Monday, October 31, 2005

Things fall apart

Well, the Fiendish Müntemerkel didn't last long. German democracy makes a lot of things explicit that are assumed in the UK - for example, where the British assume the leader of the largest party will form the government, and know that if not he or she can be disposed of through a vote of no confidence, the German parliament has to explicitly vote in the new government. Before that, the parties have to reconfirm their leaders, something that we also spare ourselves. This all meant that getting the frankly unlikely Müntemerkel government into office would be a little like a convoy of fuel tankers heading up Highway Eight to Baghdad.

Only after the successive pitfalls of agreeing on the cabinet, and then the programme, and getting the party leaders re-elected, and getting the policy of joining the coalition confirmed, and finally confirming the new government with a vote in the Bundestag had been dodged could they finally turn their backs on a road of RPG teams behind every tree, roadside bombs and fake police checkpoints in the calm security of the yellow-black zone.

Well, as it happened, they got past ambushes 1 and 2 before the insurgents scored a hit. Franz Müntefering, the SPD general secretary and new party chairman, who was meant to become vice-chancellor and minister of labour, the SPD's guarantor in the government, has resigned as party chairman after his candidate for the general secretaryship (which as chairman he must vacate) was soundly beaten by the left's candidate, Andrea Nahles. With Müntefering out of the party chair and the Gen Sec's office, and unlikely to take up his seat in the cabinet, the whole balance of power in the new government goes out of kilter.

The SPD tried at first to deny it, saying that the coalition negotiations were proceeding "normally", but it didn't last. In the morning, the rowing between the CDU-appointed minister for education and research and the CSU leader-cum-minister of the economy was on the point of settlement as the CDU gave up the research programme on nanotechnology, optics and optoelectronics, microelectronics and production processes to Stoiber's Economics Ministry. But by the afternoon, Stoiber was out too, heading back to Bavaria with the comment that "it's an entirely different SPD".

Don't say I didn't warn you..

Sunday, October 30, 2005


Laura Rozen has news on the Italian end of the Niger-uranium scandal. Apparently, Mr. Martino walked in to the US, UK and French embassies to hawk his documents without success before he finally got them accepted at the Pentagon.

What I'd like to know: what did the Italians stand to gain that was worth pushing dodgy documents to all their allies? If the fakes were rumbled, SISMI's credibility would be gone forever - nobody will ever believe them again, in or out of Italy. They invented the question "who benefits?", after all.


Kathryn Cramer and Co.'s latest Google Earth overlays for the Pakistani earthquake and Hurricane Wilma are up. Just a word: Carlos of No Such Blog has been back to Key West. His home is standing, but the car is dead, and he estimates 60 per cent of his books have been ruined, which is terrible. He claims to have bought a new car on EBay, which doesn't entirely fill me with confidence.

Tom "Green Ribbon" Griffin has filed a Freedom of Information Act request into exactly what the MOD thought it was doing hiring Transavia Export and Jet Line International. Unsurprisingly, the Defence Logistics Organisation won't say, claiming that the request is likely to be "commercially sensitive" under Section 34 of the FOIA, although a final decision won't be out until the 16th of November. Presumably that's Viktor's commercial sensitivities they're worried about? Still, his FOIAR did better than mine, which dropped into the MOD's FOI web form and went straight to File Zero without even an acknowledgement.

Mobile earthquake detectors

Indian seismologist says that mobile phones tend to fail 100 to 150 minutes before an earthquake. Going by the details the article gives, the mechanism must be the frequency shifts he describes - if transmissions around 1000MHz are shifted up to 1800-1900 and 2000MHz, that would put them right in two out of four GSM wavebands, close enough to the WCDMA/CDMA2K 2100MHz band, and would include the 850 and 900MHz bands in the freqs getting shifted up to interfere with them.

It's unlikely that preliminary tremors would change much - they might spoil the very finest details of the radio-planning in a fixed cell GSM network, but not by enough to do any damage, and a CDMA system would cell-breathe around it. Point-to-point microwave backhaul links might be affected, but then, those need very tough construction indeed.

Rugby League Bloggin': The Dread Kiwis

Last night's RL test match, between Great Britain and New Zealand, pointed up something it's easy to forget, thanks to the dearth of internationals. That is how the character of league-playing nations varies. The Australians usually come on tour with three annoying, but transparently gifted stars, but they aren't the point. Neither is their traditional monster thug, the Paul Sironen or Gorden Tallis figure. The killers are the other nine men, who all look the same and have professional qualities and body types such that they can all play each other's positions and occasionally do. They all seem to be called Brad, to be 5'8" tall, about 16-17 stone, blond, and come from Sydney. (The monster thug and the three superstars are more diverse and come from Queensland, either Brisbane Broncos or somewhere in the outback.) Call them the Brad units, fabbed like silicon chips by some mysterious robotising process.

Because of this, British fans tend to underestimate them. You look at the squad list and think - Who are these people? Right, if we can wallop Johns from the word BANG, keep the ball away from Girdler, and test Lockyer under the high ball, Adrian Morley can take care of [insert thug here]. Job's a good 'un.

Two weeks later it's pissing with slate-coloured rain on [thug]'s bleeding cranium and yours as he glares at Morley in the sin-bin, Lockyer on the bench, Johns undergoing medical treatment, Girdler sulking in the stand, and the Brad-units running in their 11th try to make it 70-0. This non-individuality almost makes losing to them losing to a computer. The Aussies, of course, both deny this and cultivate it, rather like German football teams used to cultivate the British stereotype of them as an impersonal machine whilst bitching savagely about each other in the German press as soon as they got back to Frankfurt.

New Zealand are very different. The ideal Australian player is a Brad unit. The ideal New Zealander is either Robbie Paul or Lesley Vainikolo. This is extreme rugby, played by men who will never escape identification. There are three types of New Zealand player - tiny scrum halves of a different kind to anywhere else in the world, like Robbie, Gary Freeman or the incumbent Stacey Jones, who I swear made more ground running than most of the forwards last night, wingers bigger than other countries' prop forwards who usually have wild hair and wilder eyes as they charge around, turning up on the opposite wing as often as their own, and terrifying back-rowers with similar hair and worse attitude (Brendon Tuuta and Tawera Nikau, step forward).

Because of this, reliability eludes. Nobody in a NZ team is ever content with Brad-unit status. This was why, when the Auckland Warriors were formed to compete in the Australian league, with essentially a complete New Zealand squad, they often disappointed. There's also a small-country issue with people who play in the UK, who are rarely selected. Unless their surname is Paul, of course, but then, genius makes its own rules. Some say the legendary coach, Graham Lowe, managed to overcome this with the great Kiwi team of the late 80s, but I hear they were a pretty wild lot still.

This was why, last night, the beating was so stinging. Not only did the Lions get within four points of them twice in the second half but fail, they then ran amok on us. Losing to Australia is like losing to a computer, or a team of robots. Losing to New Zealand is like a sudden eruption of barbarians, 26-42. Bugger.

Dr Casey Loses the Mojo

According to today's Observer, No.10's Respect Tsar (it nearly spells taser, after all) Louise Casey has turned against one of Blair's brilliant ideas, specifically the scheme to take away "disruptive families'" housing benefit. Apparently she is concerned that the children of such homes have suffered enough without being turned out in the street where, one supposes, their untidy existence will be grounds for an instant Asbo. This is remarkable...or is it?

Ms. Casey has been showing worrying signs of character development in recent months. First there was the speech to top Home Office asbocrats in which she drunkenly berated them for a lack of tolerance of people enjoying themselves. Now this. What on earth is going on? After all, her role so far has been very different.

I think of her as a slightly sinister medic at court, Tony Blair's Doctor Robert. From as early as 1998, when she was commissioned with getting rid of beggars by coercion as head of the Rough Sleepers Unit, she has always had what Blair needs when the sweating starts, the eyes go glassy and the pacing, shaking horrors set in. Then he ducks out of his latest sofa conference for one of the good doctor's injections. 50 ccs of authoritarianism, a hundred units of self-righteousness to run over thirty minutes, cut with liquid pharmaceutical censorship direct from Powderject's Swiss division. Within minutes the drugs begin to take hold and we're all off to bat country as the prime minister hops and tics into action, talking unusually quickly and riffing off the decor. Like so many court doctors who are always there when so-and-so needs some speed, her career was spectacular, hurtling up the civil service ranks, sidestepping from the Home Office to the Treasury, to the Crime Reduction Unit, back to the Home Office, now to the total plexus itself, the Cabinet Office, and at No.10 too.

But, of course, over time the doses just keep jumping. 60, 75, 100 ccs of the stuff - if nothing changes, soon they'll need a syringe the size of a small motorcycle engine. Now, she's holding out on him. You're always early...he's always late/One thing you learn is/You always got to wait, as Lou Reed put it. "I'm sorry, Tony...what you're suggesting goes right outside my professional discretion. Auth isn't a thing to play with, you know. I have my Hippocratic Oath to consider.." Think of the betrayal, the grovelling. But I doubt it will help. Carrying the Leader's syringe is not a business with a great pension plan unless you get out soon enough.

NOIA hit the Palestine Hotel

Well, accounts are now out of the insurgent attack on the Palestine Hotel. Apparently, there were three suicide car bombers...stop-groups in the streets around...and a storming party in the wings to take advantage of the car explosions. It sounds very much like the big assault on Abu Ghraibh that I blogged up in June. This time, according to Robbo, the assault was called off because the third suicide car got entangled in a barbed-wire entanglement and some nameless commander decided to cut their losses and withdraw.

It's especially worrying not just that, as I said in June, they seem to integrate both suicide bombers and break-contact drills. It's also worrying how many of these attacks have been near-thing survivals on our side. The first was in the spring of 2004, in Fallujah, where the Iraqi police were wiped out while the ICDC (now National Guard) were pinned down in their base - without suffering a single casualty. That was a total success. The next widely publicised ones were Abu Ghraibh, then a major police fort in west Baghdad, followed by a break, and then first the Interior Ministry and now this. Those last four all seem to have been cut off short - the Ministry attack went only as far as a shoot-out with the guards, without a suicide bomb being employed.

Now, either they are not capable of learning that these tactics aren't quite getting there, which would be surprising because they are still alive, or something is not obvious. What is it?

CCTV Hacking, Part 2

In our last post we discussed watching other people's Axis network cameras using Google's inurl: command. In this post we shall have a look at how to control them.

I now know that the inurl:axis-cgi search isn't new. In fact, it's just one of a wedge of Google searches that bring up plenty of cams - try inurl:view/index.shtml, inurl:liveapplet, and inurl:multiplecameramode for more stuff. The view/index.shtml ones are Axis cams with a more user-friendly html front page. Some of those offer nice little control bars for the event that you might want to steer the camera.

If that's not so, though, a lot of Axis cameras can be remotely steered using CGI commands in the URL. What you need to do is find out if the camera you're looking through has a file called ptz.cgi on the server - ptz as in pan, tilt and zoom. So, open another browser window or tab, paste the URL of the camera into it, and delete everything after /axis-cgi/. Now type com/ptz.cgi?camera=1, where 1 is the number of the camera you're looking at. If there isn't one, or only one camera, just use 1. Hit enter. If a blank web page loads, without requesting a password, you're in. If there is a 404 error, the camera isn't of the type that does CGI commands.

Now, you need the commands themselves. Unsurprisingly enough, rpan pans the camera from left to right, rtilt tilts it up and down, rfocus refocuses it, rzoom zooms in or out, and riris sets the iris to suit the light. The r-commands are relative to the camera's current position..there are also absolute commands, but frankly, who cares? Let's keep it simple. The values in them are numbers in three or four figures, so a command looks like this:

This pans camera 1 1000 units left. The opposite movement is achieved by placing a minus sign before the value. Once you've formulated your command, hit enter, then refresh the window or tab that's showing the camera output to see results.

Good hunting.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Irbis: Back in Baghdad

Departing Sharjah 0300 hours for Baghdad. Irbis Air Co. Flight BIS6371. Running on US DOD fuel.

Lord of a Thousand CCTVs

You can be, by following these simple instructions. Background: there is a popular software package for operating surveillance cameras over the Internet, called Axis. This program writes all the stuff coming from the camera into a cgi file which it puts in a subdirectory called /axis-cgi/. Therefore, all the URLs Axis creates in the world have this string in them by default.

Google, the well-known search engine, has a function to look for search terms within URLs by prefixing them with the command inurl: Therefore, we can see all the cameras by searching for inurl:axis-cgi. Try it . Operating notes: most of the camera feeds point to IP addresses rather than domain names, so you will need to do an IPWHOIS lookup to find out whose camera you are looking at. Static images will have the rough format axis-cgi/jpg/image.cgi, while streaming video can usually be found by altering the URL to /mjpg/video.cgi. If the video doesn't start at once, click refresh or add "showlength=1" without the quotes to the end of the URL, then hit refresh. Beware that these streams may suck up quite a lot of system resources.

Now you, too, can be astonished by East Ayrshire council's glaring lack of clue, as shown by the fact their street CCTV appears to be openly available on the web: Camera 1, Kilmarnock, and Camera 2, John Finnie St. Can anyone comment on the Data Protection Act implications? After all, it's one thing to knowingly enter private property, but surely it's something quite different to forcibly film anyone and everyone in East Ayrshire and transfer the results to anyone who asks for them?

Orwells candidate?

Edit: A hat tip is in order to Ray.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Natalco: Slight Return, and Bulgarian issues

As far back as January this year, we were discussing a company called Natalco Airlines, registered in Sao Tome & Principe but really located almost anywhere else. Back then, it was possible for a source to put the Sao Tome CAA on the right track regarding an aeroplane, An-12 S9-BAN, serial no. 402111, that had somehow vanished. In fact it had been reregistered TN-AGQ and then broken up for spare parts in Pointe Noire, Congo.

Now, casually looking up something else today, I came upon one of Douglas Farah's old reports, predating the Ranter and hence unread by me, about the al-Qa'ida diamonds connection with Charles Taylor's regime in Liberia. (You can read it here.) Interestingly, at the same time as the Al-Qa'ida diamond buyers led by Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani were at Taylor's court (also the same period that Richard Chichakli's San Air General Trading was receiving large sums of money from the Liberian shipping registry), an order was placed for arms by one Simon Yelnik, described as an Israeli citizen resident in Panama, to a "Russian arms dealer in Guatemala". This order (for "our friends in Africa") resulted in the procurement of an end-user certificate purporting to come from the Ivory Coast government, made out to "Natalco Holdings PLC" of Bulgaria.

Naturally, PLC is not a type of company that exists in Bulgarian company law. Very probably the weapons (which included RPGs, artillery rockets and portable SAMs) came from there, though, via the well-documented route through the KINTEX state arsenal and KAS Engineering, the Gibraltar-based front company used by the Viktor Bout system to get end-user certificates issued. It's certainly an interesting coincidence, if nothing more, that exactly the same name should turn up in this context twice at the same point in time.

Natalco the airline had/has three Antonov 12s. One of them, strange to tell, is now at Astral Aviation of Nairobi, the firm that turned up in this post and is connected with Phoenix Aviation, GST Aero, Aerocom, Ali Kleilat and Asterias Commercial, not to mention some strangelet entity called "Aerospace Consortium" in Fujairah, UAE. To turn back, briefly, to Bulgaria, though, what about this 1999 HRW report for the UNHCR? (Link.) I'm beginning to think that I ought to read more documentation from before about 2000, when the name "Viktor Bout" became better known, as some of it may include stuff that no-one realised was significant at the time.

In this case, note well the descriptions of deliveries of arms to both sides in Angola and to the Hutu in Rwanda in 1994-1996, coming in cargo aircraft registered in "Ghana, Russia, the Ukraine and other Warsaw Pact countries". I strongly suspect Ghana here means either Johnsons Air, First International Air, or both. If the first, this is a very interesting link indeed. References to deliveries to Yemen in 1994 appear to originate from the Carlton TV report which included an interview with an anonymous pilot who may have been Chris Barrett-Jolley, describing the flights organised by the "old" Phoenix Aviation. If the Bout system was involved in arming the Hutu and the Angolan government as well as UNITA, it would argue strongly for a connection with the French arms dealer Pierre Falcone, a fugitive last heard of in Phoenix, Arizona offering large sums of money to the Republican Party, and the complex of scandal around Elf-Aquitaine, Mitterrand's Africa Cell, and hard-right former French interior minister Charles Pasqua.

Which would be a laugh, no? Unfortunately, although the footnotes include sightings of "Soviet-era cargo planes" and even DC3s, no-one involved seems to have thought to record the registration letters, titles if any, etc. As I said, they didn't realise it was significant.

Update: Doug Farah informs me that another Natalco deal involved importing helicopters from Bulgaria and Russia to Guinea ostensibly for "repairs" but really, of course, for sale to Charles Taylor.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Royal Airlines

Since the first reports of a Viktor Bout-related airline in Iraq, in the spring of 2004, there have been mentions of something called "Royal Air Cargo", "Royal Airlines", or some other combinations of those names. I knew from early on that Royal Air Cargo existed in Pakistan, where it resold the services of British Gulf International Airlines, the not-British, not-Gulf firm whose An-12s were first registered in Equatorial Guinea, then Sao Tome, and then in Kyrgyzstan, all without apparently leaving Sharjah.

Well, it's around again. The Sharjah departure boards show that Royal Airlines Ltd, which is given as a private flight, are operating between Sharjah and nowhere else than Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, a centre of western military activities there and also the alleged locale of many cases of torture. What is Royal? An interesting question.

Originally, a company of that name using the ICAO code RPK operated from Karachi in Pakistan, but every aircraft they used was leased from one or other Viktor Bout firm. Now, the firm is reported to be in Saudi Arabia. No new ICAO code exists, so we have to assume that they are one and the same - especially as both fleet lists include planes from Air Cess (an Antonov An-24RV, 3C-KKH/27307701), Irbis (Antonov An-26B, UN-26582/47313504), and BGIA (an Antonov An-12BP, EX-160/401901). Interestingly, the list also includes UN-26581, 47313503, an Antonov An-26B that was traded through Opa Locka, Florida, home of dodgy dealer Maury Joseph and passing point of the famous missing 727, and an An-26A, serial number 97308205, that went from being a Royal Airlines bird with the registration UR-BWY to nowhere else than Jet Line International, the Moldovan frontco that shared offices with cocaine smugglers Aerocom, as ER-AZR.

Under the ICAO code RPK-, they fly to Bagram and sometimes to Iraq. Very interestingly, many aircrft have appeared in Australia with Aerocom division Airbridge Group at Eagle Farm near Brisbane.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Caucasian Front

I'm not sure anyone else didn't spot this; but the name the rebels who invaded Nalchik used is significant. They called themselves the Caucasian Front. The original Caucasian Front was the Soviet army of Marshal Timoshenko, driven back from Rostov-on-Don to the mountains in the spring of 1942, who fought it out there to keep von Kleist's 1st Panzer Army from the oilfields of the Caucasus and the roads south to the Middle East.

When you think that there is really nothing else that no-one can disagree with about Russian history in the modern era, and how much and how rightly the Great Patriotic War makes up a chunk of Russianness...that ought to be ideologically frightening. That way, nothing on Putin's (and our) side is Russian. And the Russians are now the Nazis. Robert Fisk describes in his new memoir, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, how he travelled from Kabul to Kandahar in 1981 in a civilian bus and saw Soviet soldiers from Tajikistan who had torn off the red stars of their uniforms. The full significance took longer to sink in.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

ICANN If You Can

Everyone's getting het up about the prospect of the current residual US responsibilities for the Internet infrastructure and the possibility that the forthcoming World Summit for the Information Society might give them to the UN, or more specifically the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the UN tech body that makes sure North Korean and Japanese phone lines interwork. A lot of American bloggers have been, predictably, furious. It's worth giving some thought to the substance of the criticism.

The key thing is that, apparently, "if the UN get - shudder - control of the Internet the Chinese could censor everything!" Or, for Chinese, insert any foreign government. The first, and uncomfortable, point is that it seems a lot less obvious to me that the US government is so trustworthy than it does to some. What power is it that a new Internet forum would have? Well, they would own the contracts under which the 13 root servers are operated. The US Department of Commerce do now. Do they censor them? No, and anyway the national root domains could if necessary interwork without them. The same would go if a Texas Republican nightmare UN took them over. Alternative rootservers already exist, in fact, and the German bloke who runs one of them won't stop telling the networking mail lists about it, damn him. Under an UN solution, at least all nations with a TLD would be represented. And, as is normal at most international executive organisations, the principle of unanimity would rule. Don't like the Chinese proposal? Vote against it.

But this is absurd. The Chinese are censoring the Internet right now: and the tool they use is not the UN, but a far more effective one. Very simply, state-owned or state-near companies own all the routers of China. Everything that passes through them may be filtered. The real censorship threat lies not at the UN, but at your friendly local ISP - because they have the best place in the network topology to censor you. Root servers actually aren't a good option for censorship: how long does it take to set up a new domain name?

Back in the day, back before ICANN was invented, there was a brief period of democracy on the Internet, when the central authorities were elected. What we need is an elected ICANN (and IANA), all of whose documents are published as RFCs, Requests for Comments, like those that define the standards that make it all happen. The real discovery of the Net was not the exact protocols, but a social agreement to exchange information in a certain fashion and a particular collaborative way of working. The pioneers did not just invent a networking protocol, they did everything differently - note the humility in the title. Request for Comments. And they are still open for comments, from the 7th April 1969 to this exact moent. Here is a challenge: how should a democratic Internet governance look like? Call this post P (for People's)-RFC1.

ID Cards: C'est la lutte finale

Well, the good people of the House of Commons have done their thing. The closet fascists and crude worshippers of power did what they had to do. 25 Labour MPs did what they had to do, but of course never enough. 43 MPs failed to turn up. As seems to be normal today, the unelected are now called to redress the balance of the elected. It's off to the Lords with the Big Database that Can't Possibly Work.

The last push, eh? We're in the final now, and we're playing on our home ground. We always lose all the battles, except the last one. That's the British patriotic cliches done. Now, let's have a think about the supposed concessions Charles Clarke bought his way through the Commons with.

Clarke, first up, claimed the cards might cost as little as £30, against an estimate of £93. Clearly the main saving here was just cutting out the cost of a passport, included in the figure of £93. Why anyone would want a voluntary ID card but not a passport is a question we ought to skip. Overall, though, where would the extra cash come from? There was an answer to this. Efficiency savings in other departments like the NHS would save the Safety Elephant's bacon.

Efficiency savings is a phrase that should strike terror into every citizen's heart. It is the post-Thatcher civil service's favourite thing, a sort of administrative white powder that permits a far greater degree of servility to arbitrary authority than otherwise possible. Your budget is less than enough, but the Line To Take says nothing may be cut (as it always does if neither refugees nor soldiers are involved) . What to do? A good snort of the fairy dust. Mmmm! And suddenly, strange to tell, exactly enough money is saved to pass the budget. The best, though, is yet to come. Nothing real must happen until the budgeting round, when there are two equally good options. These are: Select a target group and cut'em, or alternatively collapse on the steps of the Treasury. One way, you make the nut by not serving some bunch of people without a lobby. The other way, you just fail and turn the Prime Minister against the Chancellor. They both work.

The second Clarkean concession was his statement that no more information than what is held on passports at the moment would be "on the card", and that the citizens would be able to check the data on a secure website protected by a PIN. With this move, Clarke neatly destroyed the political and financial basis of his own mutant, pus-trailing turdbeast of a scheme. Think about it: without all the information they want and he just ruled out, what would be the value of the cards to the NHS? Either they would have to choose the Home Office Big Database as the best possible option, which is only conceivable if all UK and European procurement rules were torn up, or they would have to use it for free, and then transfer the still-mythical efficiency savings to the Home Office.

Of course, the NHS would be far more likely to spend any real savings on something useful like bandages than give it back to the Treasury. What chance would the Home Office have of extracting the cash from Gordon Brown? Those efficiency savings opught to be put in with the eternal Tory myth of the big lump of money marked WASTE it's so easy to get rid of if you vote for Me.

But the really worrying new points about ID control are nothing to do with the NHS. For a start, that "secure website" protected by a PIN. PINs only work in banking because, to use them, you have to have a bank card and produce the number in person. You can't realistically stand at a cashpoint and hammer in every combination from 0000-9999 until you break into an account. On the Internet, though, you can have a simple script do that, and even distribute the requests over time and over a botnet to evade lockouts. And, by sheer maths, you will in the end succeed. The best security response from the government would probably be to block large chunks of address space, thus denying half Britain Internet access - so, even failure would be nearly as good as success.

The second we've already touched on. There will be no further data "on the card". This would make the cards pointless. But will the card numbers be added to other, existing databases in which the same information lies? Remember: it's not the card, it's the database. I think he's lying.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Attack of the Fiendish Müntemerkel

Well, the grey men have spoken and Angela Merkel has, to my considerable surprise, ended up as Germany's chancellor. It seems that the easy-life temptations of a grand coalition overcame the SPD's desire to hang on to the chancellor's office, and motivated them to give Schröder the push. This leaves Germany with a truly bizarre government - the Chancellery goes to Merkel, but all the key ministries with the exception of Economy and Defence go to the SPD. The Vice-Chancellorship - traditionally a fairly empty title for the junior coalition partner's leader - is to go to none other than SPD General Secretary Franz Müntefering, who is apparently going to combine it with the ministries of Labour and Social Affairs.

This, for one, suggests that this government is not going to be a good one. Although the Right gets the Ministry of the Economy for Bavarian elected king Edmund Stoiber, its great rival the Finance Ministry stays with the SPD...and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs goes to Müntefering, he of the so-called Kapitalismusdebatte, placing him straight in the path of the conservatives' agenda on the labour market. Müntefering will have the status of a vice-chancellor, as well as a make-or-break party leader, to back him in his role as Minister for No.

Stoiber's party, meanwhile, added to this promise of internecine viciousness by publicly doubting Merkel's Richtlinienkompetenz. This term means the right of the chancellor to issue "directives" or "guidelines" to ministers, something considered in Germany to be an important characteristic of the German constitution. Unsurprisingly, the SPD has also been very publicly warning her against any "lonely decisions". This opens up the prospect of triangular, SPD/CDU/CSU, negotiation inside the government. It also raises a constitutional point - the SPD claims that her Richtlinienkompetenz is limited specifically by the agreement between the parties. Can such an agreement effectively change the constitution?

Meanwhile, outside the government, the Greens, Left and FDP are left to sweat as a sort of oppositional traffic light coalition. And, no doubt, both Stoiber and Müntefering sharpen their knives for their own bids for the Chancellorship in six months' time. That is, of course, so long as no outbreak of democracy nixes them. The SPD MPs must agree to vote Merkel in. And the SPD activists must reelect their leaders at the imminent party conference. Seeing as the leaders' policy means that Germany, a country with a structural leftwing majority in parliament, gets a conservative chancellor - will they?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Singapore Blogging: Multiculturalism, Authority and Identity

One thing that strikes everyone, I think, who visits Singapore is the apparent racial harmony. Here is (to British eyes) an example of a multicultural society functioning perfectly, people expressing their religious and national peculiarities within the scope of a shared identity in a sense indistinguishable from that expression itself. Or, to more integration-minded visitors, perhaps an example of multiple and potentially hostile communities being successfully moulded into a united republic. Not laicité, perhaps, but certainly integration.

The problem comes, though, if you zoom in a little more. Perhaps the distinctive feature of the urban landscape isn't integration, it's separateness, different communities measuring out their different districts. That is, after all, how the tourist knows they are in one of the most diverse cities in the world. This is a challenge for the multiculturalist, because this version of it is very different to Britain's.

In the UK, the (begins to sound like a junior minister) Challenge of Diversity was handled essentially by laissez faire methods. The key virtue was tolerance, and the key sin racism. The principle was essentially that if other people were different, then this was none of your business so long as they kept their nose out of yours. This is not a bad minimum, after all - George Orwell wrote that one of the guarantees for democracy in Britain was that Nosey Parker was one of the worst insults you can throw at someone. But the downside is that, as Soizick says, tolerance is not far from indifference.

By the way, there is nothing wrong with using the word tolerance here - yes, you tolerate something bad, but tolerance is also defined as the permissible deviation from a norm. Toleration has often been used in a positive sense historically.

Getting back to the point, if it slips to just being indifferent to other people, you end up with a dangerously alienated society. This was pretty much what the Cantle report said was to blame for the 2001 Bradford riot, by the way. The French call this communautairisme, which might be better translated as communalism. Closed communities live out parallel lives without touching in a degraded public space.

Singapore's take on multiculturalism is much more dirigiste and integrationist, making constant efforts to build an (artificial) national identity around the cultures, charging bloggers with sedition for saying rude things about Malays. But the result is the same; communities of identity appear. Society functions, though, even if the Chinese, Malays and Indians would prefer to socialise in-group and the expats hang out in their own depressing flocks downtown. (A semiotics lesson: outside a bar full of only white people, an advert for that bar. On the advert, a cartoon couple. The woman is dark-haired and evidently Chinese. The man looks much the same except he has a line of red hair. What message is being conveyed? And, for bonus points, where are we drinking?)

The lesson, then: multiculturalism is possible but communatarianism is inevitable.

Scale-free networks: the internet in't

A new research paper from Caltech, which you can read here, has cast doubt on the characterisation of the Internet as a scale-free network. What the fuck is one of them things, and why care?

Almost anyone who knows anything beyond "there's this thing called the interwebs, it's like TV that you read" knows that the basic idea of the Internet is that there's no centralised authority and, instead, packets of data are transferred between specialised computers called routers, all of which are in principle equal. This implies that the Internet is what really deep geeks call a random network - that is, any point on it can be linked to any other. This was what the original gangster developers, people like Doug Engelbart and Vint Cerf, were trying to achieve - if no node is more important than any other, there are no critical points of failure, and hence the system can simply route around any nodes that are destroyed.

Back in 1999, though, a bunch of academics discovered that, in fact, the net didn't work like that in practice. In fact, if you plotted the level of traffic against the number of routers experiencing that level, you got a graph with a big spike near the origin and a long tail. A small core group of routers were carrying a disproportionately huge amount of traffic - more like a centralised telecoms network than the flat TCP/IP architecture. This topology, where a small set of the nodes have many more links than the rest, is called a scalefree network.

So, who cares? Well, people like John Robb of Global Guerrillas fame do, because all kinds of other stuff works like that: power grids, gas and oil pipelines, rail, air and road networks. In a random network, you basically have to destroy everything to stop it working - in a scale-free network, you can shut the whole thing down with a whack from a hammer in the right place. The 1999 results, therefore, suggested that the Internet was much less secure than anyone had thought.

The Caltech team's simulations, though, seem to suggest this was wrong. I have a little theory about this, which goes like this: the Internet is a random network that wants to be a scale-free network. Think of it like this: we've all seen those demonstrations of how some of your packets go right the way round the world and some go straight to their destination. Now, remember that the Internet protocols are meant to behave like a random network - but that the demand for traffic, and the supply of connectivity, aren't evenly distributed around the world. For example: any traffic from Europe, North Africa or western Asia to North America must go through the big transatlantic cables (if really pushed, some might make it through the long way around - but only under real provocation). So, the routers at each end of that link will be very heavily trafficked all the time.

If one fails, though, the system routes around the block, with packets moving to the other cables and even going off down the SAFE/SAW or FLAG cables towards Asia and the transpacific links - effectively, it's most efficient being scale-free but it can revert to randomness. Clever man, that Cerf bloke.

SFNs are a pretty fascinating idea when you get to think of them. Here's a question: seeing as almost everything is one, why haven't there been more efforts to bring the down by the terrorists? My answer is as follows: first, remember that scale-free networks are extremely vulnerable at those key points but less so everywhere else - if you don't get it exactly right, you've wasted your time. And secondly, remember that the information you need is much less common these days - remember that masters student whose thesis on US fibreoptic networks landed him in a bunker with the FBI? With those factors in mind, it's a better choice in terms of cost-benefit analysis to lug a bomb into the tube.

Practical exercise: what or who represents the Viktor Bout system's critical node?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Singapore Blogging: The Battle Box

Just north of the city centre in Singapore is a park on a hill. The hill is the site of Fort Canning, the first seat of British colonial power there. In that park is the place where the biggest military defeat in British history was mismanaged, the Malaya Command Battle Box. This headquarters was created shortly before the second world war, as a secure command centre for both the Malaya Command and (more importantly, as the staffs of the time thought) the fortress of Singapore. It is to British military engineering as Vauban's forts are to the French - something of a masterpiece. Everyone involved with the fortress was the top of their profession - the Commander, Fixed Defences was the former head of the school of coast artillery, the chief antiaircraft gunner was something similar as was the chief engineer. However, the connotations are different and grim.

These days, the interior of the headquarters is pleasantly cool compared to the hot car-exhaust soup outside on Clemenceau Avenue, but although the place could be sealed off from the outside world and maintained with recycled air for weeks, it could not be airconditioned at the time and the presence of several hundred staff officers, signallers and clerks must have made it barely tolerable. The tops of the steel doors inside have been crudely hacked away by its inhabitants, apparently to improve the ventilation. The levels of paranoia and cabin-fever can only be guessed at. It can hardly have helped that draconian security regulations ruled, forbidding eating, smoking or talking and confining everyone to their post of duty whether on watch or not. This Kafkaesque universe didn't last long once the Japanese artillery bombardment began, though, as it speedily became obvious that sending men outside to the mess hall defeated the point of the bunker. Instead, soldiers without other duties were permitted to enter the tunnels in order to keep under cover - which can only have added to the claustrophobia.

After the surrender, the extensive telephone switching facilities were used for a while by the Japanese - characters scrawled on the concrete walls show that the lines were temporarily rerouted to serve various locations including several division HQs and the secret police. But they did not stay - instead, they sealed the facility's doors. When the British reoccupied Singapore, nobody opened them again although the headquarters of British Forces Far East moved back into the gracious, colonnaded white building about twenty yards away and stayed there until 1968. After the British moved on, first of all out to one of the RAF bases in the suburbs and then off the island for good in 1976, neither did the Singaporeans, whose army staff college had meanwhile moved into the buildings above it.

Something about the place - the genius loci - seems to have kept everyone away, even though it was the Fort Canning headquarters building with its decorous architecture that hosted a small version of the Wannsee conference not long after the surrender, at which various kempeitai bigwigs discussed a plan to "extirpate undesirable elements of the Chinese population". A more honest description would have been to shoot them, which is what they did (as many as 5% of them, some estimates say). It wasn't until 1993 that anyone was sufficiently curious to crack open the great iron blast doors and peer inside. It occurs to me that the last Australian and New Zealand troops to be stationed in Singapore were withdrawn a year or two before that, which might be significant or might not.

The bunker has since been turned into a museum. Much is original, although the dummy British and Australian officers are not (although such a description might not have been too far off the mark). You are led down from the road outside into the dank bunker by a park ranger, who points out with dispassion the cipher room, the phone exchange (really, of course, the whole structure's raison d'etre) where, as well as the Japanese signs, the words LAST DAY 15/2/42 were found chalked on the door when the bunkers were opened. Then you are led to General Percival's office and told that he was briefed by "Major General F. Keith Siemens" - eh? - ah, Simmons - on the morning of the surrender. The next stop is an air operations room, of exactly the layout familiar from Battle of Britain films.

Then, finally, you come to the conference room where the decision for surrender was taken. The dummy-makers have tried to represent all the dramatis personae. After various supposed contributions have been played back on tape, you are left alone with your thoughts.

I don't know if that's a particular feature for British visitors or not. I suspect not - the tone is mournful, and I wonder what the numerous Japanese names in the visitors' book made of it?


1) The Kurd who's been made President - really as a side payment for not declaring independence - just said he wants the Shia prime minister to quit, the same week as it turns out they've cut a deal to get out their oil without everyone else.

2) The Shia just (as good as unilaterally) changed the law to, in effect, consider abstentions to be votes for the constitution.

3) The pro-British police keep arresting our spooks.

4) The chap we say is Terrorist No.1 just declared war on all Shia except, in effect, Moqtada al-Sadr - the chap whose militia is the police.

Assessing these indicators, what eventuality should we be planning for in Iraq?

1) Victory

2) Disaster

3) Stagnation followed by 1) or 2)

HOWTO: Configure a Qtek 8100 for Vodafone GPRS

Step one: Don't call Vodafone customer service when you find that the thing was delivered without GPRS access settings.

Step two: Don't assume that the settings are on your SIM card.

Step three: Don't believe the Vodafone propaganda that they have a "GPRS Helpline" - your call goes through to the generic helpline in the queue with all the billing enquiries.

Step four: Don't get yourself angry by listening to the little voice in your brain that says "Every call centre in the world keeps real-time stats on how many callers are on hold, how many hang up, and the average time to answer a call - you've actually seen one with a big LED display hanging from the ceiling with those figures on. SO WHY THE FUCK CAN'T THEY PUT THE AVERAGE WAITING TIME IN THE RECORDED ANNOUNCEMENT SO I KNOW IF THIS IS WORTH DOING, RATHER THAN OH-SO-FRIENDLY BULLSHIT ABOUT HOW ALL OUR OPERATORS ARE HELPING OTHER CUSTOMERS AND AWFUL MUSIC?"

Step five: Answer the phone jockey's security questions. Give a full and detailed account of the information you need - the Access Point Name, username, password, primary DNS server IP address, session type, security/authentication status and homepage URL.

Step six: "I'll just put you through to our products and services..."

Step seven: Hold for 15 minutes. See step four.

Step eight: Give up.

Step nine: Google.

Step ten: Try a variety of mutually contradictory settings, three versions, proffered by websites.

Step eleven: Try the following settings under GPRS Connections/The Internet

APN: internet (for contract customers - for PAYGers.)
Username: web
Password: web
Homepage url:
Primary DNS:
Secondary DNS: There is no secondary DNS
Gateway IP address: Blank

Information from here. These guys, and these, have duff gen. It shouldn't be like this. The pointless username/password especially piss me off.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Singapore Blogging: RFID Nation

One field where Singapore keeps up with its reputation for barely concealed dictatorship is the use of mass surveillance technology. You can't use the new tube system, nor the older light rail system, without being issued a reuseable plastic card as a ticket that triggers the barriers at a distance. (You are strongly encouraged to get a refillable, Oyster-style card that would carry your address.) There is road pricing on the motorways, managed through a gateway system that probably permits island-wide tracking of cars.

But I wasn't expecting my press accreditation to be fitted with The Mark Of The Beast. It just looked like a laminate badge to go around the neck, with my name and employer on the front and the all-important word PRESS in big white letters on a red background. Then I visited the stand of a Really Huge Tech Company - no, in fact, this blog always names names. It was Hewlett-Packard - and the local PRs pointed iPaqs at my chest like some kind of futuristic weapons. There's a throwaway in Douglas Coupland's Microserfs about so-and-so who's working on "reality-backward development", where you start with something in the real world and try to design its cyberspace equivalent, and how they're worried because at the moment she's working on "gun". This looked similar.

And, in a sense, that was exactly what it was. Without even a bleep - I mean, there should have really been a blinding flash of green light - it sucked my identity out. Peering, I could just see part of the screen - being an LCD, not all of it was legible if you weren't looking directly at it. I saw my name, my employer, my job title, my home, office and mobile telephone numbers, my office address, nationality, my work email address - perhaps the URL of this blog too, my hotel room number or my bank account details, but I didn't see it. They pressed a button and probably sent it to some devilish server farm back in California or in the depths of the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (yes, they really call it that).

It was pretty sci-fi, but not in a good way. Now, I seem to remember blogging that HP had begun marketing a complete National Identity System as an off-the-shelf product. Did they just test it on me? Am I on file? Holy Jesus, how many have they killed already?

Shocked, Shocked, to find gambling in this casino!

Guess who's got their US Department of Defense jet fuel credit rating back? Our old friends Irbis Air Company!

Check out the PDF, here: issued on the 23rd of September, DODAAC contract no. TBKZ01. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

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