Sunday, June 28, 2009


Am I daft, or was the Apple iBook G4, 12" screen, the least annoying computer of my experience?

yet more roads

Another On Roads thing is the special role of the North; indeed, as he points out, it's the construction of the M62 that made the North of England a sensible geographical construct rather than an awkward stereotype that uneasily combined Lancashire and Yorkshire.

And so much early motorway building started up north; you have the role of tireless boosters and chief engineers James Drake in Lancashire and Stuart Lovell in West Yorkshire, the A580 East Lancs Road (the very first), the Preston bypass, the Manchester and Leeds urban motorways, and the epic engineering drama of the M62 itself. As its chief engineer put it, "for seven years we ate mud, walked in mud, sat in mud and were aware of mud, and there was mud in the sandwiches".

This would have far-reaching consequences; not so long ago, I recall some journalist or other saying that they were very surprised, on going to Yorkshire to report the miners' strike, to find all these huge roads leading everywhere. They would, of course, be a major theatre of that conflict, and a few years later, the rave/drugs wars as well. Later still, both the protestors and the Sheffield-based professional climbers hired to get them out of trees would go that way.

Can it be true that my mother and I ran the length of our local bypass, twice, wearing donkey jackets, boots, hi-viz vests, and carrying shovels? I rather think it is. It was a fearsomely hot day, and I don't think we were even formally protesting, although, in a sense, what else were we doing?

Which reminds me; one of the very first road protests in the UK, against the Westway in the late 60s, or rather in favour of playgrounds under it, was started by someone who'd been reading about Guy Debord and was looking for something to start a row about.

slip inside this (giant distribution ware)house

After the Mancunian love-in at Jamie Kenny's, my own thoughts on Joe Moran's On Roads are inevitably coming.

I didn't know that we have Tony Benn to thank for the big-box supply chain logistics industry. But yes; at the end of the 1960s, the then Minister of Technology tore off a £150,000 innovation grant for the Co-op to investigate the idea of developing a small number of giant, automated distribution centres. Specifically, they started work at Birtley in County Durham, where they built a huge regional warehouse that used new articulated trucks and robotic cranes, and an ICL mainframe computer to keep track of it all, achieving a then-unheard of 5,000 boxes an hour.

As a condition of the grant, the Co-op had to share the details of their trial with the rest of British industry. For once, they soaked it up but good, and the rest is history. I find this fascinatingly ironic, especially in the light of Benn's status both as pope of the 80s green-left and, later, as professional national treasure. Most of his fans in the 80s would have been delighted to burn Birtley down, and the cardigans who go to his speaking engagements are exactly the people who drive everywhere and oppose all planning applications on principle.

Benn was famously keen on nuclear power and Concorde (even if Roland Beamont really saw him coming, when he let the old pilot execute a barrel roll in the prototype); he also bought BT's first billing systems computer as postmaster-general. I very much doubt if many people who considered themselves Bennites would have accepted any of these things, still less the UKAEA police force he created with its special nuclear role, routine and heavy armament, and nationwide area of operations. Similarly, he was forever despised by some people for the infamous bonfire of TSR-2 blueprints.

Some would say that this is a sign that he was always oversold, and in fact was just trimming to the winds of popularity for most of his career. Isn't he the only third-generation cabinet minister to have a cabinet minister for a son, after all?

But I suspect it's deeper and wider than that. One thing about Moran's book is the way nothing lasts less than the perception of modernity. By the time that ICL 'pooter was being set up in Birtley, the great road burst was already losing momentum; it had run into serious trouble at the 1970 local elections and along the Westway, and a property boom was straining the economics, to say nothing of altering the politics and demographics of many of the road projects. By M6 completion in 1972, the Department of Transport had already accepted that "the day of the supremacy of the motor car and the roadbuilder has come to an end". Leeds was about to make a fool of itself by declaring that it was the Motorway City of the 70s; the 60s would have met with great approval.

By the 90s, who on earth imagined roads as being the future? This was one of the reasons, I think, the Major government was never able to come to terms with the road protestors on the political level. The only language they had to argue against them was all about Luddites, stick-in-the-muds, progress, and such - the language of 50s corporation socialists and youve-never-had-it-so-good Tories. But the future now looked like one of solar panels, synthesisers and Web servers - everyone agreed there - and maybe genetics and TGVs - much more controversial, of course. And what on earth were conservatives - members of a party that believed in the scepticism of Burke and the libertarianism of says here - doing talking about progress and plans that were bigger than those of Julius Caesar?

Now, of course, with the grandeur stripped out and the brakes applied, no-one really cares. And it is no surprise, really, that a book like On Roads should appear at this moment; it's about time for motorways to become part of the palaeo-future. The notion of ironic hipster A40(M) widening, however, makes me feel like I've got used to too many things.

on my radio

OK, so there's the magic army vehicle project that spent more on powerpoint presentations than Drayson managed to spend buying several hundred actual vehicles. FRES, as it is known, started off as the British half of a US project that ended up being the Future Combat System, a pharaonic lashup of vehicles, radios, computers, and individual equipment that was meant to "network enable" everything.

The US end has now been cancelled, which will have nontrivial consequences for the various BAE-owned companies involved, who were probably hoping to use the work there for our job. This would be a great moment to rethink; after all, why would you try to design a large motor vehicle from the radio outwards? The whole point about "network enablement" everywhere else it has been tried is that it doesn't matter what you attach the mobile phones/PCs/RFID chips/whatever to, so you have great technical flexibility.

admin: opentech

It's that time again: OpenTech is next Saturday. I'm not presenting anything, which will leave me more time to argue about random things in the ULU bar. But I'm especially keen to do this with readers, and anyone who's interested in the political uses of Asterisk, starting out with Ardour, which I've just installed, and all kinds of weird things.


Brilliant post from Dan Lockton on the design problems of making smart meters usable and useful.

In a sense, it relates to this post at the RSA's Social Brain about "the dark side of "nudge""; of course, the downside of all these neat ideas about adjusting people's decision processes into ones that are more rational, or at least less harmful, isn't a sinisterly hyperefficient world where all troublesome individuality has been, blah, blah, but instead a world of undermaintained, malfunctioning good intentions.

In science-fiction terms, rather than a space-opera dystopia, it's a New Wave one we've got to watch; all greasy handrails, important safety devices rigged to stop them making a noise, and infinite reserves of bitterness and resentment. From Dan's scenario-planning:
The display is still there on the fridge door, but when the batteries powering the display run out, and it goes blank, no-one notices.
Quite; like the indefinitely deferred maintenance that tends to kill modern buildings. In fact, what that snippet reminded me of was democracy.


Arbor Networks has a great post with data on Iranian Internet censorship. As well as the deliberate transit shortage, they seem to be targeting specific protocols, notably SSH, the secure shell protocol one uses to administer servers and also quite often to provide a VPN tunnel. This isn't surprising, really, but it is depressing; practically any shell account and any machine, including my mobile phone, will let you set up an SSH tunnel, and it is strongly encrypted, so it's one of the most reliable and easiest ways to beat the censor.

Arbor's analysis suggests that the point is to limit traffic to levels that their existing censorship infrastructure can handle; interestingly, e-mail, and bogstandard Web traffic on port 80, seem unaffected, which suggests they already had the big squid proxy etc. in place. There is, of course, nothing to stop you configuring your server to do SSH on port 80, but it might be a little obvious. An alternative would be to use something like OpenVPN, which uses the same HTTPS protocol and port that all the e-commerce and corporate e-mail things do.

Fascinatingly, levels of gaming application traffic are unaffected, and Arbor wonder if it would be possible to use this for clandestine communications. (Perhaps the government wants people playing computer games?) This is, of course, a major plot point from Charlie Stross's Halting State, although the exploit is rather more sophisticated there - rather than just meeting up for a chat in-game, they are mapping their data to the game's commands and reversing the process at the other end.

Depressingly, according to Renesys, many of the open proxy servers that have been set up for the use of Iranian dissidents are being heavily abused by Chinese spammers. This is a hard problem; any tunnelling system intended to defeat the censor must be open to anyone, it's insanely risky to keep any logs of who accesses it, so it seems inevitable that the vermin will get in.

some MPs considered beneficial

Lynne Featherstone MP: for workers' representation, against managerialism, for Iraqi employees. WIN.

More seriously, I'm increasingly convinced by the argument that the fundamental driver of the economic crisis is the falling labour share of national income. This was J.K. Galbraith's take on the Great Depression; despite the roaring 20s, wages had been flat for years.

Living standards for the great majority could only rise in so far as technological change and competition could hold down inflation; beyond that, there was quite simply a limit to how much the rich could actually spend, and as they got richer, more and more of national income was being taken out of circulation and eventually used in the stock market, either directly or as part of the "great river of gold that converged on Wall Street, all of it to help Americans hold common stock on margin", where it was eventually destroyed by the crash.

I'm still strongly in favour of the agenda in this post.

too many right-wing meetings

OK, so I got no takers for this prediction.
My money’s on the Latvian or the Hungarian to out himself as a buffoon or neo-nazi.
Not surprising, really. But what I didn't expect was that even though the Latvian turned out to be the neo-nazi, the buffoon would turn out to be Timothy Kirkhope MEP, the Tory leader in the European Parliament, who I had always assumed to be an uninspiring but roughly acceptable placeman. But it looks like the Borat Party's Borat is actually its leader. However:
He and the Latvian LNNK denied that it was in any way sympathetic to Nazism. “There was a commemoration of those who had served in the Waffen divisions of the Wehrmacht in the Second World War. The Labour Party has been churning this thing out over and over again,” Mr Kirkhope said.

“The truth of the matter is that attendance of the commemoration service for those who have died in wars is not just by members of LNNK — it is by others attached to the EPP because the Baltic states were taken over and oppressed by the Russians and the situation was that the Germans conscripted a number of people to join the Waffen.”

"The Waffen divisions of the Wehrmacht"? What the fuck is that even supposed to mean? For a start, "Waffen" means "weapon or "armed". Did the German army of the Second World War have any unarmed ones? Of course, it's completely nonsensical as a unit designation. Kirkhope was presumably trying to skate around the phrase "Waffen-SS", which refers to the SS's field units as opposed to its "general purpose" administrative staff.

But even if we straighten out his mangled words, his argument is still ignorant and morally awful, as it rests on the long-discredited idea that all the atrocities of the Eastern Front were the work of the SS, and the regular German army obeyed the laws of war. Further, even if that wasn't wrong, he would still be hopelessly ahistorical, because the various locally recruited units the Germans set up starting in 1942 were administratively attached to the Waffen SS, not the Army. The Army did recruit a lot of foreigners as individual replacements, but it didn't create a foreign legion; the SS did.

And worst of all, the earliest Latvian SS were recruited from a vicious militia which emerged as the Russians pulled out in the early summer of 1941 and immediately started murdering the local Jewish population without even waiting for the Germans to show up. The degree of horror they achieved regularly sickened hardened soldiers and deeply impressed the SS Einsatzkommandos that followed the army; they lost no time in signing them up and using them all over Central and Eastern Europe to do the dirty work, including acting as the guard force at the extermination camps.

As if you needed any confirmation of this, the Times report has a useful photo of a Latvian remembrance day parade, complete with red-and-white flag, swastika, and Adolf Hitler's likeness. A note for the guidance of readers, and Timothy Kirkhope MEP: if you need to know if your allies might be fascists, check if they like to wave flags with Hitler's face on them. This is not an exclusive test, but the false-positive rate is essentially zero.

(Oh, and if anyone's still interested in the bet, I'm taking the Belgian guy or at least his party to place.)

Loonies 2.0

What is the legacy of the so-called "loony left"? The conventional wisdom is clear; it was all their fault, for panicking the swing voters and preventing a sensible, Newish Labour solution emerging earlier. Well, how did that work out?

And it has always seemed disingenuous for the Labour Party establishment to blame local councillors for a period when the party's central institutions were regularly totally out of contact with the public mood and spectacularly incompetent; it certainly serves the interests of the top officials and MPs to push responsibility onto an amorphous and vague stereotype essentially based on hostile newspapers' take on the 1980s. Arguably, believing hostile newspapers' take on itself has been the fundamental mistake of the Left since about 1987; the entire Decent Left phenomenon, after all, was all about demonising anyone who was right about Iraq in identical terms. Does anyone imagine that the Sun in the Kelvin McFuck era wouldn't have savaged and libelled any non-Tory power holders?

In a comment at Dunc's, Paul "Bickerstaffe Record" says:
I want to kick off a bottom up meets top down economic analysis of how Labour /Left leaning local authorities should now be challenging the Thatcherite orthodoxies of cost control/rate capping in a sort of ‘1980s no cuts militant’ meets 2000s grassroots-dictated economic policy. The institutional/legal framework has of course changed out of recognition since 1984, but heh, that’s a challenge rather than an insurmountable problem

He has a point. Consider the position; it's still conceivable that Labour might luck into a hung parliament next year, cue Liberal and Nationalist (of various types) rejoicing, but any realistic planning has to include a high probability of a fairly rabid Tory government in the near future. Further, the financial position is not great - it's nowhere near as bad as Gideon Osborne makes out, as a look at the gilt rates shows, but it's very far from ideal.

So whoever is in charge will be looking for cuts, and it is a reliable principle of Whitehall politics that one of the best ways to get a policy implemented that you want for your own ideological aims is to attach it to a supposed saving. Only the special relationship and the police-media complex can beat this principle as all-purpose justifiers.

The possibility space includes a Labour government in coalition or under a toleration agreement with the Liberals, which is likely to still be strongly influenced by the Blairite stay-behind agents, a Conservative government heavily influenced by products of 80s Tory culture (the mirror image of the London Labour party in the same period), and some sort of grand-coalition slugthing. It is clear that the balance of risks is towards an effort to legitimise a lot of ugly hard-right baggage through an appeal to cuts.

The Tories are planning to make all spending departments justify their budgets at line item level to none other than William "Annington Homes" Hague; it's certainly a first in British history that the Foreign Secretary will control the public spending settlement, if of course he finds the time to show up.

Therefore, even though there is a need to steer the public finances back towards balance once the recession is clearly looking over, there is a strategic imperative to push back and push back hard against the agendas the cross-party Right will try to smuggle through. After all, the nonsense industry is already cranking up.

Which brings me back to the importance of being loonies, and a bit of politics by walking around. One thing that strikes me about North London is how much stuff in the way of public services here was visibly built in the late 70s and the 1980s; there is a reason why Ken Livingstone hopped right back into the Mayor's office. Despite all their best efforts, the Thatcherites were never quite able to shake the core welfare state; was it, in part, because down on the front line people were still pushing out its frontiers and changing its quality?

A lot of ideas (service-user activism, notably, environmentalism, a renewed concern for architecture and urbanism, and the whole identity-politics package) that were considered highly loony back then are now entirely orthodox and are likely to stay that way, especially given the main parties' obsession with putting taxpayer funds into the "third sector".

I fully expect that anyone who talks a good game about making black schoolboys click their heels in front of teacher - you know the stuff they like - will be able to secure reliable venture capital funding in the million class from a Cameron government, just as they have been able to from Boris Johnson's City Hall, with remarkably little monitoring. William Hague will be snarky. Let him. Nobody cares what the Foreign Secretary has to say.

This creates both opportunities for action - perhaps someone should prepare a Creative Commons or GPL toolkit for citizen-initiated delivery quangos and thinktanks - and also targets for ruthless mockery, when the Tories' preferred third sector entities fuck up. We've already had some very fine examples of this courtesy of Boris Johnson. Clearly, the only rational response to the times is to go mad.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I think Flipper is trying to tell us something!

Back in May:
Somebody is clearly rationing the leaks according to partisan considerations; I for one can’t wait for Gideon’s exes to hit the tabs, but do you see any of that?

Well, you still don't. After all, look what crawled out of his expenses; he bought a house, which he later sold at a huge profit, by hugely increasing the mortgage on his home in London and, naturally, expensing the increased repayments. This is the man who lectures everyone about the Evils of Improvidence, the need for austerity, and such.

Naturally, there was total radio silence from him while the property boom was going up. He eventually trousered £748,000 in clear profit when he sold in 2006, nailing the top of the market with uncanny precision. I cannot think of a better definition of a conservative economist than a man who complains about the state not letting business lend enough money in the boom, and then tells you off for borrowing in the bust.

But he's not just another flipper; like Hazel Blears, he told the Inland Revenue porkies about the whole affair. While the parliamentary fees office heard that the London house was his second home for expenses purposes, the Revenue heard that it was his first home for tax purposes. Later, he borrowed even more money against the country house, and switched his parliamentary residence there to whack it on the exies; of course, the taxman heard nothing of it.

Strange, really; it's obviously no longer polite to say this. Duck house boy, yes; but Gideon is special.

Kano seizure update

A quick UR-CAK update. The owners are vigorously protesting, but it still isn't clear who they are. The crew apparently claimed that the arms belonged to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, and the handling agent and the Equatorial Guinea government say they are for Equatorial Guinea. But it seems that the plane came from Zagreb, typically via Malta or Benghazi in Libya, and the arms were probably loaded there. The Ukrainian arms export agency - not strange to a dodgy deal in Africa - denies the weapons came from them. Exports from the Balkans are common; see the 99 tonnes of guns and Sloman Traveller posts.

Meanwhile, Viktor Bout has got a Web site. It bears more than a family resemblance to Richard Chichakli's, and in fact the domain name was registered by the same person.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

satellite's gone, way up to Mars...

We keep hearing that the Iranian government, or at least one of the competing centres of power within it, is trying to jam satellite TV downlinks and harassing the owners of satellite dishes. The BBC World Service and Al-Jazeera have reportedly both been targeted, specifically as they both use one of the HotBird satellites over the Middle East; the BBC has reportedly been urgently buying capacity on other satellites in order to maintain the service.

But I'm interested to know if anyone has heard of similar interference directed at any of the voice/data land mobile satellite services, such as INMARSAT, Thuraya, Iridium, and Globalstar. These provide a GSM/GPRS or DSL-like link, with several voice channels and - depending on the precise product - between one or more 56Kbits data channels and up to 492Kbits IP-on-demand on the INMARSAT BGAN service. It comes at a price, but there are about one million public subscribers, heavily concentrated in the Middle East/North Africa/South-West Asian area. (Hell, even the Taliban have them.)

So far, I've been unable to substantiate any report of jamming of these services.

In Iran, the monopoly wholesale telco is also the local Thuraya reseller, which even in normal times can make buying prepaid airtime a troublesome process.

At that moment we found ourselves in Iran. The only official Thuraya dealer is located in Tehran – which is Asia Telecom. Not really a fun drive when it’s winter and we had no reason to go there anyway. But the Thuraya website lists a 24 hr service number in Iran for Thuraya subscribers so we took a chance.

Expecting a ‘Farsi only’ operator we got connected with an English speaking support desk. The result of this call amazed us. A Thuraya scratch card number is sent to us by a SMS text message after a bank deposit at the account of Asia Telecom. The deposit slip has to be faxed to Asia Telecom including the Thuraya phone number. To re-confirm the Iranian top-up procedure we received a SMS from Asia Telecom with the account number, fax number and the conversion rate of US$ to Iranian Rials. Thank you Asia Telecom!

In Shiraz we made a 20 unit test deposit (199.000 Rials) and faxed the deposit slip as explained to Asia Telecom. 2 hours later we received the prepaid scratch card number by SMS. It worked seamless with a minimum of hassle. Naturally making the deposit required extensive help of the Melli bank because the deposit itself is a Farsi only matter. After this test deposit we made the required deposits to save our Thuraya number for the coming year.

Telcos. Don't you love 'em? At the moment, you'd have to be certifiably insane to even begin the steps described in that link, which seem designed to either put you off the idea or collect as much information on you as possible. Probably they are. And, of course, the SMS service has been shut down.

But why would the authorities not have jammed a service that alone provides access to the Internet and the global PSTN/PLMN from anywhere, with a form factor that is very much not a broadcast satellite dish? I suspect this is because various bits of the Iranian government are probably significant users of these systems, and other typical use cases include oil'n'gas and also banking. Not having any of their own satellite capacity (yet...), I would expect the government and the military (broadly defined) to make use of these systems quite a lot.

There was also the 2006 Thuraya incident, in which the service, which is provided by an international consortium of Arab telcos, was mysteriously jammed for some time. Engineering investigation showed that the source of the interference was somewhere in Libya, which had rather worrying consequences for some engineers who attempted to trace it. The kicker in the story was that Libya is a shareholder in the system it was interfering with, a considerable diplomatic embarrassment.

Perhaps they are trusting to the fact that the service is far from cheap. BGAN IP traffic runs at £9.50/MByte and the terminals are ridiculously expensive (oddly, they also seem to cost the same price in USD or sterling - funny how that happens); Thuraya and Iridium rates are much better, but you get what you pay for in terms of data rates, the service being usually analogous to GSM/GPRS. (But if the aim is to keep twittering, broadband is hardly an issue.) There is, however, 144Kbits service available from Thuraya as well, at a more reasonable $6.00/MByte.

Oddly, the US Department of the Treasury would want words with you if you provide ISP services to Iranians, so presumably Iridium would be ruled right out. If you're an American, that is. But I can't see that this would apply to anyone who decided to, say, start collecting pre-paid vouchers that then found their way to Iran. Unless Daniel Pipes is making the decisions.

Update: Evgeny Morozov win.

dad, won't you get me out of this?

So we've got an Antonov-12 seized in Kano with a load of guns heading for Equatorial Guinea. The Nigerian press have more; the Daily Independent says the aircraft made an unscheduled technical stop at 0400 local time, and that the Ukrainian crew and an unspecified Nigerian are in the hands of the State Security Service. Further, they quote a registration for the plane: UR-CAK.

The Vanguard gives a different landing time, and the detail that the arrested Nigerian was an airport handling agent who was trying to get the plane released by customs. They also provide a picture of a Boeing 747 freighter, which is after all an aeroplane if not the right one. According to the report, the police wouldn't let anyone take photos.

But there are plenty here, and they fit the description. UR-CAK is serial 6343707, currently with Meridian Aviation of Poltava, Ukraine and formerly with both Jet Line International and Aerocom. The fleet at Meridian includes two aircraft acquired from "Ruby Star" of Belarus, both of which came from Jet Line (serials 402410 and 6344610), and an An-24RV (serial 17306910) leased out to Kam Air, where it shares a roster with the Financial Advisors and Chris Barrett-Jolley's old 727 YA-GAA.

Interestingly, despite going through six apparent owners, it's looked the same since 1998.

UR-CAJ, An-12 serial 8346106, has passed through Airline Transport Incorporation, Jet Line International, ACS, and Asterias Commercial before reaching Meridian.

All of which says that, whatever the limits of the Viktor Bout network are, the crap doesn't fall too far from the arse. Ex-Aerocom and JLI planes are found full of illicit weapons, in the same companies as ex-Phoenix (old style) ones working for Afghan warlords.

The Daily Trust reports that the aircrew claim the weapons were the property of the Equatorial Guinean government, and that they offered the police a large bribe after they became suspicious. However, nobody seems sure whether Equatorial Guinea or Guinea-Bissau were meant, and the papers agree that more people were arrested, but not how many. This Day says it's one fewer, and alleges that the arms were intended for the Niger Delta insurgents, possibly via Malabo.

They also quote a flight number, MEM (which is Meridian's ICAO code) 4060. A small number - 16 - of MEMs have been recorded from the UAE, mostly with unconvincing destinations.

Interestingly, we've also heard of an aircraft being seized in Ras al-Khaimah on its way from Kuwait to Afghanistan...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

what used to be is never gone

The Heaving Strangler has a beef with the existence of the BBC's Web site. Of course, the main point here appears to be naked self-interest, especially as their actual proposals seem to involve forming a joint Rothermere-Lebedev-Murdoch cartel, a sort of Unholy Alliance.

But here's the interesting bit; I remember the Tories whining about the existence of back in 2002 or thereabouts, mostly through oafish MP John Whittingdale. It's a case of what I think I will call The Maplin Effect.

Three or four political generations of Tories have fantasy-engineered a giant airport located somewhere in the Thames Estuary, near enough to Maplin Sands, without ever achieving anything, for reasons which vary widely - as a monster, technocratic economic development project of the kind they usually claim to oppose, in order to spare their West London constituents aircraft noise, or as a safe option to look like they oppose Heathrow expansion without running the risk of actually stopping it.

However, the entire idea was invented out of whole cloth in 1969 by a Tory squire who was trying to win a planning row near his seat in Bedfordshire, and gained further momentum because his construction firm stood to win huge contracts if it should actually go ahead. The nonexistent airport in Bedfordshire was successfully destroyed by another nonexistent airport; a neat trick.

This is where it gets interesting. The Maplin talking point, rather than dying with the argument it was created to win, loosened itself from its purpose and sank into the fertile, tangled kelp banks of the Tory id, there to stir against all kinds of other political baggage. Every so often, when there is sufficient emotional strain on to release the pre-conscious censorship...whoops, airport!

Of course, you can surely fill in all the others yourself. And, if you try hard, you can perhaps start to notice some of your own Maplins.

what is cyberwar?

People are talking about using "cyberwar" to assist the Iranian opposition.
Let's put some of our new cyber-warfare capabilities to the test, quietly and covertly of course, to disrupt Tehran's ability to shut off the flow of information to Iranians and between them

This makes no sense at all, even less sense than "cyberwar" usually does. What can a cyberwar capability actually do? Well, it usually means either spying, or else running a distributed denial of service attack on someone. Here's the first problem. Making the Iranian government's web site load slowly is not the most fearsome threat that has been issued since the Melian Dialogues.

If you know which bit of it to harass, that is. It looks like the Supreme Leader supports Ahmedinejad, the Grand Ayatollah wants a recount, the militia and the secret police are doing the dirty work, and the ordinary ministerial government and the army are keeping as far out of it as they can. So you've got some targeting issues as well. After all, it's far from impossible that a state-backed forum could become a centre of opposition - this is rather what happened to the Internet itself.

Further, you've got to understand the technology. When things like this happen, the place to go is Renesys, which tracks changes in the Internet Routing Table. Their data shows that...well. It's hard to say what it shows. To be brief, Iran has competing ISPs and mobile phone operators but transit - i.e. wholesale connectivity to the broader Internet - is only available from a state monopoly, which appears to be the locus of censorship.

Here's the interesting bit; rather than mass-censor great chunks of it, or try to implement fine-grained monitoring, they have chosen to cut the available capacity and, oddly, to route their international traffic down an overland link to Turkey rather than into their submarine cable landings.

Many explanations are possible. It could be that a bigger blackout was planned, but bungled. It could be that they are unwilling to cut themselves out of the Internet. It could be that they want some traffic to move, so as to spy on it. It could be that they don't want to look like they turned off the Internet. It could even be that the network operations engineers sabotaged the censorship - if there isn't quite enough bandwidth, there's a high probability your first attempt to load wouldn' t work, which might satisfy the ultimate Pointy-Headed Boss, but someone who was really determined to get through might well in the end.

Pakistan tried to cut off YouTube, and accidentally routed all the world's mindless Web video into one server deep inside Pakistan Telecoms. Burma simply vanished from the routing table last year, before briefly re-appearing; no-one ever knew why. Was it a maintenance script still running? Did they need urgent data transfer? For what - perhaps a bank batch process to move the General's money? Or was someone holed up in the network-operations centre, like the radio operator of a sinking ship?

Either way, in this case, the only possible cyberwar option as we understand the word cyberwar would be to...what? Hack the routers and turn the transit bandwidth back up? Well. It would be a pretty legendary exploit if true. But it would be very difficult, and the natural counter-game would be just to turn the power off or null-route everything.

And the rest is hammering on government Web sites, which achieves nothing but to burn up the remaining bandwidth available for getting out the truth. Get off the line, we need it for more important traffic.

But despite all this, the US seems to have a sensible strategy. It appears that the US State Department had a word with Twitter to put off their maintenance. It wasn't just them - there had been chatter on NANOG for a couple of days about NTT America taking a day off in the middle of a revolution. I'm sure it must have helped. And Microsoft and Yahoo! have apparently suspended some of their services there as "a protest".

You could be back in the 1950s suddenly. Jazz and abstract expressionism as a kind of war, and you have to say it beats the other kind. I think I said that the Iranians were beating us for today's records and Marlboros - that is, WLAN - in Afghanistan.

This raises a question, though. How do we aid others to reach the Internet in tyrannical conditions? We have good techniques for encrypting and source-spoofing traffic - oddly enough, we had to fight for them against the US in the 1990s. But without backhaul connectivity you can do nothing.

Obviously, it's got to be a radio solution, and it's got to be a satellite one. I find it hard to imagine trying to spread Inmarsat or Hughes devices, although a major market for them is the Middle East. It would, however, be a cool idea to have a satellite or two dedicated to open communications. The world is increasingly full of satellite antennas.

If Brazilian radio hams can use old US Navy satellites, there ought to be a small constellation of civilian open relay sats - the uplink cost would protect it against spam, after all. Now that's what I call cyber war - it is, after all, what everyone who actually thinks expects of us.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

death or glory becomes just another story

Shorter Martin Kettle:
Both the state Tony Blair left the Labour Party in and the failure of European centre-left parties that adopted a Blairite compromise with neo-liberalism show that we need still more Blairite compromising with neo-liberalism

Jesus wept. I am not joking. Meanwhile, I wasn't aware of this:
Martin Kettle & Lucy Hodges (1982) Uprising!: Police, the People and the Riots in Britain's Cities ISBN 0-330-26845-7 Macmillan
Every cheap hood makes a bargain with the world...


The oldest trick in the book of tatty British industry. When times turn tough, find anyone who's been caught innovating, and sack them. Hence the Obscurer gets rid of Simon Caulkin's management column, part of their generally excellent business section' s highly reliable opinion page with William Keegan. But I suppose it leaves more space for high-gloss shoe adverts and diatribes from Nick Cohen.

I'm not saying, I'm just saying, but if you had a broadly left-libertarian magazine or Web site, he would be an excellent choice to contribute. Chris Dillow can't do it all.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

easter egg

I've just been geocoding. In fact, I've been putting together a non-GPS geocoding function for FixMyS60. Specifically, I can say that I have no use whatsoever for geonames, which although it has an interesting range of Web services doesn't seem to have any data in it. I love OpenStreetMap, and it's possible to query its gazetteer as an XML interface. However, there is no way of getting just the search results without the associated "nearest places"; so I would only use this where I could use BeautifulSoup or ElementTree to extract the data. But I needed a source of geodata that I could process using only regular expressions. (PyS60 1.9 and above have Expat, and there is a cElementTree port for some versions, but I'm loth to use third party modules in a mobile app because deploying is already such a drag.)

And Yahoo!'s service is unexpectedly good. Which brings me to the point. I was trying to see what would happen if someone sent it dodgy data. Would it 404, send a custom error message, or send a list of possible options? In fact, I struggled to break it. Eventually I queried it for "Parrot Cock, fhfhgh, UK". And it unhesitatingly directed me to +54° 18' 50.11" N, 2° 13' 55.85" W...which is on the old Hawes-Garsdale Head railway line at the top of Wensleydale.

View Larger Map
I tried some more spurious queries. Same result, except when I specified "Mars" as the city parameter - the system provided a list of places called Marsh. Thanks for the easter egg!

Friday, June 12, 2009


Philip Hammond is whining.

One year ago, Philip Hammond thought the economy was OK, that the crisis was made up, and that everything would be even more wonderful if he got a tax break on his own property interests. In fact, Hammond was arguing frantically for the government to encourage people to buy property into the crash, around about the same time as he forgot to mention three million quid in dividends from his own property interests.

Three million quid, made from dealings with the public sector, too.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

target for tonight...

OK, time to make the rubble bounce. There's a nice online visualiser for climate data here, (thanks!) so we can have a lovely little chart.

OK, this shows the GISTEMP land-ocean mean for as long as they've been measuring, as the red line. As you can see, that sucker's going up. As you can also see, the variance is considerable - it bounces about quite a lot. The green line shows the trend. Over on the left, I've plotted trendlines starting 1998, dark blue, and 1999, purple.

As you can see, the hot year 1998 makes the trend look flatter over the next ten years - but it's still upwards, because this is a trend estimate, not just a line drawn from one end of the plot to the other. The computer wouldn't do anything that dishonest. But just to illustrate it, I've added a trend plot from 1992 to 2006, in light blue. Scary, huh? Going up like a rocket.

Of course it is; because it's completely meaningless. I selected those dates because 1992 was an unusual cold year caused by a volcanic eruption and 2006 was hot, which is no different to picking 1998 as a start point because it was hot.

If you do what Duff did, and forget that it is now 2009, as you can see from the chart, the trend in the last ten years would be going up FASTER than the trend across the whole dataset.

Someone arguing in good faith would have immediately dropped their sublime confidence at 0001Z 01/01/09 and started buying inland property, bullets, and toilet paper, to say nothing of apologising to the world at large.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

40 years of UNIX

40 years of UNIX!

If you want a monument, J. P. Rangaswami of BT recently said in my presence that "I can't think of any BT product that doesn't include Linux in some way."


Jamie Kenny watches the Lebanese elections and asks if the Saudis could spend so much money on British politics. The answer is simple: they already have.

Consider the original Al-Yamamah contract, and the famous National Audit Office report that was shown to two MPs and then buried for good. We're still not trusted to see it. Consider all the many, many people around the 1980s Conservative Party involved with them - Aitken, Archer, Hart, Calil, Thicky Mork himself. Consider the whole complex of turds that was the arms-to-Iraq affair.

Then consider the BAE Systems case and, of course, Anthony Bailey, the lobbyist who integrated the Labour Party's finances, the City Academies program, Prince Charles, BAE, and the Saudis in one dubious political kebab.

And look at this; Aitken clearly still wants to be an MP.
I may even receive some relief from the tabloids. Under the act it is ­defamatory to report a spent conviction if done maliciously. I shall not be ­rushing to instruct Messrs Sue Grabbit and Runne for breaches of this law, not least because I so often speak and write from the perspective of an ex-offender. Yet I hope that fair editors will think about their obligations under the act towards all ex-offenders before ­regurgitating, pejorative labels such as "disgraced ex-jailbird".
How dare you threaten us, you old bastard.

Climate change denier redefines the number 10

A magic moment in the history of troll; it may never come again.

OK, so you know the climate-change denier talking point about global warming supposedly "stopping" in the last ten years. It's a classic example of how to lie with numbers; you just choose the bit of the data series that suits you and forget the rest. 1998 was really hot, so you start the chart there, and presto, a flat or declining trend. Learn about it here. Of course, the facts that it was rising steadily before '98 and has been rising steadily since then, and that the best evidence that something isn't rising is not that there has been an all-time high value recently are ignored.

Now, well, 1998 isn't ten years ago any more. So, I was wondering if any of the trolls would be sighted claiming that global warming has stopped in the last ten years, now their own talking point doesn't make sense even on its own terms. Enter David "no-one could be better named" Duff with a genuinely duff performance.
Incidentally, ‘Little Willy’, what’s happened to all that global warming in the last 10 years? No, on second thoughts don’t bother replying to that, your written equivalent of the clicks and grunts of a Kalahari bushman is simply too, too, tedious.
Oh, mate, that's your Prime Directive ("Don't be such an arse about it") violated right there, with a good dollop of racism chucked in.

But for our purposes, look at the chart here; if you start measuring 10 years ago from today, in 1999, you get a warming trend of almost 0.4 degrees C, about four times greater than the linear regression would give you! DOOOMED I tell you!

Quite an achievement; you'd think that repeating talking points was within anyone's abilities, but we've found a troll who can even bollocks that up. FAIL.

better left as an example to others

IPC sub-editors dictate our nation's youth. Ha, been a while since I heard that one. There is talk at the Meadi Grauniad that someone wants to re-open The Face. I can almost feel the unusually stiff square binding and remarkably heavy paper already. It was like being a member of a secret league against wankers.

Actually, this isn't a good idea. Don't do it, man; think of the 10,000 word 5-part stinker review I'll have to fill up the blog with. I'm measuring up the space already. The disappointment and bitterness and drunken nostalgia; it won't be pretty. Especially if you're planning to rehire this guy:
"How do you maintain the cachet if you give it away for free?" asks one former editor. "Dazed, Vice, etc would murder it. Like Shortlist, it would be read by Polish cleaning ladies on the way home from the 4am shift.

Eh, just a fart then.

The subs [subscription] issue is equally tricky. How do you sell the subs? Who wants it? Or is it controlled subs - free to trendy shops - in which case it has no editorial teeth and no budget."
This is true, however; once you get into someone else paying for your distribution with a magazine, your editorial independence and therefore, in the long run, your relevance and quality are going down the pan. The old crack about the freedom of the press being restricted to those who owned one was never that clever; there is a long tradition of the most surprising publications running off the same press.

But distribution. Now that's the tough one. That's the one the bastards have always controlled.

Update: Laughed.

Monday, June 08, 2009

my country needs me...

Andrew Brons apparently likes the voluntary repatriation grant clause in the 1971 Immigration Act, a sop thrown in for Enoch. Well. A feature of this legislation, if I remember correctly, was that accepting it was without prejudice to one's immigration status. You could go back. So the only people who accepted it took holidays back home, and then returned. Aux frais de la princesse. Sometimes it's good to know an immigration officer.

Meanwhile, the usual failure mode for a BNP elected official involves a cocktail of incompetence, absenteeism, and financial irregularity. It's as if you managed to get a job for that bloke your mate was going on about. So, the main question I have is: what will they do with the substantial budget available to an MEP?

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Accidental Guerrilla, Part 4: Kilcullen on Drugs

Just to finish off this gruelling series, I wanted to flag Kilcullen's take on Afghanistan and opium. In short, his argument is that counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics in Afghanistan are identical; the poppy mostly grows where the Taliban are, it provides something up to 50% of the movement's income, and it is anyway impossible to do anything about it without fighting the Taliban. This is true.

However, he is almost immediately caught in a dilemma; if fighting the Taliban and the poppy are part of the same struggle, isn't destroying the poppy crop pretty much the antithesis of counterinsurgency? As a survival-oriented civilian, the survival of your crop - i.e. your entire annual income and your capital - only takes second place to the survival of your neck.

The solution to this is to hold to the principle whilst stalling the implementation, a tactic everyone knows and loves. He is sensibly enough opposed to mass eradication, on the grounds that as well as being wildly unpopular, the only effective form is to physically tear the plants out, and that this anyway requires control of the poppy-growing territory, so that counterinsurgency is the precondition of counternarcotics.

He is opposed to the Senlis Council option of buying the poppy crop and using it for medical morphine, after "extensive analysis"; unfortunately he doesn't share the extensive analysis, confining himself to a couple of paragraphs. These state, roughly, that much of the drug money that goes to the Taliban is collected via transport, interest on loans, and taxes, so they would continue to make money from it, and that buying the crop wouldn't reduce the acreage under poppy.

Well, the obvious objection to the first is that this is true for any and all crops and economic activities so long as the insurgents are in possession. In fact, it only tends to confirm the first part of his argument; that the Taliban are the problem, not the poppy. But they would still be the problem if Afghanistan grew carrots. And the second is irrelevant; if the crop is being used for medical purposes, it doesn't matter if more of it is planted.

In fact, it would be nothing but good news. The people would be in a position where growing as much of their most productive crop as possible would no longer be a dangerous and illegal activity. As James Wimberley points out, there is potential medical demand equivalent to several times Afghan production. Can they fill the whole demand? Well, let's find out. I agree the Common Agricultural Policy is crap, but it's a small price to pay for London's 64th year with zero V2 rocket strikes.

And Kilcullen concedes that the link between the Taliban and the poppy originates in the drugs war.

He argues that there is an implicit social contract at work - you grow poppy (which is in any case the most productive crop you can grow, especially as the limiting factor is the water supply) and pay the taxes, we'll keep the government from taking your crops. Well, yes.

Further, there is the question of whether it is even possible to reduce the heroin supply at source. We've been trying since 1971 with an unbroken record of costly failure.

Imagine that, by a heroic effort, the government managed to destroy, or prevent planting of, 30 per cent of the poppy crop. Well, assuming for simplicity that 100 per cent of it goes through Taliban hands and that 50 per cent of their revenue comes from it, that would add up to an absolute maximum 15 per cent cut in their funding. I would suspect that the annual variance of the Taliban's income isn't much less than that. And I would suspect that such an effort would consume essentially all the forces and budget available for discretionary operations in Afghanistan. It's not worth it.

I had the feeling that the extensive analysis may have contained the phrase "shit, this is far too politically sensitive".

Accidental Guerrilla, Part 3: Space

A lot of The Accidental Guerrilla concerns ideas of terrain, space, and time. In fact, quite a bit of it could be considered an architectural approach to counter-insurgency. This is not surprising; a major theme is the idea that the conflict environment - the state of being at war or potentially at war, the disrupted social and political structure, the faltering infrastructure, the global black market - is the enemy. After all, it is one of the reasons people seek survival through certainty by calling on the deliberate guerrillas to influence their other political relationships.

One example of this is the one I've already written up - the armoured patrol vehicle as urban submarine, a self-defeating machine that itself divides the counter-insurgents from the people in an ironic reversal of their own thinking.

Kilcullen goes almost New Urbanist on this; discussing the Iraq experience, he argues that a huge flaw in the US strategy was that they had to commute to the battle, travelling in monster armoured vehicles, without contact with the civilian population, but still vulnerable to IEDs and ambushes on the over-predictable road routes between their camps and their areas of operation. The answer was to redeploy into the cities and move into positions that let them walk to work; I tell you, Richard Florida got nothing on him.

Similarly, a major aim of his campaign plan was to control access to Baghdad, counterattacking the NOIA encirclement strategy and preventing insurgent "commuters" from the Sunni semi-urban belt getting into the city. You could almost call it a critique of suburban warfare.

This concern with space is also a major theme of the case study on Kunar and road building. The construction of a road was intended to get access and control of the narrow flood plain at the bottom of the valley, which is where everyone lives, rather than up on the mountains. Nothing much grows on the tops and it's tough to get up there or back down, so the only important places up there are a few tactically important hilltops.

Road access meant that it was easier to force the Taliban to go quiet, either by climbing into the mountains or by going underground. More importantly, it made it possible to keep them there, and to deliver economic benefits. But perhaps the biggest changes it provided were as follows:

Firstly, it changed the topography so that the government side were in the villages, looking out, and the Taliban were outside, looking in. The US or Afghan government fire was outgoing; the Taliban's, incoming.

Second, it made it worth arguing where different groups' authority ended; without the road, it was bounded by the difficulty of travel. Once they had to argue about it, the government or the traditional authorities could be called in to arbitrate the dispute, boosting their authority and making them useful. In a sense, the Kunar case study is all about creating a demand for government, or at least competing with the Taliban to supply it.

An interesting question, though; the whole paradigm of The Accidental Guerrilla is based on experience in places where the state is absent, illegitimate, or never established. But many of the same phenomena happen in places where the state, or the structure of traditional authority, once existed but has broken down.

Further, the international jihadis are trying to move (as Kilcullen says) from expeditionary terrorism, where their operations are set up in the home base and carried out remotely, to a guerrilla model where they are set up by sympathisers recruited in the target state. This implies that the process will have to take place in an environment where the state exists here and now.

I'm less convinced by his arguments regarding this; obviously, the naked city has as many possible base-areas as it has people, but as Daniel Davies pointed out, the current European takfiris seem to have less access to firearms than a typical criminal gang, and one of the most worrying possibilities in this line is indeed that they cross-fertilise with ordinary decent criminals. Kilcullen's practical recommendations in this line are mostly commonsensical, although he is very keen on Cold War analogies with efforts to start non-communist unions and the like, and the other activities of the Blearsministerium.

However, despite the technological implications of auto-immune warfare, he also believes that "biometric reconnaissance" is a strategically important capability. I rather suspect that we've already been seeing the effects of this advocacy without knowing what was behind it.

Accidental Guerrilla; Part 2, Strategy

David Kilcullen describes the cycle of violence at the end of the last post in biological terms; we are apparently faced with "infection", "contagion", "intervention", and "rejection". Usually it's wise to be really suspicious of anyone who talks biology in politics, unless they are talking about actual bacteria. However, this metaphor covers a very important strategic point.

Specifically, the grand strategy of Al-Qa'ida can be thought of as auto-immune warfare; Kilcullen leaves the phrase to the very back of the book, but the idea is inherent right from the beginning. The aim is to provoke and manipulate the enemy until their reactions create many more zones of dubious authority where they can move in, and eventually until the West is exhausted economically.

The reason why biology should get dragged in here is that we are to be destroyed by the over-reaction of our own security system, just as auto-immune diseases turn the immune system on the body. This is a crucial concept, and it is one whose implications cascade through all kinds of other problems, from grand strategy down to airport security measures.

Specifically, auto-immune war is a strategy, but its tactical implementation is the creation of false positive responses. Security obsession gums up the economy with inefficiencies. Terrorism terrorises the public; security theatre keeps them that way. As Kilcullen points out, every day, millions of travellers are systematically reminded of terrorism by government security precautions. Profiling measures subject entire communities to indignity and waste endless hours of police time. Vast sums of money are spent on counterproductive equipment programs and unlikely techno-fixes. National identity cards and monster databases are the specific symptoms of this pathology in the UK, just as idiotic militarism is in the US.

(Yes, I'm dragging him into my own political battles. See what I did there?)

In its most extreme form, this strategy helps to trigger destabilising intervention, which damages existing social and political structures and therefore creates the guerrilla zones of tomorrow. Donald Rumsfeld was not wrong when he spoke of catastrophic success in Iraq; merely lacking in self-awareness.

The symmetry between insurgency and counter-insurgency is very clear here; according to Kilcullen, the Taliban has recently adopted a variant of the focoist strategy associated with Che Guevara and (of all people) Regis Debray, which is apparently now official ISI doctrine (the paper he cites is here).

The main-force guerrillas' role is to stage spectaculars, which provide propaganda of the deed, create chaos, and intimidate or chase off the representatives of the state or of traditional authority. The other elements of a classic guerrilla system - the clandestine administration, and its part-time local guerrilla force - then step in. Meanwhile, the strike force moves on to other battles or melts back into hiding.

On the other side, the "political manoeuvre" operations Kilcullen describes in Kunar province, Afghanistan, and under his own command in East Timor bear a nontrivial resemblance.

The counter-insurgents arrive in the battlespace with considerable surprise, speed, and shock action, forcing the guerrillas to take to their rear base (whatever form it may take). They then establish themselves in the centres of population and production, and recruit the population into the government or the traditional authorities' network by providing security, economic aid, and dispute resolution, and challenge the guerrillas to attack them, in order to get back into the public eye. Having seen them off, they they move to replace themselves with their own local recruits - local counterguerrillas, recruited to protect their (non-clandestine) administration. As a plan, it's also reminiscent of the "diplomatic-military operations" idea in Gwyn Prins' The Heart of War: Power, conflict, and obligation in the 21st century.

After all, the deliberate guerrillas are trying to achieve their political goals by recruiting, co-opting, propagandising and providing technical assistance and military advice to their local recruits, and their organisations often extend into political and economic action as well. Like one of these or these. Kilcullen's prologue describes meeting a group of international takfiris in the backwoods of Indonesia; as he says, it is surprising to encounter a group of Yemenis claiming to be students in this environment. (Perhaps it is not as surprising now, in 2009, as it was in 1996.)

The first question they asked him was: so what about the Israelis and the Palestinians? It's almost comforting; survive a plane crash in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, and you can be fairly certain of knowing which political issue the locals will want to know your opinion on. And what a popular answer is likely to be.

But this was certainly no stranger than finding an Australian paratrooper major studying for a PhD asking leading questions about an underground political party, smoking a Cohiba cigar, in the same circumstances. They were, as he said to them, both learning from their Indonesian brothers. You could say that.

Accidental Guerrilla: Part 1, Theoretical Framework

Reading the literature on the insurgencies and counterinsurgencies of the 1950s and 1960s, one thing that stands out is that - as you'd expect from practitioners of what the Chinese used to call bandit extermination - there is very little agency attributed to the people. Yes, it is necessary to - here we go with the cliches - win their hearts and minds, but they aren't credited with very much of the latter.

David Kilcullen's The Accidental Guerrilla could easily have slid into this; even the title would suggest it. But the titular guerrillas are only accidental in that their role as guerrillas fighting in a global struggle is accidental; this is, Kilcullen argues, a role that has been imposed on them by the forces of order and also by the forces of Al-Qa'ida International and its local franchises, in a sort of unconscious conspiracy to recruit them into the war both sides want to fight.

Instead, their aims are local and rational. They want above all to survive, to pursue their interests, and to be left alone to maintain their primary identities. So far, this sounds a lot like the mythic peasant who sides with the strongest party; but Kilcullen's "survival-oriented civilians" (which really ought to be the name of a band) are far more active, activist, and intelligent than that.

The problem in understanding this is that politics is frequently the study of hierarchy; but in reality, humans operate in multiple social networks at once, using their role in one system to influence another. You might offer mates' rates in business to get support in politics, or call in favours from your extended family to pack a committee. I recall that a Labour Party chairman of my acquaintance took delivery of a huge donation of wine coolers in order to further his campaign to get onto another regional committee; he was already on several at different levels.

Their aims in this are more than the crude Hobbesian ideas we tend to project on them. It's not enough to side with Leviathan; survival requires certainty. It is intolerable to live in an environment where there are no rules that you can follow to avoid being killed. The response of the intelligent human being is to either find someone who does have such a set of rules and join them, or else to sign up enough people with suitable connections to establish your own. Arguably, Kilcullen's view of insurgency and counter-insurgency is something like two processes of state formation operating in close proximity.

Kilcullen cites the work of several anthropologists who argue that this phenomenon of "interhierarchical roles" is especially important in societies where traditional forms of government or of self-government are changing; it is exactly these debatable lands where the wars he described have been fought out. In these zones, the arrival of the global guerrillas just means the creation of another option in the routine business of business, politics, and religion.

They settle; they start businesses, they get elected, they marry. And then the government or the Americans or some similarly alien force comes after them; at which point people who were cooperating with them to get on find themselves recruited into a global war on terror, as the intervention becomes an attack on the whole society. This cycle of provocation, intervention, and reaction spins faster and faster, separating out the elements of society into false "pro-western" and "jihadi" factions while corpses pile up.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Bob's yer uncle, and Tess is your aunt..

Well, Blears and Smith were good, but Geoff Hoon walking the plank? Klasse. Apparently there is talk of making him a European commissioner again; God knows why. Alan Sugar is some sort of minister and a peer of the realm. Peter Mandelson is turning into Michael Heseltine before our boggling eyes. Better get some cardio training in, Pete. Were you still lucid for Hoon, or had you already decided the only objective reality was the one inside your own head? It's Ballardian time.

The Guardian's reporting on this, which has been outstanding, managed to use the word "dymanic" in today's offering, which puts it better than I could.

It's at times like this that old-fashioned lobby reporting comes into its own; I suppose it's nice to know they are there. As usual, though, the quality of any given political story in the Grauniad is proportional to the percentage written by Allegra Stratton as opposed to Michael "the most disgusting journalist in Britain" White or Patrick "Unseasonably Mild" Wintour.

A question, though. Tessa Jowell is Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office as of last night. Really? Blears bites the dust for using taxpayers' money to speculate in property while avoiding capital-gains tax; has everyone forgotten that Jowell did much the same, but with the crucial distinction that she used money paid to her husband as a bribe by the mafia, in the person of Silvio Berlusconi. I believe I was first on this story in December 2005; I'm going to be the last off it.

Because, to resounding silence in the UK, David Mills was convicted by the Italian courts a couple of months ago of corruptly accepting the money from il cavaliere. This is Italy, so it is unlikely he will be punished in any way. Yes, she suddenly discovered irreparable cracks in their marriage, rather in the way that the RAF suddenly discovered them in the Nimrod MR2s, and kicked him out of the door. But I am not aware that she renounced any of the profit involved.

For shits and giggles, compare these statements: BBC News, 04/03/2006:
"They hope that over time their relationship can be restored, but, given the current circumstances, they have agreed a period of separation."
The Guardian, 17/02/2009:
"This is a terrible blow to David and, although we are separated, I have never doubted his innocence."
How's that coming on?

A further question. In all the excitement, and all the mortgages, I don't think we ever clarified whether the property in question was declared as a first or second home to the Parliamentary fees office, and whether any capital gains tax in respect of it was paid.

Obviously, this is just the woman I'd pick to oversee a succession of gigantic public construction contracts as Olympics Minister, and the intelligence establishment as SoS for the Cabinet Office. If I'd just been playing the Withnail & I drinking game. Here I am! indeed.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

giant symbol crashes and overturns, killing billions of dollars

You thought the Hummer being put on the block was symbolism? This is symbolism: the bloated, militaristic, fuel-guzzling cultural trope itself is being sold to Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery. Yes; an unheralded outfit from the deep west, not even Shenzhen or Shanghai. Seeing as its core business is making construction gear, tankers, and off-road vehicles, it may even return to being something roughly designed for a purpose.

It's probably worth mentioning that the Humvee, in its post-2004 up-armoured version, and its later, baroque replacements, get singled out in David Kilcullen's Accidental Guerrilla. Specifically:
As Steve pointed out, this is truly an urban submarine - we drive around in an armoured box with three-inch thick windows, peering out through our portholes at the little Iraqi fish swimming by. They can't see us, and we don't seem human to them. We are aliens, imperial stormtroopers with our Darth Vader sunglasses and grotesque and cowardly body armour. The insurgents have done to us what we said they would do to them - isolated us from the population...
An artefact is an ideology made manifest; the caricature America we've known since the 1980s could hardly be better illustrated, whether outwards in its violent and paradoxically vulnerable military sense or inwards in its lumbering, debt-bloated, hyper-capitalist civilianised sense. Both of which relied upon the engine technology of the 1950s.

thank you very much!

I saw the Ettes play last night; the first band on my list based on SCIENCE! that I've actually seen. They absolutely nailed No Home and made Soizick dance. A lot. (RSW weren't wrong, were they.)

But before that, a story. Getting to the place, we found a closed speakeasy-like door and no sign of any activity. We turn the knob; it opens, onto the sort of stairs that Joseph Roth said lead down to heaven and are paved with smooth sins, and no-one else. Down at the bottom, we find all three bands playing that evening sitting around, and a barman, who informs me that "we're not open yet, the doorman hasn't turned up".

Strange philosophical issue. We're not open, because the guy who keeps the door closed (to some people) isn't here.

twittering the home front

This is interesting; the US Army in Afghanistan has an official Twitter account. The interesting thing is the explanation:
If prevailing wisdom about “population-centric” counterinsurgency holds, why is the U.S. military using Twitter to post body counts? Apparently, it’s about maintaining the support of the population back at home.

In a must-read article, Michael Phillips of The Wall Street Journal has a key quote from Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, spokeswoman for the 101st Airborne Division: “It’s a concern that at home, the common perception is this war is being lost.”

So this new-media push, it seems, is directed at winning domestic support — not explaining U.S. motivations or broadcasting successes to the Afghan population.
The curious thing here is the assumption that there is a significant political constituency in the US that wants to hear that foreigners are being killed. This is fair enough, they're called "wingnuts". And they will reliably go into a frenzy of wanking if you feed them vicarious violence, just as pouring minced fish into the shark tank creates a suitably spectacular response.

Right; we've got an officially sanctioned pipeline set up to deliver ground troll-chum direct to the wanker feedlot. It even implements irregular positive reinforcement in order to keep them hanging on. But why? After all, as pointed out here, in this kind of war the last metric you want to follow is the body count - you need a measure of the absence of war, if such a thing was possible. But that's never going to play well at Redstate or wherever.

So it's the opposite of the original Iraq spin strategy - deny that anyone got very much hurt while boasting of using ATACMS short-range ballistic missiles (does anyone remember that one now?). Instead, you're trying to maintain political cover for your low-intensity campaign by sounding more brutal than you actually want to be. Furchtbarkeit for internal consumption.

The only question this leaves, of course, is why anyone would want the support of the fever swamp these days. Unless keeping them in a constant state of crazed hypermobilisation is the strategy...whether to wear them out or for the political effect of a continuous 24/7 rightwing crazefest.

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