Friday, February 27, 2009

Hitchens Drinks Scotch in Psychic Counter-Insurgency

More information is becoming available about the Christopher Hitchens brawl. It appears to have been a telling moment in Decency. The crucial detail is that Hitchens didn't just deface any old SSNP artefact - he scrawled on the monument to the first shots fired in resistance to the Israeli occupation of 1982. Now, I'm sure the Syrian Social Nationalist Party - funny name, funny guys - are far from ideal. Funny swastikoid logoware, want to annex Cyprus, you get the picture.

But it's hugely telling that Hitchens' squiffy decision to take The Greatest Intellectual Struggle Of Our Times outside resulted in him doing three things - thinking he was fighting fascists, while in reality he was taking the side of Ariel Sharon, with the upshot that he got a kicking about which he could moan in a publicity-generating manner.

This is, after all, precisely the pattern of his career since the neoconservative turn in about 1998; protesting bitterly that he is on the Left, while mocking and demonising anyone who didn't agree with the most aggressive hard-right US Republicans and Likudniks, and using the outrage and betrayal that resulted to prove his commitment to his new mates. Up on the Hill, they think I'm OK...they just don't say, and it is in the nature of being the pet defector that you've always got to go further than the others to maintain your position. Hence things like his bizarre appearance on Newsnight to claim that the victims of Hurricane Katrina weren't Americans.

Down at the tactical level of debate, it's notable that he spent so much time between 1998-2005 strawmanning the opinions of various deranged groupuscules onto the great majority of British voters; someone like the SSNP, or George Galloway, has always been necessary for successful Decency.

The unconscious speaks. Considering the whole affair as a weird kind of liberal-hawk psychodrama, it's significant that Hitchens took his stew of unresolved inner conflicts to Beirut, city of unresolved conflicts par excellence and a taste for high living. Both the SSNP brawl, and his self-administered waterboarding, can possibly be seen as a sort of ritual self purification through which he hopes to return to the Left (a Lacanian would call it the Father's Law), now that gonzo-reporting CPAC has become something for the mainstream rather than a move reserved for Sadly, No!.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


On the Viktorfeed - we've got a wave of aircraft leaving the UAE without saying where they're going. Leaving tonight at 0100Z, there's a gaggle of 8 aircraft from Phoenix Aviation, Sakavia, Sudan Airways, Red Star, and Kenuz. Eh what? There are also some given as supposedly private flights - one uses its registration as a call sign, ST-EWX. That's Ilyushin 76 serial number 1013409282, of GST Aero (remember them?) and Airwest/East-West in the Sudan. Kenuz is apparently using Kinshasa Airways' ICAO code KNS. Beyond that there are 15 Phoenix/AVE movements to unknown locations. It all starts at 0100 UK time tonight.

Update: ST-EWX didn't get away last night - now scheduled for 2100Z tonight. No less than 8 Phoenix are heading for unknown locations today - next one out is PHW6007 at 1300Z followed by PHW402 at 1700Z.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

talking without speaking; speaking without talking

I often miss chunks of the humour at the Stiftung because I would rather do almost anything than watch US business-spot TV news. If you wanted to hide something from me, you could do worse than put it next to a TV tuned to CNBC. But I think I experienced something of the culture the good doktor despises so much the other day.

The scene; 3GSM/sorry/MWC keynote session. Dramatis personae: Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, ditto of Nokia, Ralph de la Vega, ditto of AT&T Mobility, and moderator Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. Others present - diverse delegates, press, staff, self.

It was of course dull; you don't go to the keynotes at tech conferences for content, you go to the actual conference sessions, or for that matter, the cocktail parties. De La Vega's presentation at least contained actual factual material, Kallasvuo's was inoffensive and reflected a Finnish disinterest in conference stardom, but Ballmer's was vacuous to an incredible degree. I was aware of his reputation for histronics, but what I wasn't prepared for was the degree to which the entire performance was divorced from its content.

He shouted, he stomped around the stage, he gave every impression of passion, but the text was content-free. It was the style of rolling TV news - had the sound been turned off, it would have been possible to synchronise almost any imaginable text with the video. David Hockney once said that in the theatre you don't put a tree on stage, you put treeness there; this was an exercise in the theatre of Ballmerness.

One reason why I went to the keynote was to witness what happened when Ballmer of all people had to speak on the topic of "openness"; in the event, he avoided the obvious problems here by talking a great deal without saying anything.

He reminded me a little of the only time I ever heard Arthur Scargill speak; he didn't have anything like Scargill's style, but he acted in much the same fashion. This is of course the heart of demagogy - it's all about turning your audience into a crowd, through a display of free-floating emotion. In this case, much of it consisted of a display of empty optimism and emotional stroking - that uniquely American mode, boosterism. We were called on to be optimistic, bullied to be bullish, badgered with progress.

We proceeded to the panel discussion, during which Mossberg encouraged the Great Men to waffle with him at great length about the Apple iPhone, possibly because this was a level of discussion he felt comfortable with. Then, he turned to taking the rise out of the head of Nokia (clearly some minor provincial), apparently having no idea where he was and who the audience were. At one point he used the success of the US automakers as an example; apparently, even if the Europeans had invented the car, blah, blah. Why was Nokia so weak in the US? Kallasvuo replied to this at some length, taking in several major news announcements of the day, some technical issues, questions of design and more.

The subject was changed back to iPhones.

By this point I was only staying in the hall in anticipation of the promised questions from the floor. I had a strong sense of having wasted my time.

Asking provocative questions is a time honoured way of drumming up business at conferences, as well as a contribution in itself. After the next homey anecdote about so-and-so's wife and the funny little keys on their Nokia, my finger was itching. It was time to throw a pavé in the water. Questions were finally announced, and the first to be called was none other than John Strand, who I interviewed for the first ever story I wrote for Mobile Comms International in 2005.

And that was when the comfortable round of anecdotage was broken up; Strand started positively shouting that the session was outrageously US-centric, that the iPhone made up a tiny percentage of the market, and why weren't we talking about something more useful? Dead silence...and then, applause. The viewpoint of the entire hall had shifted to yer man, standing near the back, surrounded by horrified organisers.

Neither Mossberg or Ballmer had any answer to this; it was a My Pet Goat moment. The rest of the world had turned up and crashed their OODA loop completely. In a theatrical sense, it was positively Brechtian; his intervention, in breaking the frame, forced an alienated re-evaluation of the characters. Kallasvuo maintained a poker face; there was a rumour that De La Vega sought Strand out later.

Before I or anyone else could move in with a further question, Mossberg announced that the session was closed and left quickly through the stage door, as Strand was still orating, having been deprived of the microphone. I couldn't help imagining a helicopter on the roof. It was the most fun all week.

a terrible experience with extremely dangerous bugs

In which the Database nearly got me.

So I went to 3GSM (sorry, sorry, Mobile World Congress). Now, these things are usually fairly good previews of the ID-card future - constant RFID-tag badging, lists everyone in the world is either on or they aren't, security theatre aplenty. On this occasion, when I visited the registration Web page, I was invited to check off sessions I wanted to take part in from a list. Oddly enough, one of the options was given as "Cocktail and Ministerial Dinner".

Of course, I'm enough of a chancer that I put a tick in the box. Later, my registration e-mail pinged through; and, next to the seminars on credit transfer by SMS, unified communications APIs, progress in billing systems, etc, etc, there it was. No detail of when or where, though. So, on Monday night with no - no invitations and paralysed for the evening, I quizzed a GSMA staffer about it. They made some calls. Eventually the word came that I should take a cab to the National Theatre at once.

When I got there, perhaps I should have realised this was going to be a little heavy; a little heavy stood on each street corner, in that "serious security" way. I showed documents, and there was much phoning, and eventually I was shown through a door into what appeared to be security control. At first, there was someone who was coming to meet me; then, a tiny intense woman in an expensive suit appeared. There was a "grande problema" - people kept saying this.

"This isn't an invitation", she said. I suggested it was a lot like one. "It didn't come from us". It seemed an unusual coincidence. "If it had come from us it would be on a formal card and it would have come from the Spanish embassy!" No answering that one. Then: How did I get it? I must photocopy all the documents. Do you mean to say you could register for this from the general congress site? Do you realise the king could be here and - the president of Catalonia?

Her voice dropped sharply out of sheer reverence when she got to the bit about the president of Catalonia. I was beginning to worry I might be deported, possibly to Spain, or else that they would cancel my security pass. It went on; they now insisted that they needed to send me a letter of apology. I said they shouldn't bother; eventually I was allowed to slink away like a dog, presumably cleared of ill-will towards the president of Catalonia.

What struck me most about the whole scene was that nobody seemed to accept that the Big Database could possibly be wrong. It seemed easier to imagine that I had forged the entire invite.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I may not be blogging 3GSM for this blog, but you can look at the pictures on Flickr, here.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Thrill! as the counterinsurgents meet dance culture. (Americans - don't you just want to chuck them under the chin sometimes? When you don't want to start building rockets like sausages, that is.) Watch with mingled awe and horror as Norwegian anarchist and occasional reader bonds with walking pile of unexamined fascist tropes over awful US punk bands. I couldn't find the RSW song this immediately called for (The Last Freedom Fighter, clearly) on youtube, but it should be near the end of this.

Meanwhile, a little something at AFOE about the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

fun with drivel

Via Jamie Kenny, Tim "The Tory Blogger for Tories Who Actually Read Blogs" Montgomerie approvingly quotes someone who thinks the world financial crisis is all down to people living together without the approval of either a) your friendly local shaman or b) the State*. The argument, if this is the right word, runs like this; those terrible sinners are more likely to break up, therefore they are more likely to default on their mortgages, therefore the bad mortgages must be theirs.

Even before looking at the factual content of this, there are already a couple of logical flaws here - the assumption that all relationship breakdowns lead to a mortgage default, which assumes facts not in evidence, and the further assumption that because you have one group of hypothetical bad loans, and the banks have a lot of bad loans, it must be that group of bad loans whatdunnit.

Anyway, let's plug in some numbers. Here's the divorce rate at the very top of the boom - 2006-2007. It was the lowest for 29 years, 132,562 divorces. Now, obviously, you can't be divorced if you didn't get married; but the same forces drive the rate of relationship breakdown for everyone. What are they?

Essentially, people split up because they can't stand each other for reasons internal to their relationship, or because of strains from outside, which are basically economic. The first group of causes, if it changes at all, changes over decades with change in the broader culture; it would be fair to assume there will always be some percentage of relationships that fail, and over the whole population they are fairly random. It went up from the 50s to the 80s, now it's going down.

The second group is driven by external forces, specifically the economy - now you would expect this to fluctuate quite a lot, and I would be so bold as to forecast a sharp rise this year. So even if you grant that the rate is higher among the unmarried, it would be really surprising and unlikely if they weren't correlated - they didn't respond similarly to the tectonic shifts of the culture and the winds of the economy. Therefore, the whole argument is really unlikely to hold any water, because there probably wasn't a surge of relationship breakdowns at the top of the boom, and that is still when the damage we are now seeing to the banks originally happened.

Now, the IMF estimates that the total writeoff from US-originated mortgages will be about £1.5 trillion. The US economy is between four and five times the size of ours. Taking a wild-arsed guess, and assuming that the property craziness was roughly similar in both countries (fair enough IMHO), that would mean a total loss of £0.3 trillion - 300 billion quid. (Yes, this is not a very serious model, but as Daniel Davies would say, at least I'm using a model.) The average house price was £224,064 at the peak. Let's be conservative and project an average LTV (Loan to Value) of 90%, so an average loan would be £201,657.

Even if every divorce resulted in a 100% total loss, we'd still only have £26.7bn of losses from this cause. In fact there aren't enough divorces even to cover the losses at RBS alone. Even if there were - what? - three times as many nondivorces, which is a crazily charitable assumption because the married are more likely to buy property, that gets us only to £107bn. And this is assuming that the property involved in a default becomes completely worthless. This is obviously silly - the only person who believes that is George Osborne. In fact, if we reckon the crash will get to 30% off the average, we'd need three times as many relationship failures again to balance the books. Not even wrong.

So, why bother spending time and effort refuting an argument that is clearly utter nonsense?

Well, one of the things that struck me was that the comments at Monty's were surprisingly reasonable. I went in with a crude financial model and my Patent Pachyderm Pants, expecting the bearpit. But the ambience was, indeed, conservative in a good way. So what is Monty up to pushing this crap? The best argument I can see is that the Tories are still starry-eyed about the US Republicans, despite everything that happened since 1995.

This is weird - the Tories didn't win the Thatcher wars by copying the Republicans, but rather the opposite, and the kinship between Thatcher and Reagan is overstated on the right out of nostalgia. Reagan would have been thrashed around Thatcher's cabinet room as a Wet and a Spender, and there simply is no parallel in UK politics for the Culture War stuff. But the Tories did, post-Thatcher, fall in love again with the Gingrich years, and it's arguable that Michael Howard's ministerial career and 2005 election campaign were efforts at drumming up something in that line.

Clearly, the idea is not yet dead. Which is possibly a good thing - if the Tory gut is still wishing to Live Like Republicans, there's a racing chance of beating the buggers with post-1995 tactics.

*What is conservative about having your personal life approved by the State or the Church, anyway?

write to them

The RBC's Andrew Sabl wonders whether it's best to write, e-mail or what? your elected representatives in a political pinch. What, what, what if there was a Web service that accepted, say, your ZIP code, found the relevant state and federal legislators, and routed your message to an online fax service? Well, there is, if you're British.

It is of course WriteToThem, another fine MySociety project. Just get in touch - or better, why not grab the source from MySociety CVS and make a start. Greece to their Rome, etc, etc.

This is not much of a blog post, but then, if the RBC didn't have the world's brokenest OpenID support I'd have left it as a comment.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

if I was a master thief perhaps I'd rob you

Despite the warnings, Donal Blaney is being an arsehole again. For some reason connected with her being 20 years old and female, he's formed a creepy obsession with the Labour PPC for Skipton & Ripon; but a Straussian reading is worth carrying out.

He's very pleased by the fact she is unlikely to win; but there is absolutely no mention of her opponent. David Curry is a survivor of the Knights of the Shires, a Tory of the tradition of MacMillan, a moderate and rational burgher who enjoys huge support in the Dales. Running against him is indeed a suicide mission, but the reasons for this are ones Don could never admit to. Curry is reconciled to a welfare state, enthusiastic for the European Union, a classic constituency MP, a strong fighter for local autonomy, who has remained rock solid against all central party pressure to change his views.

Pity he voted for the Iraq war. But then, so many other Conservatives believe worse.
Amnesty International once again show their true political colours in a campaign ad against the practice of waterboarding.

Don is fighting the real enemy.

3GSM, sorry MWC

I'll be at 3GSM, sorry, MWC in Barcelona from Sunday evening to Thursday morning.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Civilisation is common defence and waste disposal. And drinking water

Keep the shit and the drinking water separate, and you've gone most of the way from an average life expectancy of 35 to one of 75. Boris Johnson, famously, decided that replacing London's water mains was a minor issue that could be thrown out as a sop to the roads lobby.

So here's the Borisfeed. It monitors Transport for London traffic data, BBC travel alerts, an automated Google News search, and posts to Flickr, filters everything but burst water mains, and excretes them as stinking RSS. This is only the beginning; I'm planning to keep statistics as well, and perhaps pull everything together in a little page of Boris Johnson, with the inevitable IBM ManyEyes charts. (For some reason I nearly wrote MakingEyes.) Perhaps I could even have it push out updates through Twitter or some XMPP thing.

View Larger Map

stupidity quantified

A total disjuncture between cost and value; such was the problem facing Gorbachev. Consider this; Pajamas Media, that heroic attempt to refute the principle that putting 15 idiots around a table gives you the average of their intelligence, not the sum, is reorganising as a subscription video site. You will be able to pay $15 a month to watch them "debate".

Well, no-one ever went bust underestimating the public's desire to jeer at the confused. But that doesn't make it a good thing. And you have to wonder at the situation; in Africa there are mobile phone networks that make a good business on a monthly ARPU of one-third that. And they have a product that helps you reduce the percentage of fish that go rotten before getting to market - with absolutely no Jonah Goldberg in it!

But they expect to charge three times that. Maybe they'll start building an ekranoplan if this doesn't work out?

there are, however, rockets in this post

Via Airminded, find your local V2 rocket strike. London, Antwerp, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Riyadh, and Tehran have what in common? That's right, it's the list of cities that have been subjected to attack from space.

Then, why not go here and look up how big a hole it made? Someone's photographed and flickr'd a whole set of London County Council damage assessment maps.

My local strike is now a small, never-used park on one side of the street and a pretty grim council estate on the other. But damage in this corner of London was limited compared to further down the Holloway Road. Oddly, there seems to be a correlation between the degree of damage and the London Profiler crime rate; the area south of Torrington Way, which has a sky-high crime rate, was pretty much flattened. (Sadly, the LCC maps aren't geotagged, so making up a KML overlay would be annoyingly difficult.)

Question - is it that these areas were rebuilt as council housing and filled with the poor, or that the architecture caused the crime? After all, they were hardly peachy suburbia before being destroyed. Strange, though, to think that Wernher von Braun partly decided where tonight's post-pub kebab stabbing is likely to happen.

ill-considered Iraqi election post

Predicting Iraqi election results is one thing this blog has been so awful at that it basically gave up. I will, however, venture a couple of comments on the results of Iraqi provincial elections. It seems more than clear that the current Iraqi government's Dawa side gained over the ISCI (ex SCIRI) side, that the Sunni side was essentially deadlocked three ways, and the Sadrists held ground.

Anyone who tries to spin this as a victory over Iranian influence, however, is wrong. That Dawa did well, an Iranian-exile party whose PM Maliki is in constant contact with Iran, refutes this in itself. It certainly reduces the chances of southern separatism (Fadhila had a really bad day as well), but then, Iranian interests in Iraq are served just as well by a friendly Shia-dominated central government with weak sovereignty as by an ISCI-run Sumer down south - possibly better.

Carving out an Iranian proxy state would likely crank the civil war right back up, and would imperil the general balance of power. It would likely also need money, when Iran itself has serious financial problems. Having an established but weak government in Baghdad means that Iran gets what it wants - primacy of influence in the south - but without having to put too much in the way of resources into it or cause too much international trouble.

As it happens, the best analytical framework here is the history of Iran itself. Either the UK or Russia would have been in a position to carve out a client state in their zone under the Anglo-Russian Convention, but neither wanted either the expense or the trouble, even with the huge oil interest in the British zone. Instead, it was much more advantageous to play the game and prop up a centralised but ineffective sovereignty, whilst pursuing real interests like the oil through informal influence. The Iranian monarch was well aware of this, and played the game - perversely, the empires' influence supported his authority up to a point. Much the same pattern applies to British policy towards the late Ottoman empire, and indeed to Qing China.

And you can bet that the relevant policy-makers are highly aware of the semi-colonial era. On both sides.

After all, the permanently operating factors are the same; Iraq and Iran are big and share a frontier, a majority of Iraqis share Iran's majority religion, there are important economic ties, a history of competition for power, the Coalition main supply route and line of retreat runs across the Iranians' strategic front, and Iraq is between Iran and its major power competitors in the GCC.

Therefore, a weakened Iraqi sovereignty means strong Iranian influence in Iraq - not least because a Shia government in Iraq whose international legitimacy is not totally certain will always look at Sunni Iraq and the other Arab states as potential enemies. In that sense, it's no surprise that Iran would take an each-way bet on both Dawa and ISCI, giving themselves the choice between a friendly unitary Iraq and a half share of a partitioned Iraq. It's a hedged position.


I am in awe of this. Surely this must be some sort of brilliant artistic prank? Where is Chris Morris?

Yes, that is Richard Branson

The story behind it is that he's a simulated refugee in an event held during the WEF. Many jokes are of course possible regarding the fact that the people pretending to be refugees are themselves thousands of miles from home, packed into a remote location surrounded by armed guards and dogged by grandstanding journos. If you follow the links from the post at Foreign Policy, you'll find that they have all been made.

My objection to this is that even if it helped to induce empathy in the participants, that's not enough; in fact it's more likely to play into confirmation bias by relieving them of some cognitive dissonance. And then, of course, it's back to the toolkit of pat solutions you carry with you. Pigeon religion again.

For example, consider this ruck in the comments at Abu Muqawama. I really don't get why, for some people, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict seems to be framed by rightwing nostrums from 1980s urban policy about "dependency culture"; what next, a zero tolerance drive to fix all the broken windows, vandalism obviously being a gateway drug to terrorism? But I've repeatedly seen this, almost always from Americans. And it's not just a debating point - Donald Rumsfeld thought of appointing Rudy Giuliani chief of police in Baghdad, after all, and aren't you almost disappointed not to have seen that epic cluster-fuck?

But quite a lot of people's political views are best understood by posing this question; what qualifies my opinion as serious in a given peer group? Analysing Gaza as if you were running for election in New York City circa 1987 on a law-and-order ticket is objectively insane - it makes as much sense as using one's remembered views on pay-beds in the NHS from 1978 as a guide to EU-Russia diplomacy.

And the outputs from it are as bad as you might expect; yer man is absolutely furious with me, although we appear to agree that there must be a Palestinian state and by corollary the Israelis will just have to cut their coat according to the cloth. The chief difference is that he thinks that abolishing the UN Relief and Works Agency will somehow lead to the state, rather than the other way around. Again, it's very 1980s - slash their child benefit until they become better people, dammit, because otherwise...a generation of superpredators will knifecrime the suburbs!!!

There must be a reason for it, though; a meme this strongly conserved is conserved for a reason. I'd guess it's twofold - one, this is the sort of thing a sensible conservative citizen is meant to say, two, it's a screen-statement which protects against the fact that we are, after all, discussing the creation of a Palestinian state. And just as the only way to make Richard Branson a refugee is to persecute him out of London...

But then, what kind of pat solutions and dead ideas am I carrying about?

They have the watches, but we have all the time

Ha. Ha. Ha.

So, how are those ID cards going? It seems that despite the government's fanfare, repeated several times, of announcing the issue of the first ID cards, it is impossible to check anyone's card because there are no card readers.

Of course, it's actually worse than that - even if the card readers had been issued, they would be entirely useless, because the heart of the entire ID project doesn't exist yet. The point of the readers is to look up data from the card against the National Identity Register's monster database. But the NIR doesn't exist yet, either, and there are still no signs of any substantive work in progress. One small contract has been issued to Thales, but beyond that...silence.

So, the launch of the ID card programme, the climax of Liam "I used to be an IT consultant, me" Byrne's 300 day delivery plan, has consisted purely in distributing a few bits of plastic of no practical purpose whatsoever. The target groups for the first cards were foreign students and airport workers. So far, the universities have shown unwillingness to take part, and the unions representing pilots and airside workers have threatened to strike.

I'm actually really impressed by the sheer obstructive dumb strength of the public on this; the government has tried to get the doctors, the aviation industry, the social services, the universities, and the business community to deploy card readers, and the result is quite literally sweet fuck all. It's positively Sicilian; politicians and officials flap their arms and speechify and manoeuvre their police force, and on the ground, none of it makes a blind bit of difference.

I was wondering whether any cards have actually been issued. There have been expensive press events, cards have been brandished by ministers; but the issuing of cards to airside personnel has been repeatedly put off, and the trial at Manchester remained a trial.

So how many cards are actually in the wild? Guy Herbert of NO2ID reckons he's yet to encounter one documented case of an identity card being issued. This may be a brilliant solution - faced with the scheme's mountainous problems, the State might simply decide to pretend to issue the cards.

Come to think of it, this might be ideal; the control bureaucrats would remain employed, their contractors would share in a modest stream of income, some of which would inevitably be kicked back in the form of directorships and sinecures for old officials, honour would be satisfied, and an unseemly confrontation with the public forever delayed. It would indeed be an Italian sort of solution.

It is, after all, called the National Identity Scheme. And whether you think of a tax-evasion scheme, or a decaying tower block in Scotland - another technologically flawed white elephant imposed on the working class by the state - you've got to admit it's appropriate.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Snake Oil

Look what the Ministry found. Remember the business with Harrow Borough Council and the secret Israeli lie detector? We noted that it was unlikely that the signal it claimed to detect would be transmitted through the telephone system; an expert pointed out that it might be manifested in other ways; eventually we obtained a copy of the patent including a reference implementation in MS Visual Basic, and discovered that even if this was so, that wasn't what it did.

In fact, it did very little of any use, and the actual content of the code directly contradicted Nemesysco's claims regarding the system. For example, far from measuring 129 different parameters, it measures two, and claims to derive information on no less than eight different scales from these. And the actual judgment of truth or falsehood is based on entirely arbitrary reference values.

Swinging from tragedy to comedy, someone who was almost certainly Nemesysco founder Amir Liberman was then sighted sock-puppeting in the comments, and further inquiries showed probably the same person spamming Wikipedia. Very funny. Anyway, the Ministry has found an article from the International Journal of Speech Science and Law i which a pair of Swedish academics scrutinise the claims of some supposed lie detectors, Nemesysco's among them. You can read it here. Here are some highlights:
The author describes the program as ‘detecting emotional status of an individual based on the intonation information’. But whereas intonation in phonetics means variation in pitch encoded by fundamental frequency (albeit almost always accompanied by other prosodic factors) the author of the LVA mistakenly believes that what he calls ‘thorns’ and ‘plateaus’ represent intonation..

Don't get scratched by them thorns.

When an analog signal is digitized the complex continuous variation found in the original signal is replaced by a simplified discrete representation. How closely this representation matches the original depends on the sampling parameters but the match will never be perfect. It is in the digitization process that the ‘thorns’ and ‘plateaus’ are created. There is obviously an indirect relationship between thorns and plateaus and the original waveform, but the number of thorns and plateaus, which is the very basis for all computations in the LVA, depends crucially on sampling rate, amplitude resolution and the threshold values defined in the program. It is therefore correct to say that these computations are basically no more than statistics based on digitization artefacts.

And that is all there is. There is nothing special with these computations, except that there is no theoretical basis for them or independent motivation for the proposed ranges... The program would analyze any sound the same way, be it a man speaking, an idling car engine, a dog barking or a tram passing by. Secondly, the number and distribution of thorns and plateaus depend crucially on a number of factors that have to do with how the digitization is performed. Different sampling frequencies and amplitude resolutions would produce different results.

the code is rather messy and not particularly well structured and we decided it would not be worth the time and effort to clean up the code in order to convert it into a running program. The Damphouse et al. group report that the program crashed repeatedly during their experiments so it is obviously rather unstable too

Ouch. But it gets worse.

The performance of LVA on the VSA database … was similar to that observed with CVSA. That is, neither device showed significant sensitivity to the presence of stress or deception in the speech samples tested. The true positive and false positive rates were parallel to a great extent.

That is to say, the results were entirely down to chance. And finally....

The output of an analysis is structured much along the same lines as horoscopes...To sum up by saying that there is absolutely no scientific basis for the claims
made by the LVA proponents is an understatement. The ideas on which the products are based are simply complete nonsense

Just for good measure, it seems that Liberman promoted himself as a significant Israeli mathematician whilst trying to sell the program in Sweden; it turns out he is no mathematician of any kind. However, he did know just what to do; sue the International Journal, which took the article off line. So much for that. Now for the DWP.

Friday, February 06, 2009

now is the winterton of our discontent

I've always thought Sir Nicholas Winterton (how on earth did he get a knighthood?) is one of the most egregious old farts in British politics; a pompous old buffoon of zero legislative achievement, a hard-right Monday Clubber and Rhodesia groupie, who despite representing a bog standard rural/suburban English constituency manages to be consistently one of the most expensive men in the Commons. Chuck in the fact that his wife, fellow-MP, and disgraced racist Ann also manages to be one of the most expensive MPs, despite representing the constituency next door to Sir Nicholas - yes, two constituency homes, two offices, two of every damn thing - and you've got a right pair of fat, self-satisfied wankers practically pregnant with taxpayers' funds, whose prehensile bottoms cling with uncanny certainty to their perch. He's been there since 1971!

And Christ! I'd actually forgotten that they charged themselves rent on a flat in London they already owned, so they could expense it.

Now, here's the proof: he's the one who suggested banning demonstrations near parliament and outlawing Brian Haw, "because of the noise". Among other things, his sense of democracy goes only as far as hyaaah hyaaah, expenses, and private bars. Fuck you, you rotten turdster.

(Update; Greasy Nick is apparently the 636th most expensive. Where did I have this impression from? Either the flat thing, or possibly the two-of-everything deal.)

weather: around 10cm maximum diameter

I love the fact the phrase "snake palaeothermometry" exists, and even more that it defines an actual scientific experiment.

(I should probably have a "reptiles" tag, seeing as I just blogged about David Miliband and I'm about to mention Sir Nicholas Winterton.)


This is wrong;
Gitmo will be closed. Binyam Mohammed will be returned to Britain, or put on trial in the USA. Either way the details of his treatment, and that of all the other inmates, will become public. What are Foggy Bottom and the CIA playing at? Get it over with
Consider this BBC story. The interesting thing here is that Miliband's position requires him to argue two mutually impossible things at once; first, he can't possibly let evidence of Mohammed's torture appear in court, for fear of terrible retaliation from the United States, second, that the United States has not threatened such a thing.

The two are mutually dependent, because if the first one was allowed to stand on its own, who would imagine that good relations with the United States were anything worth having? Therefore, it's necessary for the protection of the self-regard of the political classes that the US threat be both unambiguous and invisible. It is like the chapter in The Art of Coarse Rugby about fields with bulls in them; eventually they conclude that the ideal scenario is a field next to the rugby ground with a large sign in it, reading BEWARE OF THE BULL, but no bull.

That way, if you need to play for time, you can hoof the ball into the field and count on your opponents' fear of the bull to waste time - but should you find yourself a couple of points down as time runs out, you can always declare that the bull was taken away years ago and just get on with it. Similarly, no evidence was ever provided of Saudi threats back when this legal dodge - the BAE gambit as I call it - was invented.

Providing evidence of the threats would spoil it. If the government had to admit it was being bullied into covering up for appalling torture or spectacular financial corruption, this would alter certain political facts. But that is not all. The beauty of the BAE gambit is that it's so flexible; because the evidence of the risk is itself secret, it can be invoked whenever required. I said this at the time, and now they're doing it. If they had to demonstrate the threat, this would spoil its effectiveness.

I see no reason to think that the Government is lying now about the Americans' position. In fact, it's very likely that the Obama administration has not contacted them; for example, here's the new CIA director explicitly stating that he considers torture and refoulement to states that practice it illegal. Here are his own words:
On January 22, 2009, the President issued an executive order directing all U.S. agencies to use Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions as the baseline for the treatment and interrogation of persons detained in any armed conflict. The executive order also states that agencies must notify the International Committee of the Red Cross of such detainees and provide the Red Cross with access to them. The intelligence community must follow the executive order.

With respect to renditions, the intelligence community must comply with U.S. obligations under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, including Article 3 prohibiting the rendition of a person to a country where it is more likely than not he will be subjected to torture.
Here's the relevant paragraph in the executive order:
Nothing in this order shall be construed to affect the obligations of officers, employees, and other agents of the United States Government to comply with all pertinent laws and treaties of the United States governing detention and interrogation, including but not limited to: the Fifth and Eighth Amendments to the United States Constitution; the Federal torture statute, 18 U.S.C. 2340 2340A; the War Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. 2441; the Federal assault statute, 18 U.S.C. 113; the Federal maiming statute, 18 U.S.C. 114; the Federal “stalking” statute, 18 U.S.C. 2261A; articles 93, 124, 128, and 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, 10 U.S.C. 893, 924, 928, and 934; section 1003 of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, 42 U.S.C. 2000dd; section 6(c) of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, Public Law 109 366; the Geneva Conventions; and the Convention Against Torture. Nothing in this order shall be construed to diminish any rights that any individual may have under these or other laws and treaties.”
No torture; no handover to states that torture. So it would be surprising if they were to do so. And, indeed, Miliband explicitly says that no approach to the new administration has been made.

However, the Government has chosen to regard not being explicitly told to stop as equivalent to a reiteration of the threats (whose existence it denies, lest we forget) issued by the Bush administration in 2007. It has done this because it suits the Government's interests. For once, William Hague is right - they should simply ask the Americans to state whether or not the non-threat is still not-in force.

Of course they will not, because it suits them to be able to kick the ball over the BEWARE OF THE BULL sign whenever they think fit. As Scott Horton points out, there are a lot of people about who desperately want a new US administration to be guilty, because it detracts from their own guilt.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


So how well would the Mayor of Winnipeg deal with an astronomical spring tide at the same time as a gale from the north in the North Sea? Eh? Eh? Does Winnipeg have enough million ton reinforced concrete gates?

(If you heard this evening's BBC Radio news you'll know what I mean.)

Sunday, February 01, 2009

a genuinely sinister drug

I liked this (via):
Although technically speaking releasing testosterone precursors on the world’s trading floors to try to rally valuations wasn’t criminal as such, the affected traders lobbied to declare it illegal. But governments liked the idea too much, and oxygen masks were forbidden.

(Electronic traders were of course immune, but they knew floor traders would be bullish and that was enough for them to become so, too. Soon there was no need to spend on the chemicals anymore.)
I think it was at last 3GSM I suddenly thought of the possibility of someone inventing a sales drug - a pill that would fill you with energy and induce repetitive behaviour (always be closing, right?), whilst at the same time making you hypersensitive to others' emotions...but completely indifferent to them, and also completely incurious about what you were doing. The street, or the Street, would probably call it Animal Spirit.

And then I jumped under a tram. No. In fact I thought someone should write the book before someone actually invented it, with whatever nightmarish meat-hook consequences that would have. Then I forgot all about it at wheels-up, until now, when the approach of the next 3GSM brought it slithering to mind.

probably better than a snarky blog post

I'm not sure what Jaap de Hoop Schepper was going on about here, but I'm slightly distressed that people are *still* being all impressed that there are mobile phones in Afghanistan/Iraq; someone even brought this up for John McCain last year. Roshan has been going for what, five years now? And, of course, the kind of Afghan Hoop is likely to meet is not very typical.

This sounds more useful; someone's sent a rapid-prototyping fablab to Jalalabad, and if you got around those syllables you can have a point. Unfortunately, I get the impression that they're struggling a bit for projects if they've so far been printing T-shirts and WLAN antennas; wide-area WLAN is one of those things that Doesn't Work, and if it Doesn't Work in Mountain View I suspect it won't somewhere where the only view is the mountains. It's not so much the Mick and Ruth approach as Mick and Ruth call for some family tech support. And Roshan will be on the scene when they're long back on campus.

What about...God knows what. Small wind turbines. Motorbike parts. Plumbing.

Anyway, I notice that the project has its own expat security guards (working at cost, we're told), which doesn't make the heart go wham!, and a weblog which is strange but not more strange than you might expect in the circumstances. But then, if they can offer a better Internet caff than the Iranians they're doing their country a service. It remains to be seen if they're doing any other country a service.

Although, they're probably more practical use than a gaggle of CIA-funded anthropologists would have been in the 1960s.

ORGANISE: a reappraisal

What with things like this, the LibDems' drive to collect members of the scientific-technical intelligentsia at a secret location in Kazakhstan (surely it must be a....), it's surely time to shake up my ORGANISE project - a messaging and task scheduling system for organisations of all kinds that implements a Stafford Beer viable system approach. (Unofficially, "like a bulletin board that actually encourages people to do something".)

Before Christmas, we'd gone through a couple of iterations of the spec, I'd vaguely decided to implement it as a Django web application, and I'd written a first version of the (the file that defines the database schema in Django) that (I hope) embodies Duane Griffin's design of the data model. I also managed to discuss it at some length with Chris "Chris" Williams...

Now, it's unlikely to get anywhere by the 17th of March, so Rewired State is out as far as our methodology of conference-driven development goes. But I want to shake the thing up, and I'm increasingly interested in alternative routes; specifically, should it perhaps be more explicitly about messaging/communications rather than being a read-heavy Web site?

I've been reading up on XMPP messaging, and specifically on its publish-subscribe protocol. Each group in an ORGANISE instance would look like a virtual user. This would make sense - the defining characteristic of membership is the right to send to that group, after all. Percolation rules would determine whether a message from a group would be extended into the next biggest group; thematic groups would work in a similar way. In fact, the XMPP Standards Foundation has the notion of "collection nodes" in XEP 0248 which look very much like ORGANISE groups.

Among other advantages - federation with a lot of IM communities and social networks, the ability to interact with the ORGANISE server via other XMPP networks (which could be handy), a generally more real-time system, and the possibility of interconnecting different ORGANISations. And, y'know, it *feels* more appropriate for various reasons summarised here. Unfortunately it looks like 0248 isn't well supported yet...but what say you?

getting contacts from an .nbu file

Need to get contacts out of a Nokia phone and into something else? There are various standard things - the "switch mode" on the newer ones may help. But the PC Suite client (which still only seems to exist for Windows) doesn't let you export data from the phone as anything but a .nbu (Nokia Back Up) file. This clearly isn't good; but the other day I had to get contacts out of a Nokia 6500 with no screen.

So I reboot in Windows, hook up the gadget by USB cable, and run the software client, then backup the data on the phone to the computer. Opening the .nbu in a text editor, you'll find a lot of base-64 encoded data (that's any photos you backed up), but towards the end of the file...are all contacts that were saved to the phone's persistent memory, in standard vCard format, just separated by a line containing two tabs, a plus sign, and a letter. Like this:
+ x

(Phone numbers changed to protect the guilty)

If you just split out the vCards from the file, whatever you try to import them with will choke after the first contact. Get rid of the lines containing the funny characters and tabs, however, and you will find that a perfect multiple import is possible. Depending on how many contacts you have, you may want to do this with a scripting language, or just find and replace.

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