Sunday, April 29, 2007

Digital Dave signs up to WLAN psuedoscience

I didn't grok the significance of "Debi Jones", a Tory councillor quoted by the Sindy's latest WLAN pseudoscience scare piece, until I checked in on this row at the Ministry. In a box-out that doesn't appear on their website, Jonathan Owen quotes "Debi Jones, Tory councillor for Hightown in Somerset" as saying that:
"It seems strange that these stories are only coming out now and seem to coincide with the proliferation of mobile phone masts."
Well, except that they aren't and they don't. It turns out Debi Jones is a Cameron/CCO top list candidate and ex-TV presenter, so presumably the Tories have OK'd this as a campaign issue, despite Dave from PR's tendency to use the word "digital" at every opportunity. How dreary.

BTW, can I propose a rule of political discourse? Can we all agree that any politician who wishes to use the words "digital" or "analogue" first publicly define them? They do not mean "new" and "old", nor do they mean "good" and "bad".

Being for the benefit of Mr. Kite

The Ministry reports on some Tories' bright idea, a website where people who don't want to be contacted by canvassers can "sign up" to be taken off their lists. The man behin it, Tory councillor Jeremy Kite, turns up in comments to defend himself.

A clue: it seems not to have declared that Tory canvassers were the ones who would avoid your door, and there is (as Kite admits) no procedure to share this information with the other parties. It's hard to see how this isn't intended to produce the following effect: "What's this, canvassers? I signed up to say I didn't want to see you. Bugger off!" and either abstention or a spite vote for "somebody else" - who is by definition the Tory candidate.

It's also not so fantastic for Kite to be encouraging the public to opt out of politics.

Myths of the Falklands: Number 1, Command

25 years ago, there was a war on, too. Everyone knows the story - fascist dictator invades forgotten colony in middle of nowhere, stalwart soldiery and jolly Jack Tar kick him out, patriotic rejoicing, vague guilt, and kajillions of words of editorialising ever since. The Falklands War remains an event that badly needs good history, but so far is surrounded by myth, either numskull patriotic or self-loathing. Note that this applies to both parties to the conflict.

Myth number one: Command.

The British public discourse is pretty clear - even though the government and the military missed a string of signals on the way in (we'll deal with them in the next thrilling instalment - Myth 2 - Thatcher's War?), once it happened, no-one doubted the aim. A razor focus led straight to the beaches of San Carlos Water, with the paladins Woodward, Thompson, and Moore in the lead and the utmost support of the chiefs of staff.

It's a myth, of course.

The Chiefs of Staff Committee

We're keeping the intelligence/political level for the next post, but this body performed patchily. Its Navy chief, Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, and the Army's Chief of the General Staff, Lord Bramall, were notably uncertain about the aim of the operation. The RAF's Michael Beetham was keen to get involved, and kick-started the activities that led to the long-range Vulcan raids, but couldn't avoid being a secondary force. Bramall seems to have doubted whether the job could be done, or even should be done, and to have felt that it would be no bad thing if the Navy buggered it up.

From the 29th of March, when RN Fleet Headquarters was alerted that it might need to form a carrier group, through the 2nd of April when the head of amphibious warfare, Commodore Michael Clapp, and the landing force commander, Brigadier Julian Thompson, were warned-off, through the 7th, when Clapp's ships began to sail from the UK, there was no official statement of the expedition's aim. This could only come from the Chiefs, answering a political request from Whitehall. Up to the 12th of May, nine days before hitting the beach, the aim remained as follows:
Plan to land on the Falklands with a view to repossession.
Obviously, nobody aims to plan. But more seriously, what did it mean? London sent a string of interpretations, suggesting variously that it might be enough to "poise" offshore, land somewhere remote and wait, or biff the fuckers. Each option had very different requirements, reflecting on the choice of landing site, the order of landing, and the logistic requirements.

Worse, the lack of an actual strategy meant that the procedure laid down for an amphibious operation was put in reverse. Rather than the land force defining its plan and passing requirements to the Navy, which then fit the loading of ships to them, London ordered simply that ships sail from Portsmouth and Devonport as quickly as they could load. Combat-loading was put off until the halt at Ascension Island, but even there, fiddling intervened. At one point, MOD signalled that the whole force must sail south six days before it actually did, which would have meant sailing directly for the beaches with the loading tables even worse than before, without the infantry having time to zero their weapons, without practising landing even once, without receiving huge amounts of stores flown out from the UK. Fortunately, the proposal was kiboshed - very fortunately, as at that point the medical plan did not exist.

Time and again, unclarity about aims and Rumsfeldesque fiddling caused trouble. Clapp and Thompson in Fearless were ordered to race ahead to Ascension to make a Top Conference, with the result that Fearless missed her rendezvous with the fleet tanker RFA Olmeda. That meant Fearless was too high in the water to launch her landing craft until the next tanker came in, and no heavy kit could be moved. Logistics is difficult.

The worst example came with the role of the 5th Infantry Brigade. Intelligence reports of the Argentine airlift of troops to the islands suggested that reinforcements were needed, but the COSs waggled for days about it. It was repeatedly suggested that the second brigade, when it came, would be used as a rear-area garrison or reliefs for the 3 Commando Brigade and its Para reinforcements. This thinking permeated - if it was a secondary role, it would be OK to use the 5th Airborne Brigade HQ and what was left after two of their Para battalions had been grabbed, plus two Guards units, rather than a complete light infantry brigade. Also, 5 Bde were promised the Chinook helicopters, so these stayed on M/V Atlantic Conveyor until she was sunk..

The key problem, really, was that the top command was hoping to get away without a real war. Or at least, without a real war for their service.

One hope for this rested on Admiral Sandy Woodward.

Woodward joins the story just because he was the admiral furthest south at the time, leading an exercise with some escorts in the western Mediterranean. The assault ships, logistics, and carriers, plus a lot more escorts, sailed from Britain under Michael Clapp, although technically they belonged to Rear-Admiral Derek Reffell.

He received directives from the chiefs of staff that required him to achieve sea and air control around the Falklands and cut communication between the mainland and the islands. These he interpreted in his own fashion. What "sea control" meant can be seen in two different ways - a Nelsonian and a Mahanian view. Nelson's original contribution to sea warfare was extremism. He didn't just win, he aimed to annihilate the enemy. Rather like his contemporary, Karl von Clausewitz, he believed that "real war" should be as much like "true war" as possible - that is to say, as chaotic and violent and terrifying as possible.

Admiral Mahan, the Edwardian strategist of the U.S. Naval Academy, looked at what the point was, and answered that the point of sea warfare was "the freedom to use the sea and the freedom to deny that use to the enemy". It didn't matter if there was no battle - indeed, it was preferable - if the overriding aim of being able to use the sea was achieved.

In the South Atlantic in 1982, the first would mean seeking a battle with the Argentine Navy and Air Force, and trying to crush them, and the second would mean trying to keep them from interfering with a landing on the Falklands. Woodward initially seems to have chosen the Nelson option, as evidenced by a variety of bad ideas he presented to Clapp and others. For example, he wanted to send a decoy group towards the mainland, including Fearless, RFA Fort Austin, RFA Resource, Invincible, and some escorts, while Clapp and Thompson and their staffs went even closer in aboard a destroyer. The idea being to force the enemy out of harbour.

He also suggested, as an alternative to landing and (if necessary) marching on the enemy, a landing on a remote island somewhere in West Falkland, or the construction of an airbase for F-4 Phantom aircraft in Clovelly Bay, West Falkland.

The last is quick to deal with - it just wasn't possible without engineering equipment and manpower they didn't have. And the second last was quite simply reckless - at this point, Intrepid still wasn't with the force, and losing Fearless and Fort Austin would have been a disaster. Equally, five out of the eight destroyers sent were hit by something or other, two being sunk. But what would have happened had Woodward beaten the Argentine Navy, the landing force being either elsewhere or on a remote island? He thought that a blockade would force them to give up, but then, he was never able to stop them sending a C-130 supply run every night of the war. And this required time - but the best estimates for how long the carriers could sustain all-out operations were around 60 days, as the weather turned nastier and men and machines wore out.

Further, though, the whole argument assumed that the Argentine Air Force would turn up. With no threat to overturn their strategic success, there would have been no reason for them to hurl themselves at Woodward's ships - they would have controlled the operational tempo. And eventually, anything could happen - they might get lucky and hit a carrier, they might start sinking tankers, or the UK might fall out with either the US or Europe.

Was Woodward suffering from Trafalgar syndrome, the belief that a decisive fleet action would win the war? Possibly. His behaviour towards the amphibious force suggests so, but even if he was, it might not have been so deluded. Between the 30th of April and the 2nd May, the two navies came very close to a fleet action, with three Argentine groups manoeuvring about the Task Force's perimeter. The last contact the British had with the Argentine carrier group was on the morning of the 30th when a Sea Harrier picked up their radar transmissions, but after this moment there was no more information for some time. But the other side located Woodward's carriers on the 31st after a (risky) reconnaissance flight by a Grumman Tracker. They were now in a position to launch an air strike, and presumably send in the northern surface-attack group with its Exocet ships behind the jets.

However, the Argentine command didn't launch that evening, and the wind changed on the next day. They therefore called off the attack and ordered the fleet to rendezvous with its tankers west of the Falklands before seeking another opportunity. But on the way, the General Belgrano was sunk, which caused everyone to scratch the tanker RV and return to home waters at best speed. It's hard to see exactly what would have happened had the fleets engaged - the British had two small carriers to one bigger Argentine one and 10 escorts to 9, but only 5 of the British ships (T-21, T-22, or Leander class frigates, and County class DLGs) had surface-to-surface missiles compared to 8 Argentine SSM ships. The wildcard would have been the British submarines, providing that HMS Spartan could catch up in time (she had not found the enemy carrier group as intended).

It would have been a bloody business, and might have ended up as a Nelsonian thrashing, but it seems unlikely that even a devastating British victory would have come without seriously weakening the carrier group - perhaps losing a carrier. Which would have posed the question - what now? Blockade was, as discussed, imperfect and could anyway not be sustained long enough to win. Could a weakened carrier group have provided enough air cover for the amphibious group? It seems impossible, given the close-run thing it was with two carriers.

Once COMAW and company arrived, Woodward's role changed dramatically. At last, he had a clear aim, which was (however much he disliked it) to support the amphibians by providing combat air patrols and strikes and looking after the transport holding area out at sea. He discharged this well, taking the (mildly controversial) decision to keep the carriers well to the east. Again, the lack of clear strategic analysis had nearly led him to take an appalling risk, but the return of clarity led him back to a sensible and conservative policy.

Logistic Blindness

This afflicted a string of important people, kicking off with Lewin in MOD Main Building and moving south. Woodward doesn't seem ever to have grasped the problem, complaining that the amphibious group had offloaded nearly one ton of stores per man and that must surely be enough. In fact, 3 Commando Brigade had 4,500 tons of stuff in their War Maintenance Reserve, roughly a ton per man, but this doesn't include their first- and second-line loadout, weapons, or vehicles. The order from London on the 26th to "move out" was based on the assumption that everyone was being terribly slow, but the NATO Northern Flank plans had assumed eight days for a smaller force to land through an operational port with host-nation air cover.

In fact, the landing craft and choppers managed to unload ammunition from the P&O Ferrymasters truck ferry M/V Elk at a rate of 80 tons an hour, which would be good going for breakbulk dry cargo handling in a real port. Similarly, Brigadier Tony Wilson of 5 Brigade and Major-General Jeremy Moore of division HQ spent their trip south on the QE2 planning in splendid isolation from either Sandy Woodward or Michael Clapp, whose ships and aircraft they were, or Julian Thompson, whose logistics regiment it was (among many other things, 5 didn't have its own logistics support and consumed 3 Bde resources). Wilson believed Moore had promised him all available helicopters to get his brigade forward, although Moore had no helicopters to promise and there was no way such a thing could happen in the light of the offload, artillery, and medical requirements.

With his logistics outsourced to the Navy, Wilson was unfortunately free to start his own war by pushing men forward from the Goose Green area to Bluff Cove in his liaison helicopter, thus creating an advance along the south coast that the Navy and Marine planners had ruled out as logistically difficult to support, needless, and risky. The confusion about strategic aims that had started at the top led to the tactical and operational mistakes that led to the disaster at Bluff Cove.

In the next post in this series, coming soon, we'll deal with the top itself, or rather, herself. Stand by for Myth Two: Thatcher's War..

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The National Inquirer, now fortified with Patrick Cockburn

So last week's mobile-phones-kill-bees screamer front page was bad enough. They ignored all the countervailing evidence and picked out a tiny uncontrolled study carried out in someone's spare time that neither mentioned the condition they were interested in, nor even attempted to measure how much RF energy they were using.

This Sunday, they were at it again, with another electrosensitivity pseudoscience screamer. This time it was WLAN that was going to kill everyone (never mind that, even if you believe that "pulsing" has a mystical influence more important than the amount of energy involved, WLAN works very differently from any cellular technology), based on following evidence.

1) A classics master at Stowe School, who complained of headaches before entering his classroom. This he attributed to the recent deployment of a wireless LAN, which was removed. No follow-up has been carried out to my knowledge to determine if he feels any better.

2) Some random bloke who had bees in his loft, which exterminators failed to remove, but which left after he installed a WLAN router.

The problem here is that if you do something, and something changes, your head is wired up by evolution to assume that it was because of your action. Cognitive psychologists call it the fundamental attribution error, and there's a lovely story about one of its discoverers, Daniel Kahnemann. Kahnemann was asked by the Israeli Air Force to lecture to their flying instructors on what his research showed about learning processes. Kahnemann prepared a lecture based on some results that seemed to show that positive reinforcement - being nice - was a more effective teaching technique than negative reinforcement - chewing-out anyone who gets it wrong.

When he gave the talk, though, one of the grizzled instructor pilots instantly responded to say that he knew without a doubt that no-one learns anything unless you SHOUT at them. So far, so stereotyped, but then, up pops another. No, he says, Professor Kahnemann is damn right. And so on. The problem was that statistically, if one of their students had a bad day yesterday, he was likely to have a better one today - regression to the mean. So, if the instructor had yelled at him, he was likely to perceive an improvement. And he was just as likely to perceive that, had he been supportive instead, because that's how human beings work.

This is why you need things like big statistical samples, null hypotheses, tests, follow-up and the rest. On the same page, the Indy mentioned a school where - wow! - after a campaign by parents, O2 and Orange had agreed to move a shared cell-site. This was given as evidence that mobile phones *are* dangerous - it might of course be that people like a quiet life when this costs little - but worse followed. The paper issued a string of figures "from the campaign" that seemed to show that a lot of people there had headaches, skin inflammations, or red eyes.

What was missing? Well, how many people among the population report headaches? Close to 100 per cent sounds about right. Nor is there any postevent data to find out if it had any effect. You must be joking.

But there was worse. The Indy's environment editor, Geoffrey Lean, again repeated the deeply stupid and dishonest claim that a recent Finnish study showed that one was "40 per cent more likely" to have a brain tumour on the side of the head you used your phone. But it didn't. In fact, the study - available here - showed that there was no greater risk of a brain tumour whatsoever. People who *did* have a brain tumour were 40 per cent more likely to say they used their phone on that side of their head.

Now, if this was a real result due to the phone, something really weird must have been happening. Mobile phone use must have been transferring brain tumours from one side to the other! This is obviously silly. More likely, those monkey brain logic bugs struck again. Confirmation bias means we seek out information that fits with our worldview. Could you really give an accurate estimate from memory of which side of your head you used a mobile phone over a period of ten years?

Also, Lean again ignored a string of copper-bottomed, peer-reviewed, randomised-controlled trials he didn't like. There's the Danish study of 420,000 people over 25 years I mentioned in the first link above. There's also this one in the British Medical Journal that shows that people who claim to come out in hives when they meet a phone have the same symptoms whether they are exposed to GSM signals, or whether they are just told they are. The Indy? Nix. They also managed to quote Sweden's Misleader of the Year 2004.

And finally, just to pile on the psuedo-scientific bullshit: Lean and the Indy even boast about the web traffic the last lot of cheap-ass crapola brought in, quoting three bloggers - but not one who disagrees.

Finally, someone will probably point out that I work for Mobile Communications International magazine. Well, it's true. Aren't I just seeking out information that suits me? Perhaps. But the good thing about science is that it's a machine designed to correct for bias, and I've got the data.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Next Big Miscarriage of Justice

What would you think if I told you the police had accused 5,000 British citizens of a really unpleasant, despicable crime, the sort of thing where just being questioned is the kind of news that could destroy your family, career, and psyche, that some 39 of them had committed suicide as a result, but quite possibly every man-jack of them was innocent?

It would be like the Guildford Four case on steroids, right? All over the papers, public inquiries, years of litigation, every blowhard from Vanessa Redgrave to Tim Worstall joining the Free the 5,000 support group.

Well, they did it, and it's not. In June, 2006, this blog mentioned an article in the Times by Duncan Campbell - that's the Duncan Campbell of no-ricin not-plot fame, whose articles on this topic were retconned out of the Grauniad archive - which detailed the incredibly flaky evidence used by police in the Operation Ore child-porn case.

Amongst other things, the testimony of a US Postal Service inspector and a cop, both of whom swore that visitors to the website in question had to click a button marked "Click Here for Child Porn", was exploded as nonsense ('twas actually a banner ad).

Now Campbell is back, with even worse news. Recap: the Texas-based website provided hosting and payments services to a large number of porno sites, under a revenue-sharing agreement. In 1999, police seized the box on which the SSL-encrypted credit card numbers were handled. Operation ORE consisted in going through the list of cards.

Unfortunately, the original file includes some 54,348 credit cards known to have been stolen or otherwise compromised.

The site's operators had a curious relationship with credit card fraudsters. In its heyday, it was one of the easiest ways to get credit card merchant facilities, and hence an obvious opportunity if you had a list of other people's cards. As 65 per cent of revenue from its customers went to the owners, they had a strong incentive to look the other way. At least, until the suckers began to spot unusual transactions - then, they raised chargebacks through the Visa dispute procedure. As Landslide was the merchant under VisaNet definitions, it had to pay up, and it was this that eventually bankrupted the site. Naturally, this was an advantage to the crook, as the cost of chargebacks fell on someone else.

The killer fact? Many of the credit cards presented for payment don't correspond to the server log - to put it more brutally, a mysteriously large number of people were paying up in advance but not taking delivery of their smut. In fact, quite a lot of the websites that used Landslide contained no porn, nor anything else, existing purely for fraudulent purposes. The M.O. was to get hold of a list of cards - a black market exists - set up an account, and then run a script that would charge small amounts (say £25) to each, hoping that the payments would go unnoticed.

It should be quite clear from this that the police investigation in both the US and UK was spectacularly incompetent, overkeen to prove that they could keep up with Teh Interweb Menace, and probably conducted with one eye on future data-retention legislation. All prosecutions must stop, and there must be a full-dress public inquiry. The sheer scale of the case demands it.

This is, of course, an instance of everything we fear about the National Identity Register. Justice-by-database has the potential to generate injustice faster and more efficiently than any previous system. It's time to stop the machine - anyone whose credit card was compromised before August, 1999 is a potential target.

Don't miss the longer version of Campbell's report from PC Pro (pdf link). I'd actually forgotten the little ha-gotcha that if they didn't find anything on your computer, they'd charge you with "incitement".

Did I mention the Home Office must be abolished?

All the atrocities, and how to take advantage

Last Friday, the Guardian reported that servicemen on leave from Iraq were spending their time camping in a queue at RAF Coltishall in the hope of buying the houses their families lived in before they were sold to the public. It's another fine achievement of Michael Portillo's 1996 deal to flog the entire MOD housing stock to a company run by William Hague's best friend.

The problems were clear right from the start - rather like Right to Buy, it meant that the stock could only ever decrease, but unlike it, the tenants didn't really get the choice of buying their house, but rather the choice of moving out or taking a chance of buying.

That Grauniad story is one of very few occasions the (cough) mainstream media have covered this in any detail. But as always, you can expect the Grauniad's hyper-Blairite sister to do something really horrible. And they did, with this useful primer on how to take advantage yourself. Delightful.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Rays from Outer Space Strike Canary Wharf

The Sindy has been getting a lot of blogosphere points for this article, which alleges that a mysterious ailment of bees is caused by "radiation" from mobile phone networks. Nowhere is it mentioned that an identical, and unexplained, condition has been documented as early as 1896, before the invention of radio and a hell of a long time before mobile phones were common.

It gets worse, though.
But an official Finnish study found that people who used the phones for more than 10 years were 40 per cent more likely to get a brain tumour on the same side as they held the handset.
No, it didn't. The study found that people who used the phones for more than 10 years were no more likely to get a brain tumour than anyone else. But, in the event they did, they were 40 per cent more likely to report that it was on the side they held the phone - or at least to think that they held the phone 10 years ago on the side of their head the tumour was on, as this was self-reported and clearly subject to confirmation bias.

There is no mention of the Royal Danish Cancer Institute report, the biggest (n=420,000) and longest (25 years) epidemiological study ever undertaken into the subject and the only one to use network operators' billing data, rather than self-reporting, to find out how much the patients used their phones over a period of 20 years. So what did they find?
We found no evidence for an association between tumor risk and cellular telephone use among either short-term or long-term users. Moreover, the narrow confidence intervals provide evidence that any large association of risk of cancer and cellular telephone use can be excluded.
You can read the paper in the Journal of the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

All in all, an exercise in bad newspaper science worthy of the Daily Hell - even the headline sounds Mailesque. Why? According to media sources, the Indy recently hired two chief sub-editors from the Mail. Do Associated Newspapers Staff Wreck Your Journalistic Standards? - not a bad headline, eh?

Update: I've managed to find the German study they referred to (pdf). It consisted of plonking a DECT cordless phone base station inside the bees' hive, either with or without homemade shielding, then catching some bees, marking them, and counting how many returned within a given time period. It's not clear from the paper whether they put anything in the control group's hive, which raises the question of whether the results are an artefact of the experiment.

In two rounds of tests, they got one marginally significant result and one nonsignificant. Apparently, 54 per cent of the bees with the DECT station on returned on time, compared to 63 per cent without, in six tests. Reading some of the other papers, the initial hypothesis appears to be that "GSM TDMA time slots change over at about a frequency of 217Hz, and that's nearish one cycle in the bees' dance, so it must be connected". They do mention that the pulse cycle in DECT is 100Hz, but do not discuss the fact that this isn't the same.

Neither do they mention that timeslotting doesn't mean there is no signal from the BTS, just that it communicates with a different user. Ho hum.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

I Don't Care

I do not care whether or not the sailors from Cornwall profit by selling their stories. Michael Portillo thinks that it is the worst misfortune to befall the Navy since the Falklands. I disagree strongly. Which ships have sunk? Who is dead? Let's not be snarky and mention Portillo's term as Defence Secretary, one that is improved from a low base by the example of Geoff Hoon.

I do care, though, that Able-Seaman Batchelor now apparently thinks he disappointed the whole Navy, having received enough money for "a few driving lessons" in his own words - so, £200 perhaps. I do care, though, that no-one seems to have thought through the risks involved. I also care that a lot of people seem to think that the problem was a lack of desire for an unplanned war of choice with Iran.

Sadly, applying Will to hydrography is even less likely to succeed than applying it to the weather. The usual wankers are out - as well as the keyboard kamikazes, Lewis Page has of course discovered that the incident proves the Navy needs only carriers and no other ships...strange, this bullseye I just drew happens to surround the holes in the wall very neatly!

Anyway, a dangerous frontier incident has been resolved without anyone getting hurt or any obvious loss to our side. Cheers.

Update: A robot has been captured by Iraqi insurgents. If it sells its story, can it keep the cash?

Diplomacy by visualisation

This tale of Google Earth being used to monitor violence in Darfur, as well as this, raises an interesting point. In his memoirs, Richard Holbrooke tells of how the Bosnian War parties were hugely impressed by the mapping software running on computers the US State Department brought to the conference - they could pull up any view of each and every border proposal!

Later, the Israelis brought a staff of cartographers to each of the meetings after Wye River to study the exact details. This is something that will never happen again - now the best two mapping visualisation applications, Google Erf and NASA World Wind, are free to anyone with a laptop. And both are capable of displaying almost any form of information over the globe.

It's like the surrealist mission, to place the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.

Iran Non-War Watch

So what did happen with the Ronald Reagan after all? Well, she just called in Pearl Harbour on her way back to the Coast. War Iran a with be will not there. New readers arriving from Making Light/Electrolite are advised to use the "Iran" tag and this AFOE post with real war plans an stuff!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

More updates from the crime beat

Someone decides to rake through the Elf-Aquitaine embers, with the result that 42 persons are sent for by the judge. Including a whole slew of politicians - carrier-grade rightwing thug Charles Pasqua, crooked prefect for the Var Jean-Charles Marchiani, professional president's son Jean-Christophe "Papa M'a Dit" Mitterand, and slightly surprisingly, Mitterand's right hand man and pet intellectual Jacques Attali. Better known in the anglosphere as the first head of the EBRD whose specifications for its headquarters in Liverpool Street, London verged on the pharaonic, Attali remains a man respected by the Left in France, if nothing else for his books.

The warrants for Pierre Falcone and Arkadi Gaydamak (yes, that's the one whose son owns Portsmouth FC) have been reiterated, if that's the right word. Presumably the move is motivated by the fact that, in the middle of an election, no-one is likely to risk interfering with the case.

Weirdly, though, the French press isn't covering this at all. AFP and Reuters both carried the story, but Le Monde granted it only a nib, while Libé didn't so much as touch it.

Note: I'll be unavailable for the next two days, but I will try to check the comments.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Maglev is Dead

OK. Remember a few months ago, the Sundays were briefed about one of Tony's eye-catching initiatives - to launch a magnetic levitation high-speed rail link from London up to Scotland?

Well, if it ever had any substance, it's now a dead parrot. And so are all maglev projects, which should bring a hearty cheer from everyone who cares about good technology. Wanna know why? Get your looking gear round this Eurotrib thread. Not only did the new TGV rip through its own record by cranking up to 356 mph, it got within 6 mph of the record for a maglev vehicle. That's seriously fast for something running across the lumps and bumps. That's as fast as an early-model Spitfire.

And it kills off the only real argument for maglev - speed. So why do I hate maglev?

It's a classic case of bad technology, for the same reasons the NHS NPfIT is, and for the same reasons Tony Blair fell for it. John Waclawsky said that there are two kinds of technology, the kind that provides a direct benefit to the end user, and the kind that's designed by people who think they can see the future. These, he said, are also known as success and failure.

The only way you can start doing maglev is to take a Big Tough Decision to spend kajillions and tear up the whole rail infrastructure. Anything short of that is still going to cost a fortune, but won't make a profit or give any realistic feedback on whether or not to go ahead. Further, you can't get any benefit from doing some of it - it has to be all or nothing, because it doesn't integrate at all with the existing system.

For example, if you put in an upgraded, LGV-standard line from London to Doncaster, even without building it any further, you've already hugely increased the speed of the service, and freed up the old main line for freight. And if that worked, you can just keep building. But if you start a maglev project - you've got to go all the way before you get any benefit whatsoever, you can't run services on from the end of the line over conventional tracks or the other way round, and you can only upgrade by pouring another zillion tonnes of concrete.

Given that it involves a completely new alignment, you will probably also need to terminate it out of town (airports were suggested for the ECI mentioned above), which means you've got to deal with hordes of passengers getting from where they live or work to the terminal. Do something sensible, and you can run the trains right into London.

But the good news is that it's New, it's Expensive, and it's Centralised. Like second-generation nuclear power and monster government databases. And there is something about this stuff that managerialists can't resist - it takes a lot of managing, after all.

Thinking about it, I'm struck by an analogy with the creationist quackery of "irreducible complexity". You can't have a little nuclear industry, or a modular national identity register, or a progressive roll-out of maglev. They have to spring into being, complete in themselves, fresh from the Designer's drawing board.

But it doesn't happen like that. If it can't evolve, it's probably useless. Think process.

Update on Falcone, Chichakli

In a wonderfully-titled article, ("Former Miss Bolivia on Drugs Charges, Second Beauty Queen in Trouble"), the Associated Press reports that Sonia Falcone, cosmetics enterpreneur, Bush-Cheney'00 donor, and wife of Elf-Aquitaine/Arms to Africa fugitive Pierre Falcone, copped a plea to charges of illegally employing some immigrants (they were legal immigrants, but not allowed to work, so in British terminology it was a case of facilitation and working-in-breach).

She is going to have to leave the US as a result. It'll be fascinating to see where she and Pierre head for, although his Angolan diplomatic passport means he will have little trouble travelling.

Meanwhile, Richard Chichakli gave an interview I hadn't spotted. It's the usual stuff - a string of notable non-denials. Interestingly, his lawyer claims that the evidence against him is "secret", although (as so often with Chichakli defenders) he admits he hasn't read the brief. The evidence of Chichakli's association with Liberia and Sergei Bout, for his information, rests on the bank transfers from the Liberian shipping register to San Air General Trading's account at Standard Chartered Bank that Alex Vines of Global Witness produced at the House Armed Services Committee.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Here Comes the Equestrian Statue

It's quite well-known that I don't think very much of Niall Ferguson's intellectual credibility. But this is special, in the sense of "I'm not different...I'm special."

I'm not going to take issue with his bizarre contention that saying sorry for the slave trade is why the Iranians grabbed the boarding party from Cornwall. I am, however, going to take issue with essentially all his practical statements.
This is indeed what comes of being too nice. A month before expressing his "deep sorrow and regret for our nation's role in the slave trade," the prime minister had announced his intention to reduce British troop levels in Iraq by 1,600 within a matter of months. "The next chapter in Basra's history," he declared, "can be written by Iraqis." Unfortunately, it looks more likely to be written by Iranians. And somehow I don't think they'll be saying sorry afterward.
Well, why would they? A crushingly large majority of Basraites voted for parties that are either openly Iranian-influenced, or we say they are Iranian-influenced. More importantly, though, how would the 1,600 soldiers - not one of whom has actually been withdrawn - have dissuaded them from doing this? Concretely, practically, they could do precisely nothing to prevent an incident at sea. And how could they retaliate - by invading, all by themselves?

Apparently that is the Ferguson prescription.
In those days there was little hope of rescue. Britain's armed forces were far too thinly stretched over its rapidly expanding empire for Rambo-style missions to liberate scattered slaves and POWs. The most the Barbary slaves could hope for was to be ransomed, to which end collections were regularly made in British churches.

It is in this light that we need to understand James Thomson's immortal lines: "Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves: Britons never shall be slaves." When first set to music in 1740, this was a forward-looking injunction to Britain's rulers to go ahead and rule the waves, precisely so that Britons would no longer run the risk of being enslaved.
And now, thank God, who can say our armed forces are thinly stretched? Let's plug in some facts. Through the imperial glory of the 19th century, we never had a huge army. Historically speaking, it's usually been about the size it is now. What we did have was a big navy, but navies don't work well in the Dasht e-Kavir desert.

Also, even small European armies of the mid-19th century had serious firepower and tactical advantages. These were already on the way out by the 1860s-70s, as Pathans and Maoris and Boers started to get hold of modern rifles. This no longer exists. To keep his shtick on the road, Fergie has to ignore about 150 years of military history.

However, when required, this can always be done by the third-rate mind without injury to the integrity of past statements.
Yet today we live in a different world.
Really? It's not 1840 any more? How do your answers above change?
Britain could not refight the Falklands War if Argentina invaded the islands tomorrow. Nor could a British strike force be sent to punish the Iranian government today. If military action is going to be taken against Iran this year, it will be initiated by the United States, not the United Kingdom. And, to judge by Faye Turney's conspicuous absence from the front pages of U.S. papers, a British hostage crisis won't be the casus belli.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Britain certainly could refight the Falklands if Argentina invaded tomorrow. We spent a good deal of money building an airbase on them, so that the Army's spearhead battalion group and an RAF strike squadron can get there in a day. There is a company group and a fighter flight, as well as artillery and helicopters, down there right now. We've also built quite a few amphibious warfare ships since last time, 'tho the loss of the FA2 Harriers is a probby. Wrong on facts.

Anyway, and why the UK armed forces are in a state, it's the damn-fool adventure in Iraq that Niall Ferguson was so keen on.

Further, "punish" the Iranian government? The United States wasn't able to "punish" its hostages out of Iran in 1979. Has he not looked at a map? It's a big place full of people! Keeping hostages is easy, which is why hostage-takers do it. You don't need infrastructure to do it. You don't need anything but knives. If he has an infallible knife-denial plan, let's see it.

Niall Ferguson has no intellectual credibility whatsoever, but this does not seem to harm his career in the States. Ah, the States..what is it with some people? Another of my regular butts, Martin Kettle of the Guardian, this weekend announced that
"the building of the 21st century Americas - and above all the building of the modern United States itself, a society that after much struggle was eventually a pioneer of law, democracy, and freedom, has proved to be the single greatest collective human achievement of the past four centuries."
Jesus wept. Sewerage, anyone?
If that's true - and if it is not, I would really and truly like to know what collective human achievement is greater - then in some refracted way it is also a distinctively European, and in a significant way, English achievement too.
Right. America is so fantastic a significant way...I can be patriotic about it too! I have a little theory about these people. If you're a professional Mucho Pomposo in Britain at the moment, you probably grew up in the peachy postwar, give or take a few years - between the end of rationing and the Pistols' first LP, to bastardise a cliché.

Patriotism was Dad, the Army, and Churchill. New meant American. Europe (or anywhere else) was a row involving Dad and Ted Heath, and a mixture of fox-tormenting knights and Paki-bashing 'ead kickers. Hence the Kettles and Fergusons, one subtype projecting John F. Kennedy on to the US, the other, Churchill in Congress.

As far as I can tell, the generations after this are less fascinated. Repeat after me: they're not the Messiah, there just are a lot of them.

Update: The Sea Harrier was withdrawn after a decision in 2002, as Dan points out, so it's the epic incompetence of Geoff Hoon to blame for that one, rather than Iraq.

Bonus Pathetic Python Sunday

OK, so we solved the last problem. But now I've got another. We've just created a window with a Tkinter frame within, and announced that a listbox will be there. Then, we have the following statement:

self.selector = Listbox(frame)
...for item in ["lots","of","data","in","here","that","takes","up","four","lines"]:

Dots inserted to get the indenting right. Tk.END causes the interpreter to fart a syntax error and then another for every subsequent line. Every imaginable variation (with and without Tk or TK or tk, End, END, end, you get the picture) does this, or else shunts the problem into the data.

Do I have do something weird to make the snake treat the list, which makes up four lines, as a list?

Yes, there is STILL not going to be a war with Iran

How many times do I have to tell you? A US aircraft carrier will leave port for the Gulf every six months, about six months after the last one. BTW, the assorted speculation on some of the US blogs about the RN's carriers is risible. The current RN presence in the Gulf consists of two minesweepers, a destroyer, a frigate, and a couple of auxiliaries. I'm not sure Illustrious and Ark Royal are even operational.

Now, what scares me is the French, whose Charles de Gaulle recently arrived in the Arabian Sea. You just don't know what these imperialists will do next!

Admin Notice: Withdrawal of Enetation comments

OK, the Enetation comments are getting too bad to use. There's no spam protection, and no central moderation page, so it's not practical to remove comments spam from each of 1,473 threads one by one. By clicking on the permalink at the bottom of each post, you can use the Blogger comments thread, which is subject to moderation.

In preparation for a possible move, I'm going to archive the Enetation comments, clean up the file, and look at either dumping them into Blogger or keeping them until a new TYR is developed.

The lost opportunity

Remember this post, again? This Reuters DeathWatch story confirms every last bit of it. Zalmay Khalilzad did indeed talk to insurgent spokesmen during 2006. And the Baker-Hamilton commission? Who knows.

Pathetic Python Sunday

What on earth is causing this class definition to throw a syntax error? The error occurs at the colon (yup, the one that has to be there according to in the second line.

class gui:
def_init_(self, mainwindow):
self.frame1 = Frame.mainwindow

Update: Thanks. Yes, the code is correctly indented elsewhere. Now, I'm getting a TypeError "This constructor takes no arguments". Eh?

Update again: OK, typeerror gone. But now getting a syntax error at every reference to the constructor's (self) method. Eh?

The cost of UAVs

Some time ago, I got involved in a debate about the cost of unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs. I argued that the idea that they would supplant piloted aircraft was overambitious, and that, crucially, the high accident rate they experienced would make them rather more expensive than anyone thought. After all, if their biggest advantage was that being unmanned they were expendable, they would be expended - else, what is the point? And expending them means replacing them, and specifically keeping a large stockpile.

According to Wired, 40 per cent of the USAF Predator fleet has been lost since 2003. That is, 53 aircraft out of 139, at $4.5 million each, or $238 million worth.

Political GOTO considered harmful

Well, the decisions are in on the plan to break up the Home Office into the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry for Counter-Terrorism, National Security, Border Control, and Unauthorised Ball Games. And the snark in that link remains applicable.

The only interesting news is that it's even worse than I thought. Not only does the permanent secretary in charge of security, intelligence, and resilience, Sir Richard Mottram, stay at the Cabinet Office, although 150 of his staff will move over, the Foreign Office has successfully defended its rights over GCHQ and MI6. So, an "Office of Counter-Terrorism and Security" will sprout within the Home Office, which will have the "UK strategic lead" for these issues - but it will still answer to the JIC and the Cabinet Office, who will still have control of the interface with GCHQ and MI6.

Clearly, Sir Humphrey. Meanwhile, the Home Office has also asserted powers over efforts to "win the battle of ideas" against Islamic extremism, but this doesn't appear to mean that the Department of Communities and Local Government has explicitly lost them. And, worst of all worlds, the Ministry of Justice will get prisons, probation, the courts, sentencing, the constitution, and relations with devolved administrations, taking over the Department for Constitutional Affairs, but the Home Secretary will still have a "core public protection role" in sentencing.

To put it another way, John Reid can still interfere with the judiciary to send more people to jail for longer every time Rebekah Wade sez so, but now, he doesn't even have to budget for it. The Home Office gets to keep the anti-social behaviour industry, but has an undemarcated frontier with Communities and Local Government and also with Justice running through it. On the other hand, it gets to "lead" on terrorism and national security, except when it doesn't.

Mmm, spaghetti! There is simply no way this is ever going to work, is there? I foresee that the whole thing will be re-organised again within three years.

But I'm merry. If that happens, it'll be a great opportunity to sink the chisel into the bugger and chip off some more. And the triggering event is likely to be the eventual tits-up of the NIR. Even Dave from PR apparently wants to have elected police commissioners, a silly Texan idea, but one that could quite easily be hacked into a restoration of elected police authority control over the force areas.

Bloggin' Rugby League: Warrington for the Cup?

I've been a little surprised Warrington haven't been better this year - they were good last year, and they signed very well in the close season. Adrian Morley hasn't so far paid off, getting injured twice in a row, but Vinnie Anderson and Stuart Reardon are two cracking signings. I'm astonished Bradford let Reardon get away, frankly.

This all showed up nicely yesterday - Hull KR have been a bit of a cup surprise package lately, getting to the semi-finals last year (mind you, they did get a lucky, lucky draw) and performing well in the league. But Warrington won in style in the end, though it was a genuinely tough game and they were lacking Morley and Lee Briers. Reardon and Anderson both played out of their skins.

There's something about Wires, though - no matter who's in the team, they're always a bit vicious (anyone remember when Bruce McGuire played for them?), and this match was remorselessly smash-mouth stuff. They are probably the best prospect for an alternative to the big four - as recently as 1994, they missed out on the championship on points difference, having drawn with Wigan - but this year they haven't yet been consistent. That's the good thing about the Cup, though - consistent isn't required, hence the number of clubs who have an entirely unjustified reputation as giants of the game because they have a few (step forwards, Widnes and Leeds).

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