The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind

It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere and there’s a feeling we have the pandemic licked. Maybe, let’s hope so! But climate change hasn’t gone away, rather we are another year down the road with little to show that we are even starting to turn our metaphorical super tanker away from its current catastrophic course.


Here in Ireland the Green Party are a junior member of the coalition government and they have been active in getting a Climate Change Bill published. It’s not a bad effort, much improved over prior attempts of earlier governments, essentially putting into law the requirement to achieve 50% reduction in emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050.
However, when I reviewed the bill in January my primary criticism was that there is nothing in the proposed legislation that defines responsibility or enables enforcement. Basically ministers are required to make budgets that are compliant with the overall target. But there’s no penalty for not doing that other than peer pressure. Good luck with that. Which brings me straight to a pretty sorry tale that shows without responsibility and enforcement, we will NEVER achieve our climate targets. And by the way, this isn’t just applicable to Ireland, most countries are in this boat.


Last month it came to light that Glanbia, a large Irish agriculture and food business is seeking planning permission for a large cheese making facility in County Kilkenny in partnership with a Dutch dairy processor Royal A-Ware. Now here in Ireland there has been a major expansion of the dairy business over the past decade with an increase of 25% increase in the national dairy herd. The proposed facility would add require additional growth in herd size. Environmental watchdog An Taisce formally objected to the planning process advising that “ . . this plant would lead to the production of an additional 450 million litres of milk to be used in cheese production. The impact of this additional milk production is an expected 2.5 percent increase in overall national ammonia pollution, an agricultural byproduct which, when released into the air, can impact human breathing. Increased milk production will also lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions from the expansion of ruminant agriculture.” In addition there are also water supply concerns.


Now the proposed facility is intended to produce Gouda cheese. It doesn’t take a lot to realise that Irish people typically consume almost no Gouda. The proposed facility is actually providing an Irish home for a Netherlands requirement, hence the involvement of the Dutch dairy processor. And surprise, there are strict environmental regulations that would be problematic for the Dutch processor in its home country, and so it is exporting the pollution to Ireland to bypass it’s local regulations!


Since An Taisce made its objections there has been a veritable storm of protest from the Irish agriculture industry. And it’s no surprise that as the most powerful lobby in the state, that politicians of all stripes have been coming out to protest against An Taisce’s objections, including our Taoiseach, (Prime Minister) Michael Martin.


It’s fair to say that the agriculture industry has been at logger heads with the environmentalists for years, but recently this tension has spilled into the open. Agriculture emissions account for over one third of total Irish emissions and are planned to increase over the next decade in direct conflict with the country’s target of 50%reduction in emissions by 2030. Note this is in context with the agriculture sector accounting for just 12% of GDP. This would mean that other sectors would have to massively over achieve or general taxation will have to bear the cost of EU fines for not achieving climate targets.


So to return to my criticisms of the proposed Irish Climate Change Bill. Without any legal enforcement measures the hugely influential agriculture lobby will cause the Irish Climate Change efforts to fail.


The basic dilemma we have, and I know this is true of most countries, is that our basic commercial and country economic models are based on ever increasing growth. And there has to be financial, not legal motivations to incentivise and persuade challenged sectors such as agriculture to move out of their comfort zone. The way to do this is to set carbon tax for larger enterprises (which have revenue over some threshold) that drive the sector. In the case of agriculture this would be the food processors, such as Glanbia, who create the market demand and encourage concomitant behaviours from upstream suppliers – the farmers. Naturally there will be dramatic change; growth markets always encourage investment, whereas declining markets need government support, (often referred to as just transition), and this clearly needs planning.


Carbon taxes will also be applicable to other sectors. For example, fossil fuel creation and using enterprises over a certain revenue threshold would have significant incentives to accelerate their conversion to sustainable products. Employers that insist on their employees commuting to central offices should be taxed on the emissions incurred. Similarly data centres that are still consuming very large amounts of fossil fuel based energy.


Whilst we can all see mistakes have been made in our response to the pandemic, we should reflect that our societies have mostly demonstrated an incredible collective effort to defeat the virus. The problem is that we are clearly very good at responding to an immediate crisis, but we are very poor at preparing for future crises regardless of how serious they are. We all know that climate change impacts will be an order of magnitude greater than the pandemic, and our challenge now is to maintain the crisis management attitude, to energise our societies to find opportunities in making change that benefit society and individuals.


One of the really important lessons we have learnt from the pandemic is that we don’t need to travel as much as we have in the past. The online world has been given huge forward momentum. Online everything, meetings, retail, government etc are all now normal. Remote working hubs have become common place. Individuals are choosing to live remotely from their business premises and optimise their quality of life. As the agriculture industry comes under pressure to reduce emissions, we can expect many more small, part time farmers to enter the market for organic products and act as suppliers to their locality. If we look forward to mid-century, it’s very likely that there will be a rebalancing between cities and countryside, and the opportunity to distribute more budgetary discretion and decision making to local bodies.


There is strong evidence that local responsibility is generally more effective at serving the needs of citizens than more remote central parliaments. Modern business practices embrace Agile methods that deliberately reduce planning and prioritize gaining practical experience based feedback. Many central parliaments have become ineffective because they are not capable of operating in this modern mode, and have become remote from their electorate because their cycle time is based on 20th Century best practice. Climate change efforts should be a wakeup call for governments and businesses everywhere that they need to urgently address a wide range of transformative actions to protect societies from future threats.

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

References:

Spotlight on Climate Bill (Ireland)
https://davidsprott.blog/2021/01/09/spotlight-on-climate-bill-ireland/


Hard cheese for environment as Big Ag juggernaut steamrolls NGOs
http://www.thinkorswim.ie/hard-cheese-for-environment-as-big-ag-juggernaut-steamrolls-ngos/

Posted in Technology and Society | 2 Comments

May The Circle Remain Unbroken

May is usually the start of summer with rising temperatures and softer rain. Here in Ireland, and across Northern Europe this month of May has been terrible weather. There has been a lot of rain much of it incredibly intense. At the same time the temperature has remained low – in the first days of May there was early morning frost. As a vegetable grower it’s normal to plant out pretty much everything in May and get good growth as the temperature rises. But we all noticed that there was little of no growth. Instinctively this seems very unusual. So what’s going on?


A report in the Irish Times earlier this year suggested that the Gulf Stream is at its weakest in more than a millennium. “ . . researchers from Ireland, Britain and Germany have compiled data taken mainly from natural archives in the form of ocean sediment or ice cores – going back hundreds of years – to reconstruct the flow history of the Gulf Stream. They found consistent evidence its slowdown during the 20th century is unprecedented in the past millennium and is “likely linked to human-caused climate change”. The giant ocean circulation has an impact on the climate of northwestern Europe.”


Most of us will be aware that the Gulf Stream acts like a huge conveyor belt carrying warmer water from the Equator North East across the Atlantic before then sending cooler, deeper water back down South. Similarly it’s well known that the Arctic is melting and sending vast volumes of cooler water down into the Atlantic. Similarly there have been predictions that, as a result Northern Europe will actually become cooler with less precipitation.


So I looked at the data. And to make the job a little less daunting, and perhaps more topical, I just looked at the month of May. I brought down actual rainfall and mean temperatures for the last 50 years. Note the May 2021 numbers are (naturally) incomplete and I will adjust in due course. But you will see below the results are very interesting.

The first thing you notice is that the rainfall numbers are all over the place. The 50 year May mean is 82mm. But very high rainfall numbers are common. The eleven years 2015, 2011, 2006, 2002, 1994, 1993, 1988, 1986, 1981, 1979, 1976, are all over 100mm. Conversely 15 years are under 50mm. So the mean average deviation is huge.


Now looking at the mean temperatures, 2021 is very obviously in line with expectation. We will probably end up with over 140mm precipitation and the mean temperature is currently 9.1. This may alter in the last 9 days, but I guess not sufficient to change that dramatic downwards curve! Comparing the mean temperature with rainfall is less clear.


Above the mean temperature line I have added indicators of La Nina years and indicated the relative strength of the phenomenon for the April, May, June period in the size of the arrows. The La Nina effect is in the year following the El Nino years and is usually expected to cause lower temperatures. Certainly true for this year, but less clear for 1999, 1989 etc.


So can we draw any conclusions from this exercise? As I write the heavens open again and there is a heavy downpour. This must be the tenth or eleventh torrential shower so far today. This pattern of frequent, intense showers is certainly a change in the normal May weather. Unfortunately Met Eireann don’t record these effects in their data.


The researchers believe the finger of blame for the disruption points to global warming caused by the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Yet even as other places warm up because of global warming, our part of the world would probably cool down.


But there are dissenting voices. For example, Richard Seager Lamont-Doherty of Earth Observatory of Columbia University has commented that A few times a year the media goes into a tizzy of panic that there is a possibility that the Gulf Stream will slow down in coming years or even stop. He says, “We now know this is a myth, the climatological equivalent of an urban legend. In a detailed study published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society in 2002, we demonstrated the limited role that ocean heat transport plays in determining regional climates around the Atlantic Ocean.”


However, myself and indeed other friends who watch the climate, are convinced that the ocean is in fact a huge energy store, and plays a massive role in weather formation. Just think of how hurricanes are formed over warm water.


In conclusion, we have hugely complex weather patterns here in Ireland and Northern Europe. There are clearly changes in our patterns, particularly the levels of intensity of rainfall, but given the data I am minded to say prediction is a mugs game.

References:

Irish Times: Gulf Stream lifeline at its weakest in more than a millennium

Posted in Climate Change | Tagged | Leave a comment

Cyber-Attackers Focus on Organizations That Have Failed to Invest in Modern Security Systems. Is this YOU?

Last week’s victim of cyber-attack was Colonial Pipeline in the USA. Today we hear that the Irish Health Service (HSE) is the latest target of cyber-attack. Hospitals are cancelling appointments and reverting to paper based systems. Our first reaction is disgust at the attackers, making easy money from important and critical institutions.

But, wait a minute, we need to know that very often the organizations themselves must bear responsibility. There are lots of things that can be done to prevent cyber-attack, but the number one priority is to have up to date, modern security systems that prevent all but the most sophisticated attacks. The fact is, the attackers focus on organizations that are well known for not investing properly in information technology security. I’m not familiar with Colonial Pipeline, but the Irish HSE is a serial offender in this area. For example:

Wednesday, 9 Dec 2020. RTE News: Thousands of HSE computers rely on out-of-date software The Health Service Executive’s information technology system is relying on thousands of out-of-date computers because a plan to replace them has not been completed. Last year, the HSE said it had “a programme to migrate” Windows 7 computers to Windows 10 by the end of 2020. At that time 46,000 of its 58,000 computers remained on Windows 7. The HSE has since replaced 9,000 of the 46,000 computers leaving 37,000 depending on the old software – 12,000 of those cannot be replaced because they are needed to run radiology and other systems that cannot run on newer software. The scaling down of Windows 7 was known widely from 2014 and the HSE started its migration programme in 2017.

Feb 18th 2021, HSE boss told NPHET member he was at ‘wits end’ over post-Christmas Covid computer glitch. The Journal.ie HEALTH SURVEILLANCE STAFF were urged to slow down the number of Covid-19 cases they were inputting into the HPSC’s data-reporting system after a computer glitch slowed the official reporting of cases after Christmas, newly released emails show.

January 09 2020 Irish Independent: ‘The cost is approximately €1.1m’ – HSE give details of Microsoft bill The HSE will spend €1.1m in premium extended IT support fees to Microsoft this year, the health service has said, with a smaller level of fees due in 2021. The HSE was responding after Independent.ie revealed that the body faces a hefty bill for not having its PCs and laptops upgraded to a safe and secure version of Windows in time for a deadline next week. Microsoft’s obsolete Windows 7 operating system will be cut off from security support worldwide next week, a deadline that has been flagged for five years. The company offers an ‘extended support’ service to allow those who haven’t upgraded to avail of critical security patches. In a detailed response, the HSE said that it has 46,000 Windows 7 computers still operating on its network, out of a total of 58,000 computers. However, HSE chief information officer Fran Thompson told the Irish Independent that the size and complexity of the HSE meant that it was “never” going to be able to meet the January 2020 deadline, even with several years’ notice. . . . 12,000 of the 46,000 machines “cannot be replaced” until radiology information systems are upgraded in 2021.

So the HSE is widely known as a lagger in its use of IT. This is a huge red flag waving for all cyber attackers to see. This morning’s news was clearly inevitable.

One wonders how many of the HSE staff have been and are continuing to work from home during the pandemic, further increasing the risk of cyber attack?

Reading:

What to expect when you’ve been hit with Conti ransomware

This is essential basic briefing – Imagine the scene: you’re an IT admin and you turn up for work on a Monday morning to find your IT systems are down and no-one can access or run anything. On your computer screen there is a message telling you that your systems and data have been encrypted with Conti ransomware and you need to pay a ransom for the attackers to decrypt compromised files and delete stolen information.

Posted in Cyber Attack, Digital Transformation, Technology and Society, Technology Platforms | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Cyber Attack – The No 1 Emerging Threat?

Every modern company or individual is on some level at risk of cyber-attack. And every company and individual, bar none, is critically dependent upon their computer systems. It has become in vogue for commentators to portray cyber-attacks as representing real threats to the “internet of things”, with bad actors taking control of nuclear power stations or similar core infrastructure. However, while the reality is generally less dramatic, it has huge potential to destabilize society.

2012 Iranians attack Aramco

In August 2012 the Iranians launched a devastating attack against Saudi Arabia’s giant state oil company – Aramco. The attack was Iran’s first serious cyber-attack. Sometime in in 2012 an Aramco employee opened an email on an Internet connected computer and clicked on a malicious link which unknown to the employee gave Iranian actors access to the company network. From this single entry the attackers code was distributed throughout the company network, spreading malicious code to many other computers and network nodes. From this silent, unnoticed entry the attackers deployed malicious code throughout the network to carry out two operations, 1) to wipe files from the company’s system and 2) to report back progress to the attackers. Once the wiping component was activated it deleted the relevant disk drivers (which manage reading and writing on the system) and replaced them with their own copy. The copy looked and operated entirely legitimately and raised no flags. However, the wiping code then overwrote the contents of important files. This is actually much more difficult to recover from than simple deletion. The malicious code then wiped the master boot record (basically the master directory) rendering the attacked computers unable to operate at all.

The attack was initiated on August 15th and swiftly spread throughout the company’s environment rendering some thirty-five thousand computers inoperable – the majority of Aramco’s administrative and operational computing capability. Some computer screens displayed a burning US flag. There was no doubt a major attack was in progress.

The attack happened during Ramadan when about half of the IT staff were on vacation. While the attack did not (attempt) to target physical operations, it caused major disruption to company operations that cost many millions of dollars and caused huge disruption on all levels of the company’s operations. We might assume that the motive of this attack was simply to disrupt the commercial heart of a nation state.

2021 Colonial Pipeline

On May 8th this year Colonial Pipeline, an American fuel distribution company said that it was the victim of a cybersecurity attack forcing the company to shut down its 5500 mile pipeline which transports gas, diesel and aviation fuel from the Gulf Coast to the USA East Coast. Following the initial company announcement it was widely assumed, not surprisingly, that the physical pipeline infrastructure systems may have been compromised. Over the weekend the US government declared a state of emergency and the Department of Transportation temporarily relaxed regulations across much of the country governing how long truckers could drive, to provide flexibility in the supply chain. Gas prices jumped 6 cents over the past week and is expected to keep rising until supply returns to normal. Supply shortages, minimal at present are expected to increase across the country.

Colonial said it’s likely to restore service on the majority of its pipeline by Friday (14th May).

Richard Joswick, head of global oil analytics at S&P Global Platts said, “There’s no imminent shortfall, and thus no need to panic buy gasoline. If the pipeline is restored by Friday, there won’t be much of an issue.” He went on, “If it does drag on for two weeks, it’s a problem, you’d wind up with price spikes and probably some service stations getting low on supply. And panic buying just makes it worse.”

Apparently Colonial admitted that the threat was a ransomware attack by gang of criminal hackers that calls itself DarkSide, and had halted all pipeline operations over the weekend, forcing what the company called a precautionary shutdown. However, U.S. officials said Monday that the “ransomware” malware used in the attack didn’t spread to the critical systems that control the pipeline’s operation. But the fact that it could have done so alarmed outside security experts.

The hackers are reported to be of Russian origin from an organization called the DarkSide, one of many ransomware gangs that specialize in extortion. The criminals typically steal an organization’s data and  encrypt it, making ongoing business impossible or extremely difficult. They then frequently threaten to publish the data if the targeted organization doesn’t pay up, creating a second disincentive to trying to recover without paying. Ransomware gangs are usually only motivated by profit. Colonial has not disclosed any details of the form of threat, or indeed the impact, other that it has been forced to halt pipeline operations.

It’s useful to think of corporate computer systems in three categories – administrative, operational and control. Administrative systems cover functions such as contract management, billing, debtors, asset management, accounting and marketing. Operational systems manage business dynamics including resource planning, scheduling and management, production and logistics. Control systems manage the physical operations including instrumenting, monitoring and controlling the actual operations. The link between operational and control systems are Remote Terminal Units (RTUs). The RTU provides data consolidation and translation between the two technology worlds.

The RTU clearly represents a big focus of cyber-attacks. And hackers often find older RTUs poorly defended with unsecured communication, so they become the path of least resistance into the network.

In this case it appears from Colonial’s comments that the control systems were not compromised. Unlike the Aramco case the target was almost certainly for the attackers to make money by threatening a) to publish commercially confidential data, or b) to massively disrupt commercial operations. We may never know the outcome. Specialists in this field always advise on the highest level of secrecy over how cyber-attacks were resolved.

For Colonial, there are a number of really big questions. First the extent to which their systems may have been compromised? Like the Iranian attack on Aramco, it could be that the attackers have left sleepers in the Colonial network. Second, whether the interface between the operational and the control systems have been breached? Most control systems these days will be protected by virtual private networks, but if the attackers have gained access to the operational systems layer, they may well be able to gain access to the private network.

So what do Colonial do? Should they, like Aramco, effectively reinstall their entire system software layer? But how do they know what systems software is legitimate? And what might be hiding malicious code? This might be a powerful argument for paying the ransom. But can cyber attackers be trusted to reset the systems if the ransom is paid? Or will they reset sufficient to allow operations to restart. But thereafter will they come back for more? For Colonial, and any company faced with the same threat, this is a real nightmare.

What’s happening is that the entire world is critically dependent upon computer systems. This creates a compelling opportunity for any number of bad actors who have various motivations including making money, destabilizing nation states, economies or organizations. The key lesson we need to learn is that prevention is easier than cure. But we need to be aware that this trend is only just getting started. There’s too much money to be made.

Recommended reading:

The Hacker and the State, Cyber Attacks and the New Normal of Geopolitics,

Harvard University Press 2020

CODA

Just as I publish this I noted from the Guardian:

Russian-speaking cyber gang threatens release of Washington police data

A Russian-speaking ransomware syndicate that stole data from police department in Washington DC says negotiations over payment have broken down and it will release sensitive information that could put lives at risk if more money is not offered. The extortion threat comes amid a separate ransomware attack on a major pipeline that’s affected part of the US’s fuel supply, highlighting the power of internet-savvy criminal gangs to sow mayhem from a half a world away with impunity. The Babuk group said on its website late on Monday that it would release “all the data” it stole from the Washington police department if it did not “raise the price”.

“The negotiations reached a dead end, the amount we were offered does not suit us,” the group said. The department did not immediately return a request for comment, and has not said whether it has negotiated any possible payment. If true, it is an example how complex the ransomware problem is when even police find themselves forced to consider making payments to criminal gangs.

Posted in Cyber Attack | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

National Concert Hall Crashes and Byrnes

Thursday 29th April 2021

10:19NCH: NCH SPRING SUMMER VARIATIONS: CELINE BYRNE
Hi David , just a reminder that you’ll get access to the stream at least 30 minutes before the event starts – both on your ticket in-app and via email.
7:31 pmNCH: David , your event is about to begin
7:33 pmCommence setting up download.

Entry page asks for telephone number and presets +44 indicating I’m supposed to be in the United Kingdom! Change to +353 and enter telephone number and event code.

Blank Tab with message: Video Unavailable

Try again, same result

Fetch more modern device and repeat. Same result.

Move onto iPhone, download app. I really don’t want to watch the event on a telephone, but it’s another datapoint.
Same result: Video Unavailable
7:45 pmJoined by my wife who is undoubtedly spooked by me in problem resolution mode, fingers flashing over the keys and (probably) cursing under my breath.

Move to iPad and repeat, Same result.
7:55 pmThere is a Help Centre link; I follow that and find it’s email. There’s no way email support is going to be of help to get this fixed by 8pm.
8.00 pmDecide we’re not getting in.
8:07 pmMe: I am unable to access the event either in the app or on another device.
The link to another device takes me to Youtube and I am told video unavailable.

The alternative device (windows 10) is my preference. But the app on my iPhone isn’t giving me access either – same error message.

Please 1. Refund me my ticket 2. Tell me if I will be able to view Christy Moore on Saturday evening. Already paid for.

This is DEEPLY DISAPPOINTING, UNPROFESSIONAL AND UNACCEPTABLE.
8:08 pmNCH: Hello, Thanks for getting in touch with DICE. Please note, that we aim to reply to you within 24 hours. If you’re messaging about an event that’s taking place today, we’ll endeavour to reply a little quicker.

We also ask that you have a read of our Help Centre in case you find a quicker solution to your question.
Thanks, Team DICE
8:09 pmNCH: Hey there, There is currently an issue with this stream but we’ve reached out to the organizers and are actively working on a fix. Please sit tight and thank you for your patience.

Thanks,
8:32 pmNCH: Hi there, Thanks so much for your patience here. The stream is now working, please enter your phone number and 5 character code at dice.fm/stream to enjoy it.

If you require any further assistance please do not hesitate to let us know!
Best,
8:55 pmMe: Thanks for alerting me. I will wait to hear from you on how you will recompense me for this extraordinary error.
8:57 pmNCH: The stream was up and working 15 minutes after it was set to air, and you can rewind anything you missed.
Transcript

                         

When we eventually gained access we watched the latter part of the performance in real time and then rewound to the beginning.

Celine Byrne was singing opera and Irish airs accompanied by piano, cello and violin. We hadn’t seen Celine Byrne previously. She has a very powerful voice and outstanding quality of tone. Yet the performance was sadly lacking. Inevitably we would compare Celine with our sadly missed local heroine Cara O’Sullivan, who’s voice was probably even more powerful, but whose personality and presence was immeasurably greater.

The format of the performance was really very dull. Everything was (musically) technically excellent but it was without any spark. The organisers and Celine had simply replicated what they would do for a concert format. They might have added a compere such as Liz Nolan, or incorporated other singers to duet, or acted the opera parts, or . . .. well I could go on. It brings to mind that online meetings and events cannot just replicate what we used to do face to face. We have to rethink events and figure out how to enliven the experience in ways that engage the participants.

My review would be:

Music Technical Excellence: 4.8

Live Stream Technical Excellence: 1.5

Overall  Experience: 2.5

CODA: I have no idea how many viewers were impacted like myself. I would assume many. I don’t think this was a bandwidth issue because I hit the problem immediately well before the start.

Posted in Personal Technology, Technology and Society, Technology Platforms | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The True Story of How the UK Post Office became a Failed Organization.

A modern fable.

In 1999 the UK Post Office introduced a new computer system named Horizon into its network of post offices throughout the UK. The system managed the important tasks of transactions, accounting and stocktaking. Soon after it was introduced postmasters complained about bugs in the system which was reporting shortfalls, many amounting to thousands of pounds. Postmasters were discovering losses they could not explain. The Post Office took large numbers of postmasters to court where they were found guilty of theft, fraud and false accounting.

In court representatives of the Post Office testified that each case was unique; there was no evidence of widespread problems and on that basis the postmaster was always found guilty. Many former postmasters and postmistresses have described how the saga ruined their lives. They had to cope with the long-term impact of a criminal conviction and imprisonment, some at a time when they had been pregnant or had young children. Marriages broke down, and courts have heard how some families believe the stress led to health conditions, addiction and premature deaths.

In December 2019, the Post Office paid out £58 million to sub-postmasters who were awarded compensation for past false prosecutions of monetary theft that had been based on faulty evidence from the Horizon IT system. The judge presiding on the case, Mr Justice Fraser, described the Post Office’s approach to the case as “institutional obstinacy” that, “…amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon Issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.”

The CEO of the Post Office during this period was Paula Anne Vennells, CBE who just happens to be an ordained Anglican minister. Under her leadership, from 2012 to 2019 the Post Office prosecuted hundreds of subpostmasters for fraud, despite knowing that the financial discrepancies were actually arising from computer errors for which her own company was responsible. In 2019 she became chair of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London. She also became a non-executive board member of the Cabinet Office.

On 19 March 2020, Vennells was harshly criticised in the House of Commons, particularly by Kevan Jones, MP for North Durham, who said, “Obviously, as a board member she knew what was going on, including the strategy in the court case and the bugs in the system. What happened? She got a CBE in the new year’s honours list for services to the Post Office. That is just rubbing salt into the wounds of these innocent people. There is a case for her having that honour removed, and I would like to know how she got it in the first place when the court case is ongoing. Added to that, she is now chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. Again, I would like to know why and what due diligence was done on her as an individual… In December 2020 it was announced that she would be leaving these roles early, for personal reasons.”

Vennells subsequently apologised to workers affected by the scandal, saying, “ I am truly sorry we were unable to find both a solution and a resolution outside of litigation and for the distress this caused.”

There were more than 700 prosecutions based on Horizon evidence. The commission and the Post Office are asking anyone else who believes their conviction to be unsafe to come forward. Those whose convictions have been quashed are Josephine Hamilton, Hughie Noel Thomas, Allison Henderson, Alison Hall, Gail Ward, Julian Wilson, Jacqueline McDonald, Tracy Felstead, Janet Skinner, Scott Darlington, Seema Misra, Della Robinson, Khayyam Ishaq, David Thomas Hedges, Peter Anthony Holmes, Rubina Shaheen, Damien Owen, Mohammed Rasul, Wendy Buffrey, Kashmir Gill, Barry Capon, Vijay Parekh, Lynette Hutchings, Dawn O’Connell, Carl Page, Lisa Brennan, William Graham, Siobhan Sayer, Pauline Thomson, Tim Burgess, Nicholas Clark, Margery Williams, Tahir Mahmood, Ian Warren, David Yates, Harjinder Butoy, Gillian Howard, David Blakey and Pamela Lock.

Following the convictions some of these former postmasters went to prison, were shunned by their communities and struggled to secure work. Some lost their homes and even failed to get insurance owing to their convictions. Three have since died. They always said the fault was in the computer system, which had been used to manage post offices’ finances since 1999.

The Post Office settled the civil claim brought by more than 550 claimants for £57.75m, without admitting liability, in December 2019. Opening the appellants’ case on Monday, Tim Moloney QC said: “Essentially the Post Office in the face of all the evidence was prepared to accept that subpostmasters of previous good character, who had hitherto run decent responsible profitable businesses, became criminals overnight. Alarm bells should have rung.” He added, “The Post Office “chose to disbelieve the subpostmasters … It chose to ignore the distress that was being suffered by those subpostmasters.”

“Trust is the lubrication that makes it possible for organizations
to work.”  WARREN BENNIS

Posted in Digital Transformation, Governance, Technology and Society, Trust | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Out of Africa – Malawi

Disclosure: I love Africa and have a long history of involvement there. I first travelled to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya on business as early as 1979, lived in Johannesburg for five years in the 1980s and continued to travel occasionally for business and family purposes until a few years ago. So I watch African matters with interest, and am not at all surprised that Africa continues to lag the rest of the world in all matters, particularly Covid19.


I recently started to take a close interest in Malawi because I made a tiny project investment there. I read the newspapers, research on socio economic matters and look forward to the day I can visit. So I plan to report periodically on the country as a snapshot of life in Africa. As the project moves forward, I will report on it.

Malawi is totally landlocked, bordered by Zambia to the west, Tanzania to the north and northeast, and Mozambique to the east, south and southwest. The country was “discovered” by David Livingstone in 1859. As a result of his visit it was claimed by the British and in 1889 proclaimed a British protectorate. In 1907 the protectorate was named Nyasaland and remained under British control until 1964 when it became independent from British rule and renamed itself as Malawi. For 29 years the country remained a one party state under the control of its first president (Banda). In 1993 the country voted for a multi-party democracy.
Topographically, Malawi lies within the Great Rift Valley system. Lake Malawi, a body of water some 580 km long (!) and about 460 m above sea level, is the country’s most prominent physical feature. About 75% of the land surface is plateau between 750 m and 1,350 m above sea level. Highland elevations rise to over 3000 m and the lowest point is on the southern border where the Zambezi is at 37 m above sea level.


Today Malawi is one of the world’s least developed countries. The economy is dominated by agriculture and has a largely rural and rapidly growing population. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. About half of the population are below the poverty line, with 20% described as “extremely poor”. The country is heavily dependent upon outside aid. In 1993 the population was approximately 9 million. Today it is 19.5 million. There is a diverse population with numerous ethnic groups. There are two official languages including English. In the past there was periodic regional conflict perhaps triggered by ethnic divisions, but by 2008 this internal conflict had considerably diminished, and the idea of identifying with one’s Malawian nationality had emerged.

Against this background, Malawi has just the same challenges as the rest of the world. In this post I’ll talk a little about Covid19.
Covid19 first arrived in Malawi in April 2020 with cases imported from India, the UK and South Africa. In that month the president announced a 21 day lockdown, but the High Court barred the government from implementing. Among the arguments were that thousands of agriculture workers sold their produce in markets and had a highly precarious existence. A lockdown would cause extreme hardship. In the end no lockdown was used and the pandemic spread slowly during 2020. This was probably less to do with previous experience gained during the earlier SARS epidemic than the rural population spread.

But after being largely spared by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Malawi is now being swept by a new, fast-spreading wave of the disease that is quickly overwhelming the healthcare system. Medicine Sans Frontiers reported, “In the first few weeks of January 2021, the number of people confirmed with the disease has doubled every four to five days, and while the local capacity is already saturated, access to vaccines is likely a few months away. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) responded to a call by the health authorities in Blantyre, and launched emergency activities to tackle the exponential increase in the number of severe patients in the area.”

In October the Guardian reported a drastic rise in Malawi’s suicide rate linked to Covid economic downturn. Malawi is seeing a sharp rise in suicide rates this year, with some attributing it to the economic stresses of the Covid pandemic, noting that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with about half of the population below the poverty line, with 20% described as “extremely poor”. Malawi police service reports an increase of as much as 57% on the same period last year. Suicide mortality rate (per 100,000 population) in Malawi was reported at 3.7% in 2016 by the World Bank.

The country went into lockdown on 18 January, the first time since the pandemic began. By then Malawi had recorded 12,470 coronavirus cases and 314 deaths, with a 40% increase in infections in a month. There were 17380 new cases in January, raising the total number of confirmed cases to 23963. The death toll rose to 702. The number of recovered patients increased to 8615, leaving 14646 active cases at the end of the month. Among the fatalities were two Cabinet ministers. By March the deaths had risen to 1117.

In March, Malawi received the first shipment of Covid19 vaccine from Covax the international partnership between CEPI, Gavi, UNICEF and WHO. The COVAX Facility shipped 360,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from Serum Institute of India from Mumbai, India, as well as supporting equipment. However, in the second week of April, the Guardian reported that, more than 16,000 expired AstraZeneca Covid-19 doses are to be destroyed in Malawi as concerns over vaccine hesitancy increase. The vaccines are among 102,000 doses donated by the African Union (AU) to the Malawian government last month. Currently, about 230,000 doses have been administered, enough to vaccinate nearly 1% of the population. As well as doses from the AU, the country received more than 400,000 AstraZeneca shots from Covax and the Indian government.

Initially, Malawians responded to the vaccine enthusiastically, with long queues at vaccination points and hospitals since the rollout began last month. But numbers have dropped off. It was reported that people were also spreading messages that they will receive the expired vaccine, causing damage to the effort of the government. George Jobe, executive director of Malawi Health Equity Network, expressed concern. “In the country, especially in rural areas, people are still clinging to the negative information about the vaccine. We should remember that there has been misinformation on the vaccine, and now we’ve experienced the danger of such messages.”

And I read in the Nyasa Times today that the Parliament’s PAC (presumably public accounts committee) is grilling officials over possible misappropriation of Covid19 funds! Senior officials from DODMA Department of Disaster Management Affairs were grilled on how about 50% of K6.2 billion (that’s about €6.8m) went towards “allowances” including conferences, allowances, stationery etc. I must admit this type of report doesn’t reduce possible prejudice about corruption in African countries.

In my next post on this topic I will continue tracking Covid19 matters but focus on Climate Change, which you might imagine may have a dramatic impact on this poor country.

NOTES:
Malawi has administered at least 229,220 doses of COVID vaccines so far. Assuming every person needs 2 doses, that’s enough to have vaccinated about 0.6% of the country’s population. (Reuters)

STOP PRESS

Admiration nation Which is The Economist’s country of the year?

. . . this year’s prize goes to a country in southern Africa. Democracy and respect for human rights regressed in 80 countries between the start of the pandemic and September, reckons Freedom House, a think-tank. The only place where they improved was Malawi.
To appreciate its progress, consider what came before. In 2012 a president died, his death was covered up and his corpse flown to South Africa for “medical treatment”, to buy time so that his brother could take over. That brother, Peter Mutharika, failed to grab power then but was elected two years later and ran for re-election. The vote-count was rigged with correction fluid on the tally sheets. Foreign observers cynically approved it anyway. Malawians launched mass protests against the “Tipp-Ex election”. Malawian judges turned down suitcases of bribes and annulled it. A fair re-run in June booted out Mr Mutharika and installed the people’s choice, Lazarus Chakwera. Malawi is still poor, but its people are citizens, not subjects. For reviving democracy in an authoritarian region, it is our country of the year.

Posted in Africa, Covid19, Malawi, Technology and Society, Travel | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Let the Majority Speak!

I sent the following letter to numerous Irish national newspapers this morning. Needless to say, I don’t expect any to publish!

Sir,
My wife and I, both in our 70s, were delighted to receive a call from the HSE last night and immediately attend the CIT mass vaccination centre just a few Kms away. It was the end of a long day in which many hundreds of people had already been processed by the selfless doctors, medics, administrators and guides, yet the atmosphere was efficient, calm, professional, supportive and friendly. It struck us that this is the real Ireland which is calmly and resolutely working to end this crisis.


If we listened uncritically to the media we might be tempted to believe there is another parallel Ireland where chaos and anger rule. That the Irish have given up and must be given more freedom if we are to succeed in beating this virus. I suggest we need to give voice to the majority. Instead of constantly undermining the national effort, looking for mistakes, equating small errors to overall process failure and giving equal voice to minorities and naysayers, we should be better reflecting the majority view. It’s clear from the data that the overwhelming majority are ready and willing to stay the course. We understand the strategy and are not constantly calling for clarity. This is particularly relevant to the national broadcaster, but equally all media channels that would do well to critically examine their role in the national effort.
Yours etc,

It’s not just in Ireland that minorities seem to hold sway. It happens worldwide in democracies.

The BBC famously strive for balance and many will remember during the Brexit debate in 2016 the BBC strove so hard for impartiality that no discussion, debate or talk couldn’t include some Brexit supporting lunatic and truth was an obvious casualty. Obvious to everyone except the BBC perhaps! The level of the debate was well illustrated by Boris Johnson’s contribution, “We export French knickers to France… Are the French really going to put tariffs on our French knickers when we buy so much of their cheese and their champagne? Of course they’re not!” Similarly whether the imaginary £350m (Brexit cost saving) claimed by Johnson and Gove would ever be spent on the NHS was not treated as a lie for the BBC to repeatedly expose, but “a reasonable opinion”. In essence the BBC’s policy was that all opinions merit equal coverage, and the public might as well give up on fact or evidence-based argument.

Today it’s evident that this policy is the new normal everywhere. It applies increasingly to Covid19 but equally climate change where it’s also a major challenge because there are many lobbyists that continue to peddle climate nonsense as unchallengeable fact.

For example, here in Ireland (from the Irish Times) we have a university professor, Dolores Cahill who until recently was regarded as one of the world’s leading scientists in the area of proteomics (the large-scale study of proteins). Her work has been cited almost 6,000 times in academic studies and she has been involved in a bewildering array of scientific boards, councils and taskforces. Her return from Germany to Dublin in 2003 was regarded as a coup for the Irish scientific community. Eighteen years later, the immunology professor has become one of the leading purveyors of Covid-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories, not just in Ireland but around the world. The impressive resume of the UCD professor, along with her many appearances on conspiracy theory podcasts and YouTube channels, means her views are now frequently cited as proof that Covid-19 is simply an overblown version of the flu and that preventative measures such as face masks and vaccines are just not ineffective but dangerous. Not surprisingly there is “widespread frustration” over her comments and that public statements from senior professors challenging her misinformation had been “sorely lacking”. And incredibly she is still employed by Dublin City University because evidently they cannot fire her for non academic activity.

However, again here in Ireland, (from the Journal.ie) polling carried out by Amárach Research on behalf of the Department of Health shows that despite being more angry frustrated in recent weeks than at any stage over the past 12 months, the largest proportion of the population believes that the current (very tough) level of restrictions is about right. Out of 2,200 people who were asked on Monday of this week the extent to which they are obeying restrictions on a scale of 1 (indicating ‘not at all) to 7 (indicating ‘very much so’) , the average score was 6.3 – consistent with levels seen last summer.

It seems that in spite of all manner of efforts to undermine the national effort, the silent majority are sticking with the programme. And that’s what my wife and I observed yesterday.

Posted in Coronavirus, Covid19, Democracy, lockdown, Pandemic, Truth | 3 Comments

UCC Climate Conference 2021

I virtually attended most of the UCC climate conference yesterday. It’s was a useful experience, not really because of the content which was highly variable, rather because it allowed me to think about where we are at. Here are my thoughts:


Dr Clare Watson is a climate change giant, a genuine pioneer and ground breaker. She explained how she is leading a research team supporting the Dingle Peninsula 2030 project – a community based effort to create a sustainable future for a defined area. Many readers of my blog will be familiar with the Dingle Peninsula – the most northerly part of County Kerry, home to some 12,500 people and many holiday homes with the famous Blasket Islands just off the far western point. It’s a well-defined area, perhaps ideal for an experimental or pilot project which involves not just numerous agencies and support organizations, but crucially the people themselves. Their goal, nothing less than “to transition our beautiful peninsula into a low-carbon society.” I loved the idea of climate mentors, local people who have trained in specific aspects of climate change relevant to their occupations, who work with and guide local residents, farms and businesses in making change in the most practical, on the ground manner. I asked Clare whether the project can be seen as a template for other areas, and what she thought might be guidelines for other projects. She replied that, yes of course there are loads of lessons to learn, but each project would be unique. She did however comment that their project has benefitted greatly from the support from a retired civil servant who has been invaluable in creating links, opening doors and cutting red tape! Also the key to their project is collaboration on many different dimensions without competition between groups. See links below, this is a genuinely inspirational project worth watching.


There was a panel discussion session labelled as “Youth Climate Activists”. To be honest I wasn’t very impressed because the discussion was very academic. I wondered whether the activists would be better off finding, engaging with and or starting local projects such as the Dingle Project, in which they could get involved in delivering real world benefits.

I wondered why there wasn’t anything on the agenda about agriculture. This was an Irish Climate Conference and given that the agriculture sector is the sector with the highest emissions at over 30%, it would have been an obvious topic to include. Instead I noted there were a couple of side comments and references to this. One speaker with reference to the energy sector made a comment that that sector might have to over achieve in order to compensate for under achievement in the ag sector! Wow!


The other speaker that I found thought provoking was Dr Stephen Onekuse. He spoke passionately about big business – the biggest inhibitor to making progress on climate change. These big businesses are totally focused on GDP growth at the expense of the environment, and making mega profits without bearing any of the environmental cost. In the process we are destroying our environment. He discussed the current pandemic as an environmental cost, which we all now understand is going to be huge. I asked the question, “whether we can put an environment tax on big businesses, separate to tax on profitability?” Stephen responded that firstly, many large enterprises, particularly in Ireland pay little or no tax, and have all the resources to engage the necessary specialists to ensure this would continue, regardless of the structure of the taxation. Secondly, that these same companies act as powerful lobbyists of government(s) and have such power than any measures would probably never happen. Thirdly, he commented that the biggest issue is that even if there was a tax related to environmental costs, that the money raised would only be spent by governments that are short term driven and of course also strongly influenced by lobbyists!


I didn’t get the opportunity to dialog with Stephen, but I would have liked to get his opinion on a) possible strategies for the Irish agriculture industry, which has exports of $14.5 billion, yet still don’t allow farmers to earn a living wage. And b) options for monetary systems, such as that advocated by Kim Stanley Robinson (see reference below).


In summary for me the conference was useful for alerting me to the Dingle project plus the questions it raised for me.


References:
Dingle Peninsula 2030


Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson ISBN 978-0-356-50885—6
To Slow Down Climate Change, We Need To Take On Capitalism


Dr Clare Watson, Chasing Hubcaps

Posted in Climate Change, Economic Model, Organic Farming | Tagged , | 1 Comment

There’s More Bad News – Plastic is Even More Deadly than We Realised

Just when we are starting to hope that we can see an end to the Covid19 pandemic along comes more bad news. I read today that research now shows that tiny plastic particles in the lungs of pregnant rats pass rapidly into other organs including the heart and the brain. Evidently this is the first such study in a live mammal that shows the placenta does not block such particles. Of course we are now well aware that microplastic has reached every part of the planet and people are consuming the tiny particles via food and water and also by breathing them in. The impact on health is as yet unknown.

Separately, but potentially connected, I read that thanks to hormone-disrupting chemicals human fertility is declining at an alarming rate all around the globe. In an article by Erin Brockovich (yes you do know the name, she’s now writing for the Guardian) we learn of a book by an environmental and reproductive epidemiologist, Shanna Swan, that reports human sperm counts have dropped almost 60% since 1973. On that trajectory sperm counts could reach zero by 2045. No natural reproduction, no babies. No new humans. The chemicals to blame for this reproductive crisis are, surprise, surprise, found in everything from plastic containers and food wrapping, to waterproof clothes and fragrances in cleaning products, to soaps and shampoos, to electronics and carpeting. I’ll quote from the Guardian article:

Swan’s book is staggering in its findings. “In some parts of the world, the average twentysomething woman today is less fertile than her grandmother was at 35,” Swan writes. In addition to that, Swan finds that, on average, a man today will have half of the sperm his grandfather had. “The current state of reproductive affairs can’t continue much longer without threatening human survival,” writes Swan, adding: “It’s a global existential crisis.” That’s not hyperbole. That’s just science.

However, on the same day I read in the MIT briefing that researchers have grown mice in an artificial womb for as long as 11 or 12 days, about half the animal’s natural gestation period. It’s a record for development of a mammal outside the womb and, according to the research team, human embryos could be next. The researchers say scientists will want to develop human embryos this way too, in order to better study early development. The human equivalent of 12-day-old mice would be a first-trimester embryo. But the scientific community agrees that they would never try to establish a pregnancy with artificial embryos—an act that would be forbidden today in most countries. Maybe the ethical issues would go away very rapidly if the very existence of the human race is up for grabs!

The whole topic of sustainability has become very topical. Primarily in context with climate change questions. But it is becoming very clear that humans in their race for growth, are in the process of destroying everything! Just when you thought we didn’t need any more “once in a lifetime” problems, it seems that we are facing into even more global crises. Tighten your seat-belt!

References

Plummeting sperm counts, shrinking penises: toxic chemicals threaten humanity
Erin Brockovich

Plastic particles pass from mothers into foetuses, rat study shows

A mouse embryo has been grown in an artificial womb—humans could be next

Posted in Plastic Pollution, Survival of the Human Race, Sustainability, Technology and Society | Tagged , | 3 Comments