Sunday, March 30, 2008

ID Cards will make us safer!

Genius. Not only can the Chaos Computer Club tell you how to fool a fingerprint reader, but they've got Wolfgang Schauble's dabs.

Review: Mobile Python Book

I recently bought a copy of Mobile Python, Scheible and Tuulos' guide to Python for Nokia S60 devices. First up, I'd like to point out that Scheibe and Tuulos adhered strictly to the well-known titling convention, Programming Book: Really Long Subtitle You'll Forget And Have To Fetch Your Copy To Cite It. No wonder they decided the URL should be That aside, to business. Mobile Python is one of the best tutorials on Python, never mind mobile, I've yet seen; it scoops the pot for conciseness and action-oriented goodness, whilst being almost alarmingly economic with the stuff it includes. You'd be surprised how little you actually need to explain the core concepts.

There are plenty of good examples, and there is a suitably fun attitude to mistreating mobile phones; it's also eye-opening how well the Nokia development team did in making the APIs to interesting stuff like location, digital cameras, messaging, and telephony simple and pythonic. The authors also did well in explaining complex concepts like double buffering graphics, and in having the gall to include scary cool things like how it would interwork with the Arduino microcontroller board, as seen in the new version of the RepRap, and with a robot.

On the downside, there is no excuse for calling your website - that's more than a little Nathan Barley-esque, to my mind. Neither can they do anything about the bloody awful code-signing procedure Symbian and Nokia insist on you going through; if you ever wonder about that chilling effect lark, it's successfully put me off brainwashing my mobile just yet. Fortunately, I see that somebody's hacked the damn thing.

Young Enterprise Curse Watch

I recall I once told readers of this blog to watch out for anyone who starred in a "Young Enterprise" program or won an award for the so-and-so most likely to succeed in business. They'll be the ones vanishing over the hills with Acme Materials Science Ltd's total cash balances, while you try to work out what you'll do with all the squid beaks and what to tell the Financial Services Authority, or else they'll be the ones being sucked down the whirlpool at the centre of some kind of fraudulent trainwreck, just as the fascist octopus sings its swan song.

Something similar appears to have happened in the case of these young entrepreneurs, who took on a contract to supply US-supported police and soldiers in Afghanistan with arms despite a total absence of relevant experience, common sense, or integrity. The result has been the export of a scary quantity of Albanian ammunition, much of which is either dangerous or useless or both, and the waste of large sums of federal money.

It is highly probable that our friend Viktor Bout got in on the deal at some point, too, as it involved sending armaments from the Balkans to Afghanistan and Iraq by air freight. (I just did a Freudian typo: "air fright".) But the whole business has a saving personal touch. Here's a photo of executive vice president and licensed masseur, David Packouz:

27ammo03_190.jpg I have to say that had I been the NYT pictures editor, I'd have been unable to resist captioning this photograph Dude, Where's My Kalashnikov? There's also this:
When the police searched Mr. Diveroli, they found he had a forged driver’s license that added four years to his age and made him appear old enough to buy alcohol as a minor. His birthday had been the day before.“I don’t even need that any more,” he told the police, the report said. “I’m 21 years old.”

Oh, the humanity!

leave it, Daz, he's not worth it

The Times has been doing the best reporting from Iraq by far at the moment. Here's some evidence.

Now, to substance. Note this:
“We have received a shipment of Strela antiaircraft rockets,” Abu Sajad boasted to a Sunday Times reporter.“We intend to use them to prove to the world that the Mahdi Army will not allow Basra to be turned into a second Falluja."

This could get bad, especially if the Sadrists can be as good at shooting down helicopters as that NOIA outfit in early 2007 were. Anyway, the last dispatch is that far from the Iraqi government offering anyone mercy in exchange for surrender, Moqtada al-Sadr has just issued an official Leave It, Daz, He's Not Worth It order to his army to stop beating them. I can't see any evidence of this being due to imminent government triumph, so I reckon it's a mix of an exercise in contemptuous indulgence and a renewed assault on the moral high ground.

Think of that; officially at least, the Sadrists have been on ceasefire, more sinned against than sinning, acting only in self defence, but they've also kicked the shit out of the Iraqi government, and now they're looking to exit the confrontation on their terms. The question about this is of course whether the big red stop button will work; Sadr has historically had only coarse control of his army, basically a choice between STAND BY and BURN SHIT DOWN. It's quite possible that the political dynamic will get out of hand, though, and there are signs of this round taking on a life of its own.

For example, it is reported that the Mahdi Army in Baghdad has been going after the usually ex-NOIA, Sunni "Awakening Councils"/"Sons of Iraq", even to the point of attacking Sunni territory; apparently, their outposts are being rolled up into more defensible concentrations, which would mean at least a temporary disruption of the US counter-insurgency strategy, and at worst the enduring loss of territorial control and a major NOIA counteroffensive, probably (if you want a guess) in Diyala. Policemen are deserting in droves of up to battalion strength. It may be that this round of violence, like all the others in Iraq, is breeding its own army; 2004 gave us the original Mahdi Army and the NOIA, 2005 the SCIRI fake policemen, 2006 the ex-NOIA countergangs, 2007-8 the Mahdi Army 2.0?

There's more evidence of renewed sectarian war here. Brief thought; has anyone else noticed that as well as improving its coverage, the Times has started referring to Moqtada al-Sadr as Hojetoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr? This shows both greater respect, and significantly improved spelling. (So has the US Army.)

Finally, let's all be thankful the Mahdi Army mortarmen missed Tariq al-Hashemi, this blog's favourite not-quite-an-insurgent Sunni politico and Iraqi vice president. Because that probably would have been the starting gun for the various Awakenings to turn.

Update: I spoke too soon. Someone tried to assassinate the governor of Diyala earlier today.

My God, it’s full of chips!

Despite the title, this is not a post about Boris Johnson. Can anyone trace this story, one of my favourite tech war stories, to an original source? It's the early days of semiconductor fabbing at Texas Instruments; the process is still a bit of an art, both in the sense of a science with more than seven variables and in the sense of something less certain than science, and for every chip that passes quality control reams are discarded. But there is a shortage of chips; TI can command silly prices for them.

So they adopt a sort of inverted lean production; run the line as fast as possible, ship the good ones, and throw away the rest. The crap, obeying Sturgeon's law, piles up; fortunately the company is growing fast, and needs to create more parking as the workforce expands (and this being Richardson, Texas, so do their cars). The dead chips get mixed into the tarmac and spread on the new car park.

Future archaeologists will dig down, find the car park, write it off as a typical mid-20th century automotive facility...until they look at a sample with a microscope, and FREAK!

Anyway, I'm very certain of the details - car park, waste chips, Texas Instruments - but I can't find any trace of the tale on the Web. And it is the kind of thing that grows in the Internet. Can you help, dear Lazyweb?

What if they staged a coup and nobody came?

Crack BBC journo Peter Taylor's film The Secret Peacemaker, about Brendan Duddy, the man who maintained secret communications between the IRA leadership and the British government from the early 70s to 1993, was a cracker; it provided rich detail about the practicalities of ending the war, the missed opportunities of the first ceasefire, and moreover it conveyed something of the weird atmosphere. Secret meetings with spooks and terrorists were held in a Thatcherite DIY conservatory, and it struck me that most media coverage of Northern Ireland was always urban; intellectually, I knew there had to be countryside, and that due to its latitude and geography it would look vaguely familiar, but I wasn't prepared for it looking quite so much like the moors. And the killer detail is surely that Duddy knew Martin McGuinness from when he delivered fish to his dad's chip shop.

But rather than the mood music, a real point which nobody picked up on: here's something from Taylor's summary of the film, as published in the Guardian.
But one of the great mysteries of the peace process remained. Who did send the famous "conflict is over" message? I pointed out to Duddy that if he didn't send it and McGuinness didn't send it, that only left "Fred".Duddy was protective of the man he had come to admire. "I don't want to say, as he's a wonderful, honourable man." The message was written in pencil in a hotel room in London. "It seems to me that message was to encourage the British government to actually believe dialogue was possible," Duddy said. But the revelation of the messages and the unauthorised March meeting also marked the end of "Fred". The government was appalled at how he had exceeded his brief, disobeyed instructions and almost brought the prime minister down. "Fred", in Brendan's words, was "court-martialled". As he said goodbye, he gave Duddy a farewell present, a book inscribed with a quotation from Virgil's Aeneid: "One day it will be good to remember these things."

When I read this I double-took; did he really just say "the conflict is over" was actually sent by an MI5 agent exceeding his authority? You what? It was what I think of as an Embassy Phew, after the bit in Conrad's The Secret Agent where Comrade Ossipon finally gets clued-in to the fact Verloc has always been a stool pigeon for both the plod and the Russians. Police! Embassy! Phew! The political equivalent of the sensation of a cricket ball not quite hitting your head.

You would have thought that this was front-page stuff; "Fred" ended the war in Northern Ireland and nearly disposed of John Major, at one stroke of his pencil, whilst also precipitating the interrogation of Duddy. Frankly, he deserves a knighthood for the first two out of those three; he may of course have got one. But there are some pretty gigantic constitutional issues here, no? I mean, did the spies deceive the prime minister? As usual, the limits of British political discourse are that it stops as soon as you get to the question of power.

Alternatively, it's possible that the message was given to "Fred" by a third party; it's certainly not impossible that he had other Republican contacts, a back channel to the back channel. Or perhaps, as it seems that whatever the facts about the message, it accurately described the IRA leaders' thoughts, an intelligence source in the IRA clued him in? (If it was the near-legendary Freddie Scappaticci, you'd be forgiven for suggesting it was more of a back passage than a back channel.) After all, it would be surprising, had he simply made it all up, if the results had accurately matched the IRA's intentions. That suggests strongly that if the message wasn't received from someone, it was composed with extensive knowledge of the IRA leadership's thoughts; which begs the question of exactly what the word "message" means.

Presumably "Fred" was required to report on what was said at the meetings as well as what the IRA told him to pass on; it's not impossible that a text which contained his opinion of their intentions, or a summary of the conversation, was taken for a verbatim message. In which case, it's possible that the IRA deliberately signalled its content to him in order to stay plausibly deniable; a virtual back channel within a channel. At which point, the brain reels.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Send lawyers, guns, and money

Well, it's not as if we weren't warned; the Iraqi government had been threatening to move against Fadhila in Umm Qasr, and there had been increasing tension between the Iraqi government and the Sadr movement going back to Christmas. Not so long ago, there were demonstrations in Sadr City against Sadr; they thought the movement wasn't standing up to increasing provocation from police/SCIRI as was//Badr Corps men feeling braver now they didn't have to fight NOIA any more.

You can read the violence in a number of ways; the government/ISCI/Dawa probably briefed it to the Americans as an extension of their counter-insurgency plan to the deep south, with the added twist that this was an operation the Iraqi army would throw all by itself, hence good politics. Sadr of course will consider it an outrage by the collaborationist-Iranian bastards, eerily mirroring Petraeus's response to the Green Zone bombardment; if you adopt Jamie Kenny's policy of trying to think like Leonardo Sciascia, you'll see it merely as a fight for oil rake-offs between (as Douglas Adams put it) rival police gangs. As always, SF leads the way into history.

Daniel Davies has apparently finally taken my much repeated advice and read A Bright Shining Lie, which has apparently led him to conclude that the Dawa-Sadr fighting is a good thing on the grounds that it strengthens the government, even if only as the biggest gang. Well, it has led the annoying look-at-me contrarian Daniel Davies to do so; what the real one thinks I don't know. I don't agree; the Sadr movement demonstrated its deterrent capability on day one, when it resumed rocketing the Green Zone and seized police stations across the Big Gap in southern Iraq, as well as the road between Amara and Basra, rather as they did in the first and second Shia risings in 2004. Further to its massive popularity, the Sadrists also have had at least a tacit alliance with some currents in NOIA - there's a risk of the whole shithouse crashing down. Note that the Dawa and Sadrists, and ISIC, are on the opposite sides of one of Iraq's worst territorial fights.

So inevitably, the US authorities seem to have swallowed the "southern surge" thing, and are now pressing for more British troops to be sent - not just that, but for an advance back into Basra. This is genuinely bugfuck insane and the Prime Minister has no choice but to reject it; there is literally no-one left. Army planners are already looking at calling out at least 2 TA battalions in their entirety to cover routine tasks; a mass of resources is going into Afghanistan; there is some question as to whether there is another brigade in the tubes for the next but one rotation in Iraq. The inter-allied shit just hit the fan.

Of course, nothing would do more for Gordon Brown's polls than turning the fan right's worth noting that officially, the only support MNDSE is giving this operation is aerial reconnaissance; that could perfectly well be provided from Kuwait. However, maybe not.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Payback

This is interesting. Jim Bates, an expert witness for the defence in some of the Operation Ore cases we discussed, has been convicted of misrepresenting his qualifications. Specifically, the charges relate to whether or not he claimed to be an electronics engineer, despite not being one, and to his career in the Royal Air Force. I frankly have no idea what he may or may not have done in either of these, but I would like to be the first to point out that neither of them change the facts of the case. Bates is not the only person to have reviewed the data; and anyway, he wasn't asked to carry out any electronic engineering.

You do not need a degree in electronic engineering to use the Unix grep command, which is all you need to check if the IP addresses in list A (the alleged buyers) appear in list B (the Visa merchant terminal log). Further, I fail to see how this changes anything about the 54,348 stolen credit cards; we even know which company they were stolen from (Levenger, Inc.) and that they were stolen from their MS Access database.

Further, it is something of an IT industry tradition that not everybody who knows anything about computers has a "Computer Engineer By Royal Appointment" coat-of-arms; we think this is something akin to freedom. Hell, I've got an MSc in International Relations, and so has the CEO of British Telecom.

I'm not at all surprised to see this bit of the story:
'It is critical that those who serve as expert witnesses are credible on an ethical basis and do not have any alternative agendas which may affect their independent status,' said Jim Gamble, chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which brought the case against Bates.

Indeed, indeed. How's the Forest Gate case coming on, fella?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

I always hoped there'd be dogs

As a change from the austere scientism hanging around this blog after Arthur C. Clarke's death, Michael O'Hare reminded me of another wonder of British postwar culture today.
Among the religious doctrines that run me axle-deep in the mud whenever I try to follow them is literal resurrection to eternal life. I'm astonished to learn via Rachel Zoll that expectation of a literal, personal, physical resurrection is coming back in serious theological circles.Physical? What can this really mean: my body has done OK for me over the years but some parts are getting worn out, and most people die old and pretty beat up; will almost everyone in heaven wear reading glasses, and be in walkers or puffing up stairs? Will paraplegics spend eternity in their wheelchairs, the blind tapping canes? Do they get to take their service dogs? Come to think of it, before I sign up for this, are there dogs generally - resurrected (this seems impious; I love my dogs but they aren't people) or some other sort?

I'm more than a little shocked that this mode of belief is on the rise; maybe I shouldn't be. But there's plenty of time for number crunchin', logic choppin', atheism; what strikes me about this is the dogs. Are there dogs generally? How could anyone possibly imagine a dogless heaven? It's as absurd as a universe that ends on the nine billionth name popping out of the computer. It's as absurd as not knowing whether that would happen when the if x is in NamesOfGod condition evaluates True when n=9,000,000,000,000, or whether it would have to output to the printer first.

In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film A Matter of Life and Death, David Niven's character is washed up on the east coast of England after the shooting down of his aircraft, believing himself to be dead. Walking along the beach, disoriented, the first creature he meets is a dog; obviously, this convinces him that he has arrived in heaven. I always hoped there'd be dogs, he says, stroking its head.

Answering the wrong question

Abu Muqawama on Pakistan:
Raise your hands if you think Pakistan would totally sell the U.S., India, and Afghanistan down the river to earn it a (temporary and illusory) respite from the Islamist insurgents currently
threatening Islamabad. (You can't see it on your computer monitor, but Abu Muqawama is typing with one hand because the other is extended into the air.)

With all due respect...wrong. I haven't blogged on Pakistani politics for a while; partly, I think, out of the pathetic cognitive bias that tells me I shouldn't for fear of jinxing a string of almost frighteningly hopeful developments. Let's recap; the Americans didn't insist on saving Musharraf, the Saudis didn't succeed in kiboshing the PPP, which hasn't fallen apart, and - wonderfully - the PPP and the PML-N have managed to agree.

So we're looking at the possibility of a Pakistani government with majority support nation-wide and in both the Punjab and Sindh. That hasn't happened since....too long. And it has enough majority to restore the old judiciary and - should this be considered advisable - get rid of Musharraf. Pakistan voted against both the jihadis and their/our mates in the military establishment, and for once its political class has delivered. Strategy beats tactics. The reason why the jihadi movement has been able to operate in Pakistan is very probably that it has been so close to the military establishment for so long; Musharraf was, famously, the top proponent of using them to harass India and carve out a sphere of influence in Afghanistan all the way up to September, 2001. He wasn't always Plucky Pervez, ya know; our special relationship with him has been very special indeed.

Plenty could go wrong; more assassinations, coalition breakdown. But one thing will not happen, which is that the jihadis win. What is the key strategic objective of an insurgency? The hearts and minds of the...zzzz. The elections demonstrated conclusively that the jihadis have nowhere near this - they have bare tolerance in restricted parts of the country, mostly among people who are ethnically and politically at odds with the vast majority of Pakistanis. Insurgents are able to let off bombs; they are not "threatening Islamabad" in the sense Vietcong sappers massing in Cholon were threatening Saigon, or 1920 Revolution Brigades men raiding the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior back in 2006 were threatening Baghdad.

In Iraq, the US co-opted the Sunni insurgency; it's at least arguable that the Pakistani military dictatorship co-opted the US counter-insurgency. Further, when things like this happen, you've got to consider the risk that somebody wants a spiral of intervention, attacks on the interveners, more intervention, and so on; especially if the somebody stands to benefit on both sides.

Update: PPP PM picked. And it's not Mr 10% or Hi My Mum's Benazir!

Update Update: See Jason Burke, and also this story a commenter brung us; this is really fucking serious, and injecting more random violence into the situation is not the answer. Further, sending convoys via Landi Kotal? Don't these people read Kipling?

Appreciating Clarke

I liked this comment from Chris "Chris" Williams regarding Arthur C. Clarke:

What future? A better one than we’ve got: a worse on than we’d have had without him. Several million fanboys and girls grew up exposed to clear prose, opposition to nationalism, scepticism about organised religion, faith in technology, faith in humanity, and some great comedy.“The guest of honour pressed a button (which wasn’t connected to anything). The chief engineer threw a switch (which was).” - or thereabouts. From Travel by Wire. All there at the start.

Which amused me; especially as the same post got linked by the Adam Smith Institute. Ha, I can't imagine two technologies that got commercially deployed whose development had less to do with Teh Market than satellite communications and GSM. Even though there is fierce competition in both fields, a lot of it is down to the fact that the GSM founding engineers designed it in, working for ASI-tastic organisations like nationalised Nordic telcos and the European Commission.

Satellites, do know Bell Labs (itself hardly the most Thatcherite operation, and one Reaganism killed off pretty sharpish) actually considered launching the first comsat on a Soviet rocket? Beyond mockery, what I'm driving at is that Clarke delivered a solid disrespect for ideology as well as religion and nationalism and Western arrogance - surely, the Indian-engineer archetype must have something to do with all his Dr Chandras, next to the IITs and the unintended consequences of IBM being kicked out of India in the 70s? (And what would the ASI make of *that*?)

The political landscapes he delivered were always nicely sceptical of state bureaucracies (2001: A Space Odyssey can be read as an attack on the security-bureaucratic complex) and also of big business. He missed the revival of small business, but then, who didn't. And his major political flaw was that he was too optimistic about technocratic cooperation - he seemed to believe that politics stopped in low earth-orbit, and Space Station One is essentially the European Union at L-5. Just as you can't have non-political bread, you certainly can't have non-political spaceflight; but of all the political mistakes you could make, it's a pretty minor one compared with some of the others on offer during his career.

From the 1930s to today, he could have variously believed in die-hard opposition to Indian autonomy, to say nothing of independence, that Stalin was an honourable gentleman, that what we really need is a strong leader to discipline the feminine masses, that white people were smarter than other people, that the US intelligence services were engaged in a conspiracy to downplay Soviet power and that therefore we need many more nuclear weapons, that burning the North Sea oil reserves in order to support sterling at an exchange rate high enough to flatten the export sector was a good idea, that the UN is a secret Zionist conspiracy to take your guns, that what we really need is a restored Caliphate, or that invading Iraq was wise. And this is far from an exhaustive list. Literally no other period of human history has offered a richer cornucopia of delusions; as George Orwell said, no ordinary man could be such a fool.

The Clarkean vision was that perhaps, we might be able to imbue reality with the inspiration and excitement various groups of us applied to the list of ideological manias above. Rather than pluricontinentalism or bimetallism or conservatism, we might consider the renal parasites of cephalopods, the neurological basis or otherwise of psychoanalysis, or viewing the surface of Venus in the infrared. Nothing is mere; so said Richard Feynman. It finally poses the question; is a sceptical utopia possible?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Two cows

He imagined that satellite broadcasting might help a hundred Indian villages save two cows a year and understood what an impact that might have. Says a commenter at PZ Myers' place, on the occasion of Arthur C. Clarke's death. Two cows a year; now that's genius. I can't presume to say whether this came true; I don't have any data on satellites and Bos indicus. But I do have some numbers on fish.

Brough Turner likes to keep track of this stuff, and here's an actual peer-reviewed study. You can get a presentation version here (pdf). On the coast of Kerala, not all that far from Clarke's home, mobile phone networks deployed in stages down the coast between 1997 and 2000; this graph shows what happened next.

Price is on the Y axis, time on the X. Not just that, but the improvement in allocative efficiency led to an 8% increase in the fishermen's profits and a 4% drop in the price to the customer; at the same time, the quantity of fish going to waste went down from 6% of the catch to near zero.




Ericsson RBS2111.

I was given Of Time and Stars as a very little boy; I am frankly terrified by the number of people posting all over the Web to say how much it inspired them with the sense of wonder and joy of science...what future was it preparing us for?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Plugins for Firefox 2 on OpenSUSE - resolved

Ha! Fixed.

Despite the Mozilla Foundation telling you to install the Java Runtime like this:

su root
password: yourrootpasswordhere
cd /usr/java/
chmod x+a jre-6u5-linux-i585-rpm.bin

It won't work. But if you follow the rest of these instructions it should. Assuming you want Java in a directory called /usr/java/ and you downloaded the thing to desktop by default, that is. Read the EULA, press space to scroll, type yes at the prompt.

rpm -iv ./jre-6u5-i586-linux.rpm
cd /usr/lib/mozilla/plugins/
ln -s /usr/java/jre1.6.0_05/plugin/i386/ns7/

Now, going by the official documentation, you would think this was time to restart the browser and call it a day. But it won't work. So you need to:

cd /usr/lib/firefox/plugins/
ln -s /usr/java/jre1.6.0_05/plugin/i386/ns7/

Now it will. Does anyone think this could be more user friendly?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

No. Just No. Just No.

ACPO is no longer tolerable as an organisation. It's a freefloating lobby for ever-greater authoritarianism. Seriously.
Gary Pugh, director of forensic sciences at Scotland Yard and the new DNA spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), said a debate was needed on how far Britain should go in identifying potential offenders, given that some experts believe it is possible to identify future offending traits in children as young as five.

'If we have a primary means of identifying people before they offend, then in the long-term the benefits of targeting younger people are extremely large,' said Pugh. 'You could argue the younger the better. Criminologists say some people will grow out of crime; others won't. We have to find who are possibly going to be the biggest threat to society.'

Pugh admitted that the deeply controversial suggestion raised issues of parental consent, potential stigmatisation and the role of teachers in identifying future offenders, but said society needed an open, mature discussion on how best to tackle crime before it took place. There are currently 4.5 million genetic samples on the UK database - the largest in Europe - but police believe more are required to reduce crime further. 'The number of unsolved crimes says we are not sampling enough of the right people,' Pugh told The Observer....

The ID card scheme is on its last legs; note that the heart of it, the NIR, has been shunted back from 2004 to 2012, whatever pretendy-wee bollocks they rush out for face-saving purposes. But the control industry keeps rolling along.

Also note this:
'Fingerprints, somehow, are far less contentious,' he said. 'We have children giving their fingerprints when they are borrowing books from a library.'
When we say that the efforts to push biometrics and RFID on schools are intended to soften up the public for more state surveillance, they call us paranoid extremists. And then, the head of biometrics at ACPO says that's precisely what they are doing.

On the African Internet, no-one can hear you scream

When Pakistan Telecom tried to kill the Internet in an effort to stop the public seeing evil things on YouTube the other week, there was instant media-reaction and a fairly swift fix by the organisations involved. Things are different when you're a small Kenyan ISP, though; for about a day now, Africa Online (AS36915) has been off the Net after a major backbone operator, Abovenet (AS6461), erroneously announced their IP block to the rest of the world and caused a routing loop (i.e. router A sent their traffic to router B, which routed it to A...).

The good people of NANOG were on the case directly, but there's still no solution. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that fixing a small African ISP's upstream connectivity just isn't a priority; it's the weekend in fabulous Amsterdam, after all. PCCW, and everyone upstream of them, had every incentive to fix the YouTube route hijack; not only would they have been facing a barrage of complaints from their residential customers (what? no lolcats? no funneh 70s TV ads? no home-made smut?), but they would have been in hot water with, ah, Google had it kept up. And there was the self-righteousness factor; everybody wants to be standing up for freedom of expression.

Sadly, however, the prospect of falling out with Africa Online in Kenya scares nobody, except any of their customers who were counting on Internet service. Further, they aren't going to be the biggest account at Abovenet; nor will they have much choice of transit provider. It's been said many times before that the topological centre of the African Internet is Tookey St, SE1, so the possible diversity is limited. This hits them in more ways than one; this particular problem is harder to fix than ISI vs YouTube for a very good reason.

Internet routing always prefers the most specific route offered to a given destination; PakTel leaked a more-specific route for YouTube. But Abovenet hasn't, so this can't be fixed just by splitting Africa Online's block into two equally sized more specifics. Instead, the misroute spread precisely because it came from a big and core-centric operator; Internet routing always prefers the most direct route (defined as the one that transits the fewest networks), and unless you're Kenyan Abovenet will always be more direct than Africa Online, as they are concentrated on the North Atlantic. There's much more detail at Danny McPherson's; including some cracking visualisations using RIPE's BGPlay tools.

Which I can't see because Firefox 2, OpenSUSE, and the Java Runtime won't play nicely. I've done the arse-paralysingly user-hating install - download the RPM, which isn't actually an RPM but a shell script and an RPM, be root, do a chmod to make it executable, cd to the directory you want to put it in, mv the file over, run the shell script, ok the EULA in the command line, then do a command line rpm install of the file name without the .bin extension, cd into your /usr/lib/mozilla/plugins/ directory, and ln -s /usr/java/jre1.6.0_05/plugin/i386/ns7/ ./ assuming you chose /usr/java/, then close and reopen your browser. Seriously. But it still doesn't fucking work. about:plugins doesn't show it, and it still wants to download the JRE. And yes, I tried the option of ns7/gcc29/ as well.

Apart from the urgent necessity of me either getting a clue or murdering Scott McNealy with a rusty coathanger, what does this tell us? Well, Africa Online's fate is an example that rules and freedom are indivisible, John Locke's old insight; without implementation of routing security, anybody can bugger up anybody else's network and the bigger, stronger, and not to say whiter you are, the worse trouble you can cause and the longer it takes to fix it. Which is why I love the EU.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Hands across the sea continent

This is hilarious, and depressing: you may find tech-libertarians annoying, but just think yourself lucky we got Paul "Van der" Staines, and not this guy. Dmitri Golubov, for it is he, was nailed in 2005 for running a massive credit-card phishing operation (in that case he was probably behind some percentage of the spamwave I spent part of that year trying to keep out of AFOE's comments); now he's starting the Internet Party of Ukraine.

Well, if he's a spammer he's presumably competent. Here's their platform:
Golubov and the Internet Party are running on a platform of rooting out public corruption and reducing bureaucracy. Other parts of its platform include the "computerization of the entire country,"

Dunno what that means, but it's probably rather like Patricia Hewitt's promise in December, 2003 to deliver "online services" to every household in Britain - this blog existed then, and anyone with a BT landline could at least get dialup. Else something more like the J.G. Ballard character whose "attempts to streamline all the furniture in the dayroom unsettled the other patients". But I doubt a Cybersyn-like real-time planned economy is on the cards.
"free computer courses and foreign languages at the expense of the budget,"

And ponies.
"the creation of offshore zones in certain regions of Ukraine," and the organization of Ukraine as a "tax free paradise with the aim to attract money from all over the world."

Of course...does anyone know if that'll get him an invite to CPAC?

Can Haz RFID? Noes? I HAZ FN FAL!

Via comp.risks, across the wire the electric message came: German students crack encryption on over 2bn RFID smartcards made by NXP Semiconductor. The cards in question are NXP's MiFare Classic type, and are used for public transport....but also for access control in sensitive government installations, it turns out. Inevitably, NXP threw up its hands - who could have imagined anyone would use our product against the label?

What is especially interesting is that an unnamed European country has placed troops at facilities that were supposedly secured by MiFare RFID locks; it's a real HALTING STATE moment. Time to break out the sealed bags of PAYG mobiles and bottled water, start the alerting tree, and move to your crashout location. (I know civil servants who actually did draw new mobiles, on BT Cellnet as was, for the millenium weekend.)

Of course, as the pesky student points out, it's an inherent weakness of RFID that it's, well, radio frequency identification; everything is public, so if the crypto doesn't work, the whole system becomes a menace.

Update: The mighty Bruce Schneier has much more. The cards are the ones used in the Tube.


One of the many wonderful things about the Web is that its hypertext structure not only permits us to navigate it, and to invoke external resources (scripts, graphics, etc), but also to measure relevance and authority. Google's killer insight was of course just this; to use links as votes for the relevance of a given document, and to do this recursively so that the more authoritative the document, the more powerful its outbound links.

But there is a fundamental problem here; the introduction of the REL="NOFOLLOW" tag was meant to stop spammers manipulating this structure by autogenerating great numbers of links, but this is only a partial solution. After all, the fact that somebody considers a document unreliable, irrelevant, spammy, or just...repellent is useful information; but there is no way of capturing it. Ideas like the "Semantic Web" have examined things like the idea of creating links that go backwards as well as forwards; I for one have never been able to understand this, and it sounds far too much like INTERCAL's COME FROM... statement. (You thought GOTO was considered harmful; COME FROM ... is the exact opposite.)

What I propose is that we introduce a negative hyperlink. A kind of informational veto. I've blogged about the Stupid Filter before, which attempts to gather enough stupidity from the Web that it can characterise stupid and use Bayesian filtering to get rid of it, as we do with spam. But I suspect that is a fundamentally limited, and also illiberal, approach; StupidFilter is indexing things like YouTube comments threads, which seems to guarantee that what it actually filters will be inarticulacy, or to put it another way, non-anglophones, the poor, the young, and the members of subcultures of all kinds. The really dangerous stupidity walks at noon and wears a suit, and its nonsense is floated in newspaper headlines and nicely formatted PowerPoint decks. StupidFilter would never filter Dick Cheney.

But a folksonomic approach to nonsense detection would not be bound to any one kind of stupidity or dishonesty, just as PageRank isn't restricted to any one subject. Anyone could antilink any document for any reason, across subjects, languages and cultures. Antilinks would be simple to capture programmatically - just as simple as other HTML tags are. In Python, it would be as simple as replacing the search string in a BeautifulSoup instance - one line of code. Even without changes to today's Web browsers, a simple user script could flash a warning when one was encountered, or provide a read-out of the balance between positive and negative links to a page.

Consider this post at; Chris is quite right to mock the Metropolitan Police's efforts to encourage the public to report "unusual" things. After all, there is no countervailing force; if you collect enough noise, statistically speaking, you will eventually find a pattern. What you need is the refiner's fire. Why is there no Debunk a Terror Alert hotline?

I am quite serious about this. Implementation could be as simple as a REL="BULLSHIT" attribute. Now how do you go making a submission to the W3C?

Even More Viktor Bout Arrest Blogging

Douglas Farah reckons the Russians are trying to press the US State Department to press for Viktor Bout's release, or rather his extradition to Russia, which would amount to the same thing. It's an interesting suggestion, although usual caveats apply to a story sourced to Bill "WMD to Syria!!" Gertz. I can imagine them pitching it as a sort of grown-ups' conspiracy, driven by the prospect of sensational revelations.

Just how sensational might be judged by this fine piece of work by the South African Mail & Guardian on the Khalid Rashid case, from back in 2006 (I blogged). Meanwhile, everyone's worried about the fact Bout was offering portable SAMs for sale. I'm not at all surprised that he could source them; hell, he had in the past sold complete attack helicopters. Further, the weapons used in an attempt to bring down an Israeli Boeing 757-300 in Kenya originated in Bulgaria via Somalia, at a period when Irbis Air Co was sending off several flights a day from the UAE to northern Somalia and to ports on the Yemeni coast.

The Economist has a good story on the whole affair; they take the line that Russia has decided to be more helpful on the arms trade, pointing to the arrest of Monzer al-Kassar and the extradition of Yar Klein. That can await early confirmation, as far as I'm concerned. The Economist also points out that it's worrying that he apparently thought he could still use Bulgaria and Romania as he did in the late 90s, now they've joined the EU; some interesting reports are coming out of Romania, for example here. And if anyone could translate this one I'd be very much obliged.

In other news, Bout's brother Sergei, founder of CET Aviation in Malabo back in the 90s, appeared on Russian radio protesting Viktor's innocence and asking "How could the American authorities behave in such an unprincipled way?". He must be the last man on earth who couldn't answer that one.

Meanwhile, z-list wingnut barkie and professional fuckwit Gateway Pundit tries to sneak in on the glory as part of a smear. Glad I'm not you. (In fact, he has given me the germ of an interesting idea. More soon.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Smulian: On the Payroll Since 1997

Andrew Smulian's arrest with Viktor Bout is interesting in a couple of ways; first, there was the investigation itself, as previously blogged. Then, there's the fact that he was clearly well embedded in the system, as far back as 1997. Context; the accounts for Air Pass, a South African company Bout reversed Air Cess into in that year and left with its debts, are quite spread around. Even Richard Chichakli's website shows a few pages from them - of course, none of the items that mention Viktor Bout, and certainly not the credit card bills with Richard's name on them. I've had copies for quite a while.

A Smulian was the recipient of air tickets bought with the Air Pass AMEX card whilst Viktor Bout controlled the company, three times in the winter and spring of 1998; a total of R14,000 in tickets with Kenya Airways and SAA. He is also listed as receiving R1,025 in health insurance contributions a month at their Johannesburg offices. At the same time, another Smulian, E or Etienne, is down for R8,260 a month in salary under Flight Ops and the same health benefits. E Smulian received an R3,217 cheque from the company at the end of 1997; he was also claiming mobile phone bills and car rental on expenses.

We don't know if there are two Smulians, but we do know that Andrew is a South African pilot, and that if there is another, this may explain the mystery Brit at the Bangkok Sofitel.

What next, ponies?

So they arrested Viktor Bout, in the same week the ID cards scheme saw its latest rightward slither and the government's ragingly impossible road-pricing scheme bit the dust. And I cleared my to-do list on our report on new forms of voice and messaging. What next, it rains ponies? as PZ Myers said. Something like that; the whole affair drove traffic on the original TYR to our first-ever four figure days (Friday and Saturday), mostly coming from a distributed googlewave, with some special features (Portuguese anti-Semitism BBSs! Something called Bourque kicking out hundreds of referrals).

I celebrated, of course, by spending part of my weekend changing Linux distro from Mandriva to OpenSUSE, and doing a book splurge; on the principle that I ought to actually read some of my fellow bloggers' work, I bought Charlie Stross's Jennifer Morgue and Halting State, and Ken MacLeod's Execution Channel. This may have been the geekiest weekend ever. But there's more; commenter EJH has forced me to finish my project for a geo-tagged RSS feed of dodgy aircraft movements, by inviting me to present it at OpenTech 2008. So today saw me off with my first-ever regular expression; sorting out different formats for time variables provided by other people is genuinely annoying.

Strangely, I still feel like I've got a million things to do; a sort of work hangover.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Firedump Re-Re-Wind

Whilst I've got your attention, there are still aircraft on the Operation Firedump list we're looking for. Ruud Leeuw deserves your thanks for keeping after this.
UN-75003 seen at Jeddah 03Jan08, still in basic Air Cess livery, no titles, operating a flight for Jubba Airways [Aviation Letter - Jan.2008]
# UN-75005 seen at Jeddah 01Jan08, in basic blue Air Cess c/s, no titles [Aviation Letter - Jan.2008]

Chuck in the Boeing 727 UN-B2702, serial 21861.

So Why Was Viktor Bout in Thailand?

So why was Viktor in Thailand? Well, there are some possible explanations beyond the CTB theory that it was something to do with the Burmese junta, or the Chinese, or someone.

Specifically, there are reasons to think that South-East Asia might have been the next stop in the VB caravan, after Ostend, South Africa, and the UAE. Consider Imtrec Aviation; a regular on the various war routes out of Sharjah, they're based (officially) in Cambodia but the aircraft, as ever, are based in Sharjah. Antonov-12 serial no. 1347907, for example, went from Aeroflot back in the days of respectability, via East Line or Avial and a spell on lease to the World Food Programme, to Aerocom, the Moldovan-flagged operation that was shut down after one of its planes was seized for smuggling cocaine through Belize, that shared aircraft with Jet Line International, Asterias Commercial, and ATI, and that was at the heart of the missing Bosnian guns case.

She later worked for Air Bridge Group, the short-lived Aerocom offshoot that wanted to operate from South-East Asia to Australia with aircraft that could open the rear cargo door in flight, and then, Imtrec. From there she was sold on to South Asian Airlines, a Bangladeshi-flag operation whose other aircraft included another An-12 leased from Imtrec that ended up with Veteran Airlines, yes, another regular Sharjah-Iraq/Afghanistan/Somalia shipper, and a very old Boeing 707 that was last heard of with Galaxy Air.

Galaxy Air? Yes. Galaxy Air, the people whose Il-18 serial no. 188011201 EX-786 was seized in Pakistan after a flight with 142 passengers, 20 of whom were standing in the aisle, during which one of the pilots collapsed with hypoxia. More relevantly, EX-786 had come via Phoenix Aviation of the UAE, a company repeatedly implicated in dubious activities there, formed from the old Viktor Bout companies Flying Dolphin and Santa Cruz Imperial. And another Galaxy Air Il-18, serial 185008601, EX-601, came from Santa Cruz Imperial via Phoenix Aviation.

Rolling the tape back a few, Antonov-12 serial no. 8345607 went from Imtrec to Daallo Airlines in Djibouti, and ended up with Click Airways in the UAE; one of the biggest operators on war routes there, and a company banned in the EU. On the way, as EK-12555, this aircraft survived a SAM hit over Baghdad whilst working for "private users in Armenia" - you could put it like that.

Then there's the strange case of 3X-GDM, the Boeing 727 exported from the US to Afghanistan that was curiously involved in two other cases; the disappeared 727 in Angola, and the tragic Christmas Day 2003 crash in Cotonou. All three were traded via Afghanistan, Opa Locka in Florida, and the services of a company in the UAE called Financial Advisory Group; strangely enough, the Swazi registration 3X-GDM vanished shortly after the Cotonou accident to reappear on an An-12 in Cambodia. That aircraft (serial 401912) is now back with Avial Avn on the Russian register as RA-11372. Note that Andrew Smulian, Bout's co-accused, was on the payroll of Air Cess back in 1998 when Bout wanted to move operations from South Africa to Swaziland.

Jetline International, the other one, owned two Il-62s it obtained from Viktor Bout companies Air Bas and Centrafrican Airlines, and leased in another from a Cambodian operator at the same time as it operated 3C-QRF, allegedly Bout's financial manager Richard Chichakli's plane.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Smulian In the Bag With Viktor Bout

Much more is filtering out about the Bangkok Bout Bust; it seems fairly certain that his arrest was the result of a sting operation in which the DEA posed as buyers from the FARC. Bout booked a meeting room in the Bangkok Sofitel; he, and several others, were waiting for their guests to arrive when the Thai police arrived instead. Initial reports said that he had only arrived in Thailand four hours earlier, on an Aeroflot flight (presumably from Russia); this has now given place to the suggestion that he had been staying in the hotel since January. It's most likely that both are in fact true, and that Bout has been in Thailand for some time but had recently travelled to Russia.

The fake buyers ordered surface-to-air missiles and anti-armour weapons, precisely what you'd expect a modern guerrilla army to import. A figure of 100 missiles was given. According to the complaint against him, he went as far as offering them helicopters for sale, and suggested that the missiles could be delivered by airdrop into Colombia. Given the length of the route from the ex-USSR or Middle East pickup point to the destination, this argues that an Ilyushin 76 would have been the means of delivery.

According to the FT, the DEA narcs had been on the case for some time, and there had been past meetings in the Netherlands Antilles and Denmark. Further, the FT claims they got access to e-mail from Viktor's Gmail account.

Viktor Bout has a Gmail account?!!!

In a further report, the FT mentions some of the people who were arrested with Bout. Chief among them is one "Andrew" Smulian, who has apparently already been ghosted from Thailand to the US. This name is interesting; someone of that surname has been associated with Bout since at least 1998, and he appears in the accounts of Air Pass for that year as a major recipient of cash from the company. This would appear to be corroboration of those documents.

It was inevitable that something weird would happen, though:
Mr Surapol said Mr Bout was arrested with five other people – four Russians and one British citizen – all of whom had been released due to lack of evidence of against them, and lack of local arrest warrants for them.

OK, so Bout is in Thai custody awaiting an extradition hearing. Bout and Smulian are the men named in the DEA's writ. Smulian's already been handed over - what's that about? - but some five others have been released including one Briton.

I'm aware of at least two British associates, but one of them is in jail and the other hasn't been reported as being involved in anything evil for years, and was anyway a marginal figure. The FT reckons the released men were the sting merchants.

Further, Doug Farah reports that the Russians have been making noises about issuing an extradition request; I remember overhearing a group of teenagers on a bus in Feltham, passing an ANPR mobile camera installation on the A30. One of them mentioned that it was a police camera that read number plates; the rest exclaimed "Sneaky Russians!" Indeed.

Meanwhile, the affair set the TYR infrastructure sweating, roaring and creaking like an old Antonov 12; just listen to those Kuznetsov turboprops. It was the biggest day in the history of the old blog with 1,576 uniques, plus a hundred or so more on the new blog; anything with a plane photo has been in heavy demand. My favourite google search ever: is max boot related to viktor bout? (the top result is this.)

But more interestingly, look at this: someone queried Russian Google for "Tenir Bout", from theUAE. We also had someone in Moscow googling british gulf, as in British Gulf International Airlines/British Gulf International Company.

Here's what our highly sophisticated surveillance network reported:
[u'06-Mar 23:45', u'Al-Fujairah', 'Sharjah', u'Tenir Airlines', u'TEB 4361', u'Estimated : 23:45 ']
[u'07-Mar 00:02', u'Al-Fujairah', 'Sharjah', u'Tenir Airlines', u'TEB 4361', u'Arrived at 00:02 ']
[u'07-Mar 03:00', None, 'Sharjah', u'Tenir Airlines', u'TEB 4361', u' ']
We've also seen them in the past doing routes like Sharjah-Baghdad-Kabul; a true war-on-terror trifecta, and in the last few weeks running into northern Somalia. Just look where the planes came from.

Wired Danger Room, meanwhile, theorises that the Bout network has been involved with the emerging Andes-West Africa-Europe cocaine route, and was trading weapons for drugs with the FARC. It's plausible; even as early as the British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000, some of the militias were noted to have transatlantic trading connections.

Just for laughs, meanwhile, someone on an Armenian IP is googling for Viktor Bout and Pierre Falcone.

Update: More detail from the horse's mouth. Looks like the DEA agents got Smulian to call Bout on a mobile phone they handed him so they knew which line to listen on. Huge security fart on Smulian's part.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

We Must Ask You, Please, To Come Quietly, For this Is the Cadogan Hotel...

Viktor Bout arrested in Thai hotel room on charges of arming FARC.

And I didn't even know he *was* doing. More, as they say, as we get it.

Update: Here's the pic - it's obviously him.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

More Phorm Horrors

Spyblog is, of course, making sense when they say that the BT/Virgin Media/Carphone Warehouse spying scheme may be illegal because of the sweeping-up of e-mail traffic with the rest. As you know, Bob, e-mail has the legal status of a letter, thanks to the good folks of the EFF years ago. I thought of this, too; here's the text of my complaint to the ICO.
I have just become aware that BT, Virgin Media, and Carphone Warehouse have signed agreements to implement a wideranging scheme to monitor Web traffic passing over their access networks. The intent is, apparently, to insert targeted advertisements into Web content requested by their customers.I consider the details of the scheme to be unacceptable and of dubious legality. It appears that the technical implementation requires the participating network to intercept traffic between requesters and remote sites, to keep logs of individual users' activity, and to amend the content returned in accordance with rules applied to these logs. Legally, electronic mail is considered equivalent to a letter; this implies not just reading the traffic but altering it.

Note that many electronic mail users access their mailboxes via a Web interface, so their electronic mail could be affected by this insofar as it is not encrypted. As requests are being redirected, it is also possible that the security of authenticated sessions might be compromised. No guarantees are offered, or indeed technically possible, that this system would only be used for commercial purposes; as if that made it all right.

Corroborative information is available here [snip a gaggle of links]

Some people are concerned that other ISPs that either use BT's IPStream service - buying wholesale service on BT's access lines - or else use BT Wholesale to backhaul the lines they have taken over under local-loop unbundling to their facilities might be affected.

I'm pretty sure they're not; the distinction between an IPStream customer and a BT Retail customer is essentially which ISP bills you and routes the traffic onwards. BT Retail deals with BT Wholesale and Openreach on the same basis as other ISPs, under the terms of their agreement with Ofcom; so it buys service from BT Wholesale, and its traffic is piped from the BRAS (Broadband Remote Access Server) into its own core network. Meanwhile, the IPStream operators' traffic is wrapped into something called the Layer 2 Tunnelling Protocol (L2TP) and shipped from the BRAS over BT Wholesale wires to their own core networks, where they unwrap it, bill it, and route it.

If you look at the leaked network diagram above (right-click to enlarge), the Phorm/Websense/whatever stuff is all located in the BT Retail core network, upstream of the switches that handle traffic through their RADIUS servers. RADIUS is a server protocol used for accounting for IP traffic and controlling access, so essentially, all that goes through here is traffic BT Retail is billing for. We can therefore conclude that the other ISPs who use BT IPStream or local-loop unbundling are safe. Note that the left hand side is within BT Wholesale, i.e. everyone, the centre section is within BT Retail, so just their customers, and the right hand side is BT Wholesale's IP backbone network, so everyone again; if you like, imagine that the other ISPs' traffic goes around the back of the slide.

Which leads to the ironic conclusion that the best you can do if you're a Virgin customer is to churn to someone who uses BT's network.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

push the button, click the switch

We’ve been seeing a steady flow of Click Airways (ICAO: CGK) and Click Airways International (ICAO: CKW) movements between the UAE, Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Bagram, and some other war-on-terror locales like Djibouti and northern Somalia. Here’s something interesting; Click(CGK), one of the airlines banned by the EU in April last year, is registering a lot of Ilyushin 76s in the EY-, Belarussian Tajik registry. I reckon, what with the closure of the Moldovan registry and even pressure on some of the Central Asian ones, they’re running out of space.

Something else that’s interesting; I occasionally mention that I heard from a source that Aerocom’s shortlived Australian operation (Air Bridge Group - used the same registry and the same aircraft) “wanted to start flights between South-East Asia and Australia with aircraft with a rear cargo door that could be opened in flight”. Why on earth could anyone want that particular capability on that route? Who knows, eh.

Back when Air Bridge was a going concern, in 2003, the Antonov 12s involved came from Aerocom and Imtrec, another UAE-based operator often seen on UAE-Iraq or UAE-Afghanistan routes. Now, look who’s here; Click(CKW) just bought an An12, registered EK-11418, serial 7344705, that not only came from Click (CGK) but also from Air Bridge via Imtrec and some outfit called Air People International; in the old 3C- Equatorial Guinea registry but after they pulled all the regs to clean up.

Update: As a commenter points out, EY- is Tajikistan, EW- is Belarus. Which is interesting; Trans Avia Export Cargo is in Belarus, but this is the first Tajik activity we've seen.

tha mun laike w'it gangling-iron

The RepRap just gets cooler; they're now working on plastics derived from plants that are cured solid with UV light, so as to bring more of the toolchain into the project. Also see here.

If that don't work, there's always Lego. (If anyone gets this title, I'll be delighted.)

Who needs remote control?

My ISP just did something naughty. BT, Virgin Media, and Carphone Warehouse have been caught in a scheme to sell details of all your Web activity to marketers (...and anyone else) without your knowledge or consent. And the full details are genuinely worrying. The Register has a major scoop, in that it's got hold of the network architecture diagrams; they imply that any and all Web traffic transiting BT Retail's core network is going to be tapped off and passed to several instances of the ad system. This will intercept your page request, place a cookie on your computer or update it if it's already there, then (and only then) pass the request to the remote host.

(Some people are concerned that other ISPs using BT Wholesale's IPStream service might be affected. My reading of the diagram is that the taps are within BT Retail systems, which suggests they're OK. On the diagram, the ad system is beyond the RADIUS billing/authentication server.)

When the page comes back, the system reads the data in the cookie and decides what ads to squirt into it (or conceivably, to remove from it). Put it another way, they're going to make their network lie to you. Here's how to stop them, or at least mitigate the damage. (More data is here. The issue has already sprouted a website, here.)

First: go to Internet Options/Privacy in Microsoft Internet Explorer, Edit/Preferences/Privacy in Mozilla Firefox, and choose "show cookies". You're looking for anything from,, or Delete any you see. Now choose Exceptions, enter these names, and choose Block.

Second: if you're running linux, unix, or MacOS, log in as root and open your /etc/ directory. Look for a file called /etc/hosts; open it. Add the following line: (there should be two tabs between them). Save the file. You've just told your computer that whatever the DNS server says, is located at your own machine, so any attempt to send it information will fail. If you're running Windows, same procedure, but the file is in a different place.

Third: consider using another DNS server. OpenDNS is handy; open whatever tool your system uses to manage networks, select your home connection, and untick the option to get DNS servers from DHCP. Instead, add and in the boxes provided. The question is, however, whether you trust OpenDNS; if they can't find a page they return a Google search rather than a 404 or nxdomain, which can break things.

Fourth: go right over here and submit a complaint to the Information Commissioner's Office.

Fifth: consider getting another ISP. I'm on Virgin Media and I will be.

Blog de frappe tous azimuts

Martin Kettle can fuck off with this:

The bright Tory shadow Cabinet Office minister Greg Clark asked recently why politicians are so ready to discuss antisocial behaviour but so poor at discussing its pro-social equivalent.

Bright? Christ, we're in a bad way. The first thing that needs discussing here is that "pro-social behaviour" is a term doing a hell of a lot of work; as with anything that could be de-syllabicised as "good stuff", it's profoundly meaningless.

But it's worse; who decides what is "pro-social"? What limits would be set on this power? "Pro-social behaviour" according to the State could be anything from insulation to denouncing your neighbours to the NKVD, and has been both these things and everything in between. Those states who have the institution of a Ministry for Promoting Virtue and Punishing Vice, like Saudi Arabia and the former Afghan government, presumably believe themselves to be promoting "pro-social behaviour".

And why does Kettle pass by this without offering any explanation of why politicians apparently find it difficult to discuss "pro-social behaviour" as opposed to "anti-social behaviour"? My guess is blatant partisanship. Politicians like "anti-social behaviour" for a number of reasons; the first and probably least repellent is that like "pro-social behaviour", it's a concept with no meaning at all. It's the modern version of Orwell's crack about "fascism" now meaning "something not desirable". Nobody is in favour of anti-social behaviour, by definition.

But then, nobody considers their own behaviour anti-social; this is my second and rather uglier reason. Anti-social behaviour is what THOSE PEOPLE do; youths! the white working class! braying posh kids in Cornwall! black people! asylum seekers! It's a cheap way of being indifferently hostile to all possible target-groups and therefore pandering to every prejudice available in the population, a rhetorical multiple independent re-entry vehicle.

And finally, politicians love anti-social behaviour because its solution is negative; you punish and coerce people you expect to commit it. I, the Man in Whitehall, can order the powers of the state to go and harass the potentially anti-social; I can be reasonably certain that the police will manage to be unpleasant to sufficient numbers of people who at least some groups of voters will consider to be anti-social. This is at least one managerialist control that will indeed produce results.

Further, anyone who can use the phrase "the bag menace" without apparent irony wants...severely criticising.

Donal Blaney: Hypocrite

February 23, 2008:
One of things that I find so frustrating about blogging is dealing with people who are either stupid, venal or willfully choose to misrepresent your views. More often than not, these people post anonymously and decide to tar their opponents with the epithet "racist", "homophobic" or "fascist" in the hope that by using such a description, debate is closed down and they win by default.

O rly?

February 25, 2008:
Moving on from the oh-so powerful list of race-baiters who announced their endorsement of Ken Livingstone, we now see a new list of Livingstone supporters - except that this time it isn't particularly impressive at all.

The idea that this alcohol-dependent divisive figure should be re-elected as Mayor is absurd. He has had his time and it is time for a change. While Boris Johnson may not be perfect, he'd be a damn slight better as Mayor of London than Ken Livingstone.

A few years back I observed that the Tory policy which envisaged an opposition on fundamental principle to the Euro, but only for the life of one parliament, made it possible to objectively estimate the length of a Tory principle at something less than five years. Clearly, exposure to the Leadership Institute has enabled the puissant advocate Blaney to dramatically reduce the half-life; it's like a political linear accelerator that blasts neutrons off anything you place in front of it.

However, given enough power you can transmute lead to gold with a real linac; this version works more in the opposite sense. A reverse Maxwell's Demon; it actually increases entropy by reducing information.

Further, note the interesting fact; the first post has an active comments thread. The second, containing two arguably libellous statements ("race-baiters"? "alcohol-dependent"?) as it does, doesn't. Blaney again:
Such is their intellectual insecurity that they will not engage in honest debate and instead they resort to infantile abuse in an attempt to stifle debate. I cannot help but wonder whether these people would not prefer to live in a police state where only certain views (theirs) are allowed to be held because the venom and vitriol that flows when you dare to stand up to them is quite astonishing. It says a hell of a lot about them and their upbringing.

How right you are, eh.

Regarding his "race-baiters" smear, it's worth stopping for a teachable moment here; this is a classic piece of extreme-right rhetoric. You could call it the phone-in three card monte. First of all, you make a coded attack on some group or other; Where is the BBC White Male Middle-Class Network? Well, it's called Radio 4, as someone pointed out. The basis of all this stuff is that you deny that racism exists; the existing institutions are perfect, so any specific provision for any other group is illegitimate. (Don't miss him getting schooled about the World Service Polish programme, either.) Then, when you get called on it, whine like a whipped dog;
The fact that I do not believe in multiculturalism, cultural apartheid or so-called positive discrimination automatically makes me, in their eyes, a racist - despite the fact that in opposing these beliefs I share the same worldview as the likes of Martin Luther King, Bishop Nazir-Ali and Trevor Phillips.

Finally, you're ready to launch an inversion smear: see comments above.

Now, the messages that are actually transmitted here are as follows: first of all, Look at me! Bashing THOSE PEOPLE! (This one for the benefit of your target audience.) Secondly, to the wider public: I'm a lady libertarian. (This one is an exercise in working the ref; it's necessary camouflage.) Thirdly; RACISTS RACISTS RACISTS!! Nur-nur-nye-nur! (This one is intended to demonstrate your aggression to your target audience; see Josh Marshall's classic statement.)

Blaney: hypocritical, intellectually dishonest, determined to import everything that is most repellent about US politics into Britain. And apparently cool with the idea of shooting Greenpeace protestors.

Send - the envoy!

Last week: Two-thirds of Israelis want talks with Hamas. Not just that, but former secret-service chiefs were in the press arguing for it. Here's Efraim Halevy talking to old-school TYR ally Laura Rozen. And here's the data: ;not only did 64 per cent of Israelis support direct talks, and a majority of Labour and Kadima voters, but a plurality of Likud voters did as well.

Now; first, an air raid in fabulous Khan Yunis that kills five people including a couple of Hamas leaders. The inevitable retaliation; rockets hit Ashkelon and its various network-industrial nodes (oil terminal, power station, etc). A truly impressive amount of linguistic escalation. And a bloody punishment expedition.

Talks, even with the PA, are off. And this is worrying, even though the source is low credibility with a capital S. The whole thing has a kind of Lebanese feel; a mixture of extreme violence with a very low commitment to its actual aims. Consider the US Navy surface-action group that is annoying the Lebanese government; it's not by any means a credible threat of effective intervention, so what is it doing there? (There is only one US aircraft carrier away from home; and she's in the Arabian Gulf, not the Med.)

It also has a nasty echo of the incident back in 2002 that led Alistair Crooke to be blown as the SIS station chief in Tel Aviv; you may recall that he had secured Hamas agreement to a truce when, after some days of calm, an Israeli air raid intended to kill a Hamas man destroyed a block of flats and some children. A major suicide bombing instantly followed; shortly after, Ma'ariv was leaked Crooke's identity and likeness and he was forced to quit.

What's interesting here is that the war doesn't seem to matter to the respective leaderships any more; it's a second-order issue. (Amusingly, I remember that back in tha day Laura was asking for advice on how to buy euro-denominated bonds just after Bush's re-election; more recently, this post. Turns out she didn't.)

A short break in social democracy

Felix Salmon recalls the impact the appearance of wealth, and Buenos Aires’ status as a quasi-European city, had on Argentina’s finances; part of the reason the banks thought it could pay back the money they lent it was that it looked OK, or rather the steaks were superb, the wine better, the company classy (and white); how could anything go wrong?

It’s worth reading. It’s also interesting, as it’s his response to a debate between carta dell’oro glibertarians Tyler Cowen and Megan McArdle about why those terrible lefties persist in believing that Cuba is richer than northern Mexico. Cowen’s argument is essentially that there is a distinction between perceived wealth and actual wealth; the outsider sees crappy roads but not humming export industries, handsome Spanish buildings but not stinking jails. This is OK as far as it goes, but there is a far more interesting and fundamental point here.

Essentially, what they are talking about is J.K. Galbraith’s paradox of private affluence and public squalor. Naturally, right-libertarianism obliges them to carefully avoid citing him, but this is exactly the point he made in the 1950s; it’s quite possible, indeed common, for prosperity to coexist with ugly and generally ‘orrible visuals, precisely because people will optimise the stuff they control and which affects them individually, like their own homes. Further, there is some sort of indifference curve between private and public goods; people are willing to put up with crappier public spaces if they can compensate with greater private comfort. You can argue endlessly about the slope of the curve, but there is at least some tradeoff.

The international aspect, though, is interesting and I think original; as a foreigner, the visual terms of trade are inverted. You don’t spend time in private space, and you spend much more time than usual in public or semipublic, so private affluence is invisible except in so far as it spills over into the public square (good steakhouses, say, and high culture). Further, a lot of travelling occurs between cultures where different private-public exchange rates apply. It occurs to me that much tourism is motivated by precisely this factor; tourism as a form of commuting from the suburbs of private affluence to the city of public prosperity. In a sense, urban tourists are unconsciously spending a few days in socialism. (Other forms of tourism may provide something similar by creating pseudo-public spaces of great luxury, the poverty of the country being concealed.)

This goes double for questions of egalitarianism - tourists don’t stray into the favela, and a colleague of mine recalls the Ericsson engineer he worked with who was robbed of all his possessions down to and including his underpants on the first day of the project, so private suffering is as invisible as private affluence - and maybe triple for questions of politics.

After all, you’re unlikely to be the object of oppression as a visitor unless you’re actually coming to seek it out; if you don’t speak the language you’re unlikely to miss much through the censorship of the news. Add to this some special factors that apply to visitors who have come to do something rather than just to visit; if business is good, your old friends the fundamental attribution error and the salience heuristic will assure you that things are OK, if you’re as smart as you are. If it’s bad, well, look how dirty the streets are.

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