Sunday, August 31, 2008


I've been reading the oohing and aahing about the Obama web operation (for example, here at the Linux Journal); all those individual pages and RSS feeds and iCals for every event. It strikes me that some of this can be generalised, and that we can probably improve on it. After all, as LJ points out, the difference between this and the Republican view of the Internet (Talk radio! With porn!), which also happens to be the Government view, is that it's amenable to individual activists and groups of activists doing things other than sending shitty chain e-mail to their relatives and shouting a lot.

But it still doesn't really allow for them to participate in the direction of the campaign; and it's a one-off tailormade job. If you want to change something with design and engineering, you've got to think mass production - or better, lean production, being able to quickly change the product and still rip them out as if they were standard stampings, and mass customisation, designing to let the users alter the product before and after they get it. Perhaps the crucial factor in this is modularity; you break it down into lumps subject to old-fashioned mass production and configure them as desired.

Further, it's quite common to have an Internet-enabled campaign that sends messages down from headquarters to the mob; not just the organisational model of the 20th century mass party, as originally invented by the Tories in the late 19th century, but even more so, as the party members always had a significant influence on policy and personnel, whether formally (like the Labour and Liberal parties) or informally (like the Tories pre-1965 and pre-1998). However, the "Labour Supporters' Network" (copyright - Zack Ecksley) and the world of nicely on-message duckspeakers around Iain Dale's blog have about as much influence on their party headquarters as a passing slug. Donal Blaney, for all he's the most contemptible arsewit (copy-pasting early 90s Clinton-murder smears? changing the world, Don!) on the Internet, has got the right end of the stick there. But he's still just a one-way blowhard.

What do you need to campaign? You need to know what is happening at the top level, in your rough region, and in your locality. You need to have a locality - to join a group or form one. You need to tell others when and where things will happen. And, I think, you need to be able to escalate things up the organisation. We already have functions like this for various rather crappy geek newssites, but what is important is that the members of the N19 group or the Fisheries special-interest group can break the point out into the London or the Economic or the Environment group, and they can break it out into the main broadcast to everyone - completing the loop.

If this reminds you of Stafford Beer, it's entirely deliberate. Information should percolate up as the members want it to, and "perk" ought to be a better word than "digg".


We have pretty good standards for all the information exchange involved; RSS for the various local, regional, thematic, and main broadcast messages, iCal for calendar events, GeoRSS for messages with location content. SMS or MMS for mobile alerts. And the relationships involved are all ones that can go in a database schema. Members are subsets of the campaign (the campaign, better, is a superset of the membership); they are also part of groups. Messages and events are held in their originating table, until escalated into the next one up or across. By default, each member page has the local, regional and main broadcast feeds, and all the links you need to join or create other groups, start events, subscribe to them, set up alerts, and recommend anything for escalation. All groups, locations, etc create public and password-protected feeds. GeoRSS, with iCal enclosures, should be as MVC as it gets.

Whilst working on the Viktorfeed, I never quite grokked what the various Python Web frameworks (y'know - django, zope, cherrypy, webpy) were for. Now, however, I've actually bothered to read the Django documentation and it looks like the perfect solution. Essentially, it lets you build all your database tables in Python classes, set up all the views of the data you might want, and fit them in whatever HTML chrome you like, as well as creating RSS feeds of any view you can create of the shared data. (*I know I'm years behind the kool kidz here, but, well.)

I think it would be a cracking idea to have a deployable, pythonic, hackable platform for weird political action; with options for resource control, you might be able to use it to run almost anything.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Blinded By The Sun

Tim Ireland's new project is more necessary than ever. It's not quite achieved the same degree of punch and professionalism that the daddy of tab-bashing blogs, BildBlog offers readers of Germany's biggest newspaper, but give them time. (This also bothers me. When I started this blog there were one million blogs, of which 50,000 updated on average daily. Now their numbers are beyond counting, and the top 50,000 churn out far more than before because so many are professional. I can remember when the only pro was Josh Marshall.)

Anyway, this didn't seem to interest TSL despite my desperately flagging it, but it's possibly the most Orwellian piece of writing in the history of British journalogasm. Link, if you can stomach it.
AN Iraqi terror boss is demanding legal aid to sue the MoD — over PORN left in his jail toilet. Ahmed Al-Fartoosi — blamed for the deaths of dozens of Brits — is to sue the Government for tens of thousands of pounds. On top of the loo claim, Fartoosi — accused of leading the fanatic Mehdi Army and masterminding a bombing campaign against Our Boys in Basra — wants “substantial damages” for:

HEARING porn videos being played on a soldier’s laptop;

BUMPING his arm and thigh when being put in an armoured vehicle; and

LOSING sleep in his cell due to noise and lights from a corridor.

Fartoosi — represented by anti-war lawyer Phil Shiner — also moaned his solitary confinement room was too hot.
Fortunately there are also newspapers that don't aim for a reading age of seven (I've actually collapsed some of the paragraphs in that quote, if you can believe that). So...
Fartoosi was detained for more than two years, including nearly six months in solitary confinement. He was arrested in his Basra home in September 2005 and released late last year after British forces agreed to an Iraqi-sponsored deal with the militia.

He says he was beaten with rifle butts and blindfolded before he was put in a tank. For 12 hours he and his fellow detainees given no food and were prevented from going to the toilet.

He says he was taken to the British base at Shaibah, on the outskirts of Basra, where he spent 72 days in solitary confinement in a small cell with no ventilation, though he says he was provided with three cooked meals a day. On the third or fourth night, he says, soldiers brought a laptop and placed it on a window sill just outside his cell.

"After a short period of conversation in English it became clear to me that the DVD was showing porn. It was playing at the loudest possible volume. Thereafter for the next month the porn movies were played all night."
So, when the Sun says he "bumped" his arm and thigh, they mean that he was beaten up with the butt of a rifle. When they say he lost sleep, and heard porn playing back on a laptop, they mean he was deliberately deprived of sleep as an interrogation tactic - one which is banned by Army doctrine on the handling of prisoners, by the way.

Note also that the "porn found in a jail toilet", a comparatively puny charge, somehow got promoted into the lede, thus pushing the sleep deprivation down into the bottom end of the story. (After all, do you think you were meant to read any more than the first par?) Of course, associating it with a toilet tends to lend a sort of fnarr fnarr quality to the whole thing as well.

Nobody has any business writing like this. You might wonder as well what the Sun thought it was doing being "STAGGERED" by Colin Stagg's compensation; let's not forget that the Met is currently prosecuting another suspect in the Rachel Nickell case...the guy whose DNA was all over the crime scene. We can be as certain as anything in the law that Stagg is innocent; we've got the DNA after all. So what is their major malfunction? Can it be that they just like arbitrary state power?

Bonus catch: this week, they also managed to report the horrible fate of a boy who fell off a block of flats he was trying to climb down to get away from his enemies with the strapline "BROKEN BRITAIN HORROR"; they are always so keen to churn out victim porn (see the Stagg story), but you have to wonder whether his relatives really wanted to be conscripted into a party political broadcast for the Conservative Party.

Outside the three mile limit in '65...

You rock. It's interesting that blockade-running is a lasting technique of protest; Joseph Conrad did a spot on behalf of the Spanish Carlists, Erskine Childers for the IRA (although he thought he was doing it for the other side), and then, there was the saga off Bilbao in the Spanish Civil War. It's always worth doing to go and probe what the actual limits to freedom are; naturally, they are set by the other side's available will.

This tends to vary between the sea and the land. Winston Churchill wrote, about the German decision for unrestricted submarine warfare in 1916, that no-one would have objected had a lot of neutrals been driving trainloads of war supplies up to the front and the Germans had turned their artillery on them. Sinking neutral ships, however, was somehow a lot more offensive. Similarly, it seems that the Israeli military finds it easier to use force at some sweating checkpoint than on the high seas; foreign nationality hasn't always been protective.

A couple of possible reasons come up; one is that (as Churchill suggested) it simply feels and looks awful, to the people who would have to carry it out. Especially as one of the great Israeli historical grievances regards the Royal Navy intercepting immigrant ships at sea. (Why else did the Foreign Ministry mouthpiece say they didn't want a "well-publicised provocation in the middle of the sea"?) A second, related, is that the sea is for everyone, like the radio spectrum. Crucially, with 20 miles or so of shore to aim for, and territorial waters used by quite a lot of other small craft, it would have been hard to spot two more wooden boats at night, so an arrest would have to happen further out at sea, in which case it would have been on the high seas, in international waters. Major sea powers tend not to like this, especially when they already have a grudge on the matter. Further, it would have been a precedent for other navies in the area.

There's another point, of course; the idea of a naval blockade has traditionally been financial and legal. If there was an "effective" - we'd now say credible - blockade, a ship that breached it invalidated its insurance, and that of its cargo. Similarly, the blockade invoked the force majeure clause in any contract that required goods to be shipped through it. A little force went a long way. This was the situation off northern Spain at the end of 1936; the Fascists had a few ships in the area, and wanted to prevent shipping reaching the Republican-held ports there. They had the further problem that no-one recognised them as having belligerent rights - i.e. unless they could stop ships, the blockade would not be legitimate.

The Royal Navy was in the area, but wasn't keen on picking a fight with the fascists, largely because the British ambassador to Spain was getting his information from them. Dozens of ships with cargos for Bilbao were held in Bordeaux by the blockade; one of them was about to call the bluff. The Seven Seas Spray sailed in defiance of the blockade, and all advice, and arrived in Bilbao. The next shp to go was intercepted by the fascist-controlled cruiser Almirante Cervera. She instantly radioed for the Navy's assistance; she was a British-flagged ship, and so the Navy had an obligation to defend her. The British government had tried to balance believing in the fascist claims by sending more ships; the Hood, Resolution, and a gaggle of destroyers arrived. What was more, the Hood's 8 15-inch guns were trained on the Almirante Cervera.

They didn't discuss it further. More importantly, the blockade was over; there were no mines, and the threats were empty, and the Royal Navy was now unwillingly committed to protect any shipping in that sea. The roadstead in the Gironde emptied. All it had taken was the willingness to defy; probably, with more effort, the fascists could have sunk a ship, but they were not in a position to stop them all.

Outside Dubrovnik in 1991, there was a more postmodern take on the tradition; a bizarre gaggle of journalists, intellectuals, pacifists, and crisis tourists decided to run the Serbian encirclement of the city in a chartered Ro-Ro ferry. Despite being stopped by an (ex-)Yugoslav Navy vessel, they were eventually allowed to pass after a highly surreal parley; the downside was that there wasn't actually very much in the way of aid aboard the ship or aboard any other ship. There is a telling account of the journey here; note that one prediction from it was very much true, as Stipe Mesic did indeed get to be president of Croatia.

I have to say that the makeup of the Gaza convoy isn't that promising - Yvonne Ridley? Was George Galloway unable to open his sunbed? But the spirit is right, and they strike an important point - Israel does all its trade through its ports, over the sea. They can afford to start a row about the freedom of the seas as much as Singapore or Britain can.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Google Maps API Issue

So I'm trying to make a little Google Map overlay, that will reload data from a remote server every time the page it contains loads. Obviously, I read the documentation, look at examples, sign up for a Google API key. But it's not working, and I'm getting error messages that the API key is "for a different website" and that I can go get another one. I now have three, which the docs say I shouldn't. Any ideas?

Can't we be more helpful and appropriate?

This story; from China is predictably horrible:
Chinese authorities have sentenced two women in their 70s to a year's "re-education through labour" following their application to hold a protest demonstration during the Beijing games, a relative said yesterday.

Officials said this week they had not approved a single permit for a demonstration, despite designating three parks as protest zones.

The International Olympic Committee's communications director said she would look at the women's case, but stressed the games were "not a panacea for all ills".

Wu Dianyuan, 79, and her neighbour Wang Xiuying, 77, sought to protest about their forced eviction from their homes in 2001. They went to the Beijing Public Security Bureau (PSB) four times this month to request permission to demonstrate in the zones - created for the Olympics to counter criticism about restrictions on political expression in China...
But that isn't my point. My point is that it's all oddly familiar. For a start, they have been placed under an "order" which restricts their movements, subjects them to the scrutiny of a neighbourhood committee, and isn't subject to a court hearing or to an appellant jurisdiction of any kind. Why not? Because, of course, it's not actually punishment. Only breaking; the order would be a crime, and would result in your being sent to a labour camp.

Yes; they've reinvented the ASBO. Meanwhile, 77 applications to demonstrate have been made and absolutely none granted. 74, apparently, were "resolved through consultations", another two turned down because the form wasn't properly filled in, and another rejected on the grounds it involved a child. (Won't somebody think of the children?) And I was fascinated by this quote from Sir Mucho Pomposo Wang Wei of the Organising Committee:
Wang Wei, vice-president of the Beijing organising committee, told reporters they should be "satisfied" with the protest zones. "The idea of demonstration is that you are hoping to resolve issues, not to demonstrate for the sake of demonstrating. We are pleased that issues have been resolved through dialogue and communication - this is how we do it in Chinese culture," he told a press conference.

He added: "We want everyone to express their opinion. Everyone has the right to speak; this is not the same as demonstrating.
It's so familiar; the insistence that anyone who disagrees is doing so out of spite, that only acquiescence is "serious" or "helpful". I'm surprised he didn't offer them a Big Conversation, but in fact, with the right mistranslation he might have done. Similarly, the re-education through labour order for disturbing the public is just a translator's caprice away from an anti-social behaviour order.

Perhaps there's a wider truth here; this sort of events/urban regeneration politics seems to follow the same grammar all over the world. It's conceived of as a project; which implies there are only participants, or else obstructions. Despite the money and the bulldozers, it respects class boundaries; veering around the villas of the rich. It needs special security arrangements which always turn out to involve some sort of summary justice based on vague and unchallengeable notions of appropriateness, propriety, or order; similarly, these are always temporary but are never revoked. The state authorities and private interests involved are indistinguishable. (Interestingly, the legislative foundation tends to be very hard to get rid of; the Act on the Great Exhibition of 1851 is still in force and still a major headache for anyone planning to build on or near the original site.)

More deeply, it seems to include a sort of quasi-medical view of society, or more specifically of the city. It, and we, need to be made better. Not only the method of this treatment, but the definition of better, is reversed for the doctors; but we are responsible if it doesn't work, because we didn't comply sufficiently. The nudgers' cognitive biases are not examined; it's our fault if we don't press the right coloured shape in response. Equally, no-one suggests subjecting the Home Office to compulsory psychotherapy in order to get rid of its hysterical anxiety, but it seems to want to make everyone happy.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Harrowell Plan (Or, No Christmas Card from Dsquared)

I'm about to propose something to make Daniel Davies cry. Specifically, it's a solution to a problem we currently deal with by a cash transfer through the tax and benefit system. But I think I've made a good case that trying to deal with high energy prices by paying the poor to burn more energy is not sensible, except perhaps as temporary relief of the symptoms. Instead, I suggested, why don't we pay them to insulate, or to install £1,895 air-source heat pumps, and get rid of the problem; after all, we subsidise the rich to do these things to their property. And I suggested that, if we're too stingy or the government is short of cash, we could use the money now paid out as winter fuel payments.

Terrifyingly, there's a chance someone might pick up on the idea - because it turns out they've got one like it in exciting America. Surely it's got to be good. The Californian municipality in question is offering loans to carry out energy-saving improvements, to be paid back through property tax. I'm not quite sure how it works, although here are more details; but it seems to be restricted to homeowners, and I'm far from sure if the repayments are additional to the property tax you'd already pay or not.

My brilliant scheme has the distinction that, rather than the user repaying it, it's repaid from the benefits they would otherwise claim. In a sense, it capitalises the stream of WFP cheques over ten years. Government gets to save on the benefit payments over and above the amortisation period of the heat pumps or insulation; the recipient gets to save hugely on heating; and society saves three to four units of energy from gas for every unit of electricity the heat pump uses. (The technology is wonderful.) And it hits the cheapest way of saving bulk CO2.

Here are some numbers. The two main groups of WFP recipients get £200 and £300 respectively; this is currently planned to go up quite sharply. (Another reason for my brilliant scheme is that tying bits of the government budget to prices that might rise without apparent bounds is stupid.) To be conservative, and also because I could have tried harder, here are some data from 2006. £1.98bn was spent. Elsewhere, it looks like 11,407,000 individuals received money, but the relevant number is a number of buildings not people. It seems 8 million households received WFP, which is a fair enough proxy. That gives us an annual payout per premises of £247.50; with a full-heating ASHP at £1,895, that's a bit over seven and a half years to pay it off.

We've already got a list of recipients, and we write to them every autumn. Obviously there are people who don't want to be bothered, and probably they are right, so we'll give them the choice of fuel payments or [whatever silly name our friendly local special advisor comes up with]. Given the usual take-up rate for optional benefits, I'd reckon the pressure every year should be manageable enough; but if we felt militant enough we could make it voluntary-but-automatic.

One question I'd raise against myself is why this pensioner obsession. Don't a lot of them own their homes? What about children? Well, for some reason they are the only group in our society we find it necessary to give special help with their energy requirements. Minister, I am a mere technocrat. I don't bother my head with these things...but you might want to look at the numbers for some of the in-work benefit schemes.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


I've been seeing some Click Airways CGK/Click Airways CKW flights going to Riyan again, where Air Bas's UN-11007 was lost with its load of astonishingly inflammable "fish" back in 2005.

The grass is several shades of blue; every MP trips over you...

So, the Tories are currently making hay on the economy, while the black clouds are overhead. Unfortunately it's all drivel, and specifically, it's drivel because the current economic crisis is entirely the result of the Tory economic settlement. The promise of infinite free money from property was the core Thatcherite proposition, and its costs (specifically, high interest rates and a high pound) were traditionally covered by North Sea oil. Of course, rising house prices aren't actually money, just a way of borrowing from your kids, with the special feature that they don't get any schools or railways for the borrowing. But the Tory achievement was to get an economy specialised in property speculation accepted by both major parties. And, as we have seen, they have very good personal reasons to pretend that the government could just stick the bubble back together if it wanted.

All oppositions pretend something like this, of course; but it's incumbent on them to have some idea of the difference between bullshit and government. Just look at the Tories' performance over Northern Rock. To recap, they thought the Bank of England's money was taxpayers' money in August but not in January; they thought the Bank of England was an independent agency in August but under ministerial line management in January; they imagined the Bank of England had vastly more money that it does throughout. Thank God for the civil service.

And even if you grant them a huge pass on administrative reality, their stated positions are wildly incoherent. In the pastel corner, there's Huggy Dave's quality of life reports. In the phlegm-spatter corner, there's Mad Jack Redwood's report on how the economy can be revived by letting private "care homes" pack in more codgers per square foot. What an invention - the battery granny farm. Will the staff get Dave from PR's improved work-life balance? Bollocks they will. However, Greasy Phil Hammond's specialist NHS property development firm, Castlemead Developments Ltd, would presumably find investments in this field rather tastier. More seriously, what the hell does Mad Jack think our problems are? Aren't they more about the tradable sector, and what happens to the balance of payments with an energy import bill and tanking City volumes?

None of this should be any surprise. Look at the chief economist of chouchou snackthinkers Policy Exchange. What has he discovered? Well, his tube train was late, and so he's written "England: An Obituary on a Great Country". Seriously. And he apparently thinks "Britain" supplies IKEA goods and services, rather than a huge Swedish multinational. This used to be the quality of a middling to poor Tory newspaper columnist. Now it's their intellectual foundation.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Hammond's Sauce Works Band

Recently, our dear duckspeaker Philip Hammond MP had his local talking points cache refreshed. He's now constantly saying that the Government is causing "uncertainty" in the housing market because they haven't decided whether or not to cut stamp duty, and that this is a problem. Both statements are of course completely vacuous at best, and actively misleading at worst. For a start, the housing market is tanking. We're in the worst property crash since 1983, says the Halifax; that's another way of saying that the Halifax started computing an index of real estate prices in 1983. It's not impossible that it's the worst since the Great Depression. The price of property is dropping with the almost supernatural swiftness of an economic imbalance that finally clears; at the moment, anyone who wants to buy a house would be literally insane to do so, as it is as certain as anything in economics ever is that it will be much cheaper in a year's time.

Of course, this only matters if you can raise the money. At the moment, the banks have practically stopped lending, so whatever happens to stamp duty is risibly irrelevant. Further, all these statements go double the smaller the deal; nobody who owns a house is ever likely to struggle to raise mortgage money if they want to buy another, but without new entrants, who can they sell to? What mortgage lending is going on is actually very good business for the banks, because it's practically all to people with lots of existing equity, and at higher interest rates too.

Supposedly, according to Hammond and the real-estate lobby, reducing stamp duty would help people raise a deposit in order to pass the new and more astringent lending criteria. But this is obviously drivel. The large majority of new entrants are either zero-rated or in the first, 1% band, so their stamp duty bill will be at the very most a couple of grand. If they have to raise a 20% deposit, well. It's not going to work. If you've got £18,000 to plunk down as a deposit, and the stamp duty at 1% is a dealbreaker, shouldn't you either be waiting a few months, looking for somewhere cheaper, or getting a better mortgage broker?

Further, there's the marginal issue. The Tories seem to be collectively blind to the existence of marginal effects, as if their love of classical economics had carried them back past Hayek and von Mises and Bohm Bawerk all the way to the 19th century. For example, they want to "encourage marriage" by offering a tax break to the married; but the only extra marriages this will result in are the ones where the spouses wouldn't stay together but for the tax break. And those aren't likely to be gems, are they? Similarly, the only additional house sales a cut in stamp duty will cause are ones where that sum of money is enough to make the difference; not very many, as we've just seen. But we're having an epic financial crisis precisely because the banks lent so much money to people who couldn't pay it back. Do we really want more crappy loans?

So; it's completely ridiculous to suggest that cutting stamp duty will do any good, it's frankly irresponsible, and it's even sillier to imagine that buyers are holding off wondering if they'll have to pay 1 per cent more or less, when they can be certain they will pay 10 per cent less in a few months' time and perhaps 30 per cent less in a year or two. So why is Hammond so obsessed? (And he is. Check out the 14,400 Google results, including a veritable barrage of official Tory press statements.)

The first point is pure clientelism. What stupid Tory giveaways have in common is that although their marginal effects usually defeat the stated point of the exercise, they usually succeed in showering one or other campaign demographic with cash. A tax break for married couples won't actually do any good, but it will provide a payoff for several key voter groups who don't even have to do anything; the money just comes. Similarly, the people who are dealing in houses at the moment by definition have lots of equity and cash; who else can get a mortgage? They would get the tax break as much as anyone else. Kerching! Another group who would benefit either way would be the real estate lobby itself; and the sheer number of property millionaires who have quartered themselves on London since Boris Johnson's election should explain this reasonably well.

The second is Philip Hammond's own personal financial interest. Here's something he added to the register of interests in June, his shareholding in Castlemead Ltd, a company whose main interest development, of houses through its stake in Castlemead Homes Ltd and of NHS primary care centres through Castlemead Developments Ltd. (I reckon the Tory position on PCTs wants watching, no?)

This must be no small holding, either; he managed to forget to declare a £3m dividend from the firm. That's enough to make him the the second richest man in the Shadow Cabinet with net wealth (I refuse to describe it as "worth") of £9m. No wonder he spends so much time howling for the propertied interest. He is talking his own book. But surely even he can't be worrying about the stamp duty on his £1.5m pad in Belgravia? Even at the 4% higher rate?

Friday, August 15, 2008

I heard a rumour that someone got Philled in...

OK, so I've been off line quite a bit due to a weird perversion called "moving house". This means that my constituency MP is no longer Philip Hammond, which almost makes it all worthwhile by itself. Hammond was one of the most annoying features of living in wonderful Runnymede & Weybridge; an immensely self-satisfied and superbly mediocre greaseball who was invariably unhelpful on every occasion I had any dealings with him.

For some strange reason, Hammond has risen to a mysterious prominence in politics as Shadow Chief Secretary of the Treasury. Now this is no small thing; the Chief Sec is probably the most-underestimated job in government, being the gatekeeper for the Treasury's dealings with all other government departments. So it is a sad comment on the shallow Conservative talent pool that it is filled by a waxwork like Hammond; in more normal times, he would no doubt botch the job and be dropped, but for various reasons entirely beyond his or anyone else's control, the economic and more importantly financial climate has left him with an open goal. If you've seen Kes, it's his Brian Glover/Bobby Charlton moment.

As far as I can make out, the only reason for Hammond's success apart from the desperate shortage of alternatives is that he can be relied upon to repeat predetermined talking points without stumbling over often. He is, as the essay at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four would say, literally a doubleplusgood duckspeaker - one who quacks out the party line without the least deviation. This may not be much of an achievement; you could, after all, replace him with a simple Python script without much trouble. But he's done well with it.

The problem is the content of the duckspeak; after all, duckspeakers will always be with us. Hammond insists on reciting that "Gordon Brown failed to repair the roof while the sun was shining"; this appears to mean that the budget deficit ought to be lower, or something. Leaving aside that everyone, always, believes that if only they were in charge the budget deficit would be lower; it just isn't true. Public debt as a percentage of GDP is significantly (about six percentage points) lower than it was in 1997. If the roofing is not complete, then Brown at least put on quite a few new slates.

National Debt as % of GDP, 1997-2008

But the problem is worse; what on earth is the Conservative proposed macroeconomic framework? What would they consider as sufficient roofing? Indeed, what on earth was it all these years? I can't remember that the Tories ever promised to run a primary surplus during the period 2002-2008, and the only policy of theirs I can think of that was explicitly intended to reduce public debt was William Hague's half-bright brainwave of using radio spectrum sales to fund the universiti....hold on, that wouldn't have reduced the public debt, would it? Hague came up with it because he didn't agree with the Government using the UMTS 2.1GHZ band auction to reduce the public debt.

Not that telcos in 2001-2 would, or even could, have bid that kind of money for spectrum; they didn't have it. They never will bid that kind of money again, either, as anyone in the trade could tell you. Which is a pity, given that I think Hague's brainwave is still part of the Tory platform. The Tories do not appear to have any idea what fiscal rules they will use, if any.

Complaining about the Tory legacy (if the roof needed fixing, perhaps it had something to do with the PSBR running between £28-46bn for each of the last three years up to 1997? Just a thought) is widely held to be a pathetic tactic; but you'd be wrong. It was only this spring that a government warehouse - the so-called Work in Progress Store - that had held the backlog of unresolved immigration files since 1994 shut down without fanfare, as Michael Howard's legacy was finally processed and transferred to the archives.

But they are very good at repeating utter bollocks over and over again.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Dude, Where's My Lawyer?

So what's going on with Viktor Bout?

Thai judges and lawyers spoke among themselves and it was quickly clear there would be no hearing - Bout's new lawyer was unavailable. His previous lawyer had been sick on the date of an earlier hearing. So we filed out, ready to pounce on the shackled Russian once more as he was led back to his cell, pencilling September 26th for our next date with international justice.
Hat tip.

When the world was our lobster

So, those Oystercard outages. I wrote a sizable post on this immediately before going on holiday, but something odd happened with Wordpress's clever ajaxy bits and it vanished. Computers...anyway, we can work out various things about the problem from the few details supplied.

In the first incident, around 1% of the cards somehow became nonfunctional. We don't know how; we do know, however, that it was indeed the cards, because the fix was to bring them in and issue new ones. This raises an interesting question; why did new physical cards have to be issued? The process of issuing a card involves writing the data TfL holds on you to the blank card; there isn't much difference between this and overwriting whatever is on the card with the details held in the database. This suggests either that the affected cards suffered actual physical damage - unlikely, unless someone's running about with a really powerful RF source and a bad sense of humour - or else that TfL can't trust the information on file, and therefore needs to erase the affected records and set up new user accounts.

So, how could it happen? Card systems can work in various ways; you can do a pure online authorisation system, like debit or credit cards, where information on the card is read off and presented to a remote computer, which matches it against a look-up table and sends back a response, or you can do a pure card system, where your credit balance is recorded on the card and debited when you use it, then credited when you pay up. Or you can have a hybrid of the two. Oyster is such a hybrid. TfL obviously maintains a database of Oyster user accounts, because it's possible to restore lost cards from backup, to top-up through their Web site without needing a card reader, and to top-up automatically. But it's also clear that the card is more than just a token; you can top up at shops off-line, and the transaction between the card and the ticket barrier is quick enough that you don't need to break stride (consider how long it takes to interact with a Web site or use a bank card terminal).

Clearly, the actual authorisation is local (the barrier talks to the card), as is offline top-up, but the state of the card is backed up to the database asynchronously, and changes to your record in the database are reflected on the card, presumably as soon as it passes through a card reader. To achieve this without stopping the flow of passengers, I assume that when a card is read, the barrier also keeps the information from it in a cache and periodically updates the database. Similarly, in order to get online top-ups credited to the cards, the stations probably receive and cache recent updates from the database; if the card number is in the list, it gets an "increment £x" command.

We can probably rule out, then, that 1% of the Oyster card fleet were somehow dodgy when they started to flow through the gatelines that morning, and that the uploaded data from them caused the matching records to become untrustworthy. It's possible - just - that some shops somehow sporked them. It's also vaguely possible that bad data from some subgroup of cards propagated to the others. But I think these are unlikely. It's more likely that the batch process that primes the station system with the last lot of online and automatic top-ups went wrong, and the barriers dutifully wrote the dodgy data to the cards.

This is also what TfL says:
We believe that this problem, like the last one resulted from incorrect data tables being sent out by our contractor, Transys.
People of course think this was somehow connected with the NXP MiFare class break, but it's not necessary.

In this scenario, some sort of check incorporated in the database was intended to detect people using the MiFare exploit (probably looking for multiple instances of the same card, cards that didn't appear in the database, or an excess of credit over the cash coming in), but a catastrophic false positive occurred. This is a serious lesson about the MiFare hack, and about this sort of public-space system in general; the effects of the security response may well be worse than those of the attack. Someone using a cloned, or fraudulently refilled, card could at best steal a few pounds in free rides. But the security response, if that was what it was, first threatened a massive denial-of-service attack on the whole public transport system, and then caused TfL to lose a whole day's revenue.


Spencer Ackerman wants a case for not sending more troops to Afghanistan. Specifically, he wants to know why the US military is keeping a brigade of Marines in Kuwait as a reserve. Well. The first point is that there is a very good reason to have a reserve force at the far end of the main supply route into Iraq. With the British force outside Basra, this adds up to a considerable strike force for use in the event that someone decides it's time to cut Highway 8. For the someone, try here.

But there are good reasons to think that we should not be sending more troops into Afghanistan. For a start, have a read of this. The Taliban, it is argued, use "kinetic operations" - i.e. force - in support of "information operations" - i.e. propaganda, rather than the other way round. (Anyone else remember the Armalite and the Ballot Box at this point?) They are therefore keen for the Afghan government to be seen as a cruel authority with foreign tanks and planes, bent on bombing weddings and destroying poppy fields.

Secondly, the more large army units that go, the more bases will be built, the more money spent on directly military purposes, the more trucks will be involved in road accidents. More teachers will quit their jobs to be paid more money driving white Land Cruisers. The whole force will be even more dependent on the road from Karachi; this is not a good thing.

Thirdly, pouring more resources in might be a way to avoid changing policy. Consider this article by Antonio Giustozzi. Giustozzi's point is that whatever the available resources, the Afghan army is never going to be the answer because of its internal contradictions. It is being built as an instrument of Tajik power, and as a barracks army for use anywhere in the country. Worse still, it has an explicit policy of sending northerners to Pashtun country; which is something like the opposite of counterinsurgency. But because it's "the army", it's likely to be the preferred partner of an enlarged ISAF.

Arguably, more Western (or Eastern, for that matter) combat units are the last thing Afghanistan needs. Nor anybody else. Send more advisors; send money; revive the auxiliary police force; insist on a political solution. But no more wedding raids, hesco barriers, or monster trucks.

Are you sure?

Via Kings of War, an Anglo-Australian spat of sorts.
The British Army has the reputation of being good at counterinsurgency, and in 2003 and 2004 there was lots of fairly snide criticism of the United States by British commanders saying that Americans didn’t understand counterinsurgency [and] were taking too kinetic an approach,” said Kilcullen, who described the British attitude as, “‘Look at us, we’re on the street in our soft caps and everyone loves us.’”

Marston, who was until recently a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst — the British Army’s rough equivalent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. — said that “as an American working in the British system for the last five years” in 2003, he watched the British “act as if they were the best in [counterinsurgency] in the world.” But the British performance on Iraqi and Afghan battlefields since then has not backed up such strident talk, according to Kilcullen and Marston. “It would be fair to say that in 2006 the British Army was defeated in the field in southern Iraq,” Kilcullen said, adding that there were numerous “incidents” in Afghanistan that further undercut the British claims of superiority in counterinsurgency.

“They’ve been embarrassed by their performance in southern Iraq,” Marston said. Meanwhile, the Taliban “almost destroyed” the British Army’s 16th Air Assault Brigade in Afghanistan. In some places, he said, “they just held on.”
The first thing I'd say would be to check out "Ajay" (you really need to get your own blog, mate) in the comments. As he points out, they didn't "almost destroy" 16AAB or anything close to it. He also points out that the whole discourse of "failure" in southern Iraq is based on the belief that something different occurred in north-central Iraq.

After all, even accepting the American claims of success (well, the ones that aren't completely deranged), Baghdad is still a war zone, disagreeable, infrastructure-challenged, dangerous, criminalised, ruled in name by a wildly corrupt sectarian government swinging between US and Iranian influence and in fact by whoever has the upper hand in any given street. Kirkuk and Baqubah are much the same but worse. And the improvement, such as it is, has been achieved by paying off both sets of enemies. Basra after the British move out to the airport is - corrupt, criminal, afflicted by tribal/sectarian violence, and governed by a chaotic sectarian authority. (Also, it never got as bad as Baghdad in the first place.)

But the meta-discourse of the Iraq war works like this: "fighting on" is a sufficient substitute for winning. Anyone who leaves must have been defeated, if they are not actually traitors. Therefore, the same endstate is defeat in Basra but victory in Baghdad. Who, after all, could swear to distinguish these guys - ex-NOIA now on our payroll - from ex-Sadrist or Fadhila men operating as Basra police so long as we (through the agency of the Iraqi government) pay them?

Another point here is precisely what tactics Kilcullen thinks the British Army should have adopted in Afghanistan in 2006. After all, his Iraq policy was to deploy lots of small units into permanent positions all over Iraqi cities, matched with units of Iraqi police and ex-insurgent countergangs, thus in order to gain intelligence, deliver economic relief, and exclude the insurgents from contact with the people, spreading out from reasonably secure areas in a classical counterinsurgency. When 16AAB went to Helmand, they sent individual infantry platoons out to as many villages as possible, there to set up an Afghan government presence, deliver economic relief, and exclude the Taliban. Can anyone see the similarities? No-one was willing to use the C-word at the time, but it's pretty clear what was intended.

The point is well made over at Abu Muqawama; doing this implies being fairly confident that your outposts will be able to look after themselves against any force the enemy is likely to bring up. Among other things, the US Army in and around Baghdad was operating in a large city, so the gaps between units weren't too big; this just isn't the case in Afghanistan. The result was that the Taliban counter-attacked powerfully, trying hard to destroy the outposts and forcing the British Army to fight hard to hold on to them. The counterinsurgency policy broke down because the counterinsurgents were busy resisting insurgent assaults on their camps, and the fighting tended to kill, displace, and enrage the people who lived around the "platoon houses".

Similarly, "Joint Security Stations" implanted in Musa Qala and Sangin would have been constantly under attack, and constantly firing back, producing the same scene of an empty bazaar shredded by gunfire. Which is precisely the result the Taliban were after. Further, it seems that the local force element is excluded by high-level political considerations.

Civilisation is common defence and waste disposal

Jamie Zawinski links to a campaign to have a Californian sewage works renamed after George W. Bush. I disagree, strongly. Who on earth would associate something as civic, egalitarian, and useful as sewage treatment with the Commander Guy? Not just that, but it's a publicly-owned sewage plant, part of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Hunter S. Thompson thought Richard Nixon should have been flushed into the Pacific through the sewers; he didn't confuse the sewer with the shit. As he so wisely said, politics is the art of controlling your environment.

Yer man knows better: like this.

Whilst we're on the subject of public works, by the way, may I point out that hitting up Centrica with a windfall excess-profits tax would be completely stupid if the intention is to fund a pre-election sweetie special winter fuel payment. The causes of high natural gas prices are well known - we used the North Sea gas to screw the miners and get Lord Wakeham a seat on the Enron board, and now we're stuck with a lot of gas-fired power stations and noninsulated Victorian buildings, while the import infrastructure consists of three pipes, two of which pass through about six middlemen before getting to the big tap next to Vladimir Putin.

Even if Chris Dillow's perfect power ponies plan had a chance of being put in effect, it still wouldn't actually solve the problem. Just giving people more money to spend on expensive fuel doesn't actually get us any more fuel or any more heating; in fact, in so far as the recipients spent the money on fuel, it would go right back to the gas merchants.

What would help would be to use the money to, ah, fix the problem. I therefore refer everyone to my proposal to upgrade every home in the kingdom as close to passivhaus standard as possible, starting with the poorest (say, current fuel payment recipients as a kickoff). Of course, there are a lot of buildings around that you can't do much to (see above), so instead we could fit air-source heat pumps. Strangely enough, there is actually a small government project that already does this in the Yorkshire ex-coalfield, which has a lot of houses built on the assumption coal would always be very cheap, with poor people in them. And here's a bloke in Sheffield who makes them.

Well, actually he doesn't; in fact he imports cheap ones from China. But this does mean that he can supply one big enough to provide your space heating as well as hot water for £1,895 + VAT; which is less than the government's existing Low Carbon Buildings Programme grant. So yes, we are already giving away enough money per LCBP grant to buy one outright. The only problem is that LCBP grants are directed at people who own their homes and care about selling them in the future. This excludes, of course, precisely those people who can't afford their gas bill and usually live in houses with the insulating qualities of a mankini. Further, the price is now in the rough area where the existing value of winter fuel payments could be capitalised over a reasonable period of time - so it could be close to budget-neutral.

You want a workable, egalitarian, green policy for this autumn, Gord? One that actually combines wonkosity with bashing? Or you, Nick? It's become almost routine to read about the search for ways to combine bottom-up development and environmental protection in Africa, say - but perhaps we should apply some of the same thinking here. It is, after all, very much the case that society offers solutions to the problems of the rich but only relief from the problems of the poor.

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