Monday, January 28, 2008


That's what happens when an Antonov-12 runs right off the runway, engines churning, and hits a parked Boeing 727. But that isn't the interesting bit.

The 727 was 9L-LEF; and what it was doing in Pointe Noire, Congo-Brazzaville, when it's meant to be with Iraqi Airways is a very good question indeed. Like all the Iraqi Airways planes post-2003, it was provided by a Jordanian company called Teebah Airlines, owned by a sheikh named in the Oil-for-Food case, and registered in Sierra Leone. This particular aircraft, however, served with both Iraqi Airways and also Kam Air, the Afghan operator owned by Abdul Rashid Dostum which operates a range of aircraft from some very interesting partners, such as Viktor Bout and Chris Barrett-Jolley's enterprise.

More as we get it, as they say...

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Can haz air-to-air refuelling? Oh noes...

FT: the AirTanker bond issue has, not surprisingly, gone pear-shaped as the monoline insurers fall apart. The story includes some vital detail on precisely what the Defence Procurement PFI team and the consortium have been doing all this time; essentially, trying to finance the deal at an acceptable rate of interest in the middle of a credit crunch. The alternative plan, to issue bonds, is now dead, so it's back to the banks.

Meanwhile, the VC-10 fleet soldiers on; better hope the cracks aren't serious. (This should be an unintended benefit of the credit crisis; silly PFI deals will be really, really difficult to get away for some time to come.)

How difficult can it be?

The Tory is sure to leap on the news that, as Dr Rant points out, there is little point in doing a "deep clean" of hospitals because hospital-acquired diseases are propagated by the staff. Strange, I remember when Michael Howard floated a whole election campaign on the line "How difficult can it be to keep a hospital clean?"; presumably this is now retrospectively an inoperative statement.

In other random poo-flinging, why the hell has nobody, Newsnight included, picked up on the fact that Paul De L'Aire Staines spent the late 1980s in various ventures supportive of the Afrikaans Nationalist government of South Africa, and therefore has personal reasons to despise Peter Hain? Ignorance is no longer excusable.

We quote, from the invaluable Altered State:
"I was a fanatical, zealot anti-communist. I wasn't really a Tory, I was an anarcho-capitalist. I was lobbying at the Council of Europe and at Parliament; I was over in Washington, in Jo'burg, in South America. It was 'let's get guns for the Contras', that sort of stuff. I was enjoying it immensely, I got to go with these guys and fire off AK-47s.

PDA. UAV. Cup of tea?

Interesting article in Aviation Leak & Space Technology about the Chinese air defence system, built of standard telecoms/IT stuff. Encrypted IP over many different bearers, landline fibre rather than microwave, that sort of thing. Two things come to mind:

1) Americans; can you just accept that Huawei exists and its engineers are competent? OK? You don't need to postulate Dr Evil stories. Thanks.

2) If you read the link you'll see that the US Marines are experimenting with jammers on a UAV controlled from a PDA-like device. This is cool, but in a world of Bug Labs, you've got to reckon the other side will have them.

The Flashman Option

Nonbarking dog of the year, 2007 was the fact that the increasingly heavyweight NATO force in Afghanistan's logistics are dependent on the road from Kandahar-Quetta-Karachi, that is to say through Taliban and Baluch rebel country to Pakistan's most politically unstable and violent city. As you'll see at the link, someone finally attacked trucks on it in Pakistan; watch this closely.

At the same time, the Afghan government decided it could rub along well enough without any LibDems, thank you very much, because their press wouldn't stand for it; so Paddy Ashdown's candidacy as a putative civilian leader for the international community's various organisations there is officially kiboshed.

What is interesting, however, is that the Afghans apparently express an interest in bringing back General John McColl, currently the NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe. McColl was the first commander of ISAF in 2002, and later the senior British officer in Iraq in early 2004; his specialisation is in peacekeeping and the like. You may remember him as the guy who kept Peter McPherson from starting a little famine in Iraq; he became unpopular for advising against the assault of Fallujah.

McColl would have the considerable advantage that, if this is a NATO job, he could be both the high representative/whatever and also the military commander; someone could be appointed as a civilian deputy for those functions. It is, after all, Rule One in the Big Boys Book of Unconventional Warfare that you need an integrated civilian-military effort.

Further, Rory "As I dined with the robber sheikh's beautiful daughter, his cutthroat crew of Ghazi riders manned the perimeter around the Mi-24 full of cash..." Stewart argued that the boost in NATO forces in Afghanistan since 2006 has been useless at best, counterproductive more likely. Increasing the foreign military presence has simply pissed people off, and drawn the Taliban out to fight, which sounds like a good idea but actually (as the numbers of infantry deployed in 2006 were pretty thin) led to the heavy use of various airborne supporting fires, with heavy casualties to the civil population.

Stewart describes roughly what might be described as a population-security strategy; building up local forces, government services, and economic development in the places where there is a reasonable degree of stability, and not seeking big fights.

Meanwhile, the US Secretary of Defense Gates made an arse of himself; complaining that NATO armies were unsuited to counterinsurgency and spend too much time training to defend the Fulda Gap. Perhaps he shouldn't have repeatedly opposed the idea of recruiting tribal allies? Perhaps he could say, enough with the bombing weddings already? As Dan Hardie says, the only strategy that looks sustainable is something on the lines of the firqat in Oman + Stewart. And Gates has repeatedly opposed it.

The bizarre thing is that out of the NATO armies committed to Afghanistan, the heaviest commitment is the British Army. The French are providing a considerable number of OMLTs (Operational Monitoring and Liaison Teams - small groups of advisors); but the army in Europe that sounds most like Gates' stereotype is the one that actually does own the Fulda Gap, the Bundeswehr. They are hardly in the fight at all; but you have to agree that their patch looks a lot less like hell on earth than Helmand.

It's clear that a) current levels of forces are not enough to dominate, b) they may not be logistically and politically sustainable any higher, and there is a strong case that c) they may be too high already. The Danes may be mad keen on really big tanks, but this is a country where wrecked Soviet armour is littered everywhere.

Liberal Competence

James Graham asks: does your candidate for Mayor of London pass the 7th July competence test?

This is of course a strong suit for the Liberals; perhaps the only one going in a dead campaign. Picking Brian Paddick as the candidate against lardbucket and International Marxists for Police Bullets was a cracking idea; wouldn't JG's suggestion be an open-goal party political broadcast?

Anyway, as it looks like we don't really have a campaign for Mayor, we really should be thinking of a parliamentary seat to line up for him. Fortunately, it looks like the Decent Batsignal has done Boris Johnson no good at all.

In Favour of Surgical Intervention

I would like to take this opportunity to make clear that I stand for surgery. We know that the queen of specialisations is a highly effective treatment for many different conditions; British surgeons are respected around the world. In fact, I believe we would be failing in our moral duty to patients of all kinds if we did not keep surgery on the agenda in all cases.

Obviously, this should not be read as a call for cutting any particular person open; but I would be proud to make the intellectual case for the knife. Further, I call on the so-called physicians, psychiatrists, obstetricians and other members of the broader coalition of healthcare to roundly condemn all those who wish to reject surgery. If you are not in favour of cutting, it is my contention that you can only be considered objectively pro-autoimmune disease; to those sneerers and pseudo-experts who argue that surgery is not an effective treatment for auto-immune diseases, I say it is time to take sides.

We have to ask the question: can there be a decent immunology?

OK, enough with the snark; over at World of Decency they are having a retake of the old whose-side-did-you-take-in-Kosovo foundational argument. As it happens, I was weakly in favour of intervention in Kosovo, strongly in Bosnia; I really ought to be a Decent, but it didn't turn out like that. Here are the two main reasons I opposed war with Iraq: a) Starting wars for no real reason is wrong, b) We're going to lose. Far from turning into a Healyite on September 11th 2001, I turned into a Healeyite, as in Denis.

But this argument is profoundly silly, it was silly then, it is silly now. Being "in favour of intervention" as an abstract intellectual position is just as stupid as believing that surgery is an appropriate treatment for every patient, no matter what their diagnosis. And, of course, for many, many years doctors did actually believe that; rather, they believed that blood-letting was both an appropriate and an effective treatment for literally every patient.

You can probably see where we're going here. This does actually appear to be the core of what it is to be Decent; there is one single, simple reason in all cases, they fell because The Observer printed insufficient shit. Bloodletting does actually appear to be their panacea, so long, of course, that they are asked neither to give blood or to carry out the operation themselves. Surgeons, mark, were much less dogmatic than physicians about blood-letting; probably because they got the blood all over their own hands.

That ends the lecture. As an exercise for the students, why do you think Martin Amis told a BBC interviewer that he "is not sorry" September 11th, 2001 happened in his lifetime because it gave his generation a great ideological challenge, and why do you think he appears to have forgotten that he wrote a great long essay about having to cross a post-nuclear London and kill his own children in the event of nuclear war?


Someone in Pakistan googles for US army jobs in pakistan as cctv operator.

Sometimes I just can't function

Dear Lazyweb: I have a mystifying Linux problem.

To begin the tale, I've been running Mandriva Linux on my laptop since last October with considerable satisfaction; I use KDE and the Metisse 3D window manager. However, I had to disable the ACPI power management support to get the thing working; eventually I grew tired of this and decided to sort it. Research suggested that the solution might be to update the BIOS; a check showed my machine was running version 4 and the current one was version 11. So I booted in Windows, got the new firmware, reflashed, and rebooted in Linux; and the ACPI CPU tuning, suspend-to-RAM, and suspend-to-disk began working. But later that night I had a crisis - the thing will not boot with ACPI enabled from the Mandriva console, and the KDE desktop wouldn't start.

Eventually I was able to uninstall the whole KDE and reinstall it, which got us working. But the Metisse desktop doesn't work; enable it, and the X server crashes on login. Trying to startkde from a command line gives what appears to be a common error, "$DISPLAY not set". Without Metisse, either no 3D or Compiz works; setting ACPI=ON at the kernel switch allows some but not all functions to work (still no brightness control, but CPU tuning, shutdown, and suspend).

There was an Xorg update on Friday which I hoped might change things, but no. Today saw a big KDE update, but I haven't experimented on it yet. Any ideas?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008



Not just Alissa this time; the Il-78 tankers, A-50 AWACSki, Bears and Backfires got to come out and play with the entire Russian navy. I think they're trying to make some sort of point.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Canadian Menace: In Space

I've said before, several times, that satellite reconnaissance is probably as important and more useful than the nuclear deterrent, and that technical change means that it's feasible. Here's an example: Canada just launched its own independent radar satellite, with the object of monitoring the vast spaces of the Arctic. Even smaller economies than the UK can now afford this; the pay-off is that it helps you see-and-avoid approaching Iraqs.

But really, the point of this post is just to say that POLAR EPSILON is such a cool codename for a top-secret space project.

Open up my eager eyes...I'm Mr Brightside

Ken Livingstone is surely unelectable now, sez one of the sinister faceless committee/gaggle of sockpuppets attached to Daniel Davies that is Aaronovitch Watch. Jesus, I hope not; the prospect of Boris Johnson being put in charge of London is too much to contemplate. Consider this; Ken brought a load of old hard-left mates with him to City Hall as advisors, many of whom have done the old Stafford Cripps/Ernie Bevin trick of shocking with your politics while impressing with your abilities as a technocrat. Personally, I hope to make this the subtitle of my life, so you can see why I'm sympathetic.

However, can anyone imagine the kind of rightwing maniacs and snake oil merchants piccaninny boy will bring in with him? I have a horrible feeling about this; but at least there is a reasonable chance the mayoral feedback loop is short enough to deal with him, thanks to all the Tory-invented ways of harassing members of local government that don't exist at Westminster.

National government, not so much; it seems to be unavoidable that once you're in, you're in for 10 years, which means that you can do so much damage that it's arguable voting at all is irresponsible. And even the blogosphere doesn't look likely to mobilise to the degree it did in 2005; the degree of participation and anger of the late 90s seems a million miles away. From road protestors to rate tarts was only one election. Maybe I'm getting old, but I'm struggling to prepare my personal culture for the prospect of a Tory administration, especially after all the effort I put in since 2003 to demonise this lot.

Still, there are small wins; the Respect Unit bites the dust, as does e-voting. And the government's astonishing informational incontinence is helping. A lot. But whether there's any hope for a basically decent government is another matter. Perhaps I'm going to go through the rest of my life stacking up yet more unresolved injustices; hell, the list already goes back 20 years.

I got the poison! I got the remedy!

You think things were bad in Pakistan? Think again; if Dawn's sources are worth anything, it's now the policy of the British government, in the person of David Miliband, to get behind Nawaz Sharif and the Saudi lobby in Pakistani politics. We warned you; it looks like they're heading for a kind of negative excellence ticket, like that time Chris Lightfoot and I were worrying that John Reid and Hazel Blears would get to be leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party.

The deal; Nawaz gets to be prime minister by hitting the squelch on his demands for Musharraf's head, which can get awful literal in these parts. Mush stays on as president, at least until the army wants him out. And the elections might just be forever delayed. The Punjabis get total political control; the PPP gets to rage impotently, or burn shit down. Those parallel networks and Saudi intelligence links stay well and truly in place (they're uncontrollable, you see).

Mr 10% isn't sitting back; he's pushing for elections to go ahead and threatening to take the bloody shawl on a tour of the Punjab, right into Musharraf's and Nawaz's back garden. For once he's right, even though this sentence makes you wonder what the Urdu for chutzpah is: He snubbed the messengers and made it clear that he was not interested in any government office for the next five years and he would only look after his party. Right. And this is Lance-Bombardier Mirriband's policy? Doesn't he know Bradford is PPP country? Doesn't he know Nawaz's number one fan is the Saudi ambassador? This could go wrong in so many ways it's not funny.

A ragged army fixing bayonets...

Under-reported story of the week; reported, of course, by Ackerman.

I think this is going to be very significant indeed. Roll back, if we may, to the winter of 2006; it had just become authorised knowledge that things in Iraq were unpeachy, Rumsfeld had just been thrown off the sleigh, and the Baker-Hamilton commission was about to report. If you were reading this blog back then, you'll know that one of the more significant people the commission spoke to was Iraqi veep Tariq al-Hashemi, panjandrum of the Iraqi Accordance Front (not to be confused with the Iraqi National Accord or the People's Liberation Front of Judea - splitters!) and general big cheese on the Sunni side of Iraqi politics.

Everyone who knows who he is (now including you) knows one of the reasons for his eminence's prominence is that he knows the men who know the NOIA; when the insurgents surged in January, I theorised that this was their response to what they saw as the betrayal of commitments made to them by the Baker-Hamilton crew via al-Hashemi. I also, as it happens, reckon the "awakening councils" have something to do with the guy; they seem to be made up of the most New-Old Iraqi Army subgroups of the NOIA, like the 1920 Revolution Brigade, the ones whose chief interests are the "Iraqi" and "Army" bits rather than anything more religious or revolutionary.

Anyway, TAH has just inked a carveup with the Kurds; they are looking at walking from the longstanding alliance with SCIRI and Da'wa that has basically held what passes for a government together since 2004. In return they stand to get their maximal territorial demands, most of Nineveh, Mosul, and Kirkuk; now, this is obviously poison to the 1920ers especially. Nineveh and Mosul are the home turf not just of Iraqi Sunnis but the Ba'athist and army establishment specifically. There's even a secret clause in there; now that's good old-fashioned diplomacy for you. Send the envoy!

What al-Hashemi's doing this for I've no idea; Spackerman reckons he's trying to give the current government the push, and really only getting to be king would be worth the desperate meat-hook risks he's taking with this. Maybe the US is tilting to the Sunnis further? Trying to line up the 1920ers and friends with Jordan, Syria, Saudi and the GCC Gold Credit Club? It's thinkable, I just thunk it, but the downside is quite simply that the whole counterinsurgency position in north-central Iraq and Baghdad would go to ratshit. Or is it the other way up? Are the CLCs/Awakeners/1920ers demanding their payback in the form of a Sunni takeover of government, essentially a legitimisation of their insurgent past?


"If it doesn't embrace it, you could have the different Sunni Awakenings coming together as a Sunni army that tries to overthrow the government, pushing the country into civil war," the aide said. "It's possible."

The other side to this is that the IAF-KRG agreement has called forward a countershindig determined to kibosh the treaty. This outfit includes Iyad Allawi's fanclub, Da'wa, and the Sadrists; what a bunch! And just for the weird, that cult is back and killing cops; now, by now I'd be astonished if any given cop in southern Iraq wasn't a Sadrist.

So it's Sadr's move: it always has been.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Review: "Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates", David Wootton

How did a set of medical techniques and institutional styles with absolutely no therapeutic value survive for 2,500 years from ancient Greece to the early 20th century - even though the scientific knowledge required to demolish them had been available since the 1600s? This is the question David Wootton's "Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm since Hippocrates" sets out to answer.

Writing the history of failure is an interesting project; even more so when the activity concerned isn't adversarial. Wootton's main thesis is, in effect, that the germ theory was the all-decisive factor in the great breakout from disease in the mid-19th century, and that resistance to it or failure to grasp the consequences was the main reason why scientific medicine took so long to arrive.

Van Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope, was the first man to see a bacterium, in the 1650s in Leiden; soon there was a wave of interest across Europe in the new technology of microscopy and the astonishing discovery of microorganisms. This gave rise to an intellectual ferment about the nature of, well, fermentation among other things; the centre of the debate was the notion of spontaneous generation. Although, with hindsight, the fact that microbes were already everywhere should have blown the gaff and made clear that the experiments that supposedly displayed it were actually examples of experimental error, there were still believers as late as the 1870s.

Whether germs were spontaneously generated or not seems a slightly odd preoccupation; surely it was more important that they were there? However, it was a major ideological roadblock to accepting that germs were responsible for wound infections; strangely, none of van Leeuwenhoek's peers seems to have thought of turning their microscope on a patient. Even more strangely, microscopes went out of fashion; medicine simply ignored microscopy up to the 1830s. The opportunity was passed up. This sort of thing kept on happening; even John Locke, who called on van Leeuwenhoek in exile and looked down the microscope, wrote that it was absurd to imagine it had any clinical use.

What was going on was a major disjuncture between the value medicine placed on different forms of knowledge; practical, technical knowledge was undervalued, and canonical, scholastic knowledge overvalued. As Wootton pointed out, a hypothetical early-18th century pupil in Leiden could have observed an infected wound with a microscope; they could have experimented on an animal; they could have tried, as Schwann eventually did in 1837, to kill the germs with heat or salt or perhaps alcohol (Holland was where the gin came from, after all), and this would have given us antiseptic surgery a hundred and fifty years before Lister.

Something similar happened with regard to infection control; Alexander Gordon had recognised that puerperal fever and erysipelas were the same disease, and that they were spread through the hospital by doctors, in the 1790s. He was even able to predict who would get it next, having worked out which staff members were carriers - including himself. But the only part of his research anyone was interested in were some suggestions about bloodletting, the canonical medical treatment pre-Lister. It was the kind of knowledge that was authorised. Oliver Wendell Holmes made the same discoveries fifty years later and collected a similar budget of abuse. Ignaz Semmelweis did, too, but fatally missed the link with other diseases, which would have given us antiseptic surgery thirty years before Lister.

In the 17th century, it had been routine for ships to carry lemon juice as a precaution against scurvy, but although it actually worked the medical establishment was able to persuade the navy that they were wrong to use it for almost a hundred years. Again and again, bad knowledge actually triumphed over good; it kept doing so until its failure was both glaringly apparent and its replacement obvious.

A leitmotif in the book is the microscope; not only because of its role in microbiology, but I think also because it was a form of subversive technology. Unlike medical degrees and Galenic textbooks, anyone could possess a microscope; even the skills required to make them were not incredibly rare. The user was able to observe the new nature without anyone's intermediation; a genuinely Protestant product. No wonder they were scared. Similarly, the beginning of statistics made it increasingly impossible to conceal the uselessness of medicine. John Snow could plot cholera cases on a map; so could the priest Henry Whitehead, who set out to conduct his own research in order to refute Snow but ended up convincing himself. Counting, like microscopy, was fatal to the closed system of knowledge.

None of this guarantees success; Snow had to convince William Farr, a top government official and a sort of David Kane figure who theorised that cholera was caused by living too close to sea level. Farr had identified a correlation between altitude and cases, and derived a formula; unfortunately it predicted that at sea level everyone would already be dead, but this didn't stop him. He argued that people at sea level actually lived 13 feet above it because of buildings, and predicted that the race would degenerate unless the government forced everyone to build on higher ground.

It's hard not to wonder what other scientific revolutions didn't happen; it's more profitable to wonder what our systems of knowledge are denying now. Wootton points out that medicine didn't have to be converted; it would have been quite possible for the traditional doctors to stagger on, competing for patients with newly emerging Lister Institutes, perhaps perpetuating the divide between surgery and medicine. As late as the 1970s, he says, it was possible to find "Ionian" - i.e. Galenic - doctors practising in Iraq.

The climate change deniers are an obvious example, but I suspect they are well on the way out; I can't help but suspect there are a lot of Galenic economists out there.

In a special note, by the way, Wootton does suggest that Daniel Davies's manifesto may be flawed. Daniel argues that middle-class progressives' schemes to nudge the poor this way and that are always and everywhere stupid, ineffective, and destructive of freedom. There is much to be said for this view; however, Wootton presents a strong case for the view that a canonical example of such schemes, the health visitor and the Fabians' keenness on telling the poor how to cook, may have saved many lives in Edwardian London. Specifically, although London had the Bazalgette sewerage system and clean water by then, the death rate from infantile diarrohea was the same in houses with flush toilets and without; the explanation of the paradox was that children shat in the street, and then didn't wash their little hands. The answer was apparently a good finger-wagging, and maybe a thrashing or six; by the 1930s the rate was effectively zero.

Iraqi Employees: It Gets Worse

This just keeps getting worse: The Times reports that the Government has rejected 300 out of 700 Iraqi employees who applied for resettlement, mostly under the 12 month rule. That's a rejection rate of just under half. Curiously, the Foreign Office's own scheme has turned down 38 out of 180; this seems to suggest that the MOD employees are suffering because they have worked for many different organisations and units on six-month tours. People are being killed; one man went missing after going to the base to apply on the 23rd of December, and Basra was the scene of a major firefight between the Iraqi army and the Sadrists over Christmas.

Some are expendable; others are just expensive

This PPRuNE thread reminds me of something from the archives.

During a meeting we had not long ago, the increasing sophistication and cost of the Unpersonned Aircraft was raised - because by becoming too sophisticated and HVAA in nature, they were in some danger of becoming too valuable to risk in certain scenarios. Rather defeating their purpose.

I've long thought that if the loss-rate for UAVs is higher than manned aircraft (which is both the point of UAVs and also true) that as they become more complicated their costs will steadily converge on those of manned aircraft. This now appears to be happening.

We get it almost every night

It hasn't been in the papers much since the summer, but did you know that the Russian air force has been around the North Sea a hell of a lot lately? Between October and December, I'm aware of at least five visits to the UK or Norwegian ADIZ (Air Defence Identification Zone). Not just that, but the aircraft involved have included not just the usual Tu-95 Bear-D reconnaissance planes but also Tu-160 strategic bombers, known as "Alissa" (White Swan) in Russia and Blackjack to NATO.

It's an old and somewhat sick tradition that NORAD issues a press release about tracking Santa Claus on Christmas night, but this Christmas the RAF Northern QRA was out and it certainly wasn't Santa they were after, but a group of Blackjacks. They have also been spreading the irritation around; in October, the first Blackjack flight came down the North Sea further than ever before, being successively watched by the Norwegians, the RAF, the Danes and eventually Dutch F-16s as the aircraft headed for the northwestern tip of Holland before turning back, being escorted back up the North Sea by the same RAF QRA flight. It is assumed that this was meant to impress the North Atlantic Council, which met in Holland the same day.

On Christmas night, they ran into Danish airspace and then turned back, then being intercepted by the RAF. (You can see an intercept from the Bear here.)

Most of the RAF sorties also involve a quick-reaction alert VC10 tanker, provided by 101 Squadron at RAF Brize Norton. As well as being extremely noisy, this points up yet another procurement fiasco, one that is timed to go off any minute now. The contracts between the Ministry of Defence and the AirTanker consortium to provide the RAF's new Airbus A330 tanker/transport planes have been delayed for many months; the last known data was December 2007, which we can safely conclude is "no longer operative".

But the real shocker in here is that the procurement process for the tankers has been going on since 1996. Back then the RAF was offered 24 converted A310s, which could have been delivered very speedily as the Airbus rework line at Finkenwerder in Germany was soon to start delivering identical aircraft for Germany and Canada - it would have been a matter of adding 24 to the production run. However, the scheme was held up by a hunt for ways of getting the cost off the books; this was the mid-90s heyday of Sir Steve "Railtrack" Robson's fancy public financing, after all.

So the eventual outcome, years later, is that the RAF is meant to get 14 A330s, or rather, the right to have a percentage of the 14 available at any time and the rest with a notice period. The aircraft are to be owned by the private sector partners, who are meant to be able to charter them out to the holiday business when not required. Of course, it's ridiculous; who would sign a contract giving the government the right to grab your assets at any time and take them into combat? Would the aircraft be on the civilian or military register? What about insurance - would the partners be able to treat them as civil aircraft? Who will insure the partners against the RAF losing them? Who will insure the RAF against the partners losing them? Who will fly them - civilians? RAF personnel? Eventually they decided that the crews would be reservists, but this obviously hasn't reassured the partners.

And the kicker? Well, if the deal falls through, the government is vaguely thinking of running the VC10s on to 2020, at which point they will be 60 years old. They are already half the age of the squadron that operates them and older than most of the crews. There is, however, an ugly rumour that the airframes won't take it; several other aircraft built by Vickers in the 1950s and 60s were retired early due to fatigue cracking.

Away sea boat's crew!

The naval incident in the Strait of Hormuz has rapidly been blogged into next week; I think there may still be some angular momentum to be had, though. It now looks like the USN is backing off from the claim that the voice taunting them on an open radio channel was someone aboard one of the Iranian boats; typically for the area, there were many other vessels of many nations around, and it could have been anyone.

I'm also mildly sceptical of how Iranian or how military they were; the craft on the photos released doesn't look like anything belonging to a navy or any other kind of military organisation and doesn't have any obvious armament. It's just a pretty standard skipper's skimming dish with three or so huge outboards. Further, the UAE and Omani coasts facing that way are notorious for smuggling, and the capabilities and skills needed for running contraband are identical with those for coastal-forces warfare. So much so that the US Navy Seals' boats were designed by a boatbuilder whose major clients were cocaine smugglers, and the earlier Higgins boat had quite a lot in common with craft used during Prohibition to bring in booze. Certainly the "white objects" chucked in the sea sounds a lot like a group of smugglers spotting a big grey government-looking ship and deciding to ditch the cargo.

Jim Lobe apparently reckons this is part of a generalised push by the adults in the State Department and the Navy to get an agreement on the prevention of incidents at sea signed; it seems a complicated way to get at it, but then, this blog's motto should be "It's complicated." On the other hand, it's a safe sort of time to tweak the US Navy's tail; carrier readiness is not unusually high, and the USAF's F-15 maintenance crisis must be an extra drain on the Truman's air wing. However, if the Iranian government was keen to get the incident agreement signed, which might mean some implicit recognition of their claims in the Straits, this could have been just the ticket as a reminder.

There's something highly amusing, too, about the debate around what kind of an accent that radio voice had; in the early 1980s, Sandy Woodward took part in an exercise between the 5th Fleet and the UK Armilla patrol. The British group consisted of the County class destroyer Antrim, three T12 frigates and a fleet tanker; hardly formidable, especially as only Antrim had any surface-to-surface missiles. The US had the carrier Coral Sea and her task force; Woodward's solution was to manoeuvre randomly until the formal kick-off, then have everyone move in under radio and radar silence, trying to blend into the merchant traffic. Eventually Antrim was challenged, at which point they replied posing as an Indian liner by dint of imitating Peter Sellars; this worked and they approached to within 20 miles, in range to simulate an Exocet launch. (Conspiracy theory: it was the British.)

Ou est la masse de manoeuvre?

It's been said, I think by Alanbrooke, that strategy consists in the proper handling of reserves. Looking at the situation with this framework, what can we say about Iraq? It's now been a year since the announcement of "The Surge", the deployment of the US Army's strategic reserve in Iraq. And what's happened?

First, it helps to think about an army as a flow, not a stock concept. The size of an army is really the size of the force it can maintain for a given period of time; this is a function, mostly, of either the provision of soldiers as replacements or the rotation of units out of the theatre of war. Eventually, as in the second world war, even a replacement-based army has to take whole units out of the line, but let's keep it simple.

The surge was accomplished, essentially, by boosting the flow temporarily; bringing forward deployments from this year and the next. This made it possible to temporarily increase the strength by 28,500 men; but the crucial point here is that this is a borrowing from the future. As the units that were planned to rotate back to the US do so, which they have begun doing, they won't be replaced; the units that were to replace them have already been sent and will in their turn complete their tours of duty. Not only will the extra troops leave; the force in place will itself weaken. This can only be avoided if the US Army decides not to reconstitute its strategic reserve. The peak was 182,000 troops in October; we're already down by almost 10,000, or in other words a division equivalent.

This would be largely academic if committing the reserve had led to decisive results. But it has not; yes, there have been three reasonable months by 2006-2007 standards, but this is a claim that requires close examination. The press has effectively taken a holiday since the summer, and the US military PR men have become very keen to quote percentages ("Violence down 60%" - down 60% on what exactly?) but never any absolute numbers. Fortunately the Brookings Iraq Index is still going.

As far as their estimate of civilian casualties goes, the peak month was November, 2006; almost a third of the fall was between then and January. The rate of enemy action was at an all-time high as late as June, 2007, and was still running at 3,000 attacks a month in September. The five worst months for multiple-fatality bombings were all post-surge. The chief evidence for surge effectiveness is the drop in US casualties since August, 2007; that was a pretty bad month itself (84), but was also the moment of the Sadrist ceasefire. It's also noticeable that the rate of attacks on oil and gas installation went to near-zero in August as if a valve had been screwed shut; August was one of the worst months for oil production, but it has noticeably increased. However, oil products supply in Iraq is still at just over two-thirds of requirements; actually worse than during the worst period of 2006.

Electricity production is still almost one-third below target, and it only exceeded the figures for last year after the Sadrist ceasefire; it's also worth noting that the figures exhibit a strong seasonal variation, and have improved every winter since 2003 only to decline again in the summer. (The turn of the year is also usually a low point in casualties.) Further, it's worth noticing that the frequency distribution is not especially normal; 18 months out of 58 are over 1.4 standard deviations away from the mean, mostly on the bad side (the split is 5 low/12 high). In a nonnormal distribution you'd expect to find yourself that far from the mean at most one-third of the time, which is precisely what has happened.

Regression to the mean has no divisions, but it's notable that all the worst months for US casualties are associated with a Sadr crisis; his six-month ceasefire expires roughly now. The US Army has used its strategic reserves and not achieved a decision; this is historically a very dangerous strategic moment. If you examine that Brookings pdf, you'll note that it includes some order-of-battle details; currently, some 7 US brigades are disposed around Baghdad and 3 more around the southern suburbs, and another six across the north, with one reinforced brigade in Anbar. There is currently a Polish battalion group at Diwaniyah and a National Guard infantry brigade based on Kut; nothing between them, and nothing before you get to the British brigade camped outside Basra.

It's Sadr's move; it always has been. And Diyala is still the battlefield; and the guerrillas still know that we're coming. Read Phil "Intel Dump" Carter. But what the hell; snark on this issue has been outsourced to Jamie Kenny.

For extra TYR points, it seems that there was a major clash between the Iraqi Army and the Sadrists in Basra over Christmas (during which the IA discovered a cache including a *drone*). This is not going to be conducive to the renewal of the Sadrist ceasefire.

Dig the new breed

I keep noticing a new face in the game; Vertir Airlines, of Armenia, founded last year has been flying routes from the UAE into Afghanistan. Not much information has been available, but we know a few things; the only known aircraft, Antonov An-12 EK-12221, serial 7345201, is the old ER-AXE, which flew for the now-banned Aerocom, Viktor Bout and Tomislav Damjanovic's Moldovan airline that had an An-26 seized for cocaine smuggling in Belize, and its brief Australian subsidiary Air Bridge Group. (As a source told this blog - what can they have been moving from South-East Asia to Australia that needed an aircraft with air-drop capability?) More recently it's been with Air Armenia, regulars on the Baghdad and Bagram runs.

Tonight, Vertir flight VRZ981 left Sharjah at 2313 GMT with destination Edinburgh; with a cruise speed of roughly 415mph, and a distance of about 3,620 miles, they should get there about 0800. Interesting, no?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Still addicted

So, the Obscurer snagged an interview with Gordon Brown. And what did he have to say? Well, he spoke of identity cards. And the news is not good at all. It seems that Brown is ill-informed about his own proposals (something which we have seen already from past ministers), is still committed to the most imperially grandiose fantasies about biometrics, and is not being honest about the Government's declared policy.

Further, he is barely coherent:
"And I think we've got to get the level of debate about, if you like the management, the identity management to a reasonable level."
That's almost the level, if you like, Bush-league syntax of mangling. Cheap, I know, but there's a war on. More seriously, Brown's actual arguments in favour of ID cards and the NIR are risible:
As far as the individual is concerned, the danger for me and you in the modern world is that our identity is easily stolen.
Yes, for use in non-present transactions, which identity cards will do nothing to prevent because a) they will probably not be required, b) their use would only be meaningful if everyone had a reader, vastly increasing the costs, and c) such readers would by definition be no more secure, because you cannot trust equipment that is in the hands of the potential attacker. This is very basic information security theory; you can't trust the enemy to play by the rules.
And people feel worried when information that is personal to them is lost, and rightly so.
Clearly the obvious solution to this is to let the same organisations that have demonstrated their utter and total incompetence have even more of it. Biometric ID cards authenticate a person to a card (this card belongs to this person). The unique identifier on the card is a database primary key in the planned NIR. The card biometric says absolutely nothing at all about the security of NIR. It's as if I was to lock up all my credit cards in a safe to prevent HSBC employees interfering with my account; the two questions do not intersect.
And I think if we were giving a better means by which people could protect their identity, then in the private as well as the public sector people are looking at biometrics. I mean maybe in a few years' time on your computer you will need biometrics rather than a password.
Well, no. What private sector organisation is trying to market a mass ID scheme? Surely if it was so great there might be profit in it? What some private (and public) organisations do with biometrics is use them to authenticate small numbers of people to get in and out of highly secure installations; rather than having a monster database of everyone's dabs at IBM worldwide, they have a little one with biometrics for the dozen or so engineers who need to get into a major data centre at night. Because the likelihood of someone in the set of possible burglars in that area also being in the set of possible false positives is incredibly tiny, this works. But the maths is very different when the whole population is the lookup table.

Further, Brown may be surprised to know that actually you've been able to buy laptops with fingerprint readers for years; but again, there is no ThinkPad Identity Register. They check the print from someone attempting to log in against that of the authorised user; again, the pools of error are so small that this is safe. Not that it's necessarily very useful, though, as if you have physical access to the computer you can always physically steal the hard disk and use one of many possible methods to get at its contents, as it cannot check the biometric itself. But it gets worse; much worse.
Maybe when you go to a supermarket, as happens in some parts of the States and Europe, you are going to be safer, instead of carrying a credit card which can easily be stolen, to use your biometrics to shop.
This has to be some kind of record for biometric scienciness; the Government has historically always handwaved reality-based objections to ID cards away by claiming that we wouldn't need them very often, whilst also floating insanely grandiose visions of biometric imperialism. Charles Clarke, we may recall, advertised them as "making it easier to rent videos"; as well as offering horrific new possibilities for total surveillance, this would have blasted the Government's hazy costings down to nothing, demanding vast numbers of readers and numbers of transactions per second that even telecoms engineers would consider ambitious. To say nothing of insulting our intelligence.

It's worth digging into what Brown means here; it can't be the ID card itself, which could be stolen just as much as a credit card. He is obviously still addicted to the vision of doing direct identification from biometric readings to the NIR; this went out of fashion in the Safety Elephant's time at the Home Office, on the grounds that the failure rate would just be too high. Consider; even looking at the Government's own trial of 10,000 volunteers - which, incredibly, is still the only data they are willing to divulge - the failure rate varied between one-third for fingerprinting and 4% for iris recognition. But 4% of a really big number is a lot. 4% of literally billions of transactions is a hell of a lot. I have to keep making this point; it's just a wall of cretinous innumeracy. And this takes no account at all of the difference between laboratory and field conditions; none of the 10,000 volunteers was trying to resist, drunk, confused and elderly, they could all speak English, etc, the equipment was in perfect condition, it was set up as the manufacturers intended, the operators were specialists, rather than minimum wage teenagers with a target ring-up rate to hit.

And the numbers from that trial, crucially, are not available on the vital all-defining issue of false positive and false negative rates.

Maybe in relation to banking to use biometrics or fingerprint biometrics, you might find that you are safer in your banking transaction than if you carried a card and a number. But the very fact that you've got biometrics now in a way that you didn't have two centuries ago gives you opportunities to protect people's identity and I don't think we should rule out the use of that.
Right; if you are stupid enough to carry a card and a number, no security measures will help. Unfortunately, however, the British banks have been historically unwilling to give us real two factor authentication, as (for example) France's chip-and-PIN system has done for years. PINs are still, in the year of our Lord 2008, stored on the card; as the card is inactive, this means that the enemy has infinite leisure to work out how to read them, at which point there is absolutely no security whatsoever.

Because biometrics have already been hacked - follow the link to find out how!, this proposal is worse than useless. Direct biometrics defeat the object of two-factor authentication; all this tells you is that someone somehow produced a matching hash, or subverted the reader. Unless there is a second factor of authentication independent of the biometric - like a card! or a PIN! - this is actually a significant reduction in security. If Brown was at all interested in this, he'd been bullying the banks into moving away from their not-quite two factor authentication to the real thing and forcing them to take responsibility for the security of their systems.

Incredibly, years after Professor Ross Anderson's successful war with the banks forced them to admit first that card fraud existed, secondly that it was a problem, and thirdly that one major bank's IT department was implicated, and finally to replace the system, one of his PhD students is having to refight the war all over again - this time, because the banks are trying to deny that it is possible to breach Chip-and-PIN. Despite the existence of multiple security breaches, notably the failover attack in which readers are sabotaged so that the chip cannot be read, and the reader instead reads data off the back-up magnetic stripe, which is then used to make withdrawals in a non-PIN country, the yes card attack, in which a fake card is prepared whose chip responds "yes" to any given PIN, and the possibility of large-scale reader subversion (at least one type of card reader uses a small linux OS which can be remotely managed over a wide-area network; if the administrator security is compromised, an online attacker could do anything they liked with them. These are the ones involved in the Shell security breach), they are still trying to claim infallibility.

Here's something Gordon could be doing; his Chancellor is already refashioning the law regarding banks, the reputation of the bankers is in the toilet, but it appears that the Government is just not serious about information security. All we get is village biometrics faith, funny figures, and managerialist crapspeak about how the fact biometrics exist means we must use them. Strange, hovercraft, nuclear rockets, and giant blimps are available; but we don't use them. I wonder why?

And finally, some actual dishonesty, or else ignorance:
Q:So would it be that British citizens and non-British citizens would need them?

A:Yes, but under our proposals there is no compulsion for existing British citizens.
Wrong. There is a promise of no compulsion within the next parliament; but this is a promise, and worse, a promise from a prime minister who is no longer prime minister. No parliament may bind its successor. There is a requirement in the ID Cards Act for a vote in parliament, but that's it. The Government policy papers on the issue back to 2004 have repeatedly stated that compulsion is eventually intended. Taken the pledge?

Friday, January 04, 2008

Staines: Last Best Hope of Civilisation

To my utter astonishment, our neighbouring local authority has joined the movement of councils refusing to cooperate with the National Identity Register. Spelthorne Borough Council - that's the area north of the Thames that was taken over from London by Surrey in 1996 - passed a motion on the 13th of December rejecting ID cards in the strongest possible terms.
1) That the proposed scheme will impose costs on the Council itself in terms of ensuring compatibility of operations.
2) That the ID card and database proposals will fundamentally alter the relationship between the state and the individual.
3) That in 2005 the then Home Secretary when asked whether ID cards would have prevented the London terrorist atrocities said, "I doubt it would have made a difference".
4) That the government's own Information Commissioner stated that, "The measures in the Bill go well beyond establishing a secure, reliable and trustworthy ID card. The measures in relation to the National Identity Register and data trail of identity checks on individuals risk an unnecessary and disproportionate intrusion into an individual's privacy."
This Council resolves to:
a) Take no part in any pilot scheme or feasibility work in relation to the introduction of national identity cards, based upon current Government proposals for such a scheme, unless specifically required to by law.
b) Make it a policy of the Council to ensure that national identity cards will not be required to access Council services or benefits unless specifically required to do so by law.
c) Take no part in the national database unless required to do so by law and protect our residents data to the best of our ability.
d) Oppose the introduction of national identity cards and instructs the Chief Executive to write to the Home Secretary to inform her of Council policy.”
Under Standing Order 18.6 (iii), Councillor Ms P.A. Broom proposed and Councillor C.A. Davis seconded the following amendment:
“This Council notes with concern Her Majesty’s Government’s failure to properly consider criticisms of, or vary, the terms of the Identity Card Act 2006; that this scheme is fundamentally flawed in conception and this will have an irrevocably damaging effect upon all whom it impacts, including all residents of the Borough of Spelthorne and further consideration should be given to consultation with residents.
1). The scheme will impose wholly disproportionate costs on this Council and other bodies in terms of operational costs and associated implementation costs.
2). The ID card and database will fundamentally change the relationship between the individual and the state.
3). ID cards won’t prevent terrorist attacks.
4). ID cards won’t prevent illegal immigration.
5). ID cards won’t prevent identity fraud.
6). ID cards won’t prevent human trafficking.
7) This Council resolves to:
(a.) Take no part in any pilot scheme or feasibility work in relation to the national Identity Card Scheme unless specifically so required to by law.
(b.) Make it a policy of the Council to ensure national identity cards shall not be required to obtain council benefits or services unless specifically required to by law.
(c.) To take no part in the national database unless required by law.
The amendment was carried.

resolved that the Council
(a.) Take no part in any pilot scheme or feasibility work in relation to the national Identity Card Scheme unless specifically so required to by law.
(b.) Make it a policy of the Council to ensure national identity cards shall not be required to obtain council benefits or services unless specifically required to by law.
(c.) Take no part in the national database unless required by law.
Thanks, Councillors C.V. Strong, P. A. Broom, C. A. Davis, and L.E. Nichols! Even if Staines NO2ID still can't organise a meeting, we're getting somewhere. Ipswich, Liverpool, and the Scottish Parliament have refused this month alone, to say nothing of Australia, where they've just canned the NIR-clone project Blair-clone John Howard wished on them.

2007 was the year awful government IT delivered; in the same way they used to talk about missiles delivering a nuclear warhead. Finally, it's become authorised knowledge that really huge databases are risky, that biometric ID doesn't scale, and all the rest; it's been a long struggle to break through the layered defence established around the conventional wisdom. First it was only "paranoids" who cared (thanks, Jack Straw - what, you're not in jail yet?), then we were all incomprehensible computer geeks, and finally it was the truly weird Polly Toynbee/safetyphant position that opposing ID cards made you objectively pro-poverty. Perhaps 2008 can be the year of the bitbucket?

Thursday, January 03, 2008


I think TalkingPointsMemo has badly missed the point of this AP newsfart.

Says Josh:
You know things aren't good when you see a headline about Pakistani refugees fleeing to Afghanistan.

But they're not fleeing into Afghanistan because they expect civil war any moment as a result of Benazir Bhutto's assassination; for a start, we're up in the mountains here, out in the kind of country that still fits in the poem...A scrimmage in a Border station/A canter down some dark defile/Two thousand pounds of education/Falls to a ten-rupee jezail. Moving between Pakistan and Afghanistan isn't unusual. Further, it's been down there in the reasonably stable bits of Pakistan where there's been serious violence as a consequence of the assassination.

What these people are fleeing is the Pakistani government's campaign, egged on by the US, against their warlords up in places like Swat; the government is now boasting openly that it's going to eliminate one of them they've decided is behind the killing. There is no reason to believe this is true; there is every reason, though, if you live up there, to expect all kinds of horrible trouble. Air raids. Artillery. Crazy foreigners whose God wants you for a guidance package. Bastard Punjabi soldiers wanting to search your house. Crazy foreigners making people disappear in their special aeroplanes. Who wouldn't leave?

Meanwhile, a scene from the north-west frontier of Surrey last night; I walk into my local 24-hour calorie shop and I'm immediately grilled about Pakistani politics, especially the Scotland Yard detectives going out. "Well, Musharraf obviously wants to look like he's investigating it," I said. Apparently Mr 10% getting to be the leader of the PPP is an Al-Qa'ida plot. I doubt it, but we agreed it was a stupid disaster.

The New St Pancras

So, after all the hype, I've now managed to visit the rebuilt St. Pancras Station no fewer than four times. And I think it's not great. Why?

Well, the structure itself is spectacular - but then we knew that already, ever since 1867. The civil engineering of it is pretty damn impressive too; huge tunnels and bridges, the top of the station undercroft turned into a vast raft to support the new station, a ride at 186mph through the guts of Dagenham, down past the Queen Elizabeth bridge and off into Kent that's even smoother than on the French side.

But the architecture? Ah. I suspect a lot of influential people were deceived by the romance of the great project, and their affection for the original building; because it is nowhere near as good as it should be. On the good side, the device of putting the Eurostar check-in function, the ticket offices, and the security checkpoints under the platforms works, and it creates clear and step-free walking routes all the way along two levels of the building. You can pass very quickly from the Tube into the Eurostar, or from the car parks into the station.

Unfortunately, getting out of the station into the Tube is a lot worse; and generally, transferring is worse than it should be. The problem is that the approach that embodies all the architecture critics' favourite things is the one real people will never take; through the grand main entrance. Nobody really walks along the Euston Road, and the cabs pull up elsewhere, and anyway the entrance is currently blocked by plywood hoardings. (It's not finished, of course.) That one will, indeed, bring you straight into the grand trainshed face to face with the trains, without a shop in sight.

However, the whole point of St. Pancras/Kings Cross is that two main lines, the Eurostar, two regional (Thameslink and WAGN) networks, two suburban networks (Midland and Great Northern Electrics) and six tube lines go into it. If you are catching a train here you have probably arrived on a train; if you are arriving here by train you are probably going to catch another to finish your journey. This way - the way the gigantic majority of its users will come - you are in fact dumped directly into a shopping centre.

Worse, the main flow between St. Pancras and the tube crosses the area where people wait to meet arrivals from the Continent, which is in any case hopelessly under-sized. A concrete staircase abutment opposite the exit guarantees precisely half a corridor width here. There is a closed, locked gateway at least twice its width leading into the spacious area where the Eurostar check-in is located; this is a blunder.

So far I can find precisely two public toilets; one of which (at the tube end, on the main walkway, opposite the arrivals) is missing any sign of which is the gents, so staff have plastered bits of paper to it. The queue suggests that the ladies' is underscaled, as is traditional; the gents is probably too small as well. Signage is terrible throughout; the signs are poorly designed and there are hardly any, and some of them lie. At the taxi rank, there is a sign reading TAXIS with an arrow pointing to the Tube station; someone has plastered a ragged paper sign to a nearby pillar pointing in a direction 90 degrees from it. A small favela of portable signs is already growing.

Leaving the station with all the other people on your train, you find yourself in the Tube; unfortunately there are stairs immediately before the ticket hall and the lift queues extend across the underscaled space in which the crowd makes a 90 degree left turn. Then there is a tiny ticket hall, where the ticket queues fill the available space so the gangway through it is obstructed. There is no visual grammar to this space at all - at least the Underground's signage is better. As far as all public spaces and shared infrastructure go, it seems the architects worked from London & Continental's traffic forecast...the one drawn up for the tax lawyers, not the one drawn up to get money out of the Government. In a sense, the whole thing matches this; it feels like a film set for a station, not a station, a private sector enterprise pretending to be a public space.

For God's sake, let's all hope they don't opt for the stupid version of Crossrail, running south of Oxford Street - this would mean the Northern Line would be permanently dysfunctional, having to disperse all St Pancras passengers to the planned Tottenham Court Road Crossrail station. For all other issues on this, I refer you to these guys.

Oh yes, and the "longest champagne bar in Europe" is a chiz; it's not actually one continuous bar.

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