Sunday, August 30, 2009

they told me over a drink we have ways of making you think

There is a fascinating paper here on how people believed that there was a link between Iraq and Al-Qa'ida. Essentially, if you give people enough free-floating emotional energy, they are likely to decide that if you care so much, then there must be an explanation for the holes in your logic. It's called inferred justification, and it surely explains why the global Right are so keen on content-free mobilisation. Keep'em teabagging, in short, it stops them thinking.

Something similar is at work in this quote in a Conor Foley post at Crooked Timber:
Crime offers the imagery with which to express feelings of loss and social decay generated by these other processes and to legitimate the reaction adopted by many residents: private security to ensure isolation, enclosure and distancing from those considered dangerous
Strategies of neuro-politics; how do you keep other people from thinking, and indeed keep yourself from thinking? In the first study I mentioned, only 2 per cent of the people interviewed altered their beliefs based on new information, and 14 per cent of those who said they believed in a link between Al-Qa'ida and pre-war Iraq in the survey later denied it.

So what are we going to do about it? If the best idea anyone has on the Left is a High Pay Commission, we're not getting anywhere. I'm against this for a couple of reasons: first, the obvious work-around is to stick to the money as profits, and if necessary, to reorganise at least part of the company so the super-high earners are shareholders or partners. It wasn't many years ago that Goldman Sachs was still a partnership, after all.

Second, it doesn't do very much for the office cleaners, even if it manages to offend the investment bankers. It doesn't even bring in any tax revenue, nor does it hold out any hope of higher wages for the poor rather than marginally lower ones for the rich.

But what it does do is provide a focus for indignation; something to get worked up about, or in other words, a piece of politics-without-thinking.

If that's no good, neither is the guy who's trying to bill companies for the time he spent consuming their products; a clever conceit, and probably fun, but tragically art-knobber at bottom. (But then, as the inventor of ContentFree Comment, who am I to talk?) As Owen Hatherley remarks in a cracking interview:
Criticising consumerism is what people do when they can’t quite stomach criticising capitalism.
So, what to do? I was impressed by this guy's style - as well as the .38 and the giant TEABAGGERS = FAIL sign, check out all those neat data visualisations on his banner! If Habermas and Hunter S. Thompson had collaborated, wouldn't it have looked a little like that - the gonzo public sphere...but clearly this isn't practical or even desirable on a large scale.

The big question, I think, is how to define the Left as the side that's fighting for positive liberty, and to work out how we operationalise that. Chris Dillow is right that stronger unions, not high pay commissions, are the answer to that particular problem. But I'm also interested in things like this - politicised DIY, basically and this, and of course neurogenesis.

We won't get anywhere, however, as long as the incredible revolution in our understanding of cognition is reduced to a set of buzzwords (nudge, Taleb, etc) used by the Tories to misdirect attention anyway from the ugly truth.

coming to a security theatre near you

US security agents indulge in street theatre, frequently accidentally involving members of the public:
As a presidential limousine rolls closer, an instructor cues, "How about a little homicide bomb?" Bracaglia throws himself at the limousine and detonates.....Mike "The Horse" Dutch, who is 6-foot-2 and weighs 280 pounds, has been playing villains for five years. He's been hit by so many training bullets that he has "black-and-blue dots all over . . . the size of a dime." When Dutch sunbathes at the beach, people stare, "like I have leprosy."

"I hate getting shot in the rear end," says Bill Embrey, who wears shorts under his pants to soften the impact. "I'm stiff, for goodness sakes. When did we have our last 'force on force?' "

"Tuesday," says Dennis O'Toole, his role-playing partner. They ambushed President Obama's security detail during in-service training, firing simulated AK-47s.

O'Toole rolls up his sleeve, revealing a pocked arm. "Sister Mary Margaret is in these FX [special-effects bullets]. They will help you learn your lesson."

Embrey and O'Toole play "op-4s," opposition forces, and "tangos," terrorists. They specialize in assassinations. Embery's wife, a kindergarten teacher, describes Embrey's job as "playing all day." Some days the men hide out for hours in the woods at a secluded Maryland site, waiting for a motorcade to prey on. Once, after a snowfall, they wore white camouflage and lay so still, O'Toole says, that an agent "stepped on me."
How many times has he assassinated the president? I suspect he must have some very strange dreams. The bulk of the trainers are out-of-work actors, who volunteer because it beats the usual round of restaurant and bar jobs, but they also include a clinical psychologist who specialises in portraying the maniacs of today. Since the Reagan administration, he's changed the style but not the content.
When Spodak first played a character named Jeffrey Barry, he was "a mentally ill person, picking up trash and babbling about killing Reagan." During the 1990s, Jeffrey Barry believed Joan of Arc wanted him to kill Bill Clinton. Today Barry, still mentally ill, wears a Muslim prayer cap, receives messages from the 12th-century sultan Saladin and tells trainees he has incinerated a kitten as "a sacrifice to Allah."

Characters also change with presidencies. "I just had to dump 18 roles from the Bush administration," Spodak says.

For Obama, Spodak created a new character, Gideon Caine, a white supremacist who works as a data-entry clerk at Wachovia...
I really, really want to know what the acts whose run in this very special repertory company ended with the Bush years were; wasn't a Muslim kitten-torcher Cheneyesque enough? You can't fault the cultural observation, though; where else would a berserk racist teabagger work but at a huge, semi-bankrupt, South Carolinan mortgage lender kept alive by transfusions of public funds?

More to the point, in a real sense, nothing has changed - whatever their props and verbal furnishings, Spodak's character remains the same, the archetypal crazy gunman. Stephen Sondheim, come to think of it, dedicated a whole drama to the notion that this is a fundamental American character type, and it looks like these guys agree. However, the style is very different. Both highly formalised - motorcade, escorts, crazies - and formless, it can be staged anywhere in the public space, literally shooting holes in the fourth wall and recruiting random civilians into the action. Brecht would approve. Like this:
Five minutes before his job interview, John Fisher parks at Ace Fire Extinguisher Services in College Park, his window open and his stomach jumpy. He is nibbling on spoonfuls of cottage cheese when shouts erupt from the car next to his.

Fisher believes what he is seeing is real.

"Gun! He has a gun!" a man with a Secret Service earpiece yells, riffling through the glove compartment.
Actually, it's not Fisher who's pulled a gun, but how long before that happens, and someone who was a spectator a few moments ago gets to become the Crazy Assassin? Until then, of course, the main message the lucky participant/spectators will take away is that they should remain terrified, as David Kilcullen said about airport security. (Come to think of it, that's another theatrical exercise where you are both a spectator, and also get to play the role of Suspect.)

And this is no surprise; the impresario behind what you might call the Unmarked Gulfstream Ensemble is Military Professional Resources International, Inc, a company better known for hiring ex-servicemen as instructors for armies the US wishes to support.

What will happen to Harlequins RL?

What about some rugby league, then? First of all, I'm delighted that we had another Challenge Cup that's gone to an upset; even if Warrington taking it wasn't quite as cool as the Catalans, it's still a hell of a long time since they won anything. It's getting on for a while since their agonising near thing in 1993-1994, when they missed out on the championship on points difference, after losing a game 8-6 to Wigan - had they saved the point, they'd have pipped both Wigan and Bradford Northern. But it didn't happen; Keighley nearly knocked them out of the Regal Trophy the year after, Jonathan Davies went back to union, Iestyn Harris went on to bigger things.

I was pleased to see regularly underrated Lee Briers have a spectacular match - he's always been held back by playing for Warrington (among other things). The kick ahead on the second tackle for Chris Hicks' try should certainly go in the file of great Wembley moments in the game; and wasn't it good to be back, as well? I always rather suspected that the longer it took to build the damn thing, the less likely it was that Rugby League would ever be allowed back inside it...

In related news, I'm beginning to worry about the future of London RL. History suggests this is one of those things, like Pakistan, that must be more stable than it looks because it's still here. But some people are suggesting that the union half of Harlequins might be relegated or even banned from their competition over the great fake blood scandal; and what happens to the London club then, now it's been integrated with them?* It doesn't look good, even if they are now just another institution I dislike that's proved me right since about 2001.

*(Did anyone else notice that apparently, Dean Richards was in the habit of threatening players with a spell in the league squad?

most of the people watching this are in fact my sworn enemies

This is right, as is this. But what's this? I essentially joined the Liberal Democrats back in 2004 in order to escape the - ah, thanks, flyingrodent - belligerent content-free woofing blaring out of every other political entity, and here's the party's leader in Scotland, whining because they let a guy out of jail to die in a rather less awful fashion than the jail doctors would offer.

Tavish Scott, the Scottish leader of the Lib Dems, said the justice secretary needed to explain his actions to parliament. "The eyes of the world are on the Scottish government and they are being found wanting," he said. "MSPs need to come back to Holyrood to debate this issue. Parliament must be recalled."
Oh, of course, it's all serious and chin stroking David Broder bollocks about recalling parliament and the eyes of the world, but as they say, you've got to choose your camp, and Tavish Scott seems to have chosen the belligerent content-free woofers. This is especially worrying, as the Lib Dems' only people with government experience are the ones who served their time in Cardiff or Holyrood.

Meanwhile, you've got a choice between Britain's Bill Frist (doctor/politicians pretending to diagnose someone by remote control for partisan ends? Just what we needed, Richard Simpson MSP!) and this lot - ever wondered why Squealer in Animal Farm was a pig?

I'm feeling a bit Toyama today, frankly. What worries me is that I don't seem to be getting angry, just sarcastic, which is less productive.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Banned airlines come to the West Country

From the Viktorfeed: Phoenix Aviation/AVE, a company banned from the EU and which has a long history of dubious activities, sent off a flight (number 2E501 - note this as it's important later) from Dubai at 1539 with destination Bristol (Lulsgate). DXB's Web site lists it as "passenger charter" (click "more"). AVE is the UAE-based subsidiary of Phoenix set up to operate its Boeing 737s around the worse parts of South-West Asia; we can see that it is indeed part of Phoenix because it tends to use either their ICAO codes (PHW and PHG) or else 2E, which is assigned to a Sri Lankan operator that ceased to exist in 2000.

The aircraft is a B737 Classic; therefore its cruising speed is 485 mph. The ever-handy Great Circle Mapper lets us make a handy map. It's 3,516 nm from Dubai to Bristol; so that's a planned flight time of 7 hours 15 minutes. The B737 doesn't have the range to do it in one jump, however, having a maximum ferry range of 2,240 nm. I've plotted that distance from both airports on the map; there will have to be a stop somewhere in the intersection of the two areas.

This gives quite a lot of scope - Istanbul or Bucharest would be the most direct. (Checking, the great circle route goes directly over Bucharest.) Allowing 45 minutes for the tech stop, that's an eight hour flight, which gives an ETA of 2339 in Bristol. Bucharest, and the EU, would come up after four and a half hours, just after eight o'clock.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

guaranteed - 100% content-free blogging!

ContentFree Comment is alive!

obligatory NHS post

Something worth remembering, from comments at Making Light:
Back before she became a vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin proclaimed a "Healthcare Decisions Day" in Alaska, when Alaskans would be encouraged to discuss end-of-life care with their physicians. Just last month Newt Gingrich wrote an editorial for the Washington Post praising "community-wide advance care planning".
They're faking it, of course. It's just another alternative truth; the post-modern politics package is what they do.

But I wondered: what is the special impact of maintaining a system that wastes about a trillion a year, compared to the cost of the same performance elsewhere? Even if there's $80bn of profit in there, surely any system or elite that was even minimally sane couldn't accept something the size of the war-swollen budget deficit going down the toilet every year.

As far as I can see, there are a couple of ideological/aesthetic effects of the healthcare system that may explain (or expalin - freudian!) it. The first one is something which I've noticed thanks to the blogosphere: Americans talk about health insurance the way drug people talk about drugs. Indeed, it's the drugs that vary. It's all about waiting for this, trying to get that, coming up with schemes to get hold of that despite not having such-and-such - a combination of dependency and fascination, on the one hand, and bitter, whining resentment on the other. The system is so complex, and its motivations so mean, that the good ol' fundamental attribution error makes it impossible to avoid imputing will and whim to it; I'm waiting for my man, indeed.

British conservatives tend not to get this bit, the degree of insecurity it provides; they imagine that you pay a bill every month and it just works. This is of course because of the NHS; if your employer stuck to the premiums, you're still covered anyway, and the private healthcare biz is limited in how far it can go in "medical loss management" because of the system's existence.

And insecurity is deeply political - whilst you're desperately trying to score the next month, what aren't you thinking about?

The second: The desperate insufficiency of negative liberty. Another thing which always comes up - sticking to some crappy job to get health insurance. This raises an interesting point. What kind of a huge X-inefficiency must that be? Further, if you believe in liberty, what kind of an infringement of it is this? One of the great achievements of the NHS is that you never need to think about it, or rather, that you can think about it in rational, public terms rather than under constant personal and private insecurity.

This is a crucial point about libertarian ideas of liberty - if, as they usually maintain, we need freedom in order to be creative, innovative, and enterprising, why does this usually get delivered in the form of making it as dangerous as possible to be any of those things? It's almost as if...there was a complete disjuncture between the top layer of ideology and the operational code that makes it all happen!

And thirdly, the flip side of being obsessed with health insurance is being obsessed with health (self, quackery, etc).

No wonder they're so keen.

Which reminds me; while the transatlantic bit of the whole palaver played out, my grandfather was waiting for the results of an NHS case conference as to whether they could carry out a procedure to place a rather special stent at the very top of his throat, in order to re-open it, without the tumour interfering with his breathing. He's over eighty, he's been ill for some time, he's already had several rounds of radiotherapy. And, of course, he's not Stephen Hawking, but an old sailor and former GEC Marconi electronics engineer, an orphan who was a communist from the Depression until he got to know Yugoslavia in 1945. The procedure is complicated; they need the respiratory specialist to be present at the same time.

They provisionally scheduled it for Friday after next.

The NHS is perhaps the definitive creation of democratic socialism in Britain...


Well, well; the interesting bit in this story about Blackwater involvement in a CIA assassination program (which didn't actually happen) is this.
It was never fully operational, and has been canceled twice: once by then-CIA Director George Tenet, restarted by Porter Goss, and finally by CIA Director Leon Panetta in June.
This is crucial; Goss was the leader of the whole Republican/spook intersection, and the patron of the various characters whose corruption landed Randy Cunningham and Dusty Foggo in jail. That he resumed this slightly unlikely project (what good would a bunch of berserkers like that have been for anything discreet? the CIA already has a paramilitary arm anyway...) argues strongly for its being yet more political manipulation or corruption.

Here's some interesting detail about another angle of the whole thing. Foggo's old job had been as the head of logistics in Frankfurt, where he behaved like James Bond would have done had he been a real spy - i.e. inefficiently, and surrounded by unwelcome publicity. It seems he was also responsible for setting up the "black site" prisons; which raises another question.
Within days of the attacks, Mr. Foggo had a budget of $7 million, which quickly tripled.

He managed dozens of employees, directing nearly daily flights of cargo planes loaded with pallets of supplies, including saddles, bridles and horse feed for the mounted tribal forces that the spy agency recruited. Within weeks, he emptied the C.I.A.’s stockpile of AK-47s and ammunition at a Midwest depot.
Whose cargo planes? The fateful contract with Brent Wilkes' Archer Logistics that landed Foggo in jail referred to a "secret plane network". As far as I know, no-one has ever explained this reference, which presumably meant something beyond the well-known handful of business jets. Out of the original three Viktor Bout-related fuel contracts, two of them (BGIA and Air Bas) were clearly associated with general transport into Iraq. We never did identify what was happening with No.3 (Sky Traffic Facilitators)....

Perhaps the Americans should ask Thailand to extradite him on charges related to his activities on their account? However, if the FARC is considered a protected political entity in Thai law, I suspect the CIA would be as well.

There's an interesting interview with the Abu Dhabi National here, about some of the founding generation of dodgy Russian businessmen in the UAE, specifically the man who originally registered San Air General Trading. He's not doing too well. The Bangkok Post has an interview with the man himself, in which you can also see some of his notes from the fateful meeting (to be fair, he denies their authenticity).

And there's a good story by Dmitri Sidorov of Kommersant which names Igor Sechin, a top official in the Presidential Administration (crazy guys - the same building and the same people as the old Central Committee Secretariat) and now a deputy prime minister, as an old comrade of Bout's from Mozambique in the 1980s. Which is interesting if true.

the tape recorder, for special music

As you can probably guess, I'm back; and if anyone can identify any of the songs here, I'd be grateful. Do we have a fado expert in the readership? (Actually, don't answer that. I encountered a British wannabe expert at this gig and within five minutes I wanted to chuck him in the harbour.)

As a genre, how does this differ from She Was Poor But She Was Honest? Justify your actions.

Tory of the Week: Dan Hannan

So what is wrong with Daniel Hannan? To understand this Tory of the Week, it's worth looking back to this post on the role of the Daily Telegraph in the world media ecosystem. Specifically, it acts as a sort of reflector attack for nonsense, picking up propaganda that can't be released directly into the US press and rebroadcasting it straight back. Once published by a newspaper of record, no-one has any problem printing it again.

There are two things here; one is the continued attraction of the US's well funded rightwing infrastructure. Dan Hannan, being an MEP, doesn't have to publish very much in the way of a declaration of interest - in fact, in the past he's been pretty strident about this. At the same time, hard-right politicians throughout Europe are well known for funding their party organisations out of EP expenses, and Hannan is doing the reverse; rather than using EP funds for party purposes, he's using his status as an MEP to go on the speaking circuit in the States and bask in wingnut welfare.

The second is that the US political circuit is being used as a sort of substitute for British politics here. Hannan at least thought he could say things in the States that would get him in a good deal of trouble in either Westminster or Brussels; intervening in US politics is a way of positioning yourself in Tory internal politics, without showing your hand too much. To be publicly rightwing enough that you want to abolish the NHS is not career positive if it gets into the papers; he seems to have thought that the public wouldn't notice as long as it happened beyond the seas, but that the sort of Tory constituency associations that could get him a Michael Gove-like seat for life would notice.

Interestingly, it seems to be the case that Conservative Party politics operates in a trans-atlantic world akin to "the isles" in recent British historiography - up until the 18th century or thereabouts, it was possible to play off Scotland or Ireland against London effectively, Scottish and Irish armies were deployed to England during the civil war as (mostly) English ones went the other way. Similarly, Conrad Black imagined himself kingmaker from Toronto. It's happened before, too - here's a fascinating letter about Saskatchewan's NHS-like system, which faced a barrage of redbaiting and was eventually set up with the assistance of volunteers from the UK.

It goes beyond the mere intergovernmental alliance; tellingly, Atlantic Bridge in its current form was set up in 2003 to drum up support for the Iraq war, and it is chaired by Dr Liam Fox MP, one of the Tories who spent 2002-2003 arguing that the Blair government was not sucking up to the Americans enough. I've argued before that the Decent Left movement has succeeded, in that it's found a home in the Conservative Party through figures like Michael Gove; Hannan is probably too much of a tribal Tory to be considered Decent, despite being close to Gove and wired up to the Iraq noise machine.

However, all this relies on the Atlantic as a semi-permeable membrane. It is crucially important that only the bits of your westward enterprise that you want arrive back in London. Access to the bridge must be strictly controlled. This appears to be what went wrong with Hannan's propaganda tour; when the Guardian is one of the most read newspapers in the US, it's much harder to achieve compartmentalisation, and the instigators of the #welovethenhs Twitter drive blew the seal so comprehensively that they forced David Cameron to join up and very publicly disown Hannan.

Marked out as a loose cannon, his chances of being parachuted into the Commons must now be considered poor. So you can expect a lot more wingnut chum from him, as he steps up his campaign for a sinecure at the Heritage Foundation.

Chris Dillow points out that perhaps, if we were to do it all over again, we might not design the NHS the same way. Well, maybe not. The really interesting bit, however, and the conclusive evidence that this was a content-free piece of Tory internal politics is that Hannan and Gove's own proposals are essentially identical to Obama's.
Both books call for the NHS to be replaced by a new system of health provision in which people would pay money into personal health accounts, which they could then use to shop around for care from public and private providers. Those who could not afford to save enough would be funded by the state.
So, personal insurance, with a public sector option, and Medicare/Medicaid benefits. West of 30 degrees, he agrees with people who think this is equivalent to Nazism; east of 30 degrees, he thinks it's genius. The real content here is that Hannan wants to be considered a maximum rightist in two different political systems, and doesn't give a damn for the actual content of anything he says.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

I am who I am!

Simon Jenkins is opposed to forecasts in general. He thinks they are surrounded by too many caveats:
We hear much talk about those who study English needing to be taught science. In my view, it is those who study science who need to be taught English. What is the point of public predictions so smothered in caveats and qualifiers as to be drained of significance? The same scientists who lecture ministers on the exactitude of their calling – on the purity of "the science" – use qualifiers that any English student could see render nouns worthless.

Fish excuses his colleagues with weakening words such as chance, might, could, possibly, probably and even pot luck. Yet he is supposed to tell us what is going to happen
He also thinks there are too few caveats:
The office now claims that it is "66% certain" that next winter will be warmer and wetter than last. The figure is an ominously precise advance on the 65% certainty of a warm summer. The information is useless without knowing the likelihood of the "66%" being correct.
He thinks the weather forecasters always say it will be sunny when in fact it rains:
This is from the same people who said that both 2007 and 2008 would be "warmer than average", when they were cooler and wetter.

He also thinks the weather forecasters always say it will be rainy when it is sunny:
There is rarely a weekend forecast that does not stress rain (or that curious synonym, showers) at the expense of sun, even if the rain falls, if at all, for a mere hour a day. Nor do forecasts favour coastal microclimates, which are mostly sunnier than inland and are where most holidaymakers go.

A pub in my Welsh coastal village used to print out the BBC weather forecast each Friday – invariably "rain in Wales" – and put it on a board so visitors could hurl darts at it. The Scottish village of Carrbridge once threatened to sue the Met Office for a continually inaccurate forecast of rain that was ruining its tourist industry.

Strangely, the two cheapjack silly season tabguff anecdotes above are the only factual evidence produced in the whole piece. You might think a slightly more, ah, numerate and forensic approach, cold accountancy as Corelli Barnett liked to say, would be appropriate for such a statistical matter as relative forecasting skill. One explanation is that his nibs didn't touch this bit of work - does it taste of unpaid intern, perhaps? The Lord's Test and Goodwood are behind us.

But Jenkins, Lord of the Manor by purchase, seems to take the worst version of any calculation the IMF or the Conservative Party comes up with as gospel writ. When it agrees with him. Curious, that. And he likes to impute treasonable motives; not as hard as the Craven Heffer, but it's there.
Yet whenever criticised, the Met Office pleads for more staff, more research and a bigger computer....The purveyors of British weather forecasts are relentlessly upbeat in the long term and gloomy in the short, in other words they are probably political
This is kinda noticeable, no? He thinks voices on the TV weather forecast are plotting against the Conservative Party. If you live in the Elthorne Estate, London, N19, or close equivalent, this gets you a prescription likely to make you gain 60 pounds of weight and give up independent life forever. Jenkins, though, not so much.

He also imagines that the Met Office is a serious problem in terms of the public finances. Now this is where it gets serious. There is only one bit of that institution that has been investing urgently in high performance computing; the Hadley Centre for Climate Research, proud owners of one of the most powerful computers in the world.

Jenkins is working his way towards coming out as a climate change denier; he's not on the dancefloor yet, but you might spot him looking shy at the Carbon Bar when his wife's out of town. He's hanging out with the landed knobber set that make up the denier group in the Tories. Mark my words.

you say you want a revolution, well, you know...

A really good fisk is almost like a remix; you should be thankful for the original chunk of hackwork for giving us the chance to do something interesting. Hence Matt Carr, who dons the positive-pressure mask and takes the scalpel, chops up Christopher Caldwell's book, and demonstrates the throbbing worm guts to the eager students in the audience, before dropping the lot in liquid nitrogen for the permanent record.

Caldwell, of course, is the man who thought that Robert Kilroy-Silk was going to rule Europe, and who got the New York Times Magazine to publish a six-page hagiography of the silly fool. I tackled it at the time; he drooled over RKS's desres mellow-crunchin' country mansion whilst ranting at "the old country-house condescension", among much else that was ridiculous. He could have said less about the tan and the ice blue eyes...

Now he's written a whole book called Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, whose content seems to be much the same as Mark Steyn's America Alone. He's been described as "knowing his way around the banlieue", having written some berserkly alarmist pieces back in the winter of 2005. Perhaps he talked to a cab driver...a cab driver who voted FN.

But enough. It's not that surprising that he's still a hard-right libertarian/Republican, after all that's happened - it's not an ideological position, it's an identity. It's slightly more interesting that the tactical disasters that have happened didn't affect him in the least - in 2005, he went looking for a catastrophic mob crisis in Europe, and he was damn well going to find one. He'd already got the title, and probably the advance. And so, despite the failure of all his predictions, here we are with his Revolution.

What keeps him in business, then? My explanation is that he plays an important role among right-wing intellectuals in the US. Specifically, people who don't want to read Mark Steyn or Michelle Malkin read him. Indeed, they read him in order to know, themselves, that they don't read Mark Steyn. They are Caldwell-people, who imagine themselves in the columns of the Financial Times, not the willingly ignorant teabaggers. If they do read Mark Steyn, they only read him to know what the masses think. They say. W. H. Auden's crack that we say Masses when we mean ourselves in our weaker moments is very much to the point.

To be brief, Christopher Caldwell is an example of a group of writers who cater to people who believe of other conservatives the things conservatives believe of the rest of humanity.

tory of the week

OK, here's Tim Loughton, Tory MP for Worthing, who's utterly dedicated to fighting the surveillance state. He says so:
Using pupils' fingerprints in schools has been criticised by many MPs, including Sussex Conservatives Nick Gibb and Tim Loughton, who fear sensitive information about children could fall into the wrong hands.

Mr Loughton, MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, has said it is another step towards a surveillance society.
And again:
The Conservatives' children's spokesman, Tim Loughton, challenged the value of such a database [ContactPoint].

"Which do you think is more likely to protect vulnerable children - investing in more permanent and appropriately trained social workers and reducing their caseload or instead throwing money at another expensive data disaster waiting to happen?"

He's even against identity cards.

However, he's pretty strong on Internet censorship:
That this House expresses its deep concern at the availability of child pornography on the internet; congratulates the Romford-based internet service provider, Real Data Services, for blocking users from being able to access websites containing child pornography; and further calls upon other internet providers to follow suit, in order to track down the perpetrators of this obscene crime against children.
And he's all in favour of Radio Maryja, which ought to get him on the same page as Michal Kaminski - here he is on religious broadcasting.

And, of course, he's £30,000 a year in favour of installing CCTV in classrooms, with a little help from some dodgy number-style products.
Harrop Fold, a comprehensive in Salford, is another school that has installed cameras and microphones in its classrooms, but just to monitor teachers, the school says.

In the last four years, since executive headteacher Antony Edkins took the helm, the percentage of pupils achieving five GCSEs with grades of A*-C has grown from 18% to 52%. The cameras have made a "very significant" contribution to the rise, Edkins says.
Is that significant with 95 or 99% confidence?

Of course, what's genuinely telling here is the name of his company; Classwatch. I'm interested to know if any of you have a view on what the difference between the two worlds in his head is; I reckon he thinks that CCTV is OK because it's directed at the mob, or at kids in state schools, who clearly deserve it.

But I'd be remiss if I didn't mention his junket to Syria, where I think they know a thing or three about mass surveillance. There's contemporary authoritarianisms for you.

[Shall I make Tory of the Week a regular feature? Thrashing the corpse of Labour is so 2005, and, y'know, pre-emptive activism and all that]

first mover advantage

If it's possible to get Americans to start a string of minor riots in order not to have at least $80bn worth of national healthcare, surely it must be possible to start a good row about whatever it is the Conservatives have in store for us? We stand to lose at least that and more. I ask in the light of this post at Bickerstaffe Record, which suggests, not stupidly, that making an Aunt Sally of the credit rating agencies might be a good idea for a demo.

After all, it's very true that they played a key role in the great crash, and before that in the post-dotcom Enron/telecoms fraudfest. As Eavis & McLean point out in The Smartest Guys in the Room, the rating agencies were in the best possible position to work out just how much debt Enron had hidden down rabbit holes and in other people's wheely bins - because every time Enron pulled another fancy dan financing, they had the ratings agencies rate the bonds that came out of it.

We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.

And, strategically, this is always going to be a problem, because unlike all other forms of credit risk assessment, the agencies make their money from the party issuing the debt, so it's always in their interest to be optimistic. (Similarities with this little beauty of a deal are entirely appropriate.) When they are dealing with private clients, that is; if it's Argentina or Britain involved, they just go ahead and shoot. John Quiggin has an excellent post on their failure and their role in pushing PFI in Australia.

But I have my doubts that any such action will change their opinion; in fact, it wouldn't be the aim of such an action. The point would be rather to render their opinion less relevant and alter the conditions under which it is formed. However, I have just ordered the domain name, and I welcome suggestions for what we might do with it.

More broadly, what worries me is that the Tories will pull some horror out of their back pocket in the financial year 2010-2011, and by the time it's passing through the House, we'll just have started getting angry. This is one of the historical lessons of On Roads; if you really want to stop something, you need to start earlier than you think.

This is why, by the way, projects like FreeOurBills are important. If there's no point protesting about a road project after it gets into the national programme, the answer is to shorten the feedback loop and react quicker. This is much more interesting and important - real citizen technology - than Twittering for Iran, DDOSing low value Russian Web sites, or any of the other manifestations of the fake version.

So this is one of the few good features of open primaries I can think of; they provide an opportunity to put together an organisation early in the game, which is roughly how Obama dunnit. In a parliamentary system, though, this is much less important.

Shouldn't we be getting our lists together now, rather than waiting for the Tories? I agree that this implies giving up on the elections, but then, who wouldn't, and who doesn't suspect that a surviving Labour government wouldn't be just as bad?

...from the sea

What's wrong with PROFIT?! Death to all Marxists! Hey, I usually try to remain calm, but this is getting unnerving. Everyone with any sense knew there would be an epic wingnut freakout after the US elections - the structural forces made it inevitable, after all the time spent denying plate tectonics - but who imagined that the tactical triggering event would be the healthcare bill? I was thinking in terms of carbon tax, or something that could be presented as a racist issue - immigration, perhaps.

But there you have it; you really can turn these people on and off like a tap and turn them on anything, like a hose. If there's one remark I never want to hear again after the last few years, it's the one about "if you don't believe in God, you'll believe in anything".

Meanwhile, things like this happen:
“We are working taxpaying jobs, paying taxes, and we can’t get insurance because we make $6.55 an hour,” said Laura Head, 32, of Rogersville, Tenn., the first person in line Friday for the first day of the Remote Area Medical clinic, an annual three-day event offering free medical care. “This is really a great beneficial thing, but it doesn’t have to be this way; we could all have insurance.”

A single mother of three who mows yards and moves trailers for a living, Head said she arrived at the fairgrounds Tuesday, to camp out at the fairgrounds until the health fair began Friday morning. Her motivation was simple: severe, constant pain.

Close to two years ago, her boyfriend smashed her teeth, she said – but, without the $6,000 needed to have the teeth pulled she has endured infection after infection, making literally 100 visits to the emergency room for antibiotics and pain medication.
Back in February, 2008, I blogged about the French Navy dropping off a load of school books for New Orleans during a port call. I'm beginning to think that someone should write the story about one of their new Mistral-lclass Batiments de Projection et Commandement doing a free clinic on the tank deck, like the US Marines do from their LHAs in West Africa, as part of a semi-acknowledged drive for political influence in a zone of potential pre-insurgency and instability.

Or would the redcoats be more shocking? Albion would be the obvious ship, just for the name.


Danny Rampling:
Since I've become a property developer my life has changed for the better
I suppose this was always on the cards. Kasimir Malevich:
We are in a desert .... Before us is nothing but a black square on a white background!

he wasn't kidding, you know

Meanwhile, look who's got a new album out; others agree. Northern Stomp is officially twice as interesting as anything else you might find to listen to this year; I agree with Stylus that their main problem back in the late 90s was that they were a preview of the future, with a less...hideously white, as Greg Dyke would have put it, record collection behind them.

Also, if the title song is anything to go by, they're swinging back towards the northern anger of the first album; I'm currently seeking legal advice as to whether destroying Brighton would be necessary and proportionate in order to get at the Indelicates.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

false positives

I got around to updating the Viktorfeed whitelist, and whilst I was at it, doing a clean-up of the database to remove all the known false positives by deleting all the movements that came from an airline that was on the list. Interestingly, this gave me an opportunity to calculate the false positive rate - as it turned out, about 7% of the entries in the DB were false positives, in other words, an accuracy over about a year of 93%. Which I don't think is at all bad for a system based on adding airlines to the whitelist as they appeared in the feed, but then again, this only covers the first phase of filtering and doesn't include a lot of once-off movements.

left behind

I was hoping we wouldn't be seeing any more of these., on a high latency satellite link, searching UAE Google for IraqLEStaffScheme. My original post on the official instructions for UK employees in Iraq is here. This is why I was keen to re-raise the issue before the final withdrawal, which is now looking more and more final.

Meanwhile, I still haven't heard from my new MP, marquee name Campaign Grouper Jeremy Corbyn....even Greasy Phil Hammond was better.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


The remaining British training team in southern Iraq has been moved to Kuwait to await negotiations on their future status. A suggestion: couldn't they perhaps wait in...Britain?

tectonic plates

Over at CT, a link to two polls - here and here. The killer finding is that the same sort of percentage of the US population, and the same sort of people, deny that Barack Obama is a US citizen *and* that the American and African continents were once part of the same landmass.

Specifically, an actual majority - well, a plurality - of Republicans disagree with plate tectonics. The crossbreaks are hilarious; the only groups of which this was true were Republicans and Southerners, but the most likely groups to get it right were blacks, Latinos, and Democrats, in that order, so those were almost certainly the same individuals.

So far, another stupid Americans story. But the differences between the groups can be summarised as follows:

  1. Less Republican groups had a small but real advantage in the percentage who voted yes.

  2. More Republican groups had a considerable lead in the percentage who voted no.

  3. More Republican groups had many fewer Don't Knows.

I think the most important statement is number three. The Democratic- and fact-leaning groups, although they had significant numbers of people who got it wrong, were much more likely to say they weren't sure than to choose No. Being unsure of the answer, they expressed doubt.

Republican-leaning groups weren't just more likely not to know, but more likely to plump for an answer anyway. Fools, you could say, rushed in.

Now, I really don't believe quite that many of them are ignorant of basic geology - I rather suspect that the question tripped a number of trigger words (Africa!) before getting to that point. Everyone thinks like that a lot of the time.

This is, of course, how operationalised post-modernism works - what matters is the theatre of action, jumping and yelling and trying to dominate the mental space, and all that determines which way you're pointing is a small set of identity-defining talking points. Did you know Senator X is weak on fufferum? Did you know that?? But why aren't you talking about his position on elefurt? That's what I want to know! The base have probably internalised this to a considerable degree.

That does raise the possibility of getting things done by tailoring your message to fire their immune receptors. The classic example is adding the word "security" to whatever proposal you have. Similarly, the Decent Left project was based on giving a whole lot of ugly right-wing ideas the right biological markers to stimulate a certain kind of leftie.


From the 14th to the 15th century, women became much taller. Around the same time, says Chris Dillow:
In the 13th and 14th centuries, the richest people were overwhelming those whose names derived from places, whilst the poor tended to have names derived from crafts: Smith, Wright and suchlike. However, by the 16th century, this link between wealth and surnames had vanished; the rich were as likely to have craft surnames as the general population.
This, says Clark, suggests that there was complete social mobility, if we look at a long enough time-span.
You can probably guess that my pattern recognition bias and salience heuristic are going ape with this apparent correlation. What does this say about the entry to the early modern era?

it's the new Middle East, or something

What's happening on the Viktorfeed? Something called "Skyway Ltd", using the ICAO code DGD, is doing quite a few flights into Iraq and Afghanistan; so is "Transaviaservice" or FNV. This last is the current owner of Antonov 12 ER-AXE/7345201, which we've had here before, both with Aerocom and with a shortlived project involving routes from South-East Asia to Australia that somehow required a cargo door that could be opened in flight. They also have ex-Air Van aircraft, and one that was used by Astral in Kenya; and several of their An-72s are on lease to SkyLink.

Since the An-12s were banned from the UAE, they've apparently moved to Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, indeed as far north as you can go before it ceases to be Iraq. Here's a of one of their An-72s in Tarin Khowt, Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Ethan Zuckerman muses on the possibilities of jarking for a good cause; he wants to release ammunition that deliberately jams the firer's weapon into the illegal supply chain. There's much more arms trade goodness, including this cartoon and his realisation that....
As I read the story, I realized I knew most of the terminology used, not from a close study of the issue, but from Frederick Forsyth’s classic novel, “The Dogs of War“.

fake private contractors

We've not had a good fake police story for a while. Here's one, though; Californian driving a car kitted out as a police vehicle stops a real policeman and gets arrested. It's not quite as good a story as all that - the real police car was an unmarked one, so the symmetry isn't perfect. Apparently they think he planned to rob the guy; surely you wouldn't plan to be the only fake policeman on the streets?

Or perhaps he was working on the principle that being robbed by cops was a plausible event in Oakland, which is telling if true.

Much, much more seriously, the Guardian concludes that the kidnapping of Peter Moore in Baghdad in 2007 was a police-as-fake-police job, perhaps Iraq's distinctive contribution to violence. It's argued that they wanted rid of him to prevent the implementation of a huge management-information system that would track all payments to government contractors, and therefore bring about an epic reckoning of just how much money was being stolen.

If true, it's well worth pointing out that he wasn't the only foreigner to pay the price for resisting the spectacular corruption festival we created in Iraq; the fate of Dale Stoessel, for example, remains a mystery. He was involved with a contract to dispose of surplus military equipment, at the same time as the famous 99 tonnes of arms imported from Bosnia in the Ilyushin-76 ER-IBV failed to arrive in the Iraqi arsenal. The aircraft frequently went on elsewhere from Baghdad; I've long suspected that the weapons were being re-exported, or possibly sold to the insurgents.

Interestingly, we do have at least one case of valuable goods being simply driven out of the front door of Baghdad Airport. Special detail: the perpetrator was a fake private contractor.

police and thieves

Bruce Schneier and Jason Sigger, usually sensible sources, both mock a study by some thinktank or other which raises the supposed possibility of hackers "using the Internet to start a nuclear war".

As they both point out, the possibility of anyone getting access to the actual command and control firing chain with metasploit is so remote as to be ridiculous, and we'd do much better to worry about tidying up old radioisotopes in Russia, and perhaps not having quite so many nuclear bombs.

My only objection is that we have, in fact, lived through a serious attempt to do just that, immediately after Lashkar e-Toiba terrorists attacked the centre of Bombay in December, 2008. As you might expect, they didn't try to get control of nuclear weapons from the command line.

Instead, they attempted to use the Internet to influence the political leadership - they placed a call to the Pakistani president's office, spoofing the calling line identification message in order to give credibility to their effort to pose as the Indian foreign minister. My technical analysis is here; the Indian government's investigation later showed that the attackers set up a VoIP network with nodes in the US and Austria for their own use.

Presumably the idea was to provoke the Pakistanis into doing something that would destabilise the situation, causing the Indians to respond and thus triggering Pakistani mobilisation for real. The Guns of August, 2.0, with Princip using a Linksys SIP handset.

Clearly, there is still a need for the existing nuclear states to help the new ones establishing solid command and control procedures, including the communications elements that make them work; one of the problems of international crises is that the system to be secured suddenly gets a whole lot bigger, as other systems - in this case the diplomatic/protocol bureaucracy - become closely connected to it.

It's not the early 80s hackers of War Games we need to worry about - instead it's essentially trolls, provocateurs, empowered by the technology available to today's spammer.

It strikes me that the possibility of ambiguous identity is a hard one to grasp; for a very long time, it was safe to say that such a message was unlikely to be a fake, and if it was, it was probably faked by a proxy for the real enemy. Consider the case of 4chan vs. AT&T.

AT&T null-routed the server which carries the bulk of 4chan's content; everyone freaked; AT&T claimed that a denial of service attack was coming from that IP range. But it was hardly likely that the 4chan crowd, of all people on the Internet, would have been daft enough to launch a denial of service attack from their own machine - DOSs have essentially always been distributed over many, many hacked computers (DDOS, for Distributed Denial of Service) since the first botnets emerged in the early 00s, this being harder to counter, offering much more stolen computing power, and being much more difficult to trace to its source.

A detail in the Ars Technica story explains it all. One of the sources cited mentions "persistent ACK scans" - when a computer wants to start a TCP connection, as used for the Web, to another, it sends a message called a SYN to the receiving party, which if it gets the message and wants to reply, sends a message called an ACK to the address provided in the SYN. If received, the sender replies with a SYN-ACK and then starts transferring data.

4chan was experiencing a DDOS attack itself at the time. Putting these bits together, it's clear that the attackers were altering the source header in the packets they threw at 4chan to point to a machine somewhere in AT&T's network, so that every one received generated a further packet thrown at the AT&T machine. This is a classic; it gets you two attacks for the price of one, it conceals your own position, and it brings the possibility that AT&T might go ape and do the job for you. If the first target is especially big, you could also use it to magnify the volume of traffic, in a so-called reflector attack.

It's surprising and depressing that they weren't aware of that; no more surprising and depressing, however, than the way so many people have been willing to believe patently false information just because it's "secret".

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