Saturday, 30 October 2010

Best before...

We routinely check the 'best before' dates on the myriad food products on supermarket shelves... but since the last posting about the motorway tax (and the state of Romania's infrastructure), felt compelled to elaborate a bit on just what is the 'best before' date stamped on that country's infrastructure.

Well, unfortunately, those goods have expired a long time ago... and the effects will be quite astounding...

A very conservative estimate stated that about 50 billion Euros would be needed to mend the country's infrastructure, not to make it perfect or state-of-the-art, but just mend it such that it becomes barely acceptable.

Trains move with the national average speed of about 45km/h (this is less than 30mph), due to the disastrous state of the rail tracks. 20 years of patching on ancient tracks has barely managed to keep them at a level where trains can just about operate and there are no deadly failures regularly. About 50% of the country's rail tracks have so-called dangerous points... that can give way at any time.

On top of this, let's not even touch on the state of the stations, the on average 30 years old train carriages (no, they don't just look ancient, they are ancient) - but then there are the antiquated signaling systems etc. - one may be misled by some bigger cities' more modern looking larger station halls... but those occasional computer screens don't mean that the essential parts of the railways match that level of apparent or real technical level... and having extensively travelled on these railways, one can certainly say: they really don't.

The modernising of urban transport has been done mostly by buying used and often old buses and trams from other countries. But these old vehicles look more 'modern' than any of the old Romanian buses and trams, so... again subjectively locals may feel a certain warm fuzzy feeling...

In order to eliminate the medieval conditions when it comes to countless smaller towns' and villages' water system, the estimate is about 20 billion Euros. This would not make them have latest and greatest water purification and pipe systems, this investment would just elevate them to a bearable level...

Where there are water purification plants and pipe systems, i.e. in all major cities, these date back to 50s and 60s, in best cases. Investment to modernise these have been postponed many times. The water quality in some major cities is such, that when sent for analysis in Germany, the labs thought the water was industrial 'B-category' waste water. The solution is to pump it full of chlorine, so that at least it doesn't cause problems with the organic pollution...

Asking several specialist doctors, an estimated 80% of adult population there has Giardiosis, a hugely widespread infection with a single-cell parasite that is amongst the hardest to eradicate, special antibiotic cocktails have a 90% chance of succeeding... and the parasite survives in 'standard' levels of chlorination of the water...

The blockflats built during the 50s, 60s and 70s are so shabby, that they can not withstand any noteworthy earthquakes, as this has been painfully demonstrated many times... and unfortunately, by now these buildings are truly in a sorry structural state.

51% of the population lives in rural areas, and only 10% (yes, 10%) of these settlements have sewage systems and mere 25% have running water.

30,000 Km of roads have no tarmac or asphalt coverage of any kind - they are dirt roads.

The heating systems for the vast areas of blockflats are also antiquated, date back 30-40 years and lose 30-40% of the heat due to ancient or non-existent thermal insulation.

Add to this the small fact, that as it has been eminently demonstrated over the last 20-odd years, any funds allocated to projects meant to modernise the infrastructure have been mostly stolen, which explains the truly absurd pace with which these projects progress.

So it is not a question of what is the country's 'best before' date. It has long passed, sometimes back in the 70s... and since then it's all been rotting away quietly.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Death and taxes

The old saying, by now a cliche, states that the only certain things in this life are death and taxes.

Romania, once again, has found a way to transform old sayings into surreal versions of reality... The Government, whilst struggling with the economic crisis (which doesn't seem to affect the vast corruption it creates, promotes and benefits from), invents newer and newer ways to generate income.

The most recent wonderful idea is to have taxes introduced for motorways. Of course, this is perfectly normal in any country, but then again, Romania and its 'motorways' or even 'motorway system' is far from normal.

The hilarity and surrealism of this proposed tax comes from the number, length and satte of Romania's motorway 'system'. Let's not forget, it is the country where, due to unimaginable corruption, the most expensive roads have been built in the whole of the EU.

And the roads that were built, were puny in terms of length and the projects ran vastly overtime and over buget, best example is the Transylvanian section of mere 10% of the planned motorway, has taken by now 20 years and it has seen 6 transport ministers changing seats, 7 directors of the company contracted to make the road... but that 10% of the planned motorway has consumed more than 50% of the buget.

Imagine you would pay airport tax to get on a flight operated by the penguins of the film Madagascar, with 'facilities' that are comical (unless you are actually on the plane, rather than just watching the animation and laugh at it...) and you stand a certain minimal mathematical chance of surviving (if you don't get lost).

It is a somewhat far-fetched analogy, but a country that is truly at the rock bottom of the list of EU contries in terms of infrastructure (combined with surreal levels of corruption, whereby any infrastructure project actually uses about 10% of the allocated buget, the rest simply vanishes into thin air only to be found at the very heights of the Carpathian mountains...), well, is in need of quite a reality check when it tries to introduce a motorway tax system.

Also, it is truly characteristic... in terms of looking to the 'West' and copying things mindlessly, without the basic foundations being there.

There is no difference between this latest delusion and the nouveau riche family that built a veritable palace in southern Romania, filled the many bathrooms' tubs with handmade persian rugs, as 'overflow' storage rooms as they had no use for bathrooms...

The same greed, combined with the same fundamental lack of intelligence, the downright stupidity combined with the laughably schizophrenic attempts to look 'Western' and modern when it comes to discussions with the IMF, is the perhaps most dominant and most characteristic feature of this and all previous Romanian so-called Governments.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Information society

Although in my current homeland the various excesses committed in the name of building a safer society are being revised, there was a curious and somewhat unexpected incident... An incident that showed just how precise the arguments against the gathering of personal information about vast numbers of people were.

There is a certain law firm in the UK, which few years ago began to send out tens of thousands of letters to people, letters that pointed out: they were sharing some copyrighted material on the net - and unless they want to avoid going to court, they should pay a certain fine to the law firm.

The claim by the latter firm (and one can find the same in certain parts of the much debated Digital Economy Bill) that the IP address of the person's connection identifies the person had a certain charming silliness that one can find in less inspired episodes of Bugs Bunny.

It is pointless to waste bandwidth here to describe just how charmingly silly this is, but the point is something else.

The very same law firm was amassing personal details about tens of thousands of people, information provided to them by a number of internet service providers. It so happens that the website of the firm had to be taken down after a cyber attack known as distributed denial of service. And when the website was put back, due to some other charming silliness, the entire server file directory was exposed apparently to the outside world.

People promptly downloaded email archives and... records of personal details about many, many people... who were accused by the firm that they shared X and Y copyrighted material.

Jacqui Smith wanted a society where pharmacies and other high street shops would have gathered biometric data about millions of people, sending these to other databases of the Home Office... for the purpose of then issuing biometric ID cards.

Isn't it interesting, that the above fiasco around the website of a law firm has now led to a direct question... a rhetorical one, which validates every word and every thought ever voiced about the former Government's wild plans (and excesses violating basic human rights) for a 'safer society'?

The rhetorical question is the following: based on the absolutely tragic (for many thousands of people) and laughable (for others) fiasco around the law firm's website, adding all the myriad incidents of the very Home Office losing and misplacing vast amounts of personal information about people... how can anybody in former, present or any future Government seriously think that gathering, storing, manipulating, sending of vital personal information about people can be in any way guaranteed not to fail fundamentally?

Especially when, as shown in the incident, there is no control, no safeguard whatsoever in place at the origin, along and at the end of the chain of information passing from some organisation to another.

There is the Data Protection Act. There is the Terrorism Act. There is the Copyright Act, in this particular case. There is the Digital Economy Bill.

These are all theoretical safeguards or, in the latter two cases, validations for certain actions to take place.

The practical reality is that there is zero security for anybody's highly sensitive personal information being exposed along one or more points in the chain.

In the specific incident, some internet service provider even admitted sending the information in unencrypted form...

It is time to revisit utopian legislation and so-called 'acts' and sections of those acts... and infuse some reality steeped deeply in basic human nature. And basic human stupidity. And its repeated results.