps the Marcela Trust trustees are not keen on the attention they received as a result of the CASH donations.
  • The 300K donation to the Camelia Botnar Foundation is interesting; I wonder what it was for? I looked at the Camelia Botnar Foundation 2012 accounts back in December and they looked in reasonable shape; their net funds had jumped from £5.1M to £6.3M. So was the 300K for something specific that the Marcela Trust wanted to set up but not fund directly? If so, what? The Marcela Trust report says that it "was made contribute [sic] to the foundation's annual running costs." We'll have to wait until December to see how this materialises in the CBF accounts and why it was needed.
  • This year the Trust got £2.5K in donations and £22K in interest on funds, comparable to last year. They raised £5.6M (property rentals, hotel operating income etc) but spent £6M doing this, which is rather surprising; last year they raised about the same at a cost of only £3.7M. Where did they lose the extra £2.3M or so? Looking at the subsidiary activities trading costs, it looks like that was mostly due to extra impairment of investments (things they have are no longer as valuable as they used to be).
  • Their funds had an OK year, rising £1.5M in value to £67M, about a 2% gain.
  • They sold £3M of investment assets (property, presumably) but lost another £1M on revaluation of assets they held; this wasn't quite as bad as last year's £1.5M loss but must have still smarted a bit.
  • They moved about £24M from investment assets to cash, nearly a mirror of last year's move of £24M cash to tangible assets (after raising £12M in loans); that loan is still outstanding in the creditors line, now due within 1 year.
  • Fortunately the poor investment performance didn't stop the Trust increasing its wages paid. Wages were up about 6% overall and pensions about 19%. Dawn Pamela Rose was paid about £250K again, with £58.5K going into her pension scheme (up from £40K last year).
  • Dawn Pamela Rose's QHH Limited subsidiary of OMC Investments commenced trading as a hotel during the previous financial period; it lost £15K on turnover of £1.1M this year.
I think QHH Limited must be the Queen's Head Hotel (Google is fairly definite on this link) but I'm not sure which of the eponymous establishments in the UK corresponds to this.

So overall a year which is interesting mostly for the sudden arrest in the flow of funds to CASH, a property investment performance which looks less than stellar, and a £300K donation to Camelia Botnar Foundation which did not look to be needed. Let's see what the CBF accounts reveal when they appear in December...

Minimum wage: Seattle airport workers find out that TANSTAAFL

An interesting tidbit from the Northwest Asian Weekly about the effect on airport workers of Seattle-Tacoma Airport's $15/hr minimum wage:

"Are you happy with the $15 wage?" I asked the full-time cleaning lady.
"It sounds good, but it’s not good," the woman said.
"Why?" I asked.
"I lost my 401k, health insurance, paid holiday, and vacation," she responded. "No more free food," she added.
For non-Americans, the 401k is like a money-purchase pension scheme where employers normally match some level of employee contributions. It's possible that the loss of health insurance wasn't strictly related to the $15/hr minimum wage, which took effect at SeaTac on Jan 1st, since employers across the country have been diligently pushing workers onto the state health insurance exchanges where they can get away with it. However, the rest of the losses are quite instructive.

It seems that you can legislate a minimum wage, but where you force employers to pay more than they would otherwise they have a surprising number of ways to reduce the impact on their bottom lines.

The effect of the minimum wage hike has been seen in other ways as well. Labor-intensive businesses are finding ways to shed employees:

At the Clarion Hotel off International Boulevard, a sit-down restaurant has been shuttered, though it might soon be replaced by a less-labor-intensive cafe. The nearby Cedarbrook Lodge, by contrast, is undergoing a $16 million expansion.
The SeaTac $15 minimum is a great case study because it only applies to businesses which have dealings with the airport; as such, you can see the difference between nearby similar businesses where one is affected by the law and one is not.

I did wonder about an assertion in an article that unionized businesses were not affected; but indeed, the ordinance is clear about this point:

7.45.080 Waivers
The provisions of this Chapter may not be waived by agreement between an individual Covered Worker and a Hospitality or Transportation Employer. All of the provisions of this Chapter, or any part hereof, including the employee work environment reporting requirement set forth herein, may be waived in a bona fide collective bargaining agreement, [my emphasis] but only if the waiver is explicitly set forth in such agreement in clear and unambiguous terms. Unilateral implementation of terms and conditions of employment by either party to a collective bargaining relationship shall not constitute, or be permitted, as a waiver of all or any part of the provisions of this chapter.
So unionized businesses can agree with the workers' union to waive this (e.g. if it's posing a profitability problem that may otherwise result in firings) but non-unionized businesses have no such option even if the workers are willing - they would have to unionize first. A nice touch, and one that seems to have been under-reported in the press. I wonder why?

Hat tip: The Advice Goddess who has a new book coming out this week: "Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck".