Sunday, May 20, 2012

Admin: The move is here, at last

Our long national nightmare of bifurcation is over! Thanks to this guy for fixing the WordPress Blogger importer, the Ranter is moving. Our new home is over here. Comments please in the new blog. I'd like to recommend Suffusion, not so much a WP theme as an HTML5-based design toolkit. To-do list: fix the old picture and download links (should be one SQL statement), fix links forward and back within the blog, import the WordPress-only comments, do something about ManyEyes charts and the like, do something about the Blogger- and images, eventually tackle the problem of restoring the old Enetation comments (yes, I have backups). Faintly terrifying how much cruft has accumulated over the years. Much of that TDL ought to be simple, if only WP can be relied on to output the same post title given the same input (i.e. just a question of replacing y.w.c domain names with ones). No doubt we're going to find out. Similarly, if WP can be trusted to ignore all duplicate content, it ought to be fairly easy to get the TYR 2.0 comments - although I would be happier if I could find a way of exporting the comments only. One upshot of this is that this blog is no longer going to be updated, and I'm going to close comments in order to avoid creating more migration work.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

not at all defanged

Remember that thumbsucker I did on the Great Firewall? Well, here's some data, via this post (thanks, Jamie). It seems that Fang Binxing, China's Chief Bellhead, boss of the Beijing University of Post & Telecoms, and king of the great firewall, really is in trouble due to his special relationship with Bo Xilai. He briefly came up on the web to threaten to sue a Japanese newspaper which thinks he was detained for investigation. Then, the former head of Google in China (who obviously isn't neutral in this) prodded him, and he denied having the power to block the offending story.

The FT, meanwhile, thinks Zhou Yongkang, the head of the security establishment, is on the out. That shouldn't be overstated because he's due to retire, but he has been doing a rubber chicken circuit of second-division official appearances, and his key responsibilities have been taken over by others.

Fang is supposedly being replaced by Yan Wangjia, CEO of Beijing Venustech, who was responsible for engineering the Great Firewall. Her company's Web site is convincing on that score. Here's the announcement that they got the contract to provide China Mobile with a 10 gigabit DPI system:
Recently, Venustech successfully won the bid for centralized firewall procurement project of China Mobile in 2009 with its 10G high-end models of Venusense UTM, thus becoming the first company of its kind to supply high-end security gateway to telecom operators.

It is said this centralized firewall procurement project is the world’s largest single project of high-end 10G security gateway procurement ever implemented, drawing together most of world-renowned communication equipment vendors and information security vendors such as Huawei and Juniper. Through the rigorous test by China Mobile, Venusense UTM stood out, making Venustech the only Chinese information security vendor in this bid.

Looking around, it sounds like they are the hardware vendor of the Great Firewall, specialising in firewall, intrusion detection, and deep-packet inspection kit for the governmental, educational, and enterprise sectors "and of course the carriers". Well, who else needs a 10Gbps and horizontally scaling DPI box but a carrier? Note the careful afterthought there. Also, note that they're the only people in the world who don't think Cisco is a leading network equipment vendor.

Land of Kings report back

So I did Land of Kings last weekend. First point: this post of JWZ's, written about Homeless WiFi Fest....sorry, sorry...SXSW, has quite a bit of general validity. The points about not sticking to the schedule, not sticking around if someone is late, and not chasing the party, are all gold dust. I worked this out by following none of that advice.

On day one, we checked in for the wristbands, bounced off the new venue (Birthdays) which turned out not to be ready, and to the Shacklewell Arms to see some vaguely Kitsuné-ish French band, who were mediocre. I can recommend Hasan's for the kebabs, which were excellent even in the light of twitter updates from Alexandra Palace, where they'd finally got their finger out to tell us about the mayor.

Pressing on, we headed to the Vortex for the Mauritian folk-dub bloke (it was hard to say if he was playing or not), the Alibi for Dollop (forgettable and in fact only not forgotten by consulting the schedule), and the Servants' Jazz Quarters for someone with an outrageously silly band name who was actually very good. By this point, disenchantment with the whole project was setting in.

In fact, it had been feeling like work for some time, and my partner was getting into a multiple-walkout sort of mood, and in the end she wasn't up for day two. As the rules have it, day two was actually much better, and the line-up should have told me that. This time out I made a list (it's always the solution), with Is Tropical, Maurice Fulton, Speech Debelle, Hannah Holland, and the special guest who turned out to be Gilles Peterson listed as options.

I had to spend a week listening to a man in a white leather Schott Perfecto jacket yelling into a mobile phone in a mixture of Polish, Spanish, and what Ian Thomson called "a ghastly pimp's English" on the 87 bus - I couldn't work out if he meant it, as every so often he stopped speaking, listened, and replied "Yes. Yes. Of course. No. Yes." like someone's IT director - but even that didn't worry me much.

As it happened I didn't get away from the Brownwood/Peterson set until Tropical had done their thing and gone, due to dancing (someone thrust a DSLR at me, but as far as I know the photo didn't make the cut, and anyway I saw them last year at XOYO), but the Debelle gig was fantastic even if it involved perching on a flight case and hanging on to the DJ's PA stack. The cover of Tupac's "Changes" was special and amazingly nobody seems to have youtubed it.

I had to be back for an early start, to get down to the French polling booth, so more Hollande than Holland.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Your inbox is over its size limit

Does anyone else see a parallel between the Murdoch e-mail timeline and some of the recent new information?

For example, the meetings with Cameron regarding the Sun coming out for him seem to have happened not long before the new policy of "eliminating in a consistent manner across NI...emails that could be unhelpful".

More tellingly, just as the lobbying campaign for the BSkyB deal peaked in December 2010, with the push to get rid of Vince Cable, the barrage of meetings with Hulture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and the secret meeting in Oxfordshire with the Prime Minister, there seems to have been a surge of activity. This was the moment when three different NI executives lied publicly about the e-mail, Scottish editor Bob Bird claiming that it had disappeared in India, solicitor Julian Pike saying that it had all been deleted in June, and CIO Paul Cheesbrough saying that everything since September 2007 was gone.

Actually, the spring of 2010 (i.e. the election run-in, the crisis, and the decision to bid) was busy, too. There was a large deletion at HCL in April, management were interested in the matter and were badgering for more e-mail to be destroyed, and Pike seems to have thought it important.

an original idea? the archive is full of ‘em

Ralph Musgrave's economics blog makes a case for a program of time-limited payments to companies who hire the unemployed, although I'm not sure if Musgrave is thinking of it as a permanent feature of the welfare state rather than an emergency response to depression. I might quibble with a couple of aspects - for example, it seems possible to me that businesses might exploit it by churning workers every three months to collect the subbo as often as possible - but I think that could be mitigated with a bit of thought.

It's all very sound, but it only misses one thing: the policy exists and it's called the Future Jobs Fund, and it was about the first thing the coalition found to cut.

On the other hand, the archive is also full of bad ideas. I note that the pre-Queen's Speech trailing is talking about "a British FBI" and stuffing everything you can think of into "a National Crime Agency". This idea was repeatedly briefed out to the Sundays by David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, and John Reid, and its reappearance is a sign that the government is so directionless the circulation of bad ideas round the Home Office files is beginning to influence it. The last time they came up with it, the result was the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, and nobody seems to know what that's for.

Further, after things like the old National Hi-Tech Crime Unit were rolled into it, fairly quickly it became necessary to re-create them at the police force level because they were no longer responsive to the needs of the police. Apparently, the problem this is meant to solve is that the immigration queues have got out of hand. John Reid decided to save the world by making immigration officers wear a remarkably, depressingly crappy uniform and putting up signs reading UK BORDER, as if wet feet or a big hole in the ground didn't make it plain.

Now Theresa May wants to hurry up the queues by stuffing bureaucracy A into bureaucracy B. We are clearly at about 2007 in the last government's timeline. Alternatively, perhaps we never left Late Blairism.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Balls to the Bank

Following up on intemperate twitter feuds seems to have become a theme around here. I had a lengthy set-to with Pawel Morski about voting for Ken Livingstone, in which I pointed out that Ken was right about Iraq, that in general being right about Iraq should be rewarded, and being wrong about Iraq should be punished.

This may seem like ancient history to some readers, but it is true that Iraq was an important issue, there was no profit in being right, and powerful people were insistent in bullying and cajoling people who were right and promoting people who were wrong. People who manage to be right in situations like that are worth electing.

To which he responded that I don't have any objection to Ed Balls being Chancellor. I'm actually quite a Balls fan - he was right about austerity in 2010, another moment when the three conditions I mentioned were in force, and he seems to annoy the hell out of Tories. But wasn't he wrong about the economy?

Well, the specific decision everyone associates with him was Bank of England independent control of monetary policy. At the same time, and as part of the same package, the Financial Services Authority was set up to take over many of the Bank's regulatory functions in the so-called tripartite structure. The Balls-critical case is that this particular decision was wrong, and that it was one of the reasons why the banks got so bad. Interestingly, far fewer people object even now to giving the Bank control of monetary policy, partly because central bank independence was a really deeply felt and broadly spread ideology, and partly because the period 1997-2007 was actually rather prosperous and it wasn't all chopped liver.

The Balls-critical case is strongly identified with the Bank itself. Of course it would be - tell me more about this "not our fault" idea, I find it strangely fascinating. It also implies that it wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for pesky kids, which appeals to Tories. It also suggests that things would be different if the Bank had kept more powers and more staff, and this obviously appeals to any institution. Anyway, here is an excellent profile of Mervyn King and the Bank as he thought it from the Financial Times's Chris Giles.

To say the least, it does not sound like the King-era Bank was going to stop the bubble and restrain the banks if it weren't for that terrible man Balls. It sounds a lot more like just what it says, that the Bank's remaining responsibility for financial stability in general was not taken seriously, that it was a Siberia assignment, and that Mervyn King personally was convinced that markets were perfectly efficient and nothing could possibly go wrong. Further, the idea of the central bank being a "monetary policy only" institution was King's as much as anyone else's, and he took steps to staff and organise it as such.

It's possible to argue that the whole shape of British economic policy was wrong and Balls shares responsibility for that. However, even if he didn't forecast the storm, he did realise the weather had changed, unlike the Bank which kept the sails set just as they were through 2008. And he was also aware that we might only be passing through the storm's eye in 2010, rather than (like King and the Bank) clapping himself vigorously on the back.

Death by powerpoint, for real

Here's the list of talks that Gareth Williams might have attended at BlackHat 2010. The slides are here.  I wonder if he got the "I'm the Fed" t-shirt?

filed for reference and indeed referred to

From the archive, George Pascoe-Watson in 2006, on just what a hands-off manager Rupert Murdoch was.

Birthday present bomber

Paul Klee's students apparently celebrated his 50th birthday by dropping presents through his (flat) roof at the Bauhaus from a Junkers aircraft. An interesting story, although Mark Brown doesn't pick up on it (Rowan Moore does here but only superficially).

Junkers was the home-town industry of Dessau by then, which is probably why the students were able to arrange the stunt. It's mildly interesting that Marcel Breuer wanted Junkers to fabricate the alloy tubes for his furniture, but it's more interesting going the other way.

Hugo Junkers started out working on gas heating systems and two-stroke engines, first as a product of the industrial R&D departments that emerged in Germany before anywhere else and that would later become the key manifestations of J.K. Galbraith's technostructure, and later as an entrepreneur in his own right. He was the first to build an aircraft entirely out of metal, in 1915.

This was a crucial invention. It combined changes in metalworking and metallurgy with others in structural engineering and aerodynamics. It also meant that aircraft would no longer be craft products of varying quality, like the German fighters of the late first world war, but genuinely industrial ones. Stressed-skin construction would also mean that aircraft would no longer have external guy wires to heave their structure taut, and therefore that their wings would be aerodynamically clean.

In some ways, this would make the original design of the aircraft more important, and its production into a question of mass-producing metal components on standardised machine tools. But that could be overstated. When BAE set about converting the Nimrod MR2s built in the late 1960s to MRA4 standard, they found to their consternation and the Ministry of Defence's financial horror that the new wings, cut identically on computer-controlled machines, matched the old blueprints but none of the actual aircraft, which had been fabricated mostly by hand. Aircraft still occupy a niche on the scale of industrialisation, rather less mass produced than cars or computers, rather more so than ships.

Of course, the Bauhaus was all about trying to mass-produce the change you wanted to see in the world. So was everybody. As Adam Tooze pointed out, mass production and product design were also part of how the Nazis wanted to escape the uneven economic development of Germany in the 1920s, along with the genocidal imperialism, of course. And it didn't quite work, as so many of the Volksprodukte remained stubbornly pricey, as the Bauhaus's had.

As well as aircraft, Junkers wanted to mass-produce buildings, and in fact he did. If you bought their planes, they could also sell you prefabricated hangars to park them in, and that was also how Hugo Junkers made a living between 1933 and 1935, after the Nazis expropriated the company. They had big plans for it, and it grew to enormous size as part of the nationalised Hermann Göring Werke (and part of the man himself's corruption-empire).

Specifically, they liked three aircraft designs from Junkers - only one of which dates from the company pre-1933, the Ju52 trimotor airliner, which was produced in huge numbers for transport. Then there was the Ju87 dive bomber, the Stuka, the only war aircraft that deliberately screamed at you as it dived in a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk dedicated to violence. When it did so, it was often being filmed, in order to convince Germans at home and everyone else abroad of German power.

In fact, even by 1939 it was rather dated, but it was cheap to build and packing the numbers of front-line bombers with them spoke to the aspirations of pro-Nazi politicians, the fears of the general public, and the empires of airpower bureaucrats everywhere.

It also had a successor, the Ju88, much closer to Hugo J's vision of a rake-thin streamlined rocket ship.

It's not too much to say that the hope of a Nazi future rested on it. The air force procurement plan for 1941 foresaw a mammoth build-up to challenge British and US industry, and the Junkers industrial complex began to spread across Europe in search of enough aluminium alloy. In fact, Nazi plans for Norway and the Balkans were heavily determined by the needs of the Ju88. And the Ju88 design was meant to trump the advantages Rolls-Royce and North American Aviation had, by being a multirole combat aircraft before its time, a masterpiece of product design.

Of course, it didn't work. It wasn't big enough to make a strategic bomber, it was too big to be a decent fighter, and its high performance made it dangerous as a close-support dive bomber (the role of the Ju87 and interestingly, also of the very first Junkers). They lost and the plants were eventually bombed out to make sure of it. Not only them: the town of Dessau was destroyed to 80% on the night of the 7th March, 1945 by RAF Bomber Command.


Another thought, in the light of my last post and this one, is that the Murdoch wars have been effective because they get to the Tories' System One, kinaesthetic, internalised skills, just in a context where they are unhelpful.

It's cricket, really - it's all about trying to identify the circumstances where the batsman's initial, muscle-memory, trigger movements put him out of his ground. And once you've worked that out, it's about keeping consistently at it. Line and length, line and length, until the percentages and the shameless psychological torture deliver.

Matthew Norman picks up on the prime minister's tendency to turn puce and behave horribly, although surprisingly for a cricket obsessive he didn't pick up the connection.

why the London election means we should...

So I was having a minor row on twitter with Adam Bienkov the other day, about whether the Labour Party was right to put so much effort into attacking the Murdoch Party and especially the Secretary of State for Hulture. I think the London mayoral election shows I was right, for reasons that ought to be clearer to Adam than anyone else.

Essentially, it's not just that reporting of London politics is biased. It is not reported. If you don't consume the Evening Standard and don't watch local TV, you won't hear anything about it, except what occasionally bubbles up into the nationals. And that is pretty much always whatever Andrew Gilligan is floating this week. The local papers don't really do City Hall. Dave Hill on the Grauniad is good but gets minimal space in the paper.

So, the choice is between propaganda, ignorance, or bloggers. I wouldn't, actually, discount ignorance as a choice. The Standard is a newspaper whose editor was literally appointed by Boris Johnson, which is to say that it is not a newspaper. If you can't get information you can at least avoid exposing yourself to disinformation. However, since it's become a freesheet, it is actually quite hard to go a day without becoming aware of what the Standard's headline is, and availability wins. Further, it has influence in setting the agenda for the others, which is reinforced by logistics. National journos on deadline are likely to have seen a copy.

And in many ways, the history of Boris Johnson as mayor is one of the avoidance of politics. The Tory group in the London assembly has operated a policy of shutting down the assembly whenever questions are put to the mayor. They could do this because without the Tories the assembly was inquorate. This will no longer be true due to the bigger Labour representation.

Individually, you can deal with this by reading Tom Barry and Adam Bienkov and Dave Hill's blogs.

On the bigger stage, though, I think the upshot is that three approaches to the Murdoch (and equivalent) media environment have been tried. The Project 1.0, an accommodation, is sunk, full fathom five. The Project 2.0, full integration between the Conservative Party and Murdoch, is holed beneath the waterline, and the central fire-control is malfunctioning, water splashing onto the fizzing computers, even if the individual turrets (like Boris's City Hall) fight on in local control.

Ken Livingstone's unique approach was to pretend it wasn't happening, to put up with it, to dig forwards street by street and parking ticket by parking ticket. It worked, some of the time, and not consistently. It's necessary to change the circumstances, and finish off the Project, 2.0.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

All mayors are not the same. All columnists, however...

Rebuttal is futile, but sometimes it is necessary, and at least you can help people update their lists of people to ignore. Here's Zoe Williams wilfully misleading the readers.
From two completely different sources – Ted Reilly, a road safety campaigner, and Alice Bell, a lecturer in science and society and part-time Sack Boris campaigner – I heard astonishing things about air quality in London. They say it correlates, not vaguely but absolutely precisely, with the traffic volume, that it is the largest threat to public health after smoking (seriously!), and that once you get any distance from its source – 20 yards – it vanishes.

In other words, if you pedestrianised major thoroughfares from 8am til 8pm, if you dropped speed limits, if you made public transport cheaper, if you consolidated deliveries to the periphery and got one provider to bring it all to the centre ("We used to call it the Royal Mail," Reilly remarks, erm, wryly) you could do as much for the health of London as the person who discovered that smoking caused cancer.

Economically, it comes up repeatedly in living wage analyses that the cost of transport is not just a pest, it changes people's lives. The tube has become a luxury, a young professional's option. For someone with two separate cleaning jobs, most likely the only way to make that work economically would be by bus. Say that adds an hour (it's probably more) to the commute, that will ricochet into that person's stress levels, their parenting, their mental health, everything.

The mayor, whoever it is, can do a lot more with the powers he (or she, ha!) has than Boris Johnson is doing, or Ken Livingstone is suggesting. But it is also worth considering that, paradoxically, if they had more power, we would probably hate them a lot less.

Strangely, one mayoral candidate has in the past dramatically cut public transport fares, imposed a tax on motor vehicles in central London, and set up a low emissions zone to restrict how much poison lorries can emit in the city. That would be Ken Livingstone. I put it to you that someone who is unaware of congestion charging or Fares Fair shouldn't be writing about London politics.

Another mayoral candidate gave up on the low emissions zone, abolished the western extension of the congestion charge, and put up the fares. That would be Boris Johnson. I put it to you that someone who is unaware of this hasn't been paying attention and shouldn't be writing about London politics.

On page three of Ken Livingstone's manifesto, he explicitly promises to cut public transport fares by 7% immediately and reduce pollution. The next eight pages consist of nothing but public transport. Page 8 contains the following quote:

Faster, greener, more efficient freight
I will ask TfL to look seriously at the possibility of more freight consolidation centres for London. This would mean deliveries are taken to hubs and aggregated together before being taken into central London, saving on costs and cutting traffic.

The next page is about cycling, and the one after that about the necessity of investing in public transport in order to reduce pollution.

Page 66 is devoted to air pollution, including the creation of clean air zones with much lower speed limits and a ban on idling cars around schools, and the issue of smog alerts by SMS (something Boris Johnson directly refused to do). I could go on.

The sad facts are that a lot of journalists, Zoe Williams included, are evidently just fine with the largest threat to public health after smoking so long as their petty personal elite vendettas, the ego wars of media London, get took care of.

why yes, they could fuck it up

David Cameron goes trying to sell Airbus A330s. In his chartered Boeing. Chartered, eventually, from an Angolan company on the EU air safety blacklist.

the difference is that you put your money back into this one!

Here's something interesting. Who knew A4e had a secondary charity it gave money to, that also does public sector work and that also employs Emma Harrison and all her mates? It's like that point in the con where you start setting up another scheme with the money out of the first one. Meanwhile, this has probably done the rounds but it's well worth reading if you haven't already for the sheer twee violence at work.

Also, interesting comment:

A4e stink, charities stink and this coalition stinks

1) and 3) are obvious, but I'm interested in 2. Non-profit capitalism is an interesting concept, a sort of pathological version of a co-operative. And I do think there's an increasing trend towards it. Perhaps NGOs are the new multinationals.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Canalising the marshes: tidying up the people

Well, this is interesting, both on the Bo Xilai story and also on the general theme of the state of the art in contemporary authoritarianism. It looks like a major part of the case is about BXL's electronic surveillance of Chongqing and specifically of top national-level Chinese officials:

One political analyst with senior-level ties, citing information obtained from a colonel he recently dined with, said Mr. Bo had tried to tap the phones of virtually all high-ranking leaders who visited Chongqing in recent years, including Zhou Yongkang, the law-and-order czar who was said to have backed Mr. Bo as his potential successor. “Bo wanted to be extremely clear about what leaders’ attitudes toward him were,” the analyst said.

That's Zhou Yongkang as in the head of the whole Chinese internal security structure, cops, spooks, and all. Bo's police chief (and future sort-of defector) Wang Lijun is described as being "a tapping freak", addicted to the productivity and hence apparent power of electronic intelligence. Not only that, Wang eventually began tapping Bo, who was also tapping the CDIC feds who came down to keep an eye on him.

The practicalities are, as always, interesting.

The architect was Mr. Wang, a nationally decorated crime fighter who had worked under Mr. Bo in the northeast province of Liaoning. Together they installed “a comprehensive package bugging system covering telecommunications to the Internet,” according to the government media official.

One of several noted cybersecurity experts they enlisted was Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, who is often called the father of China’s “Great Firewall,” the nation’s vast Internet censorship system.

It's worth pointing out that the provincial networks belonging to China Mobile, China Telecom etc. are usually organised as companies in their own right, and they often have their own AS numbers, and indeed they often contract for substantial network development projects with Western vendors (Nokia Siemens recently had a big mobile network contract in Sichuan, notably) on their own right.

Anyway, Fang's involvement is very interesting indeed. He is responsible for the state-of-the-art authoritarian solution to the Internet. This is not just, or even primarily, a question of blacklisting websites or turning off the Internet. The Great Firewall's detailed design, as the Cambridge Computer Lab found out a while ago, is specifically intended to be a semi-permeable membrane. Rather like Hadrian's Wall, it is more about the gates through it than the wall itself, and the defences point in both directions.

When a computer within it tries to initiate a TCP connection to one outside that is classified as dodgy, the Firewall sends an RST message back to kill the connection. This permits much higher performance than the DNS-based blacklisting typical of, say, the UAE.

It also means that it's possible to ignore the RST and look through the firewall by using your own firewall utility (specifically, set something like iptables to drop any RSTs for connections in states other than ESTABLISHED before a suitable time has elapsed). However, it would be a fair guess that any traffic doing this is logged and analysed more deeply.

Further, there is a substantial human infrastructure linking the media/PR/propaganda system, the police system, and the Ministry of the Information Industry. This uses tools such as moderation on big Web forums, direct recruitment, harassment, or persuasion of important influencers, the development of alternative opposition voices, and the use of regime loyalist trolls (the famous wumaodang).

The firewall, like Hadrian's Wall or the original Great Wall, also has an economic function. This acts as a protectionist subsidy to Chinese Internet start-ups and a tariff barrier to companies outside it. Hence the appearance of some really big companies that basically provide clones of Twitter et al. Because the clones are inside the firewall, they are amenable to management and moderation. 

And none of this detracts from the genuine intention of the people at 31 Jin-rong Street, the China Telecom HQ, to wire up the whole place. Iran's surprisingly important role providing broadband to Afghanistan and diversionary links to the Gulf reminds us that providing connectivity can be a powerful policy tool and one that you can use at the same time as informational repression.

So, Fang's achievement is basically a package of technical and human security measures that let whoever is in charge of them command the context Web users experience.

Last autumn, several of the Chinese web startups were subjected to the combined honour and menace of a visit from top securocrats. Tencent, the owner of QQ and the biggest of the lot, got Zhou Yongkang in person. In hindsight, this will have been around the time the CDIC landed in Chongqing.

So, where am I going with this? Clearly, there was serious disquiet that somebody was usurping the right to control the wires. Even more disquieting, the surveillance establishment in Fang's person seemed to be cooperating with him. And the systems he set up worked just as well for someone increasingly seen as a dangerous rebel as they did for the central government. (In fact, the people who like to complain about Huawei equipment in the West have it the wrong way round. It's not some sort of secret backdoor they should be worrying about: it's the official stuff.)

I do wonder, depending on what happens to Fang (he's still vanished, but his Weibo feed has started updating again), if we might not see a relaxation of the firewall, which the pundits will consider "reform". In fact it will be no such thing, rather a cranking up of internal chaos to facilitate a crackdown on opposition.

Kahneman for Thugs: some bullet points

So I did a business-class review of Daniel Kahneman's new book over at the Fistful. Of course, AFOE is a very different blog to this one, being all liberal euro-technocratic and whatnot. Therefore I thought I'd write a different review. I therefore give you, in this week of Rupert, Kahneman for Thugs - which is at least appropriate given how much work he put into improving the Israeli army's officer selection process. In this post, I'm going to be deliberately political and action-oriented, and I'm going to express myself in handy bullet points.


The first point is that rebuttal is futile and you can ignore nothing. The so-called psychological anchoring effect means that our intuitive judgments of anything are influenced by whatever information is around at the time. That includes information we know to be false and information that is completely irrelevant. Ask people to guess the weight of a pig, and they will guess higher if you mention a big number beforehand.

Also, intuitive judgments of truth are strongly influenced by cognitive fluency. Things that are easy to remember are true. Things that fit into a coherent story are true. Things that avoid conflict are true. This has some truly weird consequences - if you want people to learn something from reading a text, choosing a font that is hard to read actually increases how much they retain. However, if you want them to believe it and act on it, you want to be nice and sans-serif.

So, you can't ignore anything, repetition works, and getting in first works. Smear politics is effective. On the other hand, the only way you can prevent Andrew Gilligan from influencing your opinion of Ken Livingstone is to just stop reading him. Filtering (on your part) or censorship (on their part) is effective.  


Thinking is work, and as a result, people unconsciously try to answer the easiest question that seems to fit. It's therefore important to a) set up problems so they answer the question you want them to, and b) set up your own intuitions to work with your own interests. If you train yourself adequately, all you will hear from Simon Jenkins is "blah blah blah fishcakes" as Boris Johnson memorably said. Politics as a system of grudges is an effective way to operationalise the points above.


Repetition, fluency, and availability dominate what we believe. But this is only half the point. What if you need to convince? The answer is surprise. Uncertainty is information, and learning is the process by which that information is trained into the near-automatic activity of System One. To surprise is to convince. This doesn't contradict the point about cognitive fluency - the point is to create a coherent story that contains a surprise and therefore a change in opinion.  


Thinking is work. It requires effort, unlike intuition, which is associated with no sense of subjective effort and no change in psychophysical metrics. Therefore, as you get tired (or hungry, or drunk, or ill) you rely more on intuition. Judges are more likely to give you parole early in the morning (after breakfast) or early in the afternoon (after lunch). Therefore, it is effective to target the depleted and deplete the targeted. What did you think all the anti-design graphic noise on the front of the Sun, or Fox News's horrible screen graphics, are for?

Never quote base rates

People find it hard enough to make judgments that involve statistics, and tend to neglect denominators. You can help this process, by never providing base-rate information. Certainly, if you want to mention how many terrorist attacks, crimes, or whatever happened this year, don't say how many there were last year unless that number was unusually low. And never, ever quote more than two data points.  

Never question premises or permit them to be questioned

Many cognitive biases seem to disappear if the decision involved is taken in a wider context. Obviously, if you can control the context (see under Availability) that's all to the good, but this is rarely possible in a pluralistic society. Very often, though, people take decisions without using any external reference, and over-focus on the exact terms of the question (known in the tech industry as bikeshedding), which of course means over-focusing on the easier question they substitute in. This inside view effect is a powerful source of error. Cherish it.

On the other hand, it's almost a cliché that mediocre candidates answer the exam paper while brilliant ones question it. Disputing the terms of the question is an effective defensive tactic.  

Always isolate questions

Many cognitive errors that appear when choices are isolated disappear in so-called joint evaluation. If the choices are isolated, people often make decisions which are mutually inconsistent. Very often, if you put the questions together, they succeed in integrating the information involved into a common picture. Therefore, it is necessary to isolate questions and prevent joint evaluation. Whether Saddam Hussein is a bastard or not must be isolated from the question of whether there are ways other than war to limit the consequences of this bastardy and from the question of what the costs of the war might be.

All clear so far?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Report back: CCG meeting

So, that Total Defence plan. Not long after blogging about the weird way becoming an NHS Foundation Trust member is mostly about the staff discounts, my Google Alert tail-warning receiver lit up. Specifically, it caught the fact that the Haringey Clinical Commissioning Group was going to have a public meeting, so off I went with a little notebook of talking points.

My first impression (as I was on time) was the usual depressing one - they're all 117 years old, there's four of them, and Christ, they're odd, and one of them's reading something called God's Word Made Plain. Why did I volunteer again? But the room filled up, and then filled up some more, and eventually we counted up 53 MOPs who turned out.

The original agenda was all about "how the CCG can communicate with the public", but when it got communicating, the message from the public was that the public wanted no part of that. It turned out that the local "Patients Panel" hadn't met for years. An effort was made to explain the new NHS structure, and at this point, astonishment and disbelief set in as the CCG vice chair and the (existing) NHS finance director tried to draw the organisation on a flipchart. (It reminded me of the enchanted PowerPoint presentation in one of Charlie Stross's novels.) So, GPs were meant to commission everything, and the PCT and SHA had been shut down, with 54% cuts imposed on their staff, but to keep the wheels turning, they were reorganising as a cluster in the meantime. Then, the GPs would take over, but the GPs themselves couldn't be in a position to commission their own work, so they would be commissioned nationally, while some other services would be carved out of local commissioning.

One of the CCG doctors said of the re-org that "in terms of human pain it's quite remarkable - managers are people too, you know". Before the CCG took over, it would be allowed to have a "shadow budget" but no actual money, because it didn't have an accountable finance function. And before it did, everyone would be sacked again. The national commissioning board would replace the SHAs, but would have four or possibly more regional branches that might be quite a lot like them.

The questions kept coming and eventually they abandoned the agenda in favour of just standing there fielding. It turned out that there was a 93 page national test that the CCG would have to apply, but nobody had seen a copy and nobody was clear about who set the test or how. There was a Joint Strategic Needs Assessment, carried out by the cluster and the local authority, but how that fed into this process was a mystery.

On the question of specialist services that would be carved-out of local commissioning and reserved to the national level, the chair had to be told that it wasn't right and it wasn't OK to say that "normal people" wouldn't need to know about it because a lot of them are psychiatric in nature. It turned out that they represent 40% of the budget. The service-user activists got angry. As well as a Health and Wellbeing Board, whose makeup a Lib Dem councillor told me was still being debated, there is a Mental Health & Wellbeing Board, but the GPs have yet to deign to meet them because after all they're only nutters (I paraphrase, but not much).

It turned out that the NHS organisations being butchered have a variety of huge databases of information vital to the commissioning process. Nobody seems to know what will happen to this.

The specialist/local interface seems to be enormously crucial, and a completely undemarcated frontier. The GPs are hugely keen on "continuous follow-up", but it's far from obvious why anyone would want follow-up by someone who has no specialist knowledge of their condition.

The FD confirmed the following figures in my talking points: the Government has budgeted £25 per head per year for the CCGs and the Commissioning Support Organisations. Of this, the NHS North Central London cluster says it can do the CSO job for £15/head/year, which leaves £10*225 kilocitizens in Haringey or £2.25m a year in funds flowing to the CCG as such. The CCG plans to have CSO staff co-located with it, and in fact to rely on the CSO for pretty much all its day-to-day functions.

Apparently the Government arrived at the figure of £25 by halving the existing Londonwide figure and dividing by the population.

Anyway, my take-home points: CSOs are crucial (although we knew that). Status of staff - are they civil servants? Who has responsibility for the public money flowing through them? What happens to this database? Further, the frontier problem between central and local is important. And I've got to get on to some of these assorted boards.

I was really pleased by the turnout, and the degree to which the crowd were intelligently angry. A surprising number of people had evidently taken the time to brief themselves in advance.

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