Saturday, July 28, 2007

Blogging Rugby League: Bradford-St Helens

So, Challenge Cup semi-final weekend; a good one, too... Bradford got the worst of it, of course. Despite regularly being one of the best clubs in the country since 1996, they always struggle to make it stick. That was precisely their problem today - despite making chances, they never quite had the sort of quick-smart sharpness Saints always do. So, 35-14 and lucky it wasn't worse.

It was closer than that sounds, close enough that Sean Long (who had a storming game) chose to kick an extraordinary long-range drop goal on the h of half time. I don't know if anyone measured, but it can't have been less than 50 yards. The sort of thing Joe Lydon used to do in the 1980s, even then it was a little old-fashioned. The last player to really make a point of this sort of thing was probably Alex Murphy, and oddly, Long looks more and more like a 1970s throwback all the time, pale and shaggy.

Bradford were transitional; they have been for years. Their successes in the Brian Smith/Matthew Elliott period were based on very much the same style they always had. Dave Hadfield said that "even when they were winning, Bradford seemed grim", speaking of the 1980s side; but the late 90s Bradford weren't that different. Brute strength and discipline, and Robbie Paul for a change. Brian Noble, and since he left, Steve MacNamara, have tried to open out the rugby, but today, the result was an ugly hybrid.

Of course, it was tough. But St Helens were able to pick off their opportunities, with their ex-Bradford man Leon Pryce kicking well to the wings. At Bradford he was an out-and-out winger, but since then has moved infield as a stand-off; he may yet be the Great Britain No.6 Great Britain have been looking for since Garry Schofield. (He also got the chance to score a spectacular winger's try today.) Another of those Great Britain No.6s was playing, Iestyn Harris, now back from union with Bradford and having bulked-up dramatically.

Tomorrow, Wigan are playing Catalans, the first French team to get to a semi-final. It could well be difficult; they are next door in the league table, and the French side includes gnarly old schemers like Stacey Jones and Jason Croker. (I recall a photo of him with Canberra in 1994, gripping a goal post, parallel to the ground.) It will be a pity, though, that no-one can really enjoy it.

Because, as usual, league's poisonous backroom politics are pussing out in the open. And - inevitably - Wigan chairman Maurice Lindsay is at the bottom of it. (Before anyone asks, yes, I'm biased.) Last year, when it looked like Wigan might actually be relegated, Lindsay rushed out to panic-spend, buying among others the GB prop Stuart Fielden from Bradford. Unfortunately, he couldn't actually do this, as Wigan had already used their salary cap for the year.

He came up with a cunning plan; nine senior players would accept a "deferral" of part of their wages until next year. The Rugby League accepted his "verbal assurance" that this would be so. That anyone accepted Maurice's word for anything is surprising enough. But there is worse. Obviously, as Wigan hasn't substantially cut wages or players since then, the payment of the deferred wages must arithmetically mean that they've broken the cap again this, they got away with a four-point deduction this time, out of a possible eight, so surely this re-offending will mean trouble?

Nuh. This year's sins will not be judged until 2008, and Maurice has already got the other top clubs to agree that they will end relegation for the 2009 season...if there is one good reason to keep promotion and relegation, it's that it obviates all this sick politicking. And without it, we probably wouldn't be having a season as competitive and interesting as we are. No Hull-Hull KR derbies. No Wakefield Trinity in the top three.

No Wigan in trouble, which is of course the point. This is a recipe for decay; down the leagues, with large helpings of futility for the small clubs, and in a top league that chose to be a self-appointed elite.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Ex-Viktor Bout Aircraft Running Guns to Somalia

The latest UN Monitoring Group report on Somalia is out. BBC News reports that Eritrea is accused of sending the ex-ICU large quantities of weapons aboard a chartered Boeing 707. Looking up the report, it turns out to be 9G-OAL, serial no. 19350, registered to a Ghanaian firm, Aerogem Aviation. Aerogem was contacted by the Group, and blamed a lessee of the plane, Fab Air. Fab Air (ICAO: FBA) is a Kyrgyz company based in Sharjah (natch), whose Kyrgyz AOC was revoked in January.

The 1966-vintage 707-324C has form, lots of form; from January 1996 she was working for Viktor Bout's Air Cess, before going on lease to Pamir Air, based in Mazar-i-Sharif while Bout and Chris Barrett-Jolley were working for Abdul Rashid Dostum (all the other aircraft there ended up with Santa Cruz Imperial/Flying Dolphin/Dolphin Air/Phoenix Aviation/AVE in Sharjah), before working for Johnsons Air (see here, here , here, and here) in Ghana as 9G-OLD (well, that's about right).

Fab Air's only recorded aircraft, An-12BK UN-11376, serial no. 8345805, spent June to October 2005 working for Royal Air Cargo with the BGIA Boyz.

Amusingly, the report refers to the US AC-130 raid inside Somalia, and the US representative's response was as follows:
the above-mentioned operations, the United States also states that paragraph 5 of
resolution 733 (1992) requires general and complete embargo on all deliveries of
weapons and military equipment to Somalia and that it did not believe “that these
operations against known terrorist targets constituted ‘delivery’ of a weapon within
the plain meaning of this paragraph”
I suppose you could say that. Interestingly, the ICU government saw the market price of a ZSU-23 flak gun in Somalia fall from $70,000 to around $10,000, but it's far from clear whether this was due to increased supply or reduced demand. (It has since rebounded to $25,000.)

There's also an old friend in there - the report includes a copy of a bill of sale for the Ilyushin-76 UN-76496, once of Viktor Bout's GST Aero Air Company. Evgeny Zakharov of Aerolift Ltd, a Virgin Islands company, sold the plane to "Eriko Enterprises" of 117 Waisay Street, Massawa, Eritrea. Aerolift, a Sierra Leone-registry UAE-based company, went out of business after being blacklisted in March, 2006.

Scienciness, again

This row over at Tim Lambert's, also here, reminded me of something I've noticed around the blogosphere. There was this, too, and also this.

They're all arguments from meta-analysis of some sort, and they're all wrong. They're all wrong in the same way, too; the first, David Kane's beef with the Lancet survey of mortality in Iraq, essentially argues that excluding Fallujah from the sample was a mistake not because it tended to underestimate mortality, but because - as including the outlier increases the variance about the mean - it widened the confidence interval enough that it included zero deaths. In fact, Kane goes so far as to suggest a lower 95% bound of -130,000. Some people would stop here and review their assumptions. In this case, that would be that both the prewar mortality rate and the postwar survey samples are samples out of a complete normal distribution.

But rates of mortality can obviously never be zero; everybody dies in the end. Further, there's a pretty obvious upper bound too - otherwise there would be nobody left to survey. And there is no known way in which war reduces mortality rates whilst it's still going on. There is only one way to replace dead people; and it doesn't involve war. It's a damn sight more fun than reading David Kane, too.

When the facts change, said John Maynard Keynes, I change my ideas - what do you do, Sir?

What indeed. Consider the third link; this is another example of changing one's ideas and assuming that it has some impact on the facts. The argument is roughly that, if you assume the human population is normally distributed in time, and that you are at a random point in its existence (you have no reason to think otherwise), then the world will come to an end sooner than you think. The flaw is, of course, that all the information in the argument comes from the initial assumption about the distribution. Claude Shannon would have said that this argument actually contains no information, or at least no net gain of information; all the information in it is contained in the original assumptions, and as Shannon defined information as that which is unexpected in communication, there's no "there" there.

And frankly, Shannon information theory has been a lot more useful than any of this sciency thumb-twiddling. Moving on, Realclimate Gavin assails a paper by a couple of economists who reckon they've disproved climate change because the IPCC TARs don't conform to their definition of a "scientific forecast". I'll confine myself to pointing out that the only substantive points they make confound climate and weather, treat Piers Corbyn as a source of meaningful information*, argue from personal incomprehension of the titles of climatology papers, and assert that:
People will continue to believe that serious manmade global warming exists as they will continue to believe other things that have no scientific support (e.g., the biblical creation story, astrology, minimum wages to help poor people, and so on)
Given that essentially all the necessary pieces of climate change have either laboratory or observational evidence, this is sufficient evidence for me at least to call it partisan hackery.

So what is my point? All these arguments have this in common; they argue from assumption and assume this trumps empiricism, and strangely enough, they all get answers that suit the powerful. They argue as if there was no observable reality out there. It's harder to spot than most because it's dressed in the clothes of science - but that don't make it any better. But I suspect that the authors of this stuff really believe in it; it's quite easy to imagine that giving something a mathematical look actually gives it content. Richard Feynman, I think, would have ripped these people a second arsehole. Quite a few very bright mathematicians came to believe that numbers were the real reality, and I suspect this is what science would look like if Platonists ran it - a search for perfect form beyond the messy, sexy, noisy bazaar of reality.

It's poisonous stuff, of course; I wonder what the Stiftung Leo Strauss would say? And am I right in suspecting they may be the most important blog in the 'sphere today?

*Shannon would point out that he certainly is a source of information, because no-one sane would expect anyone to say the sort of things he does every time his mouth moves.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Climate-change denier and quack weatherman Piers Corbyn writes to the paper:
The problem for global warmers is that there is no evidence that changing CO2 is a net driver for world climate. Feedback processes negate its potential warming effects. Their theory has no power to predict. It is faith, not science. I challenge them to issue a forecast to compete with our severe weather warnings - made months ago - for this month and August which are based on predictions of solar-particle and magnetic effects that there will be periods of major thunderstorms, hail and further flooding in Britain, most notably July 22-26, August 5-9 and August 18-23. These periods will be associated with new activity on the sun and tropical storms. We also forecast that British and world temperatures will continue to decline this year and in 2008. What do the global warmers forecast?
This was printed on the 24th of July. Yes, I certainly agree that British temperatures will indeed decline between now and the end of the year. Science! And what do the global warmers say to that?

Corbyn is an extreme example, but the symptoms of dysfunctional statistosis are more widely distributed than you might think. David Davis is highly rated by some bloggers (Dans Hardie and Davies, I think) as a possible bulwark against Blairite continuity and the Home Office. This is a role we badly need, in the light of current news: Brown's announcements today that he wants 56-day detention without charge, and that he is still steaming full pelt towards the rocks on the National Identity Register. But he's not invulnerable. Recently, the tokens broke out upon him.

You may recall that for many years, the British Crime Survey and the count of crimes recorded by the police disagreed. The recorded count was rising, the survey count falling. Nothing would convince the Tories that the BCS, as the more inclusive measure, was more likely to be right - Michael Howard even argued that the exclusion of murder from the BCS explained it, as if hundreds of uncounted corpses littered the streets.

Now, the position is reversed. The BCS shows crime rising; the police count falling. If the Tories had ever been honest about this, they would have to agree that the situation was not quite so fearful, but the BCS useless. But no; Davis has seamlessly flipped from one measure to the other. Now, the BCS is right, and the police wrong. Clearly, the actual content of the statistic is irrelevant. What matters is its ideological purity. It being the central tenet of Conservatism that the past was always better, crime must by definition rise.

The Government is no better. Thanks to the god-like genius of Roger Ford, I read the detail of the Government's new railways plan before it was announced. It seems that an old trick is in use. Greens, and techies, are unlikely to forget the infamous DTI report in the 1980s that accidentally-on-purpose increased the cost estimate of wave power by a factor of 10.

Now, they're doing the same damn thing with regard to railway electrification. Electrification is great; more bigger faster trains, and energy efficiencies as high as 95 per cent (for the regenerating trains on the London, Tilbury and Southend route), and the juice can come from almost anything. For some reason, the DfT (Rail) and the privateers hate it - DfT(R) is trying to claim that hydrogen fuelcell trains are a better idea. God knows why; why would you convert electricity to hydrogen and then back into electricity when you can just use electricity?

So, who is surprised to see that a Network Rail spokesbot exaggerated the power requirement for full electrification by a factor of four?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Resist the betrayal

British withdrawal from southern Iraq is now in the foreseeable future, with the concentration at Basra Air Station, the impending closure of Basra Palace PJCC, and the departure of the first 500 troops. Therefore, it is high time to consider the fate of Iraqis who took our side during the occupation. Denmark, whose government originally attempted to abandon theirs, has been brought around by the insistence of its army to extract some three hundred people in advance of the Danish battalion's withdrawal. The US Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, recently cabled Washington to raise his concern that Iraqi employees feared the US would abandon them. Their fears are far from unfounded.

Whatever your opinion on the war with Iraq, the case is morally and practically incontrovertible. Morally, at least some of these people will have acted because they (however unwisely) thought we really were an army of liberation. But even the ones whose motives were entirely mercenary are human beings. If any have committed crimes, the place to deal with them is in a court. It is usually thought that it is precisely in the worst cases that we must stick to principle, because it is most likely to be violated then. And it is not enough to say (as the Government does) that they can register with the UNHCR, and join the Iraqi refugees in Jordan or Syria (never mind the dangers of travelling from Basra to the Syrian border); because these places are also used by the Iraqi insurgents as rear areas, they would be in as much danger there as in Iraq.

Practically, objections have been raised that this would be a bad example, that it would be a signal of impending defeat, and that it might be a problem of force protection from here to the final withdrawal. Well, the signal of impending defeat is a ship that sailed years ago. And force protection is far more likely to be imperilled if all the Army's touts in Basra were to realise that their only hope of security would be to rat as soon as possible and as comprehensively as possible. When the Israeli army left southern Lebanon in 2000, they attempted to leave behind the locally-recruited militia they created in this area - unsurprisingly, far from staying in position to cover the retreat, its members either fled or appeared on the Israeli border with their weapons. The result was a far more difficult retreat, and the Israelis had to accept them anyway.

The question will be raised whether we should accept these people instead of other Iraqi refugees. It is invidious. We should of course accept Iraqi refugees; it is morally appalling that we have so far not done so. It follows that refusing to accept people who are in greater danger would be worse still. The total number is probably not great.

So, why not write to them? Them being your elected (and unelected) representatives. Dan Hardie has prepared both a list of talking points and a form letter. It is strongly recommended that you use the talking points and write your own.

Update: There's also an e-petition to sign.

Friday, July 20, 2007

A canter down some dark defile

Can anyone honestly be crazed enough to suggest launching US forces into Pakistan? Well, the Washington Post - the Washington Post! - apparently is. Let us review the situation; there's a wave of suicide bombings on, one of which may have been either jihadis or Baluch rebels - they don't know - and targeted Chinese engineers, threatening to disrupt the Chinese-Pakistani alliance. The courts reinstated Justice Chaudhary - they are right to do so, but it's only going to shake Musharraf further. People in the military-intelligence establishment are scared the country is turning into Iraq. The really bad news is that, should the president step down (it's been suggested he might), there are no good alternatives.

The secular opposition, which has just had a triumph in getting Chaudhury reinstated, is currently the opposition to the military elite - but it's also anathema to the jihadis, and the intelligence spooks who support them, as opposed to the line-regiment army officers behind Musharraf. Benazir Bhutto is not a noncontroversial figure. Yes, it would be nice if a nice civilian democratic government took over, but you might as well wish for a pony.

Just swapping Musharraf for another general would simply replicate the current situation - a semisecular junta loathed by the secular opposition and the jihadis, and unable to trust the ISI/FSW world. And if the ISI tried to set up one of the jihadis as puppet (perhaps the PM of the North-West Frontier Province), well, these things are known to get out of control. The rest of the military might well disagree, and then?

There's the India factor, too.

All this, in a country of 170 million people, next to the Gulf of Oman, astride the main supply route to the army in Afghanistan, with nuclear weapons. Further, it's a country where a lot of people have family ties to the UK. It has to be a primary goal of policy to keep things from getting any worse. And if there is anything that is certain to make things worse, it would be a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

The good news is that nothing is predicted more frequently than disaster in Pakistan, which implies there must be some force making for stability. The bad news is that although it may be true that mainstream Pakistani society's tolerance for the jihadis is exhausted, this is more of an argument that Musharraf/a putative civilian leader/an alt.dictator could win a civil war than anything useful in avoiding one. And whatever the theory, the risk that any ruler who tried this in practice would end up with their head on a spike is very great. There's a horrible Joseph Heller sound to the whole thing.

The idea of a struggle against the jihadis will no doubt attract the usual suspects, and if Ms Bhutto were to be its leader I expect the Decents would positively wet themselves. But it would be a horribly bloody business and a lot of people would be tortured, and the risk of really disastrous upshot (i.e. missing nukes) would be substantial. And any involvement of foreign forces would be incredibly crazy.

Speaking of which, Bush's approval ratings in Wisconsin are now at 19 per cent. Well below the famed Crazification Factor of 27 per cent. I never liked CF=27; I've always gone for a 20 per cent crazy population, on the principle that if crazy is normally distributed, and the fact I'm aware of it suggests I'm on the right side of the curve..well, then 80 per cent craziness should be associated with a 20 per cent probability. And north of 80 per cent, you're probably too crazy to have any influence on society.

If you imagine that craziness has increasing returns to scale up to that point, this also fits with the notion that the top 20 per cent are responsible for 80 per cent of the craziness.

More seriously, the first order of British policy here must be to do anything possible to stop the Americans doing anything crazy. It wouldn't be the first time something in that part of the world ended up in Yorkshire.

NPfIT: Still a disaster. Still a disaster in the same way

Remember this post on how the NHS National Programme for IT was doomed? Chatter is circulating that the whole thing might be scrapped, or at least subjected to a major review. Against this background, the big chief, Richard Granger, is leaving and has said some surprising things.

E-Health Insider reports; and it's somewhat disturbing. Apparently, Cerner's software is of shamefully awful quality:
"Sometimes we put in stuff that I'm just ashamed of. Some of the stuff that Cerner has put in recently is appalling."
In June, of course, Granger had said that the Cerner package might be used system-wide after iSoft spread itself over the landscape in small pieces.
n December 2005 Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre became the first NHS site to go live with Cerner Millennium under the NHS IT programme. It has since suffered a string of problems ranging from missing appointment records, to inability to report on wait times. The Millennium system – now installed at six NHS locations in the South – remains unable to directly integrate with Choose and Book or meet 18-week reporting requirements.

In April, 79 members of staff from Milton Keynes NHS Trust signed a letter outlining their frustrations at the Millennium system, stating: "In our opinion the system should not be installed in any further hospitals....Speaking at the BMA's annual representative meeting on 29 June Wrede said: "We should have a public inquiry. The people who made the original Cerner contract should be brought to book and as Cerner Millennium R0 [release zero] is not fit for purpose…" The motion calling for a public enquiry was passed.

The first Cerner installation by BT, the NPfIT contractor in London, is scheduled to go live at Barnet and Chase Farm NHS Trust within the next week. The trust is understood to be due to recieve the same release zero version of the Millennium software that has so far been used in the South.
Clearly it's appalling, but not appalling enough to do anything about it. And why is it appalling?
He said a key reason for the failings of systems provided was that Cerner and prime contractor Fujitsu had not listened to end users. "It really isn't usable because they have building a system with Fujitsu without listening to what end users want.."
Now there's a surprise. But this problem has been well-known for the last 12 months! I blogged about it 9 months ago! Instead of anything useful, though, we get stuff like this triumph of managerialist crapspeak:
Granger also cast further light on Accenture's departure from the NPfIT programme at the end of 2006, describing their relationship with sub-contractor iSoft as a failed marriage, in which they had failed to realise their co-dependency.
You what? More worrying, though, than this sort of vacuous cruft is the man's continuing addiction to bully rhetoric and bully tactics:
"Who contributed evidence to the public accounts committees? For just about every figure quoted as an expert in this programme, I've got HR files on them. They generate a piece of opinion that often substantiates their world view."
I don't think the NHS is losing a great deal with his departure.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Firedumped: A Cast of Thousands

Not long ago, the European Union added a whole chunk of dodgy Moldovan airlines to its flight-safety blacklist after ramp checks showed their aircraft were unsafe. Now, we have reports that the Moldovans have taken the logical next step and drained the swamp, by revoking the AOCs of the companies in question. It's bye bye to our old friends Jet Line International, but also to mystery operator Grixona (a frequent presence on the Sharjah-Iraq and Afghanistan routes), Jet Stream (another UAE-to-warzones Il76 operator), and Tiramavia (much the same). Pecotox also goes.

Here's the list from ATDB:

· An-24RV (ER-AWR, msn 37308605) put in storage by Jet Line International, returned to Aerocom
· An-24RV (ER-AZY, msn 47309310) put in storage by Aerom
· An-24RV (ER-AZX, msn 47309804) returned to Pecotox-Air after lease to Aéro-Service then ops in Iraq
· An-24RV (ER-AFB, msn 87310810.2) put in storage by Jet Line International, returned to Aerocom
· Il-18V (ER-ICB, msn 188010603) put in storage by Grixona
· An-12AP (ER-ACV, msn 347408) put in storage by Grixona
· An-12TB (ER-ACQ, msn 1347908) put in storage by Grixona
· An-12BK (ER-AXG, msn 347407) put in storage by Tiramavia
· An-12BK (ER-AXZ, msn 8346106) put in storage by Jet Line International
· An-12BP (ER-ADQ, msn 402410) put in storage by Jet Line International
· An-12BP (ER-ADK, msn 5342802) put in storage by Grixona
· An-12V (ER-ACY, msn 347306) put in storage by Grixona
· An-12V (ER-ACS, msn 347401) put in storage by Grixona
· An-12V (ER-ACO, msn 5343204) put in storage by Tiramavia
· An-12V (ER-ACR, msn 6343810) put in storage by Tiramavia
· An-26B (ER-AFE, msn 17310905) put in storage by Jet Line International
· An-26B (ER-AFL, msn 17311705) put in storage by Jet Line International
· An-72 (A) (ER-AVG, msn 36572095909) put in storage by Pecotox-Air
· Il-76TD (ER-IBK, msn 53460790) put in storage by Jet Stream Airlines
· Il-76TD (ER-IBY, msn 53460832) put in storage by Tiramavia
· Il-76T (ER-IBV, msn 3423699) put in storage by Jet Line International
· Il-76T (ER-IBF, msn 73410300) put in storage by Jet Line International
· Il-76T (ER-IBH, msn 73411331) put in storage by Tiramavia
· Il-76T (ER-IBD, msn 73411338) put in storage by Jet Stream Airlines
· Il-76T (ER-IBG, msn 93418548) put in storage by Tiramavia
· Il-76T (ER-IBP, msn 93418556) put in storage by Jet Stream Airlines
· Il-76MD (ER-IBC, msn 83489683) put in storage by Tiramavia

It's good to see the back of the firm that brought the missing 99 tonnes of guns in Iraq, to say nothing of the mysterious "Air Bridge Group" of Australia.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

ACPO Must Go

OK, this is it. Not only must the Home Office go, so too must the Association of Chief Police Officers, the newest political party on the block. Its president, Ken Jones, now wants not just 90 days of detention without charge, but unlimited detention without charge. After all, it worked so well in Northern Ireland. Inevitably, Killer of the Yard's in favour, too.

What makes this even worse is the increasing blurring of functions between ACPO, a non-statutory club for top cops, and the actual police. For example, the ANPR number-plate tracking cameras deployed on the motorway system are the result of an ACPO decision, apparently outside either local accountability to police authorities, operational line management to Marsham Street, or ministerial accountability to Parliament. Processing the details of overseas convictions into the criminal records system, it turns out, is also carried out by ACPO.

And, at the same time as it carries out police work, it is also an independent political force - a sort of free-floating lobby for authoritarianism, a peripatetic producer of paranoia.

Of course, not having any place in the command structure or the constitution, it can be as authoritarian as it likes without facing up to the consequences. Says another fearsome security lobby, the Prison Officers' Association, the prisons cannot cope with the influx of terrorist cases - there are signs of proselytising and the formation of gangs. Obviously, the thing to do is to lock up a lot of people, some of whom by definition will be innocent, in an overcrowded jail with people we know certainly are actual Islamist terrorists.

Now, doesn't this have an ugly sound to it?

Fear of a Swedish Bomb

Ages ago, during a comments thread discussion here about British nuclear weapons and Trident replacement, Chris Lightfoot (peace and blessings be upon him) suggested the option of "virtual" nuclear capability; that is, maintaining all the necessary technology, keeping the plans on the books, but not actually making a bomb. The canonical example is Japan, which could build one tomorrow but doesn't. But quite a few countries have such a policy or have had one. Germany is an example.

So, strangely enough, is Sweden, which maintained a major nuclear research program from 1945 to 1972 which was in many respects indistinguishable from actually making a bomb. Uranium supplies were identified, accelerators and reactors tested, bombs designed, and time-sharing arranged on French computers to check out the designs. The general staff carried out scenario-planning exercises to consider the strategy and tactics involved.

I quite like the idea - call it the Lightfoot plan - but there is a serious problem. Its main point is to get rid of teh bombs and save money, whilst getting around the problem that it's very difficult to reverse course if it turns out to be a bad decision. In a sense, the UK nuclear weapons programme has maintained these skills in existence artificially. Deciding not to keep going would make it very hard to keep them in being. Why? Well - even modern Sweden wouldn't find it that hard to build a bomb. They have nuclear power, and various engineering companies whose operations are suited to the job, such as Saab, Bofors, and (at least for electronics and systems integration) Ericsson. This goes double, or triple, for Germany or Japan.

Well, there's always BAE...but would you trust them with plutonium? For quite a range of the skills required, there's nowt in the UK beyond the civil service nuclear world to employ you.

Flock: the social UAV

Russians demonstrate swarming UAVs down in sunny Aberporth. Which reminds me - I once met a man who lived near there and claimed to have seen numerous UFOs. Yup, just across the bay from the RAE/DERA/WhateverIt'sCalledNow missile range.

Still, Flight doesn't give much detail, but here's the maker's webpage. Damn, a swarm of those would make me run like a bastard in any direction that looked like "away". It just looks spooky, and the thought of it being intelligent..well. Fortunately, one RPG in the middle of the swarm ought to be enough shrapnel to ruin their day, and all for pence.

Actually, these are the ones I think have a worthwhile future - small tactical jobs cheap enough to throw away.

Damn Strange "Teenagers"

Remember the great Vodafone Greece/Ericsson AXE hack? We blogged it and some of its freakish consequences. Now, the IEEE Spectrum has published a detailed analysis of the hack, here. It's fascinating stuff, but if anything it deepens the mystery.

What essentially happened; well, somebody who probably had physical access to the switch used a rare and very Bellheaded function - AXEs can undergo software updates without going offline, like heart surgery without stopping the beat - to install a rootkit on it. Each memory block in the switch includes a "correction area", a sandbox into which updates are inserted and then referenced elsewhere in the code to put them into effect. This is where the malicious code was inserted. The code allocated itself a chunk of memory, which it concealed from the operating system, and activated the lawful interception functions from within this chunk. The tapped traffic was routed into the secret memory block, and from there to the famous "four prepaid phones".

Because didn't at the time use Ericsson's intercept management software, which includes an audit function, no-one noticed the extra taps. They might have got away with it for an indefinite period, had they not got greedy. Fiddling, they caused the switch to crash, meaning a major service outage. In the post I referred to above, I pointed out that telco culture played a big part in the decisions that followed; nothing gets a telco's attention like an outage, and soon Ericsson engineers were crawling all over the thing. A core dump was taken, and compared with the last one. This revealed the security breach. Vodafone management now decided to remove the thing - who can blame them?

Far more culpable on their part is the fact that the list of people with access to the switching centre now mysteriously went missing, as did quite a lot of other information. No wonder the Greek cops and spooks who now descended on the site were displeased. But it surely can't be that difficult. The hack involved some very advanced coding in a hellishly recondite programming language, PLEX. There aren't that many people in the world who code PLEX. And quite a lot of them work for an Ericsson subcontractor right there in Athens...and one of the two compromised Mobile Switching Centres is located on the subcontractor's campus.

Bruce Sterling remarked about the case that "maybe it's teenagers". Somehow I doubt it. There's just no payoff from learning something like PLEX if you're an alienated teenage geek - there's all kinds of cool stuff you can do with other languages, like make money, nick porno films, and cheat at games. Not that you might not be interested in spying on the Greek prime minister, but the degree of expertise required before you get to his phone calls is surely beyond the plausible.

The Greek Left is of course convinced that it was the CIA. But then, from their point of view, the various military organisations being spied upon are identical with it. So what was the point?

Big Big Steel Boxes!

Rob Farley has reviewed a book I've just been rereading, Marc Levinson's The Box. It's a history of containerisation and how it had a massive impact on the economy - Levinson argues that port and cargo handling costs were so great pre-containers that containerisation itself was enough to bring about a huge reorganisation of world trade. I think he makes a strong case, although it's hard to judge as (as he points out) historical data on shipping costs is surprisingly troublesome.

What interests me, though, is the when. When Sea-Land's first container ship, SS Ideal-X, sailed from Newark, New Jersey, for Houston in 1956, containers weren't new. There had been a trade association promoting them for twenty years, issuing possibly the dullest periodical in the history of journalism (Containers). It had been formed by a consortium of European railways. In the late 20s, the London, Midland, and Scottish Railway had a fleet of three thousand boxes in use.

Postwar, other shipping lines and railways were at it too. There was no particular technical change that either required, or made possible, inter-modal container shipping. Levinson offers a lot of the credit to Malcolm McLean, the founder of Sea-Land, for envisaging it as a whole system. (So does everyone else - when he died, container ships around the world sounded their sirens to mark the moment.) But it's also very interesting that, well, Sea-Land and later US Lines went bust. The world's biggest container line is AP Möller-Maersk, owners of M/V Emma Maersk, which missed the boat on containers and didn't own a single box or ship until 1973. First mover advantage? Don't make me laugh.

The only people who did indeed experience an advantage from moving first were ports, rather than shipping lines. Because the relative location of the port and the final customer was less important, the ships tended to go where the cargo was, and where the cranes were. Hence, unless you got started and began handling boxes, the ships would go elsewhere; and there wouldn't be the cash to build a container terminal later to win them back. No scope to wait and see. The shipping lines, though, were considerably more able to adapt. This remains a serious problem for most of Africa - without a reasonable promise of a load, nobody will build a terminal, and if you do, they won't call. And without good shipping, there is unlikely to be much to ship..

Containers have been likened to packets in telecommunications. Certainly, containerisation has similarities with IP networking; the point of IP is that you only need to agree that you are going to exchange data in a particular way in order to internetwork. If you agree that you're going to handle boxes of sizes 10/20/30/40" by 8" by 8" with ISO standard twist locks, it doesn't matter how they are transported or by what route, as long as they are. (This doesn't mean, however, that standardising them was easy. Pas du tout.) Equally, it makes no sense to charge differential rates according to the contents of a container, and it didn't take off until the shipping lines stopped trying to do this and just charged per box.

The Net Neutrality analogy is pretty obvious. Like the US telcos, they also fought bitterly about it, and lost out to those carriers who didn't pry in the boxes.

McLean is also an interesting character. A classic example of those canny, obnoxious people from obscure bits of America who the mid-century boom and the great compression unleashed - like Richard Feynman, John Paul Vann, Steve Cropper, and more according to taste - he started off in trucking, and considered Ro-Ro shipping as a way of gaming the regulations, before realising it would be better to ship just the box body of the truck, not the chassis. Having made it with Sea-Land and a variety of distinctly funny financing, he decided to buy a huge swath of the North Carolina backwoods where he grew up and create a vast agricultural development, including a monster, super-industrialised pig farm and a scheme to strip the peat and process it to methanol.

Fortunately for all, he ran into a new trend on its way up - environmentalism, which forced him to leave the peat unstripped. Not long after that, US Lines went bankrupt after betting the company on one of McLean's big ideas for a second time. The first time, in the late 60s, Sea-Land had ordered a new class of unprecedentedly huge container ships, the SL-7s. These were built to make 33 knots on passage, positively blistering speed for a freighter (not bad for a modern destroyer, in fact), and to provide a round-the-world service that would provide a daily sailing from each major port.

Naturally, making a giant container ship do 33 knots takes a shitload of bunker fuel, and the ships were ready just in time for the '73 oil shock. Whoops. He was back, though, with another class of even bigger slow ships intended to save fuel - but he was still obsessed with the idea of a round-the-world service. Its failure brought US Lines low, and tripped him into a depression he only left by starting yet a third shipping line at the age of 72. It's interesting that, having launched a brilliant piece of evolutionary technology, he was always unable to get away from the technocratic vision of an endless belt of ships circling the planet.

CCTV Face Recognition: Not Just Evil, Useless Too

The German Bundeskriminalamt (Federal Crime Agency, BKA) recently decided to try out one of those face recognition programs on CCTV cameras placed in a railway station in the city of Mainz. And what happened? Well, having installed the software in October last year, they recruited 200 regular travellers as volunteers, whose faces were recorded in the database.

And the three systems tested successfully identified them 30 per cent of the time on average, with a best result of 60 per cent. Wonderfully, the results were best in the middle of the day - to put it another way, when there were fewest travellers. In the morning or evening, exactly when most of the 23,000 passengers on an average day were on the move, the results were as low as 10 per cent. The hit rate on moving targets was 5-15 per cent lower across the board.

Says the head of the BKA, Jörg Ziercke, "I won't reach the goal of preventing anything with such a low hit rate." He gave a figure of "near 100 per cent" as a minimum, and said he would advise the Minister of the Interior against such systems. The installation in Mainz has apparently been shut down.

The effectiveness of these and similar techniques is something of a bitter question. Since the CCTV boom of the 90s, several British jurisdictions have experimented with recognition. Famously, the system in the London Borough of Newham was exposed as never having caught anyone, and failed a challenge to spot a Guardian reporter even though his presence was announced in advance. Heathrow Airport also employed a system. Results are difficult to come by.

But the Home Office's closed-door trial of various biometric identification methods does give us some data. Their face-recognition software apparently failed in 30 per cent of cases; terrible enough, given the numbers of people the national ID card scheme is meant to process. But it seems to have been dramatically and suspiciously better than the German one - probably just an artefact of its being done under lab conditions rather than in the wild.

It can't possibly work, because biometrics don't scale.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Criticisms of Contraction and Convergence

I don't like the "contraction and convergence" approach to stopping climate change.

Why? Well, I have a number of reasons. C&C states that we should set a global CO2 target lower than present (contraction), and that poor countries should be allowed to expand up to it while rich ones cut down to it (convergence). The argument is that everyone should have an equal CO2 ration.

What's wrong with that? Well, it takes care of equity but does nothing for efficiency. On this classic policy trade-off, it goes 100 per cent for equity. This is a really serious problem; if we are to fix the problem, it's important to think about who can save CO2 fastest and cheapest. This feeds into a second issue: C&C assumes that CO2 emissions are actually good.

Yeah, it's counterintuitive; Mayer Hillman, the plan's inventor, is as dark green as they get. But it assumes that people actually *want* CO2 - that it's something people choose, rather than an unpleasant byproduct. As Amory Lovins says, people don't want energy, they want cold beer. I have no desire to emit CO2. If the choice is available, I'd rather not. But C&C works on the principle that it is only possible to prosper by increasing CO2 emissions - hence the imperative need that they be shared equally.

Anyway, back to efficiency. Imagine you're in a lifeboat that's taking on water. You need to bail the water out faster than it comes in. In the boat with you is a fat bloke who refuses to accept that the water is real, various average normals of differing physiques, and a big strong Indian sailor who, however, thinks it's a better idea to row as fast as possible towards land. The ideal solution is *not* to get everyone baling at the same rate. Rather, you'd want to get the best bailers bailing to the best of their ability. Even if it's not fair that the fat guy takes up so much of the boat's buoyancy, it's not useful either - throwing him overboard would use up far too much energy and risk capsizing the craft. Yeah, bailing at the same speed would be fair, but it wouldn't maximise the rate at which water left the boat. You cannot eat fairness.

Now, the upshot of this is that the sources of emissions growth are highly important. It's easiest to change things where the change is happening. Rather than moralising about how China's economic development is all because of terrible consumers, it's dramatically more useful to think about how factories there might benefit from some of Lovins' design work, aimed at reducing their energy use by a factor of 10, or how best to reward countries like Brazil for not clearing forests. C&C just offers one group (the developed world) blood, sweat, toil, and tears, and another group (the developing world) rather less money. Offering them not-very-much development and the same technology as before is not an attractive proposition.

Neither is trying to persuade the public not to buy their stuff. C&C fans tend to pull into extremely tight defensive circles at this point. Well, y'know, the gains were only achieved by offshoring industry to China. Buying stuff with fewer miles will, ah, bring industry back, and we know that less CO2 is emitted per dollar of GDP here. But the gains only came from offshoring! (Not true, anyway. Germany's emissions fell, and it's a bigger exporter than anyone else, even China.)

Further, the operational suggestions tend to be awful. C&C is based on the idea of an individual CO2 ration, which unavoidably leads to the notion of an individual CO2 ration card, which is essentially a national ID card and tracking system in earth tones. In fact, it might have to be a global system. One of the reasons why I like universal tax and benefit proposals, by the way, is that they minimise the opportunities for mass surveillance.

Carbon tax and redistribute. It's the only way.

Update: have a read of "Elizabeth Economy"'s piece in the Nation.

Mirrorball: Global Witness and the President's Son

Lawyers for the son of the dictator of Congo-Brazzaville are trying to force our old friends at Global Witness to take some kompromat' they have on him off their website. It looks like the son has been helping himself to the oil money - what did I tell you? - in order to fund his label queen habit. So just y'all get over to this page and grab some copies of the daaarkuments.

That is all.


Necrocracy: government by the dead, for the dead. Thoreau@Jim Henley's says s/he expects Dick Cheney to invoke executive privilege in relation to an act performed after he ceases to be Vice-President. It's an interesting idea, but I'm going to raise the bar. I predict that Dick Cheney's lawyers will attempt to invoke it in relation to an act performed after he ceases to be.
Congressional committee: Who authorised Operation Oedipus?

Counsel for the Cheney Foundation: Mr. Cheney.

(Sensation in Congress.)

Committee: And how is it financed?

Flack: My client asserts executive privilege over any and all information relating to Operation Oedipus.

(Astonishment, and disbelief.)

Committee: Your client is currently deceased. Indeed, he was deceased at the time Oedipus was initiated. He remains so. In fact, you don't actually have a client.

(Silence. A blogger is ejected by guards.)

Flack: I am retained to represent Mr. Cheney's continuing interests as a juridical person, which continues insofar as the provisions of his last will and testament must be placed in execution..

Senator Moulitsas (D-CA), intervening: Given what little we know of Operation Oedipus, execution is the right word!

Flack: I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to discuss that. It is my contention that Mr. Cheney's position as Vice-President of the United States conferred privilege on his responsibilities as deputy head of the executive branch, including those which continued after his leaving office. As Mr. Cheney's prior status is unchanged by the mere termination of his biological existence, so this privilege continues unchanged.

Committee: Do you mean to say that people are taking orders from a dead man?

Flack: I dispute the use of the term "man". It implies certain responsibilities and expectations inconsonent with the dignity of the deceased Vice-President.

Sen. Moulitsas: You're damn' tootin! And that's my line!

Committee: I think we will adjourn to digest the implications of this remarkable argument..

Eagleton: Intellectual Snob

Says Terry Eagleton, in a Guardian Content..sorry..Comment is Free screed:
For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life. One might make an honourable exception of Harold Pinter, who has wisely decided that being a champagne socialist is better than being no socialist at all; but his most explicitly political work is also his most artistically dreary.

The knighting of Salman Rushdie is the establishment's reward for a man who moved from being a remorseless satirist of the west to cheering on its criminal adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Hare caved in to the blandishments of Buckingham Palace some years ago, moving from radical to reformist. Christopher Hitchens, who looked set to become the George Orwell de nos jours, is likely to be remembered as our Evelyn Waugh, having thrown in his lot with Washington's neocons. Martin Amis has written of the need to prevent Muslims travelling and to strip-search people "who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan". Deportation, he considers, may be essential further down the road...
No, there are no writers who deal with economics, society or politics. For example, why doesn't Ken MacLeod say something about terrorism and the media, or China Miéville stop going on about spaceships and write something about Marxism or libertarianism or eugenics? Couldn't Charlie Stross just say enough with the Ninjas and talking squid and consider what might have happened instead of capitalism, or what the economic organisation of a future super-technological society might be? J.G. Ballard could forget the Martian princesses and have a crack at advertising, violence, and life in the Thames Valley..

After all, that's what they do, the science fiction people, isn't it? Spaceships, spaceships, spaceships, all day long, with the odd Ninja or cephalopod thrown in. It is at least highly amusing that this half-bright bollocks crawled into the light of day just as the Grauniad's books pages ran a selection of bloggers' (and why don't THEY ever discuss politics? Eh? Eh?) responses to an article on, well, why the literary establishment still refuses to accept that sci-fi exists.

Except, of course, when a member of the Guild Of Serious is tempted to indulge in the future. Guilds, as a political and economic force, went out with the combination of capitalism, industry, and the centralised bureaucratic state. It's not hard to imagine that this is actually an example of "what if they had survived into the industrial age".

So this machine should make some people afraid - very afraid. As should the fact it's placed in a public library. It's the first-ever example, as far as I can work out, of public-access rapid manufacturing, devoted to literature.

Burn this filth

David Axe reports on various American officials moaning that the Dutch Army in Afghanistan is not sufficiently keen on burning the peasants' crops, specifically the poppy crop. Now, Dave is currently engaged in something like the Four Days' Fight of the Anglo-Dutch War, when the Royal Navy and Martin Tromp's fleets got locked into a week-long battle of attrition; slavering soldiers of Orange are scrambling all over his comments threads with cutlasses held between their teeth.

Clearly it's time to stab him in the back.

TYR can exclusively reveal that the Iraqi insurgency is being funded by the trade in a toxic, explosive, and highly addictive substance that is peddled on Britain's streets. Junkies, known as "petrol heads", are willing to spend almost anything to get their hands on their next "tank". It offers them a passing sense of boundless power and confidence - but the downsides include thousands of people a year being killed and injured, billions of tonnes of CO2 emissions, and our cities filled with toxic, stinking smoke. Millions of Britons are sending vast sums of money to foreign pushers - many of whom are in league with our enemies - enough money to make it a significant contribution to the trade deficit. Even as we speak, oil dealers are selling their wares only a few hundred yards from my keyboard.

So far, absolutely nothing has been done by the military authorities in Iraq to eradicate the fields from which "oil" is extracted, the transport networks used by traffickers to move it, or the vast laboratories which process crude "oil" into the highly refined, crack cocaine-like form in which it is found on the streets. Even, part of the neo-con Pajamas Media network, thinks this is insane.

Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that Coalition commanders deliberately altered their dispositions in order to protect these systems. For example, Colonel Tim Collins described in his memoirs how the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, like the other units in the 16th Air Assault Brigade, were specifically tasked to guard an oilfield. Far from blowing it up, though, civilian engineers arrived to check that production would continue!

As in Afghanistan, it seems that the oil pushers are entrenching themselves in the Iraqi government - the notorious fraudster and suspected Iranian agent Ahmed Chalabi, for example, succeeded in having himself appointed Minister of Oil. There is clearly only one solution. We must use the remaining time before General Petraeus must report to Congress to create an Oil Identification and Fast Oil Eradication Force, OIF-OEF for short, which will have as its aim the destruction of all oil fields in Iraq.

The measures required are simple. Precision-guided munitions permit us to destroy highly-critical nodes in the oil trafficking network with confidence and very little risk. The locations are well-known. Specifically, the Baiji refinery and the Al-Fawr deepwater terminal are vital for all oil exports from Iraq. Our aircraft, or if necessary, combat engineers, could close these tonight, for good and all. Two F-15E strike packages, each of four aircraft carrying four 2,000lb laser-guided bombs apiece, might suffice. The risk of casualties is minimal.

It is well-known that countries with a substantial oil racket tend not to profit from it. The money extracted from foreign addicts is usually either creamed off by the sinister Mr Bigs of the trade, or else squandered by corrupt, ramshackle governments. Meanwhile, the costs are nationalised, through the so-called Dutch disease and the release of toxic by-products. It is even all too typical that the oil bosses keep control of the fields by getting the locals hooked on cut-price petrol. Without the false prosperity of oil-trafficking, Iraqis would be free to concentrate on other, more constructive forms of economic activity, such as poppy-growing, prostitution, and genocide.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Two cheers for bureaucracy

No. Three cheers.

I don't know if anyone else noticed, but while everyone in the political press was huddling around scraps of gossip from the United States, or pouring abuse on Harriet Harman, the civil service has had a great couple of weeks.

Yeah, this blog snarls at Whitehall every time the bell strikes. Its self-interest, its unspoken ideology, its authoritarianism, its managerialism - we hate it like we hate sin. But I'm quite sure that Dsquared is plotting some dread coup against opponents of scientific management. And here's something for you.

We've just seen half Yorkshire and the Severn Valley under water, with all kinds of funky logistics problems, like arranging for the Royal Engineers to boat over the right folk to look after a marooned supergrid substation and not have a real Wexelblat fuckup, or shifting super-hefty pumps from London to Doncaster when the railway and the M1 are shut for a possible dam burst. At the same time - as if some horrid bugger chucked it in a scenario-planning exercise - a terrorist wave.

And all in and among a prime-ministerial transition, while departments are dying, multiplying by mitosis, merging, and generally carrying out all the sexual manoeuvres bureaucratic entities can do.

Damn, it's good to have a real civil service.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

I am the message centre and I am in control

Cognitive neuroscientists staged an experiment in which subjects were asked to make decisions on whether or not to invest money. It was the classic set-up that demonstrates risk-aversion bias: on each round, the subject could choose between keeping $1 and taking a 50 per cent chance of getting $2.50. Theoretically, you should always take the gamble, as the present value of the 50 per cent chance is greater than $1, but usually, people will only go for it 60 per cent of the time or thereabouts.

The clever bit, though: they asked some brain-damaged patients, who have lost part of the brain that deals with some emotions, to do the test as well as the normals who acted as the control group. And what happened?
Patients incapable of feeling emotions chose to invest 83.7 percent of the time, and gained significantly more money than normal subjects. They also proved much more resistant to the sting of losses, and chose to gamble 85.2 percent of the time after they lost a coin toss. In other words, losing money made them more likely to invest, as they realized that investing was the best way to recoup their losses. It is an irony of economic theory that it only excels at predicting the behavior of patients with serious brain injuries.
I can already see that there's a good sci-fi story in this, and possibly even a movie. Imagine the character, a near-future stockbroker or HFG who undergoes deliberate brain damage in order to improve their investments - and seriously impair their relations with other people, but hell, doesn't working 70 hours a week do that anyway? And there's serious money in it. And if we happen to run over a cad, we can pay for the damage if ever so bad. How pleasant it is to have money..

Then, it happens! and the plot is away, scrabbling over the rooftops...

Does Gordon Brown have a policy on Afghanistan?

Do we actually have a policy with regard to Afghanistan? The question wants asking. After all, we've just had a change of government, and Gordon Brown is apparently willing to appoint people from other political parties or none. But despite this, Des "Swiss Toni" Browne is left in place as secretary of defence, with the added job of being secretary for Scotland. It doesn't seem intuitively obvious that the MOD is a part-time job, nor that Browne is doing a spectacular job (although at least he's not doing a Reid, Hoon, or Portillo).

Supposedly Brown offered the job of Northern Ireland secretary to Paddy Ashdown, who refused. NI Sec is about to become a nonjob, rather similar to the Welsh or Scottish offices post-devolution. How much of a nonjob it is can be measured by the fact it's been given to Shaun Woodward. I can well imagine that there's nothing there to attract Lord Ashdown.

If he really wanted Paddy in the cabinet, he'd have offered him the defence portfolio. I can think of few better choices, in fact there's really only one - Rupert Smith. Brown has sought uniformed advice, in picking the former First Sea Lord, Sir Alan West, for a job in the Home Office. But this is an odd choice - the Home Office? really? an Admiral? And it's probably explained by the fact West was a flexible friend as 1SL, going along to get along with Iraq and putting up with T-45 cuts and the Sea Harrier withdrawal.

So there are no new men. New methods, anyone? New aims?

Whoever is in charge, the need for a clear policy is the same. At the moment, the situation is rather better than it was six months ago, but this is in part because it's consuming dramatically more troops - we've now passed the crossing-point when there are more British soldiers in Afghanistan than Iraq, and the gear deployed has increased hugely with the 12th Mechanised Brigade's arrival. Despite a lot of propaganda, the promised Taliban spring offensive either didn't happen or was pre-empted. They are threatening to attack Kabul, but then, they say this every time the bell strikes.

On the down side, we still don't really know what we are doing. The northern half of Afghanistan is reasonably calm, as is the capital, although there is some terrorism. Down in Helmand, though, there seems to be constant low-level violence. A lot of posts have been established, but the promised reconstruction effort doesn't seem to be making progress. The biggest single job, the restoration of the Kajaki dam, is still awaiting better security on the roads. And, by definition, people are getting killed.

We simply cannot stay in a defensive barracked role forever, occasionally calling in air strikes that kill too many of the wrong people, waiting for something to happen. Hence the Hence the Senlis Council, which points out that there is a risk that we'll just end up like the US forces between 2002-2006, a random destructive force that appears from the sky every so often. What does it mean, however, to put development before military action?

That presumably implies that some places where it is necessary to fight to go should be abandoned. (the policy, roughly, General Richards adopted late last year and got battered by the US for..) To put it another way, you could call it a selective offensive strategy.

Anyway, we urgently need to come up with a policy that can be sustained in the long term, and one that takes account of the Pakistani dimension - which is very close to home indeed for the UK. Note that a NATO air raid was recently called in within Pakistani territory.


I finally realised what my Big Idea about the Triesman Scheme for National Phrenology was. It's that British politics is afflicted with scienciness, by analogy to "truthiness". Thinking about the obsession with biometric quackery, I realised that over the last 10 years we've been governed by people who like the idea of science, but not anything specifically scientific because they don't have the knowledge, and not the scientific method because it requires a degree of intellectual discipline they simply don't want.

In Conrad's The Secret Agent, the Russian intelligence rezident who calls his agent Mr. Verloc in for a bollocking proceeds to brief him on a scheme to stage a provocation, in which an attack must be made on "science". The spook argues that only this will scare the British middle classes, because they can rationalise an attack on the rich and don't care about culture or politics, but do believe that science is somehow connected with their prosperity. Further, blowing up something scientific is so completely mindless that it's truly scary. (He doesn't think of the obvious response, which is to write it off as the act of a madman.)

Similarly, Tony Blair and his governments had a vague realisation that science (or more accurately, technology) was of economic importance. But his assortment of lawyers and professional politicians never had any sense of what scientists might want or need, and were deeply averse to taking scientific advice precisely because it was scientific, and thus tended to say that their ideas might be impossible, impractical, or misguided. If your political approach is based on operationalised postmodernism, you're unlikely to enjoy advice from a fundamentally modernist intellectual community.

So, Blair swung towards things that felt like science. Scienciness! And the things were those of the last period when he had neither been immersed in the law or politics - the early 1970s. Hence Maglev, monster mainframes, second-generation nuclear power, CCTV, and ID control. There's also the ressentiment factor - the drive to define against a strawman of the Left meant that the project took the opposite side to things the 70s and 80s green-left disliked. John O'Farrell, I seem to remember, once wrote that science seemed vaguely rightwing to his generation of the soft-left.

Curiously, but not at all surprisingly, all these technologies fulfil the requirements of what I call creationist technology. Highly centralised and capital-intensive, with very long OODA loops, they are highly congenial to managerialism and the politics of press-onitis.

Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press

This is an extremely worrying piece of late-Blairite thug politics. More than one Labour MP, it appears, has been briefed before appearing in the House for questions on the NHS National Programme for IT with what purport to be private e-mails from Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at the Cambridge Computer Lab.

Typically, this has received a total of zero column inches in the press. One might think that a Government minister reading out other people's letters in the House in order to win a partisan point is a very noticeable act, but apparently not. There are multiple possibilities here. Possibly Lord Warner, Andrew Miller, and Caroline Flint are simply lying and have received no such information.

This would, curiously, be the most politically scandalous option - traditionally, you can do almost anything as a member of the Government so long as you don't get caught fibbing to Parliament about it. This principle has recently been eroded somewhat - Geoff Hoon, for example, stated categorically that no soldier lacked equipment on crossing the startline of the Iraq invasion and demanded apologies from the press for reporting such. This was utter shit, and the Defence Select Committee report of March, 2004 demonstrated conclusively that it was so, however Hoon is still there and astonishingly is a member of the Cabinet. Jack Straw is another case.

It's also possible, and probably most likely, that a legitimate recipient of the e-mails is ratting. I am not sure of the legal position here, so will confine myself to expressing nausea at this behaviour and pointing out Warner's vomitous hypocrisy in accusing Professor Anderson of a lack of principle on the basis of selective quotations from stolen private letters. I am actually going to state that the original documents are being outrageously misquoted - given the moral atmosphere, how can anything he says not be tainted?

Finally, it's possible but not likely that they were intercepted by technical means. This would be deeply outrageous, and would among other things constitute the use of public funds for partisan ends. But I suspect option 2 is the most likely.

I'd vote for any MP of any party who raises a question regarding this. I'd have their babies if they asked Flint, in the light of this comment, to answer a few basic questions on information security:
Among a number of suggestions for Conservative party policy, he proposed a fresh look at IT policy, suggesting that in each civil service department there should be a chief information officer at grade 1 and that "the top 50 per cent. performers should expect a knighthood" based on their IT advice. If that is the best advice that the Opposition can obtain for operating a modern Government using the modern technology necessary for our public services, so help them.
I am again going to make a statement for which I have no evidence, and dare anyone to challenge it: Caroline Flint cannot define SSL, START-TLS, public-key cryptography, or two-factor authentication. You can find links to Anderson's published research at his home page. Compare the Flint, who appears to have never actually had a job outside Blairite wingnut welfare. She was, however, very strongly for everything the government wanted and against everything else, and ran Hazel Blears' deputy leadership campaign.

GUI for Jets

This is an image of the cockpit of the next-generation Russian air superiority fighter, the Sukhoi 35. (h/t Aviation Week)

Su35 cockpit

What strikes me about it is that user-interface design for combat aircraft has caught up with what computer-game programmers thought it was like in 1997. Sukhoi have clearly leapt ahead in the glass cockpit trend - can you pick out any non-FMC instrumentation at all? One screen - sorry, subwindow - is normally assigned to flight instrumentation, another to radar, and another to either weapons, navigation, or any other application, the whole shebang appearing on a pair of 15" LCD screens. There's even a cursor. Which should be fun, upside down, under too many G, hurtling over the marshy forests of Byelorussia..

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