Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Sion Simon: Ignorant.

On Newsnight last night, Blairite fatster Sion Simon MP demonstrated that he is too stupid to be trusted with glue. And Jeremy Paxman demonstrated that he no longer has any credibility, but we'll get to that later.

Well, let's deal with the fool before the knave. Simon was on the show to defend the government against trade unionists who are angry about private-equity funds buying into their employers. Now, there are a number of arguments you can have about this, for example whether the private-equity guys are more likely to squeeze the company for cash, or whether their ability to ignore the stock market is likely to offer stability.

But Simon wasn't going to be bothered with any flummery about efficient capital markets, contestability, or similar rot. When the GMB representative he was facing suggested that the government should end subsidies to private equity, Simon pigged at the cam and snarled, several times, that "there is no subsidy!"

He doesn't know what he's talking about. Private-equity funds typically borrow heavily to buy into target companies, thus benefiting from leverage. This is crucial, because the tax system treats two forms of return to capital very differently. Dividends, paid to shareholders, are taxable. Interest, paid to creditors, is considered a cost of doing business and is tax-deductible. This is a subsidy to capitalists who use debt financing rather than equity financing, such as private equity funds.

Interestingly, nobody really knows why this is so - the convention that interest is tax-deductible began in the 19th century for no very clear reason. But the last person to ask about it is clearly Sion Simon MP.

Paxman, and many others: Sick.

Whilst I'm on the topic of last night's TV: what the fucking fuck is fucking Jeremy Paxman doing pretending not to know the basic facts on the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act 2001?

Recap: this legislation made it possible to deport or lock up foreign nationals on the basis of secret evidence, which did not have to be disclosed to a court or to the detained. Their only legal recourse under ATCSA is to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, SIAC, which hears their cases in camera, the detainee being represented by a special advocate approved by the government. Even he, though, doesn't necessarily get to see the full case.

Now, recently, ATCSA has been used in an attempt to get rid of some people who were originally subject to the iniquitous, no-evidence "control orders" before they were struck down by the courts. Most recently, the alleged spiritual leader of Al-Qa'ida in Europe, Abu Qatada, failed in an appeal to SIAC against his deportation to Jordan.

SIAC ruled, it seems, that because the Jordanians had promised not to torture him, he would be perfectly safe there, and therefore his deportation would be lawful. They promised, see. Not that this protected another man who was deported to Algeria in a similar case, and was promptly locked up despite the fact the Algerians promised not to lock him up. But, apparently, they promised, so that's all right.

We could stop at this juncture to debate whether the fact a powerful actor promised not to do something is any kind of security, especially when that actor is a sovereign state, or whether a judge has any business relying on promises as an argument to trump the law. But we won't. We've had these arguments many, many times already.

But what Jeremy Paxman thinks he is doing in shouting at some chap from Amnesty that "he KNOWS the charges against him! he KNOWS the evidence!", when the whole point of the case is that he DOESN'T and neither does anybody else (did you know that the SIAC judgment is going to appear in two versions, one secret and one public?), well, that goes beyond me.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A close shave

Apparently, the Red Army in Afghanistan called the kind of raid it calls a "zachistka" in Chechnya a "prichyoska" or haircut. "An unnecessarily brutal cordon-and-search operation, sir, and something for the weekend?"

YouTube and the "series of tubes"

Looking at this inspiring achievement, I fell to wondering exactly how YouTube is serving up its videos. Now, so far I can remember seeing YouTube content from hostnames with the form lax-vXX.lax.youtube.com or ash-vXX.ash.youtube.com, where the x stands for an arbitrary number. Clearly those are either LA or Ashburn, Virginia, where the big Equinix East Coast IX is located.

What interests me, though, is whether or not YouTube makes any effort to serve files topologically close to the user. They don't use any multicast or CDN-ing, so do they just dump the stuff out there, or do they traffic-engineer at all? Now, being in the UK, I'd expect to get ash.youtube.com all the time, but I don't - it seems to be about equally likely to come from Ashburn or LA. Now, if you were trying to shorten the haul, a simple way of doing it would be to replicate content between the two data centres and do some form of traffic engineering. That would also allow fail-over between them, which is nice.

YouTube might be doing this, but something else as well. For example, they might be working on the principle of serving from the nearest data centre, but also load-balancing across them, so you would get the nearest unless it's congested. Alternatively, they might just be accepting uploads to whichever data centre and then pouring it forth.

Now, I seem to recall seeing somewhere that they account for 20Gbps/s of outbound traffic, rising fast. That was back in June last year. Their own blog claims 45 terabytes a day, i.e. 52 GBytes a second. What would be interesting to know would be the average number of times one of their items is viewed, which would give an idea of the net imbalance between their upstream and downstream traffic. In so far as the two match, YouTube could cover this through peering - after all, it might as well be a fair-sized ISP. But the excess outbound traffic is what they have to pay for.

Now, I did a quick check on the selection of "most viewed" videos. With the top one being viewed 553,934 times and the bottom 6,837, I used the Malatesta estimator to arrive at an estimate of 196,270 views for a top-100 video. Supposedly, 100 million clips a day are accessed, but it's not clear whether those are unique - does anyone know how many are on there? But if the top 100 accounts for, say, 60 per cent of the viewing, we'd be looking at a figure of, say, 270,000 views per vid, with a highly skewed distribution.

To put it another way, YouTube is a giant copying machine, that kicks out 270,000 bytes for every byte it takes in. Call it the content replication factor. Because the replication takes place at source, and the replicated traffic has to be carried over the backbone network, this implies that essentially all YouTube's traffic requirement must be covered by paid-for transit, which costs about $20/Mbits-sec/month at this scale. That would be - ouch - $8 million a month...

And at that price, you certainly don't want things like this happening:

11 t3-1.mpd01.dca01.atlas.cogentco.com ( 165.207 ms 108.370 ms 112.946 ms
12 t9-3.mpd01.iah01.atlas.cogentco.com ( 186.815 ms 186.259 ms 191.197 ms
13 t7-1.mpd01.lax01.atlas.cogentco.com ( 231.125 ms 187.475 ms 188.842 ms
14 t4-2.mpd01.lax05.atlas.cogentco.com ( 187.148 ms 187.109 ms 191.818 ms
15 g0-3.na21.b015619-0.iah01.atlas.cogentco.com ( 174.083 ms 175.773 ms 174.523 ms
16 ( 350.527 ms 278.645 ms 202.520 ms
17 ash-v83.ash.youtube.com ( 184.436 ms 183.616 ms 182.910 ms


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Support Iraqi democrats

This time, Blair seems to mean it about British troops beginning to draw-down their presence in southern Iraq. All the usual provisos still apply - so far, it's just part of the extra force that is going, and the last squaddie is scheduled to leave in three Friedman units' time, like he has been since 2003. But this time we have a timetable within one Friedman and a number.

So it's time to talk seriously about the people who have worked for us in Iraq. The Americans are only accepting risible numbers of refugees. 50 per cent of Iraqi refugees in Europe are in Sweden. It won't do to claim that the situation is peachy in Iraq. The interpreters, for example, are marked men.

Back in August, 2005 I said that
Unfortunately, the best form of support the British Left can offer secular Iraqis would be to countersign their applications for political asylum. I think someone suggested this recently - perhaps we could get a Pledgebank going?
The government is still trying to force existing refugees onto aeroplanes to Irbil in Kurdistan, this being the only place not so dangerous that the law would forbid it - apparently, if you get killed between Irbil and home that's OK. It's high time that we went operational on this.

Method, not ideology

Over the last few months, I've done a succession of posts which can be read under the tag TWOS, for the war on stupidity, which explore various forms of ideology and consensus. More related posts will be tagged as I go. But is this just an exercise in pooflinging? Beyond tirades about managerialism, Tony Blair, bad engineering, and other stupidity-generating institutions, does TYR offer anything? Daniel Davies, of course, would argue that poo-flinging is indeed enough, for a variety of reasons.

He's right, up to a point. After all, when the forces marshalled behind incredibly bad ideas are so powerful, who would want to waste time discussing alternatives when you could be concentrating your fire, or rather poo, on the enemy? And his rationale - that most people can identify the flaws in a proposal, but coming up with ones that have fewer requires ability - is reasonably persuasive.

But I think this doesn't go far enough. Stupidity in organisations is like noise in information systems. Claude Shannon worked this stuff out at Bell Labs in the 1940s, when he theorised that the factor governing the informational throughput of any communication channel, all other things being equal, was the error-rate. Therefore, for a given bandwidth, the fastest link is the one with the better error-cancelling procedure.

We can see similar processes at work throughout the natural world, and throughout society. Evolution, markets, debate - these are all processes that create a big pool of errors, and then use a stupidity-elimination process to sieve out the least silly. Then shuffle, recombine, iterate, and destupidify. The persuasive force of this is well shown by simple computer simulations - like this one, ICE, which aims to defeat the argument against evolution from irreducible complexity. ICE sets a simple challenge, to catch as many randomly dropped balls as possible using crosses on a grid. Its organisms are randomly-generated, then tested and ranked in order of fitness. Then they are recombined, with random changes, and the whole thing is run again, with those below a threshold level eliminated. Evolution is visible within two or three iterations.

So, here we are at my first point. The Redwood consensus, as we identified in this post, relies on the creation of anxiety about security issues that the core executive of the state can offer relief for, as a substitute for anxiety about economic issues that the state will offer no relief for. It further assumes that a managerialist elite consensus knows what to do on all issues.

Clearly, this is highly stupidogenic. Managerialism relies, after all, on the use of pseudo-scientific methods to enforce compliance with the managers' a priori beliefs. The deliberate exemption of a large sector of the political sphere from normal debate is at the heart of the consensus - UK-US relations, control of drugs and borders, the workplace. Where de-stupidising processes are not at work, stupidity accumulates.

Therefore, we need a more hostile memetic environment.

But that's not all. If we want faster memetic evolution, as well as sharpening the stupidity-remover's blade, we need to increase the size of the pool of errors behind it. I've said before that I can't understand why conservatives, and for that matter right-libertarians, think that innovation is best encouraged when the cost of failure is maximised and the barriers to entry high. Consider the experiment Jonah Lehrer describes here, in which monkeys were raised in three environments of varying richness. Poverty of experience had visible effects on the monkeys' brains. Interestingly, though, the benefits of a richer childhood showed diminishing returns - above a certain point, the monkeys derived no further benefit.

Now think of society. Can anyone seriously argue that a few percentage points shaved off Bill Gates' income would deter any significant innovation? Can anyone seriously deny that a few tens of millions of dollars wouldn't have a seriously beneficial effect on a significant number of children in, say, Africa? (Bill Gates certainly wouldn't, after all, as he is giving substantial amounts of his money to them.) Just as importantly, trying to do anything new needs space, time, and freedom. And, as we pointed out, there is a sense in which greater equality is greater freedom.

But wait. Isn't this contrary to our first principle? Might there be some awful social failure mode concealed in a left-libertarian utopia? You'd be right. If there's one philosophy that has achieved more than any other and is still to cause any pyramids of skulls, it's scepticism.

Now, scepticism may not tell us very much about what to try, but it does have a built-in stupidity-reduction process. Even if you're a fascist, if you are a coherent sceptic you won't be able to do too much damage. Whatever your ideology, it doesn't matter, so long as you get your methodology right. Rather than thinking about end-states, utopias, and anti-utopias, wouldn't it be a more robust practice to think about processes, methods, and principles that minimise stupidity and maximise creativity? Another lesson from evolution is that incremental steps towards problem-solving are more likely to hit the target than revolutionary change.

This brings us back to the importance of negativity as a creative force. If democratic participation, evidence-based policy, and other nostrums are to have any meaning, they must have one vital feature - they must be able to force the government, the management, or whoever to change course. This is what Tony Blair's friends fail to realise whilst havering about "engagement", "community" and other pabulum - it won't gain anyone's trust whilst the only result of a negative answer is that Blair's office sends out millions of e-mails to tell the citizens that they are stupid.

One of the most important reasons we need stupidity-removing institutions is control lag, coupled with the salience heuristic. As a rule, people overestimate the importance of the loud, the obvious, the dramatic, and the immediate. Equally, they find it difficult to manipulate anything when the response to their actions is delayed or ambiguous - an excellent example is Goodhart's law. Lag tends to cause exaggerated control input - the longer you wait, the greater the temptation to press the button again. (Two words: John Reid.) The end result can be a positive feedback loop, with the deviations getting bigger and bigger as you struggle to get ahead of the cycle.

It's another reason why politics should be difficult. It's also an argument against hierarchy. John Boyd's concept of the OODA loop, drawn from his experience as a fighter pilot, argues that in any competitive activity, the actor with the fastest process of observation, orientation, decision, and action will win. Boyd argued that this implied a flatter command structure for the military, among many other things. Similarly, David Stirling originally thought that the SAS's four-man teams would prevent a leader emerging in each. Empirical data shows that small teams capture most of the benefits of aggregating information. At a lower level, lag and information loss are always less the shorter the link. People who actually do the job usually know how it works, and anyway will find out first if they are wrong.

To recap briefly: ideas are not the problem, as they will be generated in conditions of freedom and maximised horizontal exchange. Stupidity elimination is the problem. Hierarchy is the problem, management is not the problem. Final goal targets are not the problem, psuedo-statistics is the problem.

And most importantly of all, if we're serious about a new left-wing consensus, we ought to install it on top of a sceptical operating system.

The party of business, again

Anyone remember this post from March last year? The Tories somehow managed to swing a deal on the freehold of their HQ in Smith Square that would have left them paying a yield of 6.42% to the buyer, a £2.2m hit to cashflow. I had originally had the impression that the deal had been suspiciously profitable, but it turned out that the Tories lost on it.

Anyway, since then, there has been some more hot, filthy, frenzied property action down in SW1. And, it turns out, Minitrue has news. Specifically, the property wasn't bought, but a mysterious British Virgin Islands entity which owned it was. The sale netted precisely the £30m Jonathan Marsland said it would, but this company has been kept in existence despite the sale of its only assets. Funny that.

Beer for Bloggers

It's come to my attention, again, that the fine Samuel Smith's Brewery of Tadcaster, West Yorkshire produces beer that a nontrivial number of bloggers enjoy and recommend. Smiths is best-known outside Yorkshire and the real ale community for the clutch of pubs it owns in central London, much favoured for their low prices and scruffy ambience. Exhibit A: Brad of Sadly, No! brandishes a Smiths glass. Exhibit B: Alex "WorldChanging" Steffen advocates sustainable lager. Exhibit C: well, me, really. Sam Smiths: top bloggers recommend it.

Caffeine Bomb!

I recall a fellow student at RHUL, an American, who argued constantly that this-or-that detail of Chinese economic growth meant that democracy in China was imminent and George Bush was right. So thought Thomas Friedman, whose The Lexus and the Olive Tree was at the time a set text on our course (MSc International Relations!). I still haven't read it.

So also thought Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who said this:
No middle class is content with more choices of coffees than of candidates on a ballot.
Syntax more never, style atrocious and, tortured I see did. More seriously, what the hell did he mean? Unless I have been tragically misled, the US middle class has a rich choice of coffees and a choice between two political parties.

Even more seriously, there is a solid track-record of rapidly industrialising middle classes swinging over to really deranged politics. See Wilhelmine Germany, Austria in the same period, Japan, and perhaps some more recent cases, like the South Korean military dictatorship.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Show me all those snowpeaked mountains way down south

Because, on top of one of 'em, there's a great big phased-array radar, pointing right down to Saudi Arabia. Check out this paper by Pavel Podvig of RussianForces, and scroll right to the bottom for the radar coverage map. Alternatively, there's this Globalsecurity.org page, which is rather out of date. But the key point is that the Russians have a large phased-array radar down in Gabala, Azerbaijan, with enough range to cover the vast majority of Iranian territory, Iraq, the Gulf, and northern Saudi Arabia. The only bit of Iran it can't see is the hardscrabble desert down on the Pakistani border, a long way from anywhere. On the other hand, everywhere in that part of the world near anywhere is covered.

Fascinating, no?

Meanwhile, is anyone concerned about some details regarding the Trident decision? Consider the White Paper, and specifically the possible cases it gives. Three options are given - one is the obvious one of buying the next US SLBM system, another is the silly one of a homegrown ICBM system, and another suggests the procurement of a force of large airliners and the development of a new very long-range cruise missile.

Neatly, the stated alternatives are all knockout arguments for the favoured option. Option 2, a helpful graphic explains, would require missiles to be placed in every corner of the nation (subtext: will affect house prices in your constituency) in order to match the dispersal provided by a submarine patrol area. It would of course also require inventing a brand-new huge rocket. Option 3 is blatantly silly, indeed dishonest.

The RAF is in the process of buying some new aeroplanes - specifically, the Eurofighter Typhoon's later variants are intended to be the best strike fighters in the world. They are capable of carrying the Anglo-French Stormshadow cruise missile, with a range of 200 miles. If it was given a nuclear warhead, and all the options assume that AWRE Aldermaston would develop one, that would be enough to attack Moscow with a degree of certainty. But inventing a whole new cruise missile, one with enough range to be launched from a large civilian aircraft, which is what Option 3 assumes - well, that's going to be absurdly expensive. After all, an airliner-as-bomber would have to launch well away from any possible air defence, unlike a Typhoon or for that matter an F-35.

Note the classic bureaucratic technique. Pre-filtering means that the choice presented to mere democrats is kept down to a choice between the impossible and the expedient. And what is the problem with the cheapest and most independent option? Silence...

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The freedom to get crushed by a crane jib

Via comments at Our Word, Rob makes this excellent point.
It’s always struck me as a serious tactical mistake for those on the left to argue against laissez-faire on the grounds that it deprives people of economic security, because this hands a powerful rhetoric of liberty to the right, who basically only care about it for rich people. The sensible thing to say is that what redistributive transfers to is redistribute freedom: money is general all-purpose means to doing things, and taking it from one person and giving it to someone else doesn’t of itself create or destroy freedom, but redistribute it...

The point isn’t conceptual - freedom from want is probably a kind of security - but practical or political: rhetorically, saying something is a kind of freedom is pretty powerful. Stripping the libertarian-right of a quasi-monopoly of a discourse of freedom would be, I think, a generally good thing.
I've never understood a particular point of conservative discourse, which is that a) it's good that people should take risks, start new businesses, invent things etc and b) this can best be achieved by worsening the consequences of failure. I entirely agree with the first half of the point, but it's the second I don't get. If you work in the kind of organisation where you get told "It's not your job to use your initiative!", you're not unionised, and the consequences of being fired are maximally dreadful, you're unlikely to have any good ideas.

I think this point is getting increasingly important. I don't believe any more, if I ever did, that nationalising a lot of stuff is going to help anything - it's not the differences, but the similarities, between big hierarchical organisations in the private and public sectors that are impressive. And frankly, I don't expect much from Blairism-and-water politics. Says Chris Dillow:
why, if a centrally planned economy is a stinking idea, should a centrally planned company be a good one?

Wrong Way - Go Back

Failed states and warzones, like Iraq, create a plume of violence downwind of them, like burning oilwells. Iraqslogger:
Sulaimaniyah, Feb 17, (VOI)- Iraq's Kurdistan region border guards arrested on Saturday two persons while trying to smuggle arms to Iran, an official at Sulaimaniyah border guards department said. "The border guards arrested today two persons trying to illegally cross the Iraqi borders to Iran and confiscated 115 pistols found hidden in their car," Brigadier Ahmed Gharib told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI). He added "the arrested smugglers were handed over to Sulaimaniyah security department." Sualimaniyah border guards man checkpoints along the borderline with Iran.
Maybe they know where the WMDs are?

Posted without comment

BBC News:
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has said the operation to hand over frontline security in Basra to Iraqi troops had been "completed" and been "successful".

Asked about reports he would announce within weeks an effective halving of UK troop numbers in Iraq, he told the BBC's Sunday AM: "Let's wait and see."

He said Iraqi forces were in "control of frontline security in the city"...


"The issue is the operation that we have been conducting in Basra is now complete and that operation has specifically been to put the Iraqi forces in the main frontline control of security within the city.

"It's actually been successful as an operation and as a result of that there's reconstruction that's come in behind it and we've been able to make real progress."
Reuters DeathWatch:
BASRA, Iraq, Feb 18 (Reuters) - British forces clashed with gunmen armed with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades in a Shi'ite militia stronghold of the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Sunday, killing at least three, Iraqi police said.

The British military confirmed the clashes, saying its soldiers had been supporting Iraqi troops on a "strike operation" in the northern slum area of Hayaniya when they came under attack.

"There were numerous attacks with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades," said British military spokesman Major David Gell.

"We returned fire using proportional force. A number of gunmen are reported to have been shot, but we have no confirmation of casualties."

A man alone ain't..

Simulated Laughter reads an al-Qa'ida document and asks if the terrorist disorganisation is moving to a new phase of "lone wolf" individualised terrorism. They argue that this would be a very bad thing. I disagree. I suspect the core of the disagreement is probably a cognitive framework issue.

Laughter argues that the worst acts of terrorism, short of the obvious, in the US have been the work of such "lone gunmen", for example the Oklahoma City bombing, and works from there to conclude that Al-Qa'ida lone gunmen would be even worse. Thinking in terms of the IRA and the history of guerrilla warfare, I reckon that these acts are very rarely effective in terms of the terrorist's aims. More broadly, it's arguable that the "propaganda of the deed" has never been an effective strategy - compare the history of the 20th century and the gap between the effectiveness of anarchist individual terror and Marxist (or anarcho-syndicalist) organising.

After all, if your beef is with State power, it makes no sense to give the state more opportunities to implement repression. Repression is something the state has a significant comparative advantage in producing. It loves the stuff. And, historically, theories of "backlash" and such are usually either wishful thinking, or an effort to torment the working class into revolution.

On substantives, I suspect the effectiveness of such "lone wolves" in producing terrorism would be quite a lot less than the existing network model. In fact, I think I'm going to pick up the ball in terms of IT analogies applied to terrorism, and boot it further down the road. Successful 4GW organisations/disorganisations display not just scale-free networking, but service-oriented architecture. In organising an attack, the highly-connected nodes in the network draw on services provided by others on an ad-hoc basis. For example, someone may have access to secure money transfers, Linux clue, explosives, contacts, without necessarily being very connected to the terrorists. The organisational model sees the highly-connected nonleaders, if that is a word (and it should be), grab bits and pieces from participants (witting or otherwise) in adjacent networks and combine them into an act of war.

What would make this model more dangerous, and partly fulfil SL's conclusions, would be if the proportion of these services that have to be sourced within the worldwide jihadi movement was to fall.

Surging insurgents

Remember this post?

It looks to me like they cut back their activities over Christmas, whilst it was on the table. But now, with this explicitly rejected, and the talk of "the 80 per cent solution" and such..well, all that keeps it from being a betrayal is that there was no explicit offer, at least not that we know of. More likely, the message communicated is that the Americans need a punch in the mouth before they will talk sense. Worse, the obvious counter-strategy to a "tilt to the Shia" is to provoke the Sadrists, thus cutting the 60 per cent of Shia in half.

Like Spinal Tap, their amps go up to 11. And their DShKa machine guns go up to 8,000 feet.
Well, well, well. NYT:
Seized near Baghdad, the documents reflect the insurgents’ military preparations from late last year, including plans for attacking aircraft using a variety of weapons.

Officials say they are a fresh indication that the United States is facing an array of “adaptive” adversaries in Iraq, enemies who are likely to step up their attacks as American forces expand their efforts to secure Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.

“Attacks on coalition aircraft probably will increase if helicopter missions expand during the latest phase of the Baghdad Security Plan or if insurgents seek to emulate their recent successes,” notes the intelligence report, which analyzes the recent helicopter crashes.

The American military has said that seven helicopters have been downed since Jan. 20, a figure that exceeds the total number of coalition aircraft shot down in 2006.


The intelligence report supports the concerns expressed by an American general this month that militants were adapting their tactics in an effort to step up attacks against helicopters. Such strikes have increased since the United States expanded its military operations in Baghdad in August. From December to January, the number of antiaircraft attacks rose by 17 percent, according to an American military report.

Insurgents in Iraq have boasted about the helicopter downings and posted video of some of the wreckage on militant Web sites. While Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has claimed it has “new ways” to shoot down the aircraft, some American analysts believe they are probably not employing new types of weapons but rather are making more effective use of arms already in their inventory.
Insert blogger triumphalism here.

Friday, February 16, 2007

This is officially getting ridiculous

This is now getting silly. Admiral Fallon, the head of CENTCOM, is saying that he has no idea who might be smuggling weapons into Iraq. General Pace of the JCS says he hasn't seen any evidence that the Iranian government is involved or even merely complicit. One wonders who the people at the "anonymous briefing" in Baghdad actually were. I'm beginning to feel more optimistic that we may have caught this meme before it left the ramp. (hat tip: DefenseTech, who also added to it by picking up on my EFP post.)

Apparently, the briefing in Baghdad was repeatedly called off as the content was redrafted, and the final result was hardly convincing. Now, we see that a further claim, that Steyr-Mannlicher sniper's rifles sold to Iran were turning up in Iraq, is struggling. We're that serious about it, we haven't even bothered to ask Steyr AG to look up the serial numbers. And, anyway, the rifle is now, ahem, open source hardware..
“Our weapons are copied around the world. It’s just like with pharmaceuticals, there are lots of imitations,” he added. [snip] Holzschuh however pointed out that the license for its HS50 rifles had “expired a long time ago,” making them easy to copy.
I mean, please...

All you need to know about the Tories

Tories? Tories? Did someone say Tories? Yes, they surely did..Teh Grauniad covers a speech by Alan Duncan, the shadow DTI Secretary, to the Centre for Policy Studies, on the topic of youth. Verbatim:
We need to empower teachers so that they can exert the control too many parents are unwilling or unable to exert," Mr Duncan, 49, will say.

"If there is no fear of authority, there is no respect for it. It cannot make sense in a civilised society for children of school age to face the discipline they need in court rather than in class or in the home.

"We are condemned to decline if adults and institutions remain unable to reclaim authority over younger people. Living out in real life the disturbing plot of William Golding's Lord of the Flies risks corroding Britain's well-being."
If there is no fear of authority, there is no respect for it. Christ on a bike. I think Mr Duncan needs to look up the meaning of the word "respect," and specifically the meanings that don't involve gangsters. But I doubt this is a mistake. What is conservatism if isn't the doctrine that we should all be scared into supporting hierarchy of one kind or another? This is Straussian and then some.

I was going to resist mocking Duncan over style, but I would love to know how you can live something out if not in real life, and I'd also like to know if he has read Lord of the Flies, whose plot involves the evacuation of children from Britain ahead of a nuclear war, the unprovoked shooting-down of their aircraft, their regression to savagery on a remote island where they worship the corpse of a pilot shot down during an air battle overhead, and eventually indulge in ritual murder. I should think our well-being would be more than rusty should this come to pass.

Duncan is a member, if I remember rightly, of the Tories' "libertarian" wing. Well, either it was always bullshit, or else ambition makes you look pretty ugly. But if you want to know the Tories' central message, let us take a look at David Cameron's pals. From the Oxford Student, I give you the Bullingdon club:
"...All 17 members were arrested for wrecking the cellar of the 15th century pub, the White Hart, in Fyfield.

17 bottles of wine were smashed into the walls of the pub after the civility of a gourmet meal descended into a brawl, leaving a trail of debris that was compared by eye-witnesses to a scene from the blitz. The inebriated members started fighting, leaving one with a deep cut to the cheek, and the landlord recalls attempting to pull apart the fi ghting parties, only to have them set on each other once more, exclaiming, “Sorry old chap, just a bit of high spirits."


he club was once banned from entering within a 15 mile radius of Oxford after all 550 windows of Christ Church’s Tom quad were smashed in one night.

‘I like the sound of breaking glass’ is one of the society’s mottos and particularly true of one member who, at L’Ortolan in Berkshire, took it upon himself to eat his wine glass rather than his Michelinstarred meal. At another infamous Bullingdon garden party, the club invited a string band to play and proceeded to destroy all of the instruments, including a Stradivarius...


That’s why Alexander Fellowes, at the White Hart, tipped the waitress £200, on top of all of the members paying for the damage inflicted. Our source described the White Hart landowner as “unfair” for reporting the matter to the police and as having “no sense of humour”. Most people, he adds, are willing to let such matters slide in exchange for the remuneration on offer."
That sounds violent, yobbish, uncivilised, lacking in respect for authority or indeed anybody else, and just plain fucking unpleasant in about equal parts. And it's the money that makes me want to vomit. But I confidently predict it ain't the Bullingdon boys old Liberty Duncan wants to scare.
The tailormade blue tailcoats cost at least £1,200 and a formal dinner, of which there are usually one or two a term, costs a flat rate of £100, although once damages are added the cost is far greater than this. Richer members may have to pay an even larger membership fee, sometimes approaching £10,000. Nonetheless, our source claims that there are still plenty of people who are rich enough to join, but claims that it is hard finding “the right kind of people”.
Nah, won't be them, will it. Anyway, more importantly, what's so great about respect for authority anyway? Authority is easy to respect, or at least to obey, which is what it actually wants. It will hit you with a stick if you don't, and might reward you if you do. What about respect for people who don't have authority? Waitresses, for example? Now, that takes effort. It's also far more like "respect" than the other kind, better termed...what..."subservience"? "obedience"? "arse-licking?"

Speaking of which, watch respectful Tory MEP Timothy Kirkhope oppose the publication of the EP torture flights report because the Council of Europe has also been at it.

Topology-aware P2P

A lot of ISP people are concerned about the volume of peer-to-peer traffic on their networks, especially thick stuff like video. To be more specific, they are usually concerned about the volume of P2P traffic their users draw from outside their networks, as after all, it's the extra upstream transit they pay for, or the upstream peers they piss off.

One well-known solution for the delivery of popular content across the Internet is a so-called content delivery network, in which the CDN operator places big servers in ISPs' data centres and fills them up with stuff. Then, the local DNS server is altered to point the downstream users at the CDN server, not the original source of the content. Therefore, the stuff is downloaded once over the wide-area network, and served many times in the local network. (The best-known one is Akamai.)

You could, theoretically, set up a box with lots of peer-to-peer clients running on it and seed the local network, but there is no guarantee your users would go there for their videos. This is because most (if not all) P2P clients are unaware of the network topology.

Why? After all, it benefits everybody if the client tries to find content close to it first of all - except in a few corner cases, it's going to be faster and experience less packet loss, it costs the ISP less, and it costs their upstream provider less. It's also likely to be more resilient. And it shouldn't be that difficult to implement.

The first thing a P2P client has to do is to find peers and ask them what they can supply. By extension it also has to declare what it can supply. At the very least this has to include an IP address, port number, and filename, but to do the job properly there should be some metadata and a user identifier. This service discovery function is usually one of the most difficult problems. Now, however you do it, you'll have to initiate a connection across the Internet to your peers to get this data. So why not use this opportunity to measure the round-trip latency, hop count, and packet loss? Then, when the content information and this traceroute-like data is collated, rank each group of peers offering the same stuff by proximity, and make the client prefer the local source.

There are some security implications - a lot of people attempt to hide their network layout from the world in order to make hackers' lives more difficult, and in a topo-aware world this would be an efficiency-reducing technology.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Schrödinger's Veep

Apparently, Dick Cheney's lawyers are actually trying to invoke in court this batshit insane doctrine they seem to have cooked up, that claims that Cheney is both part of the Executive and the Legislature, and that therefore he answers to neither.

That's just head-spinningly weird. They are arguing, in a sense, that a sort of legal version of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle applies to the Vice-Presidency. As in a particular kind of diode, where the quantum uncertainty whether an electron is at one end of the component or the other means that it appears to travel faster than light, Cheney could either be President of the Senate or Vice-President of the United States at any one moment, and no-one can say which he is. Or rather, observing him would cause the implied wave function to collapse into one state or the other, which would obviously force any judge in the case to recuse themselves on conflict-of-interest grounds. Therefore, neither branch can call him to account. It's brilliant - Schrödinger's cat applied to politics!

That implies a further layer of weirdness-if this is true, then the Vice-President has far greater powers than the President! But I think I see a flaw. If Cheney can be either part of the executive or the legislature, and this cannot be determined by empirical observation, we are entitled to ask the question: how can we be sure that Dick Cheney exists? In fact, we could go further, and take action: why not just assume he doesn't?

Now, you may wonder about the pseudo-theoretical physics in this post. But it's there for a reason - postmodernists of the high period famously loved half-baked quantum mechanics, see Alain Sokal for details. But the modern global Right has operationalised postmodernism as a system of power.

Drive-by quantum mechanics, ideological critique, constitutional law, and logical philosophy - all in one convenient blogpost!

The enemies of embittered freedom come in unexpected forms

Following an unexpected referral to this blog, I came to this discussion of Theodor Adorno. Well, that takes me back. I remember having reams of him stuffed down my neck at Vienna University in the winter of 2001, which I didn't like in the least. I certainly didn't like the cult of personality some people surrounded him with, (I remember one painfully well-brought up student punk who went around with "Glückliche Sklaven sind die Feinde der erbitterteren Freiheit" scrawled on his tastefully ripped shirt) and I didn't think much of his books.

So I'm immensely amused by this tale of how he reacted to the student movement of 1968, when a group of his students at the Institut für Sozialforschung decided to occupy the place. Specifically, he called the cops, like any good Ordinarius faced with a buncha dirty hippies. Scheißkritische Theoretiker!, (Shitty critical theorists!) howled the leader of a demo as the riot squad dragged him away past Adorno's office.

Wonderfully, having insisted on pressing charges against the advice of Jürgen Habermas, ever the most reasonable of the Frankfurt Schoolies, Adorno didn't bother to give evidence against the guy because it would have interrupted his summer holidays. I can't help imagining him - trudging up an alp? in lederhosen? sunning himself on the white beaches of Sylt? - surrounded by the Daimler-Benz executives and senior civil servants he excoriated as bearers of faschistische Kontinuität, whilst the case he insisted on bringing against the student he set the cops on collapsed for want of his testimony.

It's always interesting to watch somebody confronted with their own utopia, and Adorno's ferocious assaults on authority could really only be read by a 60s German student as a savage critique of the old-fashioned professoriat's authoritarianism and pomposity. He even made use of this trope in his own work - I think it's Erziehung zur Mündigkeit in which he boasts that when he returned from exile, there were still students at Frankfurt who clicked their heels when they spoke to an academic, and now look at them! That was written some years after his experience on the receiving end of his own principles, so clearly he re-evaluated somewhat, or at least he recovered his composure.

3GSM World Congress: Iberia Pax Beware

Currently in Barcelona for the 3GSM World Congress, the mobile phone industry's annual shindig. And, blogging from the TYR Deployable Intelligence Centre Kit, aka my laptop, a length of cat 5 and a slightly iffy Internet connection, here I am.

First, though, a warning to travellers. If you are heading to Barcelona on BA, Iberia ex-Heathrow, or Lufthansa, DO NOT GO TO BAGGAGE RECLAIM, because your baggage will not be there. In fact, although these flights arrive at Terminal A, the baggage will be taken to Terminal B for some reason, so turn RIGHT and walk to Terminal B. Worse, if you do go to reclaim in Terminal A, you will not be able to return to the airside concourse, so you will have to leave Terminal A, walk along the road to B, walk along the length of Terminal B, pass through the departures security checkpoint, and seek your luggage.

Anyway, if you're a real techie, you won't have any checked baggage anyway, will you? My colleague, who did have checked baggage, succeeded in passing the security checkpoint by producing his ticket stub, but this is not recommended, especially for non-Spanish speakers. This ends the public service announcement (without guitars).

I've had a couple of arse-awful transport stupidity experiences lately. In London, Iberia's self-service check-in wasn't working, due to a subtle failure. It had run out of blank boarding cards, but was functioning in all other respects, so at the end of the process you were simply told it could not be completed. The ticket desk sent me to the fast bag drop desk, who printed off my boarding card with the seat I'd selected on the machine, thus proving that it was actually working. But, as no-one thought to mention this, still less put more blanks in the machine, everyone else was clarted up in the queues.

Then, a couple of days before that, it snowed! Knowing South West Trains, I thought I'd check on the Net before setting out. Imagine my surprise to find no meaningful information on the SWT homepage, their real-time website (at the annoyingly unrelated url journeycheck.com) fallen over in a puddle, and the Network Rail Live Departure Boards site overloaded enough to fail to load actual data, but not enough to fail to load the inevitable banner ads. Don't want to lose any of those precious eyeballs, now, do we.

The howling clue vacuum was just as obvious a few weeks earlier when a storm brought down 1,000 trees onto the rails. If you're seeking either SWT or the LDBs, it's a fair assumption that you are either travelling or about to travel, so you'd think somebody might have considered that its users might not be seated comfortably before a 21" screen designer-spesh Mac G5 with a dedicated T1 line. But SWT's site is literally unreadable on a mobile gadget and there is no low graphics/mobile version (which would also help a lot in coping with peak loads). Network Rail's site is apparently "PDA friendly", which I take to mean "validated", but there is no direct link from the front page to any of the cutdown sites. They do have a WAP version, but then, if you're down you're down.

Compare Transport for London, whose tfl.gov.uk is quite humane in itself, but also has a genuinely austere mobile self. On the night, TFL was legible, SWT an eye-buggering slow-loading horrorshow.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Bleg: WebDAV

Dear Lazyweb: Where can I host a small WebDAV file before Saturday afternoon? Does NTL provide this service? (I'm a customer, but I dread talking to their support line. No, "turn it off and back on again" does not answer my question.)

Build Beauly-Denny

What it says on the tin.

Enter headline here

This is the kind of story journalists are meant to dream of. But just how would you headline a tale that involves a knife- and pepper-spray wielding female astronaut, an apparently fantasised love triangle, a 900-mile drive, adult nappies, and a freakout confrontation in an airport carpark? So J.G. Ballard.

Fortunately it happened in the US, where long headlines are expected. My best effort so far: Knife-Wielding Aviatrix in Love Triangle Wears Nappy to Airport Freakout. You know where the comments are.

Something's happening, but you don't know what it is..

What a sick business the affair of the A-10A tapes is turning into. Recap: the inquest into the deaths of the Household Cav soldiers killed by a US airstrike in Iraq in the spring of 2003 had learned that the MOD's own board of inquiry, which sat in secret, had heard a cockpit voice recorder tape from the aircraft that killed them. However, as the US Air Force classified it secret, it could not be released, even though a copy arrived at the court.

Then, strange things happen. First of all, the coroner says he'll play it anyway. Then, the transcript appears in a national newspaper this morning. Which national newspaper? Ye gods, the Sun. This is, well, out of character, to say the least. Something odd seems to be happening over there - since we last discussed them, they have come out against various manifestations of the surveillance-bureaucratic complex, something they never used to do. And now this - a defence story that isn't OUR BOYS GLURBY ONTOS 4 BLISS, and throws direct discredit on the Americans.

It's pretty damn discreditable, too. The transcript reveals every failure you can think of, and then some. Apart from a drastic lack of situational awareness on the part both of the A10 pilots and a controller callsign "Manila Hotel", there is some hopeless vehicle recognition - they took the Scimitar CVRTs for ZIL flatbed trucks - and desperate human factors issues. The mis-recognition comes only after "Manila" had suggested that no friendly forces were in the area, thus helping form a perceptual fix. Progressive target fixation sets in. Even though the pilots spot the orange panels on the turrets of the Scimitars, a NATO standard recognition mark, the formation leader rationalises it away and neither the other pilot, nor the controller, says anything.

Neither does anyone communicate with another US Marine ANGLICO forward air controller on the ground until he comes up on the net, after it's too late, to stop the attack. A British FAC wasn't heard because the A10s, "Manila Hotel", and the Marine FAC ("Lightning 34") had changed to another frequency. After the strike, it's clear they knew they'd fucked up - not only does one say "we're going to jail", but they keep saying they thought the orange panel was a "rocket".

But there is always one solution that works. Guess whose contract won't be renewed? Apparently they only took the coroner, Andrew Walker, on because of a "backlog" of military inquests in Oxfordshire. Backlog? So, there aren't going to be any more corpses coming into Brize Norton? Can we have that in writing?

When Memetrackers Attack

OK, so there's a memetracker web service called Visibility Index that claims to monitor "positive" and "negative" Internet activity about your company. Seems either Caterpillar, Inc. or someone with an interest in them is using it.

On Sunday, I used a metaphor and described Thomas Barnett as being like a Republican caterpillar beginning to stretch out the beautiful wings of shrillness. This made me, briefly, a top-five source of negative PR points for the manufacturer of diesel engines, bulldozers, and such. If I'm not very much mistaken, this post should repeat the experiment.

I imagine the working principle is that it searches Google for [company name], then carries out some sort of test to sort "positive" and "negative". It can't surely have been the word "Republican" that done it? Caveat emptor.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Never get out of the boat

Sebastian Junger has a spectacular report in Vanity Fair on the MEND guerrillas in the Niger Delta. Seriously, read the whole thing - we have corrupt warlords, men with Czech machine guns, huge outboards, and a crazy look in the eye, communiqués issued by a mysterious online presence, people in the US phoning their friends in Nigeria on mobile phones to track the movements of the reporter. All that good 4GW stuff.

Some points that arise: so far, despite the wide applicability John Robb, William Lind and others give to "global guerrillas" theories, their effectiveness appears to be concentrated in societies of one particular type. Southern Nigeria could almost be an ideal type of the rentier state invented for a scenario-planning exercise. Its economy is dominated by a single resource export, poorly substitutable, whose sale is denominated in hard currency and whose revenues are monopolised by an elite of questionable legitimacy.

The local-currency benefits of oil have been taken, as is usual in such states, by selling below-cost fuel, which in turn means a perpetual fuel shortage as demand rises fast and the state oil company can't afford to build refining capacity. The costs are, again as usual, socialised in terms of pollution, land grabbing, and the Dutch disease.

The guerrillas' aim is, at bottom, to redistribute export earnings. Other ideological motivations may be interpolated in this, whether because the guerrillas believe in them, or because ideologically-motivated groups seek out the guerrilla/black market scene. Popular support, almost always on class lines, makes it possible to continue the cycle of repeated systems disruption John Robb has described so well. Exports are the chief target, as in Iraq, where the NOIA has systematically set out to permit enough oil production to feed the Baiji refinery and no more. As the sale of oil products at home is a lossmaker for the elite, and exports their source of hard-currency profit, they hope this will coerce the elite.

A further twist is that attacking foreign companies is a force-multiplier. The companies are likely to exert more pressure on the elite, as are the governments of their home countries if it goes far enough. There is also a fracture of interest between the foreign companies and the elite - they have no interest in crushing the rebels if making a deal with them behind the elite's backs would serve as well. And the whole point of being a rentier state elite is that you don't have to study petroleum engineering and go to work, because you hire expats to do this, which leaves you free to enjoy the fruits of power.

But it strikes me that, at bottom, it's just guerrilla warfare adapted to crappy oil tyrannies. The crucial element is still popular consent at the tactical level, and the crucial political dynamic is still primarily Marxist. The style, though, is sui generis, like the Hell's Angels, NWA, and Mr Kurtz plus the pirate mythos.

What links these links?

Evolution appears to accelerate over time, and new scientific evidence suggests this is due to bacteria exchanging genes - but not within their own species, but horizontally, between groups. Thus, the total rate at which genetic information is exchanged can be faster than that provided by sexual reproduction and random mutations alone.

Horizontal information exchange - it's also the way ideas spread if you let them. Like cafés, lab corridors, open-source software, remixes, and (sadly) 4th-generation warfare's cooperating IED teams. And it's what built your immune system:
"We know that the majority of the DNA in the genomes of some animal and plant species – including humans, mice, wheat and corn – came from HGT insertions," Deem said. "For example, we can trace the development of the adaptive immune system in humans and other jointed vertebrates to an HGT insertion about 400 million years ago."

The new mathematical model developed by Deem and visiting professor Jeong-Man Park attempts to find out how HGT changes the overall dynamics of evolution. In comparison to existing models that account for only point mutations or sexual recombination, Deem and Park's model shows how HGT increases the rate of evolution by propagating favorable mutations across populations...

"Life clearly evolved to store genetic information in a modular form, and to accept useful modules of genetic information from other species," Deem said.
Meanwhile, Thomas P.M. Barnett's slow march into the arena of the shrill continues. He advocates a Danish- or Scandinavian-style combination of a welfare state with deregulation, but his personal development isn't what concerns me here, inspiring as it is to watch a Republican caterpillar unfurl the wings of shrillness. What got me was this..
Then there’s this lurid fascination with the top 1 percent who are cleaning up--Michael Jordan style--as the search for global talent gets hotter and hotter. But that’s a hard one to curtail, since the rising complexity of managing global corps simply drives up the cost of effective leadership.

I mean, who wants less effective leadership of these globe-spanning industry leaders?
How much of this is really just the well-known phenomenon that every inefficiency creates its own constituency? After all, it's not the complexity of their activities that increases with global reach and greater scale - it's the complexity of the organisation. Hierarchical information loss, diseconomies of scale, and conflicting interests make the task so much harder, so many fewer people could tackle it, and hence the economic rent to them increases. Alternatively, the same factors select those people who can manipulate the hierarchy in order to extract more money.

"Managing increasing complexity" is very close to "managing the management", which is a self-licking lollipop. The answer is to make the organisation more simple. Moving on, there used to be a British police organisation, the National High-Tech Crime Unit, that acted as technical advisor to police forces in the UK. Recently, the government created a big, complex new organisation, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, which subsumed it. Now, the Association of Chief Police Officers wants to recreate a small, expert group outside SOCA to advise police forces on NHTCU's old job.

Oilrigs to turbines

In Louisiana, they're rebuilding old oil rigs as platforms for an offshore wind farm. This is about the coolest thing I've heard in years. When do we start doing this in the North Sea? It's not like we haven't got enough dead shipyards.

On a related issue, Lotus seems to be enjoying a new flush of youth as a designer of electric cars. As well as the linked one, don't they build the Tesla chassis as well? See also Tanfield Group of Newcastle.

Wardriving Tony

The immeasurable SpyBlog has been doing fine work reducing the bamboozlement certain bloggers have been propagating regarding government e-mail addresses and the cash-for-peerages inquiry. (Shorter: "x.gsi.gov.uk" domains denote the top level of network security, not TEH SEKRIT EMAILS!!)

But the Spy has found something, though - as well as the netblocks assigned to Energis and C&W's Government Secure Intranet operations, there's another, PA space out of Pipex, that's registered to the "Prime Minister's Office". Some of the IPs in this block are used for the No.10 website, but not all.

I have a little theory. I can well imagine that the No.10 LAN is entirely x.gsi and secured within an inch of its life by the securigurus at CESG. Which gives you a problem when you have non-gov.uk visitors. Would you invite the CEO of Google over and not offer him any bandwidth? Quite a lot of security-minded organisations maintain segregated networks for their own purposes and visitors. For example, at a large IBM facility in Montpellier, they have not just a secure LAN and a secure WLAN, but also a nonsecure WLAN firewalled off from the rest of the system for random visitors to use.

There is of course one way to find out...

Here we go again, again, again

Well, Mick Smith quotes the Parachute Regiment's journal as saying that Brigadier Butler was forced into going along with Operation MOUNTAIN THRUST, the offensive the US command in Afghanistan initiated the month before General Richards arrived in Afghanistan. Read the whole thing. This is much as I thought at the time - essentially, neither the Americans or the Afghan government had had an effective presence there since 2001, and the arrival of British troops was an irresistible temptation. The one month's interregnum between their arrival and the change of command meant that the Americans could essentially borrow the train set and then hand over the mess to the Brits.

Given this bad start, shorthandedness, and the non-start of the reconstruction effort, I reckon Richards can claim to have done reasonably well in having won all the fights, extricated the army from an ill-advised posture, and come to a sensible settlement at Musa Qala that actually did hold and permitted the expansion of our area of control. More recently, the first big success, the restoration of the Kajaki dam, is within reach. Now, though, it looks like the increase in force when 12th Mechanised Brigade relieves 3 Commando Brigade has actually managed to buy us rather less influence with the Americans. Dan McNeill is the new commander, the ARRC staff is going home with Richards, and the Taliban have responded by pushing a force back into Musa Qala, setting a sprat to catch a McNeill.

Antagonising Iran, the only power that is actually getting anything done in Afghanistan, isn't going to help either. (I was amused to see this post drawing traffic from parliament.uk hosts.)

This is Radio Clash on pirate WLAN

OK, so this guy's designed a little program that is intended to provide access to pay-for-play wireless LANs. The idea is simple - one host actually pays up, and connects to the WLAN, and then acts as a proxy for other users, who treat the "WiFi Liberator" as a WLAN router. My initial thought was that "oh gawd, he says it's an art project....I hope he's not going to give the users of the Liberator RFC1918 addresses, seeing as practically all WLANs use private addresses and NAT."

In fact it's actually better engineered than that. Rather than multiple-natting, you have to set up a small web proxy server on a machine with a globally routable IP address, and the Liberator host tunnels into that machine, and the traffic is broken out onto the public Internet there. That, of course, also opens up some other useful possibilities - if the tunnel is encrypted, which it damn well should be, and the proxy is located in a civilised country, it's also censor-defeating. Actually, closer reading shows that the tunnel is implemented using TCP-over-ICMP, which despite being clever means that it's going to be slow. There's no mention of encryption, and the user is advised to leave the WLAN encryption off to preclude the need to give others a password - so this is certainly not for use anywhere dodgy.

One problem, though, and it's a traditional one. Why does nobody ever think of the children...sorry...the radio implications? WLAN can only be used as informally as it is because it has various features to deal with inter-network interference. Specifically, any device using it has to listen-before-transmitting, and renegotiate the channel with the other party if there is someone else there. This works, but the more interfering networks there are, the more time spent looking for a patch of the 2.4GHz ISM band quiet enough for a chat, and the lower the informational throughput - the first 11Mbits/s 802.11 cards sometimes used more than 50 per cent of the rated link speed for informational overheads like network control messages and resending dropped packets.

Now, the problem with this proposal is that it suggests that you plonk another WLAN router, transmitting merrily on the default channel, in somebody else's network where they will by definition interfere. This might be a feature, if you think making other people's Internet access shit will convince them of the rightness of your cause, but I reckon subjecting them to electronic warfare jamming is probably a loser.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

why not just bounce it and see just what goes well

Jamie K, hence the Madchester title, takes issue with a Johann Hari column arguing in favour of National Service on the grounds that it will make politicians less likely to go to war. Two points: first, as a commenter points out, making the army less efficient as a way of preventing war is stupid. It's also as bad, morally, as promoting wars to be fought by someone else - in the event that there is a war, you are effectively hoping that someone else is more likely to get killed.

Second, and more importantly, we have a practical experiment to inform us. Consider Desmond Swayne, Conservative MP for New Forest West. He is the only British legislator to have taken part in the war with Iraq. Despite knowing that he had a mobilisation commitment, he voted repeatedly for the invasion of Iraq, and answered the call when it came. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, he is the only pro-war politician in any coalition nation to have risked his personal comfort and safety, not to mention a significant chunk of his income, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Sheena's party, that's a case in point

OK, Slugger O'Toole quotes the complete lobby briefing by PM's Spokesman Tom "Walter Mitty figure" Kelly. What struck me is not just that the Big Kahuna moving through the joint is a cop these days. That was obvious enough, ever since Angus McNeil and Norman Baker punched through the crust of elite consensus. No-one had ever imagined that someone would actually report a PM to the cops over the well-known and entirely ignored provisions of the 1925 act, but there was no specific factor you could name that would keep Bob, Bill, and their brothers from the door at No.10. Just the perceptual framework. No surprise that a Scot Nat and a Lib Dem - note that these are the only parties whose names are routinely truncated - were the ones to bring a drop of the old sys.disrupt to the party.

But the there here? Here it is. Scrolling down the transcript, you get to this beauty:
Asked if Jonathan Powell had been questioned again, the PMOS said that Jonathan Powell was a Special Advisor and therefore a temporary Civil Servant, therefore he would not talk about him or his work.
Now, I've made fun of Powell before. The head of Blair's personal staff is worthy of a whole blog - his super-elite background, his parents' closeness to the neoconservative/Thatcher/Bush scene, his decision to make a career outside the civil service, his return, his insistence on the basic currency of Whitehall, line management powers, when he got there, his performance at the Hutton inquiry, all could make a neat map of the post-Thatcher deep state.

Irony doesn't come any deeper, though, than the man who the Serious Press excoriated for giving orders to civil servants without being a proper one himself being protected from the press on the grounds that he is a civil servant, and therefore, the PMOS could not possibly answer questions about him for fear of politicising the civil service.

Of course, the whole argument about "politicising the civil service" serves the Redwood consensus beautifully. Look at its apostles - Lord Butler is exhibit A, one of a tiny elite of bureaucratic chieftains to have run not one but two official whitewashes. The first one let Jonathan Aitken off on the grounds he was a gentleman. The second let Tony Blair off on the grounds his terms of reference limited him to "systems". These were political acts, pure and simple. The first served, unsuccessfully, the aim of protecting ministers and officials from institutional scrutiny. The second protected the unfettered discretion of the intelligence-administrative deep state.

What is meant by "politicising" changes over time. It's dynamically typed, as a programmer would say. It used to be "Shock! The Labour government expects the government press officers to argue its case!" This usually came from the retired, for reasons that should be obvious. Now, it's "Shock! Parliament and the broader public wants to see the documents!" This comes from everyone, for reasons that should be obvious.

But it's always, in the end, open to the government and the indistinguishable top officials to order anyone else around. Only accountability guarantees civil service independence.

Useless metric of the decade

Does the idea of "embodied energy" convey any useful information whatsoever in the vast majority of its applications?

I ask because I recently read about the difficulties faced in calculating this metric. For the uninitiated, it means the energy consumed in creating one unit of product X. People concerned about climate change and the supply of energy, of which I am one, sometimes suggest that it should be used as a reference to encourage the conservation of energy. For example, some say it should be printed on the labels of consumer goods, or even used as a basis for pricing.

But nobody can agree how to define it. Do you include the entire energy usage of the factory? Heating? Lighting? Street lighting? Do you include the energy usage of the workers on their way to work? If yes, why not include the energy they use at home - after all, they are spending their wages from one lot of energy use to buy electricity, gas, and vehicle fuel? Quite quickly you get into a theological level of debate. Should BT take responsibility for the power used to route every IP packet that crosses its network? After all, it's buying the power to drive the routers and switches. But a lot of those packets, even a majority, are transiting from - say - AT&T to DE-CIX, and BT didn't explicitly choose to carry them. The contractual relationships don't include them, and they didn't start it. Shouldn't either DE-CIX or AT&T pay?

Worse, when you try to implement an energy tax on this basis, you hit some horrible policy landmines. Why should I pay for the embodied energy in X? Why should the manufacturer get away with it? Or their workers - if you include their journey to work, why should they be able to get away with their energy use? Imagine if every issue of Mobile Communications International's price included a tax to represent the electricity South West Trains uses on my behalf to get me to work. Why should the reader pay so I can go to work? Why can't I use the same principle and charge my season ticket to expenses? This is serious. I don't control the use of the energy, so a tax on me can't change the behaviour of the people who do. There's no incentive for the manufacturer (or their suppliers, or the distributor..) to save energy, unless you double (triple or worse) count. But there is worse.

The whole thing is a lot like VAT carousel fraud. There, the fact that the tax is collected or refunded at various points between the manufacturer and the end-user means that it's possible to make a good living shunting the liability from level to level. The best solution I've seen is just to charge it at the final sale to the end user.

Now there's an idea.

Rather than the intellectual struggle to define embodied energy, the even tougher one to avoid creating stupid distortions, opportunities for fraud, and perverse incentives, and the cost of the bureaucracy needed to police it, why not just impose a tax on energy at the point of use? Or rather, on nonrenewable and CO2-generating energy? We've already got a highly efficient system for the collection of indirect taxation, run by the least corrupt civil service in the world. It's called HM Revenue and Customs, and the taxation is VAT, as mentioned above.

There is one kind of product where "embodied energy" is useful, of course. That is anything intended to convert energy available in nature into a useful form, like a solar panel or a wind turbine. If they produce less energy in their design life than they use (nonrenewable) energy in production, they are useless. Seeing as there are costs of production and operation beyond energy, though, they are very unlikely to be worth producing.

IPCC: First Reaction

Well, I haven't read the IPCC report yet, but I can report that I got my hands on an advance copy of Tim Worstall's reaction to it. Here goes:
Those scientist chappies are awfully clever. But what about this tangential issue? Here's what the MSM isn't telling you: if you make entirely different assumptions that are more favourable to TechCentralStation's funders, you get a much more right-wing result! You won't see that on the euro-fascist BBC!

By the way, the EU should be abolished except for the bits I benefit from.

Update: In comments, GeneralDyer links to his argument on BNPBlog that all climate scientists must be turned into soap. Obviously I don't condone this, but I am going to link to it very publicly and emphatically, nudge nudge wink wink knowwhorraimean.

Come to think of it, this is just a special case of the general Shorter Timmeh:
I say someone says X. But if you assume that all markets are exactly like the perfect competition model you learn in GCSE economics, despite the fact that all post-GCSE economics education is devoted to teaching you that this is not so, I'm right. Aren't I clever?

By the way, the EU should be abolished except for the bits I benefit from. Update: In comments, GeneralDyer links to his argument on BNPBlog that all European civil servants must be turned into soap. Obviously I don't condone this, but I am going to link to it very publicly and emphatically, nudge nudge wink wink knowwhorraimean.
A.J.P. Taylor famously said that Manchester's Free Trade Hall was the only public building in Europe named for an economic principle. When bloggers take over the world, we'll rename the LINX after Dan Davies for inventing the "Shorter".

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