Saturday, January 31, 2009

pigeon religion

Sometimes, at the moment, politics feels like an entirely unconscious business; just a matter of the right reflexes. Like B.F. Skinner's religious pigeons (see also here). Tap the right kneejerk and get a pellet. Hence this exchange in a US military press conference:
Q Yes. Do you have any evidence that there are more or fewer Iranian-made weapons going into Iraq?...

MR. MORRELL: I don't have a strong indication of whether there are more or less, but I think we see persistent evidence that there continues to be Iranian support of special groups who are trying to undermine peace and security in Afghanistan. Whether it be through training or the supply of weapons such as EFPs. Frankly --

Q Afghanistan?

MR. MORRELL: You're asking Iraq.

Q I was asking about Iraq.

Iraq? Afghanistan? Somewhere you can go with BGIA, anyway. And, of course, by definition all opposition comes from Iran, special groups, flah diddysqort, Ping! It's always been one of the attractions of state-sponsorship theories that you don't have to think, ascribe motives, accept agency; the seemly emotion (either hysteria, or else Serious Concern, depending on status) is achievable without using the brain at all.

Of course, one effect of this is that in the end everywhere does start to look like Iraq. Afghan private military companies are becoming a problem, but then, who are we to complain when 2 US combatant commands, NATO, several allied but non-NATO states operating in ISAF, a unilateral US command, a couple of civilian organisations, Afghan police, border guards, and army are supposedly the forces of order?

our futuristic "mailing list" technology will render your crude oppression meaningless

After MySociety's triumph on the MPs' expenses issue, this looks interesting: the Lib Dems are putting out a call for geeks. This was followed up by a survey being sent out; I've filled it in, so I may end up spending the next election twiddling bolts on Chris Rennard's particle accelerator. Apparently, there's to be some sort of shindig in March.

In other news, all I could think of about this was: He writes a great blog/twittered Harry to Jack...


Suddenly, an awful wet crunching and groaning and sick heavy breathing. It's...huge...festooned in the rags of a once-respectable suit, waving a bladeserver torn from a rack like a child's toy...dripping with stale blood. No! The NHS IT Zombie has escaped, and it's fortified itself by eating BT's brains. Now it's coming for us. DAATA! it groans. WAAAANT YOUR DAATA! Run!

Seriously; BT has recently had to spook the stock market by warning of a huge hit to profits from its Global Services big-IT division. But reading this FT story carefully, it seems that a lot of that or maybe even the whole thing is down to the NHS National Programme for IT, and specifically the London Region patient management contract. (The other bits are the ones that haven't gone to ratshit yet.)

The regional patient-management segments were always the most challenging bits of the NHS NPfIT; partly this was natural, because their function - a workflow, documentation, and management information system for the entirety of a major hospital's operations - was by far the most complex in the project. The NHS National Network is a big VPN; the Spine needs to authenticate users, validate input, write to the DB, synchronise, and retrieve; but the patient management system needs to deal with all the possible pathways patients take through the hospital.

Partly, however, it is unnatural and caused by the politics of the project. The regions don't actually correspond to any organisational entity in the NHS - they exist only for the IT project. They therefore have to replace existing systems that vary widely inside each region and cope with organisations in different chains of command. And each region was originally meant to be implemented by a different company; now, most of them have either given up or gone bust, and BT is doing much more work than previously planned, and this of course means that it has to deal with radically varying solutions already installed.

Worst of all, though, the regions mainly exist because the Government wanted to have the job done by the Big Consultancies - Accenture, EDS, and friends - that it was used to dealing with. Assuming that they wouldn't be interested in small contracts, the Government invented a completely new organisational level in order to sweeten the deal. They further insisted on the contracts being covered by intense secrecy, which cut off any possibility of talking to the users. And the Big Consultants proceeded to move the actual development to the US and India to save money, thus avoiding any institutional knowledge that might somehow have seeped in.

Now, it looks like BT is planning to offer a "more tailored service" to the hospitals - which sounds a lot like "doing the requirements exercise we should have done back in 2001". Of course, it's going to cost money and nobody knows how much yet, but I suppose it's progress, especially as the sacking of Fujitsu from the project means that it looks more and more like a BT job (London, the ex-Fujitsu South, the national projects, and perhaps more besides).

But it's still not too late to take radical action. Part of the original plan involved using a common data exchange standard for the whole NHS; if this exists, there's no need for much of the rest, especially not the regions and possibly not the Spine. We could define some goals and a set of data formats, then break out the cash to the individual hospitals, trusts etc to use themselves. In fact, when various US, Australian and Finnish hospital sysadmins tried that, they came up with the best healthcare IT system yet. The problem with the NHS NPfIT is quite simply that it didn't listen to the bureaucrats.

Which is why this is sense. I have no idea what such a sensible set of ideas is doing in George Osborne's in-tray, and I suspect the Tories may think it's a way of preventing IT development in the public sector. But I think a cross-government requirement for common data standards, as much open source as possible, and perhaps even building everything with a sensible API for further development would do nothing but good. And perhaps the project cap might help - after all, the way to deal with zombies is to destroy the brain.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

the latent content of this airport, however...

This really is getting strange. The Tories look worryingly convinced of the wisdom of a plan to build a gigantic airport in the North Sea, split between two separate islands, because you never need to change the runway a plane is going to depart from...right? At the same time, the Government is considering a gigantic tidal power scheme in the Bristol Channel. It's like French engineering civil servants seized control in a bloodless coup.

In fact it's not; they would at least think they were being rational, but surely not even the promoters of this weird rush to create Big Dumb Objects all over the shop can believe this.

On the one hand, you've got the Tories, who are trying to convince themselves that they can find £40 billion, before inevitable cost overruns, to create a operationally crippled airport 53 miles from central London and only 101 miles from the nearest point of Dutch territory, dependent for land transport on spare capacity on the CTRL and on the 6 (I think) Crossrail and 2 LTS train paths an hour slated for the Southend/Shoeburyness route, and for road access on pure handwaving.

BorisWatch deserves some kind of medal for their reporting here; they successfully derived the actual location of the project by following Boris's boat trip in real time on ShipAIS, a ship-tracking ham radio site, and then prepared a handy Google Map, which is where I got the measurements from.

View Larger Map

How often, I wonder, would Borisport be fogged in? Even with CATIIIA/B autoland it's a serious constraint, and enough of it will stop ground operations even if you can still get in. And then there's all those heat-seeking gulls to worry about; they hunt in packs! The air traffic control issues are pretty gnarly, too - departures conflicting with arrivals into LHR, LCY and LGW.

Further, they want to be seen as "green" whilst also creating another Heathrow-and-a-half. But why? What is it with this obsession with airports in the Thames estuary? As always, the key to the present lies in the past. Here's the Hansard transcript of the debate on the Maplin Development Bill back in 1973. Three things come to mind - first of all, weren't MPs great back then? Of course, there is the usual parish pumpery, Bufton Tuftonism and tiresome faff, but there's also a lot of well-informed intelligent debate, and in the end the government lost!

Second, all the problems are still the same. This is because they are mostly what the Soviet general staff called the permanently-operating factors - terrain, human terrain, infrastructure. Third, there's a fascinating bit of the social history of ideas here. We join the debate with Douglas Jay MP on his feet, following up an excellent showing (or shoeing) from Tony Crosland...
Mr. Jay: What was the pressure exerted on the Roskill Commission to omit Stansted from its short list? The Times told us on 4th March 1969 that its inclusion would have been "emotive". At the same date the Financial Times said that its omission was "diplomatic". The British Airports Authority and the Board of Trade assumed that it was bound to be on the short list. The British Airports Authority was even told that it need not ask the commission to put it on because it was certain to be included. Yet it was omitted, and the commission's work was handicapped from the start. 700 Thus handicapped, in my opinion the Roskill Commission did its very best. Faced with the resulting choice between Foulness and a South Midlands site for which there is a good deal to be said, it came down decisively against Foulness and in favour of Cublington.

Then we had another curious alliance between landed interests in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire opposed to Cublington and commercial interests anxious to develop Foulness—

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Epping): Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the point about Stansted, in fairness to my predecessor in this House I ought to say that he was one of those opposed to the Stansted project. I would never think of him as being in the pockets of wealthy landowners or any set of that kind. It happens that I disagree with him on this issue as on many others, but it is right to be fair to him. Incidentally, I have a house on the approach to Stansted too.

Mr. Jay: I never suggested that. I was recalling what happened. According to The Times of 5th April 1971, the group resisting Cublington spent £50,000 "to persuade the Roskill Commission that the airport should be built at Foulness and not at Cublington"—" not just that it should not be built at Cublington but that it should be built at Foulness.

After the Roskill Commission's report, this group spent a great deal more, and the same article in The Times said that the pro-Foulness propaganda groups together spent "at least £700,000" to convince the public and Parliament that Foulness was the right solution.

At this point Sir John Howard enters the argument. According to the article in The Times that I have quoted, he was head of a civil engineering firm and, incidentally, a former chairman of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, though no doubt that is irrelevant. He happened to live near Thurleigh in Bedfordshire and he founded the Thames Estuary Development Company to promote the Maplin project. The Times says that Sir John "first lighted on Foulness during the fight against Stansted, in which he was closely involved."

He "lighted" on Foulness as it were by chance. His consortium, backed also by RTZ, John Mowlem and Shell, spent more than £500,000 in supporting the Foulness case. Much of the driving force in all this thus came not from people impressed with the merits of Foulness but from those who wanted to keep the airport away from other sites.

Here I return to the speech of the hon. Member for Southend, East. What was the opinion of more than 150,000 people living in the Southend area about this? That is for them and their representatives to say, and I am sure that we shall hear the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine)—

Sir Bernard Braine: I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be accurate. There are 310,000 people living in the three constituencies bounded by the Thames and the Crouch who are affected by this proposal.

Mr. Jay: I always believe in understatements because they strengthen one's case. The hon. Gentleman has strengthened my case further. What were the opinions of those 300,000 persons—far more than live within 20 miles round Stansted, perhaps three times as many? I am sure that the hon. Member for Southend, East will not question this as a fact. But I understand that with the support of the leader of the Southend Corporation the corporation took a share in Sir John Howard's consortium, and the town clerk of Southend, according to The Times, became a director of it. Whether that was the best way of handling these matters, I have no doubt that all those concerned thought that they were acting in the best interests of Southend.

Sir S. McAdden: The right hon. Gentleman asked what were the opinions of the people of Southend. They were never consulted. This was a decision of the council to invest £100,000 of the ratepayers' money in Tedco. The council thought that it would make £6 million. Instead, it has lost the lot.

Mr. Jay: It is what I have always suspected to be the truth. I stated it rather diffidently, but the hon Member for Southend, East has confirmed it. From the point of view of this House, the opinion of the Roskill Commission on Maplin is worth a good deal more than 702 that of this consortium formed in the way that I have described.

I am afraid that what emerges from the story is that both the selection of Maplin and the omission of Stansted have been influenced far too much by the money spent on the commercial publicity and far too little by serious consideration of the public interest.
I see Tebbit was already as much of an arse as he later became, too. Permanently operating factors in the human terrain.

More seriously, I'm fascinated by the fact that the whole idea of Maplin/Foulness/Sheppey/Marinair/Borisport pushed by three different Conservative administrations originates with a gaggle of Tory squires trying to win a planning row in some completely different bit of the country. I wonder if Sir John Howard ever seriously meant it? Or did it just get out of hand? The Tories always will be the party of the Landed Interest, just as when their first response to the great crash of 2008 was to look for handouts to their property-shark contingent; another permanently operating factor.

Meanwhile, over the wall, the Government has aimed squarely for a soggy compromise. My own views on Heathrow expansion are heterodox and unpopular. Here goes: I don't particularly mind if aviation makes up 29% of the 2050 CO2 target, so long as we get there. Nobody sets out to emit CO2 - it's waste, and when did you last hear of someone saying "Thank God our widget production line produces so many widget flakes we have to dispose of"? Converting stuff into more valuable stuff is what it's all about, and any production of valueless stuff makes us poorer.

I'm with James Hansen on this one - it's the coal-fired power stations, stupid, and the buildings. If we can't fix the cars and buildings and power generation, it doesn't matter a fucking jot what we do about aviation. Because, after all, buildings are easy, power and cars are getting easier, aeroplanes are hard. We're not far now; look at this hub-drive electric motor project at Michelin. Solar and wind are now the leading sources of new electrical power.

And, if there must be expansion, it ought to be at an existing airport because of the ATC issues. And if we're going to be expanding an existing airport, well, it may as well be the one the airlines want to use. Further, it's good to maintain the various conventions that limit activity at Heathrow - I was surprised to see that mixed-mode operation accounted for almost a third of the expected capacity increase. And yes, I did hold this view when I lived there.

And if we're doing this, we ought also to do other things, like building a north-south high-speed rail route and better public transport in general - saving oil and CO2 emissions for things that we can't yet substitute. Like insisting on change to the European ATC system, which could save 10% or more of the air fuel requirement without pouring concrete or sacrificing anything at all. Like air-source heat pumps and insulation, or...well, enter your favourite project here.

Unfortunately, the government has no credibility on this. Neither does it have any credibility on the eventual target for movements at LHR anyway - they always burst the target, which isn't included in an act of parliament and therefore is pretty meaningless. And their efforts to balance the Heathrow decisions are crap - a high speed rail "hub" at LHR? On a line from where to where? Great Western electrification is good, but this sounds like a piece of recreational investment that might seriously harm the prospects of building a proper LGV network.

And the responsible minister is Geoff. Fucking. Hoon. Of all people. Aren't you in jail? Aren't you dead yet? (I suppose that does not die which can eternal lie.) And so, I conclude, I'd better oppose it anyway. It's the only way to be safe.

Meanwhile, across the way, the Tories want to "examine" high speed rail. Woo. More talk. And, ah, build a forty billion quid airport in the sea, whilst keeping Heathrow open as well (good luck with the 70-odd mile transfer!). As someone said:
Our government is pitiful, whoever you vote for.
They surely can't mean this; back in 1969, the Foulness scheme was a political manoeuvre, a Straussian statement. I suspect its resurrection is something similar.

What are they trying to hide? Is this an effort to kibosh offshore wind development? Are Dave from PR, Gideon and Boris climate change deniers? Or what?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

all too often it's just a comic, not much more

I don't think Chris Dillow is right. Chris argues that the whole sordid fiasco about the Disasters Emergency Committee broadcast suggests the BBC should stop doing radio and TV news and put the money into long form reportage and documentaries instead; this, he reckons, would get people to read newspapers, would create a lot of really good reporting, and would channel traffic to great BBC bloggers. Further, he argues, broadcast news is usually content-free free content at best, and active misinformation at worst, and therefore we'd be better off with less of it.

I disagree. First of all, however, I agree that conventional broadcast news is crap. TV news is the worst of the lot - it's very telling that the look-and-feel and the conventions are unchanging, and only the voiceover, the actual text component, carries any information. Interestingly, just as turning the sound down on the news eliminates all its content and replaces it with surreal attitudinising, providing all the furniture of TV news seems to do the opposite for the participants; whatever the text is, it's on telly, and therefore they read it out. You ask Chris Morris.

But then, yesterday evening, I turn on the BBC radio news to hear a BBC journalist discussing the BBC with a BBC executive. She asks the great panjandrum "if this decision might have been influenced by recent situations". Recent situations? It sounds like South African or East German radio news; presumably both of them, and their real audience - politicians and other BBC execs - know what they are saying, but I don't. It must be either Gaza, or else Russell Brand, or conceivably the Hutton inquiry.

To put it another way, they were scared. This went on for twenty miles at motorway speeds; apparently broadcasting the DEC appeal would not in itself have endangered BBC impartiality, but the reaction to it might have. Put it another way: we're scared of being beaten up by politicians, PR, astroturfers, Richard Littlejohn, etc. Vaclav Havel told a story of a village butcher who put a sign in the window on Revolution Day every year that said "Workers of the world, unite!" Of course, he didn't do this because he hoped for unity among the workers of the world; he did it because the government said so. But what if the government had asked him to put up a sign saying "I am afraid and therefore obedient"?

Good point. He might have resisted; more likely he'd have found reasons to half-comply, or comply ineffectively. Perhaps he would have been out of town, or the sign would have fallen down in the night. Just a coincidence. And that is, after all, roughly what happened; when there was a further challenge to the authority of the Party, nobody wanted to put up the sign, and the whole thing fell down.

But there is a problem. You may think that broadcast news is fundamentally crappy, but this doesn't mean it isn't significant. The BBC retiring from the field would leave a lot of political space open to all kinds of availability entrepreneurs. The broadcast TV market would be left to the flaky (Five), the flaky (ITN), and the Murdoch. And you can't base any plan on more people reading the Guardian or the FT or the Morning Star for that matter.

Huge efforts are made to influence the Big News; here, we have the bizarre tale of Glen Jenvey, the expert on online jihadis who knew everything there was to know about the ones who were his sockpuppets, until he was exposed by some truly great blogging. Then, we have the news that Blackfive is actually an arm of a mercenary company, which seems to think it's an "online intelligence agency". (Do they get comments from international arms dealers? Perhaps signed "Ed.")

We should be chary of letting go any of the zone of sanity, which the BBC is still just within. Certainly, Chris is wrong to think that "news gathering" should be cut; I rather think that if he is right, everything else should go, and all resources go into journalism. High gloss is a profit centre for the BBC, but the public has a direct interest in an alternative source of reportage. After all, how much blog can be generated from one BBC story? Nobody else is going to maintain this raw capacity, unless they want to lie systematically.

a small object lesson on the past decade

Jason Scott tells a sad tale of how AOL eliminated a whole mass of little Web sites and then erased all traces of their content. (Readers with long memories will recall the shutdown of Dave Winer's blog farm.) What follows showed the best and worst of Internet culture - Scott called for volunteers to start a rapid reaction group aiming to respond to similar incidents and archive the lot (AOL doesn't let spider their stuff), and he got so many offers of help he was able to make Archive Team operational within a week.

Unfortunately he was also inundated with wankers demanding to know what was wrong with deleting a ton of other people's stuff - didn't they make backups? - and similar tiresome Bush-era bollocks. IT libertarians, I've spit'em. I don't know where this thinking came from - but whether it was a cause of the low, dishonest decade or a symptom, it was certainly of the times. I think of it as the Human Shield Party - whatever happens, blame the victims.

Strangely enough, the law has always been quite clear that it doesn't matter if someone else doesn't have insurance, you're still not allowed to set fire to their house. I commend this. Similarly, international humanitarian law doesn't give you an out because the enemy put the civilians there; especially because this is very easy to say. Further, if you are concerned that your enemy is hoping you'll fire artillery into a school-ful of refugees and thus make everyone else despise you, the best solution is not actually to give them what they want.

Strangely, again, in every other branch of strategy, avoiding doing what the enemy wants is not controversial. After all, the best way of convincing people of the merits of a libertarian society is not to behave in exactly the way they fear you would behave in such a state.

you fasten the triggers..

This may or may not be significant, but soon after the An-12 exodus from Sharjah, a dodgy An-24RV was seriously damaged in Boosaso, northern Somalia. Interestingly, this aircraft (serial 47309406) had been used by Aero-Service in the DRC and also by UTAGE in West Africa, the firm involved in the Christmas Day 2003 727 crash.

Meanwhile, there are still BGIA movements being reported from Dubai. Interestingly, I recently saw (thanks to Alexandre Avrane at atdb) that BGIA actually started way back in 1996 as a freight broker, well before its activation as an airline in 2000. Which was the period when Richard Chichakli was setting up the Sharjah Airport Free Zone.

Speaking of BGIA, I recently reanalysed the flights in the Viktorfeed database whose destination wasn't correctly geocoded. There are quite a few; Vfeed tries to match the destination given with an old DAFIF db which has two alternative names for each airfield (the match is the UNION of two SELECTs), but if it doesn't find the airport, it marks the movement "Location Not Found" or "Unknown - Not Stated" as the case may be. In the first case, it appends whatever it was that was said. In both cases, it assigns a default location, which Soizick decided would be in the Bermuda Triangle.

Non-matches are caused by: nonstandard spellings, misspellings, outdated usages, and flights that give no destination but aren't blank -   and ZZZ are common, perhaps as a workaround for some computer program at Dubai air traffic control that requires a nonzero destination field. In general, this is just the way when you're working with data just trawled up out of the wild; you should always validate input, but that's only a meaningful statement if your input comes from a user who responds to messages.

So, I got the data; for a lot of the movements, it was possible to clean up the destination string and get useful information. But these were the long tail; the great bulk, some 3,157 flights, simply gave no destination, and were operated by BGIA. Here's the inevitable chart:

Update: Richard Chichakli has updated his Web site, and he seems to have got rid of the ravings about Nazis, &c. The domain name is now registered in Russia, but the site is still hosted in Toronto, where it always was. This suggests he's still alive.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

US flattened by self administered denial of service attack

Two things. Marty Lederman of popular legal blog Balkinisation has just become the first blogger in good standing to join the Obama Administration. He's going to be Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Council.

That's repellent schreibtischtäter John Yoo's old job. I repeat, old Organ Failure Yoo has been replaced by Liberal Q. Weblog. That is, I think, change you can believe in. My advice; nothing dinky, Klotzen nicht Kleckern. Just seal the entire building in an evidence bag, like a forensic Christo.

Meanwhile, I wasn't bothering with the inauguration, but look at this: people are posting to NANOG reporting downstream Internet traffic as much as double normal levels, even on networks that are 80% commercial customers rather than eyeballs. Apparently it's coming through on port 8247, which is the one CNN's streaming service uses. Apparently, some sysadmins are running their own mirrors of one stream or other and blocking the rest.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

a very short post

Phil Woolas is beneath contempt.

I was going to say more, but it would be waste verbiage.

give IT yahoos United States (dollars)

So, there's this rumour-surrounded gadget that GIYUS wants people to install on their computers as part of the War on Terror. Obviously, I wondered exactly how it worked; did it analyse the Web sites you visit semantically, so as to target its talking points precisely? Did it use some sort of social recommendation mechanism? Also, I was wondering if there was any way of characterising the network traffic it generated and estimating how many people are using it.

So I did the obvious thing and I actually downloaded it. It's packaged as a Firefox extension (.xpi); extensions consist of JavaScript files for the application logic and XUL (XML User interface Language) for the look'n'feel, all wrapped up in a ZIP archive. If you don't have the source of one, all you need to do is pass it through an archive tool and extract all files, and then you can read them in a text editor.

And actually, it's kind of disappointing; no folksonomy, no textual analysis, not even crude keyword matching. It just grabs an RSS feed from, passing in the string "GIYUS", presumably to ensure it gets the right one, checks if any items in it aren't already cached, and if so, fires a graphical alert containing the message. It's basically a e-mail list gussied up in Web2.0 finery, with the feature that it's marginally less trivial to forward the content to nonsubscribers. It doesn't even appear to spy on your browsing history.

Of course, there could be some server-side magic involved. You can usually get a rough idea of location from an IP address, and a rough idea is probably best in terms of hit-rate (you've a much better chance of getting your geotargeting right for "North London" than "Archway"). And you can draw some conclusions from browser credentials - OS, screen, browser type and version etc. For example, perhaps you'd want to serve the red meat civilian deaths are all a fake stuff to MSIE5/6 users in teh US heartland and the Decent Left stuff to Mac users in North London. So I considered actually installing the extension; but then I realised I didn't actually want a simulated Melanie Phillips on my sofa any more than I wanted the real thing. However, it's possible to view the feed on the Web anyway, so I checked.

But they may not even be doing that; I'm on a weird niche ISP, with a linux machine, in North London, and the feed I see at is deeply generic.

Surely, though, it's possible to do better than this? I envisage a sort of Web force multiplier, that would analyse the texts you read as you browse and compute some kind of digest hash, and do the same for every link you send anyone else, stashing the hash of each link in a remote server. As you browse, it compares the hash of the current page with the ones in the DB, and returns a list of possibly appropriate arguments - the strength of this being that they could be data, poetry, code, pictures, video, or indeed anything. We could incorporate some sort of social element, too, to keep a check on quality.

Who here knows about corpus analysis? Most of the academic papers my casual search found gave me that "dog listening to music" feeling. What I need is something like a rather bad crypto hash function - one where two texts with different content would produce non-randomly different hashes. Obviously we'd filter the text with a list of stop words like search engines do, so as to strip out the tehs and ands. We could, for example, use (say) the distribution of words in Wikipedia as a common baseline, and measure how the distribution of significant words in the target texts differs from it.

Action: Government trying to kibosh MPs' expenses disclosure

Having spent over £1 million collating the files of MPs' expense claims in order to make them available under the Freedom of Information Act, the Government is now trying to pull off a last-minute parliamentary ambush that would exempt them entirely from this disclosure. They are attempting to use the provision in section 82 of the Act which allows exemptions to be made by statutory instrument (i.e. by executive decision), on condition that the instrument passes a vote in both Houses of Commons.

The document has been laid before Parliament (scroll right down to the bottom); it is the Draft Freedom of Information Order(2009) and it's all Jack Straw's fault. Fortunately, not everyone is an arsehole, and Jo Swinton, Liberal MP for East Dumbartonshire, has put down an Early Day Motion against the move.

But the EDM is gravy; the real challenge will be the two parliamentary votes ("affirmatory resolutions"), one in the Commons, one in the Lords, which are scheduled for Thursday. If either fails, the order falls, and being merely a statutory instrument, the Parliament Act doesn't apply to it, so it can't be blasted through the Lords. It's also typical that the passage of a statutory instrument is a very low energy event; no bugger turns up, there is little debate, and this suits the executive government right down to the ground.

This also suits us, as it's likely to need fewer MPs (or Lords, but I'd like it if we didn't have to depend so much on a gaggle of corpses and placemen) to kill it or talk it out. So, it's time to write to them. Your talking points are:
  1. The Government has spent a million pounds preparing the documents for release.

  2. The reputation of Parliament is at stake.

  3. If this goes through, you can be certain that the only information that gets out will be selectively leaked to embarrass political opponents. It will happen to you.

  4. They are trying to get away with this by sneaking it through in the middle of the Heathrow row, Gaza crisis, etc - they think you're stupid.

  5. Sign the EDM, but most of all, vote against the Freedom of Information Order 2009 on Thursday.

  6. And persuade a Lord to do likewise.

And, finally, do it now. If the order is passed, all existing FOIA data and requests on this topic will be shredded.

Personally, I've always been lukewarm about the expenses crusade; it reeks of 80s "your tax dollars at work" know nothing yelling. Did you realise they are paying people to study BEETLES? Eh? Eh? And they shop at....shudder...John Lewis? However, the principle is fair enough. And the Government's action has invoked a much more important principle. They would love to encroach on much more important FOIA subjects, and this is a fine opportunity to slam the door on their pinky. By all means, blog about this, join the facebook group, but first of all, go hit your MP right now. I just have.

I won't accept comments on this entry from anyone who can't prove they have done.

you can't blame the youth of today

I'm increasingly annoyed by official-media consensus that young people will suffer more than anyone else from the recession. Not that I especially doubt this; I doubt the reasoning, which appears to be that they've all gone soft and they're not like we were in my day. As a general principle, I believe this is usually wrong, being unfalsifiable and all, and also being a projection of one's own fear of death.

But on the specific case, I dispute the facts. It wasn't a great time to be young; by definition, when you're young your only source of income is wages, and the labour share of national income has been flat for years. Indeed, real wages have been flat for donkey's years. A personal example; I was offered a job at Euromoney Institutional Investor on a salary of £16,000 per year, but on a six-month contract. Even at Mobile Comms International, it was a while before I was earning more an hour than I had been Pritt-Sticking the flaps of substandard envelopes whilst waiting for Bradford City's second season in the Premier League. However, it improved, and I'm well aware I learnt a hell of a lot there. I spent around 20% of my post-tax income on my railway season ticket.

At the same time, both rents and house prices shot through the roof. This was crucial; the whole idea that home-owners got rich from the rise in the value of their property was dependent on someone buying it from them. People retiring and trading-down was a factor that had to match people trading-up; at bottom, there had to be first-time buyers, who are generally young. The net effect of right-to-buy and the great property bull run was to transfer wealth from first-time buyers to sellers; in the aggregate, the Bank of Mum and Dad was borrowing from the kids.

And, of course, there were tuition fees, top-up fees, and for a cohort including me, both the fees and no student grants. Meanwhile, we were told we ought to consume and keep the economy going, take part in the creative industries and volunteer, but do this while joining the job market, to borrow heavily to pay for further and higher education, to accumulate savings on deposit, to save for retirement (or in other words, to pay others' pensions), that we were a bunch of unserious greenies, that we were politically apathetic, that we would face the consequences of climate change (after it became respectable to worry), that we were all drug fiends and music characterised by repetitive beats was against the law, that we weren't getting on the housing ladder, that we were borrowing too much money (this from the people who brought you Citigroup) and that people who were slightly younger ought to be punished for playing hooky in order to demonstrate against the Iraq war. To cap the lot, we were told we were drinking too much. If we were, who could guess why?

Actually, if I was younger, I think I'd be delighted by the crisis. I've got plenty of schadenfreude and indeed klammheimliche Freude as it is. Things I need (somewhere to live, somewhere to do interesting things) are likely to get cheap, and me minus five years doesn't care about the cost of huge cars or Vertu mobile phones because he doesn't have any money but does have more sense. The strength of ideological drivel is reduced; there has been a catastrophe in the intellectual environment, a meteorite has plunged into the credibility of the market monkeys, and as usual, this is followed by an adaptive radiation, a blossoming of new species into new or newly unoccupied niches.

Even when me minus five years starts working for the clampdown, at least he or she gets to save for their retirement in a low asset price world, and to bore me minus ten years with tales about how they staged bio-hacking parties in abandoned bank C-level offices, and how this gets them off inevitably joining the Conservative Party, or functional equivalent. Which is, after all, the claim to intellectual legitimacy of most of the people who spent all that time ordering me to simultaneously save, work, borrow, volunteer, spend, rebel, invest, and obey.

I suppose they must have meant one of those.

surrounded by wankers

As usual, the Daily Mash catches the zeitgeist. Clubbers ditch ketamine for elephant tranquillisers - "it makes you feel really elephanty".

In North London, meanwhile, they're wanking on the streets. Seriously. So far this weekend, I was standing in a toilet in the Sir Richard Steeles* when I heard groaning. I cancelled the maniac. But it kept polling the urban maniac API; I noticed Mr Red Goretex thrapping like a lab-chimp at the other end of the urinal. I'd just been arguing about French education policy and enlarging the zone of sanity by pushing the works of Stafford Beer; I wasn't prepared for this. And with that, he was gone. By the time I next used the toilet, someone had already updated the graffiti; now that's what I call social media.

Then, outside my local Budgens, I almost tripped over some character passed out with his trousers round his ankles and, yes, an obvious erection. Daniel Davies will no doubt point out that this is an example of simple probability theory, like Richard Feynman's joke about the chances of seeing just that particular registration number. Bah, it felt like the world spirit to me. We are all wanking for coins now. I assessed the situation; breathing, obvious risks - cold or violence, funny eyes, weird behaviour (trousers), drooling (seriously - I thought it was a classic symptom of an opiate overdose, but actually it's stimulants that do that). I donned a tone of command and tried to communicate - frothing, drivel, funny eyes. Skin; coldsoaked. Not a good sign.

Obviously I took out my adrenaline injector and rammed it into his sternum. Yeah, right. They sent for the ambulance, and one was sent. Nobody got lucky, to the best of my knowledge. They were on the scene quick enough; I briefed the Rapid Response medic on the situation. He was both deeply cockney (a rarity round our way) and deeply polite, impressive given that I'd give odds of a pound to a pinch of shit that downer boy puked all over him at some point. As I left he slurred "Youurat zha poison finger!" at me; the patient, I mean.

Happy New Year, Tom, and watch that laughing gas.

* I should stop going there, it's the wrong crowd. On New Year's Eve, I ran into David Aaronovitch.

Friday, January 16, 2009

fly or die

It seems the UAE's Antonov-12 ban is real. The shortage of inbound flights in the Viktorfeed continues; out of 57 overnight movements, in itself an unusual low, there were 10 inbounds after cleaning up the odd false positive. Here is a list:

South-AirlinesSTH7002ErbilSharjahscheduled 1600Z
TransaviaexportTXC1722KabulSharjah scheduled 1500Z
SafiSFW205KabulSharjahscheduled 1500Z
SakaviaAZG1115KandaharSharjaharrived 0830Z
BeibarsBBS1810KabulSharjaharrived 0800Z
Russian SkyESL9456KabulSharjaharrived 0700Z
South-AirlinesSTH7006Baghdad Intl.Sharjah0300Z
Ababeel AvnBBE200RiyadhSharjahyesterday 2115Z

There were also two positioning flights by AVE/Phoenix Aviation 737s between Dubai and Sharjah. The significant thing here is that probably no An-12s were involved. South-Airlines has three, but it also has three Il-76, six An-24s and -26s, and an An-74. TXC has five aircraft, all Il-76s. Safi has one 767 and one 737. Sakavia has two Il-76, one An-26 and one An-12. Beibars and Russian Sky own 2 and 4 Il-76s respectively, and Ababeel has only one aircraft known to be active, an An-24RV.

So, the Antonov-12s have been run out of town. However, there is an interesting paradox here. What about our old friends from British Gulf International? They started all this back in the day, and they operate nothing but An-12s, six of them. At some point there was also an An-26 but this hasn't been seen for some years.

And somehow, they are still sending off flights. Doing a quick SELECT COUNT(notes), flightno, destination FROM flights WHERE flightno LIKE "%BGI%" AND notes > '1231518600' GROUP BY destination; on the database, I find there have been 68 BGIA movements since 1630 last Friday, of which 62 were outbound, and 6 inbound, all to Sharjah. This is weird.

That's 8.85 movements a day, which is achievable if half the aircraft made more than one trip a day - as long as they came back, of course. But they haven't come back; there has been no BGIA inward flight since Friday. So where are the aeroplanes coming from?

It's possible that BGIA has been sending other An-12 operators' aircraft out of the UAE using its call sign. But it's still quite a lot. I put together a chart to visualise the whole strange phenomenon...

As always, click on it to interrogate the data. Meanwhile, reader Ajay, who desperately needs his own blog, has a suggestion for where the scene might reconvene - Guinea, where the longstanding French-sponsored dictator died over Christmas, leading immediately to a military coup, and where there is a huge airfield with a 10,826 foot runway (that's longer than Heathrow), which the Soviet air force used in the 70s and 80s as a staging post and a base for Tu-95 maritime patrol planes.

It's an idea; but West Africa is not quite as crazy as it was ten years ago. There's the option of getting into the cocaine trade, but if Viktor Bout can get in trouble dealing with FARC, you have to wonder if the small fry will be up for it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

reasons to be cheerful, part 3

So Shriti Vadera thinks there are signs of improvement in the economy. The Tories have messed themselves, predictably. Hey, she rationalised the railways.

But there are good reasons to think this: there are indicators. Notably, the spread - the difference in interest rates - between blue-chip and risky commercial paper is narrowing sharply. Similarly, the interbank interest rate is falling. And the corporate lending market just had its best week in 12 months.

Now, the credit crunch kicked off in late August, 2007; the signs had been there for years, and if you wanted a short-term alert, HSBC's property write-off that spring was it. I recall going on holiday and wondering if Barclays would be there when I got back. There was a guy who came back from hols and resigned, if you recall. The commodity bubble cracked in the spring of 2008, and all the other indicators crashed a few months later, many of them retrospectively.

So, there are reasons for optimism; if you base your judgments on data, that is. If the lag times are at all comparable, maybe the Treasury view isn't entirely stupid. Which is a problem if you believe, like John Redwood, that all economic problems are caused by uppity workers getting above themselves (this is politely called "inflationary expectations"), and a good smack of firm unemployment will make us all harder.


Bruce Sterling quotes a study into state failure which - counter-intuitively - puts Iceland and Canada at the top of the list of stable polities. It's worse than that, though; they reckon Hungary is superstable , and they're in the middle of an epic bank-currency-credit-mortgage crisis which has metastatised into a panic call to the IMF.

But perhaps it makes more sense than that. Despite Iceland's spectacular financial panic and sovereign bankruptcy, despite Canada's critical segmentation fault on the distributed queenship node, nothing very terrible has happened. The social fabric holds. Rival mortar teams do not exchange fire over Parliament Hill, the citizens of Reyjavik are not fighting with sharpened CDs over the last can of dog meat.

Perhaps that phrase, the social fabric, ought to be thought of differently. It implies threads straining over some sort of appalling national gut, bulging with the blows of irreconcilable interests, or rotting in the depths of a public crotch out of pure sin. What if it was the wind that tries the social fabric? When it's just on the point of flapping you know you're sailing to windward at optimal efficiency, thrashing forward under the gusts.

After all, what does the word stability mean? Stability isn't immobility or size or mass; it's an active, agile thing. A stable ship is one that rolls back onto an even keel after being knocked down; a stable aircraft will tend to trim correctly if you take your hands off the stick. A stable operating system will catch and handle errors rather than crash. A stable personality is someone who is capable of recovery from trauma, not someone who is incapable of emotion.

And usually, stability is actually in opposition to authority; try to design a ship that never rolls, and you usually have one that will be a floating hell in a real storm. Try to design such an OS, and you have... Everyone who thought that the best army would be the most obedient has lost since the Napoleonic wars.

Upshot; we need fewer Stability Pacts and more stable control loops.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

when you feel the heat you've got to move your fleet (2)

I'm getting reports that the UAE authorities have revoked permission to fly for all Antonov-12s, and the substantial fleet based on Dubai and Sharjah has been given notice to quit last night. Apparently the proximate cause was a spate of embarrassing and perilous runway excursions, as well as the recent loss of an Antonov-12 with BGIA in Iraq, working for DHL.

Of course I'm monitoring all movements through the Viktorfeed. So far, I've noticed a spike of activity overnight followed by a very quiet day; which is roughly what you'd expect if all the Antonovs just left, like the dolphins in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Last night saw over 150 movements, and tellingly they were almost all outward bound. But so far I've not detected any pattern in their destinations; they seem to have flown their usual routes and not returned, so the total fleet has scattered across South-Western Asia.

If this is so, a lot will be in Afghanistan (Kabul, Bagram, Herat and Kandahar) and Djibouti tonight, with a few in Kurdistan. This is going to be a serious problem for quite a few people, notably the coalition and NATO forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much passenger activity is now carried in old 737s by AVE/Phoenix Aviation and KAMAir, but with the exception of the Ilyushin 76s, every significant airfield in Afghanistan gets several An-12 runs a day.

It's going to be interesting to see where they end up, especially the BGIA Boyz, what with being an all-Antonov 12 operation and all. Back to Ostend? Surely not. West Africa gets kinda slow these days, and it's a long slow haul to Colombia for an An-12. Moldova cleaned up its act. Perhaps Beirut, or somewhere in the Caucasus - which would be off the trade routes a bit. Or maybe they'll set up a completely new operation somewhere with a long runway and no government, a pirate state?

Remind me to have a look at the airfields of Somalia. However, a search of the logs shows something I hadn't spotted; "Star Air Aviation" has sent off a whole string of flights from Dubai since Thursday, some eleven, all of them to Karachi. And none have come back. Needless to say, the nearest operator in the UAE to that name doesn't officially have any Antonovs and has a radically different ICAO call sign...

But if anyone's wondering where all the old Russian crates came from, get in touch. You can consider this an Operation Firedump alert.

Monday, January 12, 2009

blog awards, still dire

Blog awards, eh? What a gaggle of crap that is. It's not just the staid and ossified elite who are always in these things (haven't we had enough chances to vote for BoingBoing or Andrew "Overrated" Sullivan?), it's the volume of egregious turdmerchants who still get in. 17,000 votes for Hot Air? I'm expecting Vint Cerf to say it was all a terrible mistake, and this Internet lark has got to stop. There's probably something clever to say about how if your blog attracts the fat end of the social-authoritarianism distribution you're bound to do well. If you think I'm taking the piss about a staid and ossified elite, by the way, look at the "Best Liberal Blog" nominees; I couldn't say sight unseen which year that list came from. 2004? 2008? 2010? "The Confluence" is a clue, but then there's always one you never read.

So I'm not going to offer endorsements, but what I will do is call on the readership to do what I usually do, which is to vote for anyone who looks like beating the most egregious arse in the race. This policy stood Britain in good stead for the last 500 or so years so there must be something to be said for it. As far as "Best Conservative Blog" goes, well, I suppose voting for Victor Davis Hanson can be considered an existential acte gratuit, and anyway the other nominees achieve the rare and impressive feat of actually pushing him into the role of the lesser evil. After all, at least VDH doesn't post videos of people actually killing an Arab.

Whilst we're playing philosophy, however, arguably you're required by the greatest good of the greatest number *and* the categorical imperative, and the fact I tell you to, to go and vote for Army of Dude for Best Military Blog. And you could try to stop a bunch of atmospheric physics dodgers winning the Science category. The Fistful is in the Business category, btw. And, of course, there's this. Don't let it happen.

no-one ever gets the truth from plastic man

Reduced blog; I've been working on a version of FixMyStreet for Symbian S60 devices.

If you want snark, how about this? I always thought that the BMW not-minis were telling in themselves. Objects are an ideology made manifest.

The original Mini was a minimal car, one designed to be even cheaper than the ones sold to the workers in the factories that made them. Beyond Ford. As a side effect, it was also light, beautiful, and efficient in space and energy.

The "New Mini" is absurdly large, by comparison - it's not that much smaller than a 3-door Land Rover Freelander, which is reasonably sensible despite being aesthetically an SUV. The Freelander was, after all, reasonably sized, space planned to carry a load, engineered to work off-road, and driven by a highly efficient turbo-diesel engine. Perhaps not coincidentally, it wasn't pretty. The BMW Mini, however, is a mass of gratuitous placky bits. Over the last ten years, we have lived in the era of gratuitous auto design; I grew up with cars that were advertised on their drag coefficient and their fuel consumption, but not long after I was legally allowed to drive, there was this weird rococo decadence of trucks without ground clearance.

At the same time there was a binge on property, which swelled outwards where there was land enough, and inwards in crappy construction and natural gas-guzzling, and which swelled even more in price where the land wasn't available. Foxtons' fake-neat cars were part of the performance of the property binge; speculating in property was meant to feel subversive and young. You doubt? Look at the arse-awful fake graffiti sprayed on them. Fake art on fake coachwork on a fake economy for fake people.

What would fit? Perhaps, if they go down, there may be a supply of "New Minis" going cheap. Maybe I should apply for an Arts Council grant to stack up 20 or so of them in Trafalgar Square and topple them, using a Chinese-made bulldozer. We could beat them with our shoes and torch them with gallons of bioethanol, or maybe homebrew high-test peroxide.

the time has come to shoot you down

OK, the last post wasn't totally serious.

But is it too much to say that John Redwood is back? He's been given a committee to chair, which sounds like a kick to touch, but we live in committee times. The Government is handling the economic crisis through a combination of outside committee-ists and a civil service-run mixed cabinet committee that super-sets the outsiders, some cabinet members, and some officials.

And the Conservative line is becoming increasingly clear. They believe the rate of interest is too low; this means they want to put it up. So much for independent central banking, the guarantor of sound money. The justification is that they want to encourage saving. They also want to cut or hold public spending. And they vaguely suggest that they want to fix the exchange rate, or at least intervene upwards in it.

These are all deflationary and demand-reducing steps. If you're a monetarist, they want to increase the price of money by reducing its supply; if you're a pragmatist, they want to push up sterling and keep imports cheap, which implies pressing down the level of prices generally; if you're a Keynesian, they want to pull money out of the circular flow into a storage tank, whether private or public. If you're a 1980s New Classicist, they want to make cash scarce compared to goods, so that the price of labour eventually falls far enough so that the price of goods and services clears the market.

Bing! That's it. They are still obsessed by the idea of hammering down wages, as they were in 1985, and 1995, until we get to...what? Where can it go, in a world that includes Bangladesh, and overheads? For them, that is the solution. Strangely, no-one ever suggests that the price of enterpreneurship ought to fall; haven't we had enough bad ideas for a while? The only answer is what it was back then; we've got to make good stuff, or good services, and the best way to do this is not by bidding up the price of houses in the suburbs of Middlesbrough.

Yes, there's the idea of guaranteeing loans to small businesses. But here's a question for you. Not so long ago, it appeared that the Government guarantee of wholesale interbank lending would result in a monster liability on the public balance sheet - but only if the Government charged a fee for this service. Weirdly, if the Government did it for free, the liability vanished out of the moneysphere. Either way, certain Fuck him. George Osborne used the liability to back his own version of the numbers.

Now, George wants to guarantee £50bn worth of loans to small businesses, and charge a fee; but for him, the wholesale guarantee is "Labour bankrupting the country again". I know I'm a sad, twisted bastard, but I still remember when lying in the House of Commons was a resigning matter. Perhaps I should have learned something when Jack Straw and Hoon back in The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, said Havel.

Maintain your rage, said Gough Whitlam. I happen to know that some really serious donors to the Tories think Osborne ought to be sacked, moved to Communities and Local Government, /dev/null, Siberia or wherever. Most of all, they want him nixed. Step away from the controls.

The Perfect Conservative

The perfect Tory would be:

  1. As competent as George Osborne

  2. As Eurosceptic as Kenneth Clarke

  3. As relevant as Norman Tebbit

  4. As normal as John Redwood

  5. As experienced as David Cameron

  6. As intellectually brilliant as Francis Maude

  7. As close to export industries as Stuart Wheeler

  8. As credible with the City as George Osborne

  9. As committed to public service as William Hague

  10. Or Alan Duncan, come to think of it

  11. As much a countryman as Michael Portillo

  12. As good a big-city mayor as Boris Johnson

  13. Or Eric Pickles, come to think of it

  14. As libertarian as Michael Howard

  15. As sound on foreign affairs as Bernard Jenkin

  16. As anti-racist as Patrick Mercer

  17. As resistant to state fear-mongering as Patrick Mercer

  18. As resistant to state fear-mongering as Andrew Pelling

  19. As tough on the real-estate lobby as Philip Hammond

  20. As useful as Philip Hammond

  21. As noteworthy as Chris Grayling

  22. Or Caroline Spelman

  23. Or that other one - you know

  24. Yeah, Ms Thingy

  25. Or Mr Who? No idea, me

  26. I know. As accountable as Simon Milton

  27. As honest as Anthony Browne

  28. And as handsome as William Hague!

There are some Conservatives who are not included in this joke. They are left as an exercise for the reader.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

your voice across the line gives me a strange sensation

So, we looked into the fake phone call to Mr 10%'s office. We even did a little HOWTO. If you recall, we concluded that you needed a bulk SIP carrier sufficiently unscrupulous or clue-light that they didn't verify the CLI string you passed them, but who hadn't yet offended at least one major telco in good standing. That, and a copy of Asterisk.

Here's something really interesting. The Indian government has just issued a dossier. (Yeah, one of them.) What purports to be a copy is here. In it, it is claimed that the terrorists who attacked Mumbai received calls from a telephone number assigned by a small US SIP provider, which among other things offers a virtual-number service. This essentially forwards calls to that number to any user-defined number, SIP id, or what have you.

According to the Indian side, the person who bought the number stated that they were in India, but the bill was paid in advance with a wire transfer originating in Pakistan. The company in question, interestingly enough, offers numbers in Pakistan; but we know that the call to the Pakistani presidency identified as coming from a number in India. There is more information in this article; apparently they also registered inbound numbers (DIDs) in Austria at the same time.

This looks a lot like a reasonable set up to obfuscate the other parties to the calls, whoever they were. It's also interesting to see that the terrorists made at least one serious mistake; they left a satellite phone on the trawler they used to launch the attack. This is likely to be an important source of information that somebody really should have thrown in the sea.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

I don't need you, I can't buy you, I can't hurt you...

Here's an interesting scientific paper about Palestinians and Israeli settlers. The experiments asked each group questions intended to judge how willing they were to compromise. Then, they asked the questions again, but threw in a side-offer, for example of economic aid or third-power security guarantees.

Interestingly, all the groups split into two identifiable types; some weren't happy to compromise but thought they could do so, some rejected any compromise outright. The really significant result, however, is that the no-compromise group responded very badly to the offer of a side payment - it just made them angrier and more intransigent. Only a dramatic sacrifice of symbols by the other side would induce them to change - exactly, as it happens, the sort of thing the compromise group wouldn't think of doing for fear of what the non-compromisers would say.

I wonder if it would be possible to re-analyse the results using Robert Altemeyer's tests of social authoritarianism and dominance? It feels intuitively right; more formally, an intense concern with symbols and symbolic norms would seem to be very similar with the obsession with the preservation of hierarchical norms Altemeyer identified among his authoritarian subjects.

It also fits with a lot of the language of extreme conservatism through history; the idea of the corrupting nature of compromise and of democracy, especially of parliaments, and its opposite, the cult of the decision embodied in the leader, has been around since the counter-enlightenment.

This does, of course, point out a deep ambiguity - we admire principle but also reasonableness, which must mean the ability to ignore it.

This does, of course, point out a deep ambiguity - we admire principle but also reasonableness, which must mean the ability to ignore it.

Further question; remember Chris Lightfoot's analysis of the Political Survey results? Chris selected the statements from a survey which maximised the variance in the population's answers to them and used these to summarise the results on two axes. This is one of the axes:

  • Sense Statement

  • agree Prisons are too soft on criminals

  • agree The UK should withdraw from the European Union

  • disagree Most immigrants are beneficial to the UK

  • agree Some crimes are so serious that the only proper punishment is the death penalty

  • disagree It's more important to rehabilitate criminals than to punish them

  • disagree The government should give more aid to poor countries
    agree National law should always override international agreements and European directives

  • agree Working people pay too much tax

  • disagree The cost of living in the UK should be allowed to rise in order to fight global warming

  • agree The government is mostly interested in helping itself, not ordinary people

The people surveyed broke by vote into two well-specified groups on this axis; one encompassed the Labour, Liberal, Welsh and Scottish Nationalist, RESPECT, and Green voters, the other the Conservatives, BNPers, 'kippers and Veritas voters (if any measure of them can be considered statistically significant). Now, I would suggest that for a lot of the latter group, the last but one question isn't really a stereotype-rationalist one about negotiating costs and risks but an identitarian one about not being a *refined shudder* greenie, which means that only the tax one can be considered as a question of compromise.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

predictions are difficult, except about Martin Kettle

The Grauniad asked 21 of its opinion writers to make predictions for 2009. As a service, and to force Daniel Davies' hand into starting his planned Predictions-L mailing list, I've shorterised each one and reflected briefly on it. The full texts are here.

1) Jackie Ashley thinks the Lib Dems may be powerbrokers in a hung parliament.

Comment: not so much a prediction as a statement that the polls currently look like that. But at least it's based on data.

2) Michael Tomasky thinks e-books will be a major hit, but nobody wants to read 80,000 words cos of wikipedia and google an stuff.

Comment: This is one of those issues that kills forecasters. The dawn of e-books has been repeatedly predicted and repredicted without happening. Tomasky makes the good point that the Amazon Kindle is selling well...but then his New Yorker/smartass kulturpessimismus conwis kicks in and he ends up predicting that e-books will sell hugely but nobody will buy them. Quack, quack, oops.

3) Gary Younge thinks industrial relations in the US will be troubled as the recession takes hold.

Comment: Fair enough.

4) Oh Jesus, here we go. Madeleine Bunting thinks the recession will teach us all a lesson about the Virtues of Thrift.

Comment: Mr Keynes, call your office. More specifically, this is so woolly that it's impossible to think of criteria that would let us determine the success or failure of the prediction. In fact, she explictly backs out of it by suggesting there will be a "confusion of values". Yellow.

5) Peter Preston thinks we will see better satire on TV, and a UK network will recruit John Oliver from the Daily Show.

Comment: Is/Ought confusion - not clear whether Preston thinks this *will* happen or whether he's hoping to encourage it. Hard to define "better", but if better satire on TV does happen there will probably be a degree of consensus that it has happened.

6) George Monbiot thinks some mate of his will have a big success with this fillum they made.

Comment: Well, it'll be either a hit or a turkey. Nobody knows anything (and the kid stays in the picture). It's a prediction, even if the film about climate change is characterised by "a Nigerian fisherwoman who has to wash her catch with Omo"; climate change does not cause oil spills, nor vice versa. Not in Nigeria, at least. I know about that pipeline in Alaska.

7) Polly Toynbee thinks environmental issues will lose salience unless there's a major disaster.

Comment: There's a bit of hedge in how you define "the agenda" here, but it's fair enough. And she's based it on data. Tim Worstall probably already has accused her of hoping for the flooding of New York City, and is now probably guiltily masturbating over her byline photo. And that's a prediction!

8) Jonathan Freedland thinks there could be a hung parliament, and a Lib-Lab coalition, or maybe a Lib-Con coalition. Or it might not happen.

Comment: Coward - three mutually exclusive predictions in one.

9) Simon Jenkins thinks genetic and embryological research will conquer disease. Seriously.

Comment: I am not joking. Perhaps a drop too much of the Old Tory's Arse 76-year old malt this Christmas. But we could treat this as a forecast that there will be at least one major medical achievement in this line in 2009, and that way it is fair enough.

10) John Harris thinks there will or should be a national debate that's something to do with sub-post offices.

Comment: Jesus wept, what a bunch of wank. I remember when he was good; he was especially good mocking the Big Conversation, strange to relate. This sounds like his balls just dropped off. Absolutely no testable claims. FAIL.

11) Jonathan Steele thinks Russian influence will increase in Georgia and the Ukraine. And there will probably be a change of government in Thailand, but it won't matter.

Comment: I was tempted to say Jonathan Steele thinks...whatever the Russians tell him to. Note that back in 2004 he thought the Ukrainian revolution was an evil fascist plot because Yulia Timoshenko made a pile in the gas business. Now she's "a figure to watch in 2009, a controversial and vastly rich entrepreneur who takes a more respectful line towards Moscow". Prediction: Steele will continue to follow the Party line and will continue to be invited on all-expenses trips to Moscow (indispensable pdf). And he's hedging about Thailand like Capability Brown with a Black & Decker and a liberal dose of amphetamine sulphate. However, at least he made a testable prediction.

12) Jenni Russell thinks there may be something wrong with race relations in South Africa.

Comment: No shit, Sherlock.

13) Hugh Muir thinks various European politicians will do something or maybe not, and some UKIP MEPs may be re-elected. Or then again they may not. Who knows?

Comment: Hugh Muir may make a testable prediction he could be held responsible for. Or perhaps he won't.

14) Tim Garton Ash thinks there will be a youth protest wave, driven by graduate unemployment.

Comment: A testable, nonobvious prediction based on a quantitative model. Score one for Agent Romeo.

15) Julian Glover thinks "the age of depoliticised power will come to an end".

Comment: I think he means things like independent central banks. It's not at all clear though. Still, chalk it up; if the ECB gives up monetarism by December, he's right.

16) Libby Brooks thinks "the gardener who knows how to grow their own carrots" will be valued more than a hedge fund manager, and the success of Mamma Mia! is an example of a profound change in our views of status.

Comment: I think there is more than a little contradiction here, and not just because nobody ever liked hedgies anyway. Again, vague puffology about abstract nouns.

17) Seamus Milne thinks the "the neoliberal model is collapsing around our ears, but what is going to replace it is still up for grabs".

Comment: Not a prediction, and unfalsifiable. If you read on, it turns out the old tankie really means "maybe this crisis is the one! world revolution is here!" but he's wily enough to realise everyone will laugh if he says that.

18) Mark Lawson thinks William Golding's books will come back into fashion.

Comment: God, I hope not. But at least it's a prediction.

19) Scraping the barrel. Zoe Williams thinks that the idea of prime-time TV is obsolete, and that TV will be dominated by crowd-pleasing repeats.

Comment: Slightly contradictory. And whingeing about repeats? Radical.

20) Martin Kettle, for it is he, thinks the extreme Right in Europe will win more seats at the European Parliamentary elections. He doesn't think this means a third world war is imminent, but he does not have "high confidence" of this.

Comment: Kettle, Kettle. The boy's so prone, Ron. Trust him to make a fool of himself. I would think anything less than very high confidence that the radical right will not start a world war from Europe would be front-page news, but he actually buries this behind the shattering suggestion that the BNP might pick up an MEP or two.

Of course, that's actually quite unlikely because the method of election favours parties with a small but widespread support base like the Greens, rather than ones with sporadic, concentrated support like the BNP.

21) Marina Hyde thinks the Russian state will continue to take control over more of the Russian economy, but will re-privatise in the future, only to re-expropriate a new set of temporary oligarchs when the next crisis arrives. And the Government will fail to get newly state-owned bank branches to open on Saturday mornings.

Comment: That's actually a very good point. Two very good points, in fact. We have a winner!

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