Friday, April 30, 2004

Torture and stupidity

So, the US staff sergeant accused of sitting on a prisoner's head whilst masturbating at a camera has had his lawyer tell the world that he "had not had the opportunity to read the Geneva Conventions before being put on guard duty". So that makes it all right then? I'm meant to believe that he didn't know it was wrong? He thought there might be a clause in there somewhere that permitted him to sit on prisoners and wank? God, this is sordid. Not only that, but you can apparently get away with rape if you're a mercenary:
"Colonel Jill Morgenthaler, speaking for central command, told the Guardian: "One contractor was originally included with six soldiers, accused for his treatment of the prisoners, but we had no jurisdiction over him. It was left up to the contractor on how to deal with him."

She did not specify the accusation facing the contractor, but according to several sources with detailed knowledge of the case, he raped an Iraqi inmate in his mid-teens."

I didn't even know they'd outsourced interrogation! What is a privatised interrogation like - "Talk! Or we'll put the wires on you again! But first, a word from our sponsor..."? If it was a British privatised operation, of course, first of all the nasty cop would be late. You'd be there for hours watching the nice cop pace up and down sucking his teeth and looking at his watch. Then they wouldn't be able to torture you due to health and safety requirements, so that would take up more time. With luck, the job might have been given to the firm who released that murderer from jail in Scotland not so long ago and you'd be out in no time. Or if Jarvis had the job, the interrogator would probably get the thumbscrews caught in his cuffs, trip over, fall on the generator and electrocute himself. But the US does these things better, or at least with less embarrassment.

Why they don't outsource interrogation to China like everything else is a mystery.

So, in the same week, we've managed to subject detainees to sexual humiliation, let a rapist go scot free, attempted to solve our legitimacy crisis by shipping in more tanks, forced a flag in Israeli colours on the Iraqis and handed over Fallujah to a Ba'athist general with some shady bunch of gunmen who looks like Saddam on a really bad day. Seriously. This character was deputy chief of staff immediately after the 1991 war and "Chemical Ali"'s right hand man. (Back to Iraq link)

You see what I mean?His "Fallujah Protection Army" is, by my reckoning, the 9th western-sponsored militia in Iraq. There are now: The police. The border police. The river police. The Facility-Protection Service. The Iraqi Civil Defence corps, which isn't anything to do with civil defence, isn't a corps, and is only arguably Iraqi. The Iraqi Army. The Fallujah Protection Army. The Iraqi police SWAT teams. The Iraqi Army emergency reaction force. Things are getting better in Iraq, clearly, at least as far as the employment prospects for gunmen go.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

BP Boss says Iraq is a job for Iraqis

Lord Browne, the head of Britain's biggest company BP, and the oilman's oilman has said that his firm has given up on Iraq as an investment. Link Apparently, he believes that the lack of a sovereign and legitimate Iraqi government and the small matter of guerrilla war means that "It's not obvious to me that you need foreign oil firms" and that redevelopment of the Iraqi oil industry should be left to local state-owned groups. Does he mean - the Iraqis? Perish the thought! This is serious, though. Lord Browne is, as much as anyone can claim to be, the uncrowned king of British industry. BP has been astonishingly successful on his watch, especially compared with Shell's accounting shenanigans and poor reserve-replacement ratio (put simply, Shell is having trouble finding oil, which is a problem if you're an oil company). The firm itself is something like the last bastion of the British Empire - it was created, dear God, by Winston Churchill in 1911 with State funding to assure oil supply for the new generation of fast, oil fired battleships that Winston's Admiralty had introduced. Its foundation was the old Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, but as the years went by it prospered and grew. Up until the late 80s, throughout its history it had been partly State-owned. This is as close to the deep state as business gets, so politics must surely listen.

Look, Tony, in the last week you've been wapped by 1) the Diplomatic Service, 2) the Church, 3) the Army, 4) British Petroleum - and you still know you are right! It's a great pity, just think what could have been accomplished with such gifts of determination and blatant pigheadedness. He could almost have been a Yorkshireman. But no. He's always stubborn over trivialities and stupidities, whilst being utterly spineless whenever he is right. Again and again Mr. Blair digs in for the citadel of his final stand - but carefully digs all the trenches facing the wrong way..

Tell me again - what was it fight promoters do for society?

Frank Maloney, well-known boxing promoter and UKIP candidate for Mayor of London (Doesn't the sheer crappy populism of that make, as Simon Hoggart put it, your teeth fur over?) has got into trouble by ranting at gay people. He declared that he would not be campaigning in Camden because there were "too many" of them, and that he "didn't want to campaign around gay people...I don't think they do a lot for society". Eh? Can anyone remind of the great social benefits boxing promoters bring us, other than encouraging poor people to beat shit out of each other in the name of profit, entertainment, gentlemanly competition, and of course profit, and then doing their level best to hang to as much of their money as humanly possible? Oh, and did I mention profit? Not, of course, that I accuse Mr. Maloney personally of defrauding any of his boxers. Mind you, it would be damn hard to find a promoter who we could discuss honestly without having to mention anything actionable. Not that I'm against boxing, but I find it pretty rich to hear a member of Don King's profession lecturing the public on morality.

He was, however, right about two things at least:
"What's it got to do with them? The Gay Conservatives are not going to vote for me anyway"

"I have said I don't want to campaign around gays because I don't think they will vote for me. "

That's probably the safest bet of his career.

Student lives in library, builds blog - this is news?

It is reported that a student at New York University spent the last eight months sleeping in the basement of the library at his college because, despite working four jobs and drawing a scholarship, he couldn't afford hall fees. Students have, of course, a reputation for catlike powers of sleep, and with the best will in the world an academic library can sometimes get soporific. (My degree was in European Studies. The Journal of European Community Studies. Take my word for it.) But this chap claims not to have had a choice. Just to prove he wasn't asleep over his books, he built a blog (Blogs - we don't report the news we are it! to misquote William S. Burroughs), here. As in the Blogger "What to do if your mother finds out about your blog" tutorial, it was when the college authorities stumbled on traces of blog that he was rumbled. He has apparently been given a room in halls (or perhaps they buried him down there!).

Is this really how we want to run our higher education?

(BTW the blog's lying in a pool of credibility after LiveJournal cut him off for using too much bandwidth. Serves him right for using crappy livejournal, no?)

Hartlepool: Hart of British Democracy

British Spin reports that Hartlepool's citizens are about to embark on no less than eight opportunities to exercise their civil rights in the next two years. That makes four elections a year - just think of all the leaflets! and tea! and shameless lust for power! Just for added value, they'll involve Peter Mandelson and Stuart, the guy who used to be the monkey mascot at Hartlepool FC until he was mayor. As a politics addict, it's tempting to hop on a train right now in time to get my slice of the action. This is a positive orgy of democracy! Or possibly just an exhausting and awkward theatre of envy, self-seeking and forced enthusiasm far less attractive or enjoyable in theory than practice - wait, wouldn't that be an orgy?

They will get the opportunity to vote in local elections, European elections, a referendum on regional government for the North-East, a general election, an election for Mayor, elections to the regional government if they vote yes first time around, the Euroconstitution referendum and another set of locals. Hartlepool, I don't need to remind anyone, was where they hanged a monkey because they thought he was a Frenchman. No prizes for guessing which way they'll go on Europe.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

As predicted, sky marshals begin to disappear...

Back in January, during the great aviation security flap, I blogged that the flakiness of the arrangements for sky marshals on flights from Europe perhaps suggested that some officials were hoping to accept the scheme but let it fail. It now appears that the US is rowing back on the idea: US ditches effort to persuade EU to use sky marshals

Hugo Young - and some predictions

I've been reading Supping with the Devils, Hugo Young's collected columns, recently. It is sad and astonishing how often he got it exactly right. I am going to ask readers of this blog to guess when each of these major statements were made:
1. " In the end, it's a question of how you define leadership. Is leadership a matter of soft-soaping the editors and readers of the Sun? Or is the relevant constituency one whose interest is served by doing things the Sun does not like? This constituency could be called the nation as a whole. Its concerns are massively wider than the lowest common denominator of xenophobic prejudice to which the Sun consistently plays. Who, one must ask, is running this country? Who was elected by the readers of other papers? Is the European Union a threat to the sovereignty of the British government? On present evidence, it cannot hold a candle to the Sun.

2. "The second chamber could be one such institution. What its proper reform must surmount is not only the passion for control but the constitutional weariness that is already setting in. We have done plenty, I hear ministers say. The people do not want yet more upheaval. With the descendants of the centuries now departed (next clause removed as a giveaway), the comedy is over, which is all that anybody ever knew they wanted anyway. The countervailing case against this requires energy and belief. I predict it will not be made. The peers will soldier on. Those progressives who joined the Lords under the impression they would soon cease to be there will be, poor fellows, disappointed. An irony will engulf them. The only elected bottoms on the red benches will be the rump of ninety-two, who will have the merit, at least, of being chosen by a group somewhat larger than the PM's patronage committee."

3. It is safe to say, I guess, that not a single glass of Chateau Petrus has been drunk in the Dorchester Grill by anyone who ever voted Labour, or ever would. But the leadership still sounds more anxious to make the world safe for the Petrus-drinking vclasses, for fear of alienating the £10-a-bottle brigade, than standing up for an equalisation that would drive an even bigger inroad than £960 a time into their taxed income."

A total critique of Blair in three quotes, really. This is the worrying one, though:
4. "It shows that our country and its politics have a capacity for outrage, and reserves of bold vitality, that nobody could credit."

It's coming, and it will probably go Right, unless the process of toxic waste removal begins soon.

Monday, April 26, 2004

The CIA, the Swansea police and the neo-conservatives

I don't think this story has been covered much in the UK, which is a great pity as not only is it good, it is also a fine piece of Ealingesque British farce. Imagine. The former director of the CIA, James Woolsey, snooping around a college in Swansea trying to prove that one of its former students was really the 1993 World Trade Centre bomber Ramzi Yousef in order to substantiate a weird conspiracy theory concocted by a neocon pet intellectual to boost the war with Iraq. Imagine him coming to the attention of The Authorities in the form of South Wales policemen, usually more famous for playing rugby union than exploding international espionage. Imagine the State Department having to hang him out to dry - his visit being neither official nor authorised - and also admitting that no-one had told them about Woolsey's Dick Tracy act. Well, it all happened...

Basically, the problem was a woman from the American Enterprise Institute who wrote a book, in which she claimed on the grounds that Yousef's passport photo didn't look too much like him (I paraphrase) that the original 1993 WTC attack was an Iraqi plot and that hence it was all Iraq's fault. Details and debunking here Now, the original book had been showered with glittering reviews from people like - well - Richard Perle and John Bolton, and she found it necessary to credit Paul Bleeding Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney's future chief of staff in the acknowledgements. If it didn't hold up, there would be trouble. It was necessary to prove that Yousef really had been given the identity of another man by Iraqi intelligence - well, that would be tough, but a start would be to prove the other man was Yousef. The FBI don't, holding that Yousef had invented the name. So, that former CIA boss set out for the college in Swansea where someone using that name had done a course in electrical engineering. It would appear, though, that he failed to find any evidence that the student was Mr. Yousef. And that, it seems, was when he fell foul of PC Plod.
"Apparently proving that directors of intelligence organizations do not themselves make ideal field operatives, Woolsey's pursuit of the World Trade Center connection led him to the small town of Swansea, Wales, where his sleuthing piqued the curiosity of the local constabulary, whose chief decided to ring the U.S. Embassy in London for clarification as to whether Woolsey was visiting in an official capacity. This was the first anyone at State or CIA had heard of Woolsey's British expedition, and upon being apprised of it, Powell and Tenet were not amused. "It was a stupid, stupid, and just plain wrong thing to do," an intelligence consultant familiar with the "operation" said."

Talking Points Memo is following this.

Background: Initial Guardian report, but there's not much else from British media sources out there. The Financial Times's search function amusingly brings up the same Guardian story as the top result -
but requires you to subscribe to the FT to see it. Clever. Mind you, in the end it was the Grauniad that came up with the full skinny:link
"The two sets of fingerprints were entirely different," says a source familiar with the investigation.

Improving parliament's security

As is now well reported, our MPs recently voted to spend £2 million on building a huge glass wall across the House of Commons, in order to protect them from putative terrorists ensconced in the public gallery. Or perhaps from the justified fury of the citizens, but let that pass. Apparently, this is to protect them in the event someone was to squirt or toss poison or germs down into the chamber. Having first of all passed through two independent security checks and left the contents of their pockets at the second, naturally. No, the guards would apparently leave your sarin spray can with you. Obviously, because they have to have a wall to keep it out! If I were an assassin with pockets stuffed with smallpox, would I brave the second check when I could simply loiter in the corridors until a minister passed? If I had a pass, I could probably get close enough to the chamber to release it anyway - wall or no wall.

Note the meaning of this. In the event of someone producing, as the ridiculous Conservative Angela Browning suggested, an Estee Lauder perfume bottle laced with MacCluskie's disease or whatever and squirting away, they should be on the other side of the glass wall watching us die. Hell, why bother to evacuate when they need the parliamentary time to get the ID card legislation through? Browning produced a perfume bottle and waved it about, while declaring that "we would all be doomed to die". I'm not an aerodynamicist, so I can't really rule on the effectiveness of a perfume bottle for dispersing chemical agent in a space as large as the Commons Chamber. But I suspect it wouldn't be fantastic. Aum Shinirikyo, after all, needed several gallons of sarin in bags to kill a fairly small number of people in the much greater confinement of tube trains.

I have a small proposal fitting the case, which would tend to render our great national institutions far more suited to the realities of modern British politics. I say we build the glass wall, and big enough to enclose the whole Palace of Westminster in a seamless box; a glass case quite appropriate for an irrelevant and outmoded theatre in a country defined more and more by dictatorially minded press barons, control-obsessed security bureaucrats, and the President of the United States. It would keep them all quite safe, and prevent anything dangerous leaking out as well as in. Alternatively, we could build the wall around the chamber out of mirror glass, at last making real what politicians have sought for years - an entirely self-regarding, self-serving world where everything looks like a politician and tiresome reality never intrudes.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Chalabi to be ditched?

Apparently some people in Washington, DC call their favourite Iraqi, Ahmed Chalabi, "the greatest Arab since Mohammed". (Link via Talking Points Memo) Mind you, it's not a front that is going to last, as apparently the Pentagon is going to cut off the old fraud's monthly $340,000 subsidy. I wonder if they will also take back the Iraqi secret police files his lot carried off for their whips' black book? When you realise that it's Chalabi and friends who got their hands on those archives, quite a few things make more sense. Like exactly where those "secret files" come from that neocon rags like the Telegraph love to publish. If Mr C's got the order of the boot from Washington, it's no surprise that the list of alleged oil recipients got read out in Congress just now.

Courts rule that man must be freed due to mental state

The courts have ruled in a groundbreaking decision that a man who can only be named as "DB", who has been detained without trial or even a reason in the Home Office since 2001, must be released from his duties immediately on the grounds that his ordeal has caused him to develop a psychosis. Sources close to his doctors suggest that his symptoms include a florid delusion that he "knows what is best for everybody's safety" and a "dangerous obsession with control". Judges were forced to act when he took a number of Muslim citizens hostage in Belmarsh prison for no reason he would give to anybody else. But it seems that this may not be the end of the matter, as he is reported to be in denial of his illness and to be experiencing an extreme transference of his problems onto those around him: DB calls judges' decision "bonkers" and claims he will change the law

I suggest the patient should observe a period of silence and undergo obscurity.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Airport security misses 20% of weapons

Airport Screeners Do Poorly, Panel Told (

Apparently, the TSA's security screeners miss 2 out of every 10 prohibited items sent through their checkpoints in a test. According to the Post, there was no difference between state-run and private security. Which is no surprise when they hire the kind of people who stick their heads in the X-ray machine to "see their brains". Would you trust this lot with your biometric data?

Admin: Paging Guild of Ghostwriters

Right - is the Ranter now showing normally?

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Heigh ho! for the EU Constitution referendum. Great!

So - it's official. We are to have a referendum on the European Constitution. And - of course - we are going to vote No. What happens next, no-one is very sure of. This depresses me deeply. After all this time, says Blair, we are going to have the grand showdown argument to whack the Eurosceptics for good. Just like the one we were meant to have about the Euro. We'll still be having that one, at some time in the future, in case anyone is worried about running out of misrepresentations, self-seeking and nonsense. I've never been very convinced by this argument that a referendum will part the seas and finally revolutionise the popular perception of Europe - it seems to me more like hurrying to hell than brilliant statesmanship, especially now with the astonishing degree of hatred for Tony Blair that exists in the country. For some time now, even before I parted company with The Party, I've not been able to understand the conventional wisdom that Mr. Blair is generally loved. In fact, as far back as 2000, I've been more impressed by the ferocious loathing so many people harbour for him personally. I wonder to what extent those old stellar poll ratings were really a reflection of the government's success dragging up the prime minister, not the other way round?
Now, with equal loathing on the Left and Iraq all over his face, what chance a revolution in opinion at his behest?

Most depressing of all is the widespread story that Irwin Steltzer, Rupert Murdoch's pet economist, was the agent of Blair's decision when he supposedly informed the prime minister that the Murdoch press "would not support Labour at the next election". And this is the national sovereignty they claim to defend. Government policy is reversed at the drop of a hat, without debate, without reasons, without Cabinets, without Parliament, on the say-so of the friend of a denationalised Australian resident in the United States, with menaces. This was nothing but blackmail. But it points up a crucial, perhaps the crucial myth of the Blair years.

This is the delusion that the Murdoch press support Labour. It is held especially strongly by those closest to the Prime Minister, I suppose because of the psychological phenomenon that, placed under stress, we tend to revert to the plans and perceptions we learnt first. Hence the flying instructors' maxim that "it's important to learn the right way first time; the way you first learn it is the way you will react in an emergency." Back in 1996-97, the first taste of power for the Blair team, the operational code of the day was to trim to the (albeit minimal) concessions given by the yellow press whilst bashing the Tories with all available means and attempting to divide opposition through triangulation. They learned it from Bill Clinton's staff and put it into practice with success. That perceptual fix is still there, and each crisis sees them reaching back to it.

The problem is, of course, that the facts have changed and the ideas have not.

Whatever promises of support were ever given to Blair have not been borne out by reality. From 1997 on, the four-barrelled barrage continues. The Sun, the Times, the Mail, the Telegraph - they pour on the vitriol daily with astonishing and probably unprecedented ferocity. Europe is the issue on which the ferocity is greatest, the unity most pronounced and the distortions most severe. And this is support? Is handing over what appears to be a pre-emptive veto on policy in general really a price worth whatever insignificant reduction in violence this "support" adds up to? The Government has an abusive relationship with Murdoch. However viciously he behaves, they cling to their promises. Oh, I know I can change him. He loves me really. Smack! Get hold of that you whore! But they aren't going to leave, and he's not going to change. They usually don't. And the longer this goes on, the worse the consequences will be in the end.

Does anyone honestly believe, for example, that now Mr. Murdoch has the latest concession tucked away his papers will not mount a savage anti-EU and anti-Blair referendum campaign? If such a paragon of good will exists and reads this, they may be educated by today's headline in the Sun. They have chosen to demonstrate the promised support by a splash in at least 72 point red lettering that "97% SAY NO!" (God knows what Uzbek polling methodology was used to get that result) The agenda is to get the referendum held as soon as possible, win it, and boost Michael Howard into power on a withdrawal ticket. Which means, I suppose, we're all going to have to sign up to help win the referendum. Which means supporting Tony Blair. What bliss.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Logistics crisis in Iraq - and the negotiations

More and more reports suggest that the Coalition and specifically the US Army and Marines in Iraq are having serious difficulties keeping open the roads. This was no doubt behind the announcement that several major highways would be closed to civilian traffic, despite the rather pathetic attempt to spin this as "repairs". After all, by the time they got to the line about repairs they had already declared that any "civilians that attempt to drive on these roads may be "considered anti-coalition forces"", or to put it another way, shot. (link to Back to Iraq) The New York Times reports above that
"But a senior American official said Saturday that the cutoff in supplies reaching the American occupation authority's headquarters in Saddam Hussein's former Republican Palace in central Baghdad were approaching a critical point. Canteens feeding 2,000 people, civilians as well as military personnel, may soon be forced to serve combat rations in plastic sleeves, known as meals ready to eat."

Horrors! The spooks, spin doctors and staffies of the Green Zone reduced to eating the rations of the troops. No more turkeys, plastic or otherwise, if the main supply route closes... Reuters further reports that bridges have been blown between Baghdad and Hilla on the main road south, and the Washington Post reports that, even paying $700 per trip, Kellogg, Brown and Root are unable to hire Iraqi drivers. This is not good. Perhaps, though, there might be some positives. I wonder what influence the emerging logistics crisis has had on the negotiations outside Fallujah and Najaf - perhaps these have been given a chance due to the army's troubles?

Which New York Times Columnist Are You?

Paul Krugman
You are Paul Krugman! You're a brilliant economist
with a knack for both making sense of the
current economic situation and exposing the
Bush administration's lies about it. You
somehow came out as the best anti-war writer on
the Op-Ed staff. Other economists hate your
guts for selling out to the liberals. To hell
with 'em.

Which New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Admin - referrer tracking

We now have referrer tracking.

Admin - blogroll changes

I've changed the way the Ranter's blogroll works. From now on, blogs with RSS/XML feeds will be included in the RSS display under Ranter Coverage. Blogs without will simply be linked. At the moment I can't display Atom feeds, so Atom users will get a link but not feed coverage. We welcome British Spin, Bloggerheads, and Ray Girvan to the Ranter.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Vouchers, vouchers, vouchers

I recently commented on this blog entry concerning the Right's fascination with vouchers - education vouchers, health vouchers - and some possible extensions. They seem to consider that all problems may be solved simply by invoking the magic of vouchers. A couple of things stand out: firstly, what's the point of a voucher? The entire argument for them is based on an analogy with perfect competition theory - all those little rational utility maximisers will simply grab their vouchers and flock to the best school/hospital/whatever and the others will either Shape Up! or Go To The Wall! But why should the nanny state presume to tell people how much they should spend on education (or whatever), then? Why not hand out a briefcase of cash for each sprog, and set the parents free to take responsibility for their own decisions? (Tory Langue de Bois set to OFF)

After all, whatever decision they came up with would be a logically valid choice based on their individual preferences as represented by an indifference curve, and taken in the totality of all choices would represent the most efficient distribution of resources at any given moment - at least if you believe in this stuff. The reason why they won't is, of course, that they don't trust Dave and Brandee Forklift not to spend it all on vitamin Stella (or conversely, Hugh and Cressida de Bolleaux to spend it on sherry). Which implies that some choices are better than others and that, after all, the state knows best. Which doesn't leave the argument in terribly good shape. But leaving that aside, why not extend vouchers into other fields of government? Why not issue each citizen with a defence voucher equivalent to their share of the MOD budget, to spend as they see fit? If they consider themselves threatened by any international crisis, they would take the voucher to whatever army or, I suppose, private security contractor offered the operational plan they preferred. Obviously, the one who out-competed would collect. Simple, I feel, and elegant.

For a start, it neatly solves the problem of getting the disciplines of private business into the subsidy-bloated deep state. It disposes of the prejudices and preconceptions of staff officers in favour of the scientific certainties of The Market. It forces public agencies to compete and hence seek efficiency, and opens up the possibility of the privatisation to end all privatisations - selling off the armed forces! If all the MOD does is to whack out the vouchers, why should it also run the service? And if not all the vouchers go to our army - and they won't, if only due to being left under sofas, torn up by pacifists, etc - the budget will steadily reduce, forcing yet better performance or more likely worse! If it's worse, the customers will go elsewhere and it will shrink and be privatised - in fact, it's exactly what Kenneth Baker wanted to do with education.

It's the modern way!

AC/DC in Iraq - Highway to Hell!

It is reported that a US Army psychological operations team is broadcasting the songs of AC/DC, combined with a nice line in taunts ("You shoot like a goat herder!" Well, I rather suspect Iraqi goat herders are the sort of folk who learn to shoot straight before they can walk, but it's the thought that counts..), into the centre of Fallujah. How conciliatory. Other reports give the strong impression that some fighting continues despite the negotiations - that Yahoo News story mentions snipers and even an AC-130 sortie - I wonder if the talks are really not much more than a battlefield clearing? Certainly, it seems that this week's hope - the Anglo-Iranian attempt to mediate between al-Sadr and the US - has been wrecked. The Washington Post reports that US officials in Iraq had "rebuffed" these approaches. Well, there goes the only way out of this with honour that has presented itself so far. The backstory to this was that British representatives in Basra have been pursuing a private and little-reported entente with Iran, entirely in accordance with British policy but not, of course, with the CPA neo-cons' world view. The idea was to get the world's only Shia power to make representations to al-Sadr to call off his dog and work out a modus vivendi. Oh well, so much for our special influence..the Iranian foreign minister now simply says that "the US should leave Iraq as quickly as possible".

From the same Washington Post report, it would seem that AC/DC are just the band for the situation. Highway to Hell?
"On Saturday, the U.S. military closed sections of two major north-south highways that run from Baghdad, in a sign of the increased danger of kidnappings and bombings on roadways. "Civilians that attempt to drive on these roads may be considered anti-coalition forces and risk being subject to attack," a military statement said."

Friday, April 16, 2004

BBC - CRB brands innocent citizens criminals

Our beloved Criminal Records Bureau has apparently owned up to incorrectly listing some 193 persons as convicted criminals, usually by mis-associating applicants with similar names to criminals on the police national computer. This is fairly typical of David Blunkett's brilliant idea, which famously couldn't actually check criminal records much and took three months to process my own CRB clearance. But what lends it significance is, of course, the Home Office bureaucrats' messianic confidence that they could make an ID card system flawlessly efficient. They deny that it would be difficult, or that anyone might be falsely accused. On this showing, it should be blindingly obvious that the original data for such a system is riddled with nonsense - about 3.6 million wrong or missing records (link to report, Spyblog article), not to mention the processing of it. And don't even think about the government's traditional cluelessness about anything to do with IT.

No surprises, though, I suppose - the people who fucked up the CRB will be in charge of ID cards!
"John Denham did not seem to impressed with the assertions from Katherine Courtney (Director Identity Cards Programme) about the Office of Government Commerce Gateway Review process (which does not officially start until January ) with respect to this ID Card project. He noted that these were the same people who signed off on the disastrous and much less ambitious Criminal Records Bureau project.

Katherine Courtney also seemed to utter the words "literally impossible to forge" (which we will check with the transcript), which is a statement that is only ever heard from the Home Office, and not even from the most eager and enthusiastic sales people from the biometric industry itself."

Fills you with confidence.

A Brief Guide to the Non-War so far... has a useful list of US Army and Marine operations in Iraq. Here goes:

Operation PLANET X (15 May 2003)
Operation PENINSULA STRIKE (9 June - 12 June 2003)
Operation DESERT SCORPION (15 June 2003 - ?)
Operation SIDEWINDER (29 June - 07 July 2003)
Operation SODA MOUNTAIN (12 July - 17 July 2003)
Operation IVY SERPENT (12 July 2003 - ?)
Operation IVY NEEDLE (26 August 2003 - ?)
Operation Longstreet (September 2003 - )
Operation CHAMBERLAIN (15 October 2003 - )
Operation SWEENEY (15 October 2003 - )
Operation Ivy Cyclone (07 November 2003 - )
Operation Ivy Cyclone II (17 November 2003 - )
Operation Iron Hammer (12 November 2003 - )
Operation Bulldog Mammoth (4 December 2003 - )
Operation Red Dawn (13 December 2003)
Operation Iron Justice (18 December 2003 - )
Operation Rifles Fury (21 December 2003 - )
Operation Iron Grip (24 December 2003)
Operation Market Sweep (13 Jan 2004)
Operation Saber Turner II (Feb 2004)
Operation Trailblazer (Feb 2004)
Operation Iron Promise (Mar 2004)
Operation Suicide Kings (17 Mar 2004)
Operation Devil Thrust (?? Mar 2004)
Operation Vigilant Resolve (5 Apr 2004)
Operation Resolute Sword (8 Apr 2004)

Great aren't they? The putative assault on Najaf, should it occur, rejoices in the title of Op. Duke Fortitude, which some bloggers believe is a reference to Garry Trudeau's cartoon strip, Doonesbury. But - could they get any tougher, or any more propagandistic? They are beginning to sound like the way in which weird and incompetent-but-vicious rebel bands in West Africa like to use the terminology of the Western way of war: "Captain Value special forces for LURD!" or "Operation Pay Yourself", both from Liberia, crazed child soldiers calling themselves generals, Operation Rifles Fury, "listening to the silent majority" - pick the odd ones out!

Thursday, April 15, 2004

"When we get to the far side, I've got absolutely no clue where we are going."

Another damn good WaPo article from Iraq

"A few miles to the south, at 4:30 a.m., Capt. John Combs, the convoy commander, radioed back, "This is a known ambush point." It was a message he repeated frequently on the first part of the journey.

Near dawn, he radioed back with another worrisome message: The bridge ahead had been hit with explosives. "We'll have to find another route, maybe through Baghdad," Combs said. An hour later he called to report that the convoy had adopted Plan C: "The bridge at the secondary route is untenable, so we're going with a new route."

(just in case you thought our near-obsessive focus on Iraq was weakening)

CPS - still a hive of indolence?

The Guardian is currently running a series of reports by the excellent Nick Davies on the criminal justice system and how crap it is (I paraphrase). Today's story focused on the huge percentage of trials that simply don't happen because the bureaucracy bungles, people don't turn up, the court is double booked (really).
"A lot of CPS lawyers make a huge effort to avoid work - it is a civil service career without the same responsibility as private lawyers. There is a vacuum in management, from the middle up.

Last week I was in the office and a senior lawyer was sitting at his desk, fast asleep, while his manager sat just four or five feet away, taking not a blind bit of notice. No one even queries it. CPS lawyers spend a lot of time finding excuses to pass on files to somebody else. They will just dump files on somebody else's desk with a memo sticker saying, 'You worked on this earlier,' or some other excuse. And there is a massive sickness rate, with people just not turning up for work. If you have a bad court coming up, you phone in sick and leave it to somebody else, even if that does mean that witnesses and police and court staff all have a wasted morning. Our head of trials went off sick. We needed to check something with him; he was at the Chelsea flower show."

Indeed. Years ago I worked for the CPS, and that would have been a fair characterisation of our office. Remove the Chelsea flower show (we were in Bradford), but include the great piles of files slumbering on the floor, in doorways, on desks...and the computers installed in 1982 that did file tracking but nothing else, not even word processing...and the entire rape case I found in a wastepaper basket... I don't recall anyone being caught sleeping, but certainly about 50% of the people in the office at any one time were doing nothing. We had a pompous-git lawyer whose chief recreation was bullying women and phoning me at my desk to ask me to make phone calls. We had two women who did nothing but chat across their desks and glare at people, surrounded by sleeping files. We had a chap called Shahid who went to Pakistan without telling anyone and, once the heat was on, reported sick so as to keep drawing his pay. I suppose it amounted to a prince's ransom in Pakistani rupees. Not that his frequent absences prior to that affected the unsmooth functioning of "H Team". We had the manager who told me "Do not use your initiative!" Bwaagh. I thought things had got better - I am told that West Yorkshire is now a model of efficiency - but it seems that some traditions, at least, are being kept up.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Your crime? Other...

SpyBlog reports that contracts have been issued for a database of information on children in Lewisham, partly at least as a pilot for the national record of all kids planned under the Children Bill. Now, this idea came up as a result of the investigation into the Victoria Climbie case, but it's very hard not to see a strong link with ID cards - after all, if you were trying to set up an ID card scheme, wouldn't you want a database of all new people as a start? It would appear that the users of this new system will be able to flag any child's record with a "notification of concern" for a wide variety of reasons - in fact, too many reasons.

Apart from obvious and reasonable ones, like health concern, suicide or self-harm risk, drug abuse, bullying and the like, there are some real shockers. They could apparently start a file on your kids for reasons like these:

"Denies part in/does not believe commits anti-social behaviour" (so - if you are innocent you are obviously a real bastard!)

"Non-constructive spare time/easily bored" (Is there any child who this does not apply to? And isn't it just so New Labour to want to keep a searchable database of anyone found doing "non-constructive" things in their spare time - you know, so they can make you do something more dull.)

"Criminal area of residence" (WHAT? Does this mean any kid in a postcode considered dodgy can be monitored?)

And, to cap the lot, "OTHER".

Personally, this horrifies me - Christ only knows what horrors Bradford Council's files contain about my school life, for a start. Clearly, Martin Sixsmith's novel isn't quite as bad as I assumed (it postulates a near future where the government wants to issue parenting licences).

And there's more - co-ordinated bridge blowing in Iraq

Insurgents Display New Sophistication

The Washington Post reports that Iraqi insurgents have apparently been tracking the movement of the US 1st Infantry Division units sent south from the Baghdad area and arranging for bridges to be blown up ahead of them.
""The dropping of the bridges was very interesting, because it showed a regional or even a national level of organization," Pittard said in an interview. He said insurgents appeared to be sending information southward, communicating about routes being taken by U.S. forces and then getting sufficient amounts of explosives to key bridges ahead of the convoys."

Neither is this very encouraging:
"In a separate ambush east of Najaf, a group of fighters suspected to be part of Sadr's militia let a group of six U.S. armored vehicles pass their position, then placed obstacles across the highway behind them, cutting off their line of retreat. The armored vehicles were forced to move forward across a bridge. While they were on the bridge approaching a police checkpoint, Iraqi fighters, some of them wearing police uniforms, began firing on them. No U.S. troops were hurt in the incident."

Meanwhile, some kind of record in stupidity was set by the CPA spokesman, Dan Senor, when he stated that they were "listening to the silent majority". You couldn't make it up. It's worrying that the best men the United States could find seem to be provincial PR execs who have never previously left the country, but I suppose there is a tradition for this. (Didn't Harry Truman think that Stalin was just like a now-obscure party boss in Kansas City?) In the old saying: Luck will do for skill, but not consistently..

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Troops in Iraq Strain to Hold Lines of Supply

New York Times: Troops in Iraq Strain to Hold Lines of Supply

This is not good. Some news stories recently have given me the strong impression that the world focus on the centres of drama in Iraq - Fallujah and Najaf - has obscured a worsening crisis in the countryside, and that the coalition is quite happy that this is so.
""We've had to take extraordinary steps to get stuff to them, fighting to open up some of the routes," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the deputy director of military operations, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad about clearing the supply routes.

General Kimmitt told reporters that none of the routes in Iraq were now classified by the military as "black" or "red," meaning too dangerous to use. But he said most were "amber," a classification that means convoy operators assume "a certain measure of risk." He added, "It is certainly not green yet."

Collapse of authority

Well, resuming blogging after a break over Easter, it's time to round up the Iraq situation. (I know, it's been a very Iraq blog lately but it's hardly surprising, no?) Although the initial crisis now seems to be past, or at least in suspension, we can't honestly believe things are getting any better. Not when two helicopters have been shot down in two nights - an AH64 Apache, and a MH53 Pave Hawk. Note that last one. It was destroyed near Fallujah, and the US spokesmen stated that it did not belong to the US Marines operating there. It certainly didn't - the MH53 is the fancy special forces variant of the UH53 Blackhawk transport, which suggests that their helicopter-shooting party is getting good. And, for the first time, we have a hostage problem. Although the some have been released, the agenda is pretty clear - kick the fear up a notch and spread the targets. Two coalition states have decided to withdraw, and one (the Ukraine) has admitted that its force in Iraq was "not fit for hostilities" when it was chased out of Kut. There is now ample evidence that the various Iraqi paramilitary forces are unreliable at best. Although al-Sadr's militia have apparently permitted Iraqi police in Najaf to return to their police stations, one has to wonder how far that development just represents a legitimisation of Shia street muscle - if the cops are the rebels, it makes sense to put them back in charge.

President Bush's remarks yesterday - when he declared that "gangs" were behind it all, but in the same sentence said they were "trying to make a statement before June 30th", thus neatly contradicting his own attempt to deny them any political agenda or legitimacy - demonstrate the gap between reality and understanding. The situation is in some ways very comparable with certain phases of the Vietnam war, however much screaming and moaning this evokes - the forces the US is trying to build up have proven to be a means of supplying the other side with arms, to the extent that when the US Marines reoccupied Kut they had to disarm the police. There seems to be none of what was called psycho-political control back then - and this is a question of legitimacy, most of all.

Good story here (Washington Post). Note the reference to members of the ICDC. And what about this new policy? BBC News
"Many newly-trained Iraqi police and army personnel refused to fight Shia and Sunni rebels in the recent unrest, the head of US Central Command says.
Gen John Abizaid said this was a "great disappointment" - and announced the coalition would draw top officers from the disbanded army of Saddam Hussein."

Thursday, April 08, 2004

More horrors, Ranter proved right. Sometimes I really don't like me

In a long post on the Shia uprising in Iraq on Tuesday, I argued that the Mahdi Army was following a strategy seen in numerous civil wars - seizing the locations of legitimate power and co-opting the police and administration. According to this story in the Indy, I was right..
""The Americans are just as bad as Saddam Hussein," said Hamid al-Ugily, the leader of six men from Sadr city carrying a green flag who are spending two to three days walking to Kerbala. "We think they will attack Muqtada in Najaf. We will defend our religious leaders." What is menacing for the US is that all of the men marching to Kerbala, something they once did secretly under Saddam Hussein, are soldiers in the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps (ICDC)."

And there's more..
"If the US army uses its massive fire power to fight its way into Najaf in pursuit of Sadr it well be seen by Shias as a repetition of the Iraqi army offensive. This was against rebels in Najaf and Kerbala during their great uprising against Saddam Hussein at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991.

In many of the southern cities of Iraq where Shia are the majority of the population, the local Iraqi police and paramilitary units - supposedly under orders from the coalition - have shown they are not prepared to fight fellow Shia in the Mehdi army."

Indeed. With the police, paramilitaries and others either supportive or thoroughly intimidated and at least one coalition force (the Ukrainians in Kut) apparently beaten, it isn't looking good. But this is futile gloating in the light of the US airstrike on a mosque in Fallujah, in which as many as 40 people may have died. US officers quite correctly referred to international law, citing the principle that a protected location or person loses that status if they are used for military purposes. Quite right, although one might argue that the attack was disproportionate to the direct military advantage expected, a test which is used in this case. Not that this will do any good in terms of ethics, or of policy.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

"It Seemed Like Everyone In The City Who Had A Gun Was Out There"

Damn good coverage from the Washington Post of the Fallujah battle - which rather invalidates the last sentence of the last post. The US Marines have an institutional history of being rather better at political war than the Army, going back to their 19th century role in Latin America - as evidenced by this quote:
"One Marine officer described that attack as a piece of "well-organized street theater" that was designed to "whip up a mob mentality." He said local Muslim clerics had issued an order saying the mutilation of the corpses was an offense to Islam, but that a locally made videotape of the attack was already selling in many shops."

I think that was the point I was trying to make earlier. But it doesn't bode well that AC130 Spectre gunships were called in - even if they are trying to avoid using the "big guns", there are few more devastating forms of supporting firepower than one of these.

Getting worse - al-Sadr supposedly controls Najaf

CNN link

"Supporters of maverick Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr controlled government, religious and security buildings in the holy city of Najaf early Tuesday evening, according to a coalition source in southern Iraq.

The source said al-Sadr's followers controlled the governor's office, police stations and the Imam Ali mosque, one of Shia Muslim's holiest shrines.

Iraqi police were negotiating to regain their stations, the source said.

The source also said al-Sadr was busing followers into Najaf from Sadr City in Baghdad and that many members of his outlawed militia, Mehdi's Army, were from surrounding provinces."

Same pattern again - target the political space of power. God knows what will happen if they have to get them out of the Imam Ali mosque - not a good place to be letting off the big guns, especially as the man himself has taken up residence in it. Did nobody see that one coming?Back to Iraq quotes the insane statement of Bremer's in the CNN story and points out that a fat 77% of the Iraqi population lives in the towns currently experiencing fighting.

In Fallujah,things are worse, and they ain't great in Nasiriyah either. In fact, the fighting in Nasiriyah sounds well-planned:
"About 500 Italian troops came under fire as they launched a pre-dawn operation to dislodge fighters controlling key bridges in Nasiriya.
The Italians returned fire and, after a gunbattle, regained control of the bridges, said a statement issued in Rome by the Italian defence ministry."

So - as well as the police station, the mosque and the governor's palace, those bridges that the US Marines had so much pain securing in the war (the last war?). According to Der Standard, three US soldiers were killed storming al-Sadr's party offices in Baghdad. Der Standard is also the first media source I have seen to pick up on the issue of al-Sadr's presence in the Imam Ali mosque as mentioned above - good work, Austrians. The BBC news ticker is currently announcing that "US soldiers control part of Fallujah after heavy fighting". Given that they are occupying it, this is one of those lines that says less than it seems.

Nuclear explosions - illegal in UK!

Thanks to the excellent Spy Blog, the blog operated by the Watching Them Watching Us campaign for the regulation of surveillance technology, I now know that the controversial Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act 2001 made it a criminal offence to "detonate a nuclear weapon in the UK without permission". What? All these years it was quite legal to let off nukes - and I never even tried! And - where do you apply for permission?

Prosaically, I suppose the bit about permission is to cover the possibility that the govt. might one day resume tests and do it in British territory, on an island perhaps. Is that form U-235, I wonder?

Iraq - the black weekend and the new war

Well, it has all finally happened. The potential for trouble represented by the Shia militias has been converted into actuality, and General Abizaid's staff have supposedly been given 48 hours to think of possible sources of reinforcement (link). A cynic might say that Muggins Britain will be top of the begging letter list when it comes to putting out this American-induced fire. The decision to shut down Moqtada al-Sadr's newspaper is shaping up to be the worst decision taken since - well, the decision to invade Iraq. After all, it had a circulation not that much greater than that of this blog - it claimed 10,000 readers, but I suspect audited circulation is a concept strange to Iraq and likely to stay that way. And just look at the results. Black-clad gunmen invading police stations, screaming mobs, firefights in packed city centres, chaos and terror. Not trrr, the real chest-heaving gutgripping kind. No, I think (with hindsight, I know) we could have put up with that paper, don't you? Depressingly, one of the reasons for Al-Hawza's closure was that the US governor was personally annoyed about its coverage of the governor. I'm not sure having the ranking western official in Iraq behaving like a film star does anyone any good.

If it was a film, though, it would have been a good one. The political theatre of the last few days has been extreme in a way that suggests premeditation. Note that everywhere - from the governor's office in Basra to the suburbs of Baghdad - Al-Sadr's gunmen seized police stations, mosques, and other symbols of authority. The message is clear - we are the masters now. The aim is slightly less clear, but all the more important for that. They do not seem to have insisted on the police pulling out completely. The Guardian reported today that at one occupied police station, the head cop and some others were still in residence albeit demoralised. This is serious. Taking over the police and military institutions and then co-opting their members is a strategy seen in numerous civil wars - Spain, Bosnia, Rwanda come to mind, as does Palestine in 1948. When the British army withdrew it was a race to seize the fortified police and army posts and to either co-opt or eliminate the local personnel. In the Shia-majority cities, it's likely that the police are Shia-majority too. That leaves a minority element to be terrorised or bribed - and we have Iraqi B Specials for al-Sadr, complete with whatever arms and training the occupation authorities provided for them. It is possible (I'd say likely) that the militias had a plan for this, ready for the struggle for power post-30th of June - and that Bremer's press crackdown triggered it early.

The response? It doesn't look brilliant so far. Lots of the usual Bush-team political theatre: beautifully tailored spokesmen and pistol packin' officers give bullish briefings about the latest offensive. The same words come up again and again: the perpetrators of the Fallujah atrocity will be punished with "overwhelming force", "at a time of our choosing". That last one especially. The same idea came up when a warrant for al-Sadr's arrest was announced - there would, we are told, be "no advanced warning". The source of this insistence on timing is clearly current military doctrine - the Americans want to be more like the Israeli or British armies in terms of tactics, moving towards the ideas of manoeuvre warfare theory, where one strives to bring your strengths to bear against the enemy's weaknesses and to get ahead of the other side's decision process - acting before they can understand what has happened and react. All good, and certainly an improvement on the scared 90s obsession with that other phrase above, overwhelming force, that induced the US to practically resign from peacekeeping. But what can it mean here? Whatever it says in The Spokesman's Boys' Book of Manoeuvreism, anti-terrorist and counter-insurgency warfare do not permit such imperial confidence. You can only act when you know who to act against, where they are, when they are - operations are dictated by information gathering and testing. No amount of bluster (Operation VIGILANT RESOLVE? Please.) changes that, and a failure to realise it will trap you in the belief that you can plan all your moves. Sweeping Crackdown! Decisive Action! Overwhelming Force!

And that is when you end up doing things like VIGILANT RESOLVE. The US Marines carrying it out have built a huge concrete wall - that looks exactly like a section of the Israelis' "security fence" or "terrorism prevention fence" or whatever it is called this week, just for good measure - across the road west from Fallujah to Jordan. No-one may pass. Unfortunately, this also means that all overland trade between Iraq and Jordan - and this means in effect most of the world - is cut off. No marks for joined-up thinking there. And just to help matters, the British army in Iraq is about to plunge into a major troop rotation - the 20th Armoured Brigade is leaving next week and being replaced by 1st Mechanised Brigade, so the troops who are acclimatised, briefed and experienced will go and be replaced by others who will need to go through the same process before being fully effective - just when they will need all the effectiveness they can get. As the controller in Airplane! put it, looks like I chose the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

Our strangest search request

I've just taken a peek into our search referrals. The horror..the horror..and that's without the horde of perverted googlers who the last post will no doubt draw to us like flies to shit. (Still, it's all traffic..) Who the hell searched for "email a-z information of churches" and hit the Ranter? Now that's just filthy.

Now that's a real cockup

CNN reports that a man from Los Angeles (where else?) has gone to jail after meeting a woman in a chatroom dedicated to rape fantasies. Unfortunately for all concerned he broke into the wrong flat....
"The victim stopped the attack by yelling and attacking Howard's testicles. Howard then asked for the name the victim used in the chat room and she responded by saying she had never visited a chat room and did not have a personal computer."

More on the nanniebots - a fit of childishness

Mr. Wightman has now declared on his website first that he would close down the site because he was being "treated like a criminal for trying to save kids" (puke!), and now apparently that the whole thing will be translated into Portuguese. One wonders why, but not what. The what is pretty clear - he's had a childish fit and is now going to eject the teddies, spit the dummy etc. In the "news" section of his homepage sits this message - 02/04/2004 190800 Deal to translate the site and AI into Portuguese nears completion. (link) Sadly, this seems to be trudging unmistakably towards the arena of bollocks.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Wolverhampton's Turing..what happened next?

Due to an unaccountable outbreak of laziness, when I saw the story about an IT consultant from Wolverhampton and his chatroom monitoring programs (Nanniebots) that appeared to pass the Turing test I didn't blog it. (Original New Scientist story and transcript here, The Register, BBC news, Need To Know) Basically, his claim was that he had developed a suite of bots, autonomous software agents, that logged into chatrooms and took part in conversations. If (I suppose) anything on a watchlist intended to signal paedophile activity came up, the bot would log it to raise the alarm. Pretty clear, but this implied that the chatbot could converse with a human being without their noticing it was a machine. Alan Turing famously theorised that the defining case for artificial intelligence was a machine capable of carrying on conversation indistinguishable from that of a human being. Was this a brilliant breakthrough in AI or a fake?

Well, I for one was really hoping that this might be a real future burst. The idea of a chap in a shed in Wolverhampton discovering everything Cambridge, Imperial, Stanford, MIT and everywhere else with a multizillion budget couldn't (after all, Frank Whittle built the jet engine in a shed in Leicester) was too great to turn aside, as was the hope that this time - this time - we might not make a horrible potmess out of it and spend the next hundred years paying the Yanks billions annually for the use of our own inventions. Unfortunately, a quantity of debunking matter has appeared. For one, he's supposedly been caught boasting about non-existent software before. And the Guardian's Bad Science column, which had already secured a promise of an independent trial of the bot, has outed him as a Holocaust denier - quoting some pretty ugly posts on newsgroups for that particular online community. Puke! (He claims it's not his fault, but the posts came from his IP address.) Jim Wightman, the chap concerned, has been posting heavily on comment threads associated with the subject. Or at least people using his identity...on the Internet, no-one knows you're a dog. (They know you're a blog, though.) Check this out:
I have a crazy theory. The other project of ChatNannies is humans monitoring and reporting on chatrooms. What if the bots are actually humans? You could describe this as collecting pop culture references from the internet. An experiment in tapping the power of a distibuted human brain network to create an "AI". Perhaps the figure of 100,000 is his report database capacity.
posted by Zombywuf on March 25, 2004 03:31 PM

I think Jim Wightman is actually a bot.
posted by Michael Williams on March 25, 2004 03:54 PM

Has anyone thought of the wider ethical implications of this?
a) When "nanniebots" are running on many chatrooms, children obviously won't know if they're talking to another child or a nanniebot. Is it right to deceive millions of children in this way?
b) What if the system was used for evil instead of good? "Nanniebots" could befriend children, set up real-world meetings, and let pedophiles know the time/location automatically by email. Takes all the hard work out of "grooming" children...
But luckily, I doubt either of these are real problems, given that the whole idea is so infeasible and must be a hoax of some sort.
posted by James on March 26, 2004 09:05 AM

James: Why not bot children that lure in pedophiles? Then the bots could all just "seduce" each other and cut out the middle-man.
posted by Michael Williams on March 26, 2004 10:04 AM

It's getting too postmodern in here! Meanwhile, over at, Cameron Mackintosh reported a conversation with what was claimed to be one of Mr. W's menagerie. This has been heavily debated on other sites, especially the moment when the alleged bot came up with an error message. This was widely seen as a transparent attempt to make the beast seem more mechanical. Other critics suggested that it lacked the damage control procedures to be expected from a machine - the devices used to elicit repetitions if the machine fails to understand a remark, what linguists would call a help strategy. These tags litter our own speech, oiling the wheels of conversation, organising turn-taking and clearing up misunderstanding. "Can you repeat that?" or "Huh?" for example. I'm not so sure - there appear to me to be several points where the alleged machine does apply such a strategy.
[cameronfactor] i'm learning about stuff and junk
[Guest8474860] !

Now that sounds to me like a tactic to get something less inscrutable to work on. I agree with most of those commenters, though, that the end of the conversation where Cameron first accuses the "bot" of being a bot, and then claims to be one himself is handled with almost suspicious cleanliness. That brings up the logical problem of the whole case - the only evidence that will convincingly demonstrate that Mr. Wightman is not a gifted hoaxer is a failure that would show up the bot for what it was - and that would, of course, invalidate his claims! In a sense, that should be enough - Karl Popper would have thought so. We have a hypothesis capable of refutation. We have a repeatable way of attempting to refute it. All good, no? The problem is, of course, that Popper's method excludes the possibility of bad faith, and requires complete openness. Unless both possibilities can be trusted - that it doesn't work or that it does - we need some positive proof. The only way to secure that would be to exclude the possibility of the bot being a human operator. What's needed is a double blind trial with the machinery under impartial supervision. Mr. Wightman seems horrified at the idea. And his (at least, the chap calling himself him's) behaviour on threads discussing the issue is not helpful. He claims that critics are "below him" and that he "looks forward to nuclear holocaust". Nice. It fits with the nazi spammer, and doesn't bode well for any real proof.

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