Saturday, February 27, 2010

These are not my photos. I don't know where you got them

The version of Nokia's Share Online application that shipped with my E71 has a problem. I was trying to upload photos from Berlin over O2 Germany's data network to my Flickr account, and it unexpectedly returned an authentication error; I looked at "your recent photos and videos", and got photos belonging to Flickr user mrspin, then from three others. Actually, I get another user every time.

I could reach my Flickr page via the web browser. The problem is not or roaming-specific; it happens here in the UK as well. What I think is happening is something like this: 3UK is using a lot of NAT in its data network, as mobile operators often do, and something about Share Online doesn't handle this well. Specifically, I reckon it's using the device IPv4 address as part of an identifier - as the addresses in 3UK's netblock are rapidly being reused for other users, it may be possible for someone else to log in using IP address x.x.x.x, and then a request from me to be bound to the wrong account.

Oddly, the browser isn't affected. I suspect, therefore, that Share Online is doing some sort of weird magic rather than just using the DNS and Flickr's own authentication mechanism - perhaps it doesn't resolve every time, or honour the Flickr cookie correctly? After all, a Web authentication mechanism should cope with the same user logging in from multiple IP addresses. That should be obvious.

Fortunately, when I tried to write to the account, the authentication failed - as it should do, as I was trying to log in to the wrong account. This suggests that Share Online doesn't actually resolve for read-only, but instead caches replies matched with IP addresses somewhere in the network. As mobile operators reuse IP addresses a lot, and use non-routable (RFC-1918) addresses which aren't globally unique a lot inside their networks, this is a really bad idea. Something is obviously cached, as the problem persists from my own WLAN as well.

I suspect that this used to work because the percentage of a typical operator's IP address space that was actually used was low, and therefore there was a good chance that the same address wouldn't be used for the same application before the cache expired. Now this is no longer true.

There appears to be a new version of the application out, so will try and let you know.

I don't yet know if I can, for example, see content marked as "private" from other users, or of course if they can see mine.

Abu Asterisk strikes again...

OK, so the Dubai assassination team made regular phone calls on GSM devices during the operation. What numbers did they call? From which ones? Well, it looks like they both used prepaid SIM cards acquired in Austria and they called Austrian telephone numbers. Obviously, that's partly explained by the fact that they probably talked among themselves, but the only reason to say that they called numbers in Austria would be that there were other numbers called, outside the group.

Strange. The Mumbai raiders' <a href="telephony used both a virtual number service in the US, and DID numbers registered in Austria and pointing at a VoIP system. This could just be an artefact of a data set of two, of course, or that somebody's Web shop is close to the top of the Google results.

PS, does anyone have recommendations for a good graphics/visualisation solution? I'm thinking of doing my own one of these. Specifically, I've not seen one yet that takes account of the time factor - there is one suspect who spent only 3 hours 40 minutes in Dubai.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

this diplomacy stuff seems to work...for some

Well, this is unusual; Londonstani confirms that the Pakistanis just arrested 50% of the Taliban high command, in so far as such a thing matters. Not only that, they're willing to extradite one of them to Afghanistan. First of all, Pakistan and Afghanistan even talking is rare. Secondly, extradite? What is this, Germany? Don't they know they're meant to administer a medically unnecessary enema and ship the guy to the Kerguelens or somewhere where they can lock him in a dungeon for the next ten years?

I don't think I've seen anyone link this story with this one of Laura Rozen's; at the same time, the Iranians have caught the leader of the Baluch rebels in the south-east, down where the Pakistani border would be if there was any border to speak of. The Iranians are playing it up as a "captured CIA agent" story, but according to Laura's sources (and frankly, if you'd read nobody else on diplomatic stories in the Bush years you'd be in the top 5% of the information distribution) the Pakistanis and possibly the US forces in Afghanistan were cooperating with the Iranians.

It certainly looks like some kind of sudden outbreak of regional cooperation, in a sort of tacit agreement to jointly attack each others' rebels. Someone smarter than me would probably point out that this is natural - it's the difference between being a state and not being a state.

Could the reason have something to do with this? The first talks between India and Pakistan at foreign minister level for a while. It seems to have gone reasonably well; in the light of the Kayani doctrine speech, in which the General said that Pakistan would be satisfied if Afghanistan wasn't explicitly aligned with India, as opposed to being run by the Taliban as satraps for Pakistan, you might wonder if there's a bigger deal afoot.

If India agrees not to claim a sphere of influence in Afghanistan, Pakistan might be willing to lock up the Quetta shura as a sign of good faith, and then...perhaps they might get a payoff in concessions on Kashmir, and/or trade with India and with the wider world. How that interlocks with the Iranians is not quite clear, but it would fit with the Pakistanis getting sufficient assurances from the other regional powers for them to crank down the degree to which their various half-rebels, half-proxies cause trouble.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sense: Iran

So, what does an Iranian dissident need from outside the country? One of those integrated lawful-intercept management systems from a major European vendor (nice, aren't they)? A barrage of cruise missiles? A lot of hot air from the President?

Why not ask one? Here's the exiled co-founder of the Revolutionary Guard.
I hope that the Obama administration and other democratic countries will be more supportive of the struggle of the people of Iran for democracy and human rights. I can summarize it in four items.

First, sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard.

Second, technical support like satellite Internet for Iran and pressure on companies like Nokia which have sold devices to control SMS, cell phones, and Internet in Iran.

Third, help asylum seekers. Some of the activists, journalists and freedom seekers are now out of Iran in Turkey, Iraq, or Dubai. We need to help to bring them to Western countries.

The last one is, please everybody, help to prevent any military strike against Iran, especially from Israel, because it would be a gift for this regime. We believe that this regime will be overthrown by the people, and a military strike would be the only solution for this regime to save the government.

Clarity! I especially like step four, but step two's pretty interesting, and step three is a matter of fundamental decency. (Do I hear silence from a certain political tendency often very keen on Iranian bus drivers? Do I?) He also has interesting things to say about how the movement is structured:

The organization of the movement is a decentralized social, political network in Iran. Our slogan is "every soldier is a leader and every leader is a soldier," and that has worked so far.

You might also read the Renesys blog on Iran's international Internet connectivity.

very serious indeed

OK, so the Guardian spent last week having a great fit of very seriousness* about the UEA Climate Research Unit e-mail leak. Things that weren't Serious enough to get into the paper included the decisive refutation of the whole idea that the urban heat island effect explains warming and the exoneration of Michael Mann. Here are some other pieces of climate-related news that failed the Seriousness test.

Eli Rabett's comments thread discovered that the FOIA requests involved were created by Steve McIntyre's supporters as part of a deliberate spam campaign; they came up with a question that they could re-ask for every state and territory in the world, starting with Afghanistan and working through Wallis and Futuna Island.

They could have issued a single request for "any confidentiality agreements signed with any state or territory" - instead they generated over a hundred, and unwisely discussed the standard template they used on the web. It's an attack so obvious that the Freedom of Information Act itself foresees it; one of the grounds on which you can turn down a request is if it comes as part of a "vexatious" campaign. Yer man McIntyre does seem to like slightly clunky denial-of-service attacks.

The Independent, meanwhile, interviews Sir John Houghton and discovers that:
The words are the very first to appear in the "manual" of climate denialism written by the journalist and arch-sceptic Christopher Booker. They get more than a 100,000 hits on Google, and are wheeled out almost every time a climate sceptic has a point to make, the last occasion being in a Sunday newspaper article last weekend written by the social anthropologist and climate sceptic Benny Peiser.

The trouble is, Sir John Houghton has never said what he is quoted as saying. The words do not appear in his own book on global warming, first published in 1994, despite statements to the contrary.

And they proceed to land a palpable hit on Peiser and his wanktank:
Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University, also cited the 1994 edition of Sir John's book as the source of the quote, which he used last Sunday in an article denouncing the alarmism of climate scientists. Dr Peiser admitted to The Independent that he had not read the book recently and had only used the quote "from memory" because it is so widely cited in other books on climate scepticism.

"I've seen it printed in many books. He is well known for making these statements. I've used that quote on many occasions from one of the books on climate alarmism. If he makes the claim that he never said this then he has to clarify that," Dr Peiser said.

"If he publicly says that he never made that statement then, of course, I wouldn't use it, but this is the first time I've heard [his denial] and this has been going on for 15 years. This quote has been used for the past 15 years," he said.

In fact, the earliest record of the quote comes not from 15 years ago but from November 2006...

Mind you, the Indy still lets Lawsons Dominic and Nigel babble away in its pages. You can't have everything.

*Does anyone know where the very first use of Very Serious Person might be?

Sunday Strategic Defence Review Blogging: Chapter 1

So, here goes with the first in my series of posts on the strategic defence review as a blog.

Here are what the MoD thinks are the major forces that will determine the political environment:
The National Security Strategy sets out the key threats to the UK’s security and the underlying drivers of those threats. It makes clear that while there is no external direct threat to the territorial integrity of the UK, there are a variety of evolving threats for which we must be prepared, and different environments and domains in which we must be prepared to act, from counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency to maritime security, cyber warfare and capacity-building in fragile states.

We believe five major trends will impact on the international context for defence in the coming decades. The rise of the Asia-Pacific region as a centre of global economic and political power will create a major global shift as dramatic as the end of the Cold War. Continuing globalisation will make the world ever more open and interlinked in communication, trade, culture and transport, and we must ensure that those lines of communication remain open if the UK is to prosper. We will see serious climate change, whose impact is likely to be most severe where it coincides with other stresses such as poverty, demographic growth and resource shortages. We are likely to see growing inequality in many parts of the world, as economic development creates new divisions within and between countries. Proliferation will remain a cause for concern. Several states continue to pursue nuclear programmes in contrevention of their NPT commitments. Terrorists will continue to seek to exploit nonconventional means including chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials, with wider access to advanced technologies increasing the risks.
The first point here is something of a theme in the document - we state the problems, but have already decided what the solutions are going to be. This actually comes up in the very first paragraph of the executive summary:
The UK economy relies on trade and the free passage of goods and services. A stable international order is essential to our interests and security.

In the medium-term, success in Afghanistan is critical to UK security.

The next decades will see the development of a number of major trends, including a shift of power to the Asia-Pacific region and climate change.
Of course, anyone who relies on an executive summary deserves to be executed, but it is far from clear to me that the second point (success in Afghanistan) follows from the first or leads to the second, however you define "success". It's certainly a major alliance commitment, but its criticality to UK security is debatable, especially in the light of trade, international order, or the rise of Asian powers.

Similarly, there's a sort of reiteration of standard War on Terror tropes - we're asked to be very worried about terrorists getting hold of weapons of mass destruction.

Going through that little list of horrors under trends, there's an interesting point that is missing. The rise of new world powers is not a matter of debate, but what about the corollary? Arguably, the UK and France remain medium powers; but the big change is surely that the status of the US as sole superpower is on the way out. It's not yet clear how much of this change is accounted for by Chinese or Indian success and how much by American decline, in so far as "decline" is a useful concept, nor how fast and how far it will go. But that it exists is indeniable.

Surely "Coping with US relative decline" ought to be high on the UK's political to-do list?

After all:
International partnerships will remain essential to our security, both membership of multilateral organisations – like NATO, the EU and the UN – and bilateral relationships, especially with the US....Within this multilateral framework, the UK has a range of close bilateral security and defence relationships. None is more important than that with the United States. The relationship is based on common values and interests which will endure in the 21st century, to our mutual benefit. The UK benefits greatly from bilateral co-operation in the nuclear, intelligence, science, technology and equipment fields. Our relationship also increases our impact on issues such as terrorism, proliferation and transnational crime that affect our security but over which in today’s globalised world our national influence is limited.

As anyone who reads this blog will probably know, I reckon several of those points should carry the Wikipedian tag "citation needed". A major theme of Chapter 1 is the importance of multilateralism and international institutions, not just the formal ones like the EU, UN, and NATO, but also informal international institutions like maritime trade and telecoms interconnection. This is not new in British politics - up to a point it's an implementation of the so-called international society approach associated with thinkers like Hedley Bull and Martin Wight.

But a key problem here is what happens if the bilateral special relationship and the multilateral institutions conflict. Since the second world war, it's been a central assumption of policy that there is no conflict - the US is supportive of the institutions, it benefits from them, and therefore there is no problem. Relax this constraint, however, and the compass starts to spin crazily. What if the US wants to tear up the UN Charter, split NATO, commit a gaggle of war crimes? And we have to relax the constraint - not only do we have the example of Iraq, but we admit that the role of the US is itself changing and its relative power declining.

The answer is surely that a major aim of policy is to maximise our ability to say "no". Otherwise, either the institutions themselves break down or get used to drag at least some of the members along. Looking at Iraq, it's worth remembering that it's not enough to be small and pro-European; the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy all ended up contributing significant numbers of troops, but hardly enough to give them any meaningful influence over the Americans. (Hey, a full armoured division and most of the RAF wasn't.) Alternative scenarios include the creation of new multilateral institutions (that we might not like), a revived UN based on a balance-of-power settlement, or a pre-1914 scenario with five or so similarly sized world powers competing.

To be fair, the drafters of Chapter 1 do seem to be aware that - as Bruce Sterling might say - whatever happens, things are going to get weird, or to put that in civil service prose:
It will be harder to predict which threats will emerge as the most significant, leading to a future international context characterised by uncertainty.

They also draw conclusions from that:
On the basis of experience in the United Kingdom and internationally, if we continue to search for a technological edge, including improved protection for our personnel, we can expect the cost of successive generations of equipment to continue to rise at above the rate of inflation

Am I right to read this as a call for general-purpose capability and the avoidance of expensive and hyper-specialised gear? A sort of Toyota strategy, perhaps not the best analogy to use right now. In fact, of course, the industries that have been best at doing what Toyota did recently are the ones that supply the UK armed forces. Chapter 1 also touches on that:

We will need to establish a better balance between operational output and supporting activity and between the quality and quantity of our major platforms.

To put it another way: enough with the cost overruns, and projects that spend £192m on PowerPoint presentations. This, of course, is much easier said than done and heavily reliant on the kind of people the MoD recruits to run its procurement operation.

Camera On. Camera Off. We're still on CCTV

"We can't go on like this" was all about style and look-and-feel; the tombstone seems to be a reaction against it and a reversion to a fairly crude, tabloid approach. Perhaps it reflects discord among the people who commissioned it? It would be easy to identify the first with Steve Hilton and the second with Andy Coulson's influence, but this is perhaps too easy.

Certainly, the tombstone's visual language is nowhere near as sophisticated as the Cameron poster - rather than the careful sequential progress from Cameron's face in the optimal zone of attention to the final sales pitch, the reader's eye is first drawn to the tombstone (which in a sense stands in for the face), presenting them with a totally decontextualised piece of policy argument (the clip-art stone and R.I.P OFF could be a Mike's Carpets ad - what's a rip off? why is there a tombstone here?), proceeding to the rant, and then leaving you with nothing much. The mention of the Conservative Party, which is the finale and the call to action, is stuffed up in the top right, off the main line of the plot and in a place you usually put visual elements to get them out of the way.

Nobody puts a newspaper headline or masthead in the top right hand corner of the page; computer user-interface designers usually put things like logout links or "close window" buttons there so you don't accidentally click them. Not surprisingly, I felt the parody versions to be slightly unsatisfying compared to the Cameron poster, and at least going by traffic, the Internet public felt the same. The Cameron poster was a classic - a high-style product of the visual language of the corporate and governmental elite, as carefully designed as anything Apple or Porsche produce. It just begged to be subverted.

David Camera ON

Well, what can we say about this? First of all, there's the block colour - an entirely black backdrop. Obviously this connotes seriousness, but more importantly, it signals a very different approach compared to the colour-of-nothing in the first Cameron poster. Rather than trying to avoid our conscious attention, it demands the foreground.

Secondly, it's much more complicated than either Tory poster. For a start, it includes a joke; R.I.P OFF barely counts. David Camera On is actually funny, at least in part because it's unavoidable - it hits exactly the image and persona he's spent so much effort cultivating. If you put yourself on a poster like the Cameron one, there's no way you can dodge this. A joke implies plot - the set up, then the punchline. The viewer is being invited to look for the punchline, indeed to come up with one themselves, and the organisation of the poster with its not-quite symmetrical halves leads us to it. The highlighting of the text on the left also plays a role in this, as well as acting as a sight gag about the camera.

Also, the well-lit Dave on the left, close to the optimal attention zone, acts as a beacon for the whole thing (rather like he does for the Cameron poster). The arresting image is there, however, to feed us into the joke. Framing a face emerging from darkness in the movies usually means we're meant to pay close attention to what the actor is about to say. Probably it's a secret of some sort - we're becoming complicit in the plot. The function of the joke is to set us up for the policy message directly below it.

You'll observe that this makes considerably greater demands on the viewer than either Tory effort. And it insists that the viewer takes part in the drama. This may be why the designers felt they could do without an explicit call for action - laughing at David Cameron is, after all, a political act.

How would we go about mocking this? It strikes me as more difficult than either Tory poster. A joke, after all, is hard to alter fundamentally without breaking something. The plot is considerably more complex. No doubt you could replace the central image, but you're unlikely to find a photo of Brown looking as orange as left-hand Cameron anywhere. The best solution I can think of is to repurpose it as a generally nihilist one - Camera On. Camera Off. They're all at it. Rub their noses in it on May 2nd. Or perhaps: Camera On. Camera Off. Who cares? We're all on CCTV anyway.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I think he is frit!

Hammond failed to declare £3m in dividends from nursing home developer Castlemead Ltd.

(Canonical link.)

hey,  they certainly scare me

(Canonical link.)

Does anyone know if Lord Ashcroft even exists?

(Canonical link.)

you ain't seen nothing yet

(Canonical link.)

You know the rules.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

this will mean nothing to most of you

As this blog battles parochialism, I feel obliged to tell the world that Keighley Cougars have started their doomed bid to stay in the Northern Rail Division One by beating Whitehaven 17-16. Can we win by a cheeky dropgoal? Yes. We. Can!

Never mind, the future's uncertain and the end is always near. Which at least explains Leeds losing to Castleford.

gentlemen, start your engines

The Ministry of Defence has published its strategic review Green Paper online as a WordPress blog for public comment. I will, of The MOD just published a major policy paper as a weblog for anyone to scrawl on? The British Ministry of Defence? Things must be bad. I snark, of course.

I should, of course, provide here a fully reasoned submission to the process, but I haven't written it yet. Chiefly, I haven't written anything yet because I haven't read the bloody thing, and in a rare blogging departure, I've decided to read it before ranting. Instead, I'm going to read it chapter by chapter and comment as a series here. Don't be surprised if the posts get crossposted to Fistful of Euros.

Here are some things I'd like to bear in mind: Kings of War on the cognitive challenge of strategy (are we in the midst of a bout of planning for the last war?). Pass the port - how everyone knew Iraq was a really bad idea but nobody did anything. KOW credited! The Kayani doctrine and planning for a post-American Afghanistan. The ambiguities of information security. JQM mentions that it's being rumoured that deeper UK-French cooperation might involve the nuclear deterrent. Patrick Mercer out of his depth again. 4th Generation fighter pricing. Putting pressure on EUTELSAT via the French shipbuilding industry. Cooking up the right answer.

a decline into local navel-gazing

Can we, can we, can we have better thinktanks already? I'm not so sure whether the worst bit is the fact they got the number wrong by a factor of four, or that they didn't know that the National Rivers Authority doesn't exist and hasn't for 14 years, or just that it's so obvious that the whole thing was based on the following reaction: "Whoo! Jetboats!!"

This project of not spending all my time Tory-slapping is going to be tough.

in which we accidentally rediscover Kondratiev

Stumbling Chris notes that, unusually, productivity has fallen sharply in the UK during the recession, and works through various possible explanations without really hitting on anything. He wonders if real-business-cycle theorists might have a point, and the recession be triggered by a real underlying fall in productivity.

In the comments, I suggested that if there was such a thing, it was perhaps the consequence of the housing and financial bubble. This could work in two ways; firstly, productivity is a measure of output per unit of input, an efficiency in engineering terms. Typically, this is output measured by value, per man-hour. There's obviously an issue here with regard to bubbles; if the goods you produce are for some reason overvalued, like houses or collateralised debt obligations of asset-backed commercial paper, you will show unusually high productivity.

Secondly, there's a dynamic issue; part of the impact of a bubble is to draw capital and resources in general into the bubble sector and away from others. And, so far as the bubble causes a productivity illusion, this is rational in a short-term sense.

Once the inevitable happens, we'd therefore expect to see a couple of phenomena - one would be a fall in productivity in the bubble sector, as the value of output is revised down, and another might be a fall in productivity across the economy. Why? Unlike financial capital, physical capital and labour have switching costs. The end of the bubble requires the movement of resources out of the bubble sector - obviously - and into other sectors according to the new productivity picture. But this is a process that has significant costs and takes time.

You might expect a J-curve effect; it's faster to close things down and to be sacked than it is to start things up and find a job, and some things are not easy to repurpose. People need to learn different skills; capital goods may turn out to be completely useless in any other context. Come to think of it, one form of physical capital that can be very difficult indeed to reuse is a building, and we're in the guts of a recession driven by a massive property bubble.

An interesting thing here is that hugely mis-estimating productivity and therefore making very bad investment decisions is what the state is meant to be good at. The Soviet nail factory joke is exactly equivalent to the property developer who sinks jillions into newbuild dovecots or huge light-construction monsters 40 miles from town. Both of them fail because their outputs are catastrophically mispriced. Perhaps the difference is that GOSPLAN didn't get a government bailout!

Of course, capital allocation and reallocation pass through the capital market, rather than GOSPLAN. Which is why financial innovation causes bubbles. It would also explain why recessions that begin with a financial crisis tend to be the worst ones; the mechanism of reallocation itself fails, and again, propertyfail seems especially hard to fix, as well as being both unusually harmful to the public and unusually unlikely to create anything useful.

Authoritarianism Does Its Thing

This has done the rounds and been roundly done for all the right reasons.
There is almost nothing the Obama administration does regarding terrorism that makes me feel safer. Whether it is guaranteeing captured terrorists that they will not be waterboarded, reciting terrorists their rights, or the legally meandering and confusing rule that some terrorists will be tried in military tribunals and some in civilian courts, what is missing is a firm recognition that what comes first is not the message sent to America's critics but the message sent to Americans themselves. When, oh when, will this administration wake up?
From a purely literary/journalistic point of view, it's the "When, oh when" that gets me. Sometimes, style and content - aesthetics and morality - fuse into one.

More to the point, the astonishing thing here is Bush's lasting achievement - he created a political lobby for torture. It's not just that he let torture happen, or connived at it, or even specifically ordered it. It's that a significant chunk of the body-politic now demands torture - not just 'baggers, but editors of the Washington Post. There isn't a lobbying group with tax-deductible status under 501(3)c yet - unless you count the American Enterprise Institute - but perhaps it would be a more honest world if there was one.

Do I have to quote Vaclav Havel's crack about the man who puts a sign reading "Workers of the world, unite!" in the window all over again? OK. Havel said that obviously, he probably wasn't doing this out of conviction; but if the sign said "I am afraid and therefore obedient", its actual meaning, he might not be so happy to do it.

Perhaps. But I can't help thinking the example may be wrong. Richard Cohen is, after all, not just being willing to turn a blind eye. He's actually yelling for torture, and for specific methods of torture. And the marker of the Bush achievement is that the torture lobby has survived Bush. Here we are, more than a year on, after the US armed forces have been given specific orders against torture. And they're out there wanting it. It's weirdly reminiscent of the last Stasi man and the last suspect.

Also, it's nothing to do with expediency; when the FBI wanted to question Captain Underpants, they got his relatives to talk to him, and it worked. It is usually the case that the purpose of torture is torture; what service, I wonder, does the knowledge of torture provide to these people? After all, Cohen explicitly says that he wants torture because it impresses the public, not because it produces names.

I can't imagine what would have convinced me in 2000 that in 2010, responsible Americans would be lobbying for torture - even after they had succeeded in voting out the torture president. Back then, it used to be a commonplace notion that the power of the state was fundamentally uninteresting; I recall an especially silly newspaper article in which both Bill Clinton and Deng Xiaoping (Deng Xiaoping!) were bracketed together as meaningless figureheads.

Having a considerable lobby that needs a constant drip of draconian rhetoric to maintain their psychological stability is probably very bad for democracy, especially faced with a terrorist group that explicitly aims to destabilise the state through auto-immune warfare. These people have been trained to freak out at the faintest threat and howl for torture - in a sense, it's yet another backdoor into the political system, as well as an example of the unconscious conspiracy between the terrorist and the state.

fun with statistics

So mainline British political blogging is a horrible reality TV show, a eurobox estate crammed with CCTV cameras everyone welcomes and plays up to for the amusement of a tiny audience of media wankers and professional partisans. How about a bit of Viktorfeed data visualisation? Last weekend I wrote a little program to generate statistics from the database of flights, only really remarkable for being the first time I've used itertools.groupby() to solve a practical problem. You can get the weekly operations of every airline name that accounts for at least 1% of total activity here (CSV file, currently about 9.8KB). It's updated every eight hours. Interestingly, I note that setting a cut-off as a percentage of the total screens out essentially all the false positives.

Obviously, I threw the file at IBM ManyEyes:

As soon as I work out what my username for the Wikified version of that site is, I'll do one that loads the data dynamically.

A couple of points: There's been a big decline in no-name movements, and some operators have cashed in their chips entirely, notably BGIA. The apparent jump in traffic in early 2009 foxes me slightly; we lost a few weeks' data in the spring, but that shouldn't explain it. I suspect it's an artefact of the filtering by percentage; some operators that account for significant traffic, but that shut down, when the Antonov 12s were expelled may not have made the cut.

I'll do something similar for destinations and total activity.

looking over the edge of the teacup

Jamie Kenny complains that nobody reads his Chinese blogosphere roundups and, more seriously, that nobody else in the British blogosphere writes about anything Chinese. He has a good point (and I'd strongly recommend them to anyone who reads this who doesn't read them).

Come to think of it, a hell of a lot of British blogging is hideously insular, and I think this is yet another example of the invasion of swine launched by the big-party - well - Conservative pro blogging operation after about 2005. Of course, there is a strong argument that we'll all look a lot of clowns discussing some MGI in distant Gansu when George Osborne calls in the IMF so he can introduce MyNHS 2.0, now with hospital fees. I've occasionally wondered whether this blog is a bit too global, but seeing as this year's hit was David Cameron poster remixes, I suppose I have my answer.

Daniel Davies had a month of African bloggers a while back, but one of the first rules of blogging is "put not your trust in Dsquared, as you will wait many years for that review of Freakonomics". So perhaps I should pick on some supposedly significant branch of blogging. I'm already involved in a pan-European blog, of course, at least when I get around to posting anything.

Does anyone have suggestions?

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Guardian's Great Mann Hunt

This Monday, the Guardian ran this story as the front page lead. Here's the headline and the standfirst:

Leaked climate change emails scientist 'hid' data flaws

Exclusive: Key study by East Anglia professor Phil Jones was based on suspect figures
• How the location of weather stations in China undermines data
• How the 'climategate' scandal is bogus and based on climate sceptics' lies

Beneath this screamer, you could read that Phil Jones was probably responsible for sneaking dodgy data - dodgy Chinese! data - into the IPCC AR4 process, and you'd have to make it seven paragraphs down the story (and, IIRC, over the page) before you found out that the researcher whose data it was had been...exonerated of any suggestion of malpractice. It would overstate the case to say that this made the whole thing a non-story (MAN DOES NOTHING WRONG; OTHER MAN PROBABLY RIGHT TO TRUST HIM - what a headline!), but you might think that it was information the reader could have done with earlier.

More information that the reader could have done with; the mention of weather stations in China is a reference to the very common denier talking-point that, supposedly, all the weather stations have been overtaken by urban sprawl and therefore all warming is bogus. (Specifically, it refers to a paper comparing two groups of urban and rural stations in western China.) This has been imbued with such significance that there are people who go about taking photos of weather stations.

What, you might wonder, if somebody had done a proper, systematic review of all the weather stations, comparing the good ones and the bad ones? Well, they have done, and the paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research is here. They actually used the deniers' data, which is surely a highly trustful act in itself. A write-up appeared here on Friday, 22nd January. The really short answer is that the poorly-sited stations were actually colder than the well-sited stations. The issue does not exist.

Temperature data series for the good and bad stations

Further, it turns out, the theory that warming is explained by poor siting is also refuted by cross-checking with another network of stations. But the Guardian didn't find this worth reporting. The detailed story published on the Monday makes no mention of it, although it does cite Energy & Environment, which it describes as a peer-reviewed journal. (They perhaps need to consult Sourcewatch, or even just the wikipedia article.)

In fact, it didn't mention it at all until Friday, when it made a very brief mention of something of the sort. (We'll come back to that.)

On Tuesday, 2nd February, the paper ran this story. It was the front-page lead.

No apology from IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri for glacier fallacy

Head of UN climate change body 'not at fault' for false claim Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035

• Climate emails between scientists reveal flaws in peer review
• Controversy behind climate science's 'hockey stick' graph

The famous claim actually predates Pachauri's tenure of the job, so no surprise that he didn't apologise for it. Again, this wasn't considered relevant information. Further, we learn that sometimes, being sceptical and punctilious is also wrong:
The emails also reveal that one of the most influential data sets in climate science – the "hockey stick" graph of temperature over the past 1,000 years – was controversial not just with sceptics but among climate scientists themselves. "I know there is pressure to present a nice tidy story [in the forthcoming IPCC report], but in reality the situation is not quite so simple," wrote Briffa in September 1999.

A scientist expressing scepticism and avowing that the problem at issue is complicated? Outrageous. In the same piece, they also had a go at Michael Mann, precisely two days before Penn State University's review exonerated him, and how. Indeed, they devoted a whole piece on the same day to attacking Mann for criticising sceptical papers and the new board of Climate Research.

On Wednesday, 3rd February, the paper ran this story. Again, it led the front page.

Climate scientists shut out sceptics by turning down data requests

Hacked emails reveal systematic attempts to block FoI requests from sceptics — and deep frustration at anti-warming agenda

Read more: Climate change emails between scientists reveal flaws in peer review
Controversy behind climate science's 'hockey stick' graph

Another swipe at the hockey stick, and therefore at Mann (amusingly, his exoneration appeared elsewhere in the news section on the same day). And the third strapline, which is a sort of figleaf in the first one, is gone. This one revealed - to anyone who hadn't been reading the papers in early December, at least - that Phil Jones had not been keen on answering FOIA requests from "sceptics", and that he had taken advice from the Information Commissioner's office.

On Thursday, the story broke that another scientist at UEA was suspected of leaking the e-mails. The Guardian, of course, reported, but with rather less excitement than on the three previous days - and an entirely different team of reporters.

Detectives question climate change scientist over email leaks

University of East Anglia scientist Paul Dennis denies leaking material, but links to climate change sceptics in US drew him to attention of the investigators

All the previous stories were the work of Fred Pearce. This one, however, came from David Leigh, Rob Evans, and Charles Arthur - respectively, the paper's lead investigations team and its technology editor. It turns out that the e-mail archive was insecure and that Dennis sent links to it to a Who's Who of right-wing wankers. On the same day, Leigh and Arthur joined Pearce on a detailed (and excellent) story on the hack itself and the distribution of the purloined data. (Arthur has another, even better one here.)

Curiously, across the week, the Guardian also ran a string of pieces saying roughly "despite the fact Phil Jones and Michael Mann eat babies, this shouldn't give you the impression there's anything wrong with the science". All of these ran as opinion editorial, rather than news. (One exception was George Monbiot, who joined the general hunt for Phil Jones' skin and also had a pop at the head of PR at UEA.) On the other hand, Simon Jenkins greeted Mann's exoneration with this odious turdspurt.

So what's up? Taken together, I had the impression that the real news in all of this was in its latent content - the story was actually whatever process had caused all this stuff to appear. This is usually a really bad sign with a newspaper. If you're wondering about the paper's internal politics, you can take it as read they're horrible. (Remember The Observer over Iraq.)

As far as I can see, there was no mention of the Menne et al paper in the paper until the end of the week, after Evans, Leigh, and Arthur joined the story - and even then it was only a one-liner. And the tone of the coverage shifted considerably around Thursday. Is there some sort of huge lobbying drive on? Does some group or individual at the paper have a grudge against UEA? I hate it when the press leaves me wondering more about its own politics than the real thing.

The atmosphere, meanwhile, was reported to be unimpressed.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Magic and the decline of railway privatisation

There is something pleasantly surreal about this story. London Reconnections reports on the appearance of the heads of Tube Lines, the Underground, and Mr. Chris Bolt before the London Assembly's transport committee. It doesn't sound obviously hilarious, but then, who is Chris Bolt? You may vaguely remember him as the Rail Regulator, the chap who had the unenviable task of acting as ref between Railtrack, the train operators, the rolling stock lessors, and the Government in the glory years of rail privatisation. That was all 10 years ago, so why is he being quizzed by the committee?

Because the Tube PPP contracts specify that he, and only he, act as arbitrator of any disputes between the contractors and the Tube. Not the institution of the Rail Regulator, which in any case has been abolished - Mr Bolt personally.

It's been a while. Did they ever lose touch with him? What colour was his hair when he answered the call? I can imagine Department for Transport civil servants looking on park benches and in squats in Dalston, scrutinising all the Facebook pages ending in Bolt, placing advertisements in provincial newspapers. What if they hadn't been able to trace him? Would his next-of-kin have inherited the heavy responsibility - the DfT Director, Railways descending on an otherwise harmless citizen, like some Sicilian matriarch in a grey suit bringing news that the vendetta is now up to you?

Or is the process less brutally secular? Perhaps a Bolt will simply emerge, like the next Dalai Lama.

Of course, Bolt's role is deeply mythic. Alone, the Bolt continues to guard the sacred wisdom of the Railtrack years, wandering in the wilderness. One day, he will return to judge Tube Lines' trespasses, or rather not:
Chris Bolt felt it was important to reiterate that the increased cost of the contract was not based on the failures of Tube Lines so far, but on a natural increase in the theoretical cost of the upgrade work.
The faith cannot err; it can only be betrayed.

Even Boris Johnson has repented of rail privatisation.
It is time to bring an end to this demented system.

Actually, he's only recanted - I see no sign of repentance from the man who accused Stephen Byers of being as bad as Robert Mugabe, not once but twice, in order to defend Railtrack after the corpses had piled up.

kostenloser Counter