Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Yet More Reasons to say NO to ID cards

(Part of an occasional series)

The draft ID Cards Bill is now out, (you can get a copy here) and it is just as bad as we thought. After all, you might think a huge government database linking all its information about all of us was bad enough. But what would you say to this?
The Secretary of State—
(a)may at any time modify the Register for the purpose of correcting information recorded in it that he is satisfied is inaccurate or incomplete; but

(b)is not, by virtue of any provision of this Act, to be under a duty to correct such information unless, in a case where he is so satisfied, he considers that it is appropriate to do so."
In clearer English, this means that even if the Home Secretary is satisfied that your file is incorrect, he is not obliged by law to correct it. Whether this would stand up in court or not, of course, is another matter, but it hardly fills you with confidence as to the fairness and accuracy of the information held on the database. I'd rather got my hopes up when I noticed that the draft provides for the register to hold any other information that you, the citizen, asks to be added to your record - I was thinking along the lines of "I LOVE KIMBERLEY FORTIER", for example - but section 3(2) rules this out by making such information subject to (3(2)b) rules set by the Home Office and (3(2)c) the Secretary of State's approval. More seriously, 1(5)h includes on the proposed database
"information about occasions on which information recorded about him in the Register has been provided to any person;".
If the Home Office's hopes for the widespread use of ID card readers were to come true, this would provide a means of following the movements of individuals - as every time the card was checked, this would be logged in the Big Computer. This would be pointless unless such a log included details of which terminal had checked the ID card and when. The "information of a technical nature for use in the administration of the Register" and of ID cards that will also (section 3 subsections 1b and c) be stored against your name would also seem to offer considerable possibilities (not least because it is entirely unspecified in the legislation). In Schedule 1, Section 9, this is made entirely explicit:
"The following may be recorded in the entry in the Register for an individual—
(a)particulars of every occasion on which information contained in the individual’s entry has been provided to a person;

(b)particulars of every person to whom such information has been provided on such an occasion;

(c)other particulars, in relation to each such occasion, of the provision of the information"

Section 15 permits the authorities to make the provision of public services conditional on identity checks. In a bizarre twist to this, subsection 2 then excludes any service that involves a payment being made to the persion involved or any service that is provided free of charge. I am struggling to think of a personal public service that is neither free of charge nor involves the issue of a benefit in cash. And how, given this explicit exclusion of education, health and social security, will any of the savings Blunkett claims the ID card will bring actually happen? All is revealed, however, when you read down to the bottom of section 15. Here we find a little beauty of a clause that excludes the exclusion in as far as it affects "individuals of a description required to register in section 6". Section 6 includes the procedure for the eventual introduction of compulsory registration. So, everyone will indeed have to show their cards to get medical treatment. Just not yet. In section 18 ("Prohibition on Requirements to produce identity cards"), there is not one but two similar get-out clauses. One excludes any regulation under section 15, and another excludes those section 6 individuals. Ha.

Plunging swiftly into the grubby universe of financial interest, we come to the section on "Fees and charges". As well as the bits we already knew (the £85 ID and passport charge), this includes a truly impressive scale of possible bills:
"a)applications to him for entries to be made in the Register, for the modification of entries or for the issue of ID cards;

(b)the making or modification of entries in the Register;

(c)the issue of ID cards;

(d)applications for the provision of information contained in entries in the Register;

(e)the provision of such information;

(f)applications for confirmation that information supplied coincides with information recorded in the Register;

(g)the issue or refusal of such confirmations;

h)applications for the approval of a person or of apparatus in accordance with any regulations under this Act

(i)the grant of such approvals.
So that's a fat nine opportunities to milk everyone in any way involved with the scheme, with apparently no limit on the bill in the Bill. I will offer you three questions: Firstly, can anyone tell us how much it will cost, both to individuals and to the state? Secondly, can anyone tell us what the explanation of the arguably dishonest drafting of section 15 is? (Shorter - if it will be required for access to social security, education and the NHS, why not say so in plain honest terms?) And thirdly, who can say they really have nothing to hide?

Monday, November 29, 2004

Those "Anti-Semites": The Jewish View

Ha'aretz reports on Ukrainian Jews' view of the election crisis, revolution, etc. They quote Leonid Finberg, director of the Jewish Institute of Kiev, as follows:
""I am convinced the article was commissioned to blacken the name of Yushchenko and sabotage a source of support for him," said Leonid Finberg, director of the Judaica Institute in Kiev and chairman of a publishing house. "Presenting him as a person who supports anti-Semitism is a terrible distortion. His father was in Auschwitz, and it is known that his family saved Jews during the Holocaust. The Ukrainian intelligensia, including the Jews, supports him completely. He had made a great contribution to constructive dialogue between the Jewish and the Ukrainian intelligensia."

Finberg also told of the strong position Yushchenko took at a conference on anti-Semitism in Sweden and about an appearance he made before a group of Ukrainian Jews.

Finberg attached little importance to graffiti calling to strike at Jews and Russians that was painted on the walls of clubs associated with Yushchenko, "There are nationalist and anti-Semitic elements on the fringes of all political personalities here. I have no doubt that Yushchenko and his people are not connected to this. Such graffiti can be found today all over the world, including Israel."
Oh yes, and the president of the Jewish Community
"rejected what he called "absurd rumors" connecting Yushchenko to anti-Semitism"
. For balance, I checked out the Jerusalem Post, but they didn't even find it worth ink.

The real story of those Ukrainian demos

Something was annoying me about all this stuff of "US-guided branding strategies" that's coming out of the Grauniad, and I fortunately remembered what it was. All the features they spoke of as being invented by evil political consultants are actually part of a genuine European history of the recent past. "One-word branding"? Well, it's certainly true that the Ukrainians chose a one-word punch meaning "It's time!" just like the Georgians - and the Serbs - but then so did the Czechs of 1989. Rereading Tim Garton Ash's 1989 memoir, We the People, this continuity is very clear. In Prague in November, 1989, that was exactly - exactly - the slogan that the first demos on Wenceslas Square chanted. And the Otporniks were themselves recapping their previous attempt in 1996 (Zajedno - Together!). Looking even further back, though, there was another civil revolutionary movement that made use of the same tactics, indeed almost invented them - Solidarity.

What are those tactics? Not so much an assault on the regime, as desertion from the regime. Self-organisation in a parallel structure to the state. Mass non-violent demonstrations and strikes. Creating a samizdat media to discredit the official version of events. The crucial point was that by 1989, even the vastly more controlling regimes of communist Europe did not rule by force but by deceit and by the dead weight of incumbency. In a semi- or fake democracy like the Ukraine, the importance of rule by deceit is even greater - Milosevic didn't maintain his grip on (Serbian) Yugoslavia by force, but by propaganda and manipulation. Control of the media permits the rulers to get out their version and suppress anything else. Control of the economy permits them to divert scarce goods or services to those who support them. Control of the secret service provides surveillance, but only in extreme cases is it used to kill (although a little terror, as always, goes a long way). The answer - the supposed "US strategy" - is to tell the truth and organise outside it. It is necessary to get as broad a coalition as possible - this was very true of the Central European revolutions, and requires willingness to compromise from all sides.

It is not a new programme, and it was not invented out of whole cloth by Madeleine Albright in 1999 as some people seem to think. Exactly the same elements were in action in 1980 in Poland, in 1989 in Central Europe, in 2000 in Yugoslavia.

Bizarre Spam

My Technorati link cosmos just flashed up with a new blog linking to the Ranter (I have it as an RSS feed into a Firefox live bookmark). Eagerly I clicked on the newcomer - and found an odd, poorly designed thingy with repeated posts about "gift cards". Not posts with information in them really, but lots of links to the same site and the words gift cards over and over again. It was pretty clear that we were dealing with a fake blog, a phenomenon in the science of spamming that has emerged this year. Informed bloggers hold that the point is to drive another site up the Google page rankings, exploiting Google's tendency to rate blogs highly. Simply, the idea is to get as many links to the roboblog as possible to boost the value of the links into your real site in Google's eyes.

I refuse to aid this nonsense by linking to it, so if you want to see it, go to Technorati and search for my URL. I assume it'll be under "gift cards". Whois returns the fact that the registrant is hiding behind a firm called "Domains by Proxy Inc" in Scottsdale, Arizona. Feckin' spammers. On the same theme, I found an odd item of comment spam in my June archives today - among the online poker links was one to www.valeofglamorganconservatives.org, which turns out (deeply to my disappointment) to be an online poker site registered by a firm called Phetermine Deals, who also spam. The chap responsible appears to be one Ron Miles, of English Harbour, Antigua, who gives the phone number (00)268 4606129 as well as his blatantly silly PO box number. The tech contact is in Paris at 38, rue Notre-Dame de Nazareth, a well-known source of spam. Now, I don't know about you, but if I was the Tories' sysadmin I'd make good and goddamn sure that none of my local groups let their domain names lapse. This sort of thing is embarrassing.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Bout and the upcoming Rwandan invasion of the Congo

The Observer reports on the gathering threat of another Rwandan intervention in the DRC. Back in June, I reported that just as fighting broke out anew in eastern Congo, one of Viktor Bout's aircraft had shown up in Kigali. (Linky) It's no surprise to notice this key paragraph, then:
"n the towns of Walikale and Rubaya soldiers of the Rassemblement Congolais Pour la Démocratie, or RCD-Goma, Rwanda's proxy force in eastern Congo, transferred sacks of the minerals cassiterite and tantalite to lorries bound for airstrips from which jets shuttled to Kigali"
A source who regularly comments here mentioned at the time that the Kenyan arms dealer and Bout intimate Sanjivan Ruprah is a relation of the RCD's leader.


Tomorrow, the ID Cards bill gets its first reading in the Commons. We are holding a public meeting on Tuesday, 30/11/04, at 1900 in the location following:
Tuesday 30 November 2004,
The Brix,
St Matthews Church,
London SW2 1JF
If you go to that - even if you don't - you might also want to write to your MEP with the Open Letter against biometric identification that you can find here. Don't let the Government blame ID cards on the European Union, getting out of the responsibility and incidentally wrecking any chance of ratifying the European Constitution, joining the €, etc.

That "pro-Russian Donbass", examined

Excellent blog here, reporting in detail on just how the elections went on in the officially pro-Yanukovich regions of the Ukraine. It's too long to quote, but well worth reading.

Analysis moment: if you were going to be paranoid about it, Russia might have a lot to gain in the event of a secession by the south-eastern Ukraine. Looking at the map, it would give them most of what they would want in a "reintegration" of Ukraine (direct access to the Crimea and the fleet, most of the gas and oil pipelines, defence industries and a land link to their army in Transdniestria) with a good chance of getting the rest. After all, the presence of their forces in Transdniestria has lasted and kept it as a quasi-Russian province.

I suspect partition won't happen, though, due to the "purple map" issue. What most big media (but not blogs on the spot, interestingly) don't mention is that there is no shortage of oppositionists in the supposedly pro-regime east (and of course of regime supporters in the pro-Yushchenko west), just as the famous map of the US with counties scaled to population and coloured proportionally to the vote demonstrates that there are plenty of Texan Democrats and New York Republicans. Reports have been frequent of demos and other activity in Dnepropetrovsk (especially). After all, the figures that support this meme can be no more credible than the election as a whole - and if you read that link, you won't believe a decimal point of the election. (There are also some useful maps there.)

In Other News: you'll probably know by now that the parliament voted no confidence in the election commission. Interesting echo of 1917 in the report that the railwaymen's union said they would prevent the movement of trains for the government towards Kiev. General Kornilov must be spinning in his grave at that one. Interestingly, the men and women on the spot seem to be much more optimistic than The Commentators - despite the civil war talk, none of the Kievblogs have yet to report any violence or indeed hostility.

Rip-Off Britain? Not us...

Cocaine now cheaper than a glass of wine. Regular Ranters will no doubt remember that I've long thought that Tony Blair's success in getting drug prices down should form part of Labour's election campaign. Time was that hard drugs cost the earth and polluting petrol was cheap. Now, petrol is like rocking-horse shit and you can get stoned, ripped, twisted for peanuts. After all, heroin's cheap as chips, too. Labour - Casinos, Coke and Heroin! could do wonders for the youth vote.

Well, they'll need something to take everyone's mind off them exempting High Court judges from tax on their pension funds....

Idema: remember, hustlers don't change

The Sindy reports on our old friend, Jonathan/Kenneth/Jack Idema, the man who was arrested in Afghanistan for running his own jail. Idema, as previously blogged, claims to have been working for the US government. When apprehended, apart from the two men hanging by their ankles from the roof, he was surrounded by a weird entourage who he claimed were making a film about him. A little research into his background showed that he was always making a film, rather in the style of the Private Eye cartoon with the two writers ("I'm writing a book." "Neither am I.."). He attempted to sue George Clooney for supposedly basing The Peacemaker on his own heroic exploits. Exactly how heroic is doubtful - despite his boasting of being "the craziest Green Beret in the army", his real role was considerably less hoooooooyah. In fact, as I previously reported, he was a quartermaster for the reservist 11th Special Forces Group, a job that didn't actually require him to pass Special Forces selection although no doubt he was able to tell his marks that he was a Green Beret. Later he owned a business selling army webbing, chest-rigs and the like.

In jail, his Hollywood obsession apparently continues. He told the Indy's Nick Meo that he'd recruited an agent to pitch his life story, and that he was about to complete writing the script. One hopes the agent got paid in advance, because his film project has been "nearly finished" since 2001 and in my view is nothing but a way of getting people to fund him. Like all the best fraudsters, though, his spiel is based on a certain degree of truth. When the Pentagon is willing to deal with the Viktor Bouts and Ahmed Chalabis of this world, his claims are far more credible. The fact that responsible persons at Bagram accepted a prisoner from his group shows at least that bizarre things are going on there, but not necessarily that they approved of him. (After all, if you were in the guard commander's shoes and a bunch of random gunmen appeared with a terrified prisoner and a lot of overexcited superspook talk, would you really leave him to their tender mercies? Even if you didn't care about his fate it would certainly be a matter demanding urgent investigation.) The fact that they "accepted" the prisoner without arresting Idema, though, suggests that enough parallel-network stuff was going on that his claims weren't entirely unbelievable.

I don't for a moment believe, though, that he's the real thing. The Pentagon (or whoever) would never have confided such a mission to someone who spends his free time suing film stars and having himself idolised by a camarilla of cameramen. It's called a "secret service" for a reason. His comfortable captivity, I suspect, is more due to his skills as a plausible talker than anything else.

In fact, reviewing my previous coverage of Idema, I see that I'd forgotten just how Walter Mittyish he really is. We're looking at a man who claims he took his pet dog on combat parachute jumps (in his spare time from stacking blankets in the stores presumably).

Saturday, November 27, 2004

The Guardian Just Doesn't Get It

The Grauniad's Jonathan Steele has produced a frankly silly article in yesterday's paper in which he basically decides that the Ukrainian revolution is an evil CIA plot. Steele has already been roundly cursed by the blogosphere for this particularly dodgy argument:
"Nor is there much evidence to imagine that, were he the incumbent president facing a severe challenge, he would not have tried to falsify the poll."
So - Yushchenko's a total bastard because we don't know that he wouldn't steal an election if the situation arose, and therefore it's far better to let the government - ah - steal an election. (Note as well that Steele seems to be demanding that Yushchenko prove himself innocent.) Further on, he snarls about the US "provocatively" funding exit polls:
"More provocatively, the US and other western embassies paid for exit polls, prompting Russia to do likewise, though apparently to a lesser extent.

The US's own election this month showed how wrong exit polls can be. But they provide a powerful mobilising effect, making it easier to persuade people to mount civil disobedience or seize public buildings on the grounds the election must have been stolen if the official results diverge"
Well, a credulous mind might have thought that stealing the election was the provocative bit. The final exit poll results in the US election weren't actually wrong - they reflected the overall result exactly. And the argument that the ones that did diverge were wrong assumes that the election itself was entirely honest. We are told that "Intervening in foreign elections, under the guise of an impartial interest in helping civil society, has become the run-up to the postmodern coup d'etat, the CIA-sponsored third world uprising of cold war days adapted to post-Soviet conditions". We aren't told, however, what form this adaptation takes. If Steele is right, and the whole thing is a giant conspiracy, it would appear that this adaptation consists in getting rid of the torture, killings, tanks on the streets and ensuing military dictatorship - or in other words, the CIA-sponsored third world uprising pretty much in its entirety.

But the sloppy logic doesn't end there. In the next paragraph, Steele accuses the US of pursuing a geostrategic encirclement of Russia by trying to pull Ukraine into the orbit of the West. What is the alternative policy he offers Ukrainians, then? Er - to offer the Ukraine membership in the EU. To recap, the enlargement of NATO and the EU is an evil western plot against Russia. To resist it, you should join - the EU! Leaving aside the small matter that the evil fascist CIA stooge Yushchenko's declared policy is to join the EU, I wonder what the explanation of this bizarre sentence is?
"Some protesters have been chanting nationalistic and secessionist songs from the anti-semitic years of the second world war."
Secessionist? I assume secession in the second world war would mean secession from the Soviet Union. Well, Ukraine seceded from the Soviet Union in 1991 to become an independent state. What could be more absurd than to rail at the citizens of that state for singing songs about being, er, an independent state? What the hell is wrong with it?

But the Guardian can always find space for this kind of stuff. In fact, its comment page betrays a bizarre obsession with the views of people like Neil Clark and other intellectuals who hold a torch for vicious little tyrants like Alexander Lukashenko and Slobodan Milosevic. Again and again, we find the same old charges. It's all the work of the CIA! And they are really Nazis! Today's paper contains an article by John Laughland (who not so long ago published this apologia for Russia's war in Chechnya in the Grauniad) in which he claims to have met two neo-Nazis in the Kiev crowds. Two of them! Just think! He continues by referring to Yushchenko and his allies "standing up for the Socialist Party newspaper after it ran an anti-semitic article". So obviously they must be all Nazis. Or perhaps they stood up for it because they didn't believe in press censorship, but that is clearly a wild and unlikely idea not even worth mentioning. Even if they actually said so at the time:
"Yushchenko, Moroz and their oligarch ally Yulia Timoshenko meanwhile cited a court order closing the paper as evidence of the government's desire to muzzle the media"
Mr. Laughland clearly has dead certain evidence that this view is not worth a moment's consideration. Why he doesn't share it with us is his affair. But the Guardian seems to have practically no quality control when it comes to these people.
Mr. Laughland has previous for calling people Nazis when they don't agree with him:
"Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda wizard, was also persuaded that technology brought peoples together and made borders anachronistic a thought which is common among modern pro-Europeans."
This quote comes from his book The Tainted Source, written while he worked for Bill Cash's European Foundation, a rightwing thinktank. Fortunately for the Guardian's credibility, there's always Francis Wheen around, who brought this up in the paper.

Check out Neil Clark on the death of Zoran Djindjc:
"At the same time, there is evidence that underworld groups, controlled by Zoran Djindjic and linked to US intelligence, carried out a series of assassinations of key supporters of the Milosevic regime, including Defence Minister Pavle Bulatovic and Zika Petrovic, head of Yugoslav Airlines."
What evidence? It doesn't appear, and later Clark mentions a figure of 30% unemployment without mentioning that this was actually better than some periods under Milosevic. Or you might try this weird excursion into sportswriting. In the past, Mr. Laughland claimed that nobody was really killed in Kosovo, but even after the Grauniad's Nick Cohen publicly bust his chops about this bizarre lie they still find no problem in running as much of his nonsense as they can fit in. The Guardian now has the absurd situation of printing great chunks from Neeka's Backlog about the revolution in the News section while the Comment section pours vitriol on her and everyone else involved. There is clearly a split in the newsroom here, and one side needs to get its quality control sorted.

Meanwhile, at the front, Foreign Notes's mother-in-law has joined the revolution. I wonder if she's really a CIA agent too? Post-Modern Clog has more Steele-bashing, with the advantage of actually being present in Kiev rather than Farringdon Road.

Friday, November 26, 2004

10 Posts in one day

I've just realised that, in some kind of outburst of unremitting creativity, I've updated 10 times today. And when this post hits, that'll make it 11. This means two things:

a) someone should be paying me for this

b)like the end of the Beatles' Helter Skelter, I GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!

Ukraine - slow rot gathers speed?

On the draining-away of authority theme, a round-up via Der Standard (note-German speaking) of state organisations changing sides. Apparently at least 400 Foreign Ministry staff have signed a declaration to that effect. 6 generals are reported to have come out for the opposition, as well as a former minister of defence, 40 employees of the Kiev state prosecutor and the prosecutor himself, the mayor of Kiev, the Kiev city police (although I suspect the ones who matter are the forces who answer to the Interior Ministry, in Soviet fashion), and senior staff of the central bank. An interesting comment to the article mentions that Europa besteht für mich aus lauter Sonderwege - in my opinion, Europe is nothing but special cases! That could almost be a blog motto.

An example - the Polish and Lithuanian politicians leading the mediation in what, of course, was once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth....

Green Zone vulnerable?

In Iraq, meanwhile, four ex-Gurkhas working for a security company (Global Risk Strategies) have been killed and 15 wounded in an attack inside the Green Zone's perimeter. This doesn't say much for the degree of coalition security right outside its headquarters, although reports suggest the men were killed by a volley of rockets fired from outside the perimeter. In a sense, there was always a chance the insurgents (who quite often fire mortars over the wall into the Zone, but usually without success) would one day get lucky and land their rounds among some people, so it may not be all that significant.

A lot of people on the left, I suspect, will be deeply unsympathetic at the deaths of "mercenaries" or "so-called private contractors". This is unjust and callous. They are just as dead as if they were regular soldiers or indeed civilians, and it will be just as bad for their families. Especially, of course, as they'll be lucky to see any of their earnings back in Nepal. It might also be more helpful and more decent to consider if, had they received the same pension rights as British soldiers of equivalent rank, they would have been there.

Blogroll Call

Right - as well as the Kievbloggers, there have been some new blogs linking to the Ranter recently. Fraternal greetings, Charlie's Diary,
Smidsy, London and the North, Howling Spoons.

Negotiating - and burning the files...

It appears that negotiations have begun in the Ukraine under (heavy) EU/OSCE mediation. Probably a good thing, but as stated below, I think it's of limited relevance. The only result of negotiations that would have decisive effect would be if the government agreed to resign or to a solution equivalent to their resignation (for example, an independently conducted recount, or a new election). Otherwise, it will be the streets that decide.

Meanwhile, a report has come in that the Presidential Administration is burning its files, from yet another Kievblogger. One use for negotiations, of course, would be to gain time to launder your money, burn the files, destroy the evidence etc...

What Was he Thinking?

Yesterday's Guardian Online featured a column by Dave Birch which, astonishingly, advocated the integration of RFID chips into sheets of blank paper. Birch quoted a variety of consumer/convenience gains of a "one day we'll get all nourishment in pill form" kind, suggesting that
"If you couldn't find your credit card bill, you would just wander around the house with a mobile phone with an RFID reader in it (you can already buy these), waving it over stacks of paper until it beeped"
He didn't apparently consider that the police, or evilly disposed persons, could do the same. In fact, he actually suggests putting the text on the paper on the RFID chip too, so they could simply check for subversive documents or material they consider discreditable to you with one click and a really kewl silver gadget. Great!

Is finding your credit card bill quicker really worth the truly horrific potential for privacy invasion and censorship such an idea would present? Indeed, what was he thinking? The question appears to me to be whether Mr. Birch is a messy big-kid geek who sees remote monitoring of all paper documents as a great alternative to - refined shudder - picking up his credit card bill and putting it somewhere tidy, especially as it involves a new gadget, or whether he really wants total surveillance but thinks this sort of stuff will convince the burger-scoffing rubes who don't get it out there in Userland. There are well-attested reasons why members of technical elites do stupid things, and some of my favourites are those J.K. Galbraith offered in The New Industrial State. Broadly, he suggested that the "technostructure" is motivated, not by profit as that goes to the shareholders, but by "technical virtuosity" for its own sake, the approval of their peers, and the expansion of their departments. I suspect this is in operation here. Yay! Gadgets! New! Budget! Little thought is given to the consequences.

As a bonus question - why has the story vanished from the Guardian's compendious website? Not just that, but neither the Wayback Machine nor the Google cache bear any trace. Tsk tsk.

Prime Minister apparently ignorant of own policy

The Guardian covers Tony Blair's much-blogged "text conversation" set up by a mobile phone company. Just like most articles about this, it entirely misses an important point by sniggering about Blair's familiarity or otherwise with technology.

What I find more worrying is his evident lack of familiarity with his own policy. In the text of the discussion, we find the following exchange:
Teapot: Hi tony, id cards, why shd we pay for them?

PM: The important thing to realise is we will have to change passports, many countries use biometric visas. We need to combine passports and ID cards.
Well, leaving aside his grammar, this is factually incorrect even as a statement of government policy. The latest version of the government's policy on ID cards does NOT foresee combined passports and ID cards. Mr Blair's bill, which his government proclaims as the flagship of the next parliamentary programme and hence of the election campaign, foresees a separate national ID card and perhaps a biometric passport as well. (Reference) Anyway, Tony's arguments are weak in the extreme. Why does the fact that "many" countries (how many?) use biometric visas mean that we should have an internal ID card linked to a monster database on all citizens? The biometric visa could be stuck to an ordinary passport (and, of course, torn out after use). Visas are issued to people - not to passports. There is no need for a biometric check between the visa and the passport, but there might be a case for one between the visa and the traveller. Why should we need to turn our passports into national ID cards by stealth?

Further, he ought to be ashamed of his own rhetoric. The best argument he can give is the false one that "other countries" somehow make us need ID cards. Somebody else's fault. Not me! This is an example of what Cory Doctorow calls "policy-laundering", attempting to shuffle the responsibility for unpopular policy onto others. Pathetic.

MEMRI vs Blogosphere

The right-wing Middle East Media Research Institute is trying to sue Juan Cole of Informed Comment for suggesting they were biased. Now, I was involved in a row at Fistful of Euros about the validity or otherwise of a MEMRI "Special Dispatch" containing a variety of rather wild and alarmist statements about Iran, so I suppose I'm biased too. But I'm also pretty sure Cole is in the right here.

MEMRI's business is translating chunks of Middle Eastern newspapers and sending them free of charge to important persons in Washington and elsewhere. The beef is that they are selective in what they translate, taking an aggressive neo-conservative line and picking out unpleasant sentiments. Critics of the organisation point out that three members of its board are former members of Israeli military intelligence, and that this might possibly cause its editorial policy to display a certain slant. Today's top four stories are as follows:
Special Dispatch Series - No. 819, November 25, 2004
MEMRI TV Project: Mothers of Hizbullah Martyrs: We are Very Happy and Want to Sacrifice More Children

Special Dispatch Series - No. 818, November 24, 2004
Arab Progressive: 'Tell Me One Arab University that can Stand Side by Side with Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard…'

Special Dispatch Series - No. 817, November 23, 2004
Arab Progressive Columnist: Arab Artists Deal with the Past and Not with the Present, Due to Fear of the Regimes

Special Dispatch Series - No. 816, November 19, 2004
Egyptian Progressive: 'Why Can't We [Arabs] See Things as the Rest of the World Sees Them?'
You have to scroll back as far as August before you encounter anything even vaguely creditable ("Special Dispatch Series - No. 769, August 20, 2004
Palestinian Progressive Journalist: Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out"). Surely, in the no doubt gigantic spectrum of media they scan, there must have been more than that in three months? You might say that if you scroll down the Ranter, you would get the impression of a certain slant in my editorial policy. Indeed. But I do not claim the absolute degree of impartiality MEMRI does. In fact, the description strapline across the top of my blog ("Blogging a noisy and socialist view on politics, security...") might tell you something of what you might read under it. But their self-description claims they are nothing more than a translation service:
"The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) explores the Middle East through the region's media. MEMRI bridges the language gap which exists between the West and the Middle East, providing timely translations of Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East.

Founded in February 1998 to inform the debate over U.S. policy in the Middle East, MEMRI is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit, 501 (c)3 organization."

Anyway, they've just started suing bloggers who are rude about them, so why not write to them at memri@memri.org and let them know how you feel?

Government....Computers......heh heh heh heh.....

The Department of Work & Pensions (for non-UK readers, the government department that administers Britain's social security system) has confirmed what everyone knows about the government's technological blind spot by throwing up what might be Britain's biggest-ever computer failure. It all started when they tried to update from Win2K to Windows XP.....then, before they knew what hit them, 80% of the department's PCs were just so many expensive paperweights. Now, the DWP is understandably very IT-dependent - just think of all those national insurance payments - so this is going to be a real connoisseur's cockup.

The people we have to thank for this? None other than everyone's favourite Big Consultant, Electronic Data Systems of Texas. Already blamed for a whole string of British public-sector IT disasters. Just wait for the day the National ID Card server falls over and starts puking 404 errors.

Looks like we're in for nasty weather

....I fear the end is coming soon. Well, enough Creedence Clearwater Revival. The dollar has taken another turn for the worse and this time it may be the real thing. I mentioned not so long ago that the huge accumulation of dollar central bank reserves since 1995 is beginning to look like a gigantic stock overhang, and if the BBC's report here is accurate, it may be about to be cleared.
"On Friday, the Shanghai-based China Business News reported China had cut the size of its US Treasury bond holdings in its foreign exchange reserves to $180bn to avoid losses from a weakening US dollar.

"China has already begun reducing U.S. dollar assets in forex reserves," the newspaper quoted Yu Yongding, a researcher who is also a member of the central bank's monetary policy committee, as saying. This report has since been disputed, helping push the dollar higher.."
If the Chinese central bankers turn bearish on the dollar , this could be going down fast. A further report, at Fistful of Euros points to the possibility of the Russians beginning to switch from dollars into euros. In comments, it is pointed out that Russian foreign reserves aren't that immense - but then again, the trigger for the 1976 sterling crisis was the Nigerian central bank leaving the sterling area. That's the kicker about metastability - you only need an "it" to get the rush for the exits started.

Foreign Notes - Seizing the symbols of authority

Scott Clark in Kiev has this to say about the dynamics of the revolution:
"So will Yanukovych be sworn in today? I suspect he will be. There is an authority vacuum out there right now which is being filled more and more by Yuschenko standing at the head of the multitudes on the street.

Kuchma has all but disappeared. He is heard from from time to time in the press but that is about it. I think he wanted to retreat to the background after Yanukovych was elected and assumed power and that is what he has seemed to do. But Yanukovych has not assumed power yet and, with Kuchma out of sight, there really is no one in charge right now.

But not if you look at it from the perspective of the people here. In a speech yesterday, Yuschenko told every institution of government, and the press was included in this, what their duties were under the Constitution and laws of Ukraine. It sounded like he was setting up his government out there right on the street. And he is doing things to take care of the people out there on the street. He has made special pleas for the people of Kiev to take care of those who have traveled here from other areas, to make sure they are fed, that they have a place to stay and that they are kept warm when they are out in the cold. And he has asked for donations of food and clothing and money from the people here to help those down on the square. And yesterday, he asked for medicine to be brought down because some of the people are sick with pneumonia and need medicine. And the money, food and clothing are coming in.

What all of this means to the people is that Yuschenko is, in short, acting like president."
Now, this is exactly what I've been going on about. Max Weber remarked that any form of government needs three things - the means of power (Machtmittel), an administrative staff (Verwaltungsstab), and some degree of legitimacy (Legitimation). Probably the best known consequence of this is Weber's division of legitimacy into three forms, traditional, charismatic and legal-rational. Now, clearly the means of power - the police - rest with the regime, which also still possesses the state bureaucracy. But its legitimacy is vanishing fast. If you consider Kuchma to have held legal-rational legitimacy, this is because rigging the elections breaks all the rules that are meant to provide that legitimacy.
As far as the administration goes, such things as the rebellion at state TV and the desertion of city councils shows that this is shaking. It must be assumed that the armed forces are still available, but there are also signs of slippage there.

On the other hand, the revolutionaries have gone a long way towards seizing the symbols of authority. The swearing-in in parliament was a neat coup in terms of legality or at least the perception of legality. But Weber's framework doesn't really help in understanding this situation because it doesn't really engage with the notion of democracy. What is the legitimacy that the opposition is gaining? It can't be exactly legal-rational, because they have revolted against a state that is operating in illegality. Only a legal decision or a new election could offer that. Weber offers the category of "charismatic" legitimacy, but this isn't enough - it isn't just the attraction of a (Hitler-like?) leader figure who got them out on the streets. We're talking primitive democracy here - the public in action. That's why, by the way, the negotiators and mediators now flocking to Kiev are irrelevant to the issue. What decides this will be the public on the streets - if they begin to trickle away, any dialogue stitched together by the EU or whoever will be fundamentally pointless. If the crowds don't trickle away, if they grow, in the end the diplomats will be overtaken by events.

Apparently, the protestors are now besieging government buildings and kept the prime minister out of his office for a while. Scrolling down, note the report that Yushchenko's side have constituted a government-in-waiting.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Ukraine: Perhaps a Slow Rot And a Speedy End

Just to revisit a past post on the Ukrainian perhaps-revolution, I think I ought to make myself a little clearer. What I meant by a "slow rot" as the government's legitimacy or authority is eroded doesn't exclude dramatic change. What I meant was a distinction between a coup de theatre (or indeed coup d'etat), for example either an attempted mass repression or the regime's flight or resignation, and the scenario where a prolonged period of protest goes on while the government still exists - until the crack comes. Once a certain threshold of authority for either side is reached, there will be a dramatic change - either the protests melting away, or the government.

Events seem to be bearing this out - Viktor at the Periscope reports that demonstrations have spread to Dnepropetrovsk (in the officially pro-Yanushkovich Don basin) and that those local authorities who reject the result have formed a central executive committee. Further, a government minister has resigned. Both Neeka and Europhobia report that the crowds of "government supporters" are fraternising with the "orange" demonstrators. Perhaps most significant of all, one of the three geographical commanders of the Ukrainian army has stated that his command will not "fight our own people".

What really worries, me, is this report that the entire board of Yukos have apparently left Russia for the UK. What the hell's that about?

Another Election, Another Recount

The Kos links to an Ohio newspaper article concerning the coming recount there. No orange jackets though...

Ukraine: a bogus calm

Well, whatever was about to happen clearly didn't. Yushchenko called for a general strike and the occupation of public buildings after the results were announced. It's unlikely that anything dramatic will happen today as the EU-Russia summit takes place. In other news, reports of local administrations rejecting the government, demonstrators digging in, etc. are steadily coming in. So are stories about Russian soldiers, movement of troops and the like. One prosaic explanation for the "Russians" would be that they are Ukrainian soldiers from a unit recruited in the Russian-speaking parts of the country - this would explain their accents. As the terminology, uniforms, weapons and vehicles are nearly identical it would not be a difficult mistake to make.

On the international side, both the European Union and the USA have rejected the results in a surprising outbreak of transatlantic harmony. Jose-Manuel Barroso, facing the first real challenge of his Commission Presidency after the confirmation rows, suggested that Ukraine might face "consequences" in the event of violence - it being strongly hinted that those consequences might not be unconnected with some $1.31 billion in aid and trade advantages currently provided by the EU. Colin Powell, interestingly, used exactly the same formulation ("consequences in its relationship") when he rejected the results last night. Well, we shall see. On BBC television last night, a "campaign adviser" to Yanushkovich was interviewed. Bizarrely, he didn't speak of his man as "President", "Prime Minister" or "President-elect" although the BBC used the latter term - instead it was "Mr. Yanushkovich". Interestingly enough, he turned out not to be speaking from Kiev but from an unstated location in southern Ukraine. So - his campaign adviser doesn't call him "President" and has taken himself off to the provinces? Hardly a sign of confidence.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

CEC declares Yanukovich win

Reuters, BBC reporting that the CEC has declared a Yanukovich win. Whatever is going to happen, is probably about to happen now.

Ukraine: it's not the despair, it's the hope that gets you

The crisis is now picking up with impressive speed. The Central Elections Commission was due to announce the final results at 1400GMT but they haven't produced yet. Russian-soldier rumours are increasingly frequent and credible, as are rumours that a run-off election will be held. A heavily-reported story that a military crackdown, either Ukrainian, Russian (false-flag), or Russian (overt) would begin at 1600 seems to be false. The European Union has named Polish president Aleksandr Kwasniewski as its representative in Ukraine. There have also been further signs of the government's authority eroding - the Commander in Chief of the Navy, for eaxmple, has declared for the opposition.

Blogs, meanwhile, are struggling technically as they did on US election night. (Has anyone else noticed that my two last Ukraine posts were published by Blogger in the wrong order?) Despite the tech farts and 404 errors, though, some are doing wonders. The Periscope with its Ukrainian commenters is putting out a lot of news. Scott Clark, Neeka and some others are reporting from the scene. Clark reports that the "Russians" were identified as such by - ahem - the Russian registration numbers on their transport. Looks like they're Russians, then. A special-purpose blog has been set up by Ukrainians in London.

Ukraine - A Slow Rot or Speedy End?

Over in the Ukraine, they're a-demonstrating still over the bizarre results of the presidential election. (99% results for the president, 100%+ turnouts..) With the presidency surrounded by a huge crowd clad in orange, what happens next? Some voices in the last few days have suggested that the crowds lack momentum, and that the regime will wait it out. But I think this is unlikely. The longer the fight goes on, the more the government will be discredited. That the regime was going to try some form of waiting game is clear from the decision of its parliamentarians not to turn up at a special session yesterday. Because the constitution requires 50% of the house plus 1 deputy to function, this manoeuvre prevented any binding decision or official statement.

But it also meant that the parliament was abandoned to the opposition, which they promptly took advantage of by staging a swearing-in ceremony for Yushchenko. It was good telly, at least until state TV pulled the plug. And the government seems not to have an answer either - they have yet to take any action to cement their claim, like appointing a cabinet. The problem with a waiting game is that the same factors you hope will work on the opposition can work on you - divisions, crisis-weariness, and dissatisfaction can set in. The Grauniad reports, for example, that reporters on the two main TV stations have gone on strike to protest censorship. The key point will be if and when this begins to affect the police/military, of course.

How could it end? One option would be the Georgian solution, with a tipping point being reached when the government's authority is eroded further and the opposition's support grows. Another would be the Jaruzelski option - start cracking heads and taking names, and officially freeze the election results. An alternative would be the Hungarian version - call in the Russians to crack heads, take names etc. But it seems unlikely that Russia would try anything quite so blatant unless open civil war was to break out. (Clearly, solution 3 might be triggered by a halfbaked solution 2.) In the event of a peaceful pre-revolution, I suspect that the Russians would probably give in gracefully. Watch for signs of Igor Ivanov turning up in Kiev - last year in the Caucasus he was the Kremlin's messenger to tell Shevardnadze and Abashidze to give up. When the Ig's in town the gig is up and the chips are down, clearly. If it looks like going Georgian, the Russians will probably flip on Yanushkovich and attempt to restore relations with the revolutionaries, having conducted their old pals to a well-heeled exile in Russia. That is, "conducted" as in "dragged kicking and screaming to a waiting Ilyushin 62", if necessary...

Speaking of Ilyushins, in the event of a Ukrainian revolution we may find the Viktor Bout thing blows wide open. He has been known to do a lot of business there - for example, the infamous deal to arm the Taliban was arranged with weapons from the Ukraine via the gangster Vadim Rabinovich. If this stone gets turned over, there may well be some interesting creepy crawlies underneath.

Ukraine: Dark Rumour from the Echo Chamber

The Periscope is reporting (excellently) on the Ukrainian situation, and has stated that Russian special forces (Spetsnaz) are actually in Ukraine. If true this is of course a critical fact of the highest order. I wonder though if a 1968 solution is really possible? The reports speak of Spetsnaz in Ukrainian uniform and (seemingly) integrated with Ukrainian units. This sounds to me like a rumour, being amplified through the blogosphere as echo-chamber. One version of the story has Ukrainian police outside the presidential administration telling the public that the Russians were inside the building, ready to shoot anyone who tried to get in. That could well be a scare story, but a lot of the Russian-soldier reports seem to agree on places and numbers.

On a more positive theme, Ukrainian Spetsnaz guarding the presidential administration are supposed to have donned the orange and to be fraternising with the demonstrators (see post below..). Further, some officers on the general staff are said to have called on cadets from the Kiev military academy to join the demo. No verification, though.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Crazy Norwegian builds flight simulator

A Norwegian has built a full-motion flight simulator in his living room. A website is here, with videos. It's all in Norwegian (as well as in hardware).

Look! Terrorists!

Be afraid. Be very afraid. Go on. Apparently the security services have foiled a "9/11 attack" on London. The Daily Mail, the Sun, and ITN News all say so. They have all apparently run with a story sourced to a nameless "senior authoritative source" who claims that the training of "suicide pilots" was interrupted, ostensibly by some sort of secret service operation. Strangely enough, this story broke in Britain's most rightwing media organisations on the morning of the Queen's Speech, in which the government is introducing a string of Home Office bills including ID cards and more anti-terrorist stuff. But don't worry though. After all, the source was helpful enough to tell the Mail that
"the threats were real and were not deliberately exaggerated for political purposes.

"This is not about politics, it's about hard work behind the scenes to stop what is a clear threat," the source said"
So that's all right then. A couple of questions - when was the trial of the "suicide pilots"? Surely the security services didn't just let them go. And - if MI5 can roll up a plot as serious as this without anyone noticing at all, what do we need yet more draconian rhetoric for? Do we really need a special civil (that is, no-evidence) order to ban people the authorities don't like from "using the internet" and send them to jail if they do>? Mind you, some people are pretty certain about these things:
"Well I'm not interested in, mm, me as a person, but we as a Government have to be tough."
This Blunkettism reminds me of an Armando Ianucci skit from about 1996 that showed Jack Straw as the hooded leader of the "Military Wing of the Labour Party", flanked by teams of gunmen chanting "TOUGH! TOUGH! TOUGH!". It's also a good reminder that even if David Blunkett isn't interested in himself as a person, he's certainly interested in you.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Curious and Interesting: How to declare a politician insane

Section 141 of the Mental Health Act makes the following provision for the case of a Member of Parliament going mad.
"Members of Parliament suffering from mental illness

141 -(1) Where a member of the House of Commons is auth­orised to be detained on the ground (however formulated) that he is suffering from mental illness, it shall be the duty of the court, authority or person on whose order or application, and of any registered medical practitioner upon whose recommendation or certificate, the detention was authorised, and of the person in charge of the hospital or other place in which the member is authorised to be detained, to notify the Speaker of the House of Commons that the detention has been authorised.

(2) Where the Speaker receives a notification under subsection (1) above, or is notified by two members of the House of Commons that they are credibly informed that such an authorisation has been given, the Speaker shall cause the member to whom the notification relates to be visited and examined by two registered medical practitioners appointed in accordance with subsection (3) below.

(3) The registered medical practitioners to be appointed for the purposes of subsection (2) above shall be appointed by the President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and shall be prac­titioners appearing to the President to have special experience in the diagnosis or treatment of mental disorders.

(4) The registered medical practitioners appointed in accord­ance with subsection (3) above shall report to the Speaker whether the member is suffering from mental illness and is authorised to be detained as such.

(5) If the report is to the effect that the member is suffering from mental illness and authorised to be detained as aforesaid, the Speaker shall at the expiration of six months from the date of the report, if the House is then sitting, and otherwise as soon as may be after the House next sits, again cause the member to be visited and examined by two such registered medical prac­titioners as aforesaid, and the registered medical practitioners shall report as aforesaid.

(6) If the second report is that the member is suffering from mental illness and authorised to be detained as mentioned in subsection (4) above, the Speaker shall forthwith lay both reports before the House of Commons, and thereupon the seat of the member shall become vacant.

(7) Any sums required for the payment of fees and expenses to registered medical practitioners acting in relating to a member of the House of Commons under this
shall be defrayed out of moneys provided by Parliament."

Ha! Now, can we find two cooperative MPs and a shrink?

Bizarre Attitude

Does Shadow Rural Affairs Secretary James Gray believe in parliamentary democracy? It sounds a pretty extreme question, but when his fellow Beaufort huntsman Lord Mancroft says that "the House of Commons will have to be curbed" you have to wonder. Will Gray disassociate himself from this, or can we assume that he will be happy as a member of the Commons that his pal wants to "curb"?

Personally I don't care much about fox hunting. But I do care increasingly about the alarming degree to which both sides of politics are displaying contempt for democratic principles. On one side we have a constant tattoo of authoritarian bullying. On the other, an apparently total rejection of the legitimacy of the Commons. Apparently, the nth vote in Parliament was "shenanigans, a shambles, ridiculous behaviour". It's as bad as Nazi Germany! It will "demolish farming"! (How?) We have now had seven years of debate, amendments, official reports, compromises and manoeuvring. Enough, surely, to accept. But no. Instead we are now at risk of losing the Parliament Act, the only means by which the elected house can override the unelected. No wonder the Countryside Alliance like the idea of challenging it. Democracy? Who needs it?

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Disturbing Search Request: "malet broadband frequency jammer"

The Ranter is a googlewhack for "malet broadband frequency jammer". Requested by someone in India. Note for policemen: we have no jammers of any kind. UN inspectors welcome.


Another business opportunity rebuilding the new Iraq: probably the world's most lucrative taxi service. If you need to get into Baghdad from the airport (or more importantly the other way round), £2,750 now buys you a ride. That's a car and driver for you, and a chase car with four South African mercenaries toting Heckler & Koch MP5s. You won't have much chance to get your bearings, though, as they will drive at 100mph without stopping at all. A service, I feel, that London is missing.

When you think, though, that the Royal Jordanian flight from London to Baghdad costs only £670 one way, you have to wonder who's getting adequately compensated. Gunmen, after all, are two a penny in Iraq. Perhaps some of the £2,750 is being paid out to the local emir for reinsurance? One would hope so. Alternatively, you can hail an Iraqi cab for $20 and bring your own firearms. There's always something to be said for being inconspicuous, but then if it was reliable the price would probably go up.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Admin Notice: Migration

I have just completed transferring documents the Ranter refers to from my ex-college webspace to a commercial server. And updating all the links. BEER! Please report any brokens to me. Thanks.

Just like a store card? Maybe not

David Blunkett has recently been quoted as saying that his proposed compulsory ID card and its database holding records on all citizens is just like a supermarket loyalty card. In fact, even nicer. Because those terrible supermarkets might hold details like these:
"'Store loyalty cards keep continuously updated details such as the size of a person's household, whether they're employed or not and the ages of their children, besides what they like to eat, where and how often they shop and even what brand of toothpaste they use"
Wow! Which brand of toothpaste! Who'd a thowt it - they do exactly what they are meant to! Now, privacy groups have been angry about loyalty cards for years now. This Blunkett tack is a new strategy, clearly intending to try to co-opt some people's concerns into supporting his monster database. It is silly, and this is why.

1. You don't have to have a Tesco Clubcard if you don't want one.

But you will have to have a government ID card, whether you want one or not. And you'll have to give David Blunkett £85 for the privilege.

2. If you have a supermarket loyalty card, you can stop using it. You can cut it up. You can, if you are especially odd, deliberately only use it for some of your purchases in order to give them useless data. Not that I'm recommending anyone does that. What kind of twisted freak would suggest such a thing?

But if your government ID card doesn't swipe properly, whether or not it's your fault or even if you knew it was damaged or not, you will be fined up to £2,000. If you don't pay you will go to jail.

3. When was the last time a supermarket policeman stopped you in the street and asked to see your card?

Never, because they don't exist. But real policemen will do just that. If you don't produce it either then or later at a police station, guess what? Another two grand, thank you very much. And it's not just Dixon of Dock Green you'll need to worry about. A whole grey kaleidoscope of bureaucrats and busybodies will have the power to demand your papers - the Revenue, Customs, trading standards, Ofcom, every local authority in Britain.

4. At the last job interview you went to, did they ask to see your Tesco card?

Well, anyone who wants to work will need to show their employer an ID card. All employers are to be encouraged to buy card readers.

5. You want to register your child at school. Clubcard please.

Er....no. But you will need both your ID card and theirs. And, if they didn't want to hold details of your educational qualification and income, and your child's, against both your names, why is the government setting up another monster database which they will "bolt on to" the ID card?

6. You want to see a doctor.

Well, you won't need your Tesco card. But one of the reasons in favour Mr Blunkett gives for ID cards is to prevent "health tourists" using the NHS. How will this happen if the NHS doesn't demand your ID card?

Another Blunkettism in his speech to the hyper-Blairite Institute for Public Policy research was that the proposed ID card would only have "your name, address, photo and a biometric on it". This is an example of lying by telling the truth. Indeed, there will be very little data on the card itself. The only important item on the card will be your Citizen Reference Number. The thing is not the card. It's the database. With a unique reference number for all citizens, on cards, you can call up any government-held data. The purposes Blunkett claims for his cards demand that this must - must - include employment, immigration, NHS and perhaps criminal record information. It's in the nature of such a system that further functions could be added without the end user's knowledge. The scheme would be much less bad if the information was indeed held on the card, in a format we could read.

The Sliding Dollar: A Lesson from the Great Crash

Edward at the Fistful of Euros delivers a (good) post on the sliding dollar/soaring euro issue and the wisdom or otherwise of a central bank intervention to prop up the buck, or at least manage decline. He, rightly I think, points up the inconsistency in US Treasury Secretary John Snow's recent remarks - Snow said that the US government maintained a strong dollar policy, but did not say anything about the dollar's increasing strengthlessness - and attributes this to a dissonance between what he perceives as a national interest and what he is willing to say. It may be good for the US economy if the dollar falls some way, but this is not to be said in public.

There are two reasons for this. One, of course, is that other economies - Europe first of all - stand to lose out in a dollar devaluation. The other is that this particular US government is especially attached to the idea of being Tough. This idea frequently gets in the way of rational thought about currencies, and in this case we can see a conflict between a rational decision (to employ the Norman Fowler principle and "leave it floating downwards to find its own level") and the need to say tough things for fear of being branded untough. Either way, it does not seem likely that Mr. Snow will support an international agreement to regulate the dollar (as was done under the Plaza and Louvre accords in the 1980s). If Europe fears a competitive dollar devaluation, then, the question of a unilateral intervention comes up. Now, this might not be as foolish as it sounds. The European System of Central Banks' reserves are gigantic, and anyway you can intervene downwards almost without limit (except the risk of inflation). But there is a serious risk involved, which we might call the Whitney trap. Richard Whitney was the vice-president of the New York Stock Exchange in 1929, who later committed suicide in disgrace over a fraud. The fatal fraud was the result of his action in buying quantities of shares in a distilling firm in an effort to shore up the share price. The point was to support the value of his existing holding in the same firm, which he had pledged as collateral to a large loan. To do this, he borrowed heavily.

Unsurprisingly, as the wider market was collapsing around him and the US (and indeed world) economy was going down the toilet, all that happened was that the other shareholders grasped at this straw to realise at least some cash from their otherwise worthless shares. Whitney kept piling up more and more paper - he got within sight of taking the firm private (by the end he owned 137,672 shares out of 148,750) before being overcome by financial exhaustion. But neither his own stock price, nor the wider market, noticed one jot. Now, this comparison is not perfect. After all, the ECB will never run out of euros. But it is true, though, that other players hold an immense overhang of dollars. If the situation gets worse, they will be under increasing pressure to sell before it gets still worse - and who will buy? The other players, of course, are the Asian central banks who have been intervening like hell for months and hence are awash with depreciating greenbacks. In the Whitney scenario, the ECB's action would simply permit other central banks to get out, while itself piling up sinking dollars. Very possibly, all that would happen would be that the relative positions would be much the same, with the exception that the Asians would hold euros, not dollars, and that an inflationary quantity of euros would have been spilt into the world. Given the ECB's inflation-hawk reputation, we could expect tough and growth-choking interest rate rises. Great.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for a high euro. To a certain extent there is an analogy to the Deutschmark in the 70s and 80s, whose surge effectively cancelled out the soaring oil price. Edward holds that this effect is losing heft, though.

EDITED to remove humiliating brain fart

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Voting Weirds: Florida Reaches for the Shredder

Does anyone else have this odd thought that nothing will symbolise our times so much in future as - the shredder? Think about it. It's today's secular confessional - you shovel the paper trail of your sins into the grey plastic maw, hit the button and a few seconds later, you are shriven. Unlike the old-line confessional, that wanted you to stop sinning, this one is nonjudgmental. Postmodern, you could almost say. George Bush's team place great value on the notion of being born again, so it was no wonder that, when it all came crashing down, Enron's head office was sometimes ringed by trucks hired from mass-shredding companies. (Personal note: not far from where I live, a ShredFast Document Destruction truck parks up every night after a hard day's shredding. I wonder if I ought to follow it one morning..) God alone knows what's already been shredded on the volley of subsequent scandals.

Now, have a look at this report from Blackboxvoting.org out in the field: Kos
"Then, voting integrity advocates from Volusia and Broward, decided now would be a good time to go through the trash at the elections office. Lo and behold, they found all kinds of memos and some polling place tapes, fresh from Volusia elections office. So, we compared these with the Nov. 2 signed ones and the "special' ones from Nov. 15 given to us, unsigned, and we found several of the MISSING poll tapes. There they were: In the garbage.

So, Kathleen went to the car and got the polling place tapes we had pulled from the warehouse garbage. My my my. There were not only discrepancies, but a polling place tape that was signed by six officials.

This was a bit disturbing, since the employees there told us that bag was destined for the shredder.

By now, a county lawyer had appeared on the scene, suddenly threatening to charge us extra for the time we took looking at the real stuff they had withheld from us in our FOIA. Other lawyers appeared, phoned, people had meetings, Lana glowered at everyone, and someone shut the door in the office holding the GEMS server."
Well, I never. Burning the files is passe. Eating the documents gets to be a big job. Shredding is now.

Oh yeah, and someone obviously forgot to shred: Kos, original report.
"The unmarked brown box sat unnoticed in the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections office until Monday, two weeks after the election, when an employee cleaning a desk stumbled upon it.

Inside were 268 uncounted absentee ballots."

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Ivory Coast - Some Unusual "Private Contractors"

Le Monde reports extensively on the background of the Ivory Coast crisis. Interestingly, it seems that an embarrassing situation was narrowly avoided when the French occupied the Hotel Ivoire (the best in town, naturally) as their HQ and evacuee registration point. On the 21st floor, they discovered a telephone-tapping centre operated by some 46 Israeli technicians, 24 hours a day. (Look what I found!) Presumably this organisation was working for the Ivorian government, although the article does not say so directly.

The Israelis - despite officially being just "private contractors" - were speedily evacuated by an Italian aircraft. Unlike the rest of the evacuees, though, they didn't pass through the French camp or the French-run airport terminal, but were taken directly to the aircraft. (That might be in the sense of taken directly to the aircraft and shoved through the door by huge Foreign Legionnaires, especially if the French suspected that they'd been monitoring their own signals.) Another interesting question is raised by the mention of an Israeli embargo on "materiel securitaire" (security equipment) for the country. Apparently this referred to remotely-piloted aircraft (drones) - and the French have apparently seized at least one of the same. Information from a GPS receiver aboard the drone, allegedly, shows that the Ivorians had reconnoitred the French position they bombed in advance.

All very interesting. Does the presence of this mysterious sigint centre suggest that the Israelis are boosting their intelligence presence in West Africa?

Today's Miscellaneous War Stuff

Eric Umansky picks out a New York Times story concerning the performance or otherwise of the New Iraqi security forces. The key para:
"Colonel Gubler said things had gotten so bad that when the Americans attacked Falluja, the Ramadi police were told not to come to work "just so we could differentiate them" from revenge-minded insurgents posing as police officers, he said. A sure way to know a car is packed with a suicide bomb, he added, is when the Iraqi police refuse to inspect the vehicle. "Somehow, they know.""
That's right - they told the real policemen to keep off the streets so the only people in police uniforms would be the fake policemen. Colonel Gubler goes on to mention the one really good Iraqi National Guard officer he knew - until they found him, missing his head. Meanwhile, the "Coalition of nervously looking at your watch and edging towards the door" gained another member, after Hungary's parliament voted against extending their 300 troops' tour in Iraq. They will now leave by the end of the year.

In other news, the British battle group at Dogwood have evolved a new anti-car bomb tactic. According to this BBC report, a female dog handler (with dog, obviously) checks out the vehicle whilst everyone else waits for the bang inside their Warriors. Whatever she's being paid, it's not enough.
"L/Cpl Chester and Bonnie go forward alone to check cars for devices at vehicle checkpoints in Falluja while soldiers wait in armoured Warrior fighting vehicles.

They were rushed up to the 850-strong battle group's base at Camp Dogwood, 25 miles south of Baghdad, five days ago after receiving an urgent call for their services. They were previously deployed on a four-month tour in Basra and had been due to fly home to Britain this Wednesday."

The Government and the Equatorial Coup

The Gaurdina covers the announcement that our Foreign Secretary was aware in January of the coup plot in Equatorial Guinea. This, of course, was the one that involved well-known mercenaries and Mark Thatcher. The Conservatives are now pushing hard on this on the grounds that this was "unlawful". It may just be poor writing, but I find it hard to understand exactly what Jack Straw is accused of. He knew it was going to happen? Isn't that his job? I'd have thought that the diplomatic and secret services' main purpose was to find out what was going to happen. It seems a little bizarre for the Conservatives - officially against human rights and such woolly liberal/militarist grandiose nonsense - to argue that the government should as a matter of principle save dictators accused of cannibalism.

Mind you, these are odd times for Conservatives. Not only are they discovering that a rightwing US administration doesn't necessarily agree with them, but even the editor of the Daily Telegraph no longer sees God in the party leader. Personally, Martin Newlands' change of course at the Telegraph is good news. In the last few years, itb hasn't so much been a conservative newspaper as a neo-con comic. This is the paper that predicted that Iain Duncan Smith would be prime minister. That it can now say bad things about The Party is all good. Neither Tories nor the rest of us are served by several newspapers who claim to be independent but take a role in internal party politics. Michael Howard did better than he thought by sending Boris Johnson to grovel in Liverpool. It was obviously silly that the head Tory could order an editor about. It was equally silly that the same editor could be a prospective Tory minister , while his paper was meant to be entirely separate from the party. Johnson is now gone from the front bench for other reasons. The Telegraph is dragging itself back towards newspapership from its neocon burst.

By the way, I don't care about anything else about Boris Johnson.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Voter Weirdage: Recount Coming?

Kos reporting some interesting figures about the counts that are still going on in Ohio/

It's not about body counts. It never is

It's about control. And we don't have it. An oil pipeline from the northern Iraqi oilfields to the main refinery in Baiji was blown up, and what happened?
"The secondary pipeline about 60km west of Kirkuk, which carries oil to refineries in the city of Baiji, was bombed at around 3am (0000 GMT) on Monday, said police officer Sahim Muhammad.

The attack triggered a huge blaze, but firefighters were kept away because Iraqi fighters had warned of dire consequences if they intervened, he said."
I know there are parts of Bradford where people find it amusing to start fires so they can attack the firemen, but this is very not good. They - whoever the they is, as Rumsfeld puts it - have the psycho-political control.

"Torture Flights" and an anonymous firm

The Sunday Times reports that two unmarked civil aircraft have allegedly been used by US agents to transfer prisoners to such countries as Egypt, Uzbekistan and Syria, allegedly in order for them to be interrogated under torture. Witnesses to transfers describe the prisoners being handcuffed, dressed in nappies and sedated by suppository before their departure. According to reports of a transfer from Sweden to Egypt in December, 2001, two prisoners were handed over to hooded men, presumably CIA agents, who conducted this rather grim procedure before taking them aboard a Gulfstream-V business jet registered N379P. One of the prisoners' mothers alleges that her son was subjected to electric shocks by the Egyptian secret service after his arrival in Egypt.

The same aircraft was spotted at various sites around the world in connection with other prisoner transfers, including Pakistan, the Gambia and Indonesia. According to the Times, it and another plane (a Boeing Business Jet, that is to say a 737 converted as a luxury and extended-range corporate express) are operated by a private firm called "Premier Executive Transport Services" described as being located in Massachusetts. In fact, contrary to the Times story, it is actually incorporated in the state of Delaware, well-known for its - ahem - liberal legislation on such matters as disclosure, company law and taxation. Bizarrely, neither of the two names given as directors of the firm produce any results from any search engine. The address given is that of a small law firm specialising in real estate. Given these facts, it is very likely that PETS is a shell company consisting of very little more than two names and a Delaware registration. According to the Massachusetts corporate registry, it hasn't filed an annual report since 2000.

A brief perusal of the US Federal Aviation Administration's website shows that there is no aircraft with the US registration N379P. (If you want, look here. If you really want, why not reserve the registration yourself?) The Boeing's registration (N313P), however, is kosher and is indeed registered to PETS. It is apparently operated by a leasing firm called "Stevens Express Leasing", who also have approval to operate Gulfstream IV aircraft. Further enquiries show that N379P has been since reregistered to N8068V. This registration is genuine and leads to Premier, here spelt Premiere.

Nobody who reads this blog will be terribly surprised to find that, yes, Premier can be found in the list of DESC fuel customers that started it all (here if you want a copy). Contract no. TB2506. I have personally suspected for some time that some of the Viktor Bout contracts may have been either for the transport of prisoners, or payment for such transport. Back on the 25th of October, I said as much. Wouldn't we all love to know who the beneficial owner of PETS is, eh?

Saturday, November 13, 2004

MG Rover - How John Towers Made My All-Time Shit List

Back in early 2000, if you had barged into Tommy's Bar at Royal Holloway, University of London, and demanded of me who had most impressed me in the last six months, I would have unhesitatingly told you that John Towers, the former production director of Rover Group who had just saved the Rover plant from closure, deserved all our congratulations. The previous owners, BMW, had wanted to shut down the car plant and flog the land. That didn't stop them wanting to hang on to the profitable bits - the Mini production line, the Rover 75 line and the Midland Powertrain gearbox plant - of course. But the core business and thousands of jobs would go. Nobody, at first, looked like doing much. Although the tabloids worked themselves into an anti-German froth, they didn't feel at all certain in arguing for government intervention. After all, that was exactly what they opposed, no? The Trade and Industry Secretary, Stephen Byers, seemed at first to agree. A small, boutique, New Labourish sports car business might - might - survive. But nothing more.

As the complicated negotiations went on, though, it became clear that something might yet be saved. There were doubts about the numbers. There was a growing critical mass of anger in the Labour Party and, most of all, the trade unions. And then - there was action. A group of former Rover executives were backed by an odd coalition of interest to put together their own bid. Much of the cash came from rich franchise dealerships, with more from companies involved in supplying the plant, and quite a bit from the unions and their members. On the way, some of BMW's claims about Rover inefficiency turned sour - after all, if BMW's management were so great, surely they would have been able to know how many unsold cars they had in stock? But the potential buyers found themselves forced to buy satellite photos from Russia to discover how much inventory was parked on the two and a half mile runway of Bruntingthorpe airfield, depreciating peacefully in the wet winter. Armed with a figure for the car mountain, they finally raised the rest of the funding from a provincial US bank. There was a gap in the plan of around £10 million, but in the end the state coughed up.

Under the final agreement, the New Mini tooling would be handed over to BMW's ex-Rover plant at Cowley, the Rover 75 tooling going the other way. The car pile would be handed over to the North Carolinan bankers in return for working capital. BMW would lend some £425 million to the new firm at a zero interest rate. Many people thought it would never work, but the first few sets of figures were encouraging. An arbitration resulted in the Powertrain plant also being handed to Rover, which gave them the capability to build whole cars. There was talk of joint ventures with other car makers to develop a new range. You'd have doubted that Towers would ever have got on my shit list back then. But, so far, none of the foreign deals have worked. The new cars have not happened, but something else has.

That something else recently got Towers called by a name which has iconic status in British language - the unacceptable face of capitalism. The phrase was first used by Prime Minister Edward Heath, speaking of Lonrho mining boss Tiny Rowland. The next man to be the unacceptable face was Robert Maxwell, not long before his death. It is a serious thing to say, even if the man to say it was the head of BMW in Britain, who might not be entirely neutral. Towers and the four others who became the new firm's directors have gripped the headlines by organising a trust fund for their benefit that receives substantial sums of money from the firm. But it's not only that. They also gave the firm a new and bizarre corporate structure. Their own holding company (Techtronic), the final owner of the whole firm, owns the various business units. So far, so straightforward. They include the group's property assets, its brand, a luxurious country-house conference centre, the profitable Midlands Powertrain and parts units, and a financial unit that owns the portfolio of loans offered to customers who bought on credit. They also, though, include a shell company that owns their controlling stake in MG-Rover Group, the actual car manufacturer.

They don't own the whole of MG Rover Group though. Remember the employees who bought shares back at the time of the firm's rescue? They own the remaining minority. But they don't have Techtronic shares, and hence no interests in the totality of the group. Their shares are in MG Rover Group - that is, Rover less its more profitable assets. Another interesting fact is that BMW loan. The loan was made, free of interest, to Techtronic. Techtronic disburses it as required to MG Rover. But Techtronic charges MG Rover interest on it, interest that presumably benefits only the Techtronic shareholders. The comedian Tony Hancock, according to my dad, once portrayed a con-man who started a company with his straight-man. He explains to the mark that there are two classes of shares, A and B. The dupe opts for the A's and Hancock's character gleefully accepts the B's. The sting? The A shares entitle you to put money into the company, but only the B's let you take it out.

Friday, November 12, 2004


Have just begun using Mozilla/Firefox! And have discovered that the Ranter looks weird in it! And that the clock doesn't work! (Cue Mozilla users saying "Clock? There's a clock?")

Just another reason to begin the long delayed Ranter Redesign...

Infighting Feared in the Middle East

In the wake of Yasser Arafat's death, many well-informed voices have raised concerns that a damaging factional struggle might break out and possibly damage the peace process. On one side, a hard-line sect united in adulation of their leader and in their trust in force. On the other, the forces of an established bureaucracy hoping to reopen negotiations. One faction seeks to grab every scrap of advantage from Arafat's death and intensify the violence. One faction wants to show willing. There is a real danger of civil war.

But I'm not talking about the Palestinians.

The Israeli government is divided. The Foreign Ministry sees the death of Arafat and the rise of a new leadership as a priceless opportunity to revive the stacks of diplomatic proposals kicked around since the Taba talks in early 2001. Within 60 days, the Palestinian constitution requires elections for a new president. What better chance to make a fresh start? In this view, Israel should cooperate in the election process by pulling out troops, removing closures and unfreezing millions of dollars held in Palestinian tax revenues. A good moment to restore some diplomatic credit, unwind some of the militarisation, and get back on the road map. They also realise that even the US could hardly support them in preventing democratic elections from taking place. (Readers with good memories may recall that this was itself a peace proposal a couple of years ago - the Israeli army would be withdrawn in order for elections to take place.) And anyway, reducing the militarisation would give back many of the levers of pressure Israel once held. Once used, most of them cannot be used more - so this would help to restore Israel's options.

The other faction is stronger in parts of the military establishment and especially on the Right. Arafat, the piggish old terrorist, is dead. Victory! Time to rub it in, to step up settlement building, to encourage disunity among Palestinians, to finally occupy the Muqata. This side has been willing to threaten violence in the event that its ideas are ignored, as in the case of the Gaza evacuation plan. What will decide the future of Israel and of Palestine is not "infighting" among the Palestinians - so far absent - but infighting among Israel's own warring factions. After all, it will not matter very much who gets the presidency if nothing changes in the war.

As predicted....

It now seems that, just as predicted, the insurgents have been slipping out of Fallujah. As predicted, they headed north towards Kurdistan....where the state of emergency doesn't apply. And, as predicted, they created mayhem. The Guardian reports on the eruption of fighting in Mosul, where rebels have apparently gained control of the streets at least for a time. Importantly, the paper quotes a "senior Kurdish official" as saying specifically that they had arrived several days before from Fallujah and Samarra. Another key point in the report is the mention of bringing Kurdish-manned ING units into these cities - it is crucial to understand that the Kurdish ING are effectively complete Peshmerga units rebadged as Iraqi National Guards, and their use in Kirkuk (say) would be seen as a Kurdish anti-Arab drive.

No doubt the men who moved up north from Fallujah were well aware of this. Mosul, especially, has been a little-reported front in the last few months, where despite the perception of it as a Kurdish-run quiet sector some serious fighting has gone on. Adding that to the ethnic tinderbox of Kirkuk while the US reserves are committed to a long fight in Fallujah would be a major insurgent success.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Fallujah - Vanishing Iraqi Commandos

It is reported that out of the 500 Iraqi soldiers in the 36th (Commando) Battalion who are going into Fallujah with the first wave of Marines, only 170 of them turned up. This is yet another example of the new Iraqi forces being wholly unreliable, and is especially worrying as the battalion was meant to be an elite outfit. (Interestingly, one of these units is called the 2nd Ministry of the Interior Commandos - an odd revival of Soviet terminology. The Soviet Union had, and Russia still has, heavily armed paramilitary forces answering to the Interior Ministry known as the OMON for short. The originals have a truly fearsome reputation.)

Further, it is reported that as many as 40 Iraqi police have been slaughtered in Baqubah, 40 miles NE of Baghdad and on the way to Kurdistan, where the state of emergency and curfew are not in force. As far as limited information goes, the raid seems to have followed a similar pattern to those at the weekend, and indeed one months ago in Fallujah where insurgents contained the ICDC garrison while they stormed the police station and killed all the cops. The insurgent strategy of going after the ING and the police remains clear.

Meanwhile, eight were killed in a multiple car bombing of churches in Baghdad.

Sliding Dollar (Again)

Brad DeLong has an interesting chart of the USD over the last two years, illustrating the point.

Voting Weird: MSNBC hits the story

Keith Olbermann of MSNBC's Countdown ran with the voting oddnesses last night, covering much of the stuff that has been blogged heavily in the last few days. For example, those mystery voters:
"Interestingly, none of the complaining emailers took issue with the remarkable results out of Cuyahoga County, Ohio. In 29 precincts there, the County’s website shows, we had the most unexpected results in years: more votes than voters.

I’ll repeat that: more votes than voters. 93,000 more votes than voters.


Talk about successful get-out-the-vote campaigns! What a triumph for democracy in Fairview Park, twelve miles west of downtown Cleveland. Only 13,342 registered voters there, but they cast 18,472 votes.."
Suburban Guerrilla has a breakdown of strange figures from Ohio, taken from the official results.

Monday, November 08, 2004


Well, the bollocks is officially over and Allawi has "given the go-ahead". Now for the show. A "source" has suggested to me that most of the guerrillas have already exfiltrated and are intending to create mayhem in the rear once the US Marines are thoroughly committed. The hardly reported massacre of police in the Haditha/Haqlaniya area, some 150km up the Euphrates from Fallujah, at the weekend may show that this is already happening.On Monday, the Haditha police station was assaulted by insurgents. After 90 minutes of fighting they were able to take some 21 police prisoners. These men were later found, handcuffed and shot in the head, near the K3 pipeline pump in the desert. Al-Jazeera link That came a day after 29 people were killed in a string of car-bombings in Samarra, the town supposedly pacified in an operation that was meant to be the "model" for Fallujah. Just to lend personal interest, the chief of security for western Iraq was assassinated.

The police station assault is said to have involved around 200 rebels.

Maybe that was the "it"?

I mentioned earlier that the dollar and for that matter, the US public finances, were being supported by a huge accumulation of foreign reserves, and that this was a basically unstable situation that however could remain in place for an unknown length of time until "it" happened. This is technically known as metastability. It looks like it may have happened - The Mighty FT link
"Speculative traders in Chicago last week racked up the highest number of long-euro, short-dollar contracts on record. Options traders have reported brisk business in euro calls - contracts to buy the euro at a pre-determined rate.

However, the market has been rife with rumours that the latest wave of selling has been led by foreign governments seeking to cut their exposure to US assets. India and Russia have reportedly been selling US assets, as well as petrodollar-rich Middle Eastern investors.

China, which has $515bn of reserves, was also said to be selling dollars and buying Asian currencies in readiness to switch the renminbi's dollar peg to a basket arrangement, something Chinese officials have increasingly hinted at. Any re-allocation could push the dollar sharply lower and Treasury yields markedly higher."
Hmmm....heavy US government spending both on the military and high-profile domestic projects, a shift in reserve asset allocation, plus a petro-dollar overhang. That would be all the historic signals for a major dollar realignment, no? It was exactly this cocktail that brought about the end of Bretton Woods and eventually the 1972 dollar float, and something like it caused the slide that had to be managed through the Plaza Accords.

So - what does that suggest the "it" was?

Update!: It is reported that the rouble - I'm tempted to say "even" - surged against the dollar yesterday despite Russian Central Bank intervention to back the $. (Details here) What the Russians are trying to do is to avoid a common problem for resource exporting economies, the "Dutch disease". The problem is that although oil exports produce a spectacular trade surplus, the exchange rate soars. This squashes other export industries and sucks in cheap imports, damaging others. One option is to run an exchange rate targeting policy. After all, a central bank can always intervene downwards. Note, though, that the RCB is apparently cutting down its intervention - "Central Bank gold and forex reserves in the week ending Oct. 29 rose $2.1 billion to $107.3 billion, a much smaller rise than the record $5.1 billion jump the previous week, reflecting less dollar-buying intervention." There's no point being left with a mound of paper.

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