Sunday, October 31, 2004

Very short post

When the book of this election is written it'll be called Margin of Error.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the world's most pointless headline: "Bush, Kerry in Reach of Electoral Win" (Washington Post)

Disturbing search request: an announcement

This site contains absolutely no "gay wank chatrooms" or indeed any chatrooms of any kind. I have never possessed this material. I have no intention of providing gay wank chatrooms at any point in the future. UN inspectors are welcome to verify this.

What the chap in Ireland who searched Yahoo for them was doing here at 0247 last night is beyond me, as is the reason the Ranter is the 8th highest Yahoo result for them.

Friday, October 29, 2004

That Buttiglione Imbroglio

Depending on who you listen to, the withdrawal of the European Commission candidates in the face of the Parliament's refusal to support them was either a shameful left-wing assault on religion (the Times went so far as to use the phrase "witch burning" yesterday) or "the birth of parliamentary democracy" in the EU. There are a couple of points that stand out to me.

The first is that the row about Buttiglione obscures the real concerns the Parliament had with some of the other commissioners. They also rejected Neelie Kroes, an impeccably liberal Dutch businesswoman, on the grounds that she was in a conflict of interest as Competition Commissioner. Looking through the list of her former directorships it's hard to disagree - practically every Dutch and quite a few other companies of substance are there. They also rejected the Latvian Ingrida Urbe as Taxation Commissioner. She is a Green, but a Eurosceptic Green, and they were dissatisfied with her statements about her own finances. They also threw back a Socialist, Laszlo Kovacs, who was proposed as Energy commissioner, on the grounds that he wasn't up to the job. In fact, the Parliament's ire seems to have been very fairly distributed across Europe - here goes a southern, Catholic conservative! Followed swiftly by a Protestant, northern economic liberal! Thrown out chiefly by the Liberal group! And a Baltic Green! And a Central European Socialist!

This kind of equal opportunity castigation is just what a parliament should look like. Appointments should never be made because they represent a constituency or faction. Neither should they be unmade. Instead, the parliament should be united in distaste. The "lefty witch hunt" loses even more cogency when you notice that 33 of the Liberals were in favour of the Commission and 11 British Conservatives out of 28 were against it. This was the real stuff, and it's almost a pity that Barroso chose to give in rather than force a vote.

Secondly, there are very good reasons for the EU to remain secular. The settlement between the member states and the organisation is based on a division of powers. One of the areas the EU does not touch on is the content of national constitutions. If we are going to have secular France, devout Poland, a UK whose Queen is head of a Protestant state religion, and perhaps Turkey, a secular state with a Muslim population, in the same Union, we have to seek the minimum on which agreement can be reached. The minimum, in this case, is also the best answer - keep religion out of the EU institutions entirely. If the central institutions take a turn towards militant secularity, this will be unacceptable to many of the member states. The same goes in the opposite direction. Only at the zero point is this issue stable.

The Proof

Video evidence shows that explosives were indeed under IAEA seal at al-Qaa Qaa when the US 101st Airborne Division passed through. Watch the video, prepared by a local TV station from Minneapolis, here. From the text:
"Using GPS technology and talking with members of the 101st Airborne 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS determined our crew embedded with them may have been on the southern edge of the Al Qaqaa installation, where that ammunition disappeared. Our crew was based just south of Al Qaqaa. On April 18, 2003 they drove two or three miles north into what is believed to be that area.

During that trip, members of the 101st Airborne Division showed the 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS crew bunker after bunker of material labelled explosives. Usually it took just the snap of a bolt cutter to get in and see the material identified by the 101st as detonation cords.

"We can stick it in those and make some good bombs." a soldier told our crew."
There's more too in the New York Times, here.
"The photographs are consistent with what I know of Al Qaqaa," said David A. Kay, a former American official who led the recent hunt in Iraq for unconventional weapons and visited the vast site. "The damning thing is the seals. The Iraqis didn't use seals on anything. So I'm absolutely sure that's an I.A.E.A. seal."

One weapons expert said the videotape and some of the agency's photographs of the HMX stockpiles "were such good matches it looked like they were taken by the same camera on the same day."

Independent experts said several other factors - the geography; the number of bunkers; the seals on some of the bunker doors; the boxes, crates and barrels similar to those seen by weapon inspectors - confirm that the videotape was taken at Al Qaqaa......Mr. Caffrey provided The New York Times with the latitude and longitude of the camp, which places it between 1.5 and 3 miles southeast of Al Qaqaa bunkers. A commercial satellite photograph of the region shows that the camp was close to the storage site. Mr. Caffrey said the soldiers used bolt cutters to cut through chains with locks on them, as well as seals. He said the seals appeared to be lead disks attached to very thin wires that were wrapped around the doors of the bunker entrances, forming a barrier easily cut in two.

They visited a half dozen bunkers, he said. The gloomy interiors revealed long rows of boxes, crates and barrels, what independent experts said were three kinds of HMX containers shipped to Iraq from France, China and Yugoslavia. The team opened storage containers, some of which contained white powder that independent experts said was consistent with HMX."
There's even a photo of a seal marked IAEA.

Not only that, the photos released by the US Department of Defence showing a truck parked near a bunker have already been discredited. So has the brief story that a "secret IAEA document" showed only 3 tons of RDX at al-Qaa Qaa in January, 2003. Link:
"ABC News, citing IAEA inspection documents, reported Wednesday night that the Iraqis had declared 141 tons of RDX explosives at Al-Qaqaa in July 2002, but that the site held only three tons when it was checked in January 2003.

The network said that could suggest that 138 tons were removed from the facility long before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

But Fleming said most of the RDX - about 125 tons - was kept at Al-Mahaweel, a storage site under Al-Qaqaa's jurisdiction located outside the main Al-Qaqaa site. She also said about 10 tons already had been reported by Iraq as having been used for non-prohibited purposes between July 2002 and January 2003"
It's all gone, then. And this much-cited story must now be rated officially nonsense. I somehow doubt John A. Shaw, the official whose unsupported assertion is the only source for the "Russians took it!" story, will be resigning, although he was patently lying.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Err....Yes, They Did Find Explosives at Al-Qaa Qaa

So, the explosives were gone before they got there? FOX didn't think so at the time.
In this story, the news station mentions that the US 3rd Infantry Division found something it decided was an explosive at the site.
"Col. John Peabody, engineer brigade commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, said troops found thousands of 2-by-5-inch boxes, each containing three vials of white powder, together with documents written in Arabic that dealt with how to engage in chemical warfare.

Initial reports suggest the powder is an explosive, but tests are still being done, a senior U.S. official said. If confirmed, it would be consistent with what the Iraqis say is the plant's purpose, producing explosives and propellants."
In the end, as we know, they concluded it wasn't a chemical weapon. But what does RDX look like? Let's look it up and check our facts, shall we? defines RDX as
"an explosive nitramine compound. It is in the form of a white powder with a density of 1.806 g/cc. Nitrogen content of 37.84%. The chemical name for RDX is 1,3,5-trinitro-1,3,5-triazine. The chemical formula for RDX is C3H6N6O6 and the molecular weight is 222.117. Its melting point is 205°C. RDX has very low solubility in water and has an extremely low volatility. RDX does not sorb to soil very strongly and can move into the groundwater from soil."
Mind you, it wasn't as if they were looking for it, or at least their brigade commander, Colonel Dave Perkins, doesn't seem to think so. Who do you believe - Colonels Perkins and Peabody and all the evidence, or the spin? I suppose it depends if you're in the reality based community or not. Or perhaps they've just been chewing the RDX:
"Troops have also become intoxicated during field operations from exposure to composition C4 plastic explosive, which contains 91% RDX. These field exposures occurred because C4 was either chewed as an intoxicant or used as a fuel for cooking. Thus, the route of exposure was ingestion or inhalation. At least 40 American soldiers experienced convulsions due to RDX ingestion during the Vietnam War."
Well, whatever turns you on I suppose...

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

John Peel

I never appreciated him as much as perhaps I should have done, for the key reason that my dad listened to him. Still, I recall in about 1997 hearing him play the following three bands: Folk Implosion, Ash, and the Jungle Brothers. What a choice.

Economics - why political betting is not a sensible indicator

One of the fashionable fields in recent economic thought has been trying to apply rational expectations theory to political events. Famously, the Pentagon had to pull its "policy analysis market" due to outcry. Now, I see via Brad DeLong that a couple of academics have tried something similar, using a US sports betting website to trade futures in various political events. You can get the paper here.

Now, the theoretical underpinning for this is the rational-expectations hypothesis familiar to economics students. It states simply that market participants make their decisions through a rational calculation of costs and benefits based on all the information available. Although the possibility of their being mistaken is accepted, it is assumed that all errors are equally probable - that errors are randomly distributed. With enough data, then, there should be just as many errors on each side and they should be equally extreme. Therefore, they cancel out and can be ignored. This has important repercussions - for example, the price of a share is assumed to reflect a precisely accurate estimate of the firm's future profitability at any moment. Any attempt by government to reflate the economy is futile, in the extreme view, because everyone will simply adjust their behaviour instantly so that only inflation results.

In a betting market, then, the odds on any event should represent an accurate prediction of its likelihood. Now, a lot of us would tend to be sceptical about this. We might be even more so, when we see some of their results. Apparently, according to the market, the capture of Osama bin Laden becomes more likely as the election approaches. This can hardly reflect an accurate assessment of available information, as there is practically no information available. Clearly, this is a shadow effect of the belief that the capture of bin Laden would influence the presidential election. The nearer the election, the greater the impact - this seems intuitively sound. That doesn't mean, though, that the event is more likely. In fact, the hypothesis that the capture of bin Laden might occur in time to save the President's bacon is driving the market for the likelihood of Bin Laden's capture - an independent variable. There is no known connection between the two. There's been a lot of rumours, but nothing solid. One kind of rumour might be that a political betting exchange was seeing a lot of money going on. Yep, it's Soros's idea of reflexivity in town.

There are some serious questions involved with this. For a start, gambling isn't a rational activity. A majority of gamblers lose. Why should their decisions be treated as economically rational? Secondly, rational expectations theory assumes perfect information. In this case, the participants are betting on something they almost certainly have no information on. The only guide they have is the behaviour of others. Thirdly, there is no reason to believe that errors are random. In fact, crucially important instances of error tend to show not randomness but very strong patterns. Stock market bubbles would not occur if error was random - does anybody really believe that Bookham Technology's share price in early 2000 was a cosmically correct prediction of its profitability? Well, it was a very bad prediction. Politics provides an endless supply of these examples. The German leadership in the Second World War showed a strong tendency to make the same mistake again, and then to reinforce it. At the battle of Avranches the Panzer Group Eberbach was sent again and again further into the attack although its rear was increasingly threatened. The year before, something similar had happened at Stalingrad. The year afterwards it would happen at the battle of the Bulge. In the field of aviation safety, the human ability to make a mistake and keep on making it, convinced of the rightness of your cause, is tragically frequent. Men have been known to convince themselves that, even though a physical stall warning was wildly clattering the control column, the aircraft was not about to stall, and to yell down their colleagues until the crash.

Gamblers, of course, are the ultimate example of this trait. Although the house has the edge, they can be willing to keep betting in an effort to recoup losses, even running bigger risks. When you think of qualitative examples - where a particular structure of thought constrains reason - you could keep going forever on these. To get away from this psychological digression, think of the problem of representation. Is it possible that people who bet on political events in a manner favourable to George Bush share certain views or preferences - a particular political indifference curve - that affects their results?

That was quick

The Guardian website is now showing a Press Association story that David Blunkett has scrapped the idea of adding ID card functions to new passports and driving licences after 2007. Instead it'll have to be an ID card that says ID CARD on it. This is considerably more honest than the last plan, which implied trying to introduce the cards without us really noticing. It also means that we will have to pay for the passport AND the card - a thick £108 a throw.

Tomorrow's Headlines - Today! Another good reason to say NO to ID cards


At Kingston Crown Court today, former Siemens Business Systems IT worker Barry Dodgy was jailed for five years for his part in a plot to sell information held in the national ID database - to terrorists. Database analyst Dodgy, 37, of Uxbridge, accepted large sums of cash from the banned Ba'athrobe organisation in exchange for providing them with the Citizen Reference Numbers, addresses and medical records of people the group targeted for assassination. As a supervisor with the giant IT contractor that runs the national citizen registry, he had full access to all levels of data in the system, including the independent audit trail system that is meant to detect unauthorised access by recording every time an ID record is checked.

The terrorists found plenty of uses for the system. Once they had a contact within SBS, they were able to provide almost any piece of information on a target - a car number for example - and get back their address, biometric data, ID number, access to medical, police and Inland Revenue files, and even details of their children's schooling. Although Dodgy came under suspicion when his colleagues noticed his sudden wealth, it is unknown whether or not he also took advantage of his position to change records in the database or even to issue perfect fake IDs. Although agents from MI5, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, and computer engineers are investigating, independent expert Ima Geek told the Ranter that such changes would be undetectable in the vast quantity of information involved.

The Ba'athrobe, whose ideology combines Nasserite nationalism and socialism with a passionate advocacy of European integration and an elegant taste in pyjamas, used the data to assassinate a string of public figures including Marks and Spencer executives, politicians and journalists...

Well, it wasn't quite like that. But Barry Dickinson did indeed penetrate a huge government database of personal information on behalf of terrorists. Link There are differences, of course. Davies was a civil servant, not a contractor, and he acted out of conviction rather than pure greed. The terrorists in question were an extremist animal-rights group, and the database was the DVLA's register of motor vehicles. But the security breach was pretty bad all the same. Dickinson was given car registration numbers collected by terrorists staking out a farm in Staffordshire. He simply ran them through the database and returned the names and addresses associated with them. The group then began to harass the people living at those address, vandalising their homes and vehicles, sending hate mail, attempting blackmail and threatening to kill. They didn't go quite that far, but they are probably up for it given suitable weapons. After all, they clocked up no less than 50 incidents of violence or intimidation and stole an old lady's remains from her grave. Any sensible person should see the relevance of this to the prospect of a national ID card scheme.

Criminals, terrorists and unscrupulous political or commercial marketers are all likely to make extreme efforts to get access to a citizen database. Can any person experienced with IT put their hand on heart and say they are confident that such a huge scheme will be watertight? The struggle between sysadmins and hackers is just another of the ceaseless updates of the eternal struggle between armour and weapon. The crucial feature of this struggle is that the weapon is always in the lead - just as the attacker has the advantage in all strategy. This is to say nothing of the human factor. In the Dickinson case, the computer system functioned perfectly, but one of the people deputed to work it was sympathetic to the attackers. This defeats all technical security. There is always at least one person with access to the root directory, and as the geek proverb goes, Root is God. Better yet, the possibilities for an infiltrator in the development team who build the system would be literally without limit. They could set up back-door access to the database or even add extra fields of information hidden to other users. The biggest security system we build must, by definition, be the biggest security risk.

Curiously, the only newspaper to grasp this story was the execrable Daily Mail, which splashed the story under one of their extremely long screamer NOW IT'S THE FRANKENFISH! headlines.

Monday, October 25, 2004

ESF Fallout - Lefty Ritual Does Its Thing

Well, the inevitable leftwing infighting has now had a few days to marinate since the European Social Forum, and it's boiling down to one of the most spiritually important rites in the lefty calendar - the exchange of angry letters to the Guardian. This always happens, and it takes the form of each party to the split getting everyone they know to sign the letter so it appears with "..and 6 others" after your signature. The greater the number, the stronger the tribal mana associated with the rite. The only honourable response is to conduct a counter-ritual with more signatories. Eventually, a particularly influential lefty in the spirit world might get the ultimate compliment of a piece on the Comment page, with the attendant prestige.

I've never done it myself, but I think if this happens you have to sacrifice a goat or two and undertake the shaman's flight.

What it all concerns, aside from the punch-up at the ESF, is apparently that the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition don't think one of their members, the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, is sufficiently anti-war because they think the occupation should not end until the elections have been held. This has led to one of the trade unions involved, UNISON, deciding to pull out. You have to say it seems a little odd for people in north London to tell Iraqis whether they are fighting the occupation enough, but then this is the left. Deeper, it's the usual thing of the main-streamers versus the Socialist Workers (Trotskyists), who may or may not be up to their traditional practice of entryism depending on who you talk to. Whether they are or not, their very presence tends to make the trade unionists paranoid about infiltrators. So far, the UNISON leadership has got in the first blow, with a follow-up from the IFTU representative in Britain. Today, the SWC (or perhaps the SWP) hit back and moved the mana level radically higher, when they achieved a piece in the Guardian's comment page.

They'll be out on Hampstead Heath tonight with the goat, I don't doubt.

Why anybody should think this kind of student politics nonsense is a worthwhile response to the world's problems is beyond me, but then, you have to feel sorry for the goat.

350 tons of RDX vanished in Iraq

What is it with these people? Every time you expect them to do something that isn't evil, like seizing people's library records, raping prisoners of war or allying themselves with a government that boils dissidents, they botch the job. Talking Points Memo has the details on the Iraqi government's declaration to the IAEA that a huge stock of super-high explosive went missing in the first few months of the occupation. If you want a really big bang, RDX is the stuff. It took one pound of it to kill a 747 over Lockerbie. It has a wide range of uses in the field of - well - blowing things or people up. The IAEA had carefully counted it, marked it and sealed the bunker it was stored in as part of the UN inspection process, because one of its uses is as the trigger for a nuclear bomb. (Yes, those weak, pathetic librul UN inspectors again.) Basically, for a well-designed nuke, you need to arrange for the sphere of fissile material to be instantly crushed, equally all over, at the moment you want it to go off. The simplest way of doing this is to put a layer of very high plastic explosive all over the sphere and stick detonators in it like garlic in a leg of lamb. That's what you need the RDX for.

Unfortunately, because you can make anything go bang with it, not just a nuke, the inspectors couldn't confiscate it. Iraq was within its rights to make it into shells, rockets, grenades, landmines, indeed anything that kills you so long as it does it the old-fashioned way. Or they could use it for blasting purposes. (Yeah, right.) So the stuff was carefully marked and left.

Now it's gone. All 380 tons of it. Now that isn't a bunch of ragged looters scooping it into carrier bags. That's a whole drove of articulated trucks. That's a trainful of the stuff. It's also enough to keep a terrorist happy for years. The IRA kept going for a good fourteen years on four tons of Semtex and they still had plenty left when they decided to give up and spend more time with their kickbacks. Granted, they let off more bombs in Iraq, but that still gives them a few decades' worth of war. The real strategic material of terrorism, of course, is money, and they are unlikely to run out of that either. The US reckons something like $1 billion bucks were transferred to banks in Syria by the regime at the end of the war, and they've only traced half of it. Five hundred million bucks and three hundred tons of plastique - you could have a fine night out in one of Tony's fantastic new casinos with that.

Let's hope the people who nicked the explosives weren't the same ones who took that whole nuclear research centre, eh.

EDIT: Three hundred and eighty tons. Sorry.

Prisoners secretly shipped out of Iraq

The Washington Post reports on the existence of a Justice Department memo authorising the CIA to remove prisoners from Iraq secretly, breaching the Geneva Conventions.
"The draft opinion, written by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and dated March 19, 2004, refers to both Iraqi citizens and foreigners in Iraq, who the memo says are protected by the treaty. It permits the CIA to take Iraqis out of the country to be interrogated for a "brief but not indefinite period." It also says the CIA can permanently remove persons deemed to be "illegal aliens" under "local immigration law."

Some specialists in international law say the opinion amounts to a reinterpretation of one of the most basic rights of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which protects civilians during wartime and occupation, including insurgents who were not part of Iraq's military.

The treaty prohibits the "[i]ndividual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory . . . regardless of their motive."

The 1949 treaty notes that a violation of this particular provision constitutes a "grave breach" of the accord, and thus a "war crime" under U.S. federal law, according to a footnote in the Justice Department draft. "For these reasons," the footnote reads, "we recommend that any contemplated relocations of 'protected persons' from Iraq to facilitate interrogation be carefully evaluated for compliance with Article 49 on a case by case basis." It says that even persons removed from Iraq retain the treaty's protections, which would include humane treatment and access to international monitors."
The mention of "illegal aliens" is interesting, as it's a possible catch-all clause. If they "suspect" you're an illegal alien under Iraqi law, I suppose you can be rousted. This may be significant as the US Government has declared that, unlike in Afghanistan, it considers the Geneva Conventions applicable to prisoners in Iraq. The only details we have about any of the so-called "ghost detainees", the prisoners held for "other government agencies" whose existence was revealed in the Abu Ghraibh torture investigation, regard the case of Hiwa Abdul Rahman Rashid.
"Rashul, a suspected member of the Iraqi Al-Ansar terrorist group, was captured by Kurdish soldiers in June or July of 2003 and turned over to the CIA, which whisked him to Afghanistan for interrogation.

In October, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales asked the Office of Legal Counsel to write an opinion on "protected persons" in Iraq and rule on the status of Rashul, according to another U.S. government official involved in the deliberations.
Goldsmith, then head of the office, ruled that Rashul was a "protected person" under the Fourth Geneva Convention and therefore had to be brought back to Iraq, several intelligence and defense officials said. The CIA was not happy with the decision, according to two intelligence officials. It promptly brought Rashul back and suspended any other transfers out of the country.

At the same time, when transferring Rashul back to Iraq, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld not to give Rashul a prisoner number and to hide him from International Red Cross officials, according to an account provided by Rumsfeld during a June 17 Pentagon news conference. Rumsfeld complied."
We also know that some other prisoners, arrested in parts of the world as random as the Gambia, were shipped to Afghanistan for interrogation and then to Guantanamo, or indeed the other way round. How are these long-distance transfers being handled? Could this be why Viktor Bout's airlines are working for the US Government? It would offer the prospect of keeping them off the US Air Force's books and passenger manifests. Perhaps the bill could be buried in another contract - as was done to support China Air Transport, the forerunner of "Air America", during the 1950s. (CAT was given contracts to operate routine transport jobs such as delivering the Stars and Stripes, which were inflated to fund its secret activities.)

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Were we right on all counts?

Le Monde(warning - PDF) has a monster supplement on Iraq, including extensive reporting from sources inside Fallujah and, indeed, in major rebel groups. Perhaps the most interesting is their interview on page 4 of the supplement with a former General in the Iraqi Army, Al-Haji Feras, who now leads a nationalist guerrilla group. He claims to have been involved with a group of officers plotting against Saddam Hussein (Al-Khalas al-Watani, "National Salvation") since 1980 and to have been in contact with the CIA up to the winter of 2002, when he met his case officer, "Colonel John", for the last time at a secret location in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. Feras claims that at this discussion, the agent requested order of battle information on the Iraqi army, which he refused to supply. He then proposed to the agent that, given their support, it would be possible to depose Saddam speedily. He claimed that the base at al-Mansouriyah could be seized for the US by his organisation, and that an 18-strong committee containing 15 Iraqi officers and 3 US representatives was formed to make preparations.

This, however, was the last contact. Only after the fall of Baghdad, he claims, were they informed that Washington opposed any role for the Iraqi Army in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. He attributes this to the influence of exile politicians like Chalabi, who wished to get rid of possible rivals, and claims that the US government wanted to "destroy Islam in Iraq". He also gives the impression that he and other officers were consulted but ignored over the make-up of a new Iraqi army. Finally, on the 20th of August, 2003, Al-Khalas al-Watani members and around 30 pro-Ba'athi officers went underground as a new organisation, "Al-Soqour", The Falcon.

If his account is reliable, one of the last arguments in favour of the war is shaken. If, in late 2002, it had been possible to organise a coup d'etat in Iraq, perhaps after token military action, the argument that opposing the war is equivalent to supporting the regime is no longer sound. It is possible, of course, that Feras is blowing his own trumpet, but this is still one of the few extensive reports from inside the insurgency we have.

Hunter S. Thompson intervenes in the campaign

Thompson delivers his, typically forceful, contribution to the debate. Not brilliant, but worth reading just for this:
"Some people say that George Bush should be run down and sacrificed to the Rat gods. But not me. No. I say it would be a lot easier to just vote the bastard out of office on November 2nd."

In Iraq, a disaster.

AP reports that the bodies of fifty-one Iraqi soldiers were discovered on a remote stretch of road east of Baghdad. They were travelling on leave in civilian clothes when their bus was stopped by rebels. They were all, it seems, shot in the back of the head kneeling on the roadside. On the same day, 22 further Iraqi soldiers and police were killed in bomb attacks of one sort or another.

An increasingly visible phenomenon in Iraq seems to be infiltration of the security forces. This bloodbath can hardly have been carried out without prior knowledge of the time, route and vehicles the soldiers were taking. Last week, a huge bomb was exploded outside an ING barracks exactly at the moment a shift changed, with many dead, and the ING national HQ was attacked from inside its walls. There have also been frequent reports of insurgents posing as ING/Police members (which may explain this latest disaster). Clearly, the forces that are officially to deliver a safe and secure Iraq are seriously leaky.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Cramer reports on wingnut site WorldNetDaily running a serial by a mad, rapture Christian author on mercenaries in Africa. Strangely, he seems especially keen on the white ones. Now, anything involving WND ought to be shunned if only for the weird quack remedy ads that seem to finance it, but this is interesting. (Please note: the links in that post ought to be handled with tongs) Kathryn Cramer goes on to ask if mercenaries and Africa figure in end-times ideology in any particular way. I can't speak for their ideology, but they certainly show up in their financial interests.

After all, Pat Robertson, US political/fundamentalist preacher and Christian Coalition founder, was exposed in 2001 by the Washington Post as being involved in a dubious business scheme with the even more dubious Liberian dictator, alleged war criminal, alleged al-Qa'ida collaborator and client of Viktor Bout, Charles Taylor. Robertson set up a Cayman Islands-based company in order to exploit supposed gold deposits in south-eastern Liberia back in 1998. In the next year, Robbo's business partner (with 10% and probably another 15% of the firm in his own name, not to mention the Liberian Government's stake) would go on to welcome Khalfan Ghailani, an AQ finance expert, to Liberia, and pay large sums of money to Richard Chichakli's San Air General Trading from the Liberian shipping registry. (link)

So, he either finds it so profitable or so religious that it's worth doing all this goood stuff. I wonder who set the WND chap on the story in the first place?

Update post: 1BW move

Well, it seems I were right, with the exception of those Challenger tanks that I called as deploying with the Watch. Instead a recce squadron from the Queen's Dragoon Guards is going in the first instance. The heavy metal is now a "possible" later reinforcement. (Analysis)Likely this means that the QDG will be there to recce the roads ahead of the move. The armour will replace them - or at least we hope so, as the Scimitar recce vehicles really shouldn't be in a street battle if it comes to that.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Not a surprise

Well, the "decision that hadn't been taken yet" has now officially been taken. Geoff Hoon stood up in the Commons and said that the Black Watch are indeed officially going to the region of Iskandariyah. It's worth pulling out and unpacking some of the arguments that the government has used on this one. The first is that "it's a military decision, not a political one".

Nonsense. All military decisions are political decisions. Who gives the military its orders? Well, if you're talking about Britain, not (say) Indonesia, the government does. If the military doesn't agree, it either buckles down or resigns. Who is the government responsible to? The House of Commons, the last time I checked, and what with the way things are going I try to check daily. It is not a sound argument that we should "keep politics out of it". Also, it's not as if the army came up with this on its own, which brings me to my second point.

"They will be under British command". We heard a great deal of this, but what we didn't hear so much about was whose control they will be under. Most people don't know the difference, which is helpful. All British troops, anywhere, at any time are strictly speaking under British command. Even if they are part of an allied force, they are technically ours. But they can be under someone else's operational control at the same time. The difference is that command, in this sense, means the right to pull out of the allied operational control. The principles go back to the Beauvais agreement between the British, French and Belgian general staffs in 1918, which created an unified command on the Western Front. The deal was this - we will place our armies under the control of a new headquarters, led by Foch and mixed-manned, and they will take orders from it. But, if the commander-in-chief of our army believes that the survival of that army or a supreme national interest is at stake, he has the right of appeal to national authorities. Obviously, if they agree, they will either take up the matter between governments, or pull out of the joint command, taking back operational control.

It just isn't honest to pretend that the Watch will be as much under British control as if they were on Salisbury Plain. They won't. A battalion doesn't have that much independence. No US brigade commander will honestly believe the British lieutenant colonel who says "I'm sorry, I'll have to call London before we send four squaddies down that particular alley". A division in a allied force of (I think) 5 divisions does, though, and it has a general covered in braid and stars to speak for it. The Watch will answer to a US brigade, which answers to a US division, a US corps, and finally to the Coalition Land Forces HQ. They will leave the zone of British autonomy when they go north, and we ought to be honest about this. This also affects my first point. It's not a military judgement by the British generals in southern Iraq, or for that matter in London. They can't decide to send troops to somebody else's tactical area of responsibility (TAOR), except of course the enemy's. This was a "military decision" in that the military decide whether it is possible. The Americans made their decision and requested. It was a military decision whether we could do anything. It was a political decision whether or not to do it. General McColl's remark that "I don't think it would be militarily sensible to do so" (that is, turn down the request) is more interesting for what it doesn't say. What military consequences does he expect?

A couple more - firstly, the figure of 650 men is false and no doubt so common because it's less. 900 is more accurate. There are about 650 men in the 1st Battalion, the Black Watch. But we're not sending them. We are sending the Black Watch Battle Group, that includes a squadron of tanks from the Queen's Royal Lancers, a troop of engineers, an armoured medic section, some logistics people and some signallers. Secondly, Hoon made a big point that "no more" troops were going, denying a report that the current reserve battalion on Cyprus were going out to replace the Watch as division reserve. But he also said that one of the reliefs for the current forces, the Scots Guards, would be going earlier and that this would (I quote) "provide an extra armoured infantry battle group". So, an extra battle group but no more troops? Work that out. And finally, they really better had be back by Christmas, 'cos "sources" tell me that there will be no supply route to them. They are taking 30 days' supplies in containers instead. And although the Americans will be able to provide rations and fuel, they don't hold British vehicle spares. It's a long walk back.

The Power of Nightmares - TV Justifies its Existence

Last night, the much-trailed BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares punched in. Adam Curtis's film kicks off from 1949, when the leader of the Islamic Brotherhood and the founder of neo-conservatism were both living in the US and not liking it. What sticks out is the community of language, not just between the protagonists, but with a lot of other really nasty bastards too. Both Sayyid Qubt and Leo Strauss spoke of people being infected with false values, that these...creatures...would never realise their own corruption unless someone forced them to. Someone - like a Leader. Bourgeois individualism and materialism were spreading! Like germs! Or growing - like a cancer! Now, if my understanding of the last 150 years of history isn't completely antic, it's when people start to talk biology you've got to get scared. Once you start talking about germs and toxins and cancers and infection and parasites, it's pretty clear what you think we should do. Hack it out. Disinfect. Cauterise. Poison. Kill'em all! It's not as if they were people! In fact, they're not even vertebrates!

The other implication of this language of genocide is that it's all medical. The nation is sick, and we are the doctors. You can find quotes from almost every 20th Century tyrant talking about this stuff. We know what's good for everyone else, and even if it hurts, it's because it's doing them good. (Even John Major went in for this! Remember "Yes It Hurt. Yes It Worked"?) Getting back to the film, this chimes with the Straussian idea, taken originally from Plato if I'm not very much mistaken, that the elite has to maintain certain myths or lies for the good of the people. (Don't tell them it's a placebo.) For much of its history, medicine could do little more than just that. Curtis ties this to the arms-control controversy of the 70s and Paul Wolfowitz's Team B analysts trying to prove that the Soviet Union was doing all kinds of evil things in secret, even though the CIA satellite photos and economic analyses showed they didn't exist.

This is crucial. Basically, authority through myth (Max Weber's charismatic legitimacy) is a pre-rational, a primitive idea. It's the shaman whose spells exist to buttress the chief's power. If the facts don't fit, you better get some new facts. The danger this presents in a modern society ought to be obvious, especially when people close to the US presidency talk about everyone else as the "reality-based community" who just "study reality" and then decide.

If there's a criticism I'd make of this film, it's that it is too impressive as pure cinema. The whole thing is constructed of brilliantly edited news footage, including things as diverse as interviews with Kissinger, the main street of Greeley, Colorado in 1949, the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the mass show-trial of his assassins, Egyptian late-70s TV ads, the Dawson's Field aircraft blowing up and a dancing girl in Red Square. It is worryingly persuasive, Riefenstahlesque. I fear it actually subtracts from the intellectual content - isn't this sort of political engineering exactly what it rails against?

Anyway, I watched every frame expecting the screen to go black at any moment. Somebody rich could do the world a mighty public service simply by buying the rights and three hours on US network TV, between now and the election. Well, the BBC's commercial division is at BBC World Wide. George Soros, call your office.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

"Mystery Tank Killer" may have been explained

Back here in November, I covered the story of an American tank that was destroyed in Iraq by a previously unknown weapon. Wild speculation reached for suggestions as wild as a second world war anti-tank rifle given depleted uranium rounds or an electromagnetic railgun, but it now seems that it was almost certainly an RPG7 using a new type of round, called a PG-7VR. This evil contrivance defeats the reactive armour on a tank (which explodes back around a hit to disperse the molten metal that actually penetrates the armour) by using effectively two warheads - one blows off the reactive armour and the second kills the tank.

Worryingly, the reason why these have been found to explain the mystery is that they have become much more common in Iraq.

This also puts another light on this...

Background here and here

Odd: the TV that put out a Mayday


"An Air Force search and rescue alert was trigged by Chris van Rossman's flatscreen Toshiba television set. It has a built-in VCR, DVD and CD player.

And an undocumented feature that has authorities scratching their heads. Some sort of electric glitch was causing van Rossman's TV to transmit on the international distress frequency. The signal was picked up by a satellite and relayed to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Virginia. Van Rossman had no idea until airmen, deputies and Corvallis, Ore., police were knocking on the door of his apartment. The errant signal was traced to his TV set.

Van Rossman was warned to keep the TV off or face a $10,000 fine for sending a false distress signal.

A spokeswoman for Toshiba says they've never heard of this sort of problem before. But the company is promising to give van Rossman a new TV."
Clearly the teev was emitting something either on 243 or 406 MHz, the frequencies covered by SARSAT satellites. How is a good question. A little rough on Chris to threaten him with a monster fine. (Thanks to Britnews

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

PNG Update

Updating the PNG/"self-proclaimed state" story, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is reporting two further arrests, one of whom at least shares a name (Simon O'Keefe) with the WHOIS contact for the self-proclaimed Empire of Mogilno's selfproclaimed website. More soon..

Arab composer tongs

An interesting DSR (Disturbing Search Request): the Ranter is the 8th highest result on Arabic Google for "Arab composer tongs". That is all.

Monday, October 18, 2004

We're here, because we're here, because we're here

It now seems that the US authorities in Iraq are serious in their request for more British troops. We are told that the 1st Battalion the Black Watch is to be sent north to the Iskandariyah area in order to relieve US Marines for an offensive against Fallujah. For a start, the Watch are getting the shitty end of the stick. They are already on their second tour of Iraq, and have been repeatedly told in the last few weeks that they are soon to return to the UK. I have been informed that they have been placed on notice to move, supposedly to return home, and that they were told their advance party was to leave for Warminster "within weeks". Now they are to extend again, with the prospect of a tougher assignment.

In the background to this, there may well be a significant conflict between the deputy supreme commander of the coalition forces, General John McColl, also the senior British officer in Iraq and a peacekeeping/low intensity warfare expert who led the first ISAF in Kabul, and the US Central Command. US "sources" have recently been quoted by the press using phrases like "institutional cowardice" and "sitting pretty in Basra". This reflects a significant reality gap. As previously reported, it gets less and less accurate to describe the South Eastern zone as a quiet front. In the last two months, British units there have experienced their most severe and sustained fighting since Korea. The 1 PWRR in Amara went through 23 days of constant combat in late August. Even the Shaibah logistics base has been regularly attacked. If the US officers feel that we are not being sufficiently tough, they ought to consider the results of their own tactics. Since April and the first Shia uprising, they have had no significant control of the whole area between the retaken Shia towns and Baghdad, nor of the so-called Sunni triangle, nor even of some parts of central Baghdad. This is even more significant in terms of population control, as the vast majority of Iraqis live there - Sadr City alone makes up 10% of the population. The Multinational Division SE has substantially fewer troops than the British Army in Northern Ireland had in the worst years, dealing with a far less dangerous situation and a far smaller population.

The Iskandariyah area is part of this security vacuum. Iraqi police or National Guards have been absent since the spring. It has a reputation as a place where the enemy test new types of car bombs. This new deployment will be into a very tough environment, which will only get tougher when the assault of Fallujah begins. The unit involved is currently the MNDSE divisional reserve - so, it seems, the rest of MNDSE will have to face a fresh eruption of rage without reserves.

[Unfounded Speculation]I do hope the Americans are not trying to finish off Fallujah and then shut off the campaign before the election. October surprise anyone?[/Speculation] More seriously, I doubt that a second siege of Fallujah could be brought to a successful conclusion quickly. The temptation will be there, if the election approaches and the battle is still going on, to call off the operation. And I suppose the Watch will not have this option in coping with the eruption.

ESF Blogging - Some Final Thoughts

And then it was all over, and Alexandra Palace was littered with rainlashed leaflets, and everyone dispersed. What did we learn? First, the size problem. The various Social Forums have tended to measure their success by the number of people and organisations who attend. This was greater than ever before. Obviously, if you want to "build a movement" you need more people. But the ESF often seemed suffocated by numbers. Its structure (or nonstructure) is based on layers of workshops, seminars and plenary sessions. If these terms mean anything, it is that the delegates first meet in plenary for opening remarks, then break out into seminars/workshops to discuss real details, before joining up in plenary session to agree the results. This never happened, though. There isn't really any reporting-back, and there were simply so many events that you couldn't realistically do it yourself, especially as the smaller group events tended to happen some distance from the plenaries up at Alexandra Palace. Because of this, plenary meetings tend to become lectures by the podium speakers to a heaving mob packing in to see the stars, unrelated to any substantive debate. Apparently, the organising committee for the next World Social Forum intends to give up on plenaries for this reason.

Secondly, there was the peculiar London problem that the ESF's centre was accessible only by one bus route. Also, it didn't permit of holding such numbers on one site, so going from plenaries or the big seminars up the hill to detailed discussions involved a long trip across London. Further, the activists kipping in the Dome were even more remote both from Alexandra Palace and Bloomsbury. Oh yeah, and Network Rail managed to schedule an engineering work weekend for the weekend of the Big Event. Good work lads.

Thirdly, there was the problem that self-organising doesn't necessarily work. The blogosphere is meant to function by mutual criticism, and this is the only quality control that the ESF knows. But, just as with blogs, people tend to go to meetings they agree with. Not one forum, but several mutually ignorant camps. Not a forum on - say - the European Constitution, but two, one run by the anti-EU tendency on the Marxist left and one by the pro-EU, federalist pacifists and the trade unionists, with no interconnection. Why should anyone be forced to work with people they disagree with? you may ask. Well, without diversity of opinion you cannot debate. Just having a lot of groups who agree within themselves in the same building doesn't provide that.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

ESF Day Two: Contrasting Groups

I've never really subscribed to the London sport of transport whingeing, but this is getting silly. This was meant to be simple. No venture to the northeast frontier at Alexandra Palace, but a string of earnest discussions at the University of London's centre in Malet Street, as familiar to me as anywhere else in London. But no - no trains and a replacement bus that we couldn't board. We decided to bus it to Slough on the Great Western, but the bus turned out to do the 5 mile trip in around 45 minutes. The train we grabbed stopped everywhere it could stop. The tube train we got was being overtaken by cats. Grrr. So we were very late at the No2ID seminar in Birkbeck College. Now, I link to the Spyblog and occasionally see comments from them, so I was keen to see the anti-ID cards team in the flesh.

In contrast to the ranter cauldron in the kitsch palace, this gathering fitted its austere classroom setting nicely. Much earnest talk of subject access requests and biometric verification and the like, and only one man (it's always a man) who raved in a studiedly declasse accent about "Building a mass movement!" For the record, we agreed that much could be achieved by such tactics as mobbing a given set of CCTV cameras and then placing individual requests for the film that showed our faces - as all other persons shown must be concealed by law, this forces the target organisation to waste large sums. It was a much more focused, realistic and action-oriented discussion than anything we'd seen so far.

Soizick:It was interesting, though, to notice that when asked how to convince people of the necessity to resist such attempt as an ID card, a panelist resorted to an argument that he himself referred to as being "crass" such as saying "well, if you do not mind hiding anything because you have done nothing wrong, well, tell me all about the people you have slept with". I do object to this attitude, mainly because if asked, I feel that I would gladly tell, simply because the most intimate experiences are also the most universal and therefore the most willingly and perhaps foolishly shared. It seems to me that it is essential to try and convince people of the horror of such a scheme by bringing them back to the simple and practical idea of ethics, which means bringing them back to the reality of what being a citizen is, a being with "libre arbitre" and a power of decision, and that suspicion dictated from above should be enough to provoke resistance. In other words, it is not good enough to try and embarrass to convinve, we must try to convince by bringing out a reflexion on the rights of the state versus the rights of the citizens. I believe that when people are asked to think rather than simply react, they think and make connections, sometimes personal connections and all in all, they think, and that is fine by me.

Alex:An important issue of truth and trust that arose during this was its expression in technology. Under the proposed scheme, the cardholder-citizens will not be able to know what the cards say about them. Even if we were to buy our own card-readers, it is a commonplace in database software that different fields of information can be available to different users. Including more information or keeping sections of the database from us would simply be a matter of software, that could be done in secret. This is crucial.

We had another semmo to cover, just down the road at the University of London Union. The topic was "The world political economy today: strategy for the Left". The atmosphere was very different, in a packed function room of sixties glass and wood gone rotten. These were your original tankies. First up was one Peter Gowan who took time to inform us that he had a parking meter to feed. Fuck the rules! Viva la revolucion! He proceeded to a fairly sensible tour d'horizon of the world economy: post-Soviet space, regionalisation versus globalisation, monetary instability. It was basically sound, if nothing I hadn't heard before. He then handed over to one John Ross, author of something called The Anatomy of the Conservative Party. A few sentences in it was pretty clear we weren't going to learn much, except about Herr Ross. Having kicked off with a call for absolute precision and objectivity, he went on to tell us what a real socialist was. Apparently, we weren't to worry our pretty heads about unemployment or poverty. What mattered was to eliminate capitalists. The US, apparently, was being defeated as an economy, because it had a balance of payments deficit. Therefore it had moved to "the military level" of competition. Strange. No bombs seem to be falling on any of the competitor countries he admitted they did 90% of their trade with.

Pushing on, we were told that we had to eliminate (that verb again - Ausgerottet!) the "unimaginable offensive of American capitalism". This could only be achieved by (you guessed it) mass action. At this point we began to lose enthusiasm. Soizick felt she knew these people, in the blood. They were the ones who had expelled her from the Revolutionary Communist League in 1979. This was the revolution just waiting to eat its children. "You're called out and summoned to this..panel and suddenly nobody knows you. You can see the trains, the wire, the cards..." The brutality of words displays a brutal, authoritarian manner of thought. Which displays a potentiality for brutal, authoritarian action. Naturally, I suspect that all those taking part would have been perfectly horrified if anything like the drastic and negative economic cataclysms they spoke of with such relish actually happened to them.

Friday, October 15, 2004

ESF Blogging: An International Festival of Puzzlement

The European Social Forum in London's fabulous Alexandra Palace. Yes. This is the Las Vegas of ranting, an annual chance for the broad left and in fact any freak with £30 to discuss the world's deadly serious problems with deadly serious people. I hoped to make a day of it, but then, London happened. Ken Livingstone, in a gesture to his hard left career, has given the organisers some £400,000 towards costs. And 20,000 free three-day city-wide public transport passes. Unfortunately he also gave them - perhaps in a gesture to his New Labour present - Alexandra Palace. This is a 1901-built park and exhibition centre, a monument to late Victorian kitsch, that unfortunately burned down not so long ago. In its career it also managed to be the world's first TV station and a major site for jamming Nazi radio navigation systems, but that really doesn't help if you're trying to have 20,000 people there without any public transport at all. It is one of the very few London locations without access to the Underground anywhere near. There's a railway station not very near but the trains rarely stop. There is one bus route. It took us in all: a train, a tube train, another tube train, a train, another train and a bus to get there. By that time my lover was spitting rocks and my hopes for gonzo blogging were wilting fast.

When you enter the Forum, it's like leaping into all the demos in the world. Every well meaning little .org you can imagine and some more have camped. There's a Palm Court but, littered with thin people sleeping, extremist leaflets and beer cans, it looks like the revolution just happened and failed. Despite all, though, I couldn't help but feel that slowly rising edge of angry campaigning. Here are a swag of ideals and a world of banners. Here is friendly warm chaos. Here is optimism, and extremely poor translation.

It lasted until we got into the action.

We had a couple of ideas of what we wanted to see, and maybe take part in - after all the wristbands say DELEGATE, not TOURIST. The mob at the "plenary" on Palestine was so huge and the podium yelling so offputting, though, that we ditched that one. We took a while to trace a seminar on "Ending the Occupation: Liberating Iraq". When we found it, it was in the grip of a string of manic ranters. First came a woman who turned on the panel with the mike, turning her back on the "DELEGATES!" who weren't among the initiate of her own grievance and yelling. Then, a succession of three SWP boys. No coincidence there. One railed wildly at the failings of a movement based on mass demonstrations. Strikes were the thing. His union? The National Union of Journalists. One can see the situation conference in Northwood. "..and the NUJ has refused to handle any war-related stories, sir. [Long, defeated pause] ....Well, Charlesworth, I suppose...this is the end...I think I shall telephone the Prime Minister and inform him that we must ask for an armistice." Indeed. Another found it urgently necessary to attack militarism in all its forms. Especially where we might not expect it: "We must reject the warmongers of New Labour, the Tories - and not forget the warmongering Liberal Democrats!" He was followed by a Greek whose organisation represented men supporting the global women's strike. It wasn't clear what he wanted to say about Iraq, but nothing would shut him up anyway. He was barely comprehensible but what got through seemed to be pure self promotion. At the third attempt our chairwoman finally silenced him and the next on the rant line stepped up to the mark.

It didn't get much better. A studenty girl dressed entirely in green assured us first, that the majority of Iraqis had risen up against imperialist occupation - what, 13 million of them? - and then that "Discontent is spreading in sections of the Army!" as if Bolshevik rebel tanks were about to grind down Whitehall on the final coup d'etat. I wanted to speak, but they wouldn't call me. Perhaps my "George Bush" flying jacket didn't quite fit in. A Scouser from something called "Workers' Power" bulled past me and grabbed my slot. Fucko! Then the chairwoman announced that she wanted to "encourage more women to speak". It was clear that I wasn't gonna git.

After all, no-one had actually mentioned a single fact about Iraq through all this time.

I've just been told not to be too harsh on them. It's very true that this is a fantastic event like an optimism factory. It's even more true that it is a great example of actual, real inter-cultural, international communication. Perhaps most of all, it is huge and disorientating. The timetable runs to 85 pages on the website and a sizeable tabloid paper in print. Like the internet, literally anyone can contribute and therefore you have to look very hard for anything worthwhile.

It's also true, though, that it is full of tiresome stereotype Trotskyists and stale prefabricated slogans and depressing committee goonery. Yay, let's all go to the [enter enemy here] meeting and monopolise the mike so we can shout at them. Let's put on a workshop on ecofeminist fabric alternatives in northern Finland, with Kurdish dancing. There is so much stuff at the ESF that lies beyond satire. Littlejohn couldn't make it up. Nobody asked at the Iraq Seminar how the occupation might end in the sense of who would be left in charge of Iraq. Allawi's government? Surely as illegitimate and vicious as occupation itself. What about the mercenaries? Who would trust "Al-Baathi" Allawi not to cheat in any election? Otherwise, who gets rid of Allawi's lot first? Oh right....the occupiers. The entire purpose of the Social Forums was, if I am not very much mistaken, was to get away from slogan-yelling to detailed alternative policy formation. This isn't it. But, as a pure event, it's still beautiful.

Bougainville story update

Papua New Guinea's biggest-circulation newspaper, the Post-Courier, has an interesting update on the "King of Papala" story here.
"The trio claim they are members of the Independent State of Mogilano, the Singapore Royal World Bank, the Royal Assembly and National Kingdom of Solomon Islands and now the Royal Kingdom of Papala.
The Royal Kingdom of Papala is operating in Bougainville and has had offices in Port Moresby and Solomon Islands by a Bougainvillean operating under several different names.
They are promising vast riches and benefits to grassroot Bougainvilleans through what they say are vital humanitarian aid projects — $US250 million for three medical clinics and a K10,000 payout for every Bougainvillean.
Meanwhile, executives of NewSat, the broadband company based in Melbourne, Australia, which reportedly sold equipment to identities in the “No-Go Zone” area, have denied outright having connections to two of the men now in Panguna, supposedly to set up more telecommunications outlets for the area through the installation of broadband satellite dishes.
The executives said late last night the “Independent State of Mogilno, the Kingdom of Papala’’ and the others were their “former customers’’.
NewSat said it was owed more than K26,000 ($A11,000) by these people.
The executives told the Post-Courier the product they supplied to these organisations were switched off five months ago because the parties had not paid their bills."
Weirdness still pretty high, but a little clearer.

Curious and interesting

In Germany, an exhibition has opened displaying selected images from the Stasi's immense library of surveillance photos and film built up over forty years of repression. The few I've seen, here, are promising, showing a bizarre humour and a kind of sinister glamour.

The Grauniad - A Bad Day

The Guardian's nickname arises from its alleged tendency towards original and amusing typo errors. Everyone has a fave, for example the near-legendary occasion when they managed to review a production of Doris Godunov. One of the paper's former editors claims that the reason for this reputation is buried in a British Railways working timetable from the mid-1950s, back in the days when the paper was still the Manchester Guardian. As the paper was printed in Manchester, its first edition had to catch a specific mail train in order to hit the newsstands of London every morning. Therefore, all the paper's deadlines were defined by the time that crucial train pulled out of Manchester Piccadilly station on the 180 or so mile trip south. (One imagines steam in the coal-smoke darkness of the small hours in Mancland, men heaving bundles of Grauniads into the mail vans at the last moment before the whistle blew)

The northern editions didn't need such haste, and therefore they could go to press later. Vitally, this interval permitted the whole paper to be proofed before printing. The London edition, though, had to skip this process - it had a train to catch. Of course, all other national media were based in London, with the result that the Guardian's image was irredeemably marked by that damn timetable. Later, after the move to London, the revolutionary changes in publishing technology, there was no longer any such cause. But the typos had eaten deep into the paper's institutional culture, so much so that it seems to play up to it. Alone until recently among British newspapers, it publishes a daily corrections column. It even published a collection of the best corrections in book form. Despite this admirable commitment to typographical perfection, though, sometimes the old disease pops up and isn't corrected.

On Wednesday, then, the Grauniad succeeded in referring to the philosopher Ronald Barthes, and topped that by misspelling its own title as the Guardain. Neither have so far been corrected. Yesterday, in an article about environmental threats, it stated that the Greenland ice sheet contained 2.6 cubic kilometres of water. A fair drop, but hardly enough to raise the level of the Atlantic by 7 metres or to make up 6% of the water on Earth. But then again, journalists famously count like the rabbits in Watership Down: one, two, three, many.

Wonderfully, I searched the Grauniad's website (sorry, wesbite) for the typos and they are still there: Guardain

And it wasn't the first time either

Ronald Barthes

Depressingly, though, the Grauniad has corrected the online version of the Greenland teaspoon story, found here. That should have been 2.6 million cubic km. So you'll all have to trust me.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004


Human Rights Watch report on the men detained at "undisclosed locations" by the US intelligence services. (Thanks to Nick Barlow)

[Unfounded Speculation]I have a little theory about this, which I won't push too hard without corroboration. If you had to move prisoners around the world secretly, wouldn't a couple of aircraft not belonging to the government, unmarked, and registered under a flag of convenience be useful? You could always book the bill to some other major operation.

Michael Howard - A New Approach to Statistics

Answering heavy criticism of his speech to the effect that he walked around Brixton for two hours without seeing a policeman, Michael Howard yesterday penned an article in the Guardian ranting against what he calls "selective statistics". He is angry about the British Crime Survey, the scheme created by the Thatcher government in 1981 which questions a very large representative sample of the population about their experience of crime. Now, in Britain there are two measures of crime - the BCS, and the count of crimes recorded by the police. The problem with the latter, of course, is that it only counts those crimes that are reported to the police. Also, it is dependent on the policy of the police as to which crimes they consider worth recording. Mr Howard is currently mad keen on this one, precisely because it has gone up. This suits his political aims. The other measure, though, has been falling steadily since 1995. This of course does not.

Mr Howard has a simple answer. He wants to abolish the BCS.

Statistically, this is a remarkable act of stupidity. All statistics are a sample of reality. The ideal statistical measurement would count absolutely everyone or everything involved with total certainty. The purpose of statistics as a discipline is to approach as closely as possible to this impossible ideal while keeping the sample within the bounds of practicality. One principle emerges from this - the larger the sample, the more reliable the results. A second is that the sample must be as accurate a representation as possible of the population. Anything that tends to skew the make-up of the sample is destructive of accuracy. The recorded crime figures, for example, sample only those crimes that get reported (first principle) and are then contaminated by police policy (second principle). Further, the sampling effect of police policy can change. In 1998 the police began recording all common assaults (pushing and shoving) in the crime stats. Unsurprisingly, the figures went up simply because the sample had expanded. All these offences are classified as violent crimes, so the number of violent crimes surged as a whole new category was shoved in. The BCS has used the same methodology over time, so the figures are comparable with each other.

Howard claims that an estimated 12 million crimes are not picked up by the survey. Very true. But most of those 12 million are not picked up by the police count either, by definition, because the whole world of nonreported crimes are not! This is a definitional, arithmetical fact - without time, place or opinion. Howard points out that the BCS does not count murders, but then murders are such a tiny proportion of crime and so likely to be reported that this is insignificant. Does he really think the streets are littered with the literally millions of unreported murder victims needed to reverse the whole thrust of the figures? We are in the presence of a prospective prime minister who believes that it is better to use a less accurate statistical measure than a more accurate one, because the errors agree with him. I am reminded of a Russian joke about Brezhnev that puts him travelling on a train that breaks down. The General Secretary has the answer, though. He orders the curtains closed so the passengers can be told they are moving.

The situation with Howard is still worse, though. He does not want to give a false impression of progress but to give the impression of continuous deterioration. For his personal benefit, a continued supply of crime is necessary. If the rate of crime was not ever-rising, who would buy either he or David Blunkett's product of ever increasing authoritarianism?

Whoops! What did we do with that nuclear research centre?


It seems that the looting of Iraqi nuclear facilities went as far as dismantling whole buildings.
"Satellite imagery shows that entire buildings in Iraq have been dismantled. They once housed high-precision equipment that could help a government or terror group make nuclear bombs, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report to the U.N. Security Council.

Equipment and materials helpful in making bombs also have been removed from open storage areas in Iraq and disappeared without a trace, according to the satellite pictures, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said.

While some military goods that disappeared from Iraq after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, including missile engines, later turned up in scrap yards in the Middle East and Europe, none of the equipment or material known to the IAEA as potentially useful in making nuclear bombs has turned up yet, ElBaradei said. The United States barred the return of U.N. weapons investigators after launching war on Iraq in March 2003, preventing the IAEA from keeping tabs on high-tech equipment and materials up to the present day.

Under anti-proliferation agreements, the U.S. occupation authorities who administered Iraq until June, and then the Iraqi interim government that took power at the end of June, would have to inform the IAEA if they moved or exported any of that material or equipment. But no such reports have been received since the invasion, officials of the watchdog agency said."
You honestly couldn't make it up.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Pushing the boundaries of weirdness

A curious tale reaches the Ranter from darkest Papua New Guinea, that nation the size of Germany but without roads and with betel nut, rugby league, over 700 mutually incomprehensible languages and a lot of pigs. It all started when a Cessna Citation business jet landed without telling anybody at the airstrip on Bougainville, home to the world's biggest nickel mine and a long-running rebellion. Due to rebels, neither the mine nor the airfield have worked since 1989. But that didn't put them off. Two men left the aircraft and headed for rebel country.

Later, the PNG government got wind of this. The pilots were arrested and the plane impounded. Investigations linked the whole thing to a curious tax-evasion scheme involving a self-proclaimed state, whose website can be found here: link Apparently, the passengers were on their way to visit a rebel who calls himself King of Bougainville, and is possibly the same man as a fraudster who was involved in various political scandals in PNG. This might be passing curious but no more, if it wasn't for a strange connection. The aircrew have claimed that their passengers were on their way there to discuss a contract to build clinics with a US firm called Majestic Capital Management. (Link)

Weirdly, the only Google results for this firm comprise a reference at a conference on Christians in business, a reference on a discussion forum devoted to scams, and two entries in lists of donors - to George W. Bush's reelection campaign. (Link to evidence) The passengers, for their part, are somewhere in the jungles of central Bougainville, perhaps heading for the Solomon Islands where they are said to have powerful contacts.

Now that's really weird. (edit: link restored)

Have the 'Kippers finally lost it?

Robert Kilroy Silk is quoted by the Torygraph as giving his reasons for supporting foxhunting, thus:
"When pressed, he declared himself against the death penalty, in favour of private health insurance (because he has it) and a supporter of hunting (because a vixen recently ate his 30 rare Vietnamese pheasants which were imported at great expense from Beijing Zoo to roam his garden).

He also denied that he was unpatriotic by living part of the year in Spain, where he has a £2 million villa on a 100-acre estate near Marbella. He insisted that his main residence was a 17th-century manor house in Buckinghamshire, home, incidentally, to Ozzy Osborne before him."

UKIP - in touch with ordinary folk. And entirely normal, whatever the sneerers may say. Link

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Ding! Ding! Round 30!

FT link

One of those stories that never goes away. Yes, the US-EU trade dispute over both sides' alleged subsidies for civil aircraft builders is back on.
"In a dispute settlement case filed at the Geneva headquarters of the WTO, the US alleged that Airbus had received a total of at least $15bn in illegal "launch aid" from the France, UK, Germany and Spain, allowing it to overtake Boeing as the world's largest aircraft maker. The US also said it would terminate a 1992 bilateral agreement that had curbed but not ended subsidies, alleging minor violations by the EU.

The EU Commission responded immediately by filing a counter-case charging that Boeing had received about $23bn in prohibited subsidies since 1992 in the form of research and development assistance from US government agencies. The EU also challenged pledges from Washington state to offer about $3bn in tax breaks for Boeing production of its new 7E7 jet.

That both sides have offered their respective industries handsome sums in state funding cannot be disputed. However, it is at least arguable that the entire dispute is the creature of special pleading from both parties. Boeing, for their part, will want to keep well off the issue of its head-lock on US Air Force contracts, especially after the recent exposure of corruption around the giant order for KC-767 tankers. On that occasion, Airbus offered a variant of the A-330 with similar capabilities and much greater capacity and range. Boeing got the order, though, in a deal allegedly helped by the fact that they had a gap in work for the 767 production line until work on the 7E7 began. You can bet the EU representatives will do their level best to smear Boeing, the Pentagon and the Washington State authorities over the affair.

You can also bet that the US side will do their best to run down everything European. Great fun for journalists, sure. But the damage to transatlantic trade could be significant, especially when you take into account the currency factor. The huge US trade deficit has yet to push down the dollar by much chiefly because several big Asian economies have been intervening in the foreign exchange market to keep their currencies low against the dollar, boosting their export industries. It's in the nature of the game that currency intervention in this direction is unlimited - a central bank need never run out of its own currency. With a huge US budget deficit too, the obvious policy is to buy US treasury bills - after all, they bring in an income too.

The problem is, though, that the pressure must be released somewhere. If you are an Asian business left holding reams of your own currency (that is being artificially held low), you will have an incentive to convert it to euros. After all, the flip of the intervention is that any supplies you buy in dollars will be more expensive. The result, for Europe, is that the euro surges against the dollar, rendering EU exports to the US expensive. And US-EU trade questions that much more spiky.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

A little question

If Michael Howard thinks two of his "10 words" for Tory campaigners should be "cleaner hospitals", and that if they don't fulfil their promises they will resign, doesn't that imply a commitment to end the practice of contracting out cleaning services in the NHS and to reintegrate all NHS cleaners on the same T&Cs as comparable NHS staff? Like their union, UNISON wants? to be under the hospital's management control, more cleaning staff, and better washing facilities for visitors and staff - sounds like good common sense to me. Or does he have another magic solution? Whatever turns up on this theme in his "timetable for action", you can bet your blog contracting out won't be affected. I predict pictures of Matrons in 50s' fig. Maybe Hattie Jacques. Not much else.

Monday, October 04, 2004

What do I really think about Iraq?

An interesting question, brought up by the vote at the Labour Party conference last week. The conference delegates were faced with a choice between two motions - one demanding that a date be set for the withdrawal of British forces from Iraq, and one stating that British forces should "be withdrawn if the Iraqi government requests it". Obviously, the second option would have been seen very differently had it been put as follows - "that British forces should remain in Iraq indefinitely, unless the Iraqi government requests they leave", which your keen & agile minds will perceive as being much the same thing. I would strongly disagree with the "anti-war platform" for reasons of practicality, as I don't think that setting a date for withdrawal would be a good idea at all. You could call it the Kerry Problem ("How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"), which is that the intervening period will unavoidably be a grim and pointless struggle continuing until the last Warrior containing the last soldier drives over the border into Kuwait. Not only that, but the act of setting a date for departure forfeits any bargaining strength we may have, both in Iraq and with our gallant allies. This may be described as the Indian problem - once the decision to bring forward Indian independence was taken, partition could no longer be avoided as both parties knew that they could attain their minimal goals by waiting it out until the trumpet sounded.

Also, it is probable that the other side would intensify their efforts in the run-up to departure. Being the hard core who chased the British into the ships would count for plenty in the struggle for power afterwards. This might be called the South Lebanon problem. The Israeli army's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 was rendered much more bloody by this factor. There is also the issue of those groups in Basra who have so far been supportive. Will we have to take them with us? Or will they change sides, or simply be slaughtered? (All of these happened in South Lebanon.) What happens then? I still, faced with the option, would have voted for setting a date, as it was an opportunity to force accounting for the whole vicious disaster. (Dump the principle but stall the implementation...)

The problem is that absolutely no good option presents itself. Continued occupation? More death, and more aggravation, more waste, and probably more problems as yet unexploded. The provinces in the MND(SE) zone have recently been granting themselves susbstantial autonomy from Baghdad - will a oil-rich "Southern League" emerge? (Now that would be a classic case of short-term relief being long-term poison.) A timetable for unilateral withdrawal? Reasons above, plus the possibility of a "Southern League"/Shia rebel zone erupting between Baghdad and Kuwait. What else? UN peacekeepers? Who will provide them? Will they be effective? What will they do? What if they fail? This doesn't even take into consideration the possibility of either a post-election US offensive in al-Anbar and Baghdad, with the predictable Shia explosion, or a US scuttle.

(Careful readers will note a certain symmetry between Tony Blair's problems after the announcement of a date for withdrawal from No. 10 Downing Street and the hypothetical ones of his army in a similar case.)

Bout's Antonov 12 in Baghdad - PICTURES

And here is the picture that places 9L-LEC in Baghdad on the 18th of January.

(Note: the photographer requested that I obscure his name)

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Baghdad - 24th January, 2004. A giant Russian transport..

..rolls out at the US-run airport, with its Australian air traffic controllers and piles of junked Iraqi aircraft, high-security PX store and high-value detainee camp. The aircraft was an Ilyushin Il-76MD, serial number 83485313, registered S9-DAE and carrying the markings of an airline called Skylink. S9- is the international registration prefix for Sao Tome and Principe, a tiny island off West Africa that was also host to the now notorious British Gulf International Airlines until all its staff and assets transferred to a new registry, that of Kyrgyzstan. Strangely, through all this, the firm's base and offices remained right where they had been - in Sharjah.

Strangely, though, I can find no record of the aircraft ever being registered to Skylink, the name it proudly bore if not in very big letters. Neither does an Antonov An-12, registered 9L-LEC (Sierra Leone registry, dear God), that is also placed in Baghdad during January 2004 - perhaps not surprising, as the name appears to be signwritten using black gaffer tape or similar on this machine. This may begin to explain the third of the US Department of Defence fuel contracts at the heart of the story. Did contract no. TBTC01, to "Sky Traffic Facilitators" of Sharjah, cover the "Skylink" aircraft?

As another contribution to the mess, is it not curious that Iraqi Airways is operating a Boeing 737 registered in Sierra Leone (9L-LEG), leased from a Jordanian firm and previously owned by Trans Air Congo - also previous operators of 9L-LEC?

Swivel-eyed loons: Britain in Europe gets its act together

The Britain in Europe campaign has published a very good list of 25 reasons not to vote UKIP, here. Some of it is stuff previously covered here, but this was news to me:
"John Brayshaw was exposed on 5 February 2004 as being simultaneously Chairman
of UKIP’s Vale of York branch (since October 2003) and BNP National Treasurer
(since 2000). According to Andrew Edwards, he was also UKIP -BNP “pact liaison
officer for the north”. UKIP denied that they knew of his BNP links despite the fact
that he stood as a BNP parliamentary candidate in Bradford North at the 2001
general election. Brayshaw was eventually expelled from UKIP in 2004 when his
BNP membership became public knowledge."

Friday, October 01, 2004


It's been brought to my attention that Dr. Frank Barnaby certainly doesn't believe in the "red mercury dirty bomb" story, as suggested below. See here

By the way, I hope the DESC employee who has been reading this blog enjoys it.

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