Thursday, February 26, 2004

US airport security staff "X-ray own brains" - Story

Some of the Transportation Security Administration's highly trained security screeners have taken their zeal for total security one step further by apparently attempting to make sure terrorists were not hiding in their heads. Or something.

"The Transportation Security Administration is not saying exactly who x-rayed themselves or when because of privacy reasons, but a source tells 9NEWS the six screeners were working at passenger checkpoints when they decided to x-ray their own bodies.

Like a piece of luggage, the screeners would have rolled down the conveyor belt into the opening, about 2.5 feet high and a foot and a half wide.

"There's enough training, enough education available in the public domain, let alone the circumstances of the TSA, to know this is a foolhardy thing to do,” said David Forbes, president of Boydforbes, Inc. “The questions that come out of this though are - what is the level of supervision?"

Indeed. Apparently they wanted to know "what their brains looked like" - some churlish and cruel cynics might suggest it came as a surprise to discover a brain, but the Ranter eschews such petty vitriol. A TSA spokesman, Mike Fierberg, said "It was just someone doing something stupid." Indeed. One wonders if they would recognise a weapon were they to come across one..."Hey, that's a really neat Osama bin Laden costume, sir!"

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

That Great BBC plan!

The Conservatives have issued a new "report" on the future of the BBC. It was prepared by one David Elstein, the former chief executive of Channel 5, and was commissioned while IDS was still in charge. Many people forget just how aggressively US Republican the IDS Tories were - very close to the neocons, enjoying dinner dates with Wolfowitz, bashing public broadcasting - and this might be a salutary reminder, now the BBC front has temporarily gone quiet. We ought to think why - is it simply exhaustion, or did the unexpected violence of the public reaction play a role? It seems at least to have influenced Michael Howard, who reportedly decided to distance the party from Elstein's proposals on the principle that my enemy's enemy is my friend.

Elstein was at pains to argue that he did not suggest that the BBC should be abolished. However, his proposals are so drastic that one question is enough to explode this - what would be left? Apart from abolishing the licence fee, he suggests that the Board of Governors would go, that the BBC's production activities would be shut down, that its commercial activities would be privatised, that its TV channels would be privatised and that money from the "voluntary subscription" that would replace the licence fee would be distributed by a public broadcasting authority to any channel this body felt was worthy. What would be left? Is this not abolition?

Radio would supposedly survive, although exactly how without any apparent funding is not clear to say the least. And why? Surely not because privatising Radio 4 would make Conservative voters fall off their perches with apoplexy? No. Who could possibly attribute self-interested motives to Mr. Elstein? Perish the thought! After all, his plan would quite incidentally eliminate commercial TV's main competitor whilst handing it sizeable sums of cash, not to mention the opportunities offered by the sudden lay-off of masses of trained BBC staff - what could possibly motivate a commercial TV executive to advocate such charity to his own business? At the same time, it is hard to see the logical rigour of classical Conservative thought here. Why should any State funding go into the sector at all? Is the proposed PBA not just another quango, a "national board" like those cursed by the Tory policy documents prepared for 1979?

The answer is not hard to spot. If the licence fee were to go, and a voluntary subscription were to be introduced, who would pay? Mr. Elstein would doubtless point to cable and satellite TV, but these have the difference that they actually offer goods in return for payment. Given that the BBC would disappear from television on the date of privatisation, who would bother to pay for just another cable channel? Apparently, this PBA's budget would be supported by those who out of altruism or more likely inertia failed to stop paying their TV licences. Clearly it would dwindle rapidly. In the first few years, I suppose, there would be enough for a handsome bonus to those firms who bought the BBC's assets. But within a fairly short period of time, the funds available would have become insignificant.

And, if there was no money in it, who would bother to apply for funding for "worthy" programming? Not when they could run I'm A Celebrity: Watch Me Shag! Sponsored by Really Cheap Aerosol Cheese with much better advertising rates. It is a sop - pure bait and switch. Even if something was permitted to survive, it would be unable to produce its own programmes, and must needs buy in. Neither would it be able to sell them. I am sure these freedoms would be maintained for Five. It would not be able to engage in commerce, and would not receive much if any state funding. Not many voluntary subs there.

As a final marker of nonsense, Mr. Elstein appealed to what I call "Vulgar Globalism" on (ironically) the BBC last night. This is the practice of announcing that your proposal is necessary and inevitable "in a globalised world" or "in the internet age" without giving any connection between the two. He declared that, in the internet age in a globalised world or words to that effect, it was ridiculous to have paper TV licences "when non-payers can be cut off instantly". Note the 2 key logical flaws - first, that it becoming easier to collect the licence fee is a reason to scrap it, and second, that an argument concerning administrative technicalities is an argument against the principle of public broadcasting. Nonsense.

BBC NEWS | Business | UK 2003 growth revised up to 2.3%

BBC NEWS | Business | UK 2003 growth revised up to 2.3%

So what did happen to all the recession porn we were subjected to last year? Within a week, we see forecasts for growth above 3% this year and now upward revisions from last year. The forecast range everyone said was a wild gamble was 2-2.5%. This puts it slap in the bullseye. Oh well, another mutt in the non-barkers...

I know it's not "we" any more. I know I should be really worried about the trade deficit and consumer debt. But, what - nine months on? - it's still hard to kick the Labour habit.

Rybkin 'Best Speaker in the History of the Duma'

Rybkin 'Best Speaker in the History of the Duma'

Interesting biography of the disappearing candidate.

"In his verbal attacks on President Vladimir Putin, stern-voiced presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin laces harsh rhetoric with poetry and flowery metaphors. But his oration skills are hardly an advantage when he is effectively banned from Russian radio and television.

The Central Elections Commission prohibited Rybkin last week from participating in televised debates via satellite from London, where he recently took refuge after a bizarre disappearance.

Rybkin, a leader of the Liberal Russia party, said in a telephone interview that ad agencies also have refused to produce radio and television advertisements for him because they fear retribution from authorities."

Indeed. In the meantime, a number of candidates are going to pull out of the election on the grounds that state and state-influenced media coverage, chicanery and the like have rendered the elections a joke. Sergei Dorenko holds that Russia under Vladimir Putin has become a neo-feudal state, with oligarchs and presidential governors playing the role of the barons. My own view was running along the lines of a shift from industrialised anarchy under Yeltsin to police democracy under Putin, but I feel that feudalism is probably a more useful description than any wibble about police democracy. Although fake democracy seems to be one of the main trends of our times, I think Dorenko is right that a form of modern feudalism suits the situation in Russia better. And that has some important implications:

"The middle class is the only section of the population capable of building the social institutions that Russia needs. Only the middle class is passionate enough in its desire to free itself from the yoke of the bureaucracy's feudal lords to mobilize the passive, abused masses. But the middle class is being led down a blind alley by a president who seems concerned with nothing but his own approval ratings."

XHTML 1 validation - what is the point?

In the interests of good practice, I recently had this blog checked with an XHTML 1.0 validator - only to discover that there were supposedly 463 errors (57 pages of printout) in it. But it worked. Now, after several days of poring over the code, the error count is down to 308 and we have lost the clock. Changing everything back has not restored it. Further, the validator throws a wobbly every time it encounters a blockquote tag , but the replacement (q) doesn't actually work, hence all the neatly arranged quotes in the Ranter passim have gone odd.

So - what is the point? The closer to standard, the worse the performance. And the fact that the first 16 errors occur in code that isn't in my template - in fact, that can only be in the banner ad - is simply ridiculous. If we must have ads, can they not inflict dodgy code on us?

PS: now down to 271...

Monday, February 23, 2004


An excellent blog has begun linking to us. Thanks

Fascinating report on the CIA's efforts to nail Osama...

A Secret Hunt Unravels in Afghanistan (

The Washington Post has a fascinating series of articles on the secret war between an obscure sub-group of the CIA and al-Qa'ida before the 11th September attacks, when counter-terrorism wasn't fashionable. "The rest of the CIA and the intelligence community looked on our efforts as eccentric and at times fanatic," recalled a former chief of the bin Laden unit. "It was a cult," agreed a U.S. official who dealt with them. "Jonestown," said another person involved, asked to sum up the unit's atmosphere. "I outlawed Kool-Aid."

Wasn't that clever? Not, of course, that it did any good, but with that kind of support from above they didn't have that much chance. Some of their schemes were a little wild, too, like the one involving imprisoning him in a cave, or sending a party of Ahmed Shah Massoud's army on mules to plaster his camp with katyushas. I suppose they were probably seen as cowboys attached to The Company's heroic myth of the Afghan wars, years after the medals had been handed out and everyone had gone home.

Friday, February 20, 2004

How to detect bogus science....

Excellent article via Calpundit: The Seven Signs of Bogus Science. An amusing work prepared by a scientist who was asked to prepare some criteria to guide judges in evaluating allegedly scientific evidence. If you're short of time, the signs are as follows: 1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
2. The discoverer claims that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress their work.
3. The scientific effect described is always at the very limit of detection.
4. Evidence for the discovery is anecdotal.
5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.
7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

All very wise. I wonder if it would be possible to elaborate a similar set of markers for the reliability of web rumours? After all, discussion forums, blogs, news sites and the like are running over with extremists who validate their crazed rants by referring to what they claim are authoritative sources. The point being that very few people ever follow the link or wonder where the astonishing news came from. If there's anything that bears this out, it was the "Kerry/Fonda photo" affair - the faked photo was prepared by a bunch of far-right nutters who posted it all over some high-traffic forums. Then it got onto a low quality US news site (NewsMax), and many more linked to their story. Then it burst and hit the mainstream media, oddly enough after it had already been debunked by Newsday. I'm thinking of similarities between dodgy sources, things like the weird way US fringe news sites like NewsMax and WorldNetDaily (another favourite for gun clubbers and conspiracy odds) advertise quack remedies heavily as well as get-rich-quick schemes and the like. Perhaps spam filtering might offer an analogy? (Strangely enough, my stats provider seems to be going that way. I've noticed that it tries on occasion to run a dialler, and today's amusing popup was "Are YOU Stupid? On-Line Personal IQ tests!")

Come to think of it, here is a provisional version for discussion:1. If the source has dodgy advertising or dodgy web practices, assume the content is dodgy too.
2. Credibility is cumulative - if the rest of its output is crazed, chances are the bit you're looking at is unreliable as well.
3. Facts and comment.
4. Use the Google principle - links are votes. Cranks and propagandists tend to band together for mutual support.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

And again, the Russian Navy's firework doesn't

Perhaps this one will work


New ruling on EU migrants

Well, it would seem that the government hasn't entirely capitulated to the mob press over putative migrants from the new member states of the European Union. Now, every other country with the paradoxical exception of Denmark has demanded "transitional agreements" allowing them not to let people from the Central European countries in for up to 10 years (note that they felt no such conviction about trade, say), but the UK did not. Now, with two months to go, we seem to be rowing back entirely due to screamer headlines in the loanshark-influenced Sun and the Daily Express (has anyone else got a reason why this has suddenly become an issue?). Apparently, the new entrants will nto be eligible for benefits payment until they have demonstrated 18 months' habitual residence. Well, this is actually hardly news as the same principle applies to other EU citizens, except that it's only 6 months. So far, the government has not tried to keep them from working.

Now, I'm not very happy about institutionalising a Europe with first and second class citizens. Neither am I too chuffed about policy by tabloid, nor does the idea of casually ripping up treaty commitments make me warm and fuzzy inside. But if this is as far as it goes, I'll accept it as a sufficient sop to shoot the hard right's fox on the matter. Because I think that this will be seen in the future as a dog that didn't bark. A Fistful of Euros has a good post on the issue: "Several years ago, a study produced by the European Commission projected that 335,000 easterners would go west – and of these, only 35% would be employees. Another report suggested this migration would actually raise the Union’s overall GDP enough to offset the costs, provided the moves are not motivated by welfare benefits.

A spate of similar surveys have yielded numbers ranging from 100,000 to 400,000 migrant workers, which would mean that by 2015-2020, the number of migrant workers living in the “old” EU would amount to only 0.5 to 0.8 percent of the EU’s current population, according to recent report by Katinka Barysch, chief economist at the Centre for European Reform. This is hardly enough to wreck havoc on the job market, considering an estimated 0.2% of current EU residents are easterners already. And many economists, pointing to the effects of the EU’s last round of enlargement, say even these numbers are played up.

Oddly enough, this debate obscures one important fact: Many of the eastern countries, such as the Czech Republic, actually see more immigration than emigration, with workers from Ukraine and other countries further east moving there in search of higher wages and often working illegally. The EU, again fearful of a larger and more porous eastern boundary, is pushing these countries to enact higher obstacles to such immigration.."

I suspect there is empirical strength to this. In Austria in the winter of 2001, I was surprised to learn that the average income in Hungary west of the Danube was higher than that in Kärnten, and that Hungarian economists were concerned that not enough people from the depressed eastern half of the country were moving to the west. Not only that, but some border crossings had more people crossing from Austria to Hungary than vice versa. Anyway, if people don't come legally then some of them will come illegally, and they are the ones who will end up floating in Morecambe Bay.

Short reflection: why are "New Europeans" plucky, honest toughies standing up to the corrupt oligarchy of the axis of weasels when they are stagging-on round some godforsaken pipeline in south-central Iraq, but "hordes of gypsies flooding in to take our jobs" when they aren't?

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Russian nuclear exercise - trouble at t'mill

Well, the Russian joint forces nuclear exercise reported in these pages is on, but it seems that the weirdness has struck already...story
Apparently, a strategic missile submarine which was planned to launch one (or perhaps two) missiles into a test range in Siberia failed to launch. Or perhaps - depending on version - one was launched but broke up in flight - or perhaps there were no missiles. Apparently, Vladimir Putin was present aboard a nuclear submarine at the time. How embarrassing.

"Putin was on board the Arkhangelsk on Tuesday morning when the Novomoskovsk nuclear submarine was to have fired two sea-launched ballistic missiles, state-controlled news agencies reported Tuesday afternoon. The Novomoskovsk was to have fired one RSM-54 at 10:15 a.m. and another one at 10:22, but neither took off because the launch command was blocked by a satellite, Itar-Tass quoted a source in the Northern Fleet as saying. RIA-Novosti also reported that two ballistic missiles failed to take off., however, said that only one missile was to have been launched from the submerged Novomoskovsk and that it disintegrated right after emerging from the water.

And a government source told The Associated Press that the launch of the one missile failed after it was blocked by the submarine's automatic safety system. The source did not elaborate.

After reporting two failures, RIA-Novosti dropped any mention of them and started relaying reports in which the Northern Fleet's press service said the exercises were going "normally." The press service told Interfax that "no unforeseen situations appeared in the course of the exercises."

What elephant? It would appear that various state-controlled media including the defence ministry's own paper, the Red Star, had announced that one strategic missile and one other weapon were to be launched. (the second one being part of a naval air defence exercise) But now the commander-in-chief of the Navy, Admiral Kuroyedov, says they were only ever going to simulate firing the missiles. How very Soviet. More details here

For amusement's sake, check out this article from Pravda. And then try this one. So - the BBC made it all up, but the sub really did launch the rocket it was only simulating and it went off course and had to be blown up?

Runaway railway wagon "secured by bits of wood"

"Our information suggests that two two-inch blocks of wood were placed beneath the wheels of the trolley to stop it moving.
"Apparently loading had just commenced when the trolley crushed the wood and careered downhill."

Mr Crow said there had been claims the workers were not aware that there were colleagues on the line down hill.
"If this information is correct our members will be outraged at the cavalier, reckless and disjointed approach to safety management and safe ways of working on the railways," he said.
BBC story

Oh Jesus Christ...I wonder whether this would have happened if the hand-back to Network Rail had already happened? Futile, I know, but it hardly smacks of railway expertise...

Blogroll - The UK Today

Thanks for the link, The UK Today!

Gap Year in Hell!

Army employing students in Iraq
The Army is paying students to put their degrees on hold and join troops in Iraq as Arabic interpreters. Five students have already been sent to areas under British control and 11 more are in the final stages of preparation, the Ministry of Defence said.

Their work includes translating documents and dealing with the public.

The MoD said they wear blue jackets and helmets to distinguish them from troops but have been warned: "There's a degree of risk inherent in working in Iraq."

You wanna bet? To come over all serious, this is a creative and original idea to address a vital problem..but I can't help thinking it could turn out bad. What are you planning for your junior year abroad, Language Student? "Well, I thought I'd spend a while in a guerrilla war. Counterinsurgency tactics have always fascinated me, and I'm really looking forward to helping interrogate a few terrs.." In fact, the motivation is pretty clear - £200 a day living on the ration strength for a 6 month tour (ie 182 days) equals £36,400 raw cash. Now that's what I call a top-up fee. But - hold hard! - a private soldier in the Infantry gets £213.29 weekly as a recruit (reference). If I were one of these studes, I think I would avoid talking about money.

And guess who is behind this scheme?

"Miss Culley, of Weymouth, Dorset, said she and her female friend were approached by recruiters from Kellog, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of US multinational Halliburton, a civilian contractor working for the Ministry of Defence, at Exeter University's Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies."

That's right - Dick Cheney's cut-lunch commandos. The folk who allegedly pay their staff in Iraq in raw cash dollars and assume a percentage for fraud in the books, are being investigated for profiteering off the US Army's budget in Iraq...and are the subject of this post from Iraq Now...

"Youngster: Is the bonus in the form of a paper check? Or an automatic deposit?

Trainer: Neither. Neither method is expensive enough. We send a courier to find you in the field, and we just hand you a sack full of cash. Arthur Anderson reports that 2% of every cash dollar in a business leaves in an employee’s pocket. So we just assume the courier’s a thief, and write off 2% in theft as an expense. The expense—along with the courier’s fee-- is reimbursed by the government, of course, plus an additional 2%-7% profit margin."

Some other people Miss Culley might want to keep quiet about money towards would be the locally recruited interpreters. I've heard today that they are getting 200 a day as well - but that's 200 US dollars, or £105.17 at current exchange rates, or damn near half what the students are getting! Now there's fair.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Polly Toynbee copying the Ranter

I'd forgotten this, but how strange! In her column last week, The Guardian's Polly Toynbee decided to take the piss out of Michael Howard's "I believe that the people should be big..".
In fact, this is what she came up with: "A Conservative government would be smaller, he warned. "Smaller government, bigger people" is their slogan - somewhat unfortunate in anti-obesity week. So £80bn of excess fat would be liposucked from Britain's body politic. "Could she have read this post in the Ranter of the 5th of January? I think we should be told.

By the way, she does have a point concerning the Tories' proposed freeze on Civil Service recruitment. My attack is founded on the idea that if civil servants leaving the service are not replaced, then their jobs must be filled by somebody. Even if some of the jobs can be got rid of, people who are unequivocally necessary will still leave - they don't live forever. So, with absolute certainty, the competent will retire and be replaced by those who were considered insufficiently competent to have that job before the holder's retirement. There will be a process of progressive mediocritisation (and I claim the rights to that word).

The Fallujah police station assault, and a parallel

It seems, according to the Independent, that the Americans now believe that the storming of the police station in Fallujah was carried out not by those elusive foreign militants but by Iraqis. I believe that the fight in Fallujah was an event of the first importance, for several reasons. For a start, this was no roadside bomb but a direct, force on force assault - a fair fight, if you like - in which the guerrillas "engaged the enemy more closely". The symbolic importance is obvious. Also, the complexity of the raid suggests careful preparation and expertise. To recap, the police station and the nearby army barracks were simultaneously surprised. A diversionary group seems to have opened fire on the barracks and suppressed any response from there whlst the assault party broke into the police station and slaughtered the policemen. Although it is hard to determine exactly what happened with regard to the Americans, some accounts suggest that a relief party was held up by a third group of guerrillas acting as a rear guard and covering the getaway of the rest. Only four of them were killed. This took some organising, and tends to bear out the US contention that former Iraqi Army or Republican Guard officers were involved. But what the attack may tell us more about is the nature of the new Iraqi forces raised by the coalition.

After all, the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps (which isn't a civil defence corps, it's an army, or at least a militarised gendarmerie) unit next door was described as being "trapped" or "pinned down" in its barracks under "heavy" guerrilla fire although it suffered no casualties. This is rather reminiscent of the telegram from the Austrian army on Lissa in 1866 - "Intense cannonade from Italian ships: no casualties" - but in the opposite sense. But - according to the US operations chief in the area - the ICDC's performance was satisfactory. What would it have taken for them to be considered a failure? The same briefing cleared up the question of the US forces' position. Apparently "no assistance was requested and no assistance was rendered". (Several of the surviving policemen had very publicly claimed that the Americans had let them down.) It don't sound great, though, if this lot are the men with the mission of preventing civil war in Iraq or alternatively getting between the US Army and the 't other siders.

In fact it rather reminds of the battle of Bac in Vietnam, an action in which a sizeable force of the Southern army attempted to destroy a whole Viet Cong battalion. The US advisers were optimistic and had planned all to a T, but due to poor leadership and lack of drive the whole thing went to ratshit and the VC made off after nightfall having held up the equivalent of a brigade with armoured personnel carriers and air support all day and shot down a number of helicopters. The political repercussions were profound and led (in some people's view) to the deployment of the US Army and Marines. (The story, in excessive detail, is in Neil Sheehan's book A Bright, Shining Lie.)

Monday, February 16, 2004

Rybkin Says He Was Abducted

Rybkin Says He Was Abducted

Well, I know this is late, but as I covered the Rybkin story we might as well deal with this. Apparently he was kidnapped in Kiev and drugged: "Speaking to reporters in London, Rybkin said he had been lured to Kiev by a false offer to hold peace talks with Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, but instead had been drugged and held against his will by armed men, who showed him a compromising videotape apparently taken during his abduction.

He refused to say who was behind the abduction, or what the videotape contained, except to say that it was made by "horrible perverts."

Horrible perverts, eh? A grim and sordid tale. Rybkin, understandably enough, decided to scoot from Russia and popped up in London as a guest of Boris Berezovsky, where he gave a press conference. Strangely, he declared that he was not pulling out of the presidential campaign but would not go back to Russia. "Ponomaryova told reporters that Rybkin wants to take part in televised debates through a video link from London, an option that Central Elections Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov said Friday was possible, Interfax reported."

I somehow doubt it. What is especially weird about the whole story,if true, is why the secret State would go to such lengths to dispose of a man who was expected to get at the very most 10-15% of the vote without going all the way and disposing of him permanently. This wild-arsed plot to drug him and - it seems - force him to take part in some sort oof perversion on video has the inherent flaw that he might not respond to blackmail and then go public. One wonders if Mr. Rybkin knows where the bodies are buried, perhaps quite literally. Surely nothing else would warrant such extravagant shenanigans?

Meanwhile, Pravda's top story is as follows: Fighting Terrorism, Putin Style followed by Vladimir Putin is Not Satisfied with Authorities' Work Results in Last Four Years. Who says everything changed forever in 1991? Certainly not here, with headlines like that last one. This is what Pravda has to say about Rybkin: "The interview Ivan Rybkin gave live to Echo Moskvi radio station turns his "Kiev adventures" in some sort of comedy. Ivan Petrovich used such colorful descriptions of the train guards and the people he encountered that it looked like he had visited not Kiev, but a carnival in Rio de Janeiro" I'm sure.

Friday, February 13, 2004

CNN Says It Overplayed Dean's Iowa Scream

Yahoo! News - CNN Says It Overplayed Dean's Iowa Scream

The US TV network has admitted overemphasising the now notorious "scream" footage of Howard Dean at an Iowa rally. People who believe this sort of thing claim it did for his campaign. No surprises that word got around, though: CNN played the tape on the air 600 times in four days. (Imagine if I ran the same post 600 times..)

Thanks to Bloggerheads

Pressure builds for action over gangmasters

BBC NEWS | Politics | Clampdown call for 'gangmasters'

Now John Denham, a Home Office minister who resigned over Iraq, is shouting about new legislation on gangmasters. "John Denham says employers of illegal labour should face the seizure of their profits, in the way that drug dealers, can have their assets confiscated."

Right on, but this all sounds terribly stabledoorish. This was one of the things that we - oops. They. I still haven't adjusted to leaving the Party - should have done on the 1st of May, 1997. Instead we came up with Operation Gangmaster, of which the Commons Environment Committee (why?) said: "Nobody could give us a comprehensive picture of what Operation Gangmaster does, how much it has spent and what it has achieved" Fantastic. It's not as if no-one was warned, even if by a Tory, or if you prefer by Panorama, and it's not as if the unions didn't point this out. alastair campbell's wheel of retribution alastair campbell's wheel of retribution

More from the people who brought you the Blunkett policy wheel.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

On Nicosia, sewers and the like - the references

For the commenter who wanted documentation for my post on Nicosia, its sewers and ways towards peace.

The Guardian
Cyprus Conflict(note - I don't guarantee this)

Despite much googling, it seems very difficult to grip a general account of the story. Numerous passing references abound, but there is little detail. Most search results seem to be multiples of the same EIB and UN tender documents. And - funny this! - by purest coincidence, you can only search the Foreign Office website for documents after the 1st of May, 1997. What could possibly have brought that about?

Mind you, from the limited information available, it would seem that I was the author of an imperialist myth. It was no Victorian "colonial engineer", but someone else entirely as the system was inaugurated just before war in 1974.

Cocklers - MP claims "resource issues" meant the govt did nothing


The MP for Morecambe Bay has claimed that she wrote to the Home Office asking what they were doing about cocklers who "Unable to speak English and under the control of a gang master, these people were being paid one fifth of the standard rate for their work.

They were also being transported 20 to a boat in waters renowned for their currents and quicksands, where an experienced local fisherman would not consider carrying more than six."

Reportedly, the responsible minister (Fiona MacTaggart, MP for Slough and my nearest Labour MP at the moment) replied that "resource issues" and the difficulty of obtaining written evidence in such cases meant that the Immigration Service would not intervene. Not, of course, that the people involved, even those who would later die, would have welcomed a visit from immigration officers. And this is exactly the problem created by the asylum hysteria. The exploited and the exploiter are welded together in a conspiracy of silence against the state.

White House proves Bush's teeth were in order

1973 Document Puts Bush on Guard Base (

The White House has released a document that, it says, proves George W. Bush really did turn up for duty with his Air National Guard squadron in 1973. Unfortunately, it's the record of a dental examination taken on the 6th of January 1973, which proves that he visited his base at least on that day. But nothing else, except of course for the condition of his teeth.

One might be forgiven for thinking this not entirely sufficient, especially as the White House spokesman contradicted a presidential offer to open his entire ANG personnel file. The Calpundit is worth reading on the whole affair - being the blogger who broke much of the current row when he got his hands on a key document.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Did taxpayers pay for Ali C's Hutton press conference?

Something I don't think many people noticed occurred in yesterday's Independent. Alastair Campbell's "presidential appearance at the foot of a grand staircase" on Huttonday was described as an "event arranged by Downing Street". Now this is interesting. I (and everyone else, I'm sure) suspected as much. What is Private Citizen Campbell doing as the Prime Minister's Alternative Official Spokesman (acting, unpaid)? What interested me was how much it costs to hire the Reception Hall at the foot of that grand staircase in 11 Carlton House Terrace, and who paid. Did we foot the bill for Ali's egofest? I've enquired with the Foreign Press Association as to exactly how much that would have come to. We shall see.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Automatic David Blunkett! blunkett policy maker

An amusing device that produces Blunkettish policy at the click of a mouse. Thanks to Supermum

Rybkin appears!

Der Standard

According to Der Standard of Austria and Interfax, Ivan Rybkin has reappeared. According to his campaign manager, he spent the weekend at a friend's house in Kiev and had decided not to watch television for a while. BBC report

How very odd.

Rybkin - he didn't re-appear, then.

The Russian presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin, who disappeared in mysterious circs on Friday shortly after registering his candidacy, has not re-appeared as his backer Boris Berezovsky suggested he might. From the Moscow Times:
"Gennady Gudkov, a member of the State Duma security committee, said Monday afternoon that security service officials had told him that Rybkin might have been located at a sanatorium in Odintsovo, just west of Moscow.

Calls to the sanatorium indicated that Rybkin had never been there. The presidential administration, which owns the sanatorium, also denied Rybkin had ever been there.

Gudkov later retracted his statement, saying that his sources might have been joking."

Well, that's clear then. At the same time, a murder investigation was opened and then reclosed. The weirdness shows no sign of abating, but at least you can't take guns into parliament any more.

Reference the story

The other example of technical/economic cooperation as a solvent for political fury I was thinking of, but failed to produce on Friday, were the sewers of Nicosia. The sewerage system of the divided city was (I think) the work of a colonial engineer who modelled the system on that set up for London in the 1850s by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, with the mains laid out so that the shit would be unfailingly carried away by gravity. An elegant solution, and one that obviously had no connection to the political map above ground. When the city was divided on racial lines after the civil war and the 1974 Turkish intervention, and two entirely separate and mutually nonrecognising administrations appeared on each side of the green line, the sewers went on functioning despite. Until, that is, the tunnels began to suffer from age and wear. Who would repair them? Especially as depending on the stretch of sewer, one side might have to do work that would only benefit the other.

It sounds like an example from a university lecture on Locke or perhaps on functionalism, but it was reality.

In the end, after sewage began to leak into the streets, the two sewers boards had to co-operate discreetly on rehabilitating the system. Once they were doing that, other possibilities appeared... After all, everyone shits and drinks water, no?

Monday, February 09, 2004

West Bank settlers stage beauty contest


This is about the most ridiculous thing I've heard in years. "The guards at the door packed M-16 rifles and the mid-show entertainment was a trio rapping about suicide bombers blowing up coffee shops.
But on the runway, 20 young women in sizzling swimsuits and high-heeled black boots strutted their blow-dried manes and lithe bellies with a single goal: to claim the rhinestone tiara of Miss Samaria 2004, the beauty who would be judged the embodiment of the women of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

"People think all settlers have horns and beards and guns," said Ron Nachman, mayor of Ariel, the 20,000-resident settlement that hosted the Saturday night beauty pageant before an overflow crowd at the local sports center. "This shows that we are normal people, we're like everyone else."

Vote ME for The Guardian Best Political Blog

Today is your last opportunity to vote for me in The Guardian's political blog awards. Follow this link and send them an email with Yorkshire Ranter in the subject line before the end of today.

Thanks in advance.

Alive But Dead - PRAVDA

Alive But Dead - PRAVDA

On the Russian theme, here's a report into a woman who suddenly discovered that she was legally dead:
Tatyana was so naïve when she believed she would be soon rehabilitated as living. Indeed, she was alive and still held her passport. However, as she realized later, once dead one can hardly revive. There was hardly an authority that knew how to get out of the unusual situation. Neither the bureau for civil status registration, neither the police or the funeral office agreed to shoulder the responsibility for the absurd incident. The pension service and the fiscal department considered Tatyana Rumyantseva as dead for a rather long period already. That was strange, but according to the records of the passport bureau, the woman was dead and alive at the same time. In April 2003, the housing board officially registered Tatyana was not living in her apartment as she was dead.

BBC NEWS | Russia election candidate missing

BBC NEWS | World | Europe | Russia election candidate missing

Ivan Rybkin, an opposition candidate in the Russian presidential elections, has disappeared a few days after his campaign ran a full-page ad in the Kommersant accusing Vladimir Putin of being in the pocket of big business. In a further attack, he gave an interview to the Moskovskyie Novosti in which he alleged that businessmen close to the Kremlin were benefiting from the Railways Ministry's revenues.

Obviously, one might suspect these facts to be connected.

But there is something odd about the story, as detailed here. After all, Rybkin is an associate of Boris Berezovsky, and when he was asked about Rybkin's fate he simply declared that he would re-appear today. You might have expected that the exiled financier, first of the oligarchs and diehard opponent of Putin, would have taken the opportunity to suggest he had been murdered by the same agents of the state who he, Berezovsky, believes are attempting to kill him even in London. And when things like this happen, who would be surprised? But no. According to Berezovsky, God was in his heaven and all was well with the world.

Mr. Rybkin has yet to make his advertised reappearance today.

Friday, February 06, 2004 - US plans for a "greater Middle Eastern settlement" / World / Arab-Israel

"The Bush administration is trying to enlist European support for a grand plan to reform the Arab and Islamic world and integrate it within a western security umbrella.

American and European Union officials held a meeting in Washington last week on the so-called "greater Middle East" initiative, an evolving project that could involve countries from Morocco to as far east as Pakistan and is being billed as a priority for US foreign policy this year"

Sounds interesting if true. Wouldn't it be weird if the neocons were to take a leaf out of the European Union book on the Middle East? After all, after the second world war, Harry S. Truman was very concerned about re-establishing a rational pattern of economic relations through Europe. That led to his support for the pre-ECSC institutions like Benelux, the OEEC and the European Payments Union. The later push on to the ECSC, the EEC and beyond was motivated by the same principle. Now - and here comes a much belated Part II to my post on the Turkish-Israeli "water for guns" agreement - we have to consider the nature of these relations. The key materials of European industrial life in 1949 were coal and steel. Get the industrial bit right, and you got the strategic bit right, and the agricultural bit followed. What is the key economic resource in the Levant? You're probably there already - water.

Perhaps that final status agreement, when it happens, should include a Water Community? I can imagine something influenced by the Bretton Woods exchange rate system in part - each state would declare a portion of its annual water availability to a central control, and the surplus states would be obliged to sell their surplus. Equally, deficit states would have to have an incentive to economise and specialise - but the crucial point is that a surplus, that is to say not using the scarce resource or hoarding virtual-water goods, would be treated as seriously as a deficit. Therefore, the drier states would have access to water or virtual-water imports and the increased supply to the Middle Eastern water market would lower the price. - new Ranter feature

Discovered a new and interesting webthing! It is called Delicious and it is a device for keeping one's internet bookmarks - with the key feature that you give them search tags, so the whole thing becomes a searchable database of whatever its users find useful or interesting. Whatever you search out of it - for example, "politics" or "blog" - is available as an RSS feed. That's what you will now see at the bottom of the Ranter Coverage headlines - the 5 most active bookmarks on "politics" from Del. Apparently it's currently "not so much in beta as pre-alpha testing". How techy is that?

BTW, in the best blogging spirit of reciprocity, I've added the whole blogroll to my bookmark list with them.

Laugh? nearly bought my own beer...

Just reviewing the site statistics, and what do I find among the googlers? Someone has searched for "arrogant american blog uk" and hit the Ranter. Strange, because it doesn't appear in the first ten pages of results. Other amusing search strings include "Turkeyish money" and "Lord Brocket & the book he wrote in prison". I didn't know he knew how to write. Perhaps they were thinking of Jeffrey Archer. And who was the visitor who came from an old-style Arpanet address (.arpa)? Now that's deep tech.

Seriously, I always think looking into the stats is like peering round the door of a stinking pub full of random drunks..

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Ryanair - what was that about subsidies for "pilot training"?

In the wake of the court case between Ryanair and the European Commission, one thing seems to have evaded public attention. Part of the controversial subsidy paid by the government of Wallonie to the much-loved Irish airline was supposedly to fund "pilot training". Funny that. Ryanair are infamous in the trade for a variety of amusing business practices involving trainees and new employees. Perhaps the most offensive is that of charging a £50 fee to examine job applications, although that was trumped when some of the unsuccessful applicants discovered they were being billed again later - ostensibly because their applications had been "reconsidered". Weirdly, only those who had paid by credit card were "reconsidered". Those who are recruited to Ryanair's "sponsorship" scheme to get their type ratings (the additional qualification needed to take command of a specific type of aircraft) are not sponsored in any sense known to the rest of the world - the sponsorship is described as a "self sponsorship", which means that you pay the £10,000 or so out of your own pocket. Had they decided to take the TR off their own bat, they could of course choose their course. Not so this way. That done, the new hires progress to line training - the period of partly on-the-job qualification in the company's own procedures normal in airlines. Although they are providing hours of work to the company, they are paid no salary. A full examination of Ryanair horror-stories would take a whole blog, as they are legion but often unreliable. But - what did they tell the burghers of Wallonia exactly?

Murder, rape, self-storage

In the case of a man who murdered a school teacher and stored her corpse in a unity he hired at a Big Yellow Self-Storage branch in Brighton, a court has handed down a sentence of life imprisonment. The victim's family are apparently demanding strict controls on porn sites after the revelation that the killer was obsessed by alleged snuff films and websites offering film of rape and strangulation. Without getting into the obvious cyber-freedom vs. censorship debate, I'll just say how weird it was back in 1999, when I moved to the south, to see for the first time these self storage firms. I had only read of this phenomenon before that, as a weird thing people did in Los Angeles. Since then, they have proliferated like weapons of mass destruction are meant to - huge robot sheds in Bright Friendly Colours next to motorways all over London and the South-East, with signs in insane sizes (We Sell Boxes, Tape and Bubble Wrap..). I always saw them as vaguely sinister, like blocks of flats for ghosts, and certainly fine places for crimes to be committed. Imagine my shock on seeing a Big Yellow shoot up in Leeds. Nowhere is safe, clearly.

Bush losing Republican supporters?

Ungodly Politics has an interesting post concerning George W. Bush and the problems of being the only candidate in the election - it's not as easy as you think!
According to updated figures from the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office, which only today posted a final figure on the total number of ballots cast, only 78 percent of New Hampshire voters who took Republican ballots marked them for Bush. (In one New Hampshire town, Milton, Bush received only 48 percent of the vote, while in a number of others he was held below 60 percent of the vote.)

Very poor. Surely an authoritarian bully in a one-candidate election, with more money than God for TV ads, ought to at least push Saddam's 99%?

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Commons blocked by demo!

The Commons debate on Hutton has been halted by a group of protestors who call themselves Oxford Citizens for Truth. They moved into the public gallery and chanted "no more whitewash!" until the Speaker suspended parliament for 10 minutes. Hardly surprising on the same day the Independent made itself the first paper to go back to the Hutton evidence and dig up some of the nasties, quoting Dr Brian Jones, the head of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in the MoD and David Kelly's boss, as saying that his team were overruled when the infamous dossier was prepared and that it was transformed by Alistair Campbell. Unfounded, eh?

I have to say I've been a little surprised - I never expected the total exoneration in the first place and then I didn't quite foresee the ferocity of the reaction and the continuing political crisis.

Dr. Khan's plea for mercy

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, chief scientist of the Pakistani nuclear programme, has made a plea for mercy on national television after being accused of illegally supplying other countries, especially Libya, Iran and possibly even North Korea with advice and even detailed designs for nuclear equipment. AQK is a Pakistani hero, who worked in the 1970s in Europe for a group of British, Dutch and German firms called Urenco making uranium-enrichment machinery - until he levanted with the blueprints in the best James Bond style. It's probably worth pointing out here that the people responsible for exposing the existence of a black market in nuclear engineering technology are the UN's International Atomic Energy Authority - or in other words, the wimps who couldn't be relied upon in Iraq.

Although everyone, I think, will agree that trading in nuclear weapons - well, the means to make them - is something the world does not need, I can't help feeling a horror at the medieval side of this. Publicly begging for your life on live television - it's hardly the best example of democratic values in the Muslim world, is it? In fact, it's extremely reminiscent of the first Gulf War and various, viciously battered, allied aircrew being forced to make public statements of humiliation before TV cameras. Or Al-Jazeera showing those so terrible pictures of dead people. (that are quite all right when we show them, as long as they are on the other side...or have I missed something?) And it only sounds worse when you notice this:
According to sources in Washington, Mr Powell offered Gen Musharraf assistance for an inquiry into Mr Khan's activities. The Guardian has learned that money, equipment and lie detectors for interrogations would be made available. Gen Musharraf rejected the overture but the case against Mr Khan has been building up inexorably since.

"Equipment" for an interrogation. A grim prospect. And it also seems very convenient indeed that the Pakistani government had absolutely nothing to do with it! It was just those terrible scientist johnnies! (never know what they'll do next, what?) Who would think that a government that prepared operational plans to disperse nukes and aircraft into Taliban territory in the event of war as a kind of second strike capability on the cheap might do anything so outrageous?

Oddly enough, though, Musharraf has some unintended backing for his position, from President Bush. Bush took up the traditional Russian peasant view of power over the weekend with his "Ah wanna know the faycts" speech - it's not him! He is a Good Tsar! It's those evil, plotting courtiers that lead him astray with their foreign influences. The problem is, though, that although this idea served wonderfully well for many years to soak up popular fury, it allows no manoeuvre. The next stop was always to assume that he wasn't really the tsar - and that meant a cossack rebellion.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Some predictions for The Great Inquiry: The Second Wave

As we're all going to have another inquiry into the intelligence assessments about Iraq, I thought I'd record my feelings as they happened and make some predictions based (I hope) on reason. "The prime minister has announced that there will be a new inquiry into intelligence failures.." (Emotion: Relief/Schadenfreude) "The inquiry will consist of Privy Councillors from all political parties" (Silly grin) "..and will be chaired by Lord Butler of Stockwell, the former Cabinet Secretary" (Hmmmm) "who cleared the radical changes in No.10 Downing Street after the 1997 election" (Foreboding) "..and is said to be a strong supporter of top-up fees" (Mild despair, nausea) "The Liberal Democrats will not take part, as the inquiry will not touch on the political judgements based on that intelligence" (Oh God, here we go again).

Some predictions, then! The inquiry will successfully unearth various chunks of political plutonium - spooks will testify that it was all nonsense and their political masters were at fault, embarrassing documents will emerge unexpectedly - and will then retire to seclusion to prepare its conclusions. Finally, the report will be released and will just - just - avoid slamming the lumps together...

Especially when you see the make-up of this committee. Lord Inge, ex-Field Marshal, former Chief of the Defence Staff (fair enough), "former senior civil servant" Sir John Chilcott (no prizes for guessing what he'll decide, then), Labour MP Ann Taylor, chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (yes, the one who missed Jack Straw's porky about chemical weapons, a former Chief Whip..), and the Conservative MP Michael Mates. Michael Mates? Michael Mates!
The bloke who sent Asil Nadir a watch inscribed "DON'T LET THE BUGGERS GET YOU DOWN" after he was caught ripping off hordes of small shareholders, a crime for which he has since escaped justice by skipping bail to Northern Cyprus? Yes, the very same! What a moral arbiter!

Rant switch to safe, please.

Oh yes, and the committee will meet in private. I'm sorry to bore, but does anyone else feel a distinct lack of confidence in this curious bunch? Especially after this little beaut from the Prime Minister...
"We can't end up having an inquiry into whether the war was right or wrong. That is something that we have got to decide. We are the politicians."

Mind you, others seem to doubt this messianic claim to infallibility. After all, there is already talk of a judicial review, or even of a Commons motion for the impeachment of the Prime Minister. Now I didn't know we could impeach people here, and doubtless it would be impossible to raise a majority to do him in, but it sounds fun, no?

Another day, another blog

We welcome Daniel's Corner to the exponentially growing blogroll

Monday, February 02, 2004

David Blunkett's Great Idea!

Apparently our Home Secretary now wants another Terrorism Act that would permit secret trials without juries and with a reduced standard of proof. Supposedly he'd even like to keep the evidence secret from the defence. So - exactly what has happened lately that requires this vast new power grab? Isn't it the case that the Home Office bureaucracy is simply trying to anchor the "temporary" post-11/9/01 extensions to its power into a permanent anti-terrorism empire?

You'd be especially worried if you were this bloke.

"Mike, who asked that his last name and hometown not be used (AVweb has verified his identity) says a dark tan, a black beard and the regular shipment of aviation-related merchandise to his home is all it took to have him branded (briefly) as a suspected terrorist."

Lord Brocket surfaces

I gather from the newspapers that Lord Brocket is one of the people currently taking part in "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!", as well as John Lydon - John Lydon? John Lydon? This reminds me of something. Now, my lord's only claim to celebrity is that he is a convict, having done time for insurance fraud, and that he was mentioned in the House of Commons by none other than Tony Blair. Years ago, during a debate on the original House of Lords Bill, a Conservative was waffling about the "wealth of experience and talent" the peers supposedly brought to the political process. Mr. Blair instantly retorted by giving the example of Brocket - the first Lord Brocket, it seems, was an American millionaire who gave Lloyd George a large sum of money in order to acquire a title. The second was detained during the second world war as a potential traitor because he was a Fascist and a member of "The Link", a group of pro-Nazi aristocrats. The third never managed to attend Parliament in his life, and the fourth went to prison for concealing his collection of Ferraris under an ornamental lake so as to claim their value from his insurers. This is the one who is now wandering about an Australian rainforest in the company of various freaks for the public's amusement.

Clearly, blood will out.

The only worthwhile content in this story is the strange reminder of those long-gone times, now as distant as the Pleistocene, when Tony Blair's government seemed to be a genuinely progressive force...

Thanks for the links

The Ranter has been nominated for the Guardian Best Political Blog award! This has caused a hits avalanche and a wave of comments - after all, our Technorati link cosmos page has gone from 10 inbound links to 15 since Saturday (inbound links) and the hit counter is giving off steam. After all, on the 24th of January we had 10 hits and 8 pageviews during the day - but 71 and 47 on the last day of the month, and this in a month when the highest day had been 36 and 19. So, thanks and links are due to:
Super Mum,
Media Dragon,
Dual Loyalty,
and Jade Farrington

Now, of course, I'll have to read you all..

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