Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Just one more Friedman

Chatter builds around the suggestion that security control of Basra might be handed over in early 2007. We've had quite a lot of this stuff before, tales that significant reductions in force might occur in six months' time (one Friedman) and more recently announcements that such-and-such a province has been "handed over".

What we haven't had is beef. "Handing over security control" of a province appears to entail a flag-swap outside some prominent building and a new job title for the local Sadrist, Fadhila or SCIRI boss. But so far, none of the handovers have involved the withdrawal of even one single soldier. This time, Des Browne has suggested that troop numbers might be lower "by thousands" at the end of 2007.

There may be some evidence that this has a slightly higher reality content than past promises. I hear that the Shaibah logistic base outside Basra is going to close "early in 2007" with the services and installations being transferred to the RAF's Basra Air Station. That, to me, sounds like clearing the decks - reducing the number of bases and perhaps the number of logistics personnel, whilst concentrating around the APOD (Aerial Point of Departure).

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Big SD cards

Zawinski reports trouble with a 4GB SD card and a Treo 700p gadget. I am not very surprised, although for other reasons. Earlier this year, I was offered a Qtek S200 Windows Mobile PDA, and I transferred a 1GB Mini-SD loaded with photos, Stone Roses and Steely Dan songs to it. Within the week it had somehow managed to destroy the card and everything that sailed in it. Not the gadget I had before, nor a HP 6915w, nor a USB cardreader in a Mac could even detect the card's presence. Caveat emptor.

Friedman: a man of two halves

Why, asks Chris Dillow, do we consider Milton Friedman a man of the Right? Dillow was thinking of such things as the earned-income tax credit and his opposition to conscription, but the question requires some unpacking. I don't believe, for example, that his concern with liberty is incompatible with the Left. Neither is it impossible to imagine a leftwing critique based on ownership and control, rather than markets versus planning. I certainly agree with him on floating exchange rates, and on the legalisation of drugs.

But all these things - which so many people chose to pick up on when commemorating his death - were sideshows at best to his main achievement, monetarism. Like few other economic doctrines, monetarism was actually tested and met with shattering empirical refutation. The US Federal Reserve lasted three years before kicking the habit. In the UK, the experiment went on until 1986, by which time the government and the Bank had successively failed to control all the main monetary aggregates. Inflation had been forced down, but at the cost of high unemployment - not only is this what the Phillips curve suggested would happen, it arguably happened for the reasons a Keynesian would have predicted it would happen.

The British government applied fiscal and monetary tightening, raised the rate of interest, and permitted sterling to appreciate - and guess what, aggregate demand tanked, unemployment soared and prices eventually fell. Eventually, Alan Walters and Charles Goodhart convinced the government to ditch monetarism. Instead it chose an exchange-rate targeting regime, learnt the hard way just as it had with monetarism, and finally arrived at final-goal symmetrical inflation targeting. We live not in a monetarist world, but a New Keynesian one, where although the preferred policy tools are monetary, the thinking is demand-driven (something that has become much more important with the growth of customer credit).

There is part of your answer, then. In practice, Friedman's doctrine put hordes of workers out of work, and we are still struggling with the social impact. Now the North Sea oil years are behind us, we shall miss the export industries that went to the wall in the combined sterling hike and credit squeeze. But what about the other side? Well, it's very notable that none of the politicians he hawked his ideas to ever wanted to them put into practice, beyond simply squeezing the poor until the pips squeaked. Certainly, he thought it would be better to provide public services as cash or quasicash (vouchers) and let the market sort out how they are organised. But who ever saw any of the money? As with so many self-described libertarians, this was left as an exercise for the creative imagination. Rather than the NHS, let's have fully-funded healthcare vouchers for all...and a pony.

There is, however, a seriously inspiring lesson ex Friedman, now we need new ideas. We urgently need some new ones - how, for example, to shape a politics against managerialism and elite consensus? How to assault inequality without Polly Toynbee-esque control bureaucracy? He was never elected to anything, and never owned much capital himself. He commanded only his pen, but changed the world. Ideas still count.

1239. 7018. 4766. Now start a war

This is very bad news from Baghdad, via perfect.co.uk, but note some details. For a start, a neat primer on modern urban warfare:
On Saturday, the Web site displayed a recipe for civil war. It recommended protecting Sunni neighborhoods by "spreading snipers on the roof of buildings," planting roadside bombs at neighborhood entrances and distributing grenades. It advised "antitank missile holders" to make trenches and to attack the first and last vehicles of any convoy.

At the end were instructions for preparing ambushes by "attracting the enemy by using small cars as bait so they would chase them and be dragged to the killing zones."
It's the full Grozny toolkit - snipers on the rooftops, RPG teams in the shopfronts, set up and fight the vertical battle. Note also the mystery flood of SMS messages - I wonder whether this is simply a social cascade attack, as fear spreads like a virus, or do the insurgents have access to the Cell Broadcast interface on the GSM networks? In a sense it doesn't matter which insurgents - fear and hate-mobilisation work as well for both sides. You could well find it useful to spread terror on your own side.

Back in July, Charlie Stross floated the idea that "it's not virtual reality until you can stage a coup in it." Perhaps the bandwidth required for such a thing is far less that we assumed - SMS seems quite effective, and that will work at 9.6Kbits/s. Alternatively, it's easier to hack society at the human level - it's not the medium, but the message in this case. As long as there is sufficiently credible fear/revenge floating through the memepool, it's of secondary importance how it is transmitted - what matters is the mesh network topology, which means the spread has increasing returns to scale.

Bravery doesn't exclude stupidity

J.D> Henderson chez Intel Dump writes that General Abizaid should be relieved of his command. But first, he says, he respects Abizaid for the courage he showed in his past career. Fair enough.

But there is some historical evidence that extremely brave generals are a bad idea. Consider the British experience - we brought several First World War heroes into the second world war, and most were terrible. Gort was a VC holder, and was uninspired at best. Philip Neame was another VC and was a disastrous numskull. Of course, I'm wrong - Freyberg was a VC and a damn good general, Alexander was a multiple DSO and a damn good general. Upshot? Courage doesn't predict ability.

Maybe I should do a Sunday General, like Rob Farley's Sunday Battleship Blogging..

Anarchy in the UK!

It's been a weird political week, no? There was "Loyalist" (scarequotes included because my definition of loyalty doesn't include shooting fellow citizens, constables & c) nutbag Michael Stone's public freakout-cum-terrorist attack on Stormont. I haven't laughed as much in years - seriously, ten years ago this would have meant blood in the streets, all 39 Brigade leave cancelled, Belfast burning. These days he gets pistolwhipped with his own gun by a woman who isn't even officially a security guard and publicly ridiculed. It's progress of a sort. Slugger was of course all over the story, and has the details on his motive: apparently he wanted to be put in a cell for his own safety. It's also progress that you can barge into Stormont with a gun to get yourself arrested, rather than simply shot.

I rather liked the commenter who suggested that the whole thing was an exercise in performance art by the amateur painter Stone, designed to mock the NI politicians' desperate efforts to get the world's attention.

Much more depressing is the death of Alexander Litvinenko. The Viking catherd has details on polonium-210 and comments that it was "a curiously elegant and vicious assassination method". Indeed. The horror of it should be argument enough against the notion that he administered the poison to himself to discredit Vladimir Putin. Suicide-bombers, after all, go out in an instant, and self-immolation (Buddhist/Prague style) is both easier to arrange and more publicly theatrical. And where would he have laid hands on enough of the stuff? Any theory of his assassination must first climb the mount improbable of his killer having access to something found only in quantity in a nuclear reactor or linear accelerator, and in a form pure enough to be handled safely and innocuous enough to be administered easily.

Steinn points out that, at least within the US, small quantities of it are on open sale, but the amount required to kill would have cost $500,000, not to mention being a very noticeable sale. George "Dick Destiny" Smith points out that half a gram in a capsule would reach 500 degrees Celsius - "Litvinenko was cooked from the inside".

There is something about this story, though, that almost makes the suicide theory plausible - the rainswept November streetscapes of London and the doomed radioactive exile wandering towards death through the flickering mobs of Christmas shoppers. There have always been exiles and foreign secret policemen conspiring in obscure corners of the city, and Litvinenko's death is almost uncannily fitted to the genius loci. I am reminded of "The Professor", the prototype suicide bomber and proto-fascist in Conrad's Secret Agent, who carries an explosive charge triggered by a pneumatic bulb in the sleeve of his jacket, ready to blow himself up if arrested. In conversation with a comrade, he lets slip that the fuse is not instant - twenty seconds must elasp before the explosion, to the comrade's utter horror and astonishment.

But a suicide-weapon that means not seconds, but weeks of irreversible radiation sickness, is innately improbable. The Government, of course, is desperately hoping against hope that it was anyone, anyone but Gazprom the Russians.

Enron and Iraq

There seems to be an increasing belief around that we're still in Iraq because the UK/USA leaders can't bring themselves to book a loss, as Ezra Klein puts it over at Tapped. David Kurtz at TPM argues similarly that Bush thinks the only way the US can be defeated is if it chooses to leave Iraq. He blames this on Henry Kissinger, which if true is wildly out of character, and compares the situation to that of a very wealthy man who owns a lossmaking business - he can, if he so chooses, keep covering the loss from his own funds, and he might convince himself that the business will eventually succeed if he just hangs on long enough.

Back in February, the mighty Chris Dillow made some interesting comments about Iraq and sunk costs. Chris pointed out that in some circumstances, the sunk-cost fallacy might be rational - for example, "staying the course" in Iraq might signal determination to our enemies, or on the other hand, worrying about the 2,800 dead soldiers might be an effective way of signalling to oneself that decisions have consequences.

Victor Davis Hanson is apparently peddling the first of these two arguments, which should tell us something. After all, as I think Dsquared says, past performance *is* a guide to future performance when it comes to individuals. VDH's point - that fighting on in Iraq might shore up our deterrent credibility - could be sensible, if it wasn't for the continuing costs. Our enemies can be expected to measure us by capability as well as intention. Whilst the US Army and Marine Corps are mired in Iraq, the US (and the UK) has little substrategic deterrent credibility, to say nothing of the financial cost. It will take time to restore the fabric of the army after the war, too. And, vitally, any cost-benefit analysis has to take into account the risk that things will get much worse - that we will get a serious kicking. The danger of this is rising steadily: Sadrists seize the TV station, this after last week's insurgent reconnaissance-in-force of the Health Ministry, which is just over the bridge from the Green Zone, the car bomb inside the Zone on Monday, and the Sadr City massacre. (Did you know they think the bomb was made inside the Zone?)

But, it seems, the mindset is that as long as it's not formally signed off as a loss, it don't exist. Enron used to do this. As the end of the quarter approached, by which time they needed to publish results showing steady profits growth to satisfy the stock market, there would be a frantic review of contracts. If a deal was dead, then the costs involved would have to be booked that quarter. But if there was the slightest hope, or at least someone was willing to sign their name to saying there was the slightest hope, of it eventually completing, then it didn't need to be accounted for then. Mark-to-market accounting meant that anything that was profitable (or rather, was predicted to be profitable) would be accounted for at the first possible moment - hey presto, stellar results.

But, of course, the toxic waste didn't go away, and the very real costs involved were, well, real - although they could be temporarily kept out of the profit and loss accounting, they consumed actual cash from the cash flow, just as Iraq has real consequences that aren't dependent on whether or not we accept them. When I last reread Bethany McLean and Peter Elkin's The Smartest Guys in the Room, one thing leapt out at me: Enron's culture neatly prefigured the last six years. It wasn't just that it was a scandal associated with George Bush, but the culture of it was identical. The same dominant narrative (Enron is a roaring success/GWB's policy is a roaring success) flogged, despite flying in the face of publicly available facts, to the public with the help of uncritical intermediate institutions (Wall Street and Andersens/the New York Times) and the demonisation of critics (Skilling's bully rhetoric and manipulation/the troll industry), the same unpleasant language of sexual violence people on LGF and Free Republic are addicted to, the delusions held together for internal consumption by groupthink and mutual reinforcement, and of course the corruption.

Also, the fundamental incompetence at everything but propaganda. Rumsfeld's DOD couldn't find enough body armour, Enron Energy Services couldn't issue accurate bills to its customers or even cash their cheques. Bush didn't know there was a difference between Shi'ites and Sunnis, Enron Broadband thought you could transfer spare capacity between physically separate DSL lines without using a backhoe. If you haven't read it yet, you'd better. The denial, too - there is still a lobby that Enron was really a good business, just as John Hinderaker still claims to think Iraq isn't really more dangerous than Washington DC. Well, if all those marked-to-market contracts from 1991 to 2001 really had been profitable, Enron would have had more than $500 million net cashflow less trading collateral and trades with self in 2000, as the already-booked profits arrived as cashflow.

And if Iraq wasn't really violent, you wouldn't be able to light up a government ministry within half a klick of the Green Zone with your whole platoon and get away with it. Neither would the members of parliament want to bring the Kurdish army into Baghdad, because they don't trust any other troops.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

HOWNOTTO build a computer system

Ziff-Davis Baseline carries a huge report on exactly why the NHS National Programme for IT is a disaster. (Thanks, Charles.)

First of all, a reiteration of a past point: they mention as one of the few successes the N3 tranche of the project, which turns out to be the deployment of DSL lines to GP surgeries and the national VPN-over-MPLS backbone. Well, if BT couldn't get that right, it would have been astonishing. Why it even needed a project is worth asking - why not give each doc £25 a month and tell them to get their idle legs over to Carphone Warehouse, then get the VPN client from the NHS website? (Answer: because a nontrivial proportion probably think computers are for secretaries.)

Anyway, it looks like Blair's inability to critically assess the statements of powerful actors has got us into another fine mess.
"The inspiration to digitize this far-flung bureaucracy first surfaced in late 2001, when Microsoft's Bill Gates paid a visit to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at No. 10 Downing St. The subject of the meeting, as reported by The Guardian, was what could be done to improve the National Health Service. At the time, much of the service was paper-based and severely lagging in its use of technology. A long-term review of NHS funding that was issued just before the Blair-Gates meeting had concluded: "The U.K. health service has a poor record on the use of information and communications technology—the result of many years of serious under-investment."

Coming off a landslide victory in the 2001 general election, Blair was eager to move Britain's health services out of technology's dark ages. Gates, who had come to England to tell the CEOs of the NHS trusts how to develop integrated systems that could enhance health care, was happy to point the way. "Blair was dazzled by what he saw as the success of Microsoft," says Black Sheep Research's Brampton. Their meeting gave rise to what would become the NPfIT."
Couldn't they have introduced him to Richard Stallman? But, as ever, the one eye was shining and we were all off on a happy crusade.
After a February 2002 meeting at 10 Downing St. chaired by Blair and attended by U.K. health-care and Treasury officials as well as Microsoft executives, the NPfIT program was launched.
In quick order, a unit was established to purchase and deliver I.T. systems centrally. To run the entire show, NHS tapped Richard Granger, a former Deloitte and Andersen management consultant. Granger signed on in October 2002 at close to $500,000 a year, making him the highest-paid civil servant in the U.K., according to The Guardian.

In one of his first acts, Granger commissioned the management consulting company McKinsey to do a study of the massive health-care system in England. Though the study was never published, it concluded, according to The Guardian, that no single existing vendor was big enough to act as prime contractor on the countrywide, multibillion-dollar initiative the NHS was proposing. Still, Granger wanted to attract global players to the project, which meant he needed to offer up sizable pieces of the overall effort as incentives.


The process for selecting vendors began in the late fall of 2002. It was centralized and standardized, and was conducted, Brennan and others say, in great secrecy. To avoid negative publicity, NHS insisted that contractors not reveal any details about contracts, a May 2005 story in ComputerWeekly noted. As a byproduct of these hush-hush negotiations, front-line clinicians, except at the most senior levels, were largely excluded from the selection and early planning process, according to Brennan.

I've bolded the key failures here. First of all, letting the producer interest poison the well. Microsoft execs, eh? The big centralised-bureaucratic proprietary system vendor Microsoft was permitted to influence the whole process towards a big centralised-bureaucratic proprietary system from the very beginning. This occurred at a time when Health Secretary Alan Milburn was constantly railing against "producer interests" blocking his "modernising reforms". This was code for the trade unions that represented low-waged nurses and cleaners, and the British Medical Association that represented doctors. Can anyone spot the difference between the two groups of producer interests? One of these things is not like the other..

The managerialists inevitably called on a management consultant to run the show - as we all know, we are living in a new world, and the status quo is not an option, so nobody who actually knew anything about the NHS, hospitals, or for that matter computers could be considered. (Granger failed his CS degree.) With equal inevitability, he called on management consultants to tell him what to do. The great global consulting firm McKinsey duly concluded that only great, global consulting firms could do the job.

Choosing which ones was clearly a job only central authority could undertake, and the intervention of the press, the unions, competitors or elected representatives would only get in the way, so the whole thing vanished behind a cloud of secrecy. Secrecy enhances power. It does this by exclusion. The groups excluded included the doctors, nurses, technicians and administrators of the NHS - which means that the canonical mistake, the original sin of systems design was predetermined before the first requirements document was drawn up or the first line of code written. Secrecy specifically excluded the end users from the design process. There are two kinds of technologies - the ones that benefit the end-user directly, and the ones that are designed by people who think they know what they want. They can also be described as the ones that succeed and the ones that fail. Ignore the users, and you're heading for Lysenkoism.

Among the "problems" of the NHS system was that most hospitals had their own computer systems, developed either by small IT firms or in-house. The contracts stated that each of the five new regional service providers and the "spine" (BT) would have to replace them, design a single regional system, but also maintain "common standards" nationally. The sharp will spot the contradiction. If you have common standards for information exchange, why can't you have them within the region as well as between regions? Why do you need the regional system at all? Why do you need the big global consulting firm - standards, after all, are for everyone, from Google to the hobby programmer cranking out a few lines of Python or such. In fact, almost all developments in computing in the last 10 years have been in the direction of separating levels of abstraction. It doesn't matter if the web server runs Linux and the database Windows Server if they both speak XML at the application layer.

This was actually recognised for some purposes. The NHS bought 900,000 desktop licences for MS Windows and further commissioned Microsoft to develop a common interface for the NPfIT, thus ensuring that any common interface would be proprietary and unalterable except by Microsoft. But no-one seems to have thought through the implications of common standards. Instead, the contracts specified that the old systems must be torn out and the data transferred to the new, thus adding a huge sysadmin nightmare to the costs.

Trying to keep down the costs, iSoft outsourced the development to India. But the Thomas Friedman dream of hordes of crack coders as cheap as chips showed some flaws - specifically:
the programmers, systems developers and architects involved didn't comprehend some of the terminology used by the British health system and, more important, how the system actually operated, the CfH conceded.
Neither did IDX's developers working with Microsoft in Seattle know anything about the NHS. This choice, like the secrecy, ensured that no NHS institutional memory would be available to the developers. So, 100 medics were shipped off to the coder farm to explain. Naturally, this effort to fix fundamental architecture problems by tinkering just added complexity and cost, as Pareto's theory of the second best bit. Eventually, one of the regional systems contractors decided to take iSoft's off-the-shelf product and hack it into something vaguely suitable, and another walked away. IDX and GE Healthcare's product was so dire that even BT couldn't make more than one implementation work in two and a half years, and then sacked them.

But, there is no sign any of this will affect policy whatsoever. Instead, the managers content themselves with intermediate statistical targets (apparently they are installing 600 N3 lines a month, a rather poor performance for any normal ISP), rigged definitions (the deal with Microsoft is said to have saved £1.5 billion - compared to what? certainly not open-source..) and bully rhetoric about feeding the slower huskies to the faster ones (I am not joking). The inevitable signs of failure, meanwhile, emerge - it doesn't work.
"As an example, in July, mission-critical computer services such as patient administration systems, holding millions of patient records being provided by the CSC alliance across the Northwest and West Midlands region, were disrupted because of a network equipment failure, according to the CfH. As a result, some 80 trusts in the region were unable to access patient records stored at what was supposed to be either a foolproof data center or a disaster recovery facility with a full backup system. Every NPfIT system in the area was down for three days or longer. Service was fully restored and no patient data was lost, the CfH says.

That was not the first such failure. In fact, in the past five months more than 110 major incident failures having to do with NHS systems and the network have been reported to the CfH, according to ComputerWeekly."
But, of course, the users are lying and everything is wonderful.
"The CfH responded in an e-mail to Baseline: "It is easy to misinterpret the expression 'major incident.' Some of these could have been, for example, individual users experiencing "slow running." We encourage reporting of incidents, and we are open and transparent about service availability levels, which we publish on our Web site."
Perhaps they'll put the chocolate ration up there too. But guess who is driving the march into the marshes?
Still, for every setback, Granger, CfH and Tony Blair's Labour Government announce a step forward. Blair, in fact, is CfH's biggest ally. Addressing some 80 senior doctors earlier this year earlier and, according to The London Times, sweating profusely under the bright lights, Blair said, "The truth is that we have now reached crunch point where the process of transition from the old system to a new way of work in the NHS is taking place. Each reform was in its time opposed. Each is now considered the norm. The lesson, especially at the point of difficulty, is if it's right, do it. In fact, do more of it."
I remember thinking, when I first heard of the project, that Palm had just confessed to a huge stockpile of unsold PDAs in a warehouse in Long Beach, and that we ought to buy the lot at firesale prices and turn loose the programmers at local level, with a common data exchange standard. Standards, not standardisation, as David Berlind says.

Oh yes, guess who's still running the world?

Update: This post has been approvingly linked by the Adam Smith Institute's blog, which positively scares me. But I think it's worth pointing something out here, which is that this story is not really about planning versus markets or private versus public. The Government brought plenty of stupidity to the table, but so did the Big Consultants, and so did little iSoft. Commercial motives led to as much stupidity as planning did. Very likely, had there been 10 more bidders for the Regional Service Provider contracts and therefore more competition, the same institutional factors would have entrained the same stupidity.

Van Creveld in Gaza

The great Israeli historian Martin van Creveld argued, years ago, that the occupation must end because of the "power of the weak", that eventually the degree of violence that would be needed to maintain it would destroy Israeli moral cohesion. It seems someone on the other side has read him. Within the last month we've seen a mass protest by hundreds of women being staged to spring a group of Hamas men from a building they were surrounded in, and now an airstrike is called off as civilians surround the target. Ruthlessness is harder than you think.

A Hamas commander at the scene said people had gathered to show that the demolition strategy of the Israelis could be defeated.

An Israeli military spokesman confirmed to Reuters news agency that the raid had been called off because of the Palestinian action.

The Hunt question

The Bath University RepRap project (to build a rapid-prototyping tool that can make copies of itself) is coming on with all due speed, and I especially like their latest test part, a natty Linux penguin. Which is fitting for a project that's all open-source. Back when they got started, Phil Hunt of Cabalamat Journal posed the fascinating question of what happens when every workshop in the DRC can make surface-to-air missiles.

DefenceTech is nearly there, discussing the spread of cheap CNC machine tools and the US Army's mobile parts hospital, a workshop in a shipping container that can run off parts for almost anything they use. It's not true RepRapping, but it's close, especially as the RepRap team has discussed using signmakers' CNC plastic jigs to multiply first-generation RepRaps.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


There's been plenty of debunking aimed at the Weekly Standard's claim that more US troops in Iraq always means less violence, but I haven't seen this point. Stuntz argues that 18,000 more troops were deployed between November, 2004 and February, 2005, and the butcher's bill fell.

Well, it would. November, 2004 was the peak of the Fallujah campaign, the second Shia rising, and the insurgent seizure of Mosul. Violence continued fearsome into January, then dropped off some as the offensive wound down. It's simply an exercise in choosing a stretch of the trendline that agrees with you, then placing the goalposts at each end. Or to put it another way, an egregiously dishonest abuse of statistics.

Risible claims

Christmas is coming, so it must be time to start raking over old quarrels and scratching at old wounds. The Ministry has at Torygraph hack Con Coughlin, among other things because of this WMD furphy from December, 2003.

I remember it well. The weapons were supposedly WMD-tastic warheads for RPGs, which is incredibly silly, and the source was an anti-aircraft unit's officer. Why would they have them? I don't remember anyone asking the simple, all-clarifying question of what kind of WMD would anyone use within a maximum of 920 metres of their own position.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Option 8

In this post, we analysed the options open to the Iraq Study Group. Supposedly, the original brief foresaw 8. Number 8 was one last push, and it seems that this is exactly what we're going to get. Note that it is sourced to the President and "Pentagon officials", rather than the Group itself.

In that post, I pointed out that option 8 was absurd because there was no discrete strategic, or even operational, aim that could be achieved by a "last push". I theorised that it was included as a debate framing exercise to make some version of option 3, phased withdrawal, seem palatable through the false impression of "balance" or "moderation." Well, it seems that George W. Bush has bought the dummy so completely he thinks it's a real option.

Years ago, I had a dog, a big friendly barky one that was not perhaps very bright. One day, out for a walk by the Wharfe, the dog smelt a rabbit and plunged off after the creature. Normally, the bunny would have outmanoeuvred him within a couple of turns - I'm sure one of them managed to get on his tail once and claim a Fox-10 - but this one made a fatal mistake. Assuming the dog was intelligent, he reefed into a sharp turn one way, then back the other, then threw a dummy the other way but kept going the same way. The dog, however, wasn't clever enough to notice the dummy, and the rabbit ran right into his jaws.

So George and Dick are going to send for more troops, 20,000 of them - presumably this is "whatever is left in the bag" rather than any specific tactical formation - in order to "secure Baghdad". Ah, that again. I see no reason why they will be any more successful at this than the last three times. One sane use for more troops, incidentally, would be to concentrate a reserve strike force in the MND(SE) zone in case it becomes necessary to re-open the roads by force. But they could be provided by pulling out of Anbar.

They are also flirting with the idea of a international conference, but can't quite bring themselves to say "talk to Iran". It is hinted at, but they prefer to talk about Saudi Arabia and Kuwait - who are the least influential Arab nations in Iraq by a distance. And the idea of encouraging the Saudis to get involved in a fight with SCIRI and Sadr inspires, well...fear more than anything else except perhaps astonishment.

So it looks like Charlie Whitaker was right.

They also want to revive the national reconciliation process and ask Congress for more resources. On this, frankly, I'm disappointed they didn't also get to grips with the urgent question of ponies.

Bleg to Fr8ter

Commenter Fr8ter says Kuwait has banned Kyrgyz-registered (EX-) aircraft from landing or overflying the country, which is significant becase all flights from the south to Iraq enter Iraqi airspace over Kuwait. But the Dubai and Sharjah airport sites continue to show several flights a day to Baghdad and elsewhere, operated by British Gulf International and Click AW - whose aircraft are all EX-registry. Any clues?

What planet is he on?

Can Iain Dale really be so ignorant of the world as to wonder why no-one votes Conservative in Rotherham?

Please. A bit of humility would be becoming. Responsibility is too much to ask, I realise, but it's because you shut down their steelworks.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The what and the why

Not at all sure what to make of this UN Expert Panel report on Somalia. Some things are clear enough, for example that Ethiopia is supporting the old not-government and Eritrea the Islamic Courts in order to piss off the Ethiopians. But what is all this James Bond stuff about Iranians trading arms for uranium?

All Iranian-uranium stories must be subject to a large bullshit adjustment for the very simple reason that Iran has uranium mines on its own territory. I've never heard of uranium in Somalia, but I am willing to be informed by any experts who may be around. Equally, what is this tale of 700-odd Somali volunteers going to Lebanon to fight with Hezbollah? It seems very unlikely - after all, before the Courts' success, the airport wasn't operational. The only ones that were working are in Puntland or other warlord territories, which means we are expected to believe that they happily permitted several 747-loads of their enemies to transit their territories. On arrival, they would have had to transit the roads under the Israeli air force's nose, to say nothing of the Maronites' and Druzes' intelligence services.

And, of course, wouldn't they have been a wee bit conspicuous in Lebanon? According to other newspaper reports, they are meant to have arrived there in the heart of the war, and then gone again - not infiltrating over the border in dribs and drabs, but showing up as a battalion-sized chunk. This sounds very much like the Dr. Evil theory of state sponsorship at work.

Update: 1225GMT, 16/11/06: Israeli UN mission sez they never saw any Somalis up north. Plot thickens.

BRD outbreak rages!

David Axe is out with the Queen's Royal Hussars group again, and he is still in the grip of raging Brit Romanticisation Disorder. Please, enough with the Lawrence of Arabia stuff. Or, well, get a room, or a secluded tent at least.

More seriously, he's impressed by the tactics and the determination to keep the support structure and insult to society to a minimum. Very wise, I agree. But it gives little sense of security. The weekend's IED attack on a boat in central Basra, with four dead, shows a continuing deterioration of security in southern Iraq. The explosion occurred not far from the Old State Building camp, under a pontoon bridge - it should surely be worrying that bombs get under one of the main bridges over the Shatt al-Arab. Last week, another soldier was shot by a sniper inside the same camp. The zone of insecurity is widening.

So how is the C-130 explosion-suppressant foam getting on? When Labouchere calls for stores or reinforcement that won't fit in a Merlin chopper, one of the RAF's Hercules fleet makes a tactical landing at a flat bit of desert chosen by the troops and makes off as swiftly as possible. So far, after the aircrews' rebellion over the loss of XV179, there are a total of 2 Hercules with the foam installed. The problem is that Marshall Aerospace in Cambridge has done the sort of thing your dad did with that IKEA wardrobe with the first plane.

They got the foam in there all right, but they had some trouble getting the plane back together. I'm not informed whether there were any bits left over, but when they tried to fill the tanks, deliciously inflammable kerosene drifted out of sloppy cracks and soaked the whole thing. A wee spark would have fieryd-up the ship and all who sailed in her.

A Bosnian strategy

Not so long ago, the Indy's Patrick Cockburn suggested that the Sunni insurgents - the New-Old Iraqi Army, as I call them - are pursuing a strategy of encirclement as a counter to the Shia majority in Baghdad, pressing hard around Baqubah and Muqdadiyah to the north and the Mahmoudiyah/Iskandariyah area to the south in order to control the road and rail exits from the city. There has been a great deal of fighting in these places, and the Baqubah area has been very bad recently. It's in Diyala province, which is a near-even mix religiously, and commands the last major road out of Shia Baghdad. Cockburn's sources described a typical process - a big bang, then the intimidation of the police, then the elimination of local businesses so as to force everyone else out. Then, Sunni refugees from Baghdad appear in a convoy and move in. No doubt they will be asked to find a self-defence force, as was done in 1940 in the Warthegau of German-occupied Poland.

The NYT reports on the counterstrategy, which is to do the same to the Sunnis on the remaining road out in the hope of incorporating that territory in the future Shia state. The ethnic cleansing is indeed under way. It's a horrible old European story - kill one lot, move them out, find enough of yours to secure the ground.

Here is a useful suggestion, now that the field is apparently open to useful suggestions - in the interval between now and withdrawal, the Coalition and the Iraqi government should declare the neutralisation of the roads north and south out of Baghdad, and bomb the hell out of anyone who interferes. If you want a humanitarian intervention, permitting the citizenry to escape Baghdad is it, as is staving off either an assault by the NOIA or a breakout by the SCIRI a while longer.

Update, 1231GMT 16/11/06: The Saudis are shitting bricks, as are the Syrians, the Turks and the GCC. But can we not take up Nawaf Obeid of CSIS on his suggestion, though? The last thing we need is Saudi Arabia warning Iran that, unless it stops it's messing around, the Saudis will start their own proxy-war effort in Iraq. To be filed under "fighting fires with petrol".

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Confoblogging: Trust, consent, and standards

"How would a Galileo-based road pricing scheme fit into the code of practice requirement of a direct relationship with the user?" Good fucking question. We've got David Smith, the deputy information commissioner, and among others Richard Clayton of the Cambridge Computer Lab's security engineering group - that's right, the guy from Light Blue Touchpaper - to argue the point.

Clayton: "We mistake data protection for privacy and vice versa. We mistake statistical data mining for precise knowledge of events. Most of all, the politicians and the systems builders must realise that when it matters, people cheat."

Now, Bowden asks a question from the floor regarding user notification on behalf of Ben "Badscience" Goldacre, thus soaring in my estimation.

Confoblogging: The NIR and the surveillance that goes with it

Gareth Crossman of Liberty: "The only way the National Identity Register can fight terrorism is if the amount of information on it is increased to make profiling possible." Next up: Simon Watkin. Former head of David Blunkett's private office at the Home Office, he now runs the HO's Covert Investigations Policy team and the ACPO steering group on covert investigation. To put it another way, he's responsible for all the stuff I despise. We shall try to be civil.

"I am currently looking into an anecdote in which a member of a public authority acted in their own interest rather than the public interest," he says. What can he mean? "Public authorities are constantly coming to us, wanting to spy on the public. We say, have you done so in the past? No. So why do you want to? Because, well, we might, they say. That isn't enough."

Interestingly, he suggests that a much more serious criminal offence of abusing private data is needed. That might actually happen; it involves a new crime and more powers, after all.

We now have a panel discussion chaired by Casper Bowden of Microsoft. "We need to think of a new kind of personal data, this behavioural, tracking data, and how we can bring it in front of the user, create an interface for the user to reach into their data shadow," he says. This is a running theme - Hailes also mentioned the lack of a user interface to the embedded systems world.

Watkin suggests that public authorities ought to be subject to a "privacy impact assessment". Not a bad idea. Bowden remarks that it's been tried in Canada, but it will have to be carried out by experts - and independent experts, or perhaps a statutory "privacy regulator." He also points out that with a weak regulatory environment, there is no incentive to make the kind of investment in security engineering required to make embedded, self-organising networks both secure and private.

When I asked him if he thought such an assessment should be required by the government's procurement process, and if in that case he thought the NIR would have passed Main Gate Review, Watkin stated that he tried not to talk about ID cards and that he was not responsible for them, and refused to speak on-the-record.

Privacy: A Fine Balance

I'm currently at the Royal Society's "Privacy: A Fine Balance" conference, a DTI-sponsored shindig for eggheads, ubergeeks, cash grabbers and Home Office/defence industry control bureaucrats to thrash out digital rights issues. First speaker is Stephen Hailes of UCL, who's talking about embedded computing. He says that we need to realise that statistically, most multicellular life is insects - and it's the same with computing. 90 per cent of processors are microcontrollers - there are seven billion on the things on earth, rather more than there are people. And now they are getting networked.

As an example, he points to a device including a 250Kbits/s IEEE802.15.4 transceiver, a microcontroller, and a dab of Flash memory - a complete computer - the size of a one euro coin. But things get really interesting when you look at actuators. Karl Marx said that philosophers had analysed the world in different ways, but the point was to change it - which is what they do. "You can have a glucose sensor and an insulin pump connected by a wireless network - there are some interesting security implications from that. And it's not the future - here's the product," says Hailes.

"Fear of loss of control, the increased possibility of surveillance, profiling and security risks, new opportunities for crime, and the complexity of decision making processes within embedded systems" are the main concerns Hailes' research has raised. "Individuals are completely transparent - they feel they are not in control of these technologies but are controlled by the circuits in the car they buy from Ford. The power structures tend to be opaque."

MIT researchers gathered data on 100 students using Nokia 6600 phones and Bluetooth. Based on the lunchtime state of the database, it was possible to predict their activities for the rest of the day with 79% confidence - and their social group affiliations with 96%.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Watch out!

As usual for events that are meant to be a Turning Point in Iraq, temporary calm has been enforced by a total curfew and vehicle ban during Saddam's judgment. It works, of course, for a few days - but it can't last, as people have to buy food and go to work. Consider it a radical drug from a kit of extreme measures, only for use in a desperate crisis and to be dropped as soon as possible.

Reuters AlertNet reports that the curfew expires at 0600 local time tomorrow. That's 0300Z, 2300 US Eastern Standard Time - or in other words, in time for the first US news cycle on polling day. Haifa Street, a NOIA stronghold area, is around 400 yards from the Green Zone. Snipers have been active in the area for weeks to intimidate US and Iraqi patrols. They could also serve as a stopgroup to hold up relief from outside.

I doubt the NOIA will let their king hang without trying a spectacular.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

So much for the Iraqi curfew

Widely reported that, due to the verdict on Saddam, most of Iraq is under an indefinite curfew and the airport is closed. Except for British Gulf International and Click, though. Two flights from Baghdad arrived in Sharjah today.

05-Nov 12:30 Baghdad International Airport British Gulf International Airlines BGK 1234

05-Nov 15:30 Baghdad International Airport Click Airways CGK 914

And three are scheduled outbound to Baghdad.

05-Nov 23:45 Baghdad International Airport British Gulf International Airlines BGK 1233
05-Nov 23:45 Baghdad International Airport British Gulf International Airlines BGK 1232

06-Nov 03:00 Baghdad International Airport Click Airways CGK 913

Source: Sharjah Airport.

Book alert!

Le Monde reviews a new French book on the arms trade and our friend Viktor. Trafics d'armes : enquête sur les marchands de mort by Laurent Léger. The publisher is Flammarion. Another review here suggests that the author succeeded in interviewing Michel Victor-Thomas, the French aviation identity who co-founded TAN Aviation Network NV in Ostend with Viktor Bout, the company that was transferred to CET Aviation in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea and Transavia Travel in Sharjah when they were run out of town.

In a possibly related incident, I'm getting a lot of googlers for "viktor bout sarkozy". What on earth can be going on?

A double dose of hypocrisy

A non-Christian demands that everyone else in Europe become Christian, or more so if they are already, and someone immediately leaps in to defend her by arguing that it is "risible" that the generation who are fighting the war she propagandised "would fight for anything more than a football team."

One of the sickest things about this war has been the number of people whose only contribution to it has been tendentious ranting who seem to think that the people who are actually fighting aren't up to it.

Talking to Iran, part 3

Right, I've already given reasons why it's urgently necessary to start staff talks with Iran about how we can get out of Iraq. Someone asked what incentive the Iranians had to participate. I suggested, essentially, that they would rather not have us shoot our way out with AC-130s down Highway 8. Well, here's a better answer. From Reuters AlertNet:
Iran said on Sunday it would consider entering talks with the United States on security in Iraq if it received an official request.

Talks with between Washington and Tehran are expected to be one option for quelling violence in Iraq to be suggested in a report due out from the Iraq Study Group, a U.S. bipartisan commission headed by former secretary of state James Baker.

But the idea has previously been rejected by U.S. President George W. Bush. The United States accuses Iran of aiding the insurgency and stoking sectarian strife in Iraq, a charge Tehran denies.

Asked if Iran should talk directly to the United States about security in Iraq, Tehran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said: "If they officially ask for that, it will be reviewed by Iran.

"At the present time, some American and Iraqi officials have raised the question of a dialogue. If we receive such a request we are ready to examine it."

Saving the planet in the slowest possible way

This pissed me off all week. Yesterday, the world's biggest container ship, M/V Emma Maersk arrived in Felixstowe on her first trip from China to Europe. There has been a degree of pre-Christmas hype about this sailing, revolving around the notion that she is packed with nothing but Christmas presents-to-be. This may be a little off target, as Marc Levinson notes in his history of container shipping, The Box: only one-third of containers transiting Long Beach in 1998 contained consumer goods, the rest being stuffed with intermediate inputs to some industrial process or other. It is, however, an interesting culture echo - Peter Davidson mentions in The Idea of North that Holland is the only country in Europe where Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas doesn't come from the north, instead coming from Spain on a steamship.

Anyway, Green MEP for the South-East, Dr. Caroline Lucas is furious about the arrival of the Emma Maersk.
""These are the goods that Europe used to make. We are faced with a country that has an almost absolute advantage in an increasing number of sectors. This a triumph for multinational capital, not for Chinese workers who, as well as suffering from some of the worst labour exploitation on record, are also losing jobs at a phenomenal rate," she said.

The real cost of the goods that the Emma Maersk is bringing in should include the environment, the markets destroyed in developing countries and the millions of jobs lost."
The enviroment, eh? According to the Department of Transport, a container ship uses some 0.12MJ of energy per kilometre and a truck as much as 1.2. Plugging in the numbers for a wholly notional trip of 10,000 KM, and noting that the Emma's capacity is given as 14,500 TEU=7,250 trucks, we get energy usage of 83,333MJ for the ship with a full load. But if the trucks only go 50 kilometres away from the docks, they have already hugely exceeded that. 7,250x1.2=8,700. Multiplied by 50 that's 435,000MJ of energy use - and that isn't even as far as London.

Further, I struggle to see why poorer people in China should be made poorer in order to repatriate low-value manufacturing industries. After all, what kind of a tariff would it take to make Chinese products uncompetitive? I can't see this happening without big wage cuts for the prospective European workers. After all, though, presumably it won't be Lucas's south-eastern constituents who are asked to take a pay cut and a worse job. It'll be the, ahem, working class.

What on Earth is a Green doing talking the crudest and most aggressive 1980s Tory's book? We must slash labour costs to compete with China! Keep slashing! Until we're cheaper than the Chinese! Presumably, Dr. Lucas hasn't given up the rest of the Green platform, which (rightly) wants a massive reconstruction of the UK's transport infrastructure, power grid and housing stock. But any such drive to bring back toy assembly jobs would compete directly with infrastructure projects for short-supply trades - an electrician wiring a new factory can't simultaneously work on an offshore wind turbine.

Charlie Stross predicted, years ago, that environmentalism might split into an anti-technology faction and a "green extropian" one. I think he is right. There is a more fundamental fault line here than the famous realo/fundi divide of the 1980s, which was more like the traditional debate on the Left between democratic change and revolution. On the one hand you have the Worldchanging crowd, who are solution-focused and technophile, on the other you have a spectrum of PR greens from Diddy Dave Cameron to Greenpeace (a great week they chose to try to shut down Didcot power station, no?), the remaining 70s/80s social-revolutionary types, and the increasingly nasty U.S-based apocalypse bunnies. I predict that the media-activists will be forced to choose, that the WC/Worldwatch ones will see their ideas sucked up into the mainstream, where they will have to watch closely that they do not become a figleaf for inaction, and the extremists will shade into the far right at the edges. I also second Blacktriangle's point here, who quotes the director of the Met Office Tyndall Centre complaining of the demand for "environmental drama and exaggerated rhetoric". I always thought some of the founding ideas of the Green movement were basis democracy and citizens' right to know, not debate-framing trickery and bullshit.

The serious stuff over, what about some gratuitous ship porn?

Emma Maersk

Update: To answer a comment, my point about Dr Lucas and labour is that she does not make clear, or does not realise, that making Chinese goods cost-prohibitive would go beyond what could be done with a tariff - a new industry would sprout overnight taking goods out of boxes and putting them back in to disguise their source. As the cost of capital and capital goods is probably equal, and the cost of land far higher in Europe, something has to give. The something is wages.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Best visit ever

Yesterday, October 31st, at 1126 Central European Time, we had the following entry in the server log... [entrypoint #424] 2006/10/carrierwatch-update_30.html
Oct 31, 11:26:28 [0:00:00] views: 1
Proxy: noca-b1.uar.navy.mil - CVN65UCSDC2, 1.0
webc2.uar.navy.mil:80 (squid/2.5.STABLE3)

That is to say, someone aboard CVN-65, the USS Enterprise, read this post. You know who you are. You know where the comments are, too.

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