Monday, January 31, 2005

Your Last Chance

It's your last chance to VOTE FOR ME in Fistful's European Weblog Awards, as voting closes tomorrow. I promise NOT to pose in satin pyjamas in the event of a win, unlike some other bloggers I won't mention.


From the Torygraph, an interesting report on the latest European Constitution poll. ICM's survey, the first to be carried out using the actual question to be asked in the referendum, showed 39% in favour and 41% against - radically better figures than any previous poll.

"The ICM findings will fuel the debate over the Government's proposed wording, amid claims that it has been designed to provoke a "Yes" vote. However, ministers will respond that it has been subject to consultation, agreed by the Tories and Liberal Democrats, and is expected to be endorsed by the independent Electoral Commission, which polices referendums and recommended an almost identical wording last year.

Nick Sparrow, the managing director of ICM Research, said last night: "The referendum question as the Government has announced it does point people towards a 'Yes' answer and uses warm words such as 'approve'."

Well, the proposed question does actually reflect the constitutional point it is meant to decide. After all, it is proposed to hold a referendum after Parliament has debated the text of the treaty and approved it subject to referendum. So the question ("Should the UK approve the treaty establishing a constitution for the European Union?") is exactly aligned with the facts. But all that would satisfy the isolationists would be something along the lines of "Do YOU want to be LEGALLY RESPONSIBLE IN COURT for EVILLY RIPPING THE MAGNA CARTA UP IN THE INTERNATIONAL EUROCONSPIRACY to DESTROY BRITAIN? WELL DO YOU? If so, please climb up the ladder, put on the blindfold and find the pencil. Then write the random six-figure code in the box provided on ballot part 3, subsection Vii. If on the other hand you want to REMAIN A DECENT PATRIOTIC PERSON and SAVE THE POUND AND THE SCOTTISH REGIMENTS AND THE QUEEN, place the unmarked ballot in the box."

Five Points to Remember about Iraqi Elections

1. Yes, It Wasn't Any Worse Than We Thought

Indeed, quite a lot of people voted (latest figure 57% or perhaps somewhat less depending on reports). And there was no bloodbath comparable to (say) the slaughter of pilgrims in Najaf last year...

2. But That Ain't Saying Much

..but some 44 persons were blown up by suicide bombers, around 100 injured, and that's before we get to the RAF Hercules, of which more below. It seems to be a rapidly spreading meme that these elections were somehow comparable to the 1994 election in South Africa. We are asked if "liberals" or "the left" would have doubted the democracy of that contest because not enough Afrikaaners voted. This is silly. In South Africa in 1994, you could vote for a candidate whose name, record and policy you knew, in the constituency you lived in. You could drive to the poll if you so wished, because it was not necessary to ban all road traffic for fear of suicide car bombs. You could leave the country if you didn't want to participate. The lights were on, the telephone network functioned, there was water and there was fuel. Nobody shot down any aeroplanes. Nobody hit the US Embassy with a 107mm artillery rocket on the eve of the vote. And, crucially, the Afrikaaners had sufficient confidence in the new dispensation not to go to war if they lost. Such confidence is absent, hence the war.

3. That Hercules.

Some voices have been moaning about "the left" even mentioning the crash of the RAF C-130. Step forward, Belgravia Dispatch. This is reminiscent of the French journalist who was asked by the US Ambassador in South Vietnam "why he always saw the hole in the doughnut". His answer, possibly unbeatable, was "Because, Monsieur l'Ambassadeur, there is a hole in the doughnut". It's just as much news as romantic photos taken at the 5 (count'em!) polling stations in Baghdad where journalists were allowed to be. And, if it was indeed shot down, it is just as significant and important. Here's why.
It was making the trip from Baghdad to Balad. That's interesting in itself, because it's not even as far as Heathrow to Gatwick. And we know that the US Air Force has been hugely increasing the amount of freight and personnel they move inside Iraq by air, because the roads are too dangerous (That's what the head of Third Air Force said. Not me.) Balad is the biggest US logistic base in Iraq, home of the 13th Corps Support Command, and it is surrounded by a truly gigantic security perimeter to prevent aircraft going there from being shot down. What does this tell us about security North of Baghdad?

If the claim of responsibility by Ansar al-Islam is valid, it also tells us something about the insurgency. They mention using an "anti-tank missile" on the plane. Now, it's unlikely that this would be an RPG unless they attacked the aircraft during take -off or approach - not enough range. It may mean they are adapting a wire-guided missile to point at planes, which would give them much more range and also a guidance system immune to the defensive aids aboard our aircraft. These systems are intended to confuse heat-seeking and radar-guided weapons, and would have no benefit against a visually aimed and wire-guided weapon. Defensive aids protect against the SA-7 series weapons the insurgents have been using. Extending the security perimeter protects against small arms and RPGs (their next move). They may have adapted again. (Note: it is by no means certain the aircraft was shot down. But the possible causes of such a n accident are limited: basically a catastrophic structural failure (very unlikely), a mid-air collision (ruled out because no other aircraft are missing) - or hostile action.)

4. It's Possible to Vote for Un-democracy

In the absence of named candidates or any real campaign about policy, what is an election? The electorate seems to have broken just as predicted, along confessional and ethnic lines. Everyone thought the Shia would turn out in hordes and vote for the UIA because it was the party of Shi'ism. Everyone thought the Kurds would vote in droves for the Kurdish parties because they were the Kurdistan bloc. Everyone thought the Sunnis wouldn't vote. Question: is this an election at all, or a census defining tribal blocks? It will take monumental and unlikely restraint for either the Kurdish or Shia leaders not to draw up the constitution to suit their power interests. In which case (continued movement towards Kurdistan; theocracy) the war will certainly go on.

5. But, of course, it's possible to vote for democracy

Upshot? Certainly, it's impressive and good that there has been an election of sorts. And it's possible that, during the debates of the new assembly and the various regional bodies something like democratic practice will emerge. Democracy is a practice, not a thing. But there is no reason to think that the Iraq problem is much nearer solution. 54 people were killed yesterday, and this with totalitarian levels of security control. What will happen when the travel ban, vehicle ban, etc are relaxed?

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Lipstick on a Pig

As seems to be the way of it, as soon as anything seems to get better we find it's just got worse. You would have thought that it was nothing but good news that the people detained in Belmarsh and Woodhill prisons under the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act (that's the one which allowed them to be detained indefinitely, without being told the charges against them) are going to be released, now that Charles Clarke has accepted the House of Lords ruling that their detention was illegal.

But no, they found a way to make it worse. Instead of locking them up, Clarky wants to impose a form of court order similar (here we go) to an Anti-Social Behaviour Order upon them. This would provide powers to forbid them from meeting named people, deny them the use of mobile phones or the internet, or even to place them under house arrest. Just as with the ATCSA, the orders would be issued by the Home Secretary on the basis of evidence that would not be disclosed. Just as with ATCSA, the test would be one of reasonable suspicion. If I'm not very much mistaken that's not just much weaker than the criminal test ("beyond reasonable doubt"), it's even weaker than the civil test ("on the balance of probabilities"). Just as with ATCSA, the only review would still be without you or your lawyer being told the charges against you.

The kicker is, though, that the new powers will apply not just to foreigners like ATCSA but to everyone. And they will no longer be restricted to those accused of international terrorism, but to terrorism in general. Now this should worry everyone. After all, if you give people more powers you should never be surprised if they use them. The Terrorism Act 2000, introduced to help fight - ah - terrorists, has since been frequently used to lock up participants in demonstrations. Who knows who might get a "control order" (or should that be banning order under the Suppression of Communism Act imposed on them in the future? This isn't putting lipstick on the pig. It's more like dragging the swine away and dyeing its hair blonde (L'Oreal. Because I'm worth it.), smearing unguents into its scratchy skin and polishing its yellow teeth, then taking it to see your friends.

But however hard you try with the make-up, you won't convince them it's not a pig. As soon as Tina trots into their dining room, they'll see her trotters and curly tail. When your porky date knocks over a table and guzzles everything on it, roots for crumbs around your feet with her snout and craps in the corner all the while oinking frenziedly, they won't believe a word from you. Indeed, to borrow a phrase, there will be nothing you could say now they would ever believe. In the end they will likely throw you out in the street, without your dinner or friends and with a furious peroxide sow to placate. And doing this sort of thing in the streets late at night with your tie under one ear tends to attract cops.


Anthony Wells has a very interesting post about the possible sources of surprises in the election campaign over at the Polling Report (a species of advanced headquarters he's set up for the campaign). Read it, it's worth while.

Broadly, his argument is that the apparent stability of the polls conceals a considerable potential for shocks, from a wide variety of sources - the end of tactical voting, a surge in the Liberal vote, a breakthrough by small parties, "events", unexpectedly successful Conservative targeting and more. I have to agree. I've said it before on this blog and I'll say it again - there is a considerable lake of freefloating, unfocused discontent out there, and the party who can channel it will win. It wouldn't take much to get hold of it - the question is what. At the moment it is bubbling around single issues - but those could always be aggregated. Note the talk of an alliance between Fathers4Justice, UKIP and the Countryside Alliance. A truly bizarre coalition, if probably entertaining. Less flamboyantly, there's the possibility of more Richard Taylor-style protest candidates from the Left (anti-war, or anti-PFI). And there's always George Galloway, who's putting his libel winnings into a campaign in Bethnal Green. Wellsy seems to think that Robert Kilroy-Silk's Veryarse..sorry...Veritas might be a serious proposition. I doubt it. (Doesn't that New York Times profile look twice as batshit crazy now..)

What it boils down to is that we're looking at a political pool of errors. "Pool of errors" is a navigational term for the situation where, not knowing where you are, you estimate the maximum distance off course in any direction you could be. This gives you the pool of errors, which you know you are in. Although there are some handrails that set the edges (there isn't going to be a Tory landslide, the marginals don't favour a Lib Dem win outright, but Blair is surely not *that* popular), the rest is uncertain.

Hospital food? That'll be $450 please

Via Kos, it is reported that wounded US servicemen returned from Iraq are being billed $450 a month for their meals in Walter Reed Army Medical Centre. Now, you can probably think of a few things to snarl about this without my assistance, but things aren't that great over here.

After all, the Reserve Forces Acts 1985 and 1996 provide that British reservists who are mobilised have a right to be reinstated in their civilian job (or to be compensated). Not only that, but quite detailed arrangements for dispute resolution are set up, including tribunals, appeals and whatnot. There's only one problem, though, which is that the government has made it a matter of official policy that no public funds will be used to help those reservists whose right to reinstatement is denied. So - you've lost your job and have probably spent the last six months on a much lower rate of pay to your civilian salary. But you're meant to lawyer-up at your own expense. Now, justice delayed, as they say, is justice denied. Some two dozen territorials have already lost their jobs and there may yet be more.

How long before there is an ECHR case about this?

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Dutch Army in labour dispute

The Dutch armed forces have, it seems, encountered a slightly unusual difficulty in Iraq, where they contribute 1,350 troops to the British-led MND(SE)'s northernmost sector. Simply, the soldiers' trade union isn't happy about their T's and C's. Yes, you read that correctly - the trade union. It's called the AFMP and it's angry that the field-allowance paid out to soldiers on operations isn't enough. A Dutch soldier in the field gets 39€ a day extra for his pains, plus 27 US dollars a day in expenses.

This has led to a curious consequence of the dollar slide. The figure for expenses was calculated in booming strong-dollar 1996, presumably for the Balkans - but now its value has shrunk quite a bit, to the benefit of the Dutch treasury and the cost of the soldiers. They also aren't happy about the 39 euros, either, on the principle that it might be fair enough for UN duty in the Balkans but doesn't reflect the degree of danger in Iraq.

Whatever the upshot turns out to be, it won't change that much because the Dutch are committed to join the Coalition of Peering at your Watch and Edging towards the Door, having said they will pull out by May. Which means that at some point near the general election, Britain will most probably have to backfill them. Watch out for intense denials of this followed by action.

Over at Eurosavant, this story unleashed a spat in comments with some interesting anti-Dutch stereotypes. (€S seems to have a slight problem with trolls) You can probably imagine (long hair, dope, too good with money etc) what the line taken was. It's probably worth pointing out, then, that the Dutch forces have quite a good reputation with the British, based on 25 years of doing arduous Arctic exercises together with the Dutch Marines in Northern Norway as part of the NATO Amphibious Task Group. I've heard very little of anything from their area, which may either point to my inattention or to a degree of quiet efficiency...rather Dutch, you might say.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


Not so long ago I responded to a post on Mark Kleiman's weblog concerning the "competitiveness leagues" that (usually) rightwing organisations like to prepare. I produced some methodology questions and some questions about content, here. I also proposed to check the performance of one of these against results, and in the end I did.

The one I looked at was the "world competitiveness ranking" published by the Swiss Institute of Management Development, who can be found here. Figures were available for the years 2000-2004, for some 60 countries and regions. Not all of these, however, ran through the whole period or were comparable with the OECD growth stats, in the OECD Economic Outlook No.76. I decided to plot the GDP growth rate on one Y-axis and the ranking on the other, with time on the X-axis. (GDP figures are in real terms, annual percentage change.)

So, how did it turn out? Well, the first point must be that it worked rather better than I expected. The chart for France, for example:graph

Well, that seems clear enough. The chart for the UK isn't bad either, but it does have some noticeable outliers - 2001's rise up the ranking is reflected by a corresponding slowdown, and 2002's fall in the ranking mirrors a noticeable acceleration in growth, although overall it seems quite good. Australia's chart is well correlated, too.

It's not that simple, though: try this chart for the Czech Republic. If there's a correlation here it's weak. The charts for Poland, Turkey, Denmark, and Canada, though, are nowhere near as good. In fact they show quite a marked tendency to go in the opposite direction to the growth figures - the curves for Canada, in particular, look like mirror images of each other. Turkey's ranking fell gradually over the period of the study, but after a sharp recession in 2001 (no doubt due to the currency and political crisis that year) its growth rate soars away. Japan's is rather hard to read - although the correlation seems very strong, this is only part of the story. The change in Japan's ranking seems to track the business cycle, but in absolute terms the ranking is very high for an economy producing not very much growth.

Conclusions from this fairly unscientific review? Better than I thought, but falls down pretty badly on quite a few cases. I think I may also compare some of these with the aggregate figures (OECD and world growth rates), as I suspect some of the correlation is with the business cycle.

And will some of you comment on this? I can't work out why, but people seem to prefer the sarcastic abuse and international gun-running to the economics posts.

Strange and Unpleasant

Neeka's Backlog refers to this really unpleasant and deeply weird story from the Moscow News. Apparently some 20 Russian MPs (drawn from the batshit crazy Liberal Democrats of Vladimir Zhirinovsky but also the Communists and the "Motherland" group, which some claim is a front for the government) have signed a petition for the prohibition of "all" Jewish organisations on the grounds they were "extremists".

What is most alarming about this is this par:
"The MPs (representing the Communist faction, the nationalist Motherland party, and the radical Liberal Democrats) and about 500 other people, mostly journalists and editors of nationalist newspapers, called the Jewish religion “anti-Christian and inhumane, which practices extend even to ritual murders”.
Ye gods, ritual murder charges? What year is it? This can only be described as profoundly sick, but everything must be all right, because they took it back:
"A group of deputies from the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, has retracted a demand, sent earlier to the Prosecutor General’s Office, to ban all Jewish organizations in Russia.

One of the deputies who signed the open letter to the prosecutor general published in the Rus Pravoslavnaya newspaper, Aleksandr Krutov, retracted the petition. He added that the prosecution had not started to check the facts stated in the letter, Interfax news agency reported."
Well, almost all right. What is that line about not starting to check the facts actually meant to mean? That it's all OK because they didn't actually start looking for ritual murderers? Or that the prosecution (prosecutor?) really ought to have taken a closer look? (More details.) Ha'aretz has a story here that analyses this curious remark as referring to the fact that the courts prosecute persons accused of spreading anti-Semitism without inquiring into whether their propaganda is true. The likelihood of same may be judged from statements above.

That Juan Cole vs. MEMRI row revisited

Back in November, a row broke out when the rightwing thinktank MEMRI attempted to sue Juan Cole of Informed Comment for being rude to them. Specifically he accused them of being biased towards the Israeli government in the summaries of Middle Eastern media they give away to opinion-formers in the US. As the row developed, he called attention to the careers in Israeli intelligence of two of its founders.

It will surprise few that in the end they didn't sue.

Cole today links to this Ha'aretz story, implying that the revived psychological-warfare unit referred to might have had something to do with it, which would be silly if it wasn't for these key pars:
"In October 1999, Aluf Benn revealed in Haaretz that members of the unit used the Israeli media to emphasize reports initiated by the unit that it managed to place in the Arab press. He reported that the news reports focused on Iranian and Hezbollah involvement in terror activity.

Psychological warfare officers were in touch with Israeli journalists covering the Arab world, gave them translated articles from Arab papers (which were planted by the IDF) and pressed the Israeli reporters to publish the same news here.

That was meant to strengthen the perception of the Iranian threat in Israeli public opinion."

Even THEY won't go to Baghdad now

AP reports from Baghdad that air traffic control diverted both the Royal Jordanian flights to the Iraqi capital yesterday due to the airfield being under mortar fire. Which probably explains why (as pointed out to me) neither the BGIA nor the Airline Transport flights from Sharjah to Baghdad have left for two days. Neither have the corresponding flights ex-Baghdad turned up. When even the crazy-arsed Russian desperados aren't desperate enough to go there, you know there's a serious problem.

Although the AP report mentions that RJA were planning to operate as normal today, their online departures board doesn't show it (which could of course be deliberate). In fact all traces have vanished from their website except for the route map (which tells you that you get 75 frequent flyer points for the Amman-Baghdad trip. And a medal. No, I made that bit up.) One wonders if the decision to close Baghdad Airport over the election might be turning into an exercise in making a virtue of necessity.

You can't say anyone's keeping this a secret though. Try the AIP (Aeronautical Information Publication) for Iraq, available here (MSWord document - note 229pp). There's much in it of interest: for example, although the pages are now footered "General Establishment of Civil Aviation" and there's a big Iraqi eagle and some Arabic on the front, it still makes it very clear that the control authority for Iraq's airspace is the US Air Force Regional Air Movements Coordinating Centre. Hardly a surprise, but observant minds will note that the text claims that the people you have to ask are the Iraqi Ministry of Transport, although your slot request form goes to RAMCC and to one of various airfield managers whose email addresses end Oh, and who is this "contact" who seems to have a US phone number? (bizarrely, in Yonkers, NY.) Curious. Amusingly, too, the various Iraqi organisations cited don't have phone numbers or postal addresses yet (although MSWord comments mutely ask "Correct?"). And the whole section on charts is crossed "TEMPORARILY SUSPENDED", as is the section on weather reporting. Oh, and the section on search and rescue, which incorporates the following gem:
"LOCATION: At all of the Iraqi Governorates What?
Mind you, they must surely be joking about the email address for Basra Airport Ops: No wonder we've got problems if the best the RAF in Iraq can do for communications is a Hotmail account. I imagine someone is sweating under a tin roof, scrolling through 56 penis-enlargement ads looking for the weather's a strange world.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Shameless Self-Promotion (2): VOTE FOR ME!

A Fistful of Euros have opened voting on their European Blog Awards at the link given. Why not consider voting for the Yorkshire Ranter for Best UK Blog, Best Political Blog, and why the hell not Best European Blog?

Famously, politics without patronage is like kissing your sister, so we now move to your chance to help my conspiracy to place Ranter-approved blogs in key strategic positions throughout the internet. In other words, PORK! PORK! PORK BARREL OPEN NOW! GET IT WHILE IT'S HOT! FRESH PORK!

I strongly recommend and endorse Phil Hunt's Cabalamat Journal for Best EU Coverage (and if he wins, I promise to stop posting comments on his site in the small hours, thus saving him the pain of deciphering my twisted 0200 syntax the next day), Mohsan's Je Blog for Best French Blog, chez Nadhezhda for Best Non-European Blog, Lose the Delusion for Best New Blog, The Glory of Carniola for Best Regional Coverage, Soj's Flogging the Simian for Best South-Eastern Europe Blog (Note: Soj has been on the Viktor Bout case as well and deeply deserves recognition), Veronica Khokhlova's Neeka's Backlog for Best CIS Blog, Ben Hammersley's Dangerous Precedent for Best Technological Blog, Eurosavant for Most Deserving of Wider Recognition..and frankly I 've never heard of any of the blogs in the other categories, so there will be no whip on Best Writing, Best Expat, Best Humour, or Best Personal. Even Best German Blog, because to my astonishment there's no Bildblog, Sauseschritt or even a Schockwellenreiter.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Notorious figures....

"whose links to the US government would be embarrassing if disclosed". Apparently they may be found in a new covert-operations organisation being created in the Pentagon, focused on "emerging target countries such as Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, Philippines and Georgia". (Eh? And there was I thinking the new government in Georgia was a plot thought up by the CIA. Serves me right for reading the Guardian..) Interestingly, the new organisation (which has been operating for two years) seems to have been carefully designed so as to avoid both the requirement to inform Congress of intelligence operations and also to inform Congress of military deployment orders.

But then, when you don't even need to ask'em for the money, who cares?
"Pentagon officials said they established the Strategic Support Branch using "reprogrammed" funds, without explicit congressional authority or appropriation."
Well, this development may explain a hell of a lot. And it's also interesting to see that Rumsfeld placed it under a defrocked immigration officer. Mind you, some of the description there reads like the Doonesbury CIA intern:
"But four special operations soldiers who provided information for this article, directly or through intermediaries, said those assigned to work with them included out-of-shape men in their fifties and recent college graduates on their first assignments."


Still no mention in the NOTW of their investigations editor Mahzer Mahmood's arrest by the Czech police. What could possibly be the matter with the little dears? Perhaps I should write them a letter.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Fake Sheikh Shook Up (or down) after Czech check

I've been meaning to raise this for a few days now. Basically, our old friend Mahzer Mahmood, the News of the World's "Investigations Editor" and the man responsible for the red mercury plot with no red (or other) mercury and the plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham, has got himself in a spot of bother in the Czech Republic. Apparently he was preparing a sting concerning the supply of fake diplomas (a rare digression into serious journalism for yer man, better known for persuading minor celebrities to take cocaine in his presence) when the Czech authorities did him for entrapment.

$300 Million flown out of Iraq

So what the hell's going on with this? It appears that $300 million in raw cash was sent to the Lebanon in a specially chartered aircraft, supposedly to buy heavy armour for the new Iraqi army in various places, including Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and the US. It also seems that the Iraqi cabinet was kept in the dark. There's also a connection to the latest Ahmed Chalabi-related murkiness - Chalabi seems to have disclosed the cashlift in revenge for the Iraqi Defence Minister's threat to have him arrested and extradited to Jordan.

Now, something of the cynicism involved can probably be gauged by the Minister's statement that Chalabi was to be arrested for "impugning the respect of the Ministry of Defence", a fine dictator's charge if ever there was one. But, according to the Iraqi government, the cash did indeed leave. And Chalabi is after all well worth arresting - there's the bank fraud, the double-agent business, the vanishing secret police files, the computers whose hard drives vanished when the accountants appointed to investigate the "Oil for Food" scandal (that he publicised on the basis, so he said, of those files) turned up...the list goes on. But there is evidently something very bizarre going on here, as hinted at here:
"But one American official with knowledge of the transaction said taking the $300 million out of the country, although unorthodox, was probably the only way for the Iraqi government to buy weapons.

The reason, according to the American official, is that the financial mechanism set up after the war's major combat operation ended requires that Iraqi oil revenues be spent for "humanitarian" purposes. That meant that the Trade Bank of Iraq could not be used for arms purchases, thus necessitating the use of cash."
Back at the start of last year, interestingly, something similar happened with a large quantity of Iraqi currency that was flown out via Beirut, ostensibly to procure armoured vehicles (again) from an unnamed British company. (Robert Fisk report mirrored on Occupation Watch, original is behind a subscription barrier) Now, I wonder whether that might have been connected with the allegation that Chalabi's brother (the Iraqi finance minister) gave the job of disposing of the old Iraqi currency to a firm who might not have disposed of it at all? Mind you, the January 2004 flight also brings up a whole wealth of other dodginess related to Lebanese politics; Amir Gemayel's son-in-law and two prominent figures in the Maronite Christian right just happened to be aboard the aircraft. Today in Iraq charged at the time that they had connections to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that was exposed last summer as a spy ring. It's rather what you come to expect from these buggers, but the connection TII proposed strikes me as tenuous.

And, as you probably expect from the blogosphere's home of mystery jets, I also have my suspicions as to exactly who the other half of the deal is. Now, the first (January 2004) story is easy to pin as regards the aircraft. Mazen Bsat, mentioned by Fisk, is the boss of Flying Carpet, a Lebanese charter firm that now runs a regular Beirut-Baghdad service. It would appear he's getting rich on the war. And - could you possibly guess this? - his firm's on that list of Defence Department fuel contracts. He's number TBLE01. His firm seems to have graduated from offering scenic trips up the Lebanese coast (if true) to running a Fairchild Metro (serial no. AC604, registration OD-MAB). He's even got a website with a really annoying Flash intro (here - check out the music). This aircraft was photographed in Baghdad a few weeks before the curious incident of the cash in the briefcase carrying extra titles "Custer Battles Levant" on its nose (CusterBattles is a US security contractor). All very interesting, but what about the more recent job?

Back in May, at the time of the initial Boutquake, a source got in touch from Minnesota to suggest that the reason for all the - ahem - dubious contracts was that the Bout system was being used to arm Iraqi forces with ex-Soviet weapons (or possibly copies produced elsewhere). Note the reference to the Ukraine in the NYT story.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Viktor Bout: What's Up in the Yemen?

If you check the Sharjah Airport arrival and departure lists, here, you'll see a variety of interesting things. For a start, there's the regular BGIA service to Baghdad as previously blogged. There are other dubious names like Airline Transport, Air West and TransAvia Export. But what is the explanation of the 3 or sometimes 4 flights listed as leaving for Riyan Mukalla, Yemen, every night at 0001 and 0010 hours? They are listed as operated by Irbis, a well-known Bout operation registered in Kazakhstan that has sometimes been described as a charter broker marketing the rest of the system's services.

Riyan lies on the coast of Yemen, in the Hadrahmaut region at Lat.14° 39' 45.50" N, Long.49° 22' 30.10" E. The nearest town (about six miles away) is Al-Mukalla. The ICAO code is OYRN. Satellite mapping shows a major airfield with a single 10,000ft plus runway (that's nearly as long as London Heathrow, for comparison). More details are available here. All that concrete would appear to be a legacy of the British empire - Riyan was one of the numerous post-war RAF stations in the Arabian peninsula, both as a base for the various small wars and as a staging post on the route to the Far East. Much later, during the early 1990s, the airport was a source of supply for the Democratic Republic of Yemen side. Interestingly enough, Chris Barrett-Jolley's Phoenix Aviation was involved in these arms deliveries. An ITV documentary team who interviewed participants including CBJ was told that they saw USAF AWACS aircraft operating over the Red Sea enroute there on at least two occasions and that Saudi agents were in evidence at Riyan. References in the text of that report show that these claims were made by CBJ personally.

This particular job shows every sign of being a VB operation. The armaments were acquired in Bulgaria, probably from the KINTEX state arsenal, and shipped by Peak Aviation on charter from Phoenix (Bulgaria), but later by Phoenix (UK). The flight plan filed in Plovdiv was for N'Djamena (presumably in accordance with the end user certificates), but was changed enroute to Muscat. Even this was false, and the aircraft then diverted to Riyan.

Well, that war is over. It may be of interest that the French supertanker Limburg was attacked by al-Qa'ida very close to Mukalla in 2002, or it may not. But it is certainly interesting that three Irbis flights a night go there, especially as two of them are always scheduled to leave at exactly the same time.

This is not a good idea.

Well, after the Mexican officials who unwisely had RFID radio identifier chips implanted in their bodies as a (probably counterproductive) precaution against kidnapping, and the Barcelona nightclub whose habitués can jump the queue by waving their radio-identified bodies at a reader, this depressing trend has landed in Britain. Back in July, I argued that this kind of technology was likely to succeed first in the zones of friction between the rich and poor worlds and then to proliferate rapidly:
If you can use your RFID tracking gear in Mexico City, why not in London? It is in the nature of complex and interdependent systems that changes in the ephemeral surface can bring about major changes to the structure. When computers were installed as furniture in office buildings, the building services had to change, which could mean quite radical changes in the architecture. The Mexican officials with their microchips have effectively drawn the frontier between Raymond Aron's "world of order" and "world of chaos" on their bodies - kidnapping as a common crime seems to be a phenomenon of those cities on that frontier, like Mexico City, Sao Paulo or indeed Baghdad.
Well, now it's here, in Glasgow. The sheer stupidity of this can be simply demonstrated by this analogy: imagine carrying a credit card that anyone within 20 yards of you could swipe - without you even knowing it. Would you be willing to do that? How would your answer change if you were told that the equipment required is freely available and the technical details are part of a publicly available standard?


The Washington Post reports on the case of an Australian released from Guantanamo Bay who cannot leave because the US Government insists the Australians chain him up throughout the 22-hour flight. So - he's being released because he isn't a terrorist, but he has to be chained up in case he hijacks the plane all on his own or gets off in LA. Although he's so dangerous he's got to be chained so he doesn't get off in the US (although he isn't a terrorist), presumably it's all right for him to go free in Australia and - presumably - anywhere else. Well, that makes sense.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Depends What You're Measuring

Mark Kleiman has an interesting post concerning the "competitiveness leagues" some organisations like to publish. The one he's concerned about is published by the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation, which leads neatly to a first point you can probably guess. Without going into any of the arguments from opinion about this, I think it's worth unpacking some of the economics.

It's been a common theme of politics in the last few years that every so often, one of these studies is published and the opposition immediately seizes on it, whilst the government denies its relevance. Usually (as is the case with the WSJ one), the people preparing the study draw up a set of tick-boxes that they consider to be the conditions of economic success, and then either evaluate it themselves or ask a sample of businesspeople to fill in the form. They then rank the scores. Now, this brings up some problems. First, can you really say that countries (as opposed to companies) compete? Certainly, the business environments have an effect on companies' competitiveness, but it's worth asking how powerful this is. If you wanted an example of everything that would make for a terrible business environment (short of warfare, plague and like dramas), postwar Italy would fit the bill. Inflation, corruption, bureaucracy, high tax rates, infrastructure problems, monster public debt, terrorism, poisonous labour relations - it was all there, but it didn't stop northern Italy from enjoying a spectacular industrial boom. In fact, now that some of these have been conquered, the Italian economy looks much less impressive.

Secondly, are your criteria right? There's a serious question of methodology here. The whole idea of a competitiveness survey or study is that there are some characteristics that lead to greater competitiveness (however problematic that notion is). But, of course, as long as you are measuring things you think will be good in the future rather than actual performance, you are dealing in subjectives. This also goes for the sample; if you ask conservative economists who they think is more competitive, don't be surprised if they say "conservatives". (This holds vice versa, naturally.) There's a deeper point, though. Charles Goodhart's famous Law states that "to control is to distort". His point was that trying to measure your success or failure by intermediate figures is foolish, as your own actions will distort them. Far better to use final-goal figures: growth, inflation, unemployment - that sort of thing. After all, nobody would suggest giving the Premiership to the football team a panel of coaches thought would be best next year. Another problem is internal consistency - if you mark down the UK for poor infrastructure, it isn't very consistent to then also mark down for taxes and transport costs: this would mean that solving the infrastructure question would simply knock points off another category.

There might be some use for these surveys if it wasn't for the politically useful practice of treating them as "leagues". This (as in the example) ignores that a league is calculated from results, not opinions. If the notion of competitiveness among countries is sound, then, surely a better guide would be the results? A little project of mine comes in here. Simply, I'm going to look up some of these surveys and cross-check with the growth numbers. If they are valid, high rankings should correlate strongly with high economic growth (at least, high economic growth relative to competitors), either simultaneously or as a leading indicator. Another question that this brings up is which countries we can consider as close competitors. I thought I'd use the eurozone figures, simply in order to get rid of as many structural differences as possible, but I've just realised that there's a good chance they will move together on perception alone and hence we need some extra-European data points. OECD sounds good. Watch this space - I feel a graph coming on.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Mainstream Media...

Sighted in the referral log - at 2217 17/01/05, sent from a Google search for "Yorkshire Ranter", two requests for out of a previous 35.

Monday, January 17, 2005

A Certain Pattern

The New York Times takes some steps towards recovering from its outbreak of Kilroy-worship with an excellent and intriguing report on the role of the Ukrainian secret services in the revolution. As so often before, the key moment came when "they" decided it was time to pull the plug. Now, back at the time, on Monday, the 29th of November, I blogged on the continuity between revolutions that could be seen in the Ukraine. I characterised it as desertion from the regime, rather than assault on it. That's also rather what I said on the 24th, here. Back in the 1989 revolutions, of course, it later turned out that the various Central European secret services played a curious role - in Czechoslovakia, a "student" who was beaten up by the police turned out to be a spook who had been put up in order to provoke unrest that would put pressure on the Husak government to reform. What they failed to realise was that they were pushing at an open door. Some similar things happened in East Germany. Only in Romania did they stick with the regime, going so far as to fight it out with the army. In the Ukraine, it seems the SBU decided on the 24th to distance itself from the government after getting hold of information on the election-rigging. On the evening of the 28th, when the possibility of a crackdown was at its height, the SBU was deployed in Kiev in a configuration that might have been either designed to crush the opposition or to resist the OMON:
"Several hundred intelligence officers were already among the protesters, S.B.U officials say. Some were pretending to be demonstrators themselves. Concealed surveillance teams were videotaping the crowd. Snipers peered down from roofs. Counterterrorism teams huddled in nearby apartments and unmarked trucks. Groups in vehicles roamed the roads to Kiev, trying to determine the direction of the troops' advance.

Among the protesters' tents, an S.B.U. colonel who had spent the week as a liaison to the demonstration organizers alerted the organizers that troops were on their way.

His next mission was to meet the troops as they drew near, he said, to warn their officers that a crackdown without written orders was illegal. He said he also planned to warn them that the S.B.U. had surveillance units watching Kiev, and all actions would be videotaped for use as evidence later."
It would seem the slow rot won in the end.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Reader Mail

A reader writes asking about Afghanistan's KAM-Air. Well.... Afghanistan was a considerable market for Viktor B during the 1990s, and is now perhaps the most famous thanks to the stories about involvement with the Taliban. In fact, they'd been supplying the Northern Alliance for years, perhaps on behalf of Russia, but they certainly did supply the Taliban with at least one load. This came up when, in 1996, the Taliban forced an Il76 to land with its load of military stores for the North. They kept the plane and the crew, and no doubt found a use for the cargo. According to the Washington Post interview with him, Viktor claims that the crew escaped from prison after some months and flew off into the wild blue etc etc. This sounds more like Biggles than reality, and the truth is probably that they (and the aircraft) were released in exchange for a share of the supplies. In 2002, Der Spiegel alleged that quantities of Ukrainian armaments were being shipped to the Taliban in a deal between President Kuchma, Bout, and gangster Vadim Rabinovich. However, Johan Perelman, probably the best authority on Bout, has since said he doesn't believe the story.

Certainly, though, the Bout system was involved in supporting the Northerners, and therefore it's interesting to see that some of the same aircraft are in use. KAM Air was apparently created in Afghanistan in 2003, and it operates a small mixed fleet. Several planes are on lease from Phoenix Aviation, a Sharjah-based but Kyrgyz-registered operation associated with Santa Cruz Imperial and GST Aero whose name was previously used in the early 90s for other bits of the empire. Others are from Teebah Airlines, an officially Jordanian firm established by Iraqi interests last year whose fleet of Boeings are all registered in Sierra Leone. Funny that, especially as they also supply the new Iraqi Airways' fleet. Especially interesting is the background of Boeing 727 YA-GAA, a veteran of Christopher Barrett-Jolly's Balkh Air. Balkh was established by CBJ and Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum in 1996 before being run out of Afghanistan. Barrett-Jolly was involved as a B707 pilot with various early Bout operations including deliveries to Yemeni rebels in Riyan Mukalla in 1994, allegedly with Saudi involvement. Later he went (fairly) straight, beginning an operation to import veal calves to the UK by air.

Typically, the calves offended the Great British Public more than anything else.

Ugly confrontations with animal-rights protestors broke out. They began to picket his house, and he let off a gun. They blockaded Coventry Airport, and one of his lorries ran over an old lady. Then one of the aircraft crashed, and the firm went bust. He then got jailed for insurance fraud. When he got out he went back to gun-running - perhaps understandably given the reaction to his efforts at respectability. He took himself to Afghanistan with YA-GAA, but then was thrown out of Afghanistan when Mazar i-Sharif fell. His curious career has since been ended for the time being, after his part in a scheme to import cocaine to the UK was detected and he ended up in jail. But the material keeps going, and YA-GAA is now back on its old beat in Afghanistan, next to Kyrgyz-registry Phoenix veterans and an aircraft belonging to something called "Financial Advisory Group" - formerly of Miami, now of Sharjah. What a small world it is.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Krugman on US Social Security

Paul Krugman has an interesting example for Americans concerned about their social security system: Britain. And we're the "How not to do it" section. It's good reading - sometimes the best view on your own problems comes from watching other people's. The UK has basically chosen a sort of negative social partnership, after all: government, individuals and business have all agreed equally to not put money in the system.

Government....Computers....Identity Cards!

On the one hand, we have the announcement that the FBI has scrapped its huge new computer system because it's already obsolete (as well as late and overbudget) and doesn't provide the features they want. This comes, let's not forget, a day after BA Flight 175 was turned back mid-Atlantic on the basis of one of those "security alerts" we heard so much of at the beginning of last year. A good moment, then, to thin k about ID cards! In yesterday's Guardian Online supplement, deep in the news-in-briefs, lurked the following key paragraph:
Work has begun on the first government-wide IT strategy, Ian Watmore, head of the Cabinet Office e-Government Unit said this week. The strategy, due to appear in autumn, will include plans for a system of national identity numbers. In what Watmore described as a "convergent approach to identitification and authentication", the current mixture of different ID numbers will be reduced to either one or a handful, including the new national ID card number. The strategy will also contain plans for "citizen driven" e-government programmes. He also revealed plans to reduce the toll of government IT disasters by recruiting a team of "heavy hitter" project managers to be based centrally in government and to trouble-shoot projects going wrong.
Did you all spot the batsqueak there? Yes, that's right - either one or a handful including the new national ID card number. In other words, yes, they do want to link up all the information they have on you with the identity card system. It's not the card, it's the database, or to be more accurate the database key. Even if the information stored "on the card" (in reality, on the national identity register) is restricted by the Bill, that doesn't prevent them adding the ID number to all the other records. Which would be equivalent to putting all the other information on the ID database.

If they don't want that, then why don't they take a lesson from Germany, and include a legal provision preventing the use of the ID number in this way in the Bill?

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Why is the lying bastard *still* lying to me?

Despite statements to the contrary, British Gulf International Airlines are still flying to Iraq. At least, Sharjah Airport seems to think so: Link

There seems to be a daily flight to Baghdad at 0200: that isn't haphazard. The flight number is BGK 1225. The return gets in to SHJ at 1050 (no. BGK1226). There would also seem to be regular runs to Iraq by "Airline Transport", another suspect of ours.

So - if the contracts really were cut off just before Christmas - or in August depending on which spokesman you believe - who's paying them?

By the way, the Times story is here. Interestingly, a search for the man named as director of Aerocom brings up not a Russian celebrity but a story from a Moldovan paper that, as far as I can make out without speaking the language, deals with the mysterious death of one of their pilots in Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh, back in February. Oleg Kuznetsov, it seems, was treated as a
"persoane foarte influente"
No wonder, as well as being one of the greats of Russian football he also finds time to carry out original biological research...

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Viktor Bout: some recent developments

I think it's time for an update on the Bout story. Information received suggests that British Gulf International Airlines (one of the Boutcos listed in the US Defence Department fuel contract) may have a structure and history radically different to what we thought. Now, BGIA officially began in Sao Tome and Principe in 2000, before spawning a subsidiary of the same name in Kyrgyzstan in 2003. The aircraft, it goes without saying, remained in the same place, based in Sharjah throughout. So did the staff, who continued to work out of the same offices in the Sharjah International Airport Free Zone (SAIF). All that changed outwardly were the registrations of the planes. Well, some of them, as only part of the fleet was actually reregistered.

I have been informed that, in fact, no company called BGIA was ever incorporated in Sao Tome. Instead, a number of low-profile airlines exist that were registered by Russians, apparently always going under false names. One of these, Atlantic Airfreight Aviation, later moved to (you guessed it) the UAE. The only Airfreight Avn. aircraft I'm aware of was photographed in Mauritius, wearing the titles of something called "Dvin Air". Its Armenian registration, EK-76445, places it with a firm of that name in Yerevan, most of whose assets seem to have ended up with dubious operators in Africa. (For example, PNAC Cargo of Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, formed only months ago..). Atlantic was ostensibly the work of champion amateur boxer Sergei Kazakov. Similarly, Goliaf Air, official owners of the Ilyushin 76 S9-DAE that turned up in Iraq, are meant to have a National Hockey League star, a chess grandmaster and a world authority on Cossack history on their board - and nobody else! This pattern, of course, we've seen before. One of the three suspect firms on the fuel contracts was a charter broker ("Sky Traffic Facilitators") in the SAIF - and their contact name was one Kirill Pilgorov. Who happens to be a Russian film star.

Goliaf are interesting because S9-DAE was (as previously mentioned) on charter to BGIA when it appeared in Iraq (although it wore "Skylink" titles, later removed). Another interesting feature of all this is that more and more very small companies (just a couple of aircraft) keep appearing. This may have something to do with the fact that one of the bigger entities in the empire, Aerocom, recently got its Air Operators' Certificate pulled by the Moldovan government after its gun-running was exposed. The ensuing flap resulted in the activation of Asterias Commercial, a firm in Greece created in 1996 but apparently left as a dormant shell company until now. I strongly suspect that this practice explains most of the company names - where they can get away with it, they likely operate a company farm and churn out all the shell companies they need. The actual base, as is traditional, is elsewhere, at Ivanovo in the Ukraine. Moldovan displeasure may not have been the only reason for Aerocom's termination - after all, one of their Antonov 26s (ER-AFH) was impounded in Belize for smuggling cocaine. Others have moved on to Airline Transport, a not undodgy operation with connections to one of the original Ostend firms, ACS, and whose aircraft also keep turning up in Iraq. Both Jet Line International and Jetline International (if indeed they are distinct) have also taken on some Aerocom tin.

Another Aerocom machine, Tu-154 ER-TAI serial no. 546, may explain the Sao Tome firm "Air Service Company". It appeared in Somalia operating for "Air Service International". Might these be one and the same?

In other relateds, it's come to my attention that the Times ran a fairly thin story about the LA Times disclosure that some Jetline/Jet Line flights to Iraq were chartered by the British Government - they ran it all right, on Boxing Day! Maximum impact, eh.

And, further afield, it is reported that mysterious Antonov-12s are visiting Old Entebbe airfield in Uganda enroute from the eastern Congo to Dubai. This airfield is currently used by the Ugandan armed forces and the UN. Apparently, the flights were not authorised, but the army liaison officer (Captain Kazungu) at the airport got $300 for each movement not reported to the Ugandan CAA. The Ugandan military denies everything. The goings-on came to light after an An12 crashed, killing six Russian flyers. The list of names makes interesting reading - Air Service and Service Air are there, as are Volga-Atlantic and Showa. In the past, such flights to or from the Ugandan army in the Congo were routed via Kigali to provide plausible deniability.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Gangmasters, etc

The Guardian has uncorked a big investigation series on Britain's horrible no-rights employment world.
"Over the last year the Guardian has investigated some of the networks of labour agencies operating around Sussex, to throw a spotlight on the gangmaster system. The findings highlight a historic pattern to the allegations of abuse which suggests the problems may not be isolated but structural to a "flexible" workforce."

Now, does that sound anything like this Yorkshire rant from July to you?
"But an important point is revealed by the Guardian story in that link, and that is the convergence of the legal and illegal job markets. This is a very serious factor for everyone who has opposed the Asylum Cry, as it breaks down one of our best arguments. I usually argue that anti-immigrant policies never work in the sense of preventing immigration - even on an island like the UK, people still turn up - but do have the effect of creating a criminal industry in people-trafficking. The demand and supply remain, and cutting off the legal routes transfers it to the illegal routes. This means that the immigrants who do arrive end up working in fearful conditions in a criminal environment. The smuggling industry grows and demands more and money from its passengers, and after a certain point it starts to vertically integrate with the low-end of the labour market.......[snip]....The culture of reliance on illegal labour, and the criminal structure around it, are infecting the economy. The same features - welshing, exploitation, cooperation of employers, immigrant gangsters and smugglers - are appearing in the legal world. Is it too much to suggest that the tough line policies of the last decade have led to a criminalisation or barbarisation of parts of the "legitimate" economy?"
"The investigation has found that a large and growing section of the British economy has developed beyond the normal parameters that regulate business. Workers brought into the country, many carrying false identification, are effectively operating outside civic society. They have little legal protection, making them vulnerable to exploitation......[snip]....the problem may be inherent in the structure of Britain's casual workforce and not simply caused by a few unscrupulous employers."

I recall working in a Royal Mail distribution centre in the summer of 2003, a job arranged through a low-rent agency that I'm entirely sure was doing pretty much everything mentioned here, itself or at one remove. We had a good number of people who I'm fairly certain were illegal immigrants. (I and other British workers there frequently had to translate/intervene for them in disputes about pay. I suspect they were frequently ripped off.) For their part, the Somalis had leverage over the boss because they supplied his qat habit. So what they probably lost they made back on the drug profits. More immediately worrying was the minibus trip to the warehouse, chiefly due to the driver, who had a tendency to turn up to the 10pm shift change either drunk or drugged and to drive at 90mph plus. One night I noticed he was talking to himself next to me as we howled along the stygian motorway. For some bizarre reason no-one except me bothered to wear seat belts.

As far as work safety went, the main danger was of being struck by a forklift truck (they sped constantly around us). No-one ever did much to prevent it other than to hand out some hi-viz vests. I don't recall that we were ever informed of fire precautions or first aiders, which would have been especially problematic due to the considerable number of non-English speakers involved. We weren't usually allowed to use the posties' canteen - I suspect because the (mostly ancient) Royal Mail staff didn't want black people in it.

Just to cap the lot, they took almost a year and had to be prodded by the Revenue before they gave me a P-45 (the document, issued on leaving employment, needed to sort out your tax status when starting a job). I wonder if they really paid the tax they doubtless deducted from the less fortunate?

Print the Fit that's All to News

The New York Times's much-reported crisis must be real, I am forced to concede. They have published a truly odd, six-page profile of none other than Robert Kilroy-Silk! And, worryingly, they seem to take him at face value. ("The Raging Squire", I kid you not.) Things start going wrong from the first sentence. Is UKIP really "Britain's most-talked-about political party"? And is this a reasonable assessment?
"It is just possible that he and UKIP will transform the politics of Britain and of Europe."
Eh? To US readers, I should explain that this is completely antic. It's true UKIP have had a good year, but they are still a weird little sect of (usually) ageing hard-right fanatics. And Kilroy is - well, Kilroy. Try, if you can bring yourself to, imagining the Financial Times running a full-page article by Timothy Garton Ash on how Ricki Lake is about to transform the politics of North America as the Reform Party's top candidate in the 2006 congressionals. It's that ridiculous.

Part of the explanation may be that the author (Christopher Caldwell of the Weekly Standard) was over impressed by RKS's posh country residence and, uh, manly charms:
"Kilroy-Silk lives at Beel House, a 17th-century manor in Buckinghamshire (when he isn't at his spread in Marbella, Spain). The house's previous owners include Ozzy Osbourne and Dirk Bogarde. You approach the place down a wooded driveway of about a quarter-mile that ends in a ring of coral-colored pebbles beneath several gargantuan cedars of Lebanon, their lower boughs carefully propped on posts. ''Politics has never been my whole life,'' Kilroy-Silk said in the front room. ''A very important part. But I've always had a lot of other interests. Look around you.'' There was a herd of fallow deer across a meadow. Out back were the Vietnamese pheasants and bantams that Kilroy-Silk breeds.

At 62, he is an exotically handsome man, with a very un-English facial glow and ice blue eyes."
Bizarrely, given all this property porn, Caldwell has this to say:
"Just as a strong European Union could wind up bringing back the pre-Thatcher British malaise of overregulation, in the view of many UKIPpers, so the bien-pensant snobs who promote the European ideal could be reasserting a version of the old country-house condescension."
Country-house condescension, eh? Entirely unlike his country house, I take it. And there is of course no mention of the unusually high proportion of dukes in his party (when was the last time a party fielded three aristocrats in adjacent constituencies, as the SELs did at the last general election?). There are a neat pair of contradictory memes here, and both are something of a stereotype view. We have all heard Americans who seem to believe that British society is rather what it was in 1890 or thereabouts, unlike their own classless utopia where any poor Southern boy could become president etc. We have also heard of, at least, Americans who are fascinated by tourist-Britain pomp and circumstance. I get the impression that Caldwell has successfully fallen for both - ooohing over RKS's elegant driveway and rare breeds and simultaneously assuming that the landed gentry rule Britain. If he knew what he was on about, of course, he'd know that some of our poshest politicians are Eurosceptics. UKIP, as I mentioned above, seem to attract aristocrats, especially those who lost their House of Lords seats.

But then, if he knew what he was on about, I presume he'd have heard about Godfrey Bloom being a ridiculous woman-hating twit rather than the serious person he apparently thinks he is. Or that Mike Nattrass's previous political career includes parties advocating the expulsion of (not to put too fine a point on it) blacks, and a weird organisation with aspirations of military rule. Or the unpleasantly racist tone of their campaign literature. Or that one of their candidates at the last general election was the editor of a magazine dedicated to "Nordicism". Or that their candidate for London mayor didn't "want to campaign around gay people" because "they don't do a lot for society". But there you go. He certainly seems to have some slightly odd ideas about the issues, too. Who would have thought that:
"The European Union has been around in some form for half a century, but the Continent's nonbureaucratic citizens are only just beginning to take it seriously."
, for example? Damn, I suppose all those Frenchmen and Germans just thought it was a joke for all those years.

Seriously, what the hell happened back there?

Monday, January 10, 2005

Sources fairly close to a source not so far from a middling to very senior official...

Well, another day, another Blair/Brown feud. The Observer headlined that they had gone "out of control" yesterday - my first reaction was along the lines of "Gordon was so furious with the Prime Minister that he nearly said something". And frankly, I just get bored of this stuff - "Sources close to a senior Government official indicated to a newspaper last night that they might consider briefing that Gordon Brown's buttocks were allegedly going to be painted purple and exported to Outer Mongolia after the election in what informed analysts suggested was a renewal of well-known tensions between the PM and his Chancellor.....Meanwhile, important figures in the Brownite camp said that friends of the Chancellor believed he would unleash an army of green mutant death spiders from the moon, their fangs dripping with deadly poison vomit, and begin hostile briefings against Alan Milburn unless the wording of Section 15 of the Tedium Bill was altered to remove the word "modernise" and replace it with "prudent"..." Does any of it mean anything at all? Aren't we concentrating far too much on petty intrigues when, in fact, the impersonal forces of history will determine it all? Bah.

I'm going to make one suggestion for practical action. Abolish all this sources close to crap, and instead give the distance of the source from the politician in range and bearing. For example: "A source at 230 degrees True, 79 centimetres for Gordon Brown said "there is no feud with the Prime Minister. And he started it anyway." However, an official due east of Tony Blair at around 50cms distance said "Hate! Hate! Hate!"" Much clearer, I'm sure you'll agree, with the advantage that Sunday newspaper graphics people will be able to draw nice little maps of the political class.

At Last! Weapons of Mass Destruction Discovered

In Albania, of all places. Chuckle we may, but don't forget that back in 1997, Albania's government basically ceased to exist for several months in a upburst of popular rage after a pyramid scheme scam robbed thousands of people. The arsenals were looted, which helped to create the KLA not long afterwards and also helped to supply Europe's criminals for years. It's a damn good job they didn't find the gas, or perhaps they decided Kalashnikovs were a more measured means of revenge than carrying a gallon of lewisite around with you.

Celebrity Twits

It's been a good few months for celebrity twits. First up, we had Jeanette Winterson's food shop in Smithfield Market. How sweet! How, er, lefty! Unfortunately it turned out the shop that sold food from "local producers" actually imported its eggs from Tuscany. (An idea: the Waste a Ton of Jet Fuel prize for the most superfluous use of air freight....) Then she capped that by starting an appeal to send homeopathic remedies to AIDS sufferers in southern Africa.

You wonder, don't you?

But then you don't. Not long after the tsunami, it was reported that Madonna and some other supposed Kabbalists were raising a million US dollars to send 10,000 litres of their $4 a bottle holy water to the victims. I had my doubts, but I was recently able to do the maths. Now, if it cost Save the Children $185,000 to charter an aircraft to move 30 tonnes of stores from the UK to Aceh, and we assume that the freight rates aren't significantly higher ex-LAX (the distances are comparable), we can attempt to evaluate this exercise. Now, that implied a rate of $6,166 per tonne. As I'm sure you're aware, 1 litre of water=1 kilogram. So the freight bill pro-rata would come to some $61,660. Now, if the water was accounted for at its retail price, we have a water bill of $40,000 = $101,660.

Which leaves a handsome balance of some $898,340. How charitable, not to mention the profit margin on the water in our example...does anyone know if they went through with it?

Friday, January 07, 2005

A Sudden Bout

Via Kathryn Cramer, (link), a source informs me about an interesting Viktor Bout development that may yet clear up one of the questions on his involvement in Iraq. It now appears that the Ilyushin 76 registered S9-DAE in Sao Tome and Principe, which was located by photos several times in Iraq in early 2004 wearing "Skylink" titles, was being operated by our old friends British Gulf International Airlines, on charter from a thing called "Goliaf Air" supposedly based in Sao Tome. This suggests that what I thought was a distinct Skylink contract may be the same thing as the BGIA one, unless of course BGIA was serving several masters.

Goliaf officially also has two An-12s. This is interesting, as the An12BP might explain a small mystery. One An12, S9-BOV, registered to the Sao Tome version of BGIA, apparently vanished some time after March 2001. Its registration later appeared on an An-26, serial no. 5610. No serial number is available for either S9-BOV or S9-BOZ. Could they be one and the same? Goliaf appeared in late 2002, or in other words not long before the Kyrgyz version of BGIA made its appearance. (Kyrgyz)BGIA also have an An12BP (reg. EX-045) whose history is unknown, but whose serial number is one digit different from Goliaf's An12BP (2340602 and 2340606). Which could also be significant.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

A Total Lack of Respect!

The Grauniad's Jonathan Steele had more to say about Ukrainian elections at the New Year, here. He wasn't happy about the protestors' lack of "respect for constitutional procedures":
"The core of democracy is tolerance of other people's views. Whether it is Rosa Luxemburg's call for respecting the "freedom of people who think differently" or Winston Churchill's pride in British parliamentary debate, left and right agree on this principle.

Alas, it is not much on display in Kiev. Egged on by their favourite, Viktor Yushchenko, crowds have been blocking the main government building and doing all they can to humiliate his rival, prime minister Viktor Yanukovich. Their man won the presidential election, but where is the respect for constitutional procedures they claim to support?"
Where indeed? After all, I'm fairly sure that leaving office when you lose, not poisoning your opponents, and counting the other side's votes as well as yours all count as constitutional procedures too. There's more, and it's just as bad. He seems terribly exercised about the fact that people sent him emails disagreeing with his views. Apparently, his critics are anti-democratic and intolerant. Now, I think there is a problem here.

Democracy is not defined just by giving "both sides" of an argument as if they were by definition equally valid. It is entirely democratic to say that someone who you disagree with is wrong, so long as you can support it. This is the flaw enshrined but not mentioned in Fox News's motto - being "balanced" can easily be a nice way of not being at all "fair". This meme comes up further on in the column, too. Talking about something called "electoral interventionism", he has this to say:
"As with "humanitarian interventionism", which was much debated in the 90s, "electoral interventionism" needs to be thrashed out. Why is so much of it selective? Why do western governments (for they are the prime interferers) that claim to be fostering democracy take only one side, rather than being above the fray? Why are only certain countries picked? Georgia, but not Azerbaijan. Serbia, but not Croatia. Zimbabwe, but not Egypt."
What does it actually mean to be "above the fray" if you are meant to be promoting an honest election? If this refers to the exit polls in the Ukraine he was so angry about, surely the definition of an exit poll means that it is just that? Or does he think they were rigged, and if so why doesn't he say it? What would that mean in ground reality? "Well, the government have had canvassers beaten up and ballot boxes stuffed, but the other side have a really terrible taste in colours?" And what form of aid would you direct to the government side - after all it is generally the State that rigs the vote, simply because it has the lawyers, guns and money (not to mention tame media)? One suspects that such an exercise would run tamely into a puddle of bland communiqués issued after a decent interval to ensure irrelevance. By the way, I'm pretty sure that several of the organisations (the Open Society Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy etc) he attacks were indeed active in Croatia and Azerbaijan. And anyway, the Croats did indeed get rid of their dictator, back in 1999. And when exactly was the "post-modern coup" in Zimbabwe? What on earth is he on about?

This of "electoral intervention" needs unpacking. The analogy is clearly with "humanitarian intervention", the concept that in certain especially grave situations military intervention might be legitimate outside the cases of self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter or perhaps authorisation by the UNSC under Article 2(4). This first became publicised during the Kosovo war in 1999 and has also become a curse word for some parts of the Left. Not to go into the philosophical/legal debate, let us just note that he seems to be equating fairly minor and nonviolent assistance to people trying to exercise constitutional rights with - war. A largish leap. He is also using the same sort of logic traditionally deployed by such as Jaruzelski and Pik Botha to kick journalists covering things they didn't want revealed out for "interfering in our sovereign internal affairs". The full absurdity of this idea, though, is even greater. Recall that even the Soviet constitution itself guaranteed the rights of free speech, assembly and association. The post-Soviet constitution of Ukraine requires that citizens can elect their government freely and that the government obeys its own laws. Even if the sole motivation of the protests had been bundles of dollars (no doubt visibly dripping with the blood of Iraqi babies), they would still have been doing nothing more subversive than, er, what the government officially believes they should.

Where did he get this vacuous concept from? The Exile of Moscow reports that he accepted two expenses paid trips to Russia to meet with folk like Gleb Pavlovsky, a "political technologist" whose Fund for Efficient Policy advised the Kuchma/Yanukovich campaign and numbers Vladimir Putin among its clients. A taster:
"The Duma election campaign, according to Gleb Pavlovsky, President, Fund of Effective Policy, Russian Federation, is a short period of representative democracy in Russia. It allows the population to understand which programme the president is likely to follow in the future."
Or perhaps this?
"We can create a system of communications that can be switched between peace and war modes with maximum public support"

...But He Does A Lot of Work for Charity

Viktor Bout's Ilyushin 76 UN-76002, photographed loading tsunami relief supplies in Cologne on the 2nd January....

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


The Guardian gives a column today to the supposed "electronic voice phenomenon", apparently because it will appear in a film soon. For those who have so far avoided this nonsense, this is the belief that you can hear the voices of dead people in white noise on various electronic devices. Now, there are two - so far equally valid - rational explanations for this perception. The difference is based on your view of the nature of language. The equal validity is because the debate between the theories rests unresolved by experiment.

If you take one view, associated with Chomsky and Steven Pinker, we all have an innate (presumably evolutionary) physical adaptation for language. If you take the other (Skinner), we have an ability to learn that, in our social circumstances, leads us to develop an expert skill in language. For our purposes there is in fact very little difference between these, even less when you think that the brain's organisation can alter through learning. What matters is that language is so important to us that we are predisposed to detect it. Scientific experiments have shown that, if you play meaningless noise at human beings, they tend to perceive words. If you start by showing them something else, that will tend to turn up in the words they think they hear. This is of course just what you'd expect from a creature with a sense attuned to understanding language - at the moment, there are posters on British railway stations with a message about mistreating the staff garbled up, and the tag "It doesn't make sense". Of course it does make sense, or the poster would be unintelligible. Although the spelling is scrambled (knid? aubse?) we understand it without difficulty, because we assimilate it to our knowledge of language.

With the so-called electronic voices it should be clear that the same process is at work. The prevalence of dead relatives might either be a Freudian issue or simply explained by the fact that we learn language around them. Ha.

Frans Groenendijk and some economics points

Frans has an interesting little post concerning economics and particularly the question of how much real difference exists between decisions taken by state planners and those taken by the bureaucracies of large firms. This insight has a history in economics back to John Kenneth Galbraith's The New Industrial State with its notion of the power of the technostructure, the influential amalgam of technical or scientific experts and bureaucratic managers that in Galbraith's view vied with the classical profit-maximising motivation in explaining the behaviour of big companies. (Note that obviously no-one wants to minimise profit, but that there are other motivations that might conflict with this - for example, the pursuit of status, bureaucratic aggrandisement or personal enrichment at the expense of the owners.) The point may seem arcane, but it has important consequences for the balance of power between planning and the market. If the alternative motivations are relatively strong, this would imply a greater potential for market failure - if weak, a lesser, and hence a strong case for less state intervention.

One very interesting consequence of this is in our view of dynamic phenomena - that is, ones that change over time. Most economic theory is synchronic - it deals with simultaneous events at one point in time. In the accounting for growth, once the contributions of changes in the supply of labour, changes in the supply of capital, and the supply of land are stripped out, we are left with two factors. One of these is how far the economy is from its trend rate of growth - whether it is booming or in recession. In other words, how much of the economy's capacity for production is being used and hence what is happening to aggregate demand. If we assume a balanced growth path (as you do) and that the economy is at its trend rate of growth - that is, that this factor equals zero - we are left with one factor that determines the slope of that growth function. This is called total factor productivity, the total value all the economic activity that went on created over the value of its inputs. Now, this is obviously a very important factor: if the economy somehow becomes better at using its inputs, the result is a multiple of the total input. Total factor productivity captures the effect of changes in technology, entrepreneurship, education, and in the allocation of resources.

Obviously, if you could explain the evolution of this factor over time you would basically have explained the growth phenomenon itself. But, unfortunately, economics isn't good at diachronic comparisons (ones between points in time), for much the same reason as it hasn't been very good with such things as the environment. The effects of a change now in terms of future developments are hard to capture in the equations, especially when the effects are indirect. For example, how do you bring the future (and only quantifiable now with difficulty) effects of burning oil into today's cost-benefit analysis? It's a similar problem when you come to technology. The theorists have made various attempts to pin down the issue. One try is a pure market argument - if a technical advance will enable you to charge higher prices, you'll do it, and then so will everyone else. This, of course, runs into the problem of the two economists who find a fifty pound note but don't pick it up because if it was there, someone else would have done. Demonstrably, technical advances aren't evenly distributed, which is what the model suggests. Neither does technical progress maintain an even pace. This is where Joseph Schumpeter comes in.

Schumpeter was one of the brilliant wave of economists produced by Vienna University in the 1920s and then exiled. The Vienna school are usually thought of as a bunch of libertarian free-marketeers, largely because they were, but this does not fit Schumpeter terribly well. His distinctive contribution to economics was the paradox that monopoly, rather than competition, drives technical innovation. Innovators, in so far as they are motivated by money, do so because they might secure a monopoly of the new technology and hence get supernormal profits. What prevents this monopoly from ossifying is the motivation to render the monopoly obsolete. These two processes he described as the process of creative destruction. (Interestingly, it seems to me that sectors where there is little dramatic innovation tend to remain monopolistic.) Further, he argued that this is reflected in the long-term evolution of growth. At the time, a fashionable concern in economics was the cause of long-term business cycles (and indeed their existence) - long periods of either general prosperity or poverty. Explanations ranging from bank clearing procedures and the average time taken to complete major construction projects to sunspots and climate change have been put forward, but for my money Schumpeter's is still the best.

Simply, it is observable that technological progress is uneven over time, or lumpy as Schumpeter put it. You wait years for a microchip to come along - then a whole raft of electronics turns up at once. Hence, long term cycles could be said to correspond to a sort of technological life cycle. First, the breakthrough, when a major enabling discovery is made. Then the upswing, as we get started on exploiting it. Finally, as the technology becomes baroque and we approach its limits, it becomes either obsolete or matures into ordinariness. We can all think of examples. Schumpeter's analysis ends up by arriving at the conclusion that although pure capitalism would probably be the most efficient system, it might not be the best. After all, in a perfect competition world, that monopolistic incentive would be gone. And the process of creative destruction, like the short-term business cycle, might throw up severe social costs. Hence there was a need for a state role rather like the one Keynes envisaged with regard to the short term. The best answer would be a mixed economy with a partly planned core surrounded by a vigorous private sector. The challenge is, of course, to come up with the social arrangement that would produce it.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Secrecy - when civil servants attack

This may be the last year of a traditional British New Year ritual, the ceremonious release of government records previously kept secret. Traditionally, confidential files have been sealed for differing periods of time depending on Whitehall's view of their potential for embarrassment, whoops, security importance - the vast bulk are held for 30 years (the thirty year rule) before being handed over to the national archive for any journalist, whoops, fool to read. The upshot was that on New Year's Day every year, the secret files of thirty years before were released in a gush. Some newspapers make a point of picking over them for scandal, which at least helps to lift the New Year's hangover.

From now on, though, with the Freedom of Information Act in force, the files ought in theory to be accessible much more speedily. A good thing, but one that will mean an end to the traditional New Year's box hunt. Well, enough of that. In today's Grauniad, Richard Norton-Taylor crows over the release of papers detailing the Whitehall panic that broke out when he achieved a scoop by getting hold of confidential economic forecasts back in 1974. What is especially interesting is the resonance with today, especially the comparison between the permanence of the civil service and the transience of almost anything else. Back then, the Treasury officials who ran Wilson's semi-planned economy and who diligently hunted Norton-Taylor's source included Alan Budd, who only this month reported on the David Blunkett affair from within his hard-right Home Office, and Steve Robson. Him! Robson later served Margaret Thatcher and John Major by heading up the Treasury privatisation team, and went on to invent the Private Finance Initiative and the structure of the privatised railways. Instead of being lynched, though, he was knighted and finished up heading Partnerships UK, the taxpayer-funded body set up to promote - well - Private Finance Initiatives.

God almighty, from the nationalisation of British Leyland and the EEC renegotiation to publicly funded champagne with EDS executives. You would think that nothing at all remains of the Britain of the 1974 files - what with frantic efforts to keep Richard Nixon from coming on a state visit, bizarre schemes to break the Loyalist power workers' strike by driving the Ulster power grid from a nuclear submarine, and coalition talks with the Liberals over the possibility of a greater role for workers in management (this from the Conservatives!) - except only the civil service. It strikes me that there is a fine line between the principled independence that the civil service prides itself on, and a sort of bankrupt willingness to serve the powerful, rather like the German general staff's überparteilichkeit. If you make that trip from Wilson in '74 to rail privatisation in 1996 and PR for PFIs in 1998 - does that show impartiality, or corruption?

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