Monday, May 30, 2011

ACW: still great

Did I mention that Arms Control Wonk is still great? The guided nuclear bomb. Bureaucratic consequences of A.Q. Khan. The clean-up of Semipalatinsk, including an actual loose nuke, which was disposed of back in 1995 without anyone getting hurt.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


At Fistful of Euros: so what did Nicolas Sarkozy know about DSK, why did he only leak the bits he leaked, and what are the voters going to do about it?, how I was wrong about the euro, NATO for dictators, floating without a strategy, although if we had one it would probably be wrong.

At Stable & Principled: my entire post on Dr. Tim Morgan, how we were right as far back as July about the coalition economic strategy, the Kübler-Ross model of grieving, and the coming Sad Donkey Economics movement has vanished into thin air. This is a disturbingly common event with S&P, although nowhere near enough to account for its general lack of content. You know you want it, though. Update: Up!

got DULL if you want it

I've just been reading the Resolution Foundation Growth without Gain report like every other left-wing blogger. Here's something interesting. About economics and the success or failure of New Labour's administrative devolution. Don't all rush at once.

Is devolution good for you?

You read that right - between 2003 and 2008, disposable income in the UK fell on average by 1.1% annually. Anyway, this leapt out at me: the only three regions to see actual growth in their take-home pay were London, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Of the rest, the least bad was Wales, which at least beat the spread if it didn't get into positive territory. All four above-average performers have devolved administrations. The data only runs up to 2008, so we don't get to see what having administration that's devolved in the political sense, run by someone who's devolved as in Devo or the opposite of evolved, will do for you.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dr A.Q. Khan: Has a Blog

Via yet another really excellent Arms Control Wonk piece on Indian and Pakistani nukes, it turns out that A.Q. Khan, formerly of Khan Research Laboratories, the man who sold the world the unofficial open-source community version of the Urenco enrichment cascade, and now of luxurious house arrest right up until the Navy SEALs climb over his back garden wall, has a blog.

It's in Urdu, but I know a man who can deal with that and who has blogging time on his hands.


I went with the ThinkPad option in the end - the wily denizens of the computer souk managed to upsell me from the ThinkPad Edge 11 to a fully fledged X200S that looks like you have to wear a tie to start it up. Next step, clear up my data enough to look at moving my non-Windows activities over to the new 'pooter. I'm assuming I'll run OpenSUSE Linux on the new machine again, unless anyone has a good reason not to.

I noticed at OpenTech that not only did something like half the presenters bring a Mac (and as someone on twitter observed, forget the VGA adaptor for the overhead projector), but at least half of the Mac users were running Ubuntu on them. Everyone else seemed to be Ubuntu-ing as well except for one Fedora and one Debian (I think) user. Nobody, but nobody, ran Windows. (Actually I think I caught sight of a netbook running XP at some point but the owner covered it up sharpish.)

Also, this looks handy. No more £1 Webcheck lookups!

your guide for this evening...

So we did the Stag & Dagger festival. This translated into the following facts on the ground, which I propose to review briefly.

Toro y Moi, at XOYO

This lot could be interesting - if they stopped, ugh, jamming. EDIT. Ended up back in the bar with the house's DJ. Venue is pretty great, too - fantastic sound, disturbingly reasonable drinks prices and surprisingly nice people. Even though I spotted someone holding a pint in their teeth to facilitate tweeting with both thumbs. Quote: "You've really done that skinhead look haven't you - is that, er, deliberate?" No, I fell under a barber's shop.

YBAs at the Old Blue Last

If you like vaguely punky, you'll like this, but there's a lot of it about. Also, could people stop pretending to be the Jesus & Mary Chain? This was the second act of the night I would have dropped in favour of the house's DJ like a shot.

Wire at Village Underground

Legends, but ruined by terrible sound in the cavernous railway arch.

James Yuill at City Arts & Music Project Basement

This is going to be harsh, but stop trying to be Jarvis Cocker, especially as you're a DJ. No-one dancing. Beer prices the highest I've seen anywhere in the world. I also refuse to believe that their basement really looks like this and suspect that decorators spent serious money making it look that cheap.

Star Slingers at Queen of Hoxton

This lot sounded interesting and they got the floor going, but for some reason we didn't like them much. Don't remember exactly why, probably because they were the last act of the night. And they kept pointing a laser at me. Prices appalling (I brought Daniel Davies here once and even he jibbed), not much point if you're not on the roof terrace. Handy for the office.

I forget who played at the Hoxton Bar & Kitchen but we couldn't stand the gaff for more than 30 seconds at a time, so the only way to take part would have been to take turns to duck in and out like Soviet submariners during a nuclear accident.

Another OpenTech result

I need to be more damn effective and better organised.

If it helps at all, I just bought the O'Reilly books on Android development and on JavaScript, as it's getting increasingly ridiculous to not know it.

OpenTech washup, and an amended result

So it was OpenTech weekend. I wasn't presenting anything (although I'm kicking myself for not having done a talk on Tropo and Phono) but of course I was there. This year's was, I think, a bit better than last year's - the schedule filled up late on, and there were a couple of really good workshop sessions. As usual, it was also the drinking conference with a code problem (the bar was full by the end of the first session).

Things to note: everyone loves Google Refine, and I really enjoyed the Refine HOWTO session, which was also the one where the presenter asked if anyone present had ever written a screen-scraper and 60-odd hands reached for the sky. Basically, it lets you slurp up any even vaguely tabular data and identify transformations you need to clean it up - for example, identifying particular items, data formats, or duplicates - and then apply them to the whole thing automatically. You can write your own functions for it in several languages and have the application call them as part of the process. Removing cruft from data is always incredibly time consuming and annoying, so it's no wonder everyone likes the idea of a sensible way of automating it. There's been some discussion on the ScraperWiki mailing list about integrating Refine into SW in order to provide a data-scrubbing capability and I wouldn't be surprised if it goes ahead.

Tim Ireland's presentation on the political uses of search-engine optimisation was typically sharp and typically amusing - I especially liked his point that the more specific a search term, the less likely it is to lead the searcher to a big newspaper website. Also, he made the excellent point that mass audiences and target audiences are substitutes for each other, and the ultimate target audience is one person - the MP (or whoever) themselves.

The Sukey workshop was very cool - much discussion about propagating data by SMS in a peer-to-peer topology, on the basis that everyone has a bucket of inclusive SMS messages and this beats paying through the nose for Clickatell or MBlox to send out bulk alerts. They are facing a surprisingly common mobile tech issue, which is that when you go mobile, most of the efficient push-notification technologies you can use on the Internet stop being efficient. If you want to use XMPP or SIP messaging, your problem is that the users' phones have to maintain an active data connection and/or recreate one as soon after an interruption as possible. Mobile networks analogise an Internet connection to a phone call - the terminal requests a PDP (Packet Data Profile) data call from the network - and as a result, the radio in the phone stays in an active state as long as the "call" is going on, whether any data is being transferred or not.

This is the inverse of the way they handle incoming messages or phone calls - in that situation, the radio goes into a low power standby mode until the network side signals it on a special paging channel. At the moment, there's no cross-platform way to do this for incoming Internet packets, although there are some device-specific ways of getting around it at a higher level of abstraction. Hence the interest of using SMS (or indeed MMS).

Their other main problem is the integrity of their data - even without deliberate disinformation, there's plenty of scope for drivel, duplicates, cockups etc to get propagated, and a risk of a feedback loop in which the crap gets pushed out to users, they send it to other people, and it gets sucked up from Twitter or whatever back into the system. This intersects badly with their use cases - it strikes me, and I said as much, that moderation is a task that requires a QWERTY keyboard, a decent-sized monitor, and a shirt-sleeve working environment. You can't skim-read through piles of comments on a 3" mobile phone screen in the rain, nor can you edit them on a greasy touchscreen, and you certainly can't do either while looking out that you don't get hit over the head by the cops.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of armchair revolutionaries on the web who could actually contribute something by reviewing batches of updates, and once you have reasonably large buckets of good stuff and crap you can use Bayesian filtering to automate part of the process.

Francis Davey's OneClickOrgs project is coming along nicely - it automates the process of creating an organisation with legal personality and a constitution and what not, and they're looking at making it able to set up co-ops and other types of organisation.

I didn't know that OpenStreetMap is available through multiple different tile servers, so you can make use of Mapquest's CDN to serve out free mapping.

OpenCorporates is trying to make a database of all the world's companies (they're already getting on for four million), and the biggest problem they have is working out how to represent inter-company relationships, which have the annoying property that they are a directed graph but not a directed acylic graph - it's perfectly possible and indeed common for company X to own part of company Y which owns part of company X, perhaps through the intermediary of company Z.

OpenTech's precursor, Notcon, was heavier on the hardware/electronics side than OT usually is, but this year there were quite a few hardware projects. However, I missed the one that actually included a cat.

What else? LinkedGov is a bit like ScraperWiki but with civil servants and a grant from the Technology Strategy Board. Francis Maude is keen. Kumbaya is an encrypted, P2P online backup application which has the feature that you only have to store data from people you trust. (Oh yes, and apparently nobody did any of this stuff two years ago. Time to hit the big brown bullshit button.)

As always, the day after is a bit of an enthusiasm killer. I've spent part of today trying to implement monthly results for my lobby metrics project and it looks like it's much harder than I was expecting. Basically, NetworkX is fundamentally node-oriented and the dates of meetings are edge properties, so you can't just subgraph nodes with a given date. This may mean I'll have to rethink the whole implementation. Bugger.

I'm also increasingly tempted to scrape the competition's meetings database into ScraperWiki as there doesn't seem to be any way of getting at it without the HTML wrapping. Oddly, although they've got the Department of Health's horrible PDFs scraped, they haven't got the Scottish Office although it's relatively easy, so it looks like this wouldn't be a 100% solution. However, their data cleaning has been much more effective - not surprising as I haven't really been trying. This has some consequences - I've only just noticed that I've hugely underestimated Oliver Letwin's gatekeepership, which should be 1.89 rather than 1.05. Along with his network degree of 2.67 (the eight highest) this suggests that he should be a highly desirable target for any lobbying you might want to do.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


The National Rail website has borrowed the sensible URIs from Although it does seem a bit of a miss that there's no shortener like - say -, as those are by definition quite long strings.

The website that identifies the satellite a dish is pointing at, or tells you where to point the dish for a given satellite. Includes a mobile augmented-reality app!

The Vatican has IPv6, and they peer with major Italian ISPs.

Blackwater, after the party. Curiously the entire piece doesn't mention that the UAE military operates Mirage 2000s and such things, but it still makes it fairly clear that Erik Prince's new job in Dubai is basically providing foreign goons to beat up the subcontinental construction workers if they make any trouble.

An interview about Piggipedia.

You know there's been a revolution when people enjoy a talk by Alex Callinicos.

Don't read Michael Lewis articles, do check if he's still writing

So that Michael Lewis - you know, the one who writes articles about how stupid Icelanders were. Via The Oil and the Glory, here's what he was saying in January, 2007, just as the last bulls in the US housing market's dizziest bubbles finally cracked and the big plummet began. Here it is.

But the most striking thing about the growing derivatives markets is the stability that has come with them. More than eight years ago, after Long-Term Capital Management blew up and lost a few billion dollars, the Federal Reserve had to be wheeled in to save capitalism as we know it.

Last year Amaranth Advisors blew up, lost more than LTCM, and the financial markets hardly batted an eyelash. ``The financial markets in 2007,'' some member of the global economic elite might have said but didn't, ``are astonishingly robust. They seem to be working out how to absorb and distribute risk more intelligently than any member of the global economic elite could on his own.'' Once the laughter subsided -- and someone took down his name to make sure he didn't make next year's guest list -- he might go on to point out that in spite of a great deal of political turmoil the markets have remained calm.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act sticks a wrench in the American market for initial public offerings, and the capital-raising business simply removes itself to London and Hong Kong. Thailand installs capital controls and the markets force it to reverse its policy, virtually overnight -- again with nary a ripple. The Brazilian real is now less volatile than the Swiss franc; Botswana's debt is now more highly rated than Italy's. Oil prices double, the U.S. housing market tanks -- no matter what happens, financial markets adjust quickly and without hysteria.

This is a case in point of Daniel Davies's contention that while forecasting the future is great, forecasting the recent past is almost as good and much more likely to be successful. That is to say, it's not just enough to have the information, it's also important to draw consequences from it and react to them. This is why John Boyd held that the most important element of his Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop was the Orientation.

In this case, Lewis was well aware that a massive housing market bust was actually in progress, that the oil price was very high, and that a range of generally weird things had happened. But he didn't integrate this information into his broader situational awareness - he noted that nothing had exploded yet and reached for a variety of rationalisations, notably confirmation-bias, to explain why nothing would happen.

However, for his own part, he actually responded more effectively. He spent quite a lot of this article whining about people who weren't taking risks and wondering why nobody was going short if things were so bad. Well, in fact somebody was going short the US housing market. (Logically, somebody had to be short if so many people were so long - someone had to be taking the other end of those trades, as in fact he said in as many words.) And Michael Lewis later wrote a book about him, making a considerable profit.

Obviously, he was in a position to wait and see what happened, and then write the book either about the Great Bull Run of 2008 or the Great Crash. That helps. From a Boydian point of view, it is critical to all strategy that you keep your options open as far as possible and avoid being forced into reacting on the other side's time-table. It's also true, though, that the precondition of not being bankrupt in 2008 and therefore being able to take opportunities as they came was not taking risks in 2007, perhaps by doing a well-paying writing gig at Bloomberg in which you moan endlessly about people who aren't taking enough risks.

In fact, anyone looking for economic advice from Lewis in 2007 would have been well advised to ignore everything he said and instead study what he was actually doing.

no matter who the government votes for...the people still get in

This is incredibly great, and will instantly catapult you into the top 3% of the information distribution on top-level Chinese politics. One for the RSS queue, even if his views on economics are very much what you might expect.

Acid Helvetica titles do not make you a decent person

(Alt. title: Look, it's like a society but smaller!)

OK, so you may remember the case of, a well-publicised eye-catching initiative that turned out to be little better than spam paid for with a government grant to some whose-kid-are-you types. It seems that the whole pointless wankabout was kicked off when one of the WKAYers cornered poisonous old Thatcherite gargoyle Lord Young and pitched his eye out.

Ah well, the Big Society was always going to be a happy hunting ground for grantsmanship, wanktanking, and various other kinds of ligging and general availability enterpreneurship. Small business grant programs - which it essentially is - are notoriously vulnerable to fraud and general dodgy dealing.

And then it came to the MySociety listserv. So this message plunked into the trap last Monday. In it, a thing called "Sidekick Studios" offers to hire some software developers. Note - because this will be important later on - that they didn't make any bones at all that they were making an offer of employment. (A shorter version of this post is in the list archive.)

"*We’re Sidekick – And We’re looking to hire 3 Developers…We're a social innovation organisation - we develop web and mobile tools to tackle social issues and public services in a different way. We have 3 different jobs – please take a read and get in touch if the roles spark interest

Fair enough. The first one is for a Ruby on Rails developer with 3-5 years' experience, for an 8 week consultancy gig at their headquarters in London Bridge, working alongside a mobile developer and a user-interface designer on a project for an unnamed client. Nothing to see here.

But here's the problem.
*2 x Creative technical leads / senior developers *
Project – “SS3”
*Key info: *
· 3 month contract – maybe more
· Social innovation projects
a) Social Care Swap “wife swap for your gran”
b) Youth Justice Game Project “4 square for criminals”
· Experienced and creative developer to build proof of concept for an
innovative social project
· Start up experience preferred
· No language preference – but solid front and back end web-dev skills
required - whatever environment you’re used to
· Work in small dynamic team
· Based at Sidekick studios, London Bridge
· Read more hear

To be honest, it was the peerlessly idiotic "concepts" that caught my eye. "Wife Swap for your gran". Had Nathan Barley been contracted to write the requirements statement? Or was the whole thing a reality-TV show? Had I stumbled upon a new Chris Morris project? We could read more "hear", and some of us did.

SS3 is an experimental technology and design incubator to create new types of public services. We've assembled a team of 10 people, with diverse skills across research, design, technology, social venturing and commerce. Over 3 months, the team will work together out of a studio in London Bridge to launch 3 social businesses, each with the potential to deliver sustainable, social impact. And rock the world.

OK...well, it would appear from the next paragraph that the team is us. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that part of the team is us - the 10 ground crew have apparently been recruited already. It just remains to find Laika and Strelka the space dogs.

We're offering 3 people the chance to become the resident entrepreneur for each venture. And have their salary paid for 3 months. And have the opportunity to become the full-time Managing Director of the venture at the end of the SS3 experience.

Note that the software jobs are additional to this. So you're being offered the chance to implement..."Wife Swap for your gran"...over three months, and if you succeed you get to keep it. And they'll pay your salary. Or maybe not - let's skip ahead here...

How much will I get paid? Good question. And we're going to duck it. Sort of. We are not saying exactly because we might pay people differently depending on their level of experience. We can say the salary will be more than enough to live off in London, pay exorbitant rent, travel to and from work, and have money left over each month. The value of SS3 is the awesome and talented people who'll help build the venture. If you can't see that, then we're not for you.

Note that they have no interest in any ideas you may have:

I have my own idea / startup / service - will you help me with that? No. The startpoint is the ideas that we've already developed with partners, providers and people in the sector and which we know have some potential.

and reserve the right to terminate you at any moment:

What happens at the end of 3 months? We don't know! The venture could be up and running, with money coming in. In which case, you'll be in the box seat to be the person to get the job on a permanent basis. That might be paid at a higher salary, at a lower salary, or no salary at all. If the venture has limited chance of getting to market, we're going to just kill it and you'll be left with a whole load of training and skills, and some happy memories we hope. If the venture has a chance of going somewhere, but we're not right for each other, we move on and find someone else. Sounds risky, huh? That's the point.

So even if the project is a success, in fact, there's no guarantee of getting the job, contrary to prior statements, and no guarantee of any pay even if you get it. And there is a lot of horrible macho Alan Sugar rhetoric and passive-aggressive expectations-wank.

But if you don't do a good job, or your venture isn't going anywhere fast, we replace you...Or we kill it...No remorse...We'll try not to come to blows and then move on...Sounds risky, huh? That's the point...Entrepreneurial..Committed. Passionate..Not an idiot...If you want exits / earnouts / options, we're not for have to be in the office in London Bridge...Or out telling people how great this is / learning / selling...If you can't see that, then we're not for you....It's all about the team....If you're afraid of sales, we're not for you...Definitely not. Full-time. 100 MPH. Absolutely committed. As if your life depended on this. Well at least, your financial security. Because it does.

Indeed it does, but not so much that they're willing to offer anything lame like a job. As previously noted, they're not actually promising any money or any commitment of any kind, but they do keep using the word job:
If you do well, and the venture is doing well, you'll get a job. A good job.

Ahem? What was that again?

In which case, you'll be in the box seat to be the person to get the job on a permanent basis. That might be paid at a higher salary, at a lower salary, or no salary at all.

Now, I mentioned that the projects are non-profit and are to stay that way. Fine. This doesn't, however, mean that Sidekick itself is non-profit. In fact it's a commercial company, registration no. 6707987, and its customer in this project is, well, us. Specifically, they've scored a grant from the UK Technology Strategy Board.

So, to summarise: You get to work your arse off trying to make some daft idea like "Wife Swap for grans" fly. For this you get a suspiciously unspecified sum of money. You may be terminated without cause at any moment. After three months, you may get a job, you may get the same job but without the money, or you may get "no tea and walk home", depending on no conditions that anyone is willing to state at the outset. You may not profit from the business, no matter how well it may do, but Sidekick's directors get theirs whatever happens. And we're all paying for this exploitative, cynical, spammy, hilariously ill-thought out shite.

Further, and just in case anyone thinks I'm biased in any way, does anyone else think The Guardian could perhaps make its pay-for-play Guardian Professional advertorial and events operation look and feel distinct from the actual newspaper's website?

Why am I talking about this?

Well, Sidekick also recommended "a Guardian article" to us - this one. Now, unless you follow Fleet Street politics closely you'd probably think that's just another Guardian URI. But the key bit is that it's in their "Social Enterprise Network", one of their "Professional Networks". Guardian Professional's front page is here. It's possible that there is some difference between Guardian Professional Networks and Guardian Professional, in which case it might be more professional to make this obvious. But I suspect that this piece is advertorial.

It is, however, informative.

Over the past year, in the face of chaotic reorganisations and relentless manager bashing from politicians, we've seen many of them decide to take up generous redundancy packages, in some cases over a year of full pay...

Those civil servants who have been made redundant - they collected their redundancy money! The bastards.

Aside from the huge drop in productivity during the prolonged reorganisation, this mass firing and re-hiring carries huge risks for costs going forward. The same manager is thinking of moving on to work for an international research agency. If the GP consortia wants her unique skills and community relationships in twelve months time, they'll find her charged out to clients at £1000 a day....

Indeed, just like last time. Perhaps it would be better not to do the privatisation and mass sackings in the first place?

If all this sounds a bit gloomy, social enterprises could offer a way to stem the flow of this talent and make use of the experience and knowledge that the taxpayer has invested in...the fear is the shadow of large private sector companies coming in and cleaning up....At Sidekick Studios, we're going t try to grab some of this talent first. Our reasons are pretty selfish – if public services don't want these people, and their knowledge, and their skills, and their networks, then we sure do....From May 1st, we're starting SS3...

I think this might have been improved by an admission that Sidekick Studios is in fact a private sector, for profit, company. What offends me about this is that they are quite openly trying to help push public servants out of real jobs with pensions and union recognition and that stuff and into the hyper-precarious code-for-pizza status we just outlined. Come to think of it, if you can't get hipster interns living off the Bank of Mum & Dad you might as well try sacked civil servants living off the redundancy money.

But then, what else would you expect from people who want to replace the poor sods working in local authority social care with "Wife Swap for your gran" and the police with "Foursquare for criminals", all held together with sales-training day bullshit and shameless volunteer-mining?

A control room full of computers

Here's an interesting story about a successful response to the seizure of a ship, MV Full City, by pirates in the Indian Ocean. Indian, Chinese, and Turkish (NATO) ships responded, and the pirates abandoned the prize after an Indian Navy aircraft (slightly ironically, a Tupolev Bear) overflew the ship. But the really interesting thing isn't so much that there was good international cooperation, or even that there were pirates 450 miles off the Indian coast, and certainly isn't that Indian naval aviation was flying a Tu-142 (they have been for decades).

In fact, it's that the Chinese Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre was in charge of the whole thing. The China MRCC is based in Beijing (not very maritime, but it is essentially a control room full of computers). The British one is at RAF Kinloss (so presumably will be moving pretty soon) and has coordinated operations everywhere in the world. This is the first time I've heard about an oceanic rescue being coordinated from the Chinese one, though. It's a data point.

Meanwhile, they're loading up on PhDs.


Following up this post, here's a really interesting piece in Dawn on the Indian-Pakistani nuclear balance and the implications of the COLD START doctrine. It's an especially good point that if India really wanted to punish Pakistan after a "Mumbai II" terrorist attack, they could do so very effectively and much less dangerously through economic sanctions, given how much fuel Pakistan imports and that most of it passes through one port.

In the light of this, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Indian military preparations are simply unwise - in a classic post at Arms Control Wonk, Michael Krepon discusses why Pakistan is continuing to build more nuclear weapons and concludes that the factors at work are as follows. First of all, Indian leaders' public statements are threatening - to use cold-war terminology, although their military planning is moving towards "flexible response", their declaratory policy contains a lot of "massive retaliation". The combination is toxic. Trying to make the conventional forces more usable is potentially provocative. Statements about nuclear strategy like this one, combined with faster response times, begin to look a lot like an offensive doctrine:

The Indian Chief of Army Staff, S. Padmanabhan, sang the same tune – that if Pakistan resorted to first use, “the perpetrator of that particular outrage shall be punished so severely that their continuation thereafter in any form will be doubtful.”

Secondly, although nuclear weapons cost a lot to acquire in the first place, they get much cheaper once the programme has been capitalised and the process industrialised. This was a major theme in the high cold war - the original Manhattan Project was designed to scale up to five bombs a month, achieved that ahead of schedule, and in fact scaled even further. Also, they are often considered cheap in terms of their strategic value. Nukes scare people; Pakistan will never be an industrial power like India, but now it has the production line going, it certainly can add more bombs and more target packages faster than the Indian economy can grow. Krepon makes the interesting point that the limiting factor isn't the nukes so much as the delivery systems - a country like North Korea can build a nuclear device of sorts, and Pakistan can run a bomb factory, but only a fully diversified industrial economy can make the aeroplane or the missile to carry them.

This has certain consequences for the Pakistani strategic targeting plan. In comments at ACW, someone asks whether they might be thinking of making use of man- or at least vehicle-portable weapons, the famous suitcase nukes. Another, slightly less terror-licious point about this is how the Pakistan Air Force is operating. If they have plenty of bombs but relatively few aircraft, they have to preserve the strike-force (the P-Force, perhaps, by analogy with the 1960s RAF V-Force) at all costs. This implies putting as many planes as possible on quick-reaction alert, dispersing them early in a crisis with the weapons, and keeping open the option of dispersing them in Afghanistan. (We may now begin to see why they care so much.) It also suggests that it would be very difficult to target anything in the Pakistan Air Force without threatening the nuclear assets, and that they might be keen to use tactical nuclear weapons - it's a relatively cheap substitute for a much bigger army, and (as NATO found out in the high cold war) if you have more and more atom bombs hanging about, pure bureaucratic logic tends to get them assigned to targets.

This is a special case of the principle that mayhem is easy and order is difficult, of course.

The good news, such as there is, is contained in this wikileak, a 2008 cable from the US Ambassador to India. Interestingly, he points out, there are good reasons to think that COLD START is likely to be well named. It takes longer than you think, and when you turn the key there's a lot of grinding and coughing and fuss before anything happens. So you might be tempted to go for a nice cup of tea and come back later, or perhaps have some biscuits and another cup of tea and turn to page 3, or just do something else.

Although the doctrine is explicitly designed to avoid threatening the existence of Pakistan as a state, and therefore to permit Indian military retaliation without triggering anything nuclear, it is seen as threatening both because it is intended to permit military action - to sneak under the wires of deterrence - and also because it is intended to reduce the relevance of Pakistani nuclear forces. The Indians, if the ambassador's analysis is sound, are aware of this and are actually quite unlikely to implement it. One way of looking at the complex administrative machinery and politics he outlines is as a deliberate brake on doing anything hasty. Alternatively, it may not have been created deliberately as a check on the military, but if that is the case, it is interesting that it is tolerated. A state that really did intend to carry out a partial mobilisation and a 72-hour blitz from a standing start would have made sure that the code-word would be given. To some extent, the Indians may be experiencing self-deterrence.

The cable also points out that the terrain has changed since 1971 and that some of the ground is now much more urban and more defensible, and also that there are logistical problems that have yet to be solved. Taking an interpretative view, you might say that the real purpose of COLD START is to reject the idea that the international community has any veto on Indian action and to signal non-deterrence to the Pakistanis, while not actually doing anything dangerous. However, the problem is that the signalling succeeds all too well. In fact, the point that all arguments based on "credibility" are crap strongly applies. Either they are taken at face value, in which case they are dangerous, or they are seen through, in which case they are useless.

So, the D-word. What should anyone do about it? This is traditionally the moment at which it becomes obvious why the abbreviation for the discipline of international relations is pronounced "Errr". But I think the answer is that Kashmir is still the issue. Only real concessions affect perception. Further, it would be very good news if the Indians disavowed COLD START and looked at an alternative reaction plan, perhaps concentrating on the economic side as mentioned in the Dawn link. But you try getting them to do that. Finally, and again spinning off that Dawn piece, the real role of the Pakistani nukes is to secure the special place of the military. Errr, indeed.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

technical update

It has just come to my attention that both Dubai and Sharjah airports have redesigned their websites. Also, I've added 395 more meetings to the scraper this weekend, but for some weird reason the DFID disclosure isn't actually being treated as a csv file by the csv module. Scraping, scraping, scraping, always bloody well scraping. I even had to write a scraping script for work last week.

Also, does anyone else find the OpenTech schedule a bit thin?

Meanwhile, I think I may be about to buy a laptop. Does anyone have experience of the new, cheap-end Lenovo ThinkPads or indeed their top-end netbook-cum-tablet?

Callaghan-era surge

I have recently been reading David McKittrick (et al)'s Making Sense of the Troubles. An interesting point, which I wasn't aware of before, is their contention that the late 70s and Roy Mason's tenure as Northern Ireland secretary was an important turning point. In fact, you could make an interesting comparison with Iraq in 2007-2008.

Mason's policy was to forget about further top-level negotiations, after the collapse of the Sunningdale agreement, and focus on security and economic issues in the hope that progress from the bottom up would bring the conflict parties back to the negotiating table on better terms. In fact, during his tenure, there was a dramatic drop in the rate of killings that was never reversed. This is the hub of McKittrick's argument - having surged in 1971 and peaked in 1972-3, levels of violence stayed very high until 1977 and then dropped to a new, much lower average level.

The British government in this period tried various expedients. The military used more special forces, and integrated their intelligence systems and those of the police and security services. Overall, there was a deliberate effort to project the whole war as a law-enforcement problem (very much a theme of US and Iraqi government propaganda during the "surge"), and to launch as many criminal prosecutions as possible. They tried hard to recruit informers and to make use of supergrasses.

McKittrick and his co-authors argue that there was a sort of cycle-of-recruitment effect at work - terrorism caused recruitment into the loyalist terrorist organisations, whose violence caused further IRA recruitment, which led to more military intervention and more loyalist violence. They further argue that this cycle was broken or at least slowed down in the late 1970s - whether the government was succeeding in providing security or not, it at least reduced the demand for unofficial, privatised violence. The government also tried hard to recruit potential paramilitaries into its own forces, and demonstrated that it was willing to use force against loyalists as well as republicans (they argue that the failure of the 1977 loyalist strike was important). This is all quite familiar.

However, the drop in violence was an over-determined event. There was a major change in the IRA leadership and strategy, which emphasised holding out for the long term and eventually led to an increased emphasis on the ballot box. (The parallel with the Sadr movement stands out.) There was a major protest movement demanding peace, which is another way of saying that the people were unwilling to tolerate so much violence any more.

Although this turning point meant much less violence, it didn't solve anything in and of itself. And it involved quite a lot of state violence in itself - especially during interrogations. This Musings on Iraq roundup is telling - rather than gunbattles and mass bombings, the war continues with a low-level assassination campaign. In Northern Ireland, the best any security solution could ever do in the absence of a political solution was to hold the levels of violence down around the post-77 average, with a very significant cost to society as a whole.

links, the last refuge of really bored bloggers

This came up in my twitter feed recently. Charmingly 90s-ish, but I did like the point that it's very difficult to get decent bass out of a mobile device/laptop/whatever, and this probably has consequences for the kind of music people will make with them. Come to think of it, there's an interesting economic angle. The electronics will only keep getting cheaper, and the software can be free. But some things require a large physical lump that needs transporting and storing awkwardly. It's a little like Baumol's cost disease.

Meanwhile, I read the Grauniad interview with Adam Curtis this weekend and it didn't make me want to see his next after all. This post sums up why. It's TV thinking - if the edit is right, it doesn't matter if the logic contains more handwaving than might be ideal.

What were the most successful public policies of the last 30 years? Apparently, the minimum wage, devolution, privatisation, and the Northern Ireland peace process. I suspect they may not use my definition of success, but even on their terms it's telling that three out of four of them come from the 1997-2001 Labour government.

Finally, some music.

A lot of their other stuff seems terribly dated now but that one holds up.

Economic facts

Owning the walls of a building separately may seem eccentric and ill-advised, but perhaps it will make a comeback in the light of stories like these? Deutsche Bank "Stuffed Mortgage Reviews In a Closet". They're also accused of being a slum-lord and a public menace. More slums, via Felix Salmon. And there's a slightly unnerving macroscopic take, from Hernando de Soto. I think that's the first time I've seen anyone link the housing bubble and financial crisis itself directly to the mortgage-servicing fuckups. Via.

I'm looking over the wall and they're looking at me

Alliance Géostrategique is having an interesting-sounding meetup on the theme of walls, borders, and checkpoints. Here's a little contribution.

In my home village in the Yorkshire Dales, there lived two men, who both owned a large shed they used for their business. Somehow, one of them owned the roof and two walls, and one of them owned the other. There was some arrangement about the land under it, but this bit of the story escapes me. Anyway, years pass, eventually they give up the business and sell a chunk of land next door to a property developer. But they can't agree on what to do with the shed. They fall out to the extent that only genuine Yorkshiremen can; and the shed is left to rot quietly.

Eventually, bits of it start to fall down. One day, down goes a great chunk, and the local council decides that the building is a menace to the public. So they knock it down. Surely this must resolve the issue one way or the other. Or can the wall exist in a purely legal, moral sense, without the tiresome requirement of a couple of hundredweight of rocks? It turns out that it can, at least for a while. The owner of the roof sells the plot of land, less the strip the wall actually occupied, to another property developer, who builds on it.

At this point, our man gets worried about his interest. Even if the legal position was clear, it might be difficult to assert his rights if the question had actually been physically built over. So he visited the site and put up a sort of temporary favela barrier of corrugated iron, tape, and cones along the route of the wall. Rather like the original, overnight barricade the East Germans set up before the more permanent Berlin Wall was created. On this he stuck a sign reading "For Sale: Valuable Amenity Land".

It's worth stopping here and thinking for a moment. Strangely, the replacement of the original wall probably strengthens his position from an economic point of view. If it was a sound structure of traditional Yorkshire stone, would anybody notice it? Probably not. They would treat it as a wall, not an economic interest. Nobody would think of removing it, or even that someone else owned it. It would just be a brute stone fact. The wall, however, has been replaced with a sort of deliberately absurd, theatrical monument to the guy's ego. (Actually, the original wall wasn't Yorkshire stone or any stone - it was made of breeze-blocks.)

Of course, the other parties to the dispute have not been idle. They are still unwilling to pay the greenmail required to make the whole thing go away, and the very ridiculousness of the new wall makes it clear that destroying it would solve nothing. So they came up with a plan of their own - they painted the whole thing pink, in the hope that this would embarrass the other guy into giving in.

He still hasn't.

OBL links

Doing real-time PCR in unusual conditions. Just how Obama watched the raid in real time.

Hoping for the end of the war in Afghanistan.
After weeks of debate among civilian and military leaders, the National Security Council recently endorsed key elements of the State Department’s reconciliation strategy. Starting peace talks has now become the top priority for Marc Grossman, who succeeded Richard C. Holbrooke as the U.S. government’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On Tuesday, Grossman met in Islamabad with Pakistan’s foreign secretary and Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister. The three agreed to constitute a “core group for promoting and facilitating the process of reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan,” Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. U.S. officials expressed hope on Tuesday that Pakistan’s failure to find bin Laden — or its possible complicity in sheltering him — could lead Islamabad to adopt a softer position on Afghan reconciliation. They think that Pakistani officials, who have interfered with peace efforts in the past, have an opportunity to play a more constructive role.

“Our hope is that they are so embarrassed by this that they try to save face by trying to help their neighbor,” one U.S. official said.

More expectations for a quicker end. You can't rely on the ISI any more.

The crucial information may have been that nobody ever mentioned the courier's name. Indian politicians rock the boat a bit more. Good piece and discussion at Arms Control Wonk.

obl isi faq

There's a good debate in Jamie Kenny's comments about the political upshot of bin Laden's death in Pakistan. For what it's worth, I'm with Dan Hardie on this - it's a very important political fact that the intelligence hierarchy a) couldn't or wouldn't catch bin Laden and b) couldn't or wouldn't protect him any longer. The ISI needs to be useful to the Americans and also to the jihadis to maintain its private foreign policy and its special role in Pakistani politics.

In the short term, it's still in a position to make trouble - NATO is still using the roads to Afghanistan, after all - but this ability to cause trouble is now significantly constrained. When bin Laden turns out to have been living two miles from the Abbottabad Golf Club all these years, playing the supply-route card is very close indeed to committing to his side and burning the bridges. It may not be as dramatic as the Falklands War was for the Argentine military as a political actor. The outrage of actual Americans staging an air-mobile assault in urban Pakistan buffers this a bit. But they can't count on nationalist outrage as a source of support - they didn't, after all, prevent the raid, whether by shooting up the helicopters or by getting rid of bin Laden themselves.

The defining issue now is whether Pakistan's other institutions can assert more power faster than the Americans (and everyone else) can cut-and-run. The end of US support after 1992, after all, tended to strengthen the ISI as a force in Pakistani politics. If the ISI director Ahmed Shuja Pasha is indeed sacked, this will be quite an ambiguous move, as General Kayani brought him in from the armoured corps in order to keep an eye on the organisation. But this is only a short-term coping strategy - or in other words, tactics rather than strategy.

A question

How did the Americans make sure their raid on Osama bin Laden wasn't misidentified as Pakistan's real enemy? This was surely a major planning constraint. It's been suggested, plausibly, that the bulk of their radar assets are positioned along the international border and the LOC, but once you get to Abbottabad you're not that far from the Line of Control. There's been a lot of interest in the helicopter that was destroyed, and specifically if it was either a hitherto unknown type or else a Blackhawk modified to be stealthy. But stealthy is a relative term, and a helicopter will never be really stealthy as its rotor blades are constantly changing aspect towards any radar source.

There's an interesting French paper here on Indian military doctrine - apparently, part of the lessons-learned exercise after the 2002 crisis and mobilisation was that the whole process took too long, and left far too many opportunities for the international community to get involved and yell "stop!". (This may not be the lesson one would hope had been learned.) As a result, they came up with a new doctrine, known as Cold Start, which foresaw a quicker response to provocation from Pakistan, using forces already posted nearer the border to carry out raids with limited territorial objectives, closely integrated with air power. The point that the objectives are limited in terms of territory is important - as I mentioned above, a lot of things in Pakistan are not far from the border. They might not be very limited in terms of importance, for example, nuclear sites or major headquarters, or perhaps key ISI or jihadi figures.

(Ah, we had one of those, didn't we?)

Obama's counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, was quoted as saying that the Pakistani air force scrambled its quick-reaction alert of fighters during the mission. This may of course be disinformation, or just wrong. It could imply that for a while at least, there was an elevated risk. Or perhaps the plan was designed to make it obvious that the helicopters were coming from the direction of Afghanistan, and they wanted the radars to detect them at some point during the operation...

It would be very interesting to know if the Indian government was informed at any point.

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