Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Nokia Software Distribution FAIL

OK, so I was feeling sufficiently foolish to try and install the all-new version of Python for Symbian S60 phones. Not least because of rumours that things like the Location API (i.e. "all the interesting or useful stuff") have been liberated from the finger-waggy signing process...

Unfortunately, Nokia has shipped it without completing the same finger-waggy signing process it imposes on everyone else, so it fails on install with "Certificate error - contact the application supplier". Nokia FAIL. So I have to explicitly disable the fancy security system in order to install software supplied by the system's manufacturer. Not just that, but software which is open-source, so I can read the damn thing myself. Why can't they get it right already? GAH.

So, turn off the certificate check, and it installs. Great. Time for a quick hello world from the interactive interpreter. But no..."Python runtime missing!" We've just installed the sodding thing.

So no, until someone gets a grip I won't be the one to do the S60 version of FixMyStreet:-)

The New St Pancras, 12 Months On

So I reviewed the rebuilt St Pancras Station about this time last year. So, in the best Stewart Brand tradition, let's revisit it; this time of year tends to give you opportunities to revisit major railway stations.

The first good news; the square footage of blue plywood and Tyvek has fallen, and is now close to zero. However, blue plywood extermination is still not quite complete - there is a little patch of the stuff behind Betjeman's Bar on the upper deck. Perhaps they should keep it, as a shrine to the temporary, flexible and living nature of all buildings.

Further, the station is now functioning without needing to secrete too much temporary signage; overall, the signage has improved, although there was no way anyone was going to read the waist-high portable sign holding an amended timetable for the Thameslink service, forlornly placed between two streams of people, at 90 degrees to their eyeline. But, if you visit Betjeman's to check out that plywood, you'd better be careful you don't miss your train - there are no indicator boards in this part of the station, and the nearest is the one outside Eurostar arrivals. (However, their selection of real ales has increased.)

Out the back, where the path from the car park leads into the station, it's still necessary to have perma-temporary railings marking the accessible ramp; the signs haven't quite caught up. The Tube station is improving, slowly and painfully, and the ticket hall isn't as poorly signed as it was last year. Further, the exit from Eurostar arrivals is as bad as ever; presumably, hordes of disoriented travellers packed into the shopping centre are a feature not a bug for someone.

The grand front entrances are still bunged by construction work on the hotel; until this is finished a lot of things will remain temporary, as the original architecture makes the whole thing a single unit. And, of course, there's a lot of other stuff going on with the tube station, the Great Northern Hotel, changes to King's Cross station and the like. But it's running-in reasonably well, and how many building projects of its scale can say that?

However, occasionally you run into something terrible. Check out the Midland (sorry, "East Midlands Trains") ticket hall, which has the odd property of looking painfully bare but not austerely functional, and also has this horrible image:

People, places...anomie and CCTV

It's the combination of the on-the-cheap shiny, the motivational-speaker bollocks, and the CCTV cam the size of God pointing at...what? that does it for me...

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

covering the story: a glimpse of the press in action

Ah yes, the summer and autumn of 2004. The beaux jours of rightwing horseshit, back when an actual neocon disinformation job was targeting a short who's who of blogging. It seems to be time for some of those years' shit to float up to the surface. Here's Dan Rather, suing CBS.
Rather contends not only that his report was true - "What the documents stated has never been denied, by the president or anyone around him," he says - but that CBS succumbed to political pressure from conservatives to get the report discredited and to have him fired. He also claims that a panel set up by CBS to investigate the story was packed with conservatives in an effort to placate the White House. Part of the reason for that, he suggests, was that Viacom, a sister company of CBS, knew that it would have important broadcasting regulatory issues to deal with during Bush's second term.

Among those CBS considered for the panel to investigate Rather's report were far-right broadcasters Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

I had an interesting experience with CBS after that, which may bear repeating. Quite suddenly, some time in the early summer of 2005, I was contacted by a CBS Correspondent, regarding the Viktor Bout-to-Iraq issue. We discussed it by e-mail; they read huge quantities of the blog from a wide range of locations that presumably mapped onto the organisation chart of the CBS journo-octopus.

Could they see primary documents? Surely they could. I shot over a gaggle of DESC fuel contracts. CBS e-mail didn't eat more than 500KB at a go; we did it again. We conspired in pubs. They were delighted to learn I actual journalist, not some anarchist drug-chimp off the interwebs. Better, a trade journalist, so not someone on the nationals... Credit and cash were offered. Lunch was called at Villandry, conveniently not far from my office.

A top CBS was summoned; I hauled in a box of docs on the train and the tube and my desk, as well as all the digital. Unlike MI6, I didn't lose them. He came supposedly direct from Iraq, with photos of various aircraft at Baghdad Airport. I identified them, wondering what the point was - there were plenty of VB jets photographed there?

There was a brief period of expectancy, before the correspondent eventually called back to say that after the Rather/Kerning Krisis they couldn't do anything like it, for political reasons. Perhaps they needed a signed statement from Viktor? I had a similar experience with the pre-Murdoch Wall Street Journal, without the lunch. Now, it all makes much more sense.

we're history, there ain't nothing left to say

The U.S. Army's top historian has a paper out on the war between Israel and Hezbollah (and most of Lebanon) in 2006. It was worth reading when I read it before Christmas, and it's even more so now.

Specifically, Dr Biddle's view of Hezbollah strategy is interesting; in his opinion, they adapted to the fact that really long-range rockets would be easy for the Israelis to spot from the air by changing their tactics so as to keep the smaller and more mobile rockets in range of northern Israel, while not over-committing the core army they needed to remain a power in Lebanese politics. In practice, this meant moving from a guerrilla war to a mobile defence in depth, rolling with the punches rather than getting out of the way.

This is roughly what this blog said at the time about NATO reconnaissance screen tactics, the self-declared insecurity zone, and the fleet-in-being inside Lebanon. There's a lot of interesting stuff about their surprisingly good command and control, the use of anti-tank missiles, and much else. I'm slightly surprised that Biddle thinks that the incident where Hezbollah fired a volley of 13 guided missiles at a group of 15 Israeli tanks and destroyed three of them was a failure, but then, this is an American way of seeing. Targets, probabilities, and the like.

In today's context, it's clear that many of the same points apply to Hamas. Their top priorities are to stay in charge in Gaza, which is achievable with a thin layer of supporters with access to aid and rifles, and to maintain their insecurity zone, which they are able to do with very primitive rockets that can probably be made under occupation conditions. Sten guns were made in thousands in clandestine workshops in occupied Europe in the second world war, and those had quite precise mechanical workings.

Monday, December 29, 2008


While I'm randomly abusing the government, what about this?
The document classes 1.6 million families with children aged between two and 11 as "high risk". It states: "Food has become an expression of love in 'at risk' families.

The horror. Food should be an unpleasant necessity shoved down because authority says so. Everyone knows that - it's how it works in the most expensive private schools, and in the most expensive state institutions as well. And they can't be wrong - they're too expensive.

Of course, later in life it can be an opportunity to display merit through consumption, as long as you make amends by reading the Thoughts of Madeleine Bunting. But an expression of love? That's like those perverted Arabs and their erotic desire for women.

Burn, Hollywood, Burnham!

It is come to this. Here is our Secretary of State for Culture:
The culture secretary, Andy Burnham, says in an interview today that the government is considering the need for "child safe" websites – registered with cinema-style age warnings – to curb access to offensive or damaging online material.

He plans to approach US president-elect Barack Obama's incoming administration with proposals for tight international rules on English language websites, which may include forcing internet service providers, such as BT, Tiscali, Sky and AOL, to ­provide packages restricting access to websites without an age rating.
Oh shitty fuck. I thought it was bad enough when a colleague of mine mentioned that Burnham wanted to make YouTube put warnings next to everything it carried that included rude words. But no, it's worse. This is dire in so many ways; for a start, this is our Secretary of Culture yelling for censorship. Not the Home Secretary, or the Minister for Promoting Virtue and Punishing Vice, or the Lord Chamberlain.

Shouldn't he be the voice for culture in the Cabinet, like the Chancellor is for finance, or the secretary of defence is for the military? The Home Office will always demand more surveillance and more control, but shouldn't the Department of Culture demand culture?

Further, there's the crappy idea of special "packages" of the Internet with bits missing. There is a clear reason why this is crappy: if it is so desirable, why isn't anyone selling it? Isn't there a gap in the market? Of course, one of the problems is that it would be expensive - who will go through all the websites censoring them? But then, they say you can't buck the market, and if you can't do that to build a national fibre network or keep Amersham's DNA sequencer business in the UK, you can't do that for censorship.

It's also crappy because it does nothing about peer-to-peer networks, instant messaging, VoIP, USENET, e-mail (remember that?), but it's worse than that - it's based on a set of fundamentally stupid and discriminatory assumptions.

First of all, there's the idea that sin can leap out and grab you, to quote Holden Caulfield. Paedophiles can make vapours rise up from the keyboard. But secondly, there's the idea that this only applies to some very specific and rather puny kinds of sin. There is surely plenty of stuff in an average edition of several national newspapers that, if we looked at it clearly, we would all agree is highly unsuitable for children; and it has little or nothing to do with the usual tropes of rude words and naked flesh.

Third, there's a weird discrimination of means. Not only is a punch in the mouth worse on this scale of values (violence!) than the delivery of a 1,000 pound bomb (this is called "action"), pretty much anything is OK if it is delivered in print or in the theatre. Nobody seems to want to censor the printing press or reintroduce theatrical censorship. The explanation is in part that the National Theatre's seating capacity is less than the peak daily traffic of this weblog and heavily London-focused. But that's not enough.

If the buggers are reading books, this is in a sense enough - they look more middle-class, dammit, and who cares about the content. And if you've got them into a theatre for something of their choice, it's unlikely they are the ones you're worrying about.

But I am even more furious about the reference to the "English-language Internet". For a start, this betrays deep ignorance. There is no such thing; the Internet has no notion of English language, and it's damn right. It's because of this that it can work in every language. And Burnham seems to think he owns the English language, that he can impose his will on anyone who chooses to write in it. What if an Indian does so, on a website hosted in Holland, operated by a Chinese company? Who is this Burnham?

It's worse than that, though; he is trying to push his quack nonsense on the Americans, which means he doesn't think he can get it through Parliament and he also doesn't think he can get it through the European Parliament, so he wants a nice little unpublished understanding with the Americans that the prime minister can sign and instantly ratify under the prerogative power, and then place in the Commons library, or perhaps not. Rather like the whole wealth of other understandings that have to do with electronic surveillance of one form or another.

The good news, however, is that his proposals might contravene the US constitution (we can't expect too much from our own). If they can have secret transatlantic understandings, then I intend to have one of my own.

Meanwhile, Brazil's top five cities get fibre to the home.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

let's all meet up in the year 2000

And with that, it's time for our traditional Christmas ceasefire, after yet another year of snark, data visualisations, arms smuggling, Tories, Python, and crap. This is post number 2,000, in 1,995 days since the 10th of June, 2003.

can I get a witness? can? I get? a witness?!

So, Viktor Bout's extradition came up in court. Again. And this time the man himself took the stand to say a number of markedly sovok things - apparently the US is only doing this to divert attention from its internal problems and to prevent international peace between Russia and Thailand.

Do you realise that in America they shoot at each other, with pistols? Fraternal greetings!

And then, guess what? His latest lawyer requested that the court adjourn after two of his witnesses failed to show up. They're admirals in the Thai navy! Sure! But they're...sick. Yes, terribly sick. Look! An earthquake! So the hearing was put off until the 6th of March, by which time he will probably have decided he needs to change his legal representation again.

One thing he certainly has changed, going by the AP photos, is the colour of his moustache, which has become significantly darker during his provisional incarceration. I make no comment on this, other than to record it, and to suggest that perhaps he wishes to avoid being mistaken for a rival air-drop operator well known for delivering seasonable gifts to the most remarkable places, Father Christmas.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

anger is an energy

And then I was fool enough to look at another newspaper. So, with Labour you can at least hope they'll look after us in the recession, right? No, they want to give bailiffs the right to restrain people, and to charge interest on social fund loans. And they're blowing hot and cold on the Jaguar-Land Rover loan. (Did you know their sales are actually ahead of last year's? You think all that stuff about the City not wanting to lend industry any money was true?) Merry Christmas to you, too... It's not just the why - it's the why now? Interest on loans for mattresses for the poorest of the poor, in the depths of The Crash of '08?

On the other side, Michael Portillo devotes his column in the Times to explaining why Britain has lost its stomach for a fight and the US willl not think we're "reliable" because of withdrawing from Iraq. (Although it's their declared policy to, ah, withdraw from Iraq.) Jesus. Portillo talks like he's some sort of ironclad veteran, rather than the defence secretary who allowed someone-or-other to exaggerate the troop requirement for Bosnia by a factor of 10 while his mate Douglas Hurd was collecting fees at NatWest Markets for privatising the other side's telecomms network.

And as Dean Godson scurries back under his stone, Anthony "VDARE" Browne clears the decks for his inevitable safe Tory seat.

I am now surrounded by liars, clowns, fools, drunks, sycophants and the desperate

Shouldn't this story be getting just a little more air? So the editor of the News of the Screws is found by an employment tribunal to have bullied one of his reporters to the point that it seriously affected his health, to have tried to exert influence on his doctor, while both the sports editor and the deputy managing editor lied to the tribunal. Had it been any other kind of tribunal, this would have been the stuff of a perjury conviction.

Yer man is now, of course, the director of communications for the Conservative Party, and Rupert Murdoch's representative on Earth (David Cameron Department). Does the party endorse this sort of conduct? Is he a fit and proper person? It would, as they say, be irresponsible not to speculate.

Also, what kind of a sick internal culture does that rag have? First you have violent binge drinker Rebekah Wade, then school bully Coulson and the pair of liars Dunn and Nicholas. It's astonishing; I always assumed they ran on massive hypocrisy, but in fact the content of the paper exactly represents the way they behave in private. The personal, it seems, certainly is the political at the News of the World.

On the other hand, don't imagine that the story from the Guardian actually ran in the paper. Instead of the wealth of detail given above, the print edition slashed it down to a one-paragraph nib in the depths of the paper; I suppose we should be thankful they didn't say Coulson had been the editor of "a newspaper", as their Robert Napper case coverage did to avoid naming names about the Sun's disgraceful police-sponsored smear campaign against Colin Stagg. Why can't you get a cab outside a newspaper office? Because of the double yellow streaks.

be your own Stanislas Petrov

Remember this post? Well, Geoff Forden at Arms Control Wonk has a brilliant series on the system that Stanislav Petrov was monitoring, how it worked, what went wrong, and how to draw conclusions from pictures of a missile launch with Google Earth. And why you should worry now.

premature optimisation, the root of all sins

James Wimberley has a good post regarding changing the electricity grid to support dynamic demand-response, where things like Dutch cold-stores or your fridge over-cool when electricity is plentiful and cut out when the grid is under strain. It's hugely important in adapting the electrical system to use stuff like gigawatt-size wind farms; essentially, it's a way to store large volumes of electricity, with the added feature that you lose no power in the process. Not using the power is always 100 per cent efficient.

Anything that lets you buck entropy has to be good, but there are some serious problems to get over. James dislikes some versions of this as being too Stalinist - the grid reliability controller reaches out and turns everyone down a notch. It's not Stalinism he's thinking of, though, really, but rather Charlie Stross's third great evil of modernity, high technocracy. Stalinists would have planned your energy requirements in advance.

He suggests instead that what we really need is a device that handles all the appliances behind it according to rules you set up, and that receives a feed of data about electricity prices, marginal CO2 emissions, and loads on the grid. Which presupposes a standard for announcing grid data onto the Web; RSS for power stations.

But I'm sceptical on a few things; as far as I can tell, demand response is much more useful for managing the grid than for shaving down demand overall. Which is great, but it falls foul of one of my beefs with much of the official green movement; the macro-micro issue. You can't open a newspaper without being lectured by the lifestyle pages about fairly marginal changes; you rarely see anything about moving big chunks of the energy budget.

And I think the geekosphere is guilty of this; Wattson, AMEE and friends are cool, but it's all about shaving percentages here and there. Consider this post about the huge economic returns on US Federal energy efficiency R&D; it's all about building components, fridge compressors and the like. There's a management consulting piece of quasiwisdom that says that it's always better to remove empty work (muda) from a process than to optimise it. But who wants to discuss lumps of building material?

On the good side, though, I notice that prices for my favourite pet project are coming down gradually. And I like this quote a lot:
The Roadster is faster then anything on the road, including the young guy in a fuel cell SUV who improbably challenged me to a Saturday night race on Hollywood Blvd.

business in great waters

Meanwhile, this is good news. As more and more ships from various parts of the world - like China and Iran - arrive in pirate country, somebody's made vaguely sensible arrangements to put them on trial in Kenya, which is what has been done with the ones captured by Northumberland. This is a much better idea than returning them to the tender mercies of Somali rivals, or alternatively to their home base, or any evil nonsense promoted by tiresome Internet hard men. (You know who you are.)

I'm not sure whether to be pleased, or worried that China and Iran are apparently cooperating in an exercise designed to be more law-abiding than some British courts, and far more so than whole swaths of the US defence establishment. This is incredibly important; I keep saying that a primary reason for the success of some Islamist movements is that they offer some form of legal order, rather than Franz Neumann's Behemoth.

After all, dogs have an innate appreciation of justice, so we should surely accept that it matters for human beings too. As a modest proposal, now the EU has taken over the lead in combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden, could we perhaps give the naval task force a further mission - to compel EU-flag fishing vessels to respect the Somali EEZ? (We wouldn't have legal authority to stop anyone else without a UN resolution, but it's a start.) I agree they have plenty on their plate, which is why I'm going to make a second modest proposal.

Rather than frigates, EU states participating in this could instead deploy some of their sizeable fleet of amphibious assault ships, with a deckload of helicopters, a dock of small craft, and a tankdeck containing a mix of marines for boarding parties, and medics, engineers etc to support the UN's aid activities.

fruit of the poisoned tree

This week we've had the Piccadilly bunglebombers' convictions, but more importantly the first conviction for "directing terrorism". This was the case in which the suspect's fingernails were torn out by the Pakistani intelligence service; he claims, and I see no reason whatsoever to doubt this, that he was questioned between bouts of torture by British officials. But this isn't what worries me.

It's that the poison is seeping into the courts. This particular one was willing not only to accept that, as the case didn't strictly rest on information from Pakistan, the torture was inadmissible, it was willing to determine this in secret and issue a ruling which is itself secret, before proceeding to a trial by jury. The secret ruling was of course secret from the jury. I really cannot imagine how this is meant to amount to a fair trial. And then there is the de Menezes inquest, where the coroner simply decided that no verdict that implied the police did anything wrong was acceptable.

In the bunglebombers' case, meanwhile, we had the astonishing conviction of a man for "withholding information" where the information in question was an e-mail message in an account which the Crown accepted had not been accessed since some time before the message arrived. You can now become a terrorist by not checking your e-mail frequently enough.

And I really have no idea how we would go about reversing this. After the long and successful fight over detentions under ATCSA2001, and the partially successful one over control orders, it seems that this is as nothing to the broader deterioration. As someone said in a quite different context,
Someone asked for onbeforeunload, so I started fixing it. Then I found that there was some rot in the drywall. So I took down the drywall. Then I found a rat infestation. So I killed all the rats. Then I found that the reason for the rot was a slow leak in the plumbing. So I tried fixing the plumbing, but it turned out the whole building used lead pipes. So I had to redo all the plumbing. But then I found that the town's water system wasn't quite compatible with modern plumbing techniques, and I had to dig up the entire town. And that's basically it.
One thing that specifically worries me is that the judiciary's record of opposing the security state in some super-high profile cases conflicts with its opposing, Huttonite tendency of doing quite outrageous things rather than face the prospect of State agents lying. Everyone remembers some of these cases; the risk is that they serve as an institutional alibi.

This is no theoretical question, either. All the data shows that we're heading for an inconclusive election (or rather, one which actually represents the distribution of opinion in the electorate). You can be certain that there will be no help from the Tories on this score. But what terms can the Liberals insist on that would actually achieve something? What legislation could be repealed that would have a clear signalling effect? I'm not optimistic; I fear that if they were to make anything worth arguing for part of the price for coalition or toleration, there would simply be a Labservative government, a "grand coalition of the I'm all right, Jacks" as the Germans say. A club for the self-protection of the parties who corrupted our institutions to this extent in the first place.

why don't you just get a blog?

Ajay takes the cake again. Back in 2007, discussing the Piccadilly bomb plot, he made the important point that the difficult bit in arranging a fuel-air explosion is getting your timing right. You don't want to let the fuel disperse too much, but if you fire it too early there will be too much fuel and not enough air for combustion. So, here we are, from this week's trial.
But the would-be bombers had made a crucial error. The detonators consisted of two mobile phones wired to a light bulb surrounded by match heads. A phone call was supposed to trigger the homemade device igniting the vapours swirling inside the cars. But the mixture of petrol and gas was too thick - police sources say that if the car windows had been opened the bombs could have gone off - but as it was there was not enough oxygen to trigger the devices.
Get a blog, already.

wikileaks in a jam

Vexation about the publication on Wikileaks of some US Army documents with details of the counter-IED radio jammers. Well, you can see why they're concerned; but I very much doubt this is particularly important.

Recap: the New-Old Iraqi Army was in the habit of using command-detonated IEDs to blow up Coalition and Iraqi government road convoys. To begin with, the command element was often either a GSM device or else some sort of el cheapo radio device like a garage-door opener, RF thermostat, bits and pieces from an industrial process-control rig or the like. After much spending and much fuss, the US Department of Defense deployed "secret" but much hyped jammers on the lead vehicles in the convoys.

Now, there was almost certainly no reason to spend anywhere as much as they did. This is directly linked to the non-fuss about Wikileaks. The devices we have just mentioned have an internationally-standardised frequency band to chatter away in - the so-called Industrial Scientific Medical band, which is unlicensed spectrum - anyone can use it for anything, so long as they don't use too much power. Among other things, all the world's WLAN access points work in the ISM 2.4GHz band, as do wireless hi-fi speakers, baby monitors, cheap CCTV cams, etc, etc. So right back in 2003, it was blindingly obvious which frequencies were involved and what an upper bound on the power output would be. Which made the problem of jamming it pretty simple - just hammer away in the ISM with noise at a significantly higher Tx wattage.

Radio waves are electromagnetic radiation, and therefore their intensity changes with the inverse square of the distance from the source. So you could trivially calculate how much power you need to trigger the device a given distance away from the target. All you need is something that will radiate in the ISM band on command, like...a WLAN card, which now costs about five quid (or, perhaps, a door opener with a better antenna...). I have to say, I suspect that Donald Rumsfeld got played terribly over this. And, of course, nothing radio-frequency stays secret once you start transmitting; everyone can hear you.

There are cleverer things you can do; regarding the GSM ones, you could carry a malicious base station around with you, and therefore blackhole all traffic to and from phones in range. Or you could tap the phones and find out whodunnit (we know the other side do it to us). If I was really serious about this, I'd use one of these, which can be programmed to emulate pretty much anything radio.

So, like so much government secrecy, this is much more to do with security from embarrassment (we spent $billions on technology that would have been cutting edge in 1940!) than security from anything else.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

target for tonight...

Somebody really ought to make a table cross-referencing the police statements from the IPCC, HSE, and Coroner's investigations in the Menezes case. This should probably be me, but I'll need to consult the documents first.

a cloud of reinforced concrete

Well, very cool. Yahoo has an API that's meant to let you do database-like read operations on anything web - you just pass your SELECT... statement and the URL and a few other arguments, and it chucks back a JSON document with your information. I haven't managed to make it do anything interesting yet, but then, my requirements may be strange. And it doesn't do SELECT COUNT... or GROUP BY... statements, so there are some fairly strict limits on its usefulness. It's true, however, that had it existed a while ago it would have rendered part of the Viktorfeed much easier. But, y'know, it's mine.

I'm tempted, once I manage to make it do something useful, to build a sort of Web 2.0 turducken - after all, the query could be applied to a Google search URL, or better, to the Google archive of USENET.

The new version of IBM Many Eyes lets you provide various kinds of URLs as data sources in a visualisation, and I could embed that in the blog, and if only would let you do that, the initial request would be initiated by something running on a Wordpress website, using an IBM backend, to slurp data from a Yahoo! URL, that points at an SQL emulator somewhere in there, that gets data from an HTML parser in there, that operates on query results from Google, results which originate from some bored and kinky academic shooting the breeze over an underutilised departmental T-1 in 1992. Perhaps I could work in updates on Twitter, too.

But doesn't this remind you of something - specifically the joke about the convoluted program which involves a document being printed out, placed on a brown table, photographed, and scanned? Think of all those layers of caching servers, app servers, Web frameworks, standard libraries, bureaucracy, operating systems, virtualisation, before you get to an actual computer. No wonder Richard Stallman don't like it.

This tension has always defined the culture of IT; the Big Database, the mainframe, the semiconductor fab on one side, the Lone Hacker and the Garage Startup on the other. Like all good myths, it's highly flexible in practice; a lot of people started off as the second and made the ancient march to the right as they got old and rich and conservative, and the very origins of the second are in huge state-run research labs.

It's also highly ambiguous - people who at least think they are on the side of the second are often the archetypal Internet libertarians and the warbloggers yelling for torture, and doesn't the ordered, white concrete Arthur C. Clarke world of the first sound good now?

In an out of the way corner of Oregon, Amazon is joining Google and Microsoft in building a really enormous data centre, to take advantage of cheap hydroelectricity and water cooling. The power comes from the New Deal. At the end of the 1930s, the US Federal Government built a string of big dams there; their first customer for the power was the aluminium industry as it geared up first to supply the RAF and then to create the USAAF. As a result, Boeing would build the 707, B-47, B-52, 727, 747, 737, 757, 767, and 777 in Seattle.

Today, it's still the Bonneville Power Administration which Amazon will be paying for the electricity and cool water its IT factory needs. You can't get around the infrastructure. Decisions we take now will last as long; will there one day be an IT equivalent of the Lochaber smelter, somewhere with fibre in the ground and wind in the sky?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

HOWTO spoof the Pakistani Foreign Ministry

Reader Chris "Chris" Williams recently came up with an interesting idea regarding the unnerving incident during the Mumbai terrorist assault when somebody called Mr 10%'s office and, posing as the Indian foreign minister, threatened war. Chris reckons that not only are the two linked, but the phone call was actually the main effort; in fact, the commando speedboat assault on the city centre was a sort of privilege-escalation attack intended to boost the effectiveness of the fake telephone call.

As Scott Sagan wrote in The Command and Control of Strategic Nuclear Forces, you can't go on alert without reducing the reaction times and increasing the sensitivity of your command system, because that's what the word "alert" means. Going on alert involves system risk as well as mitigating the risk of surprise attack.

That doesn't just work for radars and satellites, or even for organisations; it happens in your head as well. As well as forcing an Indian military alert and, more importantly, a Pakistani alert, the attack on Mumbai forced an emotional, psychological, and biochemical alert on both parties. Among other things, this tends to mean that even peaceful precautions are overlooked; just pick up the phone!

What is really worrying here, though, is that the Pakistanis still apparently believe that the call came from the Indian foreign ministry, because the Caller ID display said so. This is truly frightening; caller-line identification, CLI, is a surprisingly flaky feature of the public-switched telephone network (see the many, many discussions on uk.telecom). It's the kind of thing that Bellheads like to accuse Internet people of, just it's the Bellheads' work. Rather, CLI works quite well within one telephone network; it's when you start interworking that things happen.

And obviously, international calls involve interworking. CLI works like this (there's a nice explanation on the Asterisk developers' list: a message including the e164 telephone number originating the call and two flags is generated either by the subscriber's equipment or by the carrier's local exchange. The first flag has a value of 0, 1, or 2, which correspond to OK, "Not available due to user action", and "Not available due to interworking". If you choose to withhold your number, BT will set a flag of 1 on the CLI, so standards-compliant equipment at the far end will not show it. Note that the number is still sent. 2 is sent if the carrier (or the user) doesn't have a valid CLI for this call, or doesn't send CLI to the terminating network.

The second flag can be 0, 1, 2, or 3. 0 means the CLI was passed by the originator's equipment and this has not been checked. 1 means the CLI was passed by the originator's equipment and the network setting the flag verified the number is correct. 2 means it was checked and found to be incorrect. 3 means that the setting network's local exchange assigned the CLI and therefore it is known to be good.

In the case of calls that are coming in from another network, then, the first flag should be 0 only if the second is 1 or 3, else 2. It's left as a question of policy what you do with the others - for example, if someone is making unwanted calls to subscribers in a network that you provide service to, using the withhold flag and CLI set by their own PBX, do you honour the withhold flag, do you send the dodgy CLIs in case the subscribers want them to find out who's doing it, or do you treat the CLI as probably all lies?

In practice, this is resolved by keeping lists of networks by degrees of trust. After all, if someone is really dodgy, there's probably no point in relying on their own claim that they checked the CLI, so you might as well treat them all as nonsense. Some you can trust. Some you can trust partially, perhaps only the 1s and 3s.

But this, of course, only works if other people can trust you. If you don't care, you might just pass every little thing, or if you're really irresponsible you might set 1 flags on everything. Eventually this sort of behaviour will get you on everyone's Do Not Trust list, but it's always possible that the people you're trying to send dodgy CLIs to aren't great either.

So, first of all, you need an el cheapo phone company. Specifically, what you're after is someone who provides really cheap and flaky bulk SIP interconnection, because what we need is a way of connecting a device that's going to send someone else's CLI into the traditional phone network, and this is much the easiest via the Internet. Of course, our target might be on a VoIP system, but the important bit is that it turns up at the far end with a traditional phone number as the CLI. We might start here, or - why not? - even here, or of course here.

Now, all we need is a copy of Asterisk, the open-source PBX and general phone toolkit; we change the zapata.conf file to set the CLI to our desired number and whatever flags we like, set "usecallingpres=yes", put the details we were given by the dodgy SIP operator in the trunks section, and we're good to go. There's an obvious way to test if they're passing the arbitrary CLI; call your mobile phone and see what comes up on the screen. To finish the job, we tell Asterisk to route incoming calls from the mobile numbers (or VoIP clients) we want to use, according to the dialplan we just specified.

We can now call the president of Pakistan and say whatever we damn well like, from whereever we damn well like. And caller ID will say exactly what we want it to. You may stroke a white cat while you do it; it's not mandatory.

Scared yet? Right, we have learned a couple of things here. First up, interconnected networks imply netizenship. Keep your gear clean and know your customers, and you'll save people downstream a lot of trouble, and if everyone behaves like that, what a wonderful world it would be.

Second, Caller ID is no kind of security for anything vaguely serious. Telcos don't bother with it for really important purposes, like "working out your phone bill" - they use a different and secret billing identifier. It is truly astonishing that there was apparently neither any technical security beyond that, nor any authentication procedures either. (After all, an alternative to this would have been to have someone walk into the Foreign Ministry and just pick up the phone.) No security questions, no pre-arrangement, no passwords, no crypto, no shared secret. Nothing.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

voice stress clarity

OK, so yer lie detector. It's been something of a blogosphere hit. And in the comments, we have Nigel, who appears to know something about acoustic signal processing - in the sense of "makes speech recognition systems for Eurofighters".

It seems that rather than being a signal at a frequency between 8 and 12Hz, the signal you're interested in is a signal, of that frequency, modulated onto the main signal. So in fact, you could theoretically detect it through a telephone call. I was wrong.

However, that isn't what Nemesysco's patent claims, and they vigorously deny that what they are doing is voice stress analysis. It's not the pitch of any such signal that is discussed in the patent, either; it's the change in the numbers of thorns and plateaus.

Our acoustic expert says that this could be a way of measuring the signals required for classical VSA, just not a very good one; and anyway, he argues that VSA itself is useless, even if it was VSA they were promising to conduct. And, of course, they deny that this is their methodology. Further, VSA gives only one measurement, one of vaguely-defined stress - not the nine or so Nemesysco claim to get out of this.

Meanwhile, someone who makes the same spelling mistakes as Amir Liberman does showed up in comments to claim there was more, secret technology involved that they hadn't actually patented. Interestingly, he showed up from the same network as Nemesysco's Web site. The same network was also the source of a Wikipedia article which got deleted for advertising, in which Nemesysco claimed that their method uses 129 different measurements and isn't anything like VSA. No, sir. And there weren't 129 different metrics in their patent...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Dr. Benway strikes again, with Venture Capital

OK. So we looked into voice stress analysis and the world telecoms infrastructure. And we concluded that proper VSA - the sort with the peer-reviewed scientific papers an stuff - was technically impossible. Recap; the original VSA research is based on a change in a signal in your voice between 8 and 12Hz, but even the highest-quality voice codecs used for public telephony filter out everything below 50Hz, so a VSA system based on - well - science couldn't possibly work.

But there was always the possibility that "Nemesysco" had hit on some kind of roaring king-hell breakthrough. Minitrue couldn't find a copy of the patent that covers their product; you might wonder why there wasn't a US patent if it's so great, or why every call-centre workflow system and high-end mobile phone in the world doesn't have it as a much-valued standard feature, or why Amir Liberman, the CEO of Nemesysco, isn't incredibly rich.

After all, he's been hawking it since at least 1998. His company was formed in early 2000, just a tad late for the joy of the .com boom; at the time they were marketing towards consumers and businesses. But, as the venture capital dried up, the stock exchange cursed everything to do with computers, and it looked like a whole world of vaguely technical young sheisters would have to get a job...something happened, and suddenly his product became "Israeli intelligence service technology" that would save you from terrorists.

There is no evidence that Tsahal or the intelligence services ever made use of it, but as reader Chris "Chris" Williams points, there is a certain mana attached to the Israeli military - link your product to them, and it gets just that bit badder. I tell you, it's the sunglasses.

So, let's cut to the chase. The patent is here, thanks to the Canadian government. The "claims" section described how it is meant to work - there's even an example implementation in Microsoft Visual Basic (you bastards). Here's how: it takes samples of speech and identifies "plateaus" - flat bits - and "thorns". Thorns are defined as:
A thorn is a notch-shaped feature. For example the term thorn may be defined as:
a) a sequence of 3 adjacent samples in which the first and third samples are both higher than the middle samples
b) a sequence of 3 adjacent samples in which the first and third are both lower than the middle samples

Now, all speech is roughly speaking a succession of sine waves; by definition it's going to fit this. Anyway, they take a control sample of speech, count the plateaus and thorns and compute the standard errors, then they ask the questions they want to test, and do the same thing. They then look at the difference between the values and compare them to reference values to tell if you're lying.

Where do these reference values come from? It is appreciated that all of the numerical values are merely examples and are typically application-dependent. So basically, the all-crucial message on the screen depends entirely on the sensitivity values you punch in to the thing; perhaps great if you're trying to bully some random Palestinian, but not so good if you need real information.

Hey, if they only knew Visual Basic and were willing to commit Software Crime, Harrow council could crank the reference values down to zero and deny EVERYBODY their housing benefit.

From this, he reckons he can determine:
Excitement Level: Each of us becomes excited (or depressed) from time to time. SENSE compares the presence of the Micro-High-frequencies of each sample to the basic profile to measure the excitement level in each vocal segment.

Confusion Level: Is your subject sure about what he or she is saying? SENSE technology measures and compares the tiny delays in your subject's voice to assess how certain he or she is.

Stress Level: Stress is physiologically defined as the body's reaction to a threat, either by fighting the threat, or by fleeing. However, during a spoken conversation neither option may be available. The conflict caused by this dissonance affects the micro-low-frequencies in the voice during speech.

Thinking Level: How much is your subject trying to find answers? Might he or she be "inventing" stories?

S.O.S: (Say Or Stop) - Is your subject hesitating to tell you something?

Concentration Level: Extreme concentration might indicate deception.

Anticipation Level: Is your subject anticipating your responses according to what he or she is telling you?

Embarrassment Level: Is your subject feeling comfortable, or does he feel some level of embarrassment regarding what he or she is saying?

Arousal Level: What triggers arousal in the subject? Is he or she interested in you? Aroused by certain visuals? This new detection can be used both for personal use for issues of romance, or professionally for therapy relating to sex-offenders.

Deep Emotions: What long-standing emotions does your subject experience? Is he or she "excited" or "uncertain" in general?

SENSE's "Deep" Technology: Is your subject thinking about a single topic when speaking, or are there several layers (i.e., background issues, something that may be bothering him or her, planning, etc.) SENSE technology can detect brain activity operating at a pre-conscious level.
He can apparently detect that all from a total of two measurements. Note also that there is no mention of Micro-High Frequencies in his patent claims; if they were particularly high, they would probably vanish in the band-pass filters above 3.4kHz....

I have collected these claims across his Web site; I wonder if Harrow council is aware that exactly the same technology is being marketed as a "Love Detector"? Or that another company has ripped off the patent, and he warns buyers that theirs won't produce the advertised 85% accuracy, even though it's the same patent? This is scienciness, not science. But then, the point is to scare the poor.

Update: See here

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Register: pathetic tabloid hackery

The Register is all squashy on censorship - when it suits one of the million or so bees buzzing around their bonnet. So the Internet Watch Foundation (funded by News Corp) gets its knickers in a twist about a Wikipedia page and accidentally makes Wikipedia verboten for much of the UK.

And what do they have to say?
Wikipedia isn't a user-generated utopia. It's a cultish self-contradiction that can't help but undermine its own ideals
I've not quoted the links, but suffice it to say that they're to a pair of silly-clever "contrarian" opinion pieces that must once have pulled some traffic through the ads, just like their "contrarian" climate change denial turdery.

reduced blog

Been writing the for ORGANISE.

here, robot!

Very experienced soldiers don't like robots. I suppose you could ascribe this to conservatism, but then, the last eight years have been a global crash course in how people who tell you that this war will be different to what the old sergeants think are wrong.

Meanwhile, at Canon's main factory in Japan, the workers on the production line are served by robots. Rather, they don't have a production line - the robots bring printer parts to groups of workers who build them, working according to their own internal organisation, and then the robots take the finished printers away.

Did anyone foresee this? Being automated out of a job has been a reality for quite a lot of people, and a reliable demon in science fiction. But you what? Actual proletarians, line workers in light engineering, being served by menial robots? It's an idea which seems to include both an outdated vision of the future, the paleo-future as the twittertwits call it, and the future itself, at once.

I remember hearing someone say that there was a major difference between German and English in that in German, you bedienen a machine - you serve it. In English, you operate it. Of course, for the last 200 years we've all got used to work being a process in which people either serve machines or work on machines - whether they are power looms or spreadsheets.

But machines acting as teenage apprentices to people? Surely this is science fiction, but perhaps it fits with a world in which more production technology - RepRap, solar panels, many computer things - wanders back towards individuals while at the same time, consumption becomes industrialised. Rather than the traditional and wildly oil-piggish drive to the supermarket, they increasingly stack many loads in an electric van, turning the temples of consumption into picking centres, or perhaps in future, genuine markets?

Similarly, the barrage of advertising nonsense has reached the level at which people are thinking about automating their response to it through things like vendor-relations management and other means of bullshit filtration.

Meanwhile, US workers occupy a factory hit by credit crisis. What happens in a plant like Canon's, in a few years' time - if the robots want to keep going, or to stop?

G.729 and the welfare state

I was going to fisk the Government's depressing sudden love affair with the discredited nonsense of "lie detectors", but I see the Ministry has already done it. Go and read; it's an instant classic. And as a bonus, there's a great comment from the Great Simpleton, who you occasionally find in comments here, about some effects of telecoms infrastructure on the welfare state.

It's certainly all nonsense - the 3G voice codec, AMR Narrowband, includes a band-pass filter between 200Hz and 3.4KHz, as do G711 and G729, so the markers VSA relies on, which are to be found between 8 and 12Hz, will be undetectable on any current mobile or fixed phone. Even the AMR Wideband high-quality voice standard will pass nothing - the band-pass for that one is 50Hz-7KHz. Any sound that does turn up at the VSA, therefore, is an artefact of some kind - a stray cosmic ray, or the acoustic echo cancellation at the local exchange going out of kilter when it produces the synthetic network noise to reassure you the line isn't dead. (You might be advised not to Skype the benefits office - they're considerably wider band when they are comprehensible at all.)

To expand on my comment over there, though, someone already markets a voice-stress analyser application for Windows Mobile smartphones. It's probably mostly witchcraft and social engineering, but it's very likely easier to do the opposite; either filter out the frequency band that is meant to be the marker, which could maybe sound weird or be too obvious if you could hear it at all, inject noise into that channel, or create a synthetic signal. That would be the hardest of the three to implement, but it would provide some interesting affordances - you could choose to sound more untrustworthy. If you could hear it, that is.

The only thing this achieves, then, is to deny some people their bennies entirely at random. Which is, of course, a highly political act.

Update: See here.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


Does anyone subscribe to this publication? I'd really like to see their story on Tomislav Damjanovic.

mentalities, bunker, and otherwise

This BBC Radio 4 documentary about the British nuclear deterrent and the people who operate it is absolutely cracking. Not surprisingly, the man behind it is none other than Professor Peter Hennessy (can we call him Henn-dawg yet?).

One of the things that stands out is the amount of desperate psychological coping going on. The forms vary; the RAF V-Force crews of the 1960s, who were not only expected to carry in the warheads themselves but also very likely to ditch the aircraft somewhere beyond, also had to taxy the Vulcans out for every mission past the school playground. Their wives were more than familiar with the desperate QRA launch scenarios; it seems remarkable that anyone could put up with that.

One day at RAF Cottesmore, the public-address speakers, which were wired directly to the Bomber Controller telebrief feed from High Wycombe, went click just as a group of families visited, and everyone ran like hell to the flight line without even waiting for the voice from headquarters, still less saying a word. We're talking about 1950s telecoms and electronics here - it must have gone click ten times a day.

A different style from this barely contained hysteria was reserved, indeed still is, for the top civil service and since 1969, the Royal Navy submariners; here, they deal with a much slower and more considered form of killing and dying. It's a neurotic rather than a hysterical scenario: what can I tell them? what will they think? am I doing the right thing?

Was, for example, Denis Healey doing the right thing, in the High Wycombe bunker during 1960s transition to war exercises as one of the Prime Minister's deputies for retaliation, when he repeatedly pretended to give the authorisation to scramble the V-force - although in fact, he had decided that should it come to that he wasn't going to launch? (Keighley Man Saves The World.)

Interestingly, James Callaghan, despite the conventional wisdom, was very clear that he would certainly have pressed the button - or rather, his half of the button. One thing that seems to be clearer in the memory of the top officers Hennessy interviews than has been in the past is the duality of civilian and military control - as no civilian can give a military order, the PM or the deputy can only authorise, not order, the launch. (You thought our constitution was weird? Wait 'til you see our nuclear command authority.)

There is a logical AND gate - rather as NATO shared weapons are subject to the dual-key arrangement between NATO and the host-nation, and Soviet ones were to split control between the military (for the aircraft or missile) and the Communist Party/secret police (for the warhead fusing), UK nukes are subject to a dual-key arrangement between the civilian and military authorities. Another of Hennessy's interviewees, Lord Guthrie, the Chief of Defence Staff who read Tony Blair in on the nuclear files, made clear that he thought this was very much a real constraint on both parties.

An odd feature of the whole thing was the repeated suggestion that, had the UK been devastated by Soviet missiles and the deterrent not been used, the remaining subs or aircraft might have been turned over to Australia. This would have been a challenging redeployment for the V-Force, to say the least, although they did exercise Far Eastern deployments. Of course, the submarines would have had no such difficulty. In this weird way, the last remnants of imperial feeling were to be saved from the ashes, and the deterrent's true role - to maintain credible independence from the United States - would be maintained under a slightly different flag.

Ah, the Americans. They have a sort of shadow presence in the whole thing. One thing that the broadcast makes clear is that yes, there is a UK national firing chain as well as the NATO SACLANT one. They visit the cell in the Navy's bunker at Northwood which handles the link between the Government and the extremely-low frequency transmitters - two crypto officers independently authenticate the message from the Cabinet Office and retransmit it via multiple redundant routes. They each need codebooks from two safes, neither of which can be opened at once, and which are permanently monitored by armed Marine Commandos. We hear a simulated authentication; interestingly, the crosstalk suggests that there is a specific distinction between a NATO and a UK national signal.

But each submarine, as she collects her load-out of rockets from King's Bay, Georgia, also picks up an American shakedown crew for the test launch down the Eastern rocket range from a spot off Cape Canaveral, and the actual handle the submarine Weapons Engineering Officer pulls is the butt end of a Colt .45.

In all, however, it was a story of people in an insane situation working hard at staying sane.

After the show, I looked up some news and saw this. Jamie Kenny deals with it here, but the facts are worth repeating. Some random just rang up Mr 10% and claimed to be the Indian foreign ministry, and threatened war. Pakistan responded by increasing air force readiness; fighters were placed on combat air patrols. We don't know what happened with the Pakistani nuclear weapons, which are delivered by aircraft; did the F-16s load up and move to the runway's end?

Pakistan apparently believes it really was the Indians; the Indians claim it was some maniac with a telephone. The Pakistanis also say it came from a phone number at the Indian foreign ministry. This is fairly meaningless - not many bulk SIP carriers, and not that many old fashioned telcos, check or filter the Caller Line Identification strings, and software like the Asterisk free IP-PBX will let you send whatever CLI you like. After all, the head of the Islamic Students' Movement of India is supposedly a geek.

The answer to this is of course the one the MI6 station chief in Moscow in 1962 used when the secret signal he gave Oleg Penkovsky for use in the event he learned of a nuclear attack came down the phone: do nothing. The crisis was on its way down; Penkovsky had been missing for days, and was presumably in the hands of the MVD. Therefore Frank Roberts decided to ignore the signal. Few feedback loops of such criticality can't do with some more damping.

The Independent: Is Over

No wonder the Indy's moving in with the Daily Mail; it's taken to publishing leaders like this one, a crude bit of hard right culture war stuff which blames the Sharon Matthews case on "welfare". Yes, really. They also rehearse the old Peter Lilley thing about "single mothers who get pregnant just to jump the housing list", and sniff that the Matthews' life was "disorderly in the extreme".

Refined shudder! Let's not even imagine what might happen if various north London councils' social service departments had to look into the "orderliness" or otherwise of various well-known journalists' home lives. We could be faced with a nonsense shortage. Perhaps we should maintain a national stockpile of terrible journalism against such a possibility.

The proposed solution is of course to make the poor rather poorer, so that they will become better people. They will be scared into being more orderly; it's worth noting that this disgusting piece of writing doesn't even bother to claim that its proposals would have done anybody any good. No;
Ms Matthews might then have been tracked by government agencies earlier and her life on benefits might have become less comfortable.
In the next paragraph, they go on to say that she would still have had far too many children and not gone out to work. So what does this actually mean? Surely they cannot expect that some jobcentre clerk would have detected an ambition in her to fake the kidnap of her own daughter, had she only been forced to fill in some more forms and be lectured some more about Standards?

And, as we have seen recently, there is absolutely no reason to think that the State would have done anything effective had it had this information. I mean, can you imagine ringing up the social services department or the cops with this story? Yes, one of my clients at Dewsbury Job Centre. I think...I think she's going to kidnap her own daughter. Well, I know. Yes, the daughter lives with her. Don't ask me - ask her! Why? For the reward money! But at least, as the Independent puts it:
Ms Matthews might then have been tracked by government agencies earlier and her life on benefits might have become less comfortable.
Surveillance of the poor is an end in itself, it seems, as is rendering their lives "less comfortable". And, of course, I mean the poor, and so does The Independent. There is no protocol for only applying more surveillance to the guilty - that's not how it works.

Of course, on the substance, the whole Government proposal the Indy is supporting is silly, a bit of midmarket newspaper fan service left over from the boom years, when unemployment was primarily the Thatcher legacy and not something that affected the large majority. Now, on the boom has come the slump, and we're facing the possibility of a big cyclical surge in unemployment.

The nature of cyclical unemployment is that it is caused by the business cycle and spread broadly across the economy; there is simply not enough work. There is no point making the cyclically unemployed report more often and jump through more hoops; unless your purpose is to impress Associated Newspapers with your sternness towards the undeserving poor. And, it would seem, The Independent.

Of course, this probably has something to do not only with Independent News and Media's increasing closeness to the Daily Mail, but also the arrival of Roger Alton as editor of the Independent. In fact, this piece - a first leader which was given an unusually generous word count - might be Alton's own work, just as the conversion of The Observer into a cocktail of Decent Left drivel and lifestyle wank was Alton's work.

What is the Decent line on the economic crisis? It doesn't seem at all clear yet; they don't tend to interest themselves in economics. Certainly Nick Cohen can be expected to take up the sort of Tory moralising that has infected the Indy, and Cohen's career was promoted by Roger Alton more than anyone else.

Meanwhile, the Independent is doing its bit to make life less comfortable; they just fired 20% of their journalists. Presumably, Alton (and IN&M) is preparing the Indy for a new role in a Tory period as the Mail for people who can't bring themselves to read the Mail but actually want its politics, just as David Cameron is the Conservative for people who can't bring themselves to vote for other Conservatives but actually want Conservative Party politics.

Update: Jamie Kenny has more. It seems clear there is a push on this going on - the Sunday Telegraph editoralised in the same terms today, and Tory shadow minister Chris Grayling trailed something similar in the Observer.

Friday, December 05, 2008

A Zero-Day Class Break!

Well I didn't expect that - it looks like the Canadians have found a rather serious exploit in Westminster 2. And as far as I can tell, it probably affects Westminster 1 through 3 as well. Yes, we've got a class break on our hands!

Now, to understand this we need to realise that a very important part of the constitution exists only as a letter to the editor of The Times. Seriously. An anonymous letter to the editor of The Times. I am not joking. The procedure I described in the last post rests on the so-called Lascelles principles, which were laid down in the early 1950s by the King's private secretary, Sir Alan "Tommy" Lascelles. Here is the text.

To the Editor of The Times

Sir,—It is surely indisputable (and common sense) that a Prime Minister may ask—not demand—that his Sovereign will grant him a dissolution of Parliament; and that the Sovereign, if he so chooses, may refuse to grant this request. The problem of such a choice is entirely personal to the Sovereign, though he is, of course, free to seek informal advice from anybody whom he thinks fit to consult.

In so far as this matter can be publicly discussed, it can be properly assumed that no wise Sovereign—that is, one who has at heart the true interest of the country, the constitution, and the Monarchy—would deny a dissolution to his Prime Minister unless he were satisfied that: (1) the existing Parliament was still vital, viable, and capable of doing its job; (2) a General Election would be detrimental to the national economy; (3) he could rely on finding another Prime Minister who could carry on his Government, for a reasonable period, with a working majority in the House of Commons. When Sir Patrick Duncan refused a dissolution to his Prime Minister in South Africa in 1939, all these conditions were satisfied: when Lord Byng did the same in Canada in 1926, they appeared to be, but in the event the third proved illusory.

I am, &c.,


April 29.
It should be clear enough that a Prime Minister who loses his or her majority and can't immediately restore it doesn't automatically get another chance at the polls. This is necessary, in order to observe the principle that the will of the people is expressed in a Parliament they elect.

Now, it's also clear that this is a weird kind of constitutional text. Some of its features are obviously bound by context; the bit about the national economy would seem to give the monarch a bizarrely large role in Treasury policy, but this is very much a document of its time, a time of menacing war debts, a fixed and overvalued exchange rate, the Sterling balances, and whatnot. According to Peter Hennessy, this principle has been dropped from the Cabinet Office file some 30 or more years ago.

And of course, it's weird that Lascelles should choose to express himself in this way, rather than issuing a statement, getting a legal opinion, or asking the Government to put the matter before Parliament. Perhaps he found it so obvious that it didn't need a more formal statement? Or so controversial that he didn't want to go on the record? But then, why did he go public at all?

I don't see any reason to think that the Canadian parliament is unable to do its job, or that it no longer represents the electorate. Further, it evidently has another candidate, and written assurances to that effect. And although the Lascelles principles are a British document, they are based on Canadian precedent, so you can hardly deny they have standing. It seems there has been a grave LDQN error - can they really have allowed a prime minister just to get rid of parliament because he doesn't want to lose?

But ha. Harper didn't ask for a dissolution, but only prorogation, and Lascelles doesn't make any mention of prorogation. Here's the bug. Is there any way to stop a PM from proroguing again, and again? Is there, in effect, a way of getting root access to the executive?

This is especially interesting for a number of reasons. There have been various Acts of Parliament recently that strengthen the ability of the executive to govern by itself, notably the Civil Contingencies Act, which contains powers which almost amount to rule by decree. If it's possible to kill confidence votes by proroguing for any or no reason, a malicious PM (or actually almost any other cabinet minister, having first invoked the CCA) could declare an indefinite state of emergency with the help of a weak LDQN. And, at some point in the near future, we're going to replace ours. I'm fairly confident in the current one, but the likely replacement is both flaky and given to statements a lot of people consider unsuitably partisan.

It's high time to legislate for the whole mess.

Alternatively, if a letter to The Times can be part of the constitution, surely so can a blog post? Perhaps I'd better get in there first - it's the only way to be safe. Let's just say that prorogation exists to do two or maybe three things. The first is to send the MPs on their summer holiday. The second is to start the dissolution process. The third is to stop Parliament if for some reason it's utterly impossible for it to meet.

The first we can surely leave to the Speaker. The second we could simply roll up into dissolution - it doesn't do anything useful. The third, well. In 1941 the German air force wrecked the Commons chamber, but the Commons reconvened over the road in Church House. Obviously we need some contingency planning, but we don't need a way to get rid of Parliament altogether.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Westminster 1.4; the developer's guide

Those crazy Canadians, eh? It looks like they're about to do that rare thing in a Westminster-type constitution, throw out the government on a confidence vote and substitute another. Not just that, they're going to do that even more rare thing in a Westminster-type constitution, form a multi-party coalition. Not just that, they're going to have a German-style toleration agreement with a party that isn't in the government. Woo. It also looks like the Canadian prime minister is trying to do something weird to the constitution to save himself, and there is a chance of a good crisis.

So why don't we have a look at how this rarely-used function works? It's not just Canada, after all - Anthony "Nate Silver before there was Nate Silver" Wells' swing projection currently shows the next election ending in a hung parliament, with the Tories 26 seats short of a majority. And there's also some interesting TYR research related to that. I was saying in one of Wellsy's threads that the polls almost seemed to make up two distinct series - one which showed the Tories with a steady lead north of 10 points, one which was much lower.

So I got the data for the last three months, split the polls into two groups, one with Tory leads of 10% or above and one with the lower ones. First observation - in the last couple of months they've practically alternated. Second, the lower ones show a marked downwards trend. I graphed them against a common timeline, drew trendlines, and computed the R-squared values. Here's the chart.


The high delta-cee series has raging volatility, but no trend. But the low delta-cee ones are marching steadily downwards with R2 = 0.77. Clearly, the variance in the polls is widening sharply, but it's only happening on one side - the bounds of the probable take in more and more chances of Tory failure. So, sitting back in Whitehall and reading this, what file would you ask to see? Surely the one on "Change of Government".

Unfortunately, although the system provides for elective government with oversight and a legislative development environment, it's not terribly well documented. There is no canonical procedure for an unplanned change of government, or for an inconclusive election - this is left up to the implementer. However, according to Peter Hennessy's The Prime Minister, the procedure used last time, in February 1974, goes like this: the PM stays PM until he resigns or another PM is appointed. This is clearly Pythonic - the variable PrimeMinister is a pointer to an object containing the PM's name, and we can change it at any time. This variable is scoped to the namespace it is declared in, unless explicitly referenced.

But who appoints the PM? I'm indebted to the folk at Making Light for this idea, but it's all down to the distributed head of state protocol. The answer is - depending on your local implementation, the Local Distributed Queenship Node. It's a bit like DNS, but for State authority; there is a root zone DQN, who is an old lady from Windsor, but she is also the LDQN for the UK. Any LDQN can subdelegate part of their zone to another they create. Some entities - like Canadian provinces - look up the root first, but they are routed back to their national LDQN via the constitutional equivalent of a CNAME. Now, the use of the LDQN's powers is subject to the approval of Parliament, so there is a sort of AND gate here.

But it's worth pointing out that the root DQN operator was appointed by an Act of Parliament; it's actually quite like a German elective monarchy, with an unusually long time-to-live value. And the operative word here is "live".

Anyway, the LDQN has the right to set the value of PrimeMinister, but this has to pass a check with the majority of the lower house of parliament. Let's see some code:
while len(parliament.opposition.members) < len(parliament.government.members):
.....if election==False:

When the LDQN catches one of these signals, strange things happen. NEWPARLIAMENT is straightforward; the LDQN sets PrimeMinister to the leader of the majority. But what if there is no majority? Unfortunately this bit is largely undocumented. And what about NOCONFIDENCE?

Well, in practice it works like this. The existing PM gets a crack at forming a coalition, in the case of NEWPARLIAMENT, or talking the rebel MPs around, in the case of NOCONFIDENCE. In the early 90s, John Major's government actually experienced a NOCONF event but succeeded in passing a renewed confidence vote the same night. In this case, there is a need for an explicit confidence vote. If the PM doesn't get this, or can't form a coalition? He or she may try to call ldqn.dissolve_parliament() to trigger new elections, but this will not be granted if there has just been an election. Instead, the behaviour of the root LDQN on the last two occasions this happened was to give the PM a go at forming a government, then set PrimeMinister = LeaderOpposition.

If the leader of the Opposition can't form a government, then a new election would be called. In the code:
if ldqn.audience = NOCONFIDENCE:
...newGovt = (PrimeMinister).formGovt()
...if newGovt == True:
.....if len(parliament.opposition.likely_members) > len(parliament.government.members):
........newGovt = (LeaderOpposition).formGovt()
if ldqn.audience = NEWPARLIAMENT and parliament.overall_majority == True:
...newGovt = (LeaderOpposition).formGovt()
elif ldqn.audience = NEWPARLIAMENT and parliament.overall_majority == False:
...newGovt = (PrimeMinister).formGovt()
...if newGovt == True:
...elif newGovt == False:
.....newGovt = (LeaderOpposition).formGovt()
...if newGovt == True:
...parties = [len(party.members) for party in Parliament.parties]
...newGovt = (leader(max(parties)).formGovt()
...if newGovt == False:

Fuck me, this constitution lark is more complicated than you think, especially when you remember that this whole outlandish signalling cascade isn't specified in primary legislation at all. And frankly, it's clearer in Python than English. Bugs in the process have caused serious trouble in the past, notably in Australia where the LDQN experienced a catastrophic partisanship error in 1975. But then, that's what you expect from code that's in permanent beta.

Worryingly, the Canadian prime minister seems to think he can avoid his fate by having his LDQN, Governor General Michelle Jean, prorogue Parliament. Normally, prorogation automagically triggers dissolution, which further triggers elections. But obviously that's not what he wants; he just wants the squabbling parliamentary rabble to go away. One hopes the civil servants are firm with him; due to the poor specifications, in 1974 we had to rely on them to get it right on the night. (Update: Anyone spot the deliberate mistake?)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

will you stop fiddling with that thing?

Cool; an application that uses rules you give it to generate weird and three-dimensional graphics. (Via Sterling, who else.) This comes to mind, though; what if it could generate STL computer-aided design files? They are the kind that the RepRap's host software eats, I think. And making them in hardware, you have to admit, is just that crucial bit cooler.

Especially when the RepRap ends up surrounding itself in increasingly tiny interlocking cubes, like that spider in the J.G. Ballard story whose web is made of brain tissue, and which eventually goes mad and strangles itself. Hey, you'd get an Arts Council grant for the film, if not the installation. A tad messy even for an art establishment that loved Tracey Emin.

Mortgage Pig vs Black Swan

RIP. Gilliard was a master of the snark element, Chris Lightfoot of the hacker element, Tanta of the policy element of great blogging. Together it's the blogging triathlon. (Yes, I agree this sounds a bit chilly.)

More broadly, folk like "Black Swan" Taleb have to deal with the fact that their great unpredictable validating event was predicted, years in advance, with considerable precision, by unofficial people who weren't paid six figure bonuses in any currency, as well as by economics professors who were paid considerably more. The CR team can claim to have predicted the housing crash not like economists - There is a significant risk of this happening, but we can't say when - but like meteorologists. Something like a crash has been observed building up in the North Atlantic, and it is coming closer at a rate of 5 knots. We expect it any time after X hundred hours.

Monday, December 01, 2008

ASATing with lawyers

Here's an interesting sidelight on the satellites post below - "somebody" is trying to restrict access to commercial satellite imagery of the so-called "Box on the Euphrates" in Syria, the suspected nuclear reactor the Israelis blew up.

And how are they doing it? They're buying the rights and trying to use intellectual property law. Another problem for you - satellites don't seem to be open source, let alone free-as-in-speech, or as in beer for that matter.

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