Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Birthday Present

So, walking back from dinner, what did I catch lurking in a side street? Yes, but yes, one of these...

There it waited, with a 4-way CCTV installation lunging out the roof like a Blairite erection...I took photographs, and the driver suddenly reversed. But he or she didn't go. So I called the phone number on the side - 08705 899799 - and demanded to know what they were looking for. They said - Surveillance. They wanted to know where I was. I wouldn't tell them. Why should they know? Shouldn't they be answering the questions?

So I asked what it was surveilling. "Well, things," said the Geordie on the line. I asked him who the scheme controller was under the Data Protection Act. "I don't know." "IT'S YOUR LEGAL DUTY TO KNOW." So, I said, I'll just have to report the company to the polis then won't I? And I will, as soon as I've consulted the guys from Spyblog.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Radio silence

I'm off on holiday, so talk amongst yourselves until the 25th...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Avient, Again

So, what if there was an airline that uses the Zimbabwean registry in order to get around most people's idea of aviation safety, is almost certainly in cahoots with the Zimbabwean government, and was involved not just with running guns into the DRC in the late 90s but also with actual combat air missions, dropping napalm out of the back of Antonovs and operating Mi-24 gunships in support of the Zimbabwean army there?

You'd think it would be numero uno on the EU blacklist. But, incredibly, Avient Aviation (ICAO code SMJ) isn't; even though it is widely suspected that some of the Chinese weapons shipment blacked by South African dockers was flown to Zimbabwe in their Il-76, Z-WTV, from a port in Angola. (The Il-76 is the last surviving T-model, and is therefore on its last legs; it came from a firm based in Sao Tome, using the 3C- Equatorial Guinea registry at the same time as Viktor Bout's CET Aviation was.) You might be even more surprised to learn that Avient is actually allowed to base aircraft in the European Union - its pair of ancient DC-10s are regularly seen at Chalons-Vatry airfield in France.

What's going on? Well, part of the answer may be the Gabonese angle to the whole thing. Avient had, for some time, a contract to handle cargo on behalf of Gabon Airlines. They took over, with the contract, an aged DC-8 imported from the Sudanese firm United Arabian Airlines, which is now registered Z-ALB with Avient. Now, it seems that Gabon doesn't want Zimbabwe-registry aircraft, and neither does it want Avient bossAndrew Smith ("one of the most thoroughly despicable & unlikeable characters it's ever been my displeasure to meet"). Fair enough, but you have to say that it probably had something to do with the French government threatening to put Gabon Airlines on a blacklist (President Bongo threatened to ban Air France from Libreville, but he was never likely to go through with it).

I can see the point in the French action, but what I don't understand is why Avient are tolerated in their back yard, when they are apparently enough to warrant a diplomatic row with the darling of French African policy for the last forty years. And wipe that smirk off; Avient have done the Baghdad trail quite frequently, too.

I don't know about you, but it strikes me that if you were looking for an economic sanction against Zimbabwe that was only likely to affect the elite, seizing the Avient DC10s on the ground at Vatry would be a cracker. Given their age and suspected condition, it could probably be put in effect just by having them ramp-checked by the safety inspectors.

Security By Audacity

Does anyone else think the reason the Oystercard system had a multi-hour outage might be somehow connected with the fact that TFL's response to the class break of the NXP MiFare Classic cards it uses has so far been even worse than the manufacturers'? NXP's contribution to dealing with this has been to sue the Dutch students who demonstrated the exploit, but TFL's has been to write to the papers and say that there is nothing anyone could do with the ability to change any and all information on the cards. Nothing, I tell you!

Which, if it were true, would suggest that the cards are completely irrelevant to the system's functioning, which obviously isn't true...

Two odd things

First: the Ethiopian army claims to have killed a Canadian colonel fighting with Somali insurgents. I assume they mean a Canadian who claims to be a colonel in the insurgency, rather than a Canadian colonel who joined, but who can tell these days?

Secondly, here's a special one - Jewish settler caught firing improvised rockets into his Palestinian neighbours' land. If you've got a grievance these days, improvised rocket artillery is the way to go, clearly. Maybe I should dust off that article I wrote back in the autumn of 2006, widely rejected by a cross-section of the national and international press?

I'm especially amused by the Danish design collective that published details of a rocket "intended to help the citizen express his or her protest at events such as the G8"; sometimes, 2001 seems as far away as the 1960s. I suspect anyone doing so now would be shot, which among other things is why I am mostly encrypting my stuff today.

(BTW, Jim Henley is wrong about this. Improvised multiple-launch rigs with RPGs on the back of a Toyota are a tactic that served the Afghan mujahedin very well, as a quick way to bring down a volley of explosions an shrapnel an stuff on targets some distance off. Further, don't forget the rocketing of the Palestine Hotel in 2003, which nicely capsized the CPA's decision loops and scared the living shits out of Paul Wolfowitz. Further, the Viet Cong were past masters at arranging for a barrage of mortars or rockets to happen, and then vanishing. Steve Gilliard did a very good post on this stuff years ago.)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Aaaand....we're operational

View Larger Map

The ViktorFeed is now operational! The map's permanent link is here (aren't Google URLs snappy?); the raw data is available as an RSS 2.0 feed with Simple GeoRSS tags here, at least until I decide on a permanent URL. It is updated every 5 minutes. Huge thanks to all at MySociety.

Monday, July 07, 2008

dive! dive! dive!

Der Spiegel has an interesting story regarding the Colombian drug smugglers' homemade submarines. These have so far been considered a curiosity, but apparently they are becoming more and more common, and the technology is developing fast. The biggest vessel captured so far displaced 46 tonnes, presumably surfaced, with a payload of 10 tonnes. Apparently the current ones, described as the third generation, have a radius of action of 2,500 kilometres; an American admiral is quoted as expecting them to eventually start crossing the Atlantic from northeastern Brazil to West Africa, linking up with the emerging drugs route from there to Europe.

The Guardian Is Not Serious About CVF

There hasn't been much progress on my long-term beef with Martin Kettle for a while. But it's worth remembering that if the Guardian has a major leading article that isn't a business/economics story, it's probably him. And Saturday's second lead (behind a rather competent finance story) bears the Kettle hallmarks.
Forty years ago the Royal Navy came up with a wheeze to persuade the government to buy a new fleet of aircraft carriers - it claimed that they were actually "through deck cruisers". There was no need for pretence this week when the £3.9bn order for two superships was signed in Govan. The vessels, to be named after the Queen and her son (another naval wheeze - would any government dare axe Her Majesty?), should come into service from 2014 as the oceanic embodiment of British power.

Well, he could have mentioned that the "new fleet of aircraft carriers" weren't designed as aircraft carriers, either; the Invincible class originally only carried 5 fighters, intended to chase off Soviet Bear reconnaissance planes rather than to provide serious air defence, and their main mission was as a base for anti-submarine helicopters. The Invincibles' role as light fleet carriers was originally a desperate hack for the Falklands, which the Navy realised could be built upon.

(And if you want a good story about the CVA-01 decision, why not mention the fact the RAF promised they could provide air cover to British forces anywhere on earth, producing a map to support this on which Australia was about 300 miles north-west of where conventional wisdom would suggest?)
The government is proud, the navy thrilled and the army jealous. The problem is that no one seems to know exactly what the ships are intended to do or how they will be paid for.

Wrong; they will provide fleet air defence, the same for British or allied landing forces, close air support for troops ashore, and a significant air strike capability, with secondary ASW, command and control and logistic roles. They are budgeted for in the defence equipment programme. That is a cheap criticism, though. If Kettle means that we won't ever need the use of an aircraft carrier, or that they are morally appalling in all cases, why doesn't he say so?
Nor is it clear what sort of plane, if any, will fly from their decks: the Joint Strike Aircraft, which they are designed to carry, will not be ready in time (and will cost a further £12bn), even if the United States goes ahead with the necessary vertical takeoff version, which is not certain. In the meantime the navy will have to make do with its ageing Harriers.

It's perfectly clear. Harrier until the F-35 ISD in 2014, thereafter F-35. You've just said so yourself. Further, note that Kettle is complaining that the Fleet Air Arm's Harriers are "ageing" and also complaining about replacing them, within the space of two sentences. Is he even aware, I wonder, that there are Harriers in the RAF as well? And that they are no newer? The argument that the cost of replacing Harrier is all the fault of the Navy is dishonest; the Harriers will wear out, whether they are flying from Illustrious and Ark Royal, the future Queen Elizabeths, or land bases.

And if you're worried about the Army (they are "jealous", remember), you should be aware that the Harrier force's central mission is to support the infantry. The aircraft itself was designed back in 1969 as a specialised close support aircraft, a sturmovik as the Russians would say, one that would be small, manoeuvrable, with a lot of space for weapons, and no requirement for airfields at all. This was why the US Marines, probably the most CAS-minded air force in the world, bought them. Letting the Harrier force go isn't an option - because we already cut half the RAF's CAS aircraft two years ago when the Jaguars were decommissioned, and the press didn't really notice.
For a government facing a tricky byelection in Glasgow, led by a prime minister from Fife, it is easy to understand the attractions of ships built partly in Govan and Rosyth. Last year's Commons statement giving the go-ahead was greeted by MPs cheering news of work going to their constituencies. What was lacking - and has been since the 1998 strategic defence review set out plans for the vessels - was a discussion of why the ships are needed, or how they can be afforded

And you're not going to get one here. Viz:
No one doubts the importance of carrier fleets in certain circumstances - Britain could not have fought the Falklands war without Hermes and Invincible. Floating off some future conflict zone or humanitarian disaster, the new ships will prove valuable. But so might many other forms of military resource, some of which will be sacrificed to pay for these aircraft carriers. The army lacks secure patrol vehicles and helicopters, but the Future Lynx helicopter programme looks likely to be scrapped in order to bail out a defence budget that is already overspent and must now fund naval gigantism.

Many other forms, eh. Fortunately the Matra-BAE Dynamics Ideological Handwave appears to be cheap and available off the shelf. The FLYNX project ought to be scrapped anyway, because it's a procurement zombie - it's been going on for ten years, not a single helicopter has been procured, but no less than three different sets of capability requirements have been written, at astonishing cost, and the current solution is to buy another lot of the same helicopters, which don't actually cover the LIFT element of the requirement (which is the bit about racing to the succour of the wounded in Afghanistan, Minister), and are rather large and expensive for the FIND element, which is about sneaking about spying, and could better be done by robots, more smaller and cheaper helicopters, or by ones big enough to cover the LIFT requirement with the spooky gear bolted on.

Regarding the "secure patrol vehicle" thing, here's Armchair Generalist. Sure, everyone would like to see more of them. But they are relatively cheap, and in fact the government keeps buying more of them. Which is a pity, because they are completely useless for anything other than Iraq and some missions in Afghanistan (the ones where you don't need either heavy metal, or mobility). But politicians love them because they show We Care. As far as Army procurement goes, the generals are more concerned about the FRES project, which is costed at £14bn and has already spent hundreds of millions of pounds without building a single vehicle. Many people think it is actually physically impossible.

Further, the Invincible class lasted 30 years; HMS Fearless was laid down in 1964 and managed to launch Chinooks full of SBS men into Afghanistan in 2001. Will we be in Iraq or Afghanistan in 4 years, let alone 14 or 40?

So we didn't get a serious discussion of why the ships are needed, did we? Oh well, space constraints. What about the solution?
This does not mean Britain should not have access to carriers; only that it cannot afford to build and support two new ships, three times the size of its current ones, without doing harm to other capabilities. The answer would have been to share the cost of construction and operation with France, which has just pulled back from expanding its own carrier fleet. Talk of this last month led to silly tabloid headlines about an EU navy. But a shared fleet and a capable military to back it up would do much more for global security than two big British ships and a cash-strapped army - even if it meant that the red ensign had to fly alongside the tricolour.

What does "access" to carriers mean? I hate this "access to" meme - it's a long standing government way of saying "something other than what you need". Rather than poverty, unemployment, or a terrible diet, your problem is that you "struggle to access finance, employment, and fresh foods". I fully expect to hear a government minister explain how they "are taking forward an initiative to improve our counter-terrorist capability's access to ammunition".

More seriously, how can we possibly "share the cost of construction and operation" with France when France has just "pulled back from expanding its own carrier fleet"? The French government wants to make some quite impressive cuts in its defence budget, and has decided to put off building a ship, so why would they give us money to work on ours? This "answer" is actually self-refuting.

In fact, the French are likely to get assurances of some sort of the use of the British ships for training when the Charles de Gaulle is in dock, and perhaps also of support if something comes up. Presumably they will offer something in return. This is roughly what Kettle is suggesting, but reversed; but it's impossible for both Britain and France to do this, just as two people with no money cannot help each other out by lending to each other.

And on top of this, we finish with what sounds like a call to revive the European Defence Community of 1954, which is...different. After all, the Guardian's policy is not actually to support the creation of a single European state, the last I heard. Nobody actually wants this, and there is no evidence the French do. How it would work, who would command it, who would task it...all this is handwaved away.

Worse, this is a common fault of much discussion of British defence policy. On the Right, the assumption is usually that we don't need a policy because the Americans will provide. On the Left, it's usually that we don't because the Europeans will pay, as if there was a great pool of available funding or forces over there. It makes as much sense as assuming that "the Boche will pay" did in 1919.

Here, it's driven by Kettle's addiction to Neither-Nor Criticism. He wants to appear decently anti-militaristic and concerned - this is the Manchester Guardian, after all - but he also doesn't want to accept the policy consequences of this. After all, he's a sodding Decent! How can you be a fan of humanitarian intervention and the war in Iraq, but also be opposed to having a blue-water navy? If you don't think we need a navy, or you think that we don't need armed forces at all, go ahead and make a case. If you think we do, then please suggest a shape of the forces and a foreign policy that would reliably not need the carriers. But he refuses to go anywhere near either. So, what we get is a sort of tepid soup of unexamined assumptions, with the extra feature that he seems to be desperately underbriefed on the issue.

Alternatively, the reason why he dislikes the carrier project is that it might confer too much independence of the United States. Now, this would indeed be consistently Decent. Some sort of half-baked "access to carriers" would be far more likely to prevent independent British - or European - action, and far more likely to compel a future prime minister to march because some ally wanted it. George Orwell attacked the "shabby kind of pacifism common to countries with strong navies", in a passage much quoted by the Decents. But how much worse is a shabby kind of militarism that doesn't want to pay for the Navy?

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Using up al-Hashemi

We said the Iraqi political situation was getting worse, and the main political group that represents the ex-insurgents was splitting from them. Abu Aardvark has much confirmation.

Check out the troll freakout in the comments.

Perhaps he's dead, I'll just make sure...

Boris Johnston really is turning out to be as bad as it was blindingly obvious he was going to be. There are no shortage of examples, but this one in particular makes me shudder with fear. Yes, it's the desalination plant.

Desalination? Yes. But it's not just that. A desalination plant that will produce about as much water as Thames Water loses in leaks. Seriously. Thames Water, and presumably the Borisphere (and surely none could be more spherical) claim it will be cheaper. Well, this may be true...for values of "true" including "assuming that our massive complicated prestige project won't go over budget" and "assuming the price of natural gas doesn't go up - after all, there's an infinite quantity of it in the North Sea, right?"

But it's worse. The justification for spending a ton of money converting natgas into drinking water and pouring the water into pipes WITH HOLES IN, rather than spending some more money (perhaps) fixing the bloody water pipes already, is that it's "pro-motorist".

Yes, the reason is that repairing the sodding water mains might be inconvenient to the bizarre sect who insist on bringing huge metal objects into central London and spending their day looking for somewhere to put the things so they can get out of them and start walking, when there was a perfectly good parking space back home in the suburbs they could have left it in. Yes, he is proposing to burn vast quantities of scarce fossil fuel imported from Russia so other people can more easily burn vast quantities of scarce fossil fuel imported from Saudi Arabia, when they have no reason to do so at all.

But it's not the specifics that are the worse bit. It's the general principle; policymaking based completely on pandering. I mean, why not go the whole hog and just GIVE people who claim to vote Tory actual cash? At least plain bribery wouldn't do as much damage to London's infrastructure. Unfortunately, this is precisely the spirit of Boris. On one hand, you've got the appalling pork barrel fan service. On the other, you've got the politics of spite and revenge; the deliberate effort to be unpleasant to anything described as feminist or anti-racist, the made-up stories about fabulous wine cellars, the fake audit team. And that, by the way, is a move copied precisely from the made-up "Clinton staffers trashed the White House" bollocks of 2001. You ask Dean Godson and Sooper Don Blaney.

This is, of course, completely inimical to anything that could be described as competent administration. Which is a pity, because there is famously no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage. The point of a mayor is precisely that; waste disposal, policing, space planning, infrastructure, social services.

Part of the good news is just how good the blogs on Boris are. Tory Troll and Boris Watch have forced their way into my RSS aggregator in the last few days. And it's all an effective preview of a future Tory government: pandering, content-free government, and ideological revenge campaigns in the civil service.

A Truth Moment at the CRB

According to the BBC, the Home Office really, really doesn't get the basic truth that 0.01% of a really big number is quite a big number. The Torygraph reported that the Criminal Records Bureau had mistakenly told its customers between February 2007 and February 2008 that some 680 people had criminal records when in fact they had none. The Home Office's response:
The Home Office said CRB has a 99.98% accuracy rate in vetting people working with children and vulnerable adults.
Indeed. I keep saying this; 99.98% accuracy, which is the politician's way of saying a 0.02% failure rate, is only good enough if 0.02% of the total isn't a large number. It must seem silly to people outside the telecoms business that we go on about 99.999% reliability. But that is a percentage of up to hundreds of millions of calls and signalling events.

Fortunately, there are some numbers in the story. The Home Office claims that 80,000 (a round number, but we've got nothing else to go on) people were prevented from taking up posts involving "vulnerable people"; there's no way of telling whether this means only ones involving "vulnerable people", only ones where a job offer was withdrawn, or just the total CRB checks that came up positive, and there's no telling what period of time it refers to. If it was the total for 2007-2008, that means the chance of a positive CRB check being a false positive is 0.85 per cent (99.15 per cent in contractorspeak). And we *haven't* even considered the false negatives....

So where's your 0.02 per cent now? Naturally, it's possible that the 80,000 covers more than one year...but hold on. If there were many more, some such figure recurring every year, then this suggests the actual numbers are even worse. The CRB has been going since, what, 2002? 13,333 refusals a year on average. We know the 680 false positives are for just one year; which would make it a 5.1% false positive rate for 2007-08. (That's 94.9% in contractorspeak.) So, the Home Office's figures cannot possibly be right; it's impossible to have a negative number of false negatives, so we *know* that the CRB does not provide 99.98% accuracy. Surely this means the Government should be suing Capita or whoever?

The ViktorFeed: Documentation

Here is the presentation I delivered at OpenTech 2008:

I'd publish the text, but I didn't prepare a text:-)

Anyway, the ViktorFeed is a development of basic python scripts I've been using for some time to collect data on certain aircraft movements through Sharjah and Dubai Airports. Both of these place all movements on the Web, but neither of them provide anything like an RSS feed, which is why I began scripting, in order to save checking them myself. (You can read about this phase in the Political Pathetic Python posts on this blog.)

The current version works as follows: the web pages involved are loaded and BeautifulSoup instances created for each one. If a page fails to load and an IOError occurs, this stage is skipped for that one and a default message added. Data is extracted using BeautifulSoup's find method in list comprehensions. Each flight is represented by a tuple of values in a list. For each flight, the tuple is unpacked and each item in it assigned to a standard variable. If the airline name is found in a whitelist, the tuple is discarded. Otherwise, various standard items - for example, the name of the airport the flight arrived at or departed from - are added, the time variable is processed to provide both a readable time and a time in seconds since the epoch, and a database is queried to provide the geographical locations of the source and destination.

In the event that a location is not given or not found, a default value is specified and a message added. The default location is in the Bermuda Triangle, thanks to Soizick. The values are reassembled as a dictionary and appended to a list. When all pages have been processed, the content of this list is decorated with the time values in seconds since the origin, and sorted into reverse chronological order. This version is then undecorated, and the individual flights are used to create a Simple GeoRSS file through Python string formatting, which is encoded as Unicode and written out to disk.

Items in the file consist of the time and data group, in the title field, the source, destination, airline, and flight number in the description field, a GeoRSS Line tag with the source and destination geocodes, and the current time and date in the pubDate field. This data can be visualised in Google Maps more than simply. The test version was served from my laptop, using the SimpleHTTPRequestHandler and ForkingTCPServer methods and port forwarding.

Things to do: get it going on a permanent Web presence, refactor the code into a slightly less ugly mess, keep all the flights in a database, make it possible to query past movements.

OpenTech 2008: It's like the ESF, with code...

Back in 2004, this blog went to the European Social Forum - we weren't that impressed, but we did call it "the Caesar's Palace of Ranting". I'm not sure what the equivalent for the UKUUG's OpenTech 2008 would be; there was plenty of ranting, but a sight less committee wank, more practicality, even if no-one can answer the question of what any of this stuff stands for. I ran into, among others, Liz Henry, most of MySociety, the author of Spyblog (who has some damn good war stories), various readers including Duane Griffin, and a small galaxy of assorted hackers, militants, gawpers, freaks and mutants. Good People, as the Doctor would say.

And they are, too; even if the live demonstration of the ViktorFeed didn't happen due to the lack of a routable IP address (or even working connectivity for that matter), there was the loan of another laptop when OpenSUSE didn't want to speak to the projector. When I'd finished the show and dealt with all the questions, I was faced with at least two offers of colocated server capacity, and the services of at least three professional software developers, as well as an interview for the BBC World Service, a spare USB key, and a pint of lager. All of which would have come in handy the night before, when I foolishly attempted to change something in the code after midnight and borked the whole thing, forcing me to get up at six the next morning to fix it.

As it turns out, having met Francis Irving, I'm probably going to be assimilated by MySociety, or at least my project is. I was also very interested in some of the green/geek crossover projects - I missed the session on solar power and IT, but I did get to the AMEE presentation on their automated carbon dioxide profiler and Hotmapping's show of their IR surveying work, intended to classify buildings by the rate at which they lose heat. Apparently they'd already found one urban cannabis farm.

And BT Osmosoft's TiddlyWiki - a wiki in a single file - may not sound all that much; but I really liked the idea of a zoomable, pseudo 3D interface for wikis. I'm quite keen on the idea of using this to organise contacts - who puts their friends in alphabetical order after all?

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