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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence (FP: 1928)

It was the War. The damned war that ruined everything. Before Clifford Chatterley returned to the Front in 1917 everything was as it should be. He was young, handsome and with a bright future ahead of him. With a new young wife the Chatterley line was assured for another generation and beyond. But fate it seemed had other ideas. Clifford returned to England a shattered figure, unable to walk ever again and, almost unspoken, unable to have children. The Chatterley’s would effectively die with him. The strain on both Clifford and Constance Chatterley was immense. Both dived into depression and both responded in their own singular way. Clifford became obsessed with his coal mines taking great interest in their operation and their future. Constance took a lover, an Irish playwright, who wanted to marry her and take her away from her dreadful circumstance. She knew it would never have worked and stayed with Clifford. But their childlessness stood between them like a reproach. But then fate entered again in the guise of a returned soldier from India – Mellors who had recently become Clifford Chatterley’s gamekeeper. There was an instant spark between them. But the social gulf was just too great. Even as a casual lover such a thing could never be tolerated. As a surrogate father of the Chatterley line it was unthinkable – or was it? But things are never as simple as they seem and we do things we barely understand ourselves. For what world would ever allow Lady Chatterley and her lover to exist in peace for long?

I did start this classic novel with a fair bit of trepidation. I’d heard so much about it prior to turning the first page that I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t like it and that I would find myself slogging through something approaching an occasionally smutty love story. The introduction (in my 1971 edition) by Richard Hoggart assured me that this wasn’t smutty. So far so good. So I dipped my toe somewhat gingerly in Lawrence’s prose and let myself go. I was honestly surprised at the result. Now being the love story this is, with a somewhat deserved reputation of being a ground-breaking novel, there is a fair amount of sex in it (which I honestly skimmed over in the main) as well as a smattering of ‘F’ bombs and a sprinkling of ‘C’ words that must have been supremely shocking at the time. But, apart from the odd raised eyebrow, this hardly interested me at all. What I found most interesting was the window into late 20’s social culture and references – which the readers of the time did not need explaining – to the political happening of the day: basically industrial unrest and the fear of communism. This is hardly surprising considering that Lawrence would have been writing this in the shadow of the 1926 General Strike. Even more interesting was the attitude to class throughout the book. Clifford was pure upper class who despised the lower orders even when he depended on them. His various physical disabilities were, no doubt, metaphors for the moral and cultural weaknesses of his class. Connie’s sister, Hilda, was ridiculed as someone who spoke up for the working class and publically who praised them but who would never actually condescend to sit down and hold a real conversation with them because it would call into question her inadequate understanding of the working class condition and her beliefs about them. Conversely Connie had a far better understanding of the workers and a real, as opposed to ersatz, sympathy for their plight.

The most interesting character in the whole book, which really surprised me, was Mellors himself. From the bits of the movies I’ve seen he was essentially a stud – a bit of ‘rough’ – to engage with Lady Chatterley and allow her to escape her dreary life with Clifford. There is certainly that element going on in the narrative but there is much more too. Although from solid working class stock – his father being a miner – he won a scholarship to the local Grammar school and read extensively in his spare time. Eventually rejecting his new found life he re-trained as a blacksmith and gained status within his community because of that. Joining the army in WW1 to escape an unhappy marriage he travelled to South Africa and finally to India where we became an officer. Never really fitting into that life he returned to England to discover he no longer fitted in there either and struggled to ‘return to his place’ as Clifford would say. He was a complex, multi-layered and essentially tragic figure who I could help but feel for. Overall, putting aside the sex for a moment, I found this novel to be culturally very interesting indeed. Certainly much more than I thought I would. I’m not sure if I’d rush out to read any more of his works but this outing certainly hasn’t put me off the idea. Recommended but not for the reasons you might expect.   

Saturday, October 13, 2018

US weapons systems can be 'easily hacked'

From The BBC

11 October 2018

Some of the most cutting-edge weapons in the US's military arsenal can be "easily hacked" using "basic tools", a government report has concluded. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found "mission-critical" cyber-vulnerabilities in nearly all weapons systems tested between 2012 and 2017. That includes the newest F-35 jet as well as missile systems. In the report, Pentagon officials said they "believed their systems were secure", NPR reported.

The report's main findings were:

the Pentagon did not change the default passwords on multiple weapons systems - and one changed password was guessed in nine seconds

a team appointed by the GAO was able to easily gain control of one weapons system and watch in real time as the operators responded to the hackers

it took another two-person team only one hour to gain initial access to a weapons system and one day to gain full control

many of the test teams were able to copy, change or delete system data with one team downloading 100 gigabytes of information

The GAO added that the Pentagon "does not know the full scale of its weapons system vulnerabilities".

The Pentagon has not issued a detailed response to the 50-page report but the document quoted officials as saying that some of the security test results "were unrealistic". Ken Munro, an expert at security firm Pen Test Partners, said he was "not at all surprised" by the findings. "It takes a long time to develop a weapons system, often based on iterations of much older systems. As a result, the components and software can be based on very old, vulnerable code. Developers often overlook 'hardening' the security of systems after they've got them operating, with the philosophy, 'it's working, so don't mess with it'. However, that's no excuse. This report shows some very basic security flaws that could easily have been addressed by changing passwords and keeping software up-to-date."

[Sometimes you just have to laugh otherwise you’d spend your life either horrified or in tears. These are highly sophisticated and brutally lethal weapons systems that look to be hacked by a moderately able 8 year old. Billions of dollars are being spent on making us safe – all undone by a kid with a laptop in Pakistan. Brilliant.] 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Lords of Finance – 1929, The Great Depression, and the Bankers who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed (FP: 2009)

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 is arguably one of the most important events of the 20th Century and is directly implicated in being one of the sparks that 10 years later led to the Second World War. But it was not a simple collapse of the New York Stock market nor was it a simple financial crisis. With origins dating back to the start of World War One and high level players from around the world in the Bank of England, France, Germany and the Federal Reserve Banks in the US the Crash itself was the result of a myriad of decisions (not all of them bad, short sighted or selfish) taken by the pre-eminent experts of the age. Unfortunately for them and the rest of the world they were in uncharted waters after the financial strains of a World War stretched institutions to breaking point and beyond and succeeded in pushing countries off that great hope for stability – the Gold Standard.

The global financial sector – still somewhat in its infancy – might have stabilised after the war ended in 1918 except for the elephant in the room: Reparations against the Central Powers in particularly Germany. With the US unwilling to ‘write off’ the Allies war debt they could hardly write off Germany’s. Indeed the French had no intention doing so, no matter what. With a broken Germany tottering between being unwilling and unable to pay the debt forced on it by the victorious Allies its economy slumped and then collapsed into hyper-inflation. When rescue plans failed and the currency became worthless the German government hoped to at least restructure if not wipe out it’s yet to be paid reparation bill. Meanwhile the British economy, deep in austerity, limped along with high unemployment and lowered expectations. France, meanwhile, despite its never ending criticism of Germany’s failure to pay damages was doing well and acquiring gold at the expense of other European nations. But gold liked to be one place above all else – the US where gold reserves blossomed and the economy boomed. Month after month the NY Stock Exchange rose to historic levels and kept on rising. Some experts where even predicting a never ending boom period – and an end to the boom and bust cycle. Despite fears that the bubble would eventually burst the US government did too little too late to stop it. Rather inevitably in later 1929 the long expected burst happened with, it seemed at first, little down side except for a few overextended investors who lost everything.

But the market had been so good that almost everyone had a slice of the pie. Unfortunately many had borrowed money in the certain hope of being able to pay it back. Now they couldn’t. At first a few of the smaller banks reported difficulty and some of them were allowed to fail. Loans dried up and investment crashed with the market. Cash poor businesses cut back on investment and laid off workers. Panic spread, production dropped and a sudden hike in interest rates just made it worse. Another bank failed and then another. Massive amounts of money poured out of the banks and under people’s mattresses. Confidence was gone. The ‘Crash’ spread across the country and across the world. Banks in Europe began failing. Governments tried to bail them out but the demand for cash readily outstripped supply. The downward spiral accelerated. Nothing like this had ever been seen before and no one knew what to do. The rules of finance put together over decades no longer seemed to apply. Fear stalked the financial capitals of the world and it seemed that Marx was right after all. The contradictions inherent in the capitalist enterprise where about to kill it.

I am honestly fascinated by the Wall Street Crash. It is such a seminal moment in world history. Until reading this excellent book I thought I had a pretty good handle on it but I was most definitely abused of that notion. Now, after reading this deserved Pulitzer Prize winning history, I understand a great deal more of what happened, why it happened, who was responsible and what happened afterwards. It might sound a bit odd when talking about Economics – even the economics of the 1929 Crash – to call the tale gripping but that’s exactly what this was. Told through the eyes and the actions of the four leading bankers of the age this was a detailed depiction of experts out of their depths, of arrogant assumptions that reality could be bent to the human will, of prejudice against those who are not ‘our sort’ and of intellectual upstarts (like John Maynard Keynes) who were ignored until they could be ignored no longer. If you ever wondered why Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 or about the world’s obsession with gold, or why the dollar is (presently) the world currency or even why the world is the way it is today you could do much worse than reading this great work of financial history. Highly recommended and more Economics to come...