Sunday, June 24, 2007

Alternate Oxiana

This Grauniad essay on Robert Byron raises an interesting question. Y'know the chap - wrote The Road to Oxiana, very typical Eton'n'Oxford gay aesthete, pretty much a standard template for 1890s-1950s British travel writing, obsessed by foreign architecture but didn't care for the people over much. Consider this:
Byron wrote that the catalyst for his fascination with Persian art was a photograph of Gumbad-i-Kabus, the great 11th-century tomb-tower near the Caspian sea. An obsession with Persian brickwork followed, as he studied the works of Arthur Upham Pope, doyen of Persian art studies. By early 1933 Byron was hatching a plan for an expedition to Chinese Turkestan, today's Xinjiang, but it was thwarted by native insurrection. So the goal became Afghanistan through Persia. At first he was to link up with an eccentric two-lorry expedition testing the use of charcoal gas instead of petrol; but he parted from it, with relief, within hours of their rendezvous in Afghanistan..
What might have happened otherwise? Imagine him staying on with the grimy mechanics and their project. No doubt a discreet preparation for U-boat blockade. AEC wheels churning through the wadis, rough chemistry in the gasifier. It's a long shot but it might just work. Does he become a mid-century science-fiction exponent instead?

Meme time

I've been tagged with a Gordon Brown-related meme by Tom "The Green Ribbon" Griffin.

2 things Gordon Brown should be proud of

A sensible monetary policy, based on rules rather than "judgment".
A sensible fiscal policy, based on rules rather than "judgment".

2 things he should apologise for

Supporting the war in Iraq, while pretending that drawing down the whole contingency fund to pay for it every year means "it doesn't cost anything new".

Mulcting the poor to fund tax cuts for the less poor in the last Budget.

2 things that he should do immediately when he becomes PM

Withdraw from Iraq, yesterday.
Start an urgent scenario planning exercise on what to do if/when Pakistan falls apart.

2 things he should do while he is PM.

Kill ID cards and the associated database mania - send the Treasury devils to dig through it.
Restore the fuel-duty escalator, and redistribute the cash.

Tag 8 more bloggers

Dsquared, Bradford Vision, Bradistan Calling, James Nicoll, Dan Hardie, Eurozone Watch, Mark Thoma, and Koranteng.


A commenter asks about non-fatal casualties in the British sector in Iraq, suggesting that the mass firefight in which Major Paul Harding was killed might be going on all the time. You ask, we answer.

Here's a chart showing UK wounded in action, by admissions to field hospitals, and killed, from June, 2006, to May, 2007, the last month for which figures are available. The data is in this PDF document, taken from the MOD site.

a chart showing a rapid rise in wounded since September

The rate at which soldiers are being wounded seems to have gone through the roof in September, 2006, and not come back down again. It will no doubt be interesting to review this in a few days when the June, 2007 figures are published. After all, the 4th Rifles already have another death to mourn.

HOWTO launder dodgy credit cards

Perhaps that should be in Every Boy's Handbook?

RSA reports on an online shop set up specifically to drain stolen credit cards. A card costs between $2-5 a throw, presumably reflecting a low success rate in sucking them dry. Setting up a merchant account and DIYing, as most of Landslide's customers did, is clearly the way to go.

Book alert: Doug Farah vs Viktor Bout

Doug Farah's book on Viktor Bout is out. You can read an excerpt in this month's Men's Vogue, which is certainly a fittingly Hunter Thompson-esque scene for him, and an interview. Salient points include this:
I think one of the most startling moments for me was when we were talking to Treasury Department people doing Viktor who were completely unaware in 2005 of the whole previous effort to get him in 1999, 2000, and 2001. They had never been briefed and there weren't any type of intelligence files that they could get. They thought they had hit on this one new person and we told the guys we were dealing with, "But what about the other effort?" and they were like, "What?" It was startling that the disconnect was so huge.

It's only because I remembered some of the original inquiries in the late 90s that I noticed anything significant about it back in May, 2004. There's plenty more good stuff in the body of the thing, too - like this anecdote..
In one celebrated case, his operation boldly spirited away a decrepit Ilyushin plane that had been consigned for use as a Soviet war monument. Former Russian aviation official Valery Spurnov recounted a tale of Bout offering one of his pilots $20,000 to fly a shuddering wreck out to a desert landing in the Emirates, where it was promptly turned into a highway-side billboard.
That'll be this aircraft, TL-ACN, serial no. 53403072, ex-Centrafrican Airlines, now rotting in Umm Alquwain as an advert. Note the engine covers that still carry her Air Pass/Air Cess registration.

And then there's this:
As soon as Bout's plane took off, British agents sent an encrypted message notifying superiors in London to prepare for his imminent arrest in Athens. But shortly after the message was sent, the aircraft suddenly veered off its flight plan and disappeared in mountainous terrain. About 90 minutes later the plane reappeared on radar screens, and when it landed in Athens, Greek and British special forces stormed the aircraft, only to find it empty except for the pilots and a few passengers..."There were only two intelligence services that could have decrypted the British transmission in so short a time," says one European intelligence official familiar with the operation. "The Russians and the Americans. And we know for sure it was not the Russians."

Every boy's handbook

This comment of Dave Bell's at Charlie Stross's left me thinking of something. Bell refers to a pocket handbook of crop yields and other agricultural data. I've always liked this kind of thing - having the data on hand for anything, however weird. Somewhere around I have a copy of Every Boy's Handbook as given to my dad when he was a little 50s boy, full of useful data on Newfoundland and the De Havilland Comet K Mk.1.

In the light of this megathread, I wonder what you would include in a data manual for the contemporary world (a real User's Guide to the Millenium..), perhaps the help file for the "shrink-wrapped military-industrial complex" Stross mentions, or more realistically part of the package with the RepRap, DNA synthesiser, printed solar panel kit and Inmarsat BGAN terminal Thomas Barnett might want to drop on Karachi, in between bombs.

One answer would be "it's called Google", of course. But there's a lot of cruft out there. Say, instead, we're implementing it on a smartphone. We can pack a scientific calc package too, perhaps one of the Python maths libs on a Nokia S60 device. In a 4GB SD card. What would we include?

Cash rules everything around me

OK, remember this post on the Labour Party's "Faith Task Force", academies, and the PR man to the Saudis, BAE, and HIV-quack dictator Yahya Jammeh? For a start, it's drawing referrals from the Conservative Party's network. This story in the Torygraph gives more detail: it's the PM's pet priest, Michael Seed, who introduced Bailey and two other plutocrats to Blair via "two senior Downing Street officials" as long ago as December, 2002.

Between them, they fronted up £8 million of donations to academies (presumably the ones controlled by Bailey's United Learning Trust) plus - fascinatingly - a million-pound cash contribution direct to the Labour Party from Iranian exile Mahmoud Khayami. The other two payers were Jasper Conran and the chief investment officer of super-venture cap fund Apax Partners, Adrian Beecroft.

Khayami is a member of Bailey's Catholic order of chivalry, and was responsible for selling the old Hillman Imp tooling to Iran in the late 70s. He paid up for the academies (if he did - many of the donors have been very slow to come up with the cash) back in 2005, but the cashdump for the Labour Party was on the 3rd of June this year.

What interests me, though, is Beecroft's role. Now, we know that Gordon Brown's best mate in business is Ronnie Cohen, the founder of Apax. But here's a question. Am I right, or am I right, in saying that the decision to extend taper relief from capital gains tax, from which so many private-equity/VC guys have personally profited, came after 2002? I'm aware that taper relief began in 1998, and it was extended in 2002, but this seems to have predated the events detailed above.

And I'm also aware that someone's googling for "Tony Blair's personal meetings with Jammeh of the Gambia". Somebody got disappeared from there, y'know.

Friday, June 22, 2007

A late run up the blindside

Making a late challenge for the title of the most offensively authoritarian Blairite, with only a week to go: David Triesman, the former Labour General Secretary and now "The Prime Minister's Special Envoy for Deportations." He apparently thinks that nationality can be determined through...yeees..biometrics. Or DNA sampling. Or something, you know, sciency. Perhaps maglev, or nuclear power, or genetically modified oil seed rape.

Apparently it's neither the Home Office nor the Foreign Office that is behind this little beauty, which leaves the finger of blame pointing, well, at No.10 Downing Street. Or maybe it's just Triesman - apparently it's his "special interest". What possible knowledge he has to evaluate claims on this is left to the imagination.

What would be really nice to know is just how our institutions were conquered by some sort of weird neo-Lombrosian cult, which appears to be the simplest explanation of this nonsense.

When the Web is your monster database

This interview with the architect of MySQL looks very cool indeed. Rather than just hoicking data out of files on a big hard drive, the latest version can use a Web site, or multiple Web sites, as a source of data on which database operations can be performed and the results served up to something else. Among other things, it means that if you can do a specific stable URL and catch the get and post requests for that in some interesting fashion, your website can be an element in someone else's application, which could of course be the database back-end for their website.

It would be interesting to see if some other protocols might fit in there, in which case this could be a very interesting development mechanism.

News in Brief

It's incredible what you can find out if you read the newspaper closely enough (said I.F. Stone, apparently). He wasn't wrong. Yesterday, a soldier from the 4th Battalion, the Rifles (ex-Green Jackets, for those who aren't keeping up..) was killed in Basra. Note the detail, though: Major Harding was killed by mortar fire onto the Provincial Joint Coordination Centre, that is to say the Iraqi/British tactical command for Basra, which is apparently right downtown.

This is, of course, a problem - with the general concentration back at the RAF's Basra Air Station, small installations like this one are going to be more isolated. There is no clear solution - keeping multiple battalion-size camps in the city of Basra is clearly not a good idea, if it ever was, but moving the PJCC out to the Air Station would be politically foolish and would help cut the Iraqi police and army off in a mini-Green Zone. Hence:
Maj Harding, who served as a rifleman for 30 years, arrived in Basra less than a month before he was killed. He was put in charge of security, resupply and liaison at the Provincial Joint Co-ordination Centre, a small and isolated outpost in central Basra city shared with Iraqi security forces.

On one of his first days there, the building was attacked by more than 200 armed militiamen. Under Maj Harding's "calm and inspiring leadership" British troops fought off the attacks for four hours, using more than 9,000 rounds of ammunition.

On Tuesday night, Maj Harding placed himself in the centre's front sangar - the most exposed fortified position - to help secure the route in for a resupply convoy from the Basra Palace base. He was hit by a mortar round and died instantly.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Welcome to the grey zone

Dan Hardie wants to know what is happening in the area between the southernmost US troops in Iraq - around Najaf if memory serves - and the northernmost British, now that the withdrawal to Basra Air Station is complete. Call it the grey zone - the populous, Shia-dominated gap astride the main supply route to Kuwait. left after the first Shia rising of spring, 2004 intimidated most of the old MND(SC). He refers to a New York Times story describing the engagement of "US-led" forces in the Amarah-Majjar al-Kabir area, familiar to millions as the site of the RMP's last stand in 2003 and the long fight between Camilla's Killers and the Sadr movement in 2004-5.

I'm quite sure the BBC described the same action as "British and Iraqi forces", though. I suppose that, as they are all serving under a US higher command, any coalition forces are "US-led", but that is a pedantic point. When the British infantry battalions in Amarah and Dhi Qar provinces withdrew last autumn, followed by the Australians moving from Muthanna province to Tallil air base near Nasiriyah, two "overwatch" battle groups were formed, one for each area.

Their title and composition (primarily armour/cavalry) suggests that their mission was to provide a tactical reserve for the Iraqi government units in this areas. I am not exactly informed if they still exist, and if so what contact they have with the main body of troops outside Basra. But given that the reinforcements are gone, and the force is now down to a brigade plus extra logistics (as planned for mid-2003), I doubt it.

Taxin' the City wasta

Jamie K remarks that Thaksin Shinawatra's botched attempt to buy Manchester City FC and install Sven-Goran Eriksson is the worst deal he did, except for the time he tried to swap SARS-condemned chickens for Russian jet fighters.

It's more impressive that Man City's management's due diligence appears to have consisted of running around the office waving the cheque whilst sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting "Nurrr-nurr-ny-nurr-nurr!" Just reading the bloody newspapers would have told them that he, well, promised the buyers of his mobile phone network a 3G licence in defiance of the law, then sold the company for a quid to his son, thus establishing a giant tax loss, and then, after the son sold the company to the buyers, got him to give him the money back as a gift. (I paraphrase, but only a bit.)

Not that the original source of his wealth demonstrates epic business acumen. In the second half of the 90s he owned a GSM network in a fast-growing middle-income country - which is functionally equivalent to being caught outside naked when it rains money. All he needed to do, having obtained the licence by some means, was to give Ericsson a lot of borrowed (and inflating) money and watch them build it, then profit.

The stupid - it's Byrne's!

So our fine Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne is going to launch an "international marketing campaign" in order to attract more immigrants. Does anyone now remember that David Blunkett launched a propaganda campaign to put immigrants off, emphasising fine British institutions like rain and railway disruption? Clearly Byrne doesn't.

But perhaps he's hoping to target the right kind of immigrants - ones who are decent, hardworking (like the others aren't), more middle class. Those fabled Indian coders. Blunkers' films aimed at horrifying people fleeing from Zimbabwe or the DRC enough that they would choose amputations rather than face the horror of Britain. Enough with the sick irony, anyway. It is a curious feature of immigration politics that a powerful ratchet is at work. The last time the Home Office was bellowing for more control, it was because of Poles. Before that, Bogus Asylum Seekers. Now, as predicted at the time, the farmers who employed them can no longer find them, because wages in Poland have shot up. The permanent crisis, though, is by definition permanent-whatever happens, the process is never reversed.

Apparently we're going to be sharing information on "travellers of interest" with the United States, so that's yet another exercise in real-time interworking between the US and the core executive. Remember that the Identity Cards Act gives the government powers to share the content of the NIR, including its audit trail of every time the card is checked, with essentially anyone it wants to. Byrne is mad keen on surveillance cards, too. He apparently thinks they will be like the railways in the 19th century, because they will protect us "from Internet fraud". Let's be clear - stupid people will continue to open dodgy e-mails from, just they will soon tap their ID card number in the field provided, and then the fraudster will have their ID card number and quite possibly enough information to go about preparing a perfect fake card.

Further, foreign policy is going to be used to create an "offshore border". Meanwhile, we apparently need
to adopt a strategic objective of bringing in people with the right skills, and ensuring the country is easy to visit legally.
So, the growing biometric state will establish outposts around the world to harass possible travellers, whilst also making it easy for them to visit. Right. And did you know we had a special envoy for deportations? Yup. It's Lord Triesman - the former general secretary of the Labour Party.

I was amused to see that he'd been wheeled out to sign a treaty with the French regarding French police powers at the new Eurostar terminal. Back when the corresponding document with regard to Waterloo was signed, the British side was a little perturbed when the French asked for a steel ringbolt to be concreted into the wall of their station, for God knows what purpose. I'm not sure if they got what they wanted, but it's almost painfully nostalgic to think that we used to be the ones who didn't want to chain up prisoners.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Your circuit's dead - there's something wrong!

Charlie Stross's space-colony überthread brings a couple of things to mind. First up, the best thought-through space elevator project is costed at $40bn, not far off £21-22bn. The Al-Yamamah contract was £43 billion - two space elevators. The degree of corruption involved is, literally, mindblowing. Perhaps the BAE managers and Tory bagmen I regularly insult really did invent something - an Apollo project of crime.

More broadly, it's astonishing just how many stupid people showed up to argue that the past was shit, so the future must be great! I suppose that their operational model, in so far as they have one, must be Moore's law - they are Slashdot users after all. But this is dense. If the geek ethic has any meaning, it's that technical knowledge counts and can be democratised. What appears to be going on here is that a faith in creationist technology - we invent the whole system and it's off to the stars! - unites a lot of stupid people.

I reckon there's an IT/telecoms (nethead/Bellhead) thing here. IT rarely involves JCBs, their drivers, ships, or the billion uncertainties of radio-planning. If the link goes blame a telco, after all. IT doesn't have a working class.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Bout-Chichakli update

The Dallas Observer reports on Richard Chichakli's lawsuit against the feds, and also runs his reply. Essentially, the court threw out his case, but good.

The Observer also gets the honour of Chichakli comments spam - like this blog and Eurotrib, a sockpuppet calling itself "Graceland" rocked up to claim that he's innocent, on the grounds that a Belgian investigation into Bout has been dropped. Mine came in from an IP address assigned to a Moscow-region ISP,

The Belgian investigating magistrate did indeed close the file, but not for want of evidence. In fact, the document "Graceland" linked shows that the case was closed "wegen verjaaring", because it ran out of time, primarily because neither Viktor nor Rich could be questioned.

Bearpark, Brand, and Kerik, again

Back in December, 2004 this blog was after the details of Bernie Kerik's brief, mouvementé tour of duty in Iraq. We discovered that, essentially, he did nothing constructive, posed with South African mercs, and vanished into the distance after the first big carbombs, leaving the mess to DCC Douglas Brand of South Yorkshire Police and a couple of MOD Plod volunteers to clean up.

A little more information trickled out this week in a Grauniad story by Patrick "Unseasonably Mild" Wintour. It seems that he had a chat with Andrew Bearpark, the British civil servant who was the CPA's Operations Director, having once been Margaret Thatcher's private secretary. Bearpark strongly criticised the US leadership of the CPA, and bears out the account in that post of Kerik's departure and Brand's elevation.

Namely, Doug Brand was summoned from the job of policing Sheffield to replace Kerik as chief police advisor for all of Iraq, but the US refused to accept this and insisted on limiting his role to one CPA region (North), a job in which he was the only policeman in Iraq who didn't carry a gun. I do, however, slightly doubt Bearpark and Sir Jeremy Greenstock's accounts of events at the CPA. After all, they must have been responsible for something, and..well...he worked for Maggie Thatcher, which does sound a tad like the Heritage Foundation selection process for US CPA men. This may be a little unfair, actually - he was Paddy Ashdown's No.2 in Bosnia as well, and he's a proper civil servant rather than a spad.

It is true, though, that various US panjandrums have regretted that "two of the finest civil servants I have encountered...were not brought into full participation by the American side.

Another Iranian-arms story officially dead

This tale about Steyr-Mannlicher sniper rifles was thin enough to start with, but it's now been officially disavowed by the US Army's press chief in Iraq, who states that no such weapon has ever been recovered anywhere in Iraq.

Just Who Is the 5'O Clock Blogger?

Has Dan Hardie actually infiltrated the Chief of the General Staff's private office? Mick Smith reports that Dannatt is gagging to create another brigade or so of infantry, which is not only roughly Dan's prescription, but would just about equal last year's four battalion cut.

Hell, there are some fine old colours laid up in chapels that could be used, and some solid Victorian buildings going begging if Annington hasn't got its grubby mitts on them already. Meanwhile in defence this week, Flight International reports on how many British UAVs have been lost or wrecked since 2003.

This was the subject of a spirited row between me and Phil "Cabalamat" Hunt back in tha day - well, 2004 - in which he argued that UAVs would eventually rule the skies, and I argued that, essentially, the problem with an expendable aircraft is that it will get expended, and that's expensive. Therefore, UAVs need to drop down the cost curve very fast and a long way in order to outweigh a higher loss rate - possibly a much higher loss rate.

Hold onto your hat, then. We've got through 48 total losses and a further 39 damaged beyond economic repair in four years, with a special mention to the HERRICK drone jockeys for consuming 15 Desert Hawks in 9 months. That's a lot of money in anyone's book, and I doubt we'd have lost many more manned aircraft than we already did. By the way, here's a data point - the Watchkeeper is coming in at about £15m a 'bot. That compares to a notional £16m for an RAF Tornado. Now thurr's a saving!

Update the latest Hornets go for around £25 million a throw, after 25 years of defence sector inflation.

Who needs remote control?

This DeLong vs Krugman post, and the comment from James Galbraith, raise an interesting issue regarding redistribution of income, free trade, and globalisation. Namely, as trade creates both winners and losers, but with a positive sum, it is both just and politically necessary that the winners compensate the losers. You could consider it a side-payment for the gains, or a necessary social duty. The cynic in me suggests you could consider it either, so long as it happens.

Economists Peter Timin and Frank Hailey at - a site well worth reading, I suspect - argue that rather than changes in technology, or globalisation, rising inequality in the US since the 1960s is due to changes in institutions. That is to say, US society made a political choice to reduce minimum wages and union power, and cut taxes on the rich. Women with degrees were the only large group whose earnings kept pace with productivity growth, presumably reflecting the simultaneous rise of middle-class feminism and decline of working-class unionism.

As James Galbraith points out, Chinese labour relations is an issue that we have little power to influence, but the minimum wage is entirely ours to control. This raises my point.

Milton Friedman argued in favour of floating exchange rates on the grounds that it was better for one price, the exchange rate, to adjust in order to respond to variations in the relative price levels of economies (and in the animal spirits of speculators) than all the prices except that of foreign currency doing so. In the strong form of a fixed exchange rate, the gold standard, the adjustment process involves changing prices and wages in the entire economy including the nontradable sector.

Similarly, if you try to reduce inequality by protectionism, that involves altering thousands and thousands of investment and management decisions in favour of domestic production generally. And it's pretty obvious that the more decisions you fiddle with, the more you are going to bugger up. The upshot, naturally, is that you should prefer solutions that minimise the number of decision points for any one institution. That implies the best solution is just to, well, tax the rich and redistribute as directly as possible.

What does this say about my views on CO2 emissions control? Well, administrative controls or rationing are clearly right out. Cap-and-trade is a poor second best, especially given all the possibilities for pathology in there - imagine that there are two glassworks, one of which fuels with coal and one which drives an electric arc furnace with hydro power. Glass from A will have a really bad carbon rating, and vice versa. There will be a strong incentive for buyers of Glass A to misrepresent themselves as buying B. If the CO2 charge falls on the end user, rather than Glassworks A, A doesn't have much of an incentive to change rather than cheat.

The best solution? Tax carbon-rich fuels at the point of sale, and redistribute some of the revenue to the poor. There's an existing and highly effective administration to collect such a tax, too. Set a broad goal - perhaps in the form of an average over several years, to keep the dog from chasing its tail - and link it to the tax calculation so an overshoot has automatic consequences and an undershoot has rewards. (See also this post at Kleiman's.)

Friday, June 15, 2007

Four More Years!

I nearly forgot. It's four years and five days since the very first post on this weblog. And it's Magna Carta day! To mark the blog's anniversary, I'd like some of the lurkers to stick their heads out from their stones. Who are you all?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

I never wanted the love that you showed me

There is no British netroots, and God forbid there ever will be.

Why? Well, the original thing is/was an effort to mobilise the grassroots support of the US Democratic Party, to shove in the underpinning of a mass party that it doesn't really have. This was intended to a) supply activists and donations, and b) exert a leftward pressure on the party leadership. This doesn't really translate in British terms, because British political parties are much more substantial organisations than the US ones.

Not only do they have long-term mass memberships, they have a professional organiser caste and an ideological history. They also enjoy much more tribal loyalty. What worries me about any attempt, as Sunny "Pickled Politics" Hundal seems to want, to lash the Internet community in the UK to any one political party. In the US, the problem is that one party has gone berserk and dragged the Overton window off across the countryside with it. The corrective is to whack it in the teeth.

In the UK, the problem isn't one of Westminster democracy but Whitehall and off-Whitehall democracy, something we've arguably never had. (Pickled, by the way, is doing something useful in being a much less London-focused blog, but that's for another time.) I would far prefer that blogs stayed like Lawrence's army - "a thing without front or back, drifting about like a gas", agreeing on a few but powerful rules, trying to enlarge the zone of sanity.

(PS, the other night I met Daniel Davies, Tess, and Sunny. That would be Dsquared, Shesquared, and Psquared, right?)

We're so pretty...we're vacant!

What is it with sodding "electrosensitivity"? Why has it suddenly achieved escape-from-reality velocity this spring? What is it with columnists like the Obscurer's Jasper Gerard, who this week chose to announce that, if you include the long-term sick, the total number of unemployed people in Britain is over 3 million. Wasn't it like that under Thatcher? Where's the outrage? Naturally, the figure of 3 million didn't include the long-term sick either. The reason why there are so many people on the sick is that Thatch used it as a way of laundering the unemployed. Enough from Jasper, I think.

What is it with MPs who think the scheme for Internet censorship is actually useful, or that ID cards can possibly work despite the fact that 99 per cent of 44 million people is a lot? Reading this, I was struck by the fact that the Psuedo Age seems to begin 10 years or so after the come-back of domestic service. That in itself is probably an echo of rising inequality and higher hours worked across the board. But it's worth remembering that the British elite has traditionally been opposed to knowing anything. Generalism is great. Experts should be on tap, not on top. Later, of course, the civil service even lost that, as so much of its institutional expertise was transferred to the Big Consultants.

Whatever it is you need, you can ask a specialist - didn't Mark Twain say that history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme? The US Congress got rid of its Office of Technology Assessment in the early 90s. Parliament never felt the need of such a thing, and Christ, does it need one. One of the worrying things, though, is that in the past the top civil servants actually had a grip of how the administration worked because they'd worked in it. I recall that Chris Lightfoot once published some docs on the original National Registration system, which were full of exact details about which bits of the form went where. The equivalent today would be to quote the SQL statements, but as the government IT world is contractorised, nobody in Parliament or most of Whitehall could read them.

What if ignorance, at the elite level, survives despite everything because it's the ultimate status symbol? Not only do I get a man in (what a telling phrase that is) for everything, I don't need to know bugger all about my job. Perhaps that's the key to managerialism - if your skills are infinitely generalisable, are they distinguishable from total ignorance?

It seems to be a sort of conventional wisdom for a lot of people that science is equivalent with religion, that we believe in it thoughtlessly and without understanding. Therefore, faced with this ignorance, it's entirely valid to believe in imbecilic quackery like Julia Stephenson's naturopath (who advised her to "detox" in order to get rid of "radiation" from a WLAN router, apparently thinking that RF energy could accumulate in the body) - see, for example, this review of a book I took issue with earlier.
His researches are kick-started by his wife's pregnancy and her "almost sacred mission to purify her body". Each new piece of information makes him more paranoid about what he, she and their unborn child are eating...Paying £75 to a Harley Street doctor certified by "the American College of Nutrition", Fergusson drops his trousers and allows an Austrian nurse to draw a syringeful of fat from his bum. Hearing that he lives in London, the nurse says, "I think you will be all right. London is safer to live in than the countryside these days. There are so many pesticides in the countryside."

Even so, the test reveals that Fergusson "contained significantly high levels of DDT, DDE, HCB, PCBs, p-dichlorobenzene, dieldrin and chlordane". Analysis of his wife's breast-milk reveals the presence of all these too, although they are described as being "well within background exposure levels". Panicked, Fergusson and his wife jump into an infra-red sauna and stay there for 20 minutes, naked, scrubbing themselves with a loofah, sweating out toxins.
It's the loofah that amuses me, as well as the infra-red - is there a kind of sauna that doesn't use heat? I suppose the astonishing number of tanning enterprises in the north is a weird twist on the sauna, and those use ultra-violet light, but still. (In fact, this may be a function of their fairly low overhead and high cash turnover being ideal for the reprocessing of drugs money.)

But I think it's possible to make a case that the great status symbol of today is being able to buy a better class of paranoia. See also the Government's attitude to "risk". This used to be a hot issue in about 2000, and according to Peter Hennessy it was a pet issue of Tony Blair's. Sadly, the upshot appears to be that the public sector has concluded that "risk communication" implies that public perception of risk is a data point in assessment of risks - which fits into a broad sorta-markety world view, I suppose. The most egregious example being the Home Office "fear monitor", one of whose inputs is the number of scare stories in the press. One of the prime determiners of this, of course, is the activity of Home Office head of news John "Your marriage is over - understand!" Tozer.

When profit is a problem

After this post, my quest to grasp heterodox economics moved on to this Crooked Timber thread, in which Dsquared argues that the biggest problem with orthodox economics is that it doesn't really account for profits. And profits are a pretty big thing to miss, especially as the entire notion of economics relies on the idea that firms maximise their profits. (Consider competition - how would you know if you were competing successfully if you didn't make or lose money?)

However, standard assumptions include the idea that no-one makes more than the amount of profit they need to keep them from going and doing something else, so-called normal profits. (If they made more profit, more competitors would pile in until the rate was reduced.) As the general alternative to production is to keep your money in the bank, it's argued that therefore normal profits equal the cost of capital, i.e. the rate of interest.

But, as Dsquared points out, nobody thinks that a company that only covers its cost of capital is doing well.

The upshot is complicated, but it raises all kinds of curious issues. For a start, if there are no profits in a capitalist system, how do we account for economic growth? In a sense, once you decompose growth by factor and strip out one-time factors (population change, digging up more stuff), what you're left with is the economy's aggregate productivity gain plus the product of the net change in capital stock (which is after all the share of past income that went into investment).

More importantly, how do we account for change over time? Schumpeter argued that supernormal profits existed in the short and medium term as a result of asymmetric technological progress - they were the return to innovation, which created a temporary monopoly rent before further technological change destroyed it. This explanation - the principle of creative destruction - is intuitively sensible, logically coherent, explains the presence of profits and long-run growth. It also justifies the existence of profits and quasi-monopolies, which is handy.

What if there were no profits in reality? It's hard to answer this without tripping on definitions. Assume a company in which the management aims to break even, and any surplus is paid out in wages. There is no official profit here, but it's clear that the company will still try to maximise its surplus. In fact, it may well try harder - everybody's interests are aligned, no? It will also try to compete with other firms, to take a hard line with its bankers and its suppliers, and try to keep its margin up on sales. It is likely to rent-seek with regard to everyone else but its own employees. The story is not that much different if the surplus is to sink into its trading partners, so long as they have means to hold it accountable.

Oddly, getting rid of profit doesn't change the picture very much. That's because we haven't - we've just shifted it from the capital share of GDP to the labour share. One thing that has changed is economic rent - changing the factor that benefits changes who the firm can gull. Clearly, the difference between profits that arise from economic rent and from value-adding is going to be important. But that's even harder to define - in Schumpeter's terms, of course, having a new productive technology before anyone else allows you to collect a monopolist's economic rent, even though you're adding value by deploying it.

Around this point a lot of people in the past have tried to draw a value judgement, a distinction between the return to "healthy", "good" improvements in productivity, and "bad", "exploitative" rents. Unfortunately, this is one of the points at which people start to go crazy; the distinction between raffendes and schaffendes Kapital ("robbing" and "creative" capital) was a favourite of German proto-fascist and indeed fascist economists, who tended to associate the first category with Jews, Freemasons, international bankers etc, and the second with their favourite armaments industry tycoon.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

It's for your own good (again)

You probably don't know that the government wants to implement wholesale filtering of URL requests from the end of next month, do you? Not that the national press, TV, or anything else has reported on it, nor has there been any serious parliamentary debate. Nuh. But the Home Office is pressurising British ISPs to install a system BT has been using since 2003, at the behest of (guess who) David Blunkett, called Cleanfeed.

A brief technical description - the Internet Watch Foundation provides a list of dodgy sites, and these are resolved to IP addresses in the normal way. Those addresses are then injected into the ISP's internal routing table through BGP, giving the address of a squid proxy within the ISP's network. This proxy matches the requests against the IWF's list of URLs. Matches return a "fuck off" splash page, non-matches are routed in the normal way.

The flaws are well-known; for a start, any encrypted protocol, even https, will pass through without touching the sides. It doesn't attempt to examine e-mail (and anyway, anyone who tries to distribute illegal material by e-mail without encrypting deserves to be caught), nor does it affect NNTP traffic - and, after all, alt.binaries.* newsgroups are still the best places to find any form of smut on the 'net. BitTorrent, Skype file transfer, and things more exotic will also go unfiltered. It's literally just port 80. Another problem, as demonstrated by Richard Clayton of the Cambridge Computer Lab, is that the system could be repurposed as a directory of the really bad stuff.

So, nobody who actually wants child abuse images will suffer from this. ISPs will, though, because it costs money. The Government pays for RIPA data retention, but it isn't paying for this little exercise because it's "voluntary", in the special Home Office sense of "voluntary" that means "do this or we'll make your life a misery". The official justification is to protect children from "accidentally stumbling upon" the images. This is ridiculous. I've been on the 'net since 1996 and I've never "stumbled upon" illegal images - for the same reason no-one ever accidentally buys cocaine. It's illegal, you fucking idiots. Nobody walks around waving a sign saying DRUG DEALER. And drug dealers do not give drugs away.

But there's worse. How can anyone be naive enough to imagine that the geniuses behind Operation Ore won't immediately want the log from that squid box - after all, if "the computer" refused to serve you something, you must have asked for it. Are you with the terrorists? I am aware that at least one ISP that has implemented the system has also removed the logging code from the squid, in the hope that any police request would require extensive software development (at the public charge).

Who, anyway, decides what is to be censored? The Internet Watch Foundation seems to rely on complaints from the public, only 33 per cent of which are upheld after the IWF's own enquiries. This is mildly promising - it suggests that some scrutiny is going on. But should the right to censor be in the hands of an organisation partly funded by News International?

If this is meant to be voluntary, I'd like to make clear that any ISP that refuses can have my business.

Update: Did you know that the list is priced at £5,000 a year and that it's confidential?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Tom Griffin links a stack of briefings prepared by the Reconstruction Operations Centre in Iraq, the coordination point for private security firms run by Aegis Defence Services. The first thing that strikes me is that they are impressively more sane, factual, and useful that anything I've seen emanating from the US Army.

Not that this argues private-sector efficiency, mind - the competitive force here is the possibility of getting shot. Bullets don't care. But anyway. The most recent - prepared on the 19th of May - states that the RAF's Basra Air Station is under regular indirect fire. This is, after all, where the British force in Iraq is being concentrated when the Basra Palace headquarters is shut down in the next few weeks.

Your Professional National Press

So the cult of the amateur is killing our culture, right? What if I was to tell you that bloggers had accused someone of abducting Madeleine McCann purely on the basis that he spoke foreign and had associated with Bogus Asylum Seekers? You'd be shocked. Well, the national press did it. Robert Murat, the only suspect in the case, is such because "a newspaper" noted that he had been talking to people involved (he speaks Portuguese and English) and had done the same in Lincolnshire for Portuguese farmworkers.

Now, the Torygraph.
Portuguese police are pinning their hopes on the results of more than 200 DNA samples collected. They have discovered the DNA profile of a "stranger" in the bedroom where Madeleine was abducted on May 3. Sources said it was not that of Robert Murat, the formal suspect in the case.

Police are now cross checking it against all the friends who were holidaying with the McCanns in the Algarve and all staff at the Ocean Club complex in Praia da Luz where they stayed. The sample is also being sent to the UK to be run through the DNA criminal database.
Let's not forget the NOTW's headline last week, which claimed he "had child porn" quoting Jim Gamble's leaktastic outfit. In the text of the story itself, the paper was not at all so clear - they didn't allege anything illegal at all, referring instead to "friends" who described his "appetite for women". It seems, however, to be standard operating procedure that anyone involved in a high profile criminal case will be accused of paedophilia by nameless, untouchable police sources. Prosecution never follows, though the sources always sing for the NOTW and no other paper.

Further, it would be nice to know whether - with the mass media flood about this - it's only brown people whose phone calls are being monitored in this enquiry. Does GCHQ have routine access to Moroccan GSM networks? If it does - and it could have good reason to, in terms of LNG ships and the Straits - should it really be boasting about it for the sake of cheaparse Sunday-for-Monday spin opportunities? Certainly, the McCann case appears to have offered the entire surveillance industry a priceless opportunity to justify its existence.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Limits of Robbism

Contrary to what John Robb says, the supposed plot (no explosives, information from a sooper source, mystery men) to attack a jet fuel pipeline into New York (JFK) airport does not bear out his theories as anything distinct from good old-fashioned counterinsurgency.

Robbo is right that the pipeline was a good target, but I suspect he is far from right about the feasibility of destroying it with means available to terrorist espontaneos in New York. (Remember, AVTUR is heavy oil - it doesn't explode well without a lot of persuasion.) To do a good job you need plastique, not bathtub TATP or some such. That might not be so important, if a potential attacker followed Robb's preferred recipe of repeated partial disruption.

And here's the problem. That implies that you can do it and get away with it, and do it again, and again. That in turn implies that you're swimming in the people like a fish in water - that you have the sort of popular legitimacy and support Mao argued was vital to successful rebellion. What happened to the alleged plotters was quite the opposite - they got touted, which is what happens to guerrillas who don't have popular support.

In Iraq, let us recap, oil export revenues benefit the state in the first instance. This state was always a rentier state, but for large chunks of Iraq's population and essentially all its former military class, it's become a rentier state that serves the interests of religious/race enemies and foreign powers whilst failing to redistribute oil export earnings to them. Hence, the support required to practice Robbism, and to put up with the consequences of one's own side's successful systems disruption. This is an issue the Robbster has never, I think, confronted - trying to achieve a failed state as a strategy has the failing that it can very easily destroy the clandestine tactical and operational consent all guerrillas rely on. Instead, there's an airpower-theorist assumption that dehousing the working class..sorry..blowing up electricity pylons equals victory. If systems disruption is so great, why didn't it work for the bombers?

In the Niger Delta, another fave of J-Ro's, similar conditions obtain (is the Nigerian military anything else but an army of occupation in its own country?), just with more Marxism. Here are naturally-protected base areas for a protracted war, a history driven by the state's repression of nonviolent leftwing dissent, and a "country-selling" landlord elite getting rich off hard currency exports. It's the Mekong Delta with oil.

In New York, the chances of jihadis having a similar social status, legitimacy, and popularity are as good as zero - can you guess why? No doubt the anonymity of the city would permit a cell of nutters or two to go long as they didn't do anything. As a rule, the Big City offers a choice between anonymity and notoriety.

Heterecon Bleg

I would like to understand the current controversy going on over at many more-read blogs than this one regarding "orthodox" and "heterodox" economics. At least, I'd like to understand it better. I'm sympathetic to a general critique of what we're apparently obliged to describe as "orthodox" economics - unrealistic standard assumptions, unrealistic views of rationality, fetish maths, ponyism - but I am, to say the least, very unclear on how "heterodox" differs from either a) just good economics, b) J.K. Galbraith, or c) critical theorist blethering.

No doubt this is unfair, but there are so many strawmen being bayonetted in this debate that I thought I might find time for a spot of close-order drill myself. Also, I was frightened by Post-Autistic Economists as a child - well, as an exchange student at Vienna University in the autumn of 2001, which is much the same. The PAEs were highly popular there, for reasons which usually added up to "no more quantitative methods class! Woo! And you're a fascist."

If you think that's unfair, well, it wasn't me. More recently, I followed a lunk to the Robert Vienneau blog and his critique of comparative advantage. Now, I'm not sure whether the problem was like the dog listening to music - I'm not bright enough to understand it - like the man listening to music through a pile of socks - the exposition clouded the clear, not the other way round - or whether it actually is what it seemed to me to be. That being a weird corner case strongly at variance with history, and based on assumptions even odder than neoclassical ones.

Curiously, this weekend I was talking to a Canadian writer about Social Credit among other things, and it struck me that historically you're more likely to be crazy if you think you've discovered a new economic principle than if you think you've discovered a new law of physics, so I think my scepticism is justified.

So, can anyone show me where to reswitch the Light on, the Provisional Truth, and the Path-Dependent Way? This is basically a great big wolf-whistle to Dsquared, naturally.

The maximum irony generation principle

In any given period of history, the proportion of irony to available cases tends towards 1. The last people in the world who seriously consider that there might be weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are working for the United Nations, and it's Russia that wants to keep them on the job, and the US and UK who want to turn off the lights.

I think the Russians are having a laugh here, right? But there is a serious point. There was, after all, a lot of expertise in Iraq regarding weapons science, and we know all about the vanishing explosives and radioactive scrap metal. So perhaps I shouldn't feel so smug about this. Or maybe...

Kalashnikovs, trousers, squid, pies..

Remember this post on Maglev, managerialists, and creationist technology? Heavily-blogged Myers links to equally heavily-blogged article on the market for Kalashnikov rifles. Apparently, everything he reads only makes sense in the light of evolution. Funny that - think process.

This is also why the Chinese textile industry wants to reopen an old mill in Wigan, 20 years after crushing the original into the dust. It seems that the benefit of a shorter OODA loop - a shorter generation time in evolutionary terms - now outweighs the advantage of paying your workforce dramatically less. After all, if the stuff is coming from China, the turnaround time is going to be at least six weeks or so for shipping on top of however long it takes you to come up with a new model.

In evolutionary terms, again, it was always what could be described as r-selected industries that were going to follow the cheap labour - low overhead, low investment, low margin, fast turnaround. K-selected ones - intensive in physical and human capital, high margins, complex development processes - could only by definition be slower to move. In some ways they have proven stickier than most people thought. It's interesting that the first of the R's are now reaching the end of the race to the bottom.

Is this one of the real challenges? To come up with a politics of evolution? Who knows. But it certainly strikes me that it's an argument for market socialism - after all, elite consensus puts a lot of effort into reducing the risks of firms leaving their employees. What about the other way around? The reallocation of resources involves more than one party.

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