Thursday, October 30, 2008

Gilligan's "Ibogaine Frenzy"; Assaults Wrong Man, Screaming Nonsense

It seems that Andrew Gilligan has been stung by the phrase "Bendy Jihad". So much so that he has devoted a whole column to moaning about it, or rather to moaning about anyone having the cheek to disagree with him. It's a pity, then, that he couldn't see his way to attributing his attack correctly, quoting accurately, or refraining from beauties like these:
There's a certain mad nobility in the way Boris's opponents seem determined to strap themselves to the most unpopular causes going. You wonder what's next a support group for double-glazing salesmen? A bid to rehabilitate that misunderstood feminist icon, demonised by the Right-wing media, Rose West?
Do stay classy, Andrew. Anyway, to get to the point: Tom Barry is not responsible for the phrase "Bendy Jihad"; it was me. I invented the phrase to express the bizarrely gratuitous nature of the campaign against these peaceable giants of the urban savannahs; is it really a top priority, after all, to replace some brand-new buses with other brand-new buses which have had some glassfibre curlicues added?

And it is gratuitous. We know now that they do not kill cyclists. Not one authenticated case of a Bendy attacking cyclists has been provided. No evidence for any of the other horrors they supposedly inflict on the public has been adduced whatsoever. But rather as so many Conservatives are indiscriminately in favour of killing small animals, the Bendy Jihad rolls on, despite the fact that the contracts between Transport for London and the bus operators mean that come what way, 50 bendies will still be in operation at the next mayoral election, despite the fact that some of the routes involved are impassable to double-deckers because they go through the Strand underpass, despite the fact Boris Johnson forgot all about paying for the extra drivers and conductors required for 24-hour operation...clearly, the role of the Bendy Jihad is not instrumental, but symbolic. Rather than fighting for a secular triumph in which the Caliphate of a better transport system is actually achieved, the Bendy Jihadis hope to prove themselves worthy of their place in paradise (also known as the House of Commons) by their sacrifice.

However, their religion is actually considerably less advanced than Islam in anthropological terms. Rather than propitiating god by good works or asceticism, they are still at the stage of making sacrificial offerings of dead animals; in this case, these savages intend to stage a mass cull of defenceless bendies. Perhaps they will build a giant pyre and dance round it, or burn Peter Hendy in a wicker man atop City Hall. It's potlatch politics; they're doing it purely because they can. Politically, it's an appeal to the primitive instincts; watch us smash their big, long, red totem!

I suspect the authors of the Bendy Jihad are well aware of this; it's hard to remember this now, but it wasn't that long ago that the main strategic problem facing the Conservative Party was how to win an election in a climate of prosperous housing-boom contentment, without risking any of their core ideological substance. The answer, of course, is to pick an aesthetic and push it as far as you can.

Now, Gilligan claims that "one tireless Johnson-basher, Tom Barry, explains how the Mayor's opposition to bendy buses is actually part of a sinister, global neo-conservative conspiracy". Unfortunately, he's got this the wrong way round. The opposition to bendy buses is actually a conspiracy which consists of sinister global neo-conservatives.

For example, we have Policy Exchange's founder Michael Gove, shadow Schools Secretary. Mr. Gove is on record as recommending the pseudonymous "Bat Ye'or"'s book Eurabia, in which you can learn that the European Union is secretly controlled by Arabs. (There are pills you can take for that, I think.) We have its recent director Anthony Browne, the toast of US extreme-rightist group VDARE, who apparently thinks we are "on the edge of anarchy" because of the not-ricin not-plot, now Boris Johnson's policy chief. We have the truly odd figure of Policy Exchange research director Dean Godson - advocate of "political warfare", former special assistant to John Lehman as Secretary of the Navy (that's the US Navy, and he's now the head of John McCain's transition team), and shaky-on-facts thinktanker. Why am I bothering with this obscure thinktank?

Because, of course, not only did Boris Johnson staff up from it, but it published a paper back in 2005 which specifically proposed the Bendy Jihad in the following terms:
One of the remarkable things about the debate over the Routemaster – London’s much loved hop-on, hop-off double deckers complete with conductor – is that it is about much more than just a bus. It is highly revealing about so many aspects of public policy in Britain today. The first is the rising tide of the group rights agenda (or at least a particularly extreme interpretation of it) which has overwhelmed key public utilities and those who do business with them.
That's Godson. "The group rights agenda", no less. Here's some more:
The Routemaster’s crime, in short, is not that it is ineffective; it is that it is unfashionable. It does not fit with the modern, sleek, concrete-and-glass Euro-city that Mr Livingstone wants to create; never mind that this city exists only inside the Mayor’s head.
It's always the EU in the end with these people, isn't it? You'd think that Andrew Gilligan might have been aware of this document's essentially partisan and political nature; after all, he wrote that last bit and Godson edited it.

What a bunch, and how bizarre that they all share a deep interest in buses despite having never been at all interested in transport policy before. I suppose their nonsense is explicable by the Dunning-Kruger effect - the principle, experimentally demonstrated, that incompetent people are not only unaware of their incompetence but convinced that others are even more incompetent than they.

Anyway, this is all very interesting, but it's just a pity that Tom Barry didn't actually say it, just like he didn't invent the Bendy Jihad. The two halves of the quote, each side of the oh-so-convenient ellipsis, come from two distinct pieces of writing, welded together like the halves of a dodgy secondhand car and with much the same purpose. Tom Barry says in the first one that there is a curious overlap between the Bendy Jihad and a neo-conservative worldview, quoting me. I think we've amply demonstrated that. He says in the second that the Boris Johnson campaign was motivated by Tory hatred of Ken Livingstone for cosying-up to the "new economic superpowers". That's an opinion, on a whole range of stuff that has bugger-all to do with bendies.

Comment is free, facts are sacred. Remember? Much more of this and I might conclude Alistair Campbell was right. Which would be a considerable stretch for me. But then, they say you should never meet your heroes. Especially not when they get caught sockpuppeting.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

the crucial cannibal vote

I grinned at this comment at the Stiftung:
“Joan Walsh, are you telling me, really telling me here, now, on TV, that because Charlie Black worked with this Savimbi guy, this so-called Reagan ‘freedom fighter’ in Africa who is alleged to have been a cannibal, are you really telling me that this means Team McCain eats people???? Are you making that allegation here tonite ?! I am asking you directly. That Team McCain are cannibals. Is this guilt by association? Yes or no !!”

Joan Walsh: “Chris, no one wants to do that. Not at all. We are just saying that this relationship between Savimbi and the McCain campaign needs to be investigated. We need all the facts. What exactly was the relationship with this notorious Savimbi character. There is a lot there that should concern the American people. We need to know it all so the American people can decide.”
Well, ha ha. But then it happened. Via Making Light, this brainblitzing turdspurt:
Bree Keyton told the tribal "Christians" you are NOT Christian if you practice "tribalism" where they do voodoo to conjure up a goddess spirit or a "genie" and then come to church on Sunday to worship Jesus! What she discovered there is apparent in most churches around the world; namely, mixture in the church. Some renounced their devilish practices of blood covenant by killing sheep, goats, humans to be inducted into the tribe or to get a wife or to get revenge.

She said the current president of Kenya is a Christian. However, Obama's cousin Odinga ran aganist him and said he rigged the election and stirred up the masses to rape woman and boys, kill and burn and torture Christians, etc. until Obama contacted Condeleeza Rice and she granted Obama the right to contact Odinga and other ruling elders and he "convinced" them to stop terrorizing the Christians. Bree Keyton said the current Christian President was forced by our government (!) to "create" an office for Odinga (to make "peace") so he was made the Prime Minister (!) to make peace between the Christians and Odinga's Muslim religion!
Long pig; it's this year's Ibogaine. Relatedly, I was just reading back over some of the Pierre Falcone posts, and it struck me that McCain's public image has come a long way since I blithely remarked that Falcone had been a fool to offer him money. True, I was thinking of relative rather than absolute integrity - I said Falcone should have offered Tom DeLay the cash, and got a far better deal in terms of value for his bribe dollar.

Perhaps McCain should try a different West African warlord; Charles Taylor knew a good campaign slogan when he saw one. He could help him mend fences with the crucial evangelical vote, thanks to his links to Pat Robertson. And eating UN personnel would probably go down well with the base.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Superior Quality Recordings

You are unlikely to find anything much better to read than Nir Rosen's report from Afghanistan. It's the journalism we've been yelling at the professionals to do for years. There's far too much to summarise, but one thing that strikes me is the sense of a world of tiny, hyperlocal, byzantine conflicts, with sudden interventions by people who may as well be on the moon - Taliban chieftains based in the UAE phoning in to say whether or not to kill the journalist, staff officers in Combined Air Operations Centres doing much the same thing, like gods in a Greek play.

Relatedly, Abu Muqawama deserves thanks for not swallowing idiotic red-baiting about "embedding with the Taliban". Whilst you're over there, don't miss the excellent series on Darfur and the complexity of a situation where the insurgents in one part of the country are effectively the counterinsurgents in another, the importance of missing one stage of student radicalism, and just how close they came to overrunning Khartoum.

Also, Dan Hardie is back.

World of Charlie Stross Watch

Zombies march on Sarah Palin campaign event, as they do in Halting State (although this seems to have been planned well in advance, and that was a flashmob). Charlie couldn't predict Sarah Palin, however; politics can always outweird science fiction.

Relatedly, the BT 21CN network upgrade always promised to unearth a ton of weird things in the way of surplus real estate. And the daddy of them all, the fortified Kingsway long-lines exchange under High Holborn is on the market. Originally built as a deep air-raid shelter, with a view to later being part of the Central Line, it became part of Special Operations Executive and then, in 1954, one of four major long distance switching centres that got deep bunkers. The others are or were in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. The Manchester facility, codenamed GUARDIAN as in the newspaper, caught fire a few years back, causing a major outage across much of the North West.

There's video, too; what struck me is that the entire site is painted Light Straw, BT's standard colour for absolutely everything (including vans when I was a kid), throughout. Supposedly they rejected the first Ericsson AXE digital switch because it didn't come in light straw.

Among other things, the Kingsway site was the terminal for the first transatlantic telephone cables, and like all really cool stuff, was imported into the science-fiction canon in 1980 by James Herbert, who gave it mutant rats. Read the whole thing; there are some great stories - they locked the facility down for nuclear attack in October 1962 and didn't come up for two weeks, occasionally it overheated and bits of the walls melted, the canteen originally served a three-course dinner and had trompe l'oeil murals of tropical islands for windows, there was at one point a pub down there as well, and supposedly the original builders were "from another European country and didn't know where they were".

Or *what* they were? Seriously; it's so Laundryesque it's not true, especially because the SOE department that was down there packed up lock, stock and barrel on VE Day and BT was never informed what they had been up to. (The Laundry, of course, is a section of SOE that somehow didn't get shut down in 1945 by the career spooks in SIS.)

But the really spooky and science-fictional detail is this: there are no rats.

vanity of vanities, all is plain vanity

The true genius of our society: we invented a drug that turns fat people thin but then makes them depressed.

Organise, and pissing off the right people

Yer ORGANISE project. Right. There's been some activity lately; specifically, there's a new and more detailed spec (available here), a separate and improved section on the design philosophy (here), and some embryonic requirements/notes on implementation (here). Thanks to contributors.

Meanwhile, something interesting; you look at stories like this and this with suitable awe. As Mark Kleiman says, it's somewhere between Booz Allen Hamilton and Saul Alinsky. A few weeks back, I had the impression that there was an emerging rightwing meme that field organising itself was suspect and trrrist; the association chain went something like hippies/Weathermen>scary black people>cellular structure>Obama is a terrorist!!

Here we are; note that he's defining all kinds of things characteristic of the campaign as "terrorist".
My view is that the community organizing was actually kind of sham event that really Bill Ayers was testing him. Because the way these radicals work, they don't give you a big project until you pass muster with a small project. And so they sent him out to Chicago to see what he would do. He passed the test.
It's been softpedalled since then, but it's worth watching. This kind of anti-politics politics has been a keynote of the Bush years. For example, look at this Crooked Timber thread, specifically the quote from Jonah Goldberg.

He's not arguing against redistribution; he's arguing against the other side by simply mentioning it. It's not that their argument is wrong, it's that they have an argument. He's working the false consensus bias for all that it's worth.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


I was reading the various Boris Johnson blogs earlier this week when something struck me. It was the combination of the Boriswatch story about the basis of the whole obsession with Routemaster buses falling apart, and the news that Boris Johnson's crazyarse idea about building an airport in the Thames Estuary was being examined "in-house" at the GLA, an organisation with no airport expertise at all. I thought, hell, this really is the Dunning-Kruger Effect at its best. Come to think of it, you could call this lot the Dunning-Kruger administration.

The DKE is a major result in cognitive psychology, discovered in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger at Cornell. They tested groups of students on various skills, and asked them to evaluate their performance relative to the rest of the class. They then marked the test papers, and informed the students of their scores. Here's the clever bit: they then asked them to self-evaluate again. What they found was this: high self-evaluation was correlated with low performance. The worse students, across all the skills tested, consistently thought they were the best; in fact, the worst 12 per cent marked themselves, on average, in the top 38 per cent.

That wasn't all. The gap between ego and reality shrank with greater competence; but it did so faster than you might expect, so the two lines crossed early. The most competent students actually tended to underrate their own abilities. And here's the really interesting bit. The genuinely sick bit; every psych experiment needs one of those. When the incompetent students were shown their grades, their self-evaluation got worse. The good news is that intensive teaching and practice improved both their performance and their self-evaluation.

Mayor of London? Sure I can do that. Piece of piss. Anyway, then there was some kind of kerfuffle in the Corfu yacht club involving my favourite shadow chancellor. Dunning-Kruger? You bet. And I'm suddenly faced with the thought that perhaps Boris Johnson *is* the clever one. Politically speaking, I mean. Obviously he's DKE up to here when it comes to airports, buses etc, but think about it; suddenly, the Tories are in a major fix. The economy is going down the toilet, but at the same time, the Tories' credibility on the issue is doing the same...and they're the opposition.

Perhaps Boris recognised that the Mayoral election was going to be a great opportunity, and there wasn't going to be many of those going for a while? Despite a lot of red-flashing warning signs the economy hadn't really suffered yet, the great consumer boom was still going strong, the Tories' success in the game of personality politics was still intact. All he needed was a good framing campaign; and the Bendy Jihad was it. In the same way as the subjects in the Dunning-Kruger experiment simply adjusted their view of reality to match their internal reality, this sort of media campaign surrounds us with false consensus, relying on us to adjust our internal references to match it. The Bendy Jihad was quite clearly designed to exploit two of the standard cognitive biases - DKE, and the availability cascade. This worried me quite a lot; it suggested that the Policy Exchange/Tory Decent crew could win anything.

But now? I don't think so. The times are not for bendy jihads and bicycling twerps. And George Osborne's horribly botched attempt at a political stabbing? So Dunning-Kruger.

Homemade particle physics

It all started with this Making Light thread; Bill Higgins was musing about improvising a radiation detector, which led him to this deeply cool device - scroll down for the cunning methodology that goes with it. But James MacDonald beat him, I think, with this cloud chamber implementation:
Field-expedient cloud chamber:
  1. shot glass.

  2. High-proof vodka

  3. Rubber balloon

  4. Rubber band

  5. Dry ice

  6. Light source

Pour a shot of vodka. Drink it. Do not wipe out glass. Put rubber balloon tightly across mouth of glass, fixing it in place with rubber band. Set glass on block of dry ice. Shine light through side. Pull up on rubber sheet to lower pressure in the shot glass. Observe tracks in the cloud.
And then I saw this story; it turns out that when you rip off sticky tape (that's a scientific term) in a vacuum, there is a discharge of static electricity, so electrons are transferred from one side to the other, and when they strike the tape, they slow down. Energy is of course conserved, so it has to go somewhere, and somewhere in this case is a astonishingly powerful burst of X-rays. This is yer bremsstrahlung, right?

You can probably see where I'm going with this. Now, who sells dry ice in London N19? The spirit, obviously, is no problem. Need to think of a way of arranging to peel off the tape under a vacuum, though.

Hey, it's significantly less crazy than freeze-distilling H2O2, or doing the same thing to Timothy Taylor's Landlord Ale. (You know who you are.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Bonus Tim Worstall Stupidity Watch

Shorter Tim, Energy Edition:
Commodity prices always come down in the end; except when I really want the price of steel to stay at 2007 levels because it harms the economics of wind power. Further, supply of manufactured goods always responds to price signals except when I have a bizarre ideological opposition to some particular technology. And nuclear power is magically proof against the price of materials, the cost of labour, the rate of interest, and the planning process.

Tim - nuclear power stations are made from reinforced concrete. What is reinforced concrete reinforced WITH? Perhaps this is why he doesn't go on about his metals trading business so much these days.

Actually, the article he's drivelling about is fairly sensible and much more optimistic than either Timmeh's deranged take on it or the Obscurer's headline; it is here. Basically, the worldwide boom in wind power is putting the industry under capacity constraints; like, say, the semiconductor industry in the PC boom. They can sell'em for almost any price as fast as they come off the line, and they've built up a huge order book. Of course, what will eventually happen is that the wind turbine makers will expand and probably eventually end up flooding the market in a few years' time. This will, however, definitively not happen with nuclear, because a nuclear power station is essentially a working definition of one-off job production; it's a hell of a lot easier to make something cheap when you're making thousands of it on a production line.

Further problems mostly centre on the planning process; both for turbines and for grid interconnection.

Of course, in Timmehworld this shouldn't be happening, because wind power is a bizarre plot organised by British socialists, which no-one else in the world would possibly use. But Tim lives in Portugal, one of the world's biggest and fastest wind developers; and as far as I know, the hens haven't stopped laying, the skies have not darkened, and the rain has not become chubby there. This doesn't change the essential issue, though; his problem is that it's gay electricity.

is there anything stupid going on at Tim Worstall's?

We've blogged before about the NHS's computer project. So I'm not at all happy about this remarkably silly post at Timmeh's. He takes issue with a post of Richard Murphy's about bank nationalisation:
Yup, the people who brought you the NHS Spine are to be put in charge of developing all banking software in Britain.
Well, this is a strawman to begin with. Is Murphy the Chancellor now? But let that pass. Really? A group of mostly American healthcare computing specialists? Several of which no longer exist? Or does he mean the big IT consulting firms involved - like IBM, BT Global Services, and Accenture? Because I'm pretty sure they do a hell of a lot of financial work as it stands; in fact, everyone was worrying last week about IBM's third quarter results precisely because banks are big customers. (They turned out to be OK, in that mysterious IBM way.*)

But perhaps he thinks the NHS NPfIT was developed by teh government bureaucrats? Or at least, he's willing to pretend it was to suit ideology? The whole problem with NPfIT, as we've said before, is that the system was developed completely in isolation from NHS bureaucrats or indeed anyone else who would have to use it. The NHS trust IT departments were kept well out of it. The upshot was that the developers knew literally nothing of the NHS's requirements, its business processes, or the data the system was meant to handle.

No wonder it was a disaster. In fact, when a group of US hospital bureaucrats had a go at designing a medical IT system, they came up with a beauty - there's even a satisfied customer in the comments. Why? Because they knew what it was meant to do and how. Compare this comment:
I met a guy who works for this company. I cannot repeat what he said, since he has a family to feed. But suffice to say he was deeply worried about the implications for safety of life. That was a few months ago.

The whole thing is rotten to the core, and desperately needs to be scrapped. Now.
The good news is that the thing still doesn't work well enough to turn it on even as a pilot project, so we're safe for a while yet. But what did happen the last time the Government took on a really challenging in-house IT project? You ask Daniel Davies.

(* probably something to do with asking the fucking users - that or the staple Nazi market, or wearing a lot of pale blue shirts.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Meet our intellectual masters

The Daily Mash is still making more sense about the economic crisis than the entire global conservative movement. ECONOMISTS WARN OF BILLY BRAGG:
Professor Bill McKay, of University College London, said: "The core economic purpose of any Labour government is to prevent Billy Bragg.

"If, as it appears, we are returning to a cycle of boom, Bragg and Jimmy Sommerville's excruciating falsetto, one is forced to ask the question, 'what is Gordon Brown for?'."
If you think about it, that's actually true; New Labour's chief aim has indeed been to prevent any return to Billy Bragg, by being tough on Bragg (i.e. noisy leftist opinion) and tough on the causes of Bragg (internal party democracy, social acceptance of Bragg, real ale, heavy industry, mass unemployment, etc). It now appears to be the case that the leader of the Conservative Party wants to bring back many factors correlated with Bragg. We may be facing a Bragg election.

Prime minister Gordon Brown said that if suspects cannot be detained for 42 days the only alternative was to nationalise much of the terror industry.

Mr Brown said: "This move is very much in line with our current strategy. If all else fails, just buy the fucker." He insisted the day to day operations will remain with a small group of religious psychopaths working out of a cave in Pakistan.

The prime minister said : "We must ensure that, as an institution, it continues to provide a useful, ongoing threat without actually blowing things up."
Who could deny that, deep down in the core bureaucracy, the Government, or rather the State, wants precisely that? There's just a shade of Terry Pratchett here, who I think nationalised burglary in one of his novels - the rationale was to provide jobs for burglars while keeping burglary down to a level that would be tolerable but wouldn't be so low as to put the insurance companies out of business. Seriously, you could do worse than abandoning the newspapers and just reading the Mash.

From the pony to the spherical cow

Whilst we're at it; watch Tim Worstall claim that the banks don't have any mortgage-backed securities on their books. Indeed, Tim, if you were right there would be no reason to nationalise them; but then, we wouldn't be in this mess. As Molotov said to Ribbentrop, so if the British are finished, why are we in this bunker and whose are those planes?

It's always a laugh waiting for the talking points caches to sync with the authoritative nonsense server.

Attack Of The Camorset

Cameron today outlined his plans for economic responsibility to replace "irresponsible capitalism and irresponsible government" under Labour. He began his attack by accusing the prime minister of basing his financial decisions on "false assumptions" that he said had left the economy in ruins.

Among them were the ideas that a successful economy could be built on a "narrow base of housing, public spending and financial services" and "that you could abolish boom and bust, and that the good times would last forever".
Eh? A Tory complaining that the economy is too dependent on housing and financial services? Yes.
"We've got to broaden our economic base to include more science, more hi-tech services, more green technologies, more engineering and more high-value manufacturing, drawing upon a much wider range of industries, markets, people, towns and cities."
Did he just say that? Did Dave from PR just announce a medium-term industrial strategy? This is, by any measure, a political moment of the first order; the Tories, the people who decided UK plc should be a huge investment bank based in London, ran a high interest rate and strong pound policy that killed off most of engineering and high-value manufacturing, and whose pet thinktank apparently believes the North should be evacuated...they said that?

Perhaps they've realised that yes, Virginia, the UK is no longer an oil exporter because they pissed it all up the wall in the 80s and 90s, and that turn-London-into-a-huge-investment-bank thing ain't looking so clever any more. Perhaps they've found one of Michael Heseltine's old memos from his shakeout'n'invest period in the files. OK, then, where do I sign?

But what is this?
He dismissed critics who believed that "permanent state intervention" was the only way to avoid a repeat of the problems. Those who believed the change the country needed was a "turn to the left" were wrong, he said, as he promised to inject greater responsibility into the economy through a centre-right platform of measures
Responsible us back the DNA-sequencer activities of Amersham International plc, willya? Could you perhaps responsible up a wave power industry while you're there? Anyway, before we slide into bitterness...there's also this.

He promised a new debt responsibility mechanism, with the Bank of England required to write regularly to the Financial Services Authority about sustainability of the level of debt in the economy. "If the level of debt is growing unsustainably, the bank will instruct the FSA to ensure banks either slow their lending or put aside more capital."
So no permanent state intervention....except for the bit where you take powers to intervene in the management of the entire banking sector, including the bits that are still independent of the state. Also, direct government controls on lending? Isn't that the Sovietisation of Britain or something? What next, exchange control stamps in your passport?

But that's apparently it. Cameron is planning to regenerate the entire industrial base (and "high tech services", which I think means BT Global Services 'cos we don't have any other firms like that since Leo Computers in the 1960s), and he intends to do this simply by running a smaller budget deficit, and imposing a bank lending corset. He's not even promising any tax cut ponies.

There is one actual measure in there, though. Apparently he wants to change the insolvency laws to protect "sound but struggling businesses" (and again, there's a sick laugh from the 80s for you...). But how is this going to interrelate with the Cameron Corset proposal? Camorset for short, which sounds nicely like the sort of southwest-central shire where the buggers come from. If it's harder to cut off credit to those "sound but struggling" businesses, but the banks have to reduce their loan books 'cos Dave says so, where do they cut? Doesn't that imply they'll have to bear down on everyone else even more? Why should a sound business that's not struggling quite enough to be protected take the punishment? (Why don't any Tories seem to understand marginal economics at all?)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Operation Firedump - the great rampcheck

So, if World President Brown was to ask me what to do about the headless Viktor Bout empire, and the operators like it, what would I say?

Here's what I'd do: Let's draw up a big list of dodgy airlines. Better, let's use rules; ex-Soviet aircraft, or old 737s, based in the UAE, registration in certain West African, Balkan, or Central Asian states, routes mostly to Middle Eastern and African destinations, and (especially) aircraft bought from or sold to other airlines in the list. We could implement it in software quite easily, at least to provide a filtered list for humans to review.

And then, whenever they land anywhere with trustworthy civil authorities, let's invoke the long-standing right of any landside state under the Chicago Convention to do an immediate safety inspection, a ramp check as they say in the trade. Naturally, quite apart from crawling over the plane with feeler gauges, that will involve checking all the documents; the manifest, the tech log, the ops manual, the QRH, the pilots' licences and log books, the air waybills for everything on the manifest, the aircraft registration documents... And, of course, whilst we're at it there's no reason why Customs and Immigration shouldn't search the hold.

If anything is out of order, we'll ground the plane; if anything is really bad, we'll seize it; if anything is outright criminal...yes. It may sound a bit hopeful, but consider some of the blog's back pages. We've seen UN-11007 hurtle off the runway in Riyan, officially full of fish but they burned all too well; the An-12 was registered in Kazakhstan to Air Bas, operating from Sharjah, but was working under yet a third and unknown AOC, that of "RPK" - a company which doesn't seem to exist. In Sudan, an Ilyushin-76 crashed working for Jet Line International, registered to Aerocom, on lease to East-West Cargo. One of the old Irbis Il-18s was grounded in Pakistan after a terrifying flight, several times overloaded with passengers, during which one of the pilots passed out with hypoxia.

It seems to be a defining condition of arms traffickers in the air that the aircraft make sense from one angle, usually that of the UAE authorities; as soon as you look at the details the whole picture dissolves. Here's another example:
During a ramp check in Beirut, it was discovered that the aircraft's operating documentation was split among all these firms; the insurance policy applied to a different plane, the tech log was from Ariana, the MEL (the list of the minimum equipment required for safe operation) was the American Airlines one, later replaced by a Swazi one that hadn't been approved by the Swazi authorities. These institutional flaws complemented a long list of physical ones. None of this should be surprising; UTA's chief pilot wasn't qualified on the B727 and neither was anyone else there. The tech manager was trained on the Lockheed Tristar and DC8, and the strong impression is given that literally no management structure for 727 operations existed...
So, I'm delighted to see this report from SIPRI, always sound on the issue right back to the 90s, which suggests exactly that. You can get it here. Of course, being a bunch of Swedes or at least in Sweden, they're a lot more serious than me - they've got studies an stuff and tables and data. But don't take my word for it. Read the whole thing

Now, the same people are trying to get a change in European Union regs through the European Parliament to make this job easier. You might want to tell your MEP about it, especially if they're a member of ALDE - the European Liberals.

Update: Here's a specific talking point.
Lobby for, and support amendments and mechanisms by the relevant EU actors: European Commission DGs, the European Council, the European Parliament and concerned member states “to formulate and implement effective measures using existing EU instruments and regulations that will further reduce the number of air cargo and maritime companies involved in destabilising or illicit small arms shipments to Africa”.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

GSM Warlord, again

Mobile phone wars. Georgians complain they can't get American submarine cable engineers to come back, for fear. And they sue.
The Administrative Panel of the Tbilisi City Court has rejected an appeal filed by Russian cellco MegaFon against fines imposed by the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) for unlicensed use of radio frequency spectrum within Georgia's sovereign territory. The GNCC won its claim that before the recent war Megafon covered only part of the former Autonomous Republic of South Ossetia, but that in August the operator unlawfully expanded its coverage area and exceeded the conflict zone to include the regions of Gori and Kareli.
Trade does follow the flag, then; at least some kinds. I'm struggling to see how the Georgians hope to collect, but I suppose they feel better for it.

Meanwhile: a plan.
Non-governmental organisations would distribute mobile phones to Afghans for them to make their own video diaries.

Anti-Western films already circulate on Afghanistan's estimated 6m mobiles. These films are also distributed among the country's half a million internet users.

The plan has been devised by an outside consultant. Although no decision has yet been taken, it is said by the Foreign Office to "have merit". It envisages having up to 100 short films made by Afghans ready in time for a film festival next summer.
A film festival? Christ, the Mick & Ruth approach is taking hold. More seriously, I can't think of any way this is going to actually harm anyone, so I suppose it should be welcomed, and there's a reasonable chance of it being a useful check on warlords of various persuasions. This is probably more useful, however.

I recall a similar project sponsored by the GSMA that involved a suite of short films by various directors, led by Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt. The killer detail being that while he was being feted at 3GSM, he was also on the lam from the Indian police...

if you're not on the list you're not coming in

OK, so what about those identity cards for (some kinds of) foreign nationals? You'll recall that the Government promised, back in the spring, to have them out and operational in 300 days. As late as July, there were no actual contracts for the job, but they did actually manage to bring in Thales to start work. So how's it going?

Well, despite the vast cutback in scope and scale, the decision to base it on crappy existing records, and just to forget about the National ID Register for now (thus obviating the whole point)'s already over budget by 29% and it's sliding right, from March 2009 to August 2010. Cracking; the element of the project they specially rushed forward in order to get something, anything working on time has now slid so badly that it's caught up with the rest of the project.

Meanwhile, the Home Office is issuing 5,400 fraudulent passports a year, among some 200,000 dodgy docs in circulation. Apparently "automated facial recognition" will solve it; this doesn't make very much sense, as surely the main problem is people submitting genuine photographs of themselves and falsifying the biographical section of the form.

Further, face recognition systems are poor enough (remember the one in Newham that never actually caught anyone?) at positive identification; checking the face provided against the one on file. The failure rate in the Home Office 2004 trials was about 30 per cent. But the IPS and DVLA seem to think they can rely on it to guarantee that the same person isn't already registered, and do this by matching faces to a database containing tens of millions of faces, taken under all kinds of different circumstances. What kind of false-positive rate can you expect from that?

In fact, it's worse; if they're trying to detect multiple applications or applications under false names, the evidence of an honest application will be the absence of a match. So the most common failure mode will result in the document being issued anyway, and there is no way to detect this. And you won't be able to assume that a match is proof of fraud either, because of the inevitable false positives; so the chance of successfully getting a passport or driving licence in someone else's name might actually be better.

HOWTO: remove giant statue of Sir Fred Goodwin

think I've said before that I find public sector accounts incredibly weird. Here's a great example; it's a very good FT story on the bank nationalisation plan and how it affects the national finances. Bizarrely, the £25-50bn of government bond issuance required to raise the money probably won't count towards the public sector net cash requirement (what used to be the PSBR in John Major's days of sound finance...not!); it's a "financial transaction" and these are excluded.

Well, that makes a weird sort of sense; the liability on one side is matched by an asset (the stake in the banks) on the other, the net change in the government's cash position is zero (at first, but even later, any dividend paid on the preferred stock would at least balance the interest payments). The next bit, however, gets really strange; although it's not counted as new public borrowing, it is counted in the figure for the national debt. It's debt, right? Yes, but if the government was anything else but the government, the increased debt would be matched on its balance sheet by the stash of bank shares. It being the government, however, it's not.

Now, it gets really counterintuitive when it comes to the really big money - the £250bn guarantee for wholesale bank lending. Apparently, if the Government (as suggested) charges the banks a significant fee for the guarantee, this will force it to take the full wad on its books as a liability of the public sector. (Even though most of any transactions among the eight participating banks will add up to zero; if Lloyds lends Barclays £1bn and Barclays lends HBOS £1bn, and Barclays then goes bust, the state guarantee would only come into it if Lloyds and HBOS couldn't agree to settle the transaction between themselves.) If the Government offers the guarantee free of charge, however, the rules on public sector contingent liabilities mean they can keep it off the books. Yes, you heard that correctly; it's in some sense financially better for the state not to receive quite a lot of money.

Anyway, in these weird times, let me propose a weird solution. The Government has promised to put manners on the banks in return for the £50bn, pressing for executive pay restraint and measures to help small businesses. Some people are concerned that they won't be able to make this stick because preference shares don't come with a vote. I disagree; whatever the formal terms, anyone who fronts up as much as half of RBS's capital base is going to have several billion votes, and indeed it looks like the CEO is going to be sacked as a condition of the deal. It's a question of political will.

EDINBURGH, October 12th: Crowds cheered as the giant statue of Sir Fred Goodwin was torn from its perch by a Royal Engineers' armoured tractor. As the news spread this morning, a mob gathered around the base of the monument, unavailingly beating it with sledgehammers and dragging at it with ropes. Eventually, Sergeant Mick Kelly's Chieftain AVRE arrived. After a few minutes, its engine roaring, the huge vehicle succeeded where they had failed and the dictator's figure crashed into the dust. In a sinister orgasm of rage and contempt, the mob beat it with their shoes, spitting and jeering as the ruin was towed through the streets....

Like I said, it's a matter of political will.

However, it will be much easier to hold the Government's feet to the fire about this if they do have formal rights to intervene, as well as safer, as unwinding the stakes in a hurry in order to punish a recalcitrant bank wouldn't be easy. One option is to buy ordinary shares as well as the new preference ones, and have the Treasury Shareholder Executive manage them; the numbers involved would put the Government in a position to insist on a seat on the board and extensive influence over management. However, this would be riskier, as ordinary shares don't have the charge over cashflow the preferred kind do, and it would also spook the market even more, as issuing the new shares would dilute the existing shareholders.

It would also be affected by weird public accounting, as this would make the banks into public-sector entities and therefore bring them on the Treasury's books; in which case, only their liquid assets would be counted against their debts and the national debt would therefore reach unheard-of proportions.

But there's another option. For many years after privatisation, the Government held so-called "golden shares" in a range of ex-nationalised industries considered to be strategically important. For example, that in Rolls-Royce gave the Government a veto over changes of ownership and the right to reserve the top management positions to British citizens. Some of them were abandoned in the early 2000s at the request of the European Commission; notably those in BAA plc. Now, these shares were legally structured as "special preference shares", and the Office for National Statistics didn't consider them to be sufficient state control to put BAE, RR, National Grid plc, BAA and the rest on the books - but they certainly granted the Government special rights over these companies. In fact, they still do at BAE Systems and Rolls.

Update: Oh well, here comes the shock and awe. Sod golden shares, preference shares, whatever - it looks like we're in for the whole hog, 75% of RBS's market cap, voting stock, Government directors, sack the board, don't open the London Stock Exchange...fuck, did they just say that? Looks like the opening of the books must have been quite a dramatic event.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

missing: 198 middle-aged men

I am beginning to think I was a little harsh on Simon Heffer yesterday. After all, it's got to be tough; not only has the entire structure of policies, assumptions, and style he's devoted his entire working life to just been demonstrated to be utter drivel, but who else is even trying?

Seriously. I'm sure there used to be a Conservative Party somewhere around here. You know - blue rinses, die hards, wets, dries, One Nation, Policy Exchange, Eurosceptics, backwoodsmen, Notting Hill set, John Redwood. That lot. Hey, only last week, they were still trying to save the Bradford & Bingley with magic central bank ponies. But now? Not a peep.

In fact, you'll find far better commentary on the crisis from the Daily Mash than you will from anyone even vaguely on the Right. The field has been left entirely to the professional economists, and the broadest possible Left.

But it's not just that; it's the whole of world conservatism. The US Department of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, the Bank and the Fund, the Republican Party - none have the least credibility.Who now remembers when the IMF was feared by all right-thinking people? If you want to know about the world economy, you ask some random blogger called "Tanta"; if you want practical advice you ask Tom Scholar of HM Treasury and, well, Gordon Brown, who is suddenly basking in international respect. If you want cash you ask the Bank of Japan. And we're asking the Afghan government for assurances over the fate of POWs we might hand over to them....assurances that the Afghans won't let the Americans have them, because we don't trust them not to commit a war crime.

Again, the Daily Mash is more cogent than the global conservative movement:
Emma Bradford, an office manager from Luton, said: "Whenever things were going well there was always this voice in the back of my mind saying, 'make the most of it because sooner or later it's all going to be completely fucked by some bastard Americans'.

"I just assumed I'd be horribly maimed as a knock-on from one of their insane, catastrophic wars, but instead they have, in the most beautifully co-ordinated fashion, demolished the system that provides me with a job, a home and the vague hope that life may not an elaborate waste of time. I'd applaud them, if only I wasn't so weak from all the nauseating terror."
I mean, what do you do as a British Tory if you can't credibly speak for the City, the Landed Interest, or the Americans? Perhaps you do what Greasy Phil Hammond just did:
"This accelerating decline in house prices will inevitably lead to wider negative equity and more repossessions ."
In other news, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury and one-man real estate lobby said that heat flows from a hotter to a cooler body, 2+2=4, and that he is a pathetic excuse for a politician who doesn't deserve to lick the boots of the civil servants at his putative department who are putting this lot back together.

I can't be the only one who's noticed that Brown's "national economic council" is built exactly on the traditional civil service handbook for a war cabinet, nor that it looks a lot less like a gimmick now than the week it was born. Nor that spotting the possible use of ATCSA2001 to recover Landsbanki UK assets is just the kind of thing we pay them for. Bank bailouts: expensive. Depression: worse. The Home Civil Service: priceless.

Friday, October 10, 2008

I won't fix your computer. Or perhaps I will...

KDE4 user? Been having problems with the DCOP and DBUS servers? Do your K-applications no longer launch from the graphical user interface? Do they sometimes not even launch from the command line? Have you got references to "file retriever failed: 149" in your .xsession-errors log?

Well, you're in luck. I've been having this problem recently - it's especially annoying as things like KNetworkManager and KPowersave can be affected, although non-KDE apps still work (except, of course, when they have to integrate with a K application in some way). It's associated with KDE4.1 in some way, as KDE3 apps still work, including the KDE3 versions of the same apps. But I'm not any more. Trying to fix the problem, I decided to have a look in the /tmp/ directory, and what did I find? North of 250MB worth of worthless cruft, old prefetched web pages, prefetched ads from old web pages, blank cache files, that sort of thing.

So I removed it all; just to be vindictive I ran the KGPG Shredder function through it as well. And then I moved on to the /yorksranter/tmp/, which was also stuffed with crap. Upshot? Everything works again, faster and better than before. Presumably, the stuffed /tmp/ caused KLauncher to time out before it got something registered somewhere. 250MB is a lot of cruft, but it's not that much; I think the problem was caused by the number of directory entries rather than their size. Perhaps I should set up a script to flush the e-crapper automatically.

Tory Takfiri

This arse-awful gaggle of crap by Simon "Craven" Heffer has already been effectively fisked by Dave Osler among others, but I reckon there's still some unexploited stupidity in there to be had. It's actually even worse than this one.

Basically, this article is an example of what Islamists would call takfiri thinking; takfiris are an especially crazy and extreme version of Wahhabist jihadi, who believe that the millions of other Muslims around them aren't really Muslims, and therefore are even worse than the crusader scum, the Jewish parasites, Shia apostates, etc etc. From this they conclude that they've all got to go. Now, if you need someone to drive a car packed with explosives into a police station, they're your boys; but unfortunately for you, they also have a tendency to turn on all your friends as well. This is roughly what happened in north-central Iraq over the last few years - the NOIA groups, like the 1920 Revolution Brigade, started out by being delighted at the steady supply of Saudi idiots with bags of money and a hankering to blow up, but found the buggers started to take over, chopping off heads and trying to decree weird laws.

So they very sensibly sold them to the Americans. Now, the word "takfiri" means something like "excommunicationist" or maybe "denouncer"; one who wants to purify the community by drumming out everyone who doesn't agree with him as traitors. So what can we make of something like this?
For the Government to take stakes in our leading banks in order to re-capitalise them is not quite the sovietisation of Britain, but it is a pretty good start. Given the instinctively socialistic leanings of our Prime Minister, it may well have been a move he undertook calmly and, quite possibly, with a little excitement.
The sovietisation of Britain? Christ. It wasn't so long ago that this would have been equivalent to an accusation of treason, and I suspect in Heffer's mind it still is. Did you see what I just did, by the way? I used an argument based entirely on my own claims about someone else's private thoughts. Quite possibly with a little excitement. Does it get any better?
By the 1970s the inevitable endgame of socialism was being played out: unions battling with government over rates of pay, prices and incomes policies, food subsidies, the three-day week, the winter of discontent. The state had to create jobs because there was precious little incentive for the private sector to do so. Investment was scarce. The state was everywhere.

The maxim of the American writer and philosopher Ayn Rand came close to fulfilment before the denouement of Old Labour on May 3 1979: that the difference between a welfare state and a totalitarian state is a matter of time.
Oh. You just accused half the political spectrum of being as bad as Nazis or Stalinists. So no, it doesn't get any better. The whole point of Heffer's Tory Takfir is clearly visible here - it's to shift as much of the domain of legitimate debate over the line into the illegitimate, to excommunicate as many people to his left as possible, to demonise and menace and denounce. And, as always, we're asked to look for the secret enemy among us - Heffer takes care to include all previous Conservative governments in the general smear.

I'm not going to bother with the substance, such as it is; it's merely a selection of more or less dishonest strawmen and scare-stories. Britain between 1945 and 1979 was a poverty-stricken desert where the dead went unburied, evil socialists caused national bankruptcy in 1976 (but the finances being so dire as to give the IMF a veto on UK foreign policy in 1956 was apparently peachy), the 70s energy crisis was all Harold Wilson's fault but the 80s oil bust was entirely Thatcher's own work, and this comment has already summed it up very well:
Well, at least one thing is back to normal. Mr. Heffer has reverted to his usual excellent form after his brief lapse into constructive thought yesterday.

Not a word about the merits or demerits of the bailout versus *not* bailing out the banks. Goodness no, that would require judgement. Let alone any recommendations along the lines of "Liberty" and "Anti-Statism". That would require intelligence, insight, and courage.

No, I know a better strategy (Mr. Heffer knows it too by the way). Simply fill a few pages with gripes and moans while pointing out the (glaringly obvious) disadvantages of bailing out the banks, and no-one will ever be able to fault you. You were merely commenting on government action and voicing sensible caution.

If, on the other hand you wrote something substantive you could be faulted the day after tomorrow. Can't have that, right? Better safe than sorry.
But what, you ask, did I expect? The man's an idiotic blowhard, an egregious right-wing hack, a factual counterindicator of Kevin Hassett proportions. Here's the point, though - the politics of denunciation and excommunication is everywhere (even here) at the moment, and Heffer is in it up to his neck, and ignoring it just lets them grab hilltops.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

participatory panopticon python programming post

Just to say that the Viktorfeed/Google Maps mashup is now working, and it's here. Relatedly, the URL for the GeoRSS feed is changing; replace with

Friday, October 03, 2008

this is radio clash

Utterly trivial, but fun - here are all the songs I've referred to on the blog for the last 6 months, in reverse chronological order. (You know 3UK's voicemail service plays messages back to you in *chronological* order, so you have to listen to all the others before getting the most recent? USABILITY FAIL.)

Know Your Rights - The Clash
Paranoid - Black Sabbath
The Big Man and the Scream Team Meet the Barmy Army Up Town - Primal Scream featuring Irvine Welsh (can anyone point to this on the Net? thanks, dsquared)
Tommy Gun - The Clash
Stand Down Margaret - The Beat
Probably A Robbery - Renegade Soundwave
Battle Flag - Pigeonhead/Lo-Fi All Starz remix
Roll, Alabama, Roll - traditional (*Phil Edwards gets a point for finding this)
Song For My Sugar Spun Sister - The Stone Roses
Shipbuilding - Nick Lowe/Elvis Costello/Robert Wyatt
Boris The Spider - The Who
Do Nothing - The Specials
Hanging On The Telephone - Blondie
Fit But You Know It - The Streets
Ring Ring Ring (Ha Hey Hey) - De La Soul
Opportunity by You Say Party, We Say Die!
Marcia Baila - Les Rita Mitsouko

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Mission accomplished

As someone once said: ladies and gentlemen, we got him.

It appears that - of all people - Boris Johnson gets the honour of dragging "Sir" Ian out of his spider hole. Of course, this raises all kinds of legal issues as to who, exactly, gets to hire'n'fire the commissioner of the Met. Is it the MPA? The Home Office? The Mayor? The Mayor's delegate, as deputy mayor for policing and fantasy airport design? It's a little more simple now Boris has decided to be his own MPA chair, but not much.

Yeah, well, wonk away. In the meantime, my plans include rejoicing, and possibly burning a huge effigy on Hampstead Heath. I'm having a good week; so far, the count of "things Alex has protested against that were actually reversed" has gone from zero, to one (Austrian tuition fees, which can only be estimated a smidgen picayune), and now to a massive two.

The Grauniad has details, including bits I'd forgotten - like bugging Lord Goldsmith! I mean, I can think of few people I'd rather bug, and anything that bugs him must be good, but it's rather illegal, a bad precedent, and undignified. Bugging the IPCC! Now that was just fucking outrageous. Pretending to have taken part in the Balcombe Street shootout! Yes! Seriously! Giving his best mate's IT shop three million quid! Lying about how much it cost to ineffectually harass Brian Haw!

Now there's a thought to chew on - Brian Haw can bed down tonight secure in the knowledge that he's outlasted his second police chief, through nothing more than his own glorious pigheaded obstinacy and their pompous, gut-chafing stupidity. It makes you proud to be British.

On this fine evening in the liberated capital, who on earth could remain bitter? Martin Kettle, that's who! And guess what? He's still whining about the Rio police force! Now let's ask a question - had the cops shot the train driver, or their comrade "Ivor", as very nearly happened, would anyone have mentioned the performance of this outfit? Obviously not. Kettle has been arguing that it's OK to off people who come from countries with really bad police forces, on the basis of some twisted sort of reciprocity. It's perverse, it's stupid, it's basically the same ugly racist gunk as the "De Menezes Was An Illegal" guy was pushing, dressed up for Guardian consumption. (Oh, so what did happen to that blog? It hasn't been updated for two years, presumably after it became clear he wasn't.)

More seriously, Kettle also manages to say that greater democratic oversight of the police is simultaneously good and bad, and he doesn't appear to know that we have elected police authorities, as we used to have watch committees, precisely in order that the police answer to someone who was actually elected. But who cares? Despite the fullest confidence of the prime minister, the home secretary, Kirsten Hearn, John Roberts, Jenny Jones, and Martin Kettle, ladies and gentlemen, we got him.

kostenloser Counter