Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Incompetent, deceitful war profiteers..

...But other than that, they're swell fellows. CusterBattles in more trouble. Especially this:
Ballard also noted that Custer Battles employees didn't use metal detectors and ignored suggestions that an interrogator look over paperwork while a two-man team inspected each vehicle. "What horrified us most of all, however," Ballard wrote, "was their refusal to open the cargo doors of lorries to inspect."

No security inspection whatsoever, then.

Against mass surveillance, again

Shorter Times: Everything you know about the Operation Ore child-porn investigation is wrong.
In information given to Interpol and in sworn statements submitted to British courts in 2002, Dallas detective Steven Nelson and US postal inspector Michael Mead claimed that everyone who went to Landslide always saw only a front page screen button offering “Click Here (for) Child Porn”.

According to them, this was the way in to nearly 400 pay-per-view websites, almost all of which specialised in child pornography; ergo, anyone who accessed Landslide and paid it money must be a paedophile.

When Operation Ore was launched in Britain in May 2002, pictures of the web page and its “click here” button were given prominent and sustained publicity. But what passed almost unnoticed eight months later was that after British police and computer investigators had finally examined American files, they found that the “child porn” button was not on the front page of Landslide at all, but was an advertisement for another site appearing elsewhere: thus the crucial “child porn” button was a myth.....When police investigators found no evidence on seized computers, they did not assume the user might be innocent or had sought only legal, adult material. They were charged instead with “incitement”. These charges alleged that, simply by making a credit card payment through the internet, the child porn webmasters were encouraged to continue trafficking.

This is why we oppose ID cards, mass wiretapping, monster databases, CCTV, roadpricing - it's because you can't trust the bastards to get anything right, and you can trust them even less to stop getting it wrong.

The trench art of networking

Soldiers in Iraq, dissatisfied with the limited and censored Internet service available officially, build their own. It's impressive, even though the main demand is to download filthy pictures and order foodstuffs forbidden by the chain of command - which, I suppose, gives it a sort of charm. As one of Robert Graves' comrades said, marching towards the front, Dear Mum, I am currently wading in blood up to my neck. Send fags and a lifebelt. Love and kisses.

It's probably a better idea than using a mobile phone, whether with a UK or local SIM inserted. Chez Spyblog there are details of supposed threatening calls made to the families of British soldiers in Iraq, with sceptical comment. Unfortunately, I'm much less sceptical - see this post from November 2005 on weird and clueless policy towards GSM networks in Iraq, and this one with regard to unauthorised mobile networks.

It seems nontrivial numbers of Allied soldiers are using local SIM cards provided by various networks not limited to MTS/Vodafone and Iraqna(Orascom Telecom), and these networks are possibly penetrated by the enemy. The reason for using local SIMs with GSM phones is that it is cheap. The reason not to is that all call details, locations, and numbers called are available to anyone with access to the operator's SS7 switch and databases - not just that, but the phone broadcasts its number and IMEI whenever it tries to register on the network, so jamming the real network and listening could gather identifying data.

Using Skype or a comparable peer-to-peer VoIP applicatiion from an Internet-connected computer would be far more secure - that, and making very sure no mobiles go outside the wire, as a similar method could be used to track troop movements.

On a similar Internet-politics trip, watch Charlie Stross bust my chops over IRC and the Soviet 1991 coup. Looks like I was wrong. It does mean an opportunity for an interesting anecdote, though. A Cisco Systems executive I spoke to a couple of months ago talked of selling the old BT System X digital phone exchanges to the Russians immediately post-communism. To his surprise, the first switch he visited was a 1940s all-electromechanical monster, maintained perfectly by a small army of women engineers who polished every contact, at least once a week.

There was no difficulty making the pristine copper wires do DSL, either, when he returned a few years later with Cisco. So it's probably no wonder there were IRC users in Moscow in 1991..


In Trafalgar Square on Sunday, something remarkable - artificial life, or a stab at it. Dutch artist Theo Jensen has been building curious walking machines, strandbeesten, out of lengths of plastic pipe selected by a computer program that simulates an evolutionary process. After a while, he took them out to the beach to race, and bred from the winners, thus providing a form of selection too. Things got interesting when he started a new lineage of creatures that could, being blown about by the wind, pump up compressed air into themselves, and therefore move upwind as well. He hopes that one day, they will wander the North Sea beaches, evolving without his intervention.

They look something like this, at least in the unusual circumstances of Trafalgar Square...

Once the wind picks up beyond a certain point, this one knocks a pin into the sand, and is then blown around it, gathering more energy in its bottles for when it has to move on in the last direction the wind left it pointing.

Wonderfully, the program which carries out the simulated evolution is written in nothing else but good old BASIC, a programming language I learned when I was about eight years old. Jensen is doing a lecture at the ICA next week, and I hope to come away with the source code - he says it's open source. Perhaps this will be the thing to make me go through with my project for this year, to learn a new programming language and get cracking.

Leaving, driving over Waterloo Bridge, I thought - I hope wankers don't smash them.

Update: Well, yet another cool internet idea turns out to be a bag of useless shit...just like so much else, YouTube just doesn't fucking work Sorry about that. It seems it takes a while for them to start working, and in the meantime the error message "this video is no longer available" is displayed..

Sunday, June 25, 2006

St. Helena and a Nonexistent State

St. Helena, the British island in the Atlantic Narrows where Napoleon was confined, is not well known as a centre for dubious financial activities, unlike many other bits of residual empire (the Caymans, Gibraltar, Turks & Caicos, British Virgin Islands etc). This appears to be changing. A website has appeared advertising something called safeholder.com, which claims to offer
a new offshore banking program under the auspices of the Serbian Republic of Krajina (RSK), which is the internationally recognized government of Krajina and Slavonia. The banking licenses are offered to corporations and citizens resident anywhere in the world except the Republic of Serbia & Montenegro and the Republic of Srpska. The license permits operation of all banking and related financial services worldwide except in the aforementioned countries and subject to the laws and public policies of other states. Where no law on the matter exists or there is no conflict, the banking program of the RSK would be applicable according to international law authorities.

There is one immediately obvious problem with this story. The RSK does not exist. It was the self-proclaimed government, between 1992 and 1995, of the tranche of Croatia occupied by Serbian forces during the civil war. In 1995, the Croatian army retook the areas it supposedly governed, expelling much of the population and landing several of its own leaders before the Hague Tribunal. Either the RSK's banking code exists in some curious fashion, floating above the false world of being like Mohammed's coffin, and permitting anyone canny enough to engage Safeholder.com's services to escape more earthly jurisdictions, or else it is unenforceable and anyone who invested money in such a bank will never see it again. Whichever one of these options is pursued, it don't look good.

What kind of banking legislation the RSK might have elaborated in its brief flicker of existence can perhaps be guessed. In fact it's stated. Safeholder compares itself favourably to a variety of well-known extreme tax havens - Nauru, Niue and Montserrat, for example - for speed of establishment, confidentiality and easy terms. Anyone with US$5000 can hope to establish a bank with them within 10 days, with the following capabilities:
Engage in Private & Internet Banking

Take deposits and make loans worldwide

Offer payment services and transfer funds

Issue payment tools such as credit cards and checks

Issue bank guarantees

Issue letters of credit and other financial instruments

Issue bank references

Open correspondent bank accounts

Offer complex financial transactions

I think they must have forgotten "bilk clients" and "launder money". After all, they also claim you might want to set up a casino!

The fact that the licence is said (more than once) to exclude the countries - Serbia and the Republika Srpska in Bosnia - that would appear to be the RSK's successor states should tell us enough about their governments' opinion of this scheme. Fascinatingly, the website includes a nice picture of an RSK banknote.

It really ought to be a nine-bob note, but it's certainly just as dodgy. The folk responsible for this are one Mike Olsson, a Swedish citizen, and one Mirko Miskovic...and one Jonathan Levy. This is the WHOIS record for safeholder.com:

Domain Name: safeholder.com

Registrant Contact:
Safeholder, Ltd. safeholder@gmail.com
Safeholder Ltd
Association Hall
Main Street
Jamestown, SH STHL 1ZZ

Administrative Contact:
Safeholder, Ltd. safeholder@gmail.com
Safeholder Ltd
Association Hall
Main Street
Jamestown, SH STHL 1ZZ

Technical Contact:
Safeholder, Ltd. safeholder@gmail.com
Safeholder Ltd
Association Hall
Main Street
Jamestown, SH STHL 1ZZ

Billing Contact:
Jon Levy jonlevy@hargray.com
Jon Levy
37 Royal Pointe Dr.
Hilton Head Island, SC 29926

Record created on 2004-03-09 07:30:56.
Record expires on 2007-03-09 07:30:56.

Strangely enough, someone of the same name registered cabindapetroleum.com, which claims to be the only licenced gas and oil exploration company in the Republic of Cabinda, based in Jamestown, St. Helena. Cabinda, my well-informed readers will no doubt be aware, is a small exclave of Angola north of the Congo River which contains much of Angola's oil reserves. It is not a republic, and is something like a joint venture between the Angolan government and ChevronTexaco, who are extracting the oil. Unlike Mr. Levy's organisation, which is extracting the urine. After all, there is no reasonable prospect that they will ever be in a position to explore for oil there - and much as I dislike and distrust the Angolan government and their oil pals, I would rather not see anyone lose their savings in this venture.

It could be worse. Cash invested in such a thing is likely to go missing, but where would it go? There's only been one effort to work out what all this means, before this post, which was by the St.Helena Herald. At this (pdf) link, you can read a long interview with Olsson by a local reporter. I liked this exchange for the sheer informational blankness Olsson practices - read, and feel your IQ drop ten points. "RR" is the Herald's reporter, "MO" is Olsson.
RR. I’m giving you an example as to how it could work, what
kind of regulations do you have in store to ensure that it doesn’t
happen it terms of money laundering?
MO. Its not dependent on St Helena law, that’s what I’m telling
you, its dependent on the law of the country where they are
operating from, because most countries got, have nothing to do
with because one of the requirements is that the company be in St
Helena because we got a competent authority that are supervising all
banks, you can not operate that bank in St Helena so they would not
have anything to do with money laundering or anything like that in St
English Common Law
RR. So, just moving away. Why quote English Common Law on
your website?
MO. Because English Common Law is applicable to St Helena.
RR. In terms of, in what reference?
MO. In places where we don’t have legislation
RR. I understand that, in what reference are you quoting English
Common Law on your website in relation to Safeholder?
MO. It mainly has to do with Trusts
RR. Trusts?
MO. Trust legislation is actually in English Common Law, it means
that you can, um, put money in a Trust that is not your personal
belongings. You set the rate, the identity from yourself, and this has
been very common in the United States for example where the
insurance premiums are so big.
RR. Yes I understand that, so you are saying that it is do with Trust
purposes so if you want to invest in a Trust?
MO. Umm.
RR. So why, to quote your initial product line, include international
Capitalization and Hedge Funds. Is that what you are talking about?
MO. Sorry
RR. Is that what you are talking about when you say Trusts?
MO. Umm, Hedge Fund is a form of Trust, it’s a fairly specialized
more a short term Trust, the Hedge Fund. For example, we know that
George Sores is the biggest Hedge Fund Administrator in the world.
RR. Umm
MO. If you understand.
RR. Yes I understand, so what other kinds of Trusts, apart from Hedge
Funds are you interested in, or is Safeholder interested in?
MO. Capital Protection Trusts.
RR. Which you discussed earlier?
MO. Sorry?
RR. Which you discussed earlier?
MO. They are all similar, different ways of doing it; the same with
Bailment Accounts, Hedge Funds, yeah
RR. Umm
MO. A variety of different products.
RR. Just looking at a bit of history here how did you get involved in
the Safeholder organisation operation?
MO. Working together with two barristers which I have know for the
last ten years.
RR. So obviously you built a relationship with the Republic of Serb-
MO. I don’t have a relationship with Republic of Serb-Krajina at all.
RR. So whats the relationship? Obviously you are talking to them as
part of Safeholder and as the Operations Director you don’t have a
relationship with them at all?
MO. NO, no, not directly because in that sense not relative for the
operation of the business.
RR. Sorry, could you clarify that for me please? I’m a bit confused
with that statement, could you clarify please.
MO. Its not relative for the product, we have lawyers that are looking
at the legality of everything that happens in the business, I have full
confidence in them. So I don’t have to have any personal relation
with RSK at all.
RR. But surely as the Chief Operators Officer you would obviously
have to oversee every part of the business?
MO. Not every client, that would be impossible.
Is that completely clear? And is the Jonathan Levy who's peddling the oil of ancient Cabindan snakes the same man who appears in this curious conference, this rather embarrassing Counterpunch story, the Serbian Unity Congress's website and this manic conspiracy site?

Stand by for more thrilling revelations.

Hat tip to Jasmina Tesanovic. BTW, check out Doug "AFOE" Muir in the comments.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Cold steel

As the Burschenschafter say in the intervals of slashing themselves and preparing careers in rightwing politics, lieber als des Hofrats Segen war mir des blanken Säbels Schlag. (Roughly, "More than the professor's blessing I loved the drawn sabre's stroke") We see here, for example, that the sword still seems to hold a special place in the violent imagination - as "Camilla's Killers" demonstrated in July, 2004 and the chap who caused the Forest Gate raid further showed by seeking out the leader's address. Curious..

Missile Defence and Deterrence

The North Koreans are attention-seeking again, flaunting the possible launch of some sort of rocket that possibly might be the putative Taepodong-2 ICBM. And, apparently, the US government is thinking of shooting it down with their ballistic missile defence system. Well, system. Experimental test rig would be more accurate.

This is incredibly stupid. Fortunately for the world, the story is in the Moonie Times of WMD-to-Syria craziness fame, so the bullshit adjustment factor is quite large. But if we briefly suspend disbelief, what would be wrong with trying to shoot the thing down? For a start, the North Koreans are not going to point it, if indeed it's an ICBM, anywhere near the United States. That would risk bringing the real missile defence into play - that is, the nuclear deterrent. Not even Kim Jong-il wants to do that.

So not only would it be not very pointful, it would be indefensible in international law (like they care) - it's not illegal to have rockets, and it's not illegal to test-fire them through space. And if it's not aimed at you, it's not self-defence. This may seem a minor point, but there is a more important one in there - ever since the high Cold War, there has been something almost amounting to a norm of customary law that satellites are not interfered with as they pass over sovereign territory - even the other side's recce satellites. (John Lewis Gaddis used this as a pirmary example for his thesis that the Cold War was really the Long Peace) Space is therefore akin to the high seas, which is excellent news for anyone who uses weather forecasts, telecommunications, or satnav, to name but three. The US derives a lot of economic value, and far more military value than anyone else, from the free use of space. It would be very foolish to encourage interference with other people's space activities, as the technology needed to build an ASAT missile is now much more available than it was in the 1960s.

That aside, what would shooting it down achieve? It would certainly slap down North Korea, and set them building as many decoy warheads as possible. Not a great payoff. Unfortunately, the poor performance of the BMD system so far suggests it won't hit the rocket. And the consequences of trying and failing would be really desperate.

The reasoning behind a small "son of star wars" system is as follows: even if we can't hope to deal with a strategic-level nuclear strike, that threat is covered by MAD. The danger comes from proliferation, from small numbers of rockets launched by (presumably) deranged rogue dictators who don't care about being nuked back. (Can you see the logical flaw yet?)

Even if it's not perfect, some BMD would be nice because it makes it much less certain that an enemy missile will get through, and hence the enemy will be less likely to risk it. (If you can't see a logical flaw yet, you're probably Ann Coulter.) This is all based on the assumption that the other side is pursuing a minimal deterrence strategy. Minimal deterrence, as theorised by the French and Israeli defence establishments and by the UK with regard to the "supreme national interest" non-NATO role of its deterrent, argues that the degree of devastation brought about by even a small nuclear strike is so horrific that it is enough to deter anything less than a suicidal attacker - no war of choice in the Pacific would be worth Los Angeles or Seattle, to put it concretely. So, just a small force would be enough to provide credible deterrence for most purposes.

Clearly, this obviates the argument that the threats of today are irrational and therefore impervious to deterrence. BMD is meant to defeat minimal deterrence by making it uncertain whether or not the bomb would get through. Given that this time we know there is no bomb, it's very stupid indeed to run the risk of missing and thus destroying the uncertainty created by the BMD project.

Update: as always, any post with rockets in means comments action. Here's a nice little map courtesy of Chris "Chris" Lightfoot.

Update the second: here's an even cooler map courtesy of Armscontrolwonk.com

Sunday, June 18, 2006

What divides Britain?

It's not religion, nor is it race. It's class, class and geography. This we see in the Observer's two-page spread on how their intrepid young female Muslim reporter (yes, I think Nick Cohen just came) spent a whole month in "the community the 7/7 bombers came from", also known as Leeds.

The first thing that strikes me is the month. It's not long enough for anything truly epic, and Leeds is not far enough from London to make it necessary to stay there a month if you weren't planning anything on the scale of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. For the record, trains leave London King's Cross every half hour for most of the day, usually on platform 6. If you get the fastest, you can make the trip in under two hours. Farringdon Road is 15 minutes away if you insist on walking silly fast like me, and Beeston is a similar time by bus from Leeds City station. You do not need a satellite phone, antimalarial drugs, a car marked TV in gaffer tape, or ex-SAS security advisers called Nick.

But the whole tone of the article is that Leeds might as well be Afghanistan.
The housing was grim looking but far more normal than the menacing streets I expected. Maybe I had envisaged eerie gothic pathways with shuffling clerics spreading words of hate. No, it was all drab but very normal.
You think? Eerie gothic pathways with shuffling clerics? Leeds, for some reason, attracts Goths, but this is ridiculous. Perhaps she was thinking of Fred Trueman, or Keith Waterhouse? Tha mun laik wi t'gangling-iron, young'un!

Wearing a headscarf was daunting at first. The last time I had covered myself was more than 10 years ago. However, in Leeds city centre you realise that shop assistants look at you acceptingly if your head is covered. Wot? But after the first week, I was at ease with the whole female modesty thing. And it certainly got me respect from the boy racers in Beeston.

I made my way to the centre expecting it to be run-down and shabby. Instead I found a vibrant and colourful building in what used to be a church. Notice boards advertise Pilates classes, Muslim women-only gym work-outs, police drop-in sessions and a sign advertising cut-price car window tinting. It was slightly surreal - this could have been any community centre in Britain, yet this was Beeston.
As already assumed, Leeds is actually between Camp Abu Naji in Maysan province and Lashkar Ghar, so any vaguely British signifiers must be astonishing.
I smell cooking and see plates of chicken curry and dal for £2, dished out by two women. I chat with one of them in Bengali: 'I have a daughter at university. Why don't you move into our house? Your mother will be worried that you are not eating enough,' she says. I was sent away with a container of second helpings.

Next day I go back for more. I am approached by a young headscarfed woman with betel nut-stained teeth. She asks if I'm from Bangladesh. There are two types of people who ask me 'where I'm from' - people from the Home Counties and in Beeston.
And in Feltham and Southall and Hounslow and Crawley, all of which are much closer to her hometown of Reigate than Leeds. Closer, that is, in anything but status. In fact, this is an obvious thing for a working-class Muslim from west Yorkshire to say to someone who shows up speaking Bengali - it's not a majority-minority language in Yorkshire, as it is in the South-East. Not to mention the London/estuary overlay.

Still, if you're short of a quote, why not ask a heroin addict? After all, we live in a society of equal-opportunity scaremongering.

For someone like Imran the bombers were more than neighbours - they were his mates. As we drive around, he lowers his voice and says: 'Don't look back now, but that lad carrying the blue carrier bag was taken to Paddington Green [police station in London] because they thought he had something to do with the bombings.' As I turn around I see a youth wearing a cap disappear into a house.

Imran is about 6ft and quite heavy-looking. He is unshaven and has a big square diamond stud in his ear. He looks much older than his 28 years. 'I was on heroin and I used to deal but I've been clean for the past five years,' he says. 'My mates helped me. I was taken to another mosque, and while the others prayed my teeth were clattering as I went cold [turkey].'

The boys who helped him get off the drug included 'Kaka [baby] Shehzad Tanweer. The Aldgate bomber was a good friend of mine,' Imran says.

He goes a bit quiet and says: 'Kasme [promise] you're not secret service?' I promise and he continues: 'He wasn't a bad lad, you know.' Both Tanweer and Khan were part of the 'Mullah Crew' who helped local boys to get off drugs and embrace Islam again.
Quite a story.
Anti-media feeling runs quite deep in this part of LS11, and I grow used to hearing about the intrusion....

There were cases of revenge, however. Local boys made one Jewish journalist from Dallas cry by telling her the bombings were Israel's fault. 'I felt sorry for her. Those lads had a field day.' Other youths sold made-up stories to journalists.
Surely not. But then, who needs to?
I leave shortly after seeing a blonde woman eating a chilli burger, a red kidney bean sliding down her cleavage. I wonder if the students would be shocked to know that many of the cabbies here live in Beeston and are Muslims. I see two communities separated by a few miles and a whole mindset.
I'm sure they wouldn't be shocked in the least. In my opinion, it would be difficult to spend a month, especially as a member of an atypically taxi-taking group like students, in West Yorkshire without becoming aware of Pakistani taxi drivers. But what do I know? I wasn't a student at Leeds University, unlike Urmee Khan. Perhaps the student body really hadn't noticed any Muslims at all. Or perhaps it's just bullshit.

Strangely enough, despite all the frantic beatup, the horrors remain hidden behind the net curtains of respectable society as a spark is set to the foundations of civilisation that will in time rock them to their core, or whatever. In fact, there are even the ultimate trope of Guardian Newspapers Ltd. multiculturalism, or alternatively the cosy liberal consensus that betrays us all, depending on partisan alignment - that's right, brown people in England football strips.
On Saturday, England play Jamaica in a friendly ahead of the World Cup finals. In Beeston, England flags flutter sporadically on the streets. The TVs in most houses are tuned into the match. There's suddenly a round of cheers. England have scored again and a young Asian man shouts out of the window to a young woman in a sari. 'Meena, you've got to come and see this, Crouchie's stupid dance - a right goal fest!'.... I look around and see people of what seems like every race and nationality - black, Asian, white, Indonesian, you name it. Many are wearing England shirts. There was an Asian dad telling off his three boys. All four of them have on identical football outfits.

I admit I was surprised to see little Muslim girls running around with their faces sporting a red and white St George's flag, as they eat pakoras [an Indian dish] and bright blue ice lollies...

During the afternoon, the boys disappear to watch the football, and I remember the pride with which a friend of Imran's had told me: 'We've bought air horns for the England games!..
Please, enough with the football kitsch. I remember vividly the Bradford Mela in 2001, two weeks before the race riot - exactly the same stuff could have been written, with slightly less football, and without the sunshine because it was one of those Bradford days when the sky looks the same colour as the soot on the mill chimneys. Yes, it's good news, but it doesn't actually add that much to public knowledge.

So, eventually - the conclusion. Is this really a pathetic sham? Or is the Melanie Phillips/Eurabia crowd talking dangerous nonsense?
Beeston is in fact much bigger than those four individuals, and so is Islam.
Glad we cleared that up. That's the sound of Pulitzer spinning in his grave.

More seriously, beyond the fisking, it strikes me that this article gives me the same feeling of queasy astonishment as I have reading the Europe-as-Nazi-cum-Communist hellhole pundits; the feeling that these people have absolutely no feeling for, or knowledge of, the places they are babbling about, and none of the intended readers care. It should not be necessary to spend a month on GNL expenses to discover that Beeston is a roughish working class suburb with a reasonable social fabric.

What would be far more interesting to find out would be why it began there precisely.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Evidence-based stupidity

Back in the 1990s, before foreign fighters and eye-catching initiatives, one of the catchcries of the Labour Party as it arrived in government was "evidence-based policy". This meant, as far as anyone knew, that the government's activity would be subject to review on the basis of results, and that choices would be made according to (usually) statistical principles. It sounds an excellent idea, so what happened to it?

Certainly it didn't catch on. Perhaps the classic exhibit is drugs policy—according to the Senlis Council, the world's governments spend every year rather more than the final value of world illegal drug sales on trying to stop them being sold, with no discernable reduction in the availability or popularity of the drugs. There is clearly a case for a review of the evidence, and such things have been done by third parties like the Council, which concluded that it would be better if the enforcement budget was used simply to buy the complete opium crop, supply the pharmaceutical demand from this stock, and burn the rest.

Not that any government, especially not ours, has listened at all. Another example is this blog's old friend, the Home Office, which in pursuit of one set of numerical targets (to achieve a net increase in monthly deportations) succeeded in missing a whole selection of other aims (to keep various criminals confined, for one). What's going on, then?

Chris Dillow likes to talk in terms of managerialism versus technocracy, and I think the failure of evidence-based policy is closely connected with this. More specifically, the huge expansion of what looks like evidence-based policy, centrally defined numerical targeting, to be specific, in government has in fact been an exercise not in policy-making but in management. Most of the targets public servants are expected to hit are not ones that define a goal, but instead some sort of intermediate process. It's not about-for example-reducing the rate of heart attacks, but instead of achieving X prescriptions for low-dose aspirin.

This is a key point, because it defines both the information that the statistics provide and the use to which it is put. Rather than measuring the problem and using that information to decide on a course of action, this is measuring the action. And the main purpose of this sort of information is to check the obedience of subordinates. The question of what to do, whether the activity is useful, is external to the model.

That is to say, it is assumed that somebody, the somebody whose desk the stats land on, knows what the best course of action is and has prescribed it. This also fits in with the British civil service's deep play; there is a traditional, ingrained divide between "policy", which is high-status and concerned with cabinet papers, and "administration", which is Siberian-status and concerned with processing business. Guess which is going to have stats collected on it? Anyway. The problem is therefore to ensure compliance, which fits rather well with the narrative of "modernisers" and "reform" and confronting a cosy blah blah blah. The problem is not treating sick people, educating children, catching lawbreakers-the problem is the public servant, who must be treated like a servant.

Technocrats, much though there is wrong with 'em, are better on this score because they at least believe themselves to be technical, which suggests that the policy is determined by realities and can be altered in response to the results of experiments. (This is of course also a myth. Not only do scientists develop a tribal attachment to their discipline, it's even quite possible for engineers to become nationalistic about different radio encoding schemes.)

A canonical example of these problems occurred in the mid-1980s in British monetary policy. The Thatcher government started off by declaring its adherence to Monetarism, and putting this into practice by setting a target value for M4 broad money supply growth. Unfortunately, over the next few years, it was discovered that controlling M4 was extremely difficult. Rather, it was futile. Once the value of M4 was persuaded to decline, the values of its sisters M2 and M3 shot up as the suddenly growthful financial business, itself something the Tories were much in favour of, discovered means of getting around the policy. So, the scope of the policy was reduced, using more restrictive definitions of money like M2. M4, predictably, went up. Eventually they targeted the monetary base, that is to say cash. You'd think they could control that, but the fraction it made up of the total made the effort to control it pointless.

Eventually, Alan Walters persuaded Thatcher of this, over Patrick Minford's protests, and the policy was replaced with an exchange rate target. The whole affair is an example of Goodhart's Law, coined in 1975 by Charles Goodhart of LSE and the Bank of England, which states that to control is to distort. Broad money targeting failed, he argued, because it was like driving a car by reference to the speedometer alone. The policy itself created the feedback that was meant to guide the policy-maker. Goodhart went on to argue that, as a principle, targets should be "final goals" like inflation, unemployment, or the exchange rate - the best measure of problem-solving efforts being whether the problem was, er, solved.

In 1997, he eventually won, with the UK's monetary policy being redesigned on the principle of rules. Inflation was the measure of counter-inflationary policy, with a 2.5% RPIX symmetrical target, and interest rates the means. And the control of them was in the hands of a committee including, surprise surprise, one Charles Goodhart. (This probably makes him the UK's most influential academic of the last 30 years. Being an economist remains a good way to avoid fame.)

Now, let us consider what happens if the goals themselves are not static. If we are working from rules, using the evidence to decide the policy, it's difficult to go careering off after the latest headline in the Sun - unless One Punch Monstrosity Wade's current mood is part of the data set, naturally. But if the goals are assumed, being set by the presiding genius - well, then the whole "evidence-based" apparatus is rather like the great clock installed by the "Protector of Aborigines" of Western Australia, A.O. Neville, to enforce discipline on the souls dragooned into his camp, which to them was a weird torture engine operating on principles they couldn't guess.

Bruce Schneier Sterling agrees:
Society, having abandoned the scientific method, loses its empirical referent, and truth becomes relative. This is a serious affliction known as Lysenkoism.....

Politics without objective, honest measurement of results is a deadly short circuit. It means living a life of sterile claptrap, lacquering over failure after intellectual failure with thickening layers of partisan abuse.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Live-Rpool Docks

This is great. It's a site that uses the international Automatic Identification System broadcasts from shipping to plot all the ships off Liverpool, as far up as Belfast and Stranraer, as far over as Dublin, and even in the Manchester Ship Canal, on a map. Better yet, there's even a mashup version using Google Maps, here (beware, there is a slow running script in the page that handles the periodic refresh, which is why I resisted the temptation to spooge the Gmap into this post).

Unfortunately, the bastards are after it. The International Maritime Organisation apparently is concerned that putting this data on a web site might be a threat to security - hey, the terrorists might see, or the pirates. This is profoundly stupid. AIS works like this: each ship broadcasts a chunk of information every so often on an open VHF channel, in the clear. That includes the ship's name, destination, course, speed, position, type, and a unique identifier. And that's it. Anyone with a radio and trivially available equipment can plot ships...after all, it's quite a bit easier to buy the kit, designed for use at sea, for a couple of hundred quid than try to get an Internet connection into your wildly bucking pirate RIB racing over the Strait of Malacca.

In fact, this openness is a feature, not a bug. The point should be that anyone, however poor and backward, can tell where ships are off their coast, or keep from running into them.

Khalid Rashid: A Strange Case

So George Galloway's involved himself in the deportation of one Khalid Rashid, a Pakistani national deported from South Africa in unusual circumstances. He was rousted and taken to an air force base, where he was placed aboard a plane chartered by the Ministry of Home Affairs which took him...well, we don't know where it took him, because there's no sign he actually arrived in Pakistan.

The South African courts are trying to force the government to give answers, for example the registration of the plane, where it went, when, and where the chap now is. In the meantime, files on the case were lost and recovered by a samosa seller in bizarre circumstances.

Very interestingly indeed, he seems to have vanished with the assistance of an aircraft registered in the UAE. Oh, really? Despite the fact that the Ministry was ordered to disclose the aircraft registration, and it was (obviously) a UAE one, nobody's published it.

But if we rule out Emirates, which seems fair, Etihad Airways and Abu Dhabi Air, as well as the UAE Royal Flight, that doesn't leave very many options. For a start, the UAE Government's Dubai Air Wing has several Boeing Business Jets (737-BBJ) and two 747s. There are a couple of freight-only operators, who for various reasons I leave out, Falcon Express of Iraq fame, who only have Fokker F27s and can be left out...and the two high dubiosity cases, Dolphin Air (ex-Flying Dolphin, ex-Santa Cruz, and on the UN blacklist), and AVE/Phoenix Aviation, of vile reputation for their assorted CBJ/Viktor Bout links.

Both have aircraft that might have been involved. Phoenix has two Boeing 737s registered in the UAE, A6-PHA and A6-PHC. The first, serial no. 23444, is currently operating for Iraqi Airways. The second, serial no. 23626, isn't. There's also a Boeing 767-200ER, A6-PHZ, serial no. 23280.

Dolphin, meanwhile, has the UAE-registered B737s A6-ZYA, A6-ZYB and A6-ZYC. -ZYC, serial no. 22679, is currently working for Iraqi Airways. -ZYA, 21926, is leased to Trans Air Congo. And -ZYB, 21928, is still with Dolphin. Then there's a 707, A6-ZYD, serial no. 20718, and an Airbus A300-600R, A6-ZYI, serial no. (*wait for it*) 666.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Stop it!

You there! The fish! You're speciating! I can tell by the electric pulses! The creationists will be furious!

Richards: "Accept more risk"

Asked about last week's fuckup, General Richards says NATO drivers will "accept more risk" in order to avoid accidents like the one that set off a riot, and that he aims to be "a very people focused and a very people-friendly force," and "use military power not necessarily just to defeat the Taleban but just as importantly to secure the future of their villages and their localities."

I wouldn't hold out much hope for opium eradication on that basis. So far he seems to be displaying quite a lot of clue.

The black economy, yet again

Hugely detailed NYT report on the subversion of the Iraqi oil industry and the insurgent management of its production. Apparently, the supply of crude oil from the northern fields is permitted to reach precisely the capacity of the Baiji refinery, as any more would be exported. Exports are valuable to the government, and stolen crude cannot be remarketed. Petrol from Baiji, though, can. Not just that, but even when the petrol reaches its intended seller, it's a negative asset to the government as it's subsidised. If it can be stolen, it can be sold at a better price on the black market - and if it is bought before reaching its goal, rather than stolen, it can still be sold at a profit.

Better, it can be exported - its value increases by a factor of 3.5 on crossing the Jordanian border, 4.5 on the Syrian border, and 9 on the Turkish border. As Iraq imports refined products and exports crude, the deal is even better for the smuggler-cum-insurgent. Because the fuel is not reaching the intended user, it's being denied to the economy and the black market price is being kept up. And, as Iraq imports petrol, every gallon the government buys outside Iraq is sold at a loss inside Iraq. It makes sense to export it and sell it to the government.

(Note that it's actually in the government's best interest, financially, not to fix the refineries.)

Update: A subtlety that escaped me. If the Iraqi government buys fuel in Iraq and resells it at a loss, it incurs a loss in local currency. If it has to buy fuel at market rates in, say, Syria and resell it at a loss, it incurs a loss in hard currency - exactly what the insurgent management of Baiji is denying it. And the rebels book the profit in hard currency, too.

Birds of a feather

Sir Ian Blair is far more like Tony Blair than Tony would want to admit, but not in the way Sir Ian would want to admit.

In the beginning, and still up to a point, Sir Ian Blair was subject to a steady flow of vitriol from what might be described as the Richard Littlejohn tendency - the Police Federation, the Daily Mail, Simon Heffer, the Conservative Party and the man himself. Sir Ian had, lest we forget, been promoted to run the Metropolitan Police after the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and its exposition of not just the famous institutional racism, but also incompetence and possible corruption (one of Lawrence's probable killers' father was a well-known gangster, known to have "friends in the force", something no-one now remembers). This meant pissing off the Knackers of the Yard and the racist tendency, and in the fullness of time ran him into conflict with the Home Office as it swung steadily rightwards post-2000.

He was branded as a wobbly liberal, setting a match to the foundations of the police force that would one day shake it asunder, wasting public money on a variety of supposed causes recovered from the file marked "Loony Left - 1983".

This was always silly. For a wet loony-left flabbler pandering to political correctness, blah, blah, he had made his career in a very noticeable manner. It was Ian Blair, pre-knighthood, who marshalled hordes of private security goons alongside his constables to wallop road protestors for Michael Howard, after all. It was his Thames Valley force that played cat and mouse with sound systems along the M4 corridor for years, in the same cause. By 1997 Michael Howard, motorway building schemes bigger than anything since the Romans, legislation against music, and the rest was going out of fashion. It was time to trim, and trim he did all the way to New Scotland Yard.

Once there, however, he soon detected that the climate was changing. In the time of terrorism and David Blunkett, the new Sir Ian was deeply unfashionable. More than that, great bureaucratic opportunities presented themselves - more powers and more budget. So he became Mr Security, and eventually took on something approaching an independent political role when briefing MPs before the vote on the Terrorism Bill. He could now count, again, on the support of Chief Inspector Knacker, Richard Littlejohn, and the Home Office top bureaucracy - he could even offer the chip butty squad a resumption of stop-and-search powers. In return, he gave the politicians what they wanted - sending 78 cops to harass Brian Haw and keeping the bill quiet, for example, and taking the lumps for the execution of de Menezes.

Unfortunately, some people don't spot the changing times, or don't want to. Hence last week's decapitation mission. Neither Brian Paddick nor Tarique Ghaffur have any place under the new Sir Ian, and it's only surprising it took so long.

I don't presume to determine which is the real Sir Ian, the trendy schoolteacher or the overweening bully. Rather, I suspect, he doesn't feel any attachment to either. You can do that for a while, of course - keep the bases covered through constant manoeuvring. But in the end, you are left with no allies on either side. Just like Tony Blair.

Mobile Web Servers

I've expected a lot of good things from Nokia's decision to open up to software developers. They've been putting more and more stuff in open source, up to and including chunks of the Series 60 OS itself, and have provided a lot of tools, APIs, etc, not to mention a version of Python for S60. The latest is a Linux web server that runs on a Symbian S60 device.

It's almost painfully cool - hey! Linux! On a phone! A phone that's a web server! - but I have some misgivings about its fitness for (as they say) purpose. There are good reasons, after all, why one doesn't usually serve web pages from a desktop computer. Specifically, the nature of a web server is essentially a big hard drive with just enough intelligence to dish out pages, with high reliability, and as close in network topology to the requesting party as possible.

This last is the killer. Even consumer DSL or cable service usually don't offer sufficient uplink speed to serve much - you need either to fork out £lots for an E-1 line, or else share a big connection with others. Which is as good as saying "just pay for hosting". Now, even on the latest HSDPA cellular links, the uplink is 384Kbits/s when available, and zero when you go under a bridge. Even full HSPA won't really cut it, with uplinks in the 1Mbit/s class. If the speeds some of the TDD crowd - 2.9Mbits up, 5 down - materialise, that might be enough, with the caveat that it can't be relied upon due to the nature of any mobile radio.

What you really want is a good WiMAX link like the ones Urban WiMAX Ltd are marketing in London as a wireless E-1 and higher service. But they are using fixed outdoor aerials.

But - in essence - why would you want to serve web pages from a mobile device anyway? These are the days of Web 2.0, after all, service-oriented architecture and AJAX. All that good stuff. Take this, for example. YouTube, the video-sharing site, is offering a mobile-optimised uploader - now, uploading video on GPRS will be purgatorial, on vanilla UMTS or even HSDPA tiresome, but on HSPA or beyond, probably faster than consumer ADSL service. And it only needs uploading over the bottleneck of the radio access network once.

(Note: a version of this appeared earlier at telecoms.com.)

The world's oldest bug

Joshua Bloch, of Google Labs, reports on his chance discovery of a software bug that affects practically every binary search and mergesort function in the world. The problem came to light when a Java application failed, and the failure was traced to part of the Java kernel Bloch originally programmed. The bug was reported to Sun Microsystems, and hence made its way back to Bloch.

Bloch had based the implementation on his PhD tutor Jon Bentley's. Presumably, everyone Bentley taught will have made the same mistake, as will everyone who used his book Programming Pearls. But there's more. The first binary search dates back to 1946, and it's got the bug. It was never a problem, because it works for arrays smaller than a billion, which have only recently existed.

Back in 1946, the great Maurice Wilkes had just become the head of the Cambridge Maths Lab, later renamed the Computer Lab. Wilkes was working on EDSAC, the first computer with a stored program and also the first with an operating system, the so-called basic orders, which was being developed almost in parallel with LEO, the first commercially useful computer.

Wilkes famously remarked that "I can remember the exact instant when I realized that a large part of my life from then on was going to be spent in finding mistakes in my own programs." He wasn't wrong..

Global Kipling, Again

This post back in January dealt with Rudyard Kipling's excursions into science fiction, As Easy as ABC and With the Night Mail, and a curious contemporary relevance.

Strange, in the light of their vision of a future ruled by a globalised technocracy in nuclear-powered airships, to see this article, "A Conceptual Vision for Near-Space Operations" by one Major Mark Steves in the US Air Force's Air & Space Power Journal. Both very ABC-esque, and (it hardly needs to be said) an interesting example of the sheer range of behaviour described by the word "sane".

What sets it apart from As Easy.. is that, despite the immense technological and military changes Major Steves foresees, the political background changes not at all. His ultra-high altitude airships are stationed over the Iran-Iraq border, in support of (what else?) the new democratic Iraq's army, over the US/Mexican border, as well as along the coasts of the continental US for reasons of homeland security. Out in the field, the forward-deployed ships are stationed, inevitably, in the UK (RAF Fairford, one presumes, or perhaps Lakenheath?) and "a friendly Central American state".

On the one hand, this can be read as a creditably realistic view of technology's limited power to alter the political-economic correlation of forces and the geographic constraints, the "permanently operating factors" as the Russians call them. On the other, this can be read as an alarming lack of curiosity as to why the same problems continue, year after year.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

What could they do? They did it all

What strikes me these days is that all the things that the crazy-far left menaced, every time I thought something was less than ideal but to be accepted as the bill of low unemployment, minimum wages and state responsbility, they've all been delivered.

No, they would never lock people up for no reason. They wouldn't try to kill juries, the right of appeal, habeas corpus. They wouldn't torture. They wouldn't try to kill the public inquiries that gave the early Blair years such an air of cranking open the graves of the rotten State. They wouldn't put schools under priestridden used-car sharks.

Bugger. They did it all.

Foam Party: We're Going to Lashkar Ghar

OK, so our last fit seemed to have got results. The MOD had, it seemed, finally found the cash to give the RAF's C130s the explosion suppressant foam in the fuel tanks that the Americans and Australians fitted 40 years ago, after the loss of XV179 on election day in Iraq and an unprecedented campaign by the aircrew themselves.

Well. It seems that six or so aircraft have been done out of 25, and then no more. It costs about £20,000 a go...feel free to compare this figure with whatever example of waste you like. But there is good news. After going public on the 2nd May, within three days, the RAF's order for the Airbus A400-M transports was changed - from only 9 aircraft with the full defensive aids suite and the foam, to the lot.

Unfortunately, though, the rest of the fleet are still in need. Sign the petition here. It's not as if it's urgent.

Where the billows a-breaking..

Operation Firedump has been quiet for a while, but here is some news.

The Equatorial Guinea aircraft registry, 3C-, has been cancelled en masse in an effort to clean up. EG's registry has been a pustular swamp for years, and this is a fine opportunity to flip some stones over. Air Bas and Irbis used it heavily, and it's also where Air Leone went after being run out of Sierra Leone. Cheers!

Market, market, market...whoops

Marginal Revolution says:
In Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations, David Warsh notes in passing a bizarrely ironic use of markets by the Soviet KGB. It is 1984:

The Cold War is entering its climatic phase. There are war fears at the highest levels of government. In London, KGB agents have been directed to track the spot price offered by blood banks by officials worried that a sharp rise would be a signal that the West was preparing to mount a surprise attack.

I'm pretty sure blood donors were not paid for their blood in Britain in 1984. Still, the KGB guy could stay up at the Economic Mission on Highgate West Hill - there are a lot of worse places in London - and report every day, zero, zero, zero...

Time is on my side

More than two years ago now, I poured scorn on the Grauniad for running ads for an evidently fraudulent anti-allergy gadget whilst also running Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column. A taste:
Which is all very good news for little "James", the emetic blond child whose likeness takes up one of those two pages with the tag "Mum, I can't breathe". Surely an exclamation mark missing? Mind you, the lad looks weirdly unconcerned by his predicament, but then I suppose you can't really express emotion if your eyes have been obscenely enlarged by PhotoShop until you look like a deep-sea fish.
Now, what have we here? Apparently the things are quite likely to make it worse. That's assuming "James" is ill, and not just under orders to look it so he doesn't pick up an accent from the rough boys. In which case it's just a waste of money.

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