Sunday, May 30, 2010

mystery space rocket

Armscontrolwonk wants to know what the X37-B spaceplane is for.

some Afghanistan links

After that somewhat depressing post, let's cheer up with...war. Here are the proceedings of a conference on whether or not the aid ISAF boasts of delivering in Afghanistan actually works, whether on its own terms or as a military strategy. I notice that "winning hearts and minds" has achieved the ultimate honour of being granted an MLA (Multiple Letter Acronym) - WHAM - even at a conference where Templer's criticism of his own remark was repeatedly quoted. There is much interesting stuff in there - notably that greater "religious seriousness" was correlated with less violence, and that field studies tend to bear out the Kilcullen interpretation - the people they interviewed didn't want the Taliban to take over, rather, they supported them in order to exert pressure on the Afghan government, as an intermediate institution.

Also, they point out that small-scale aid projects are effective in both the aid sense and the counter-insurgency sense, but that the big ones suffer from the false perception that economic development and modernity are forces for stability - they are not.

I'd quote more, but their server is 503ing.

Here is the British contribution to another conference on the Afghan war, which I find to be one of the most interesting parts of the whole thing (Jason Sigger has links to the whole lot here). A British company commander gets $4,000 to spend on reconstruction work - specifically, the kind of quick-reaction small scale projects that the Wilton Park conference found to be most effective - during his tour, but any one of his soldiers can spend $100,000 on destruction at any time by firing off a Javelin anti-tank missile, and the last British brigade in Afghanistan got through 254 of them in six months. It doesn't help that they rarely get brought back unused - simply because once you've fired one, you don't have to tote the damn thing any further. Oh, and the intelligence people are struggling with dire government IT. Perhaps the camo app store might help?

The US National Security Strategy uses the word "energy" more often than "military", and "climate change" more often than "intelligence"; but I'm surprised that it only uses the word "urbanisation" once.

And here's a really excellent article on the logistics of Afghanistan.

some memories of west Bradford

Well, this is grim. Intelligent comment is to be found here, in Jamie Kenny's interview with David Wilson.
Would you say that serial killers are a kind of negative indicator of the health of society in the sense that the fewer victims there are, the better society functions?

Serial killers function best within fractured communities, where people don’t look out for each other, and when the gap between those who have and those who have not is wide. In cultures such as these no one really bothers to notice the elderly neighbour living by themselves, or the kids who are homeless because they don’t view these people as having value, or being connected to their lives. Serial killers also exploit homophobia and our laws related to those young people who sell sexual services. When I was in Ipswich in 2006 I used to point out that less than an hour’s flight away was Amsterdam and that no Dutch serial killer had ever targeted prostitutes.

There's also a nasty surprise; according to Chris Williams, who actually met him, he was working on precisely that question, whether the 19th century's apparently low murder rate was explained by the fact that the victims of Victorian murderers were more likely to just vanish rather than be reported to the police.

Well, Yorkshire scores another historic first. I used to work off Thornton Road, and also in Dockfield Mill in Shipley; they're both places where the death of the textile industry left behind a lot of rotting mill buildings that then got re-purposed by all kinds of odd little businesses. Dockfield Road is less so, more traditionally industrial, and there are terraces of classic working-class homes part of the way along it, just about where the pie van parked up when I was working in an envelope factory.

Thornton Road, though, is nothing but old mills and warehouses, now become small engineering workshops, garages, curry wholesalers and the like, a sort of Yorkshire favela development. The district, in the valley between the university and Great Horton Road on one side and Manningham on the other, is not identified with any community - hardly anyone lives there, they only work there or cut through the backstreets to avoid the inner ring road. (Oddly enough, the anarchist 1 in 12 Club is round there too, up the hill towards Westgate. And so are the Quakers.)

The vice trade moved down there after the girls were driven out of Lumb Lane, further uphill (uphill and downhill are always important directions in Bradford) and northwards in the centre of Manningham; this event has been variously considered to have been an example of community vigilantism, Islamism, and also to be associated with control of the drugs market and black/Asian tension, which later led to serious violence. In the 1990s, you could drive past any time of the night or day and see drug dealing going on - I also remember that one of the corner shops still had a sign outside advertising paraffin.

When I worked in an industrial bakery further up the road towards Lidget Green (and its Pathan community), and would walk back down towards the city centre, stinking of roasted high fructose syrup and cream-style product, I remember passing a huge billboard for Coca-Cola with some pouting model reclining across it. Some Four Lions character had decided to deface this example of imperialist decadence and fitna, but rather than aiming for the cleavage or the thighs, or for that matter the Coke, they'd chosen to tear down the face.


I disbelieve strongly in all attempts to define "generation this or that". So I was reading this with at least a pint of scorn, when it occurred to me that I was working in a tech start-up and I'd been to a 2-Tone gig at the weekend.

the big computer

I really need this book. It's already on order. Relatedly, Chris Dillow points out that managerialism doesn't work any better in the negative sense - cuts - than it does in the positive sense - spending, or at least, that as I've said before, if you believe the state is by definition incompetent to allocate investment, you shouldn't believe that it's competent to de-allocate it.

shower jobby: the politics of buses

OK, so we took the piss out of the Policy Exchange crowd for seeing reds under the seats on the bendy buses. The group rights agenda. But the interesting thing about the Borisbus is that in a sense, it bears Dean Godson and Andy Gilligan out - design and architecture are, of course, deeply political activities. We shape the things we build, and thereafter they shape us, as Winston Churchill said to RIBA (twice - he believed in making aphorisms earn their corn).

Essentially, the new bus - pics here and here - is a bog standard Wrightbus double decker with some fibreglass styling features, meant to evoke the look of the Routemaster; there's a funny asymmetric front end, a staircase, and an open platform that isn't actually open, because it is behind a door which will be locked while the bus is in motion. This stuff is pure ornament - it is utterly without function. Neither is there actually going to be a conductor; the existing revenue protection patrols will occasionally be on board, and that's it.

Now, the thing about adding a lot of nonfunctional stuff for the sake of style is that it has costs. The Postmodernist architects were fascinated by the way Las Vegas casinos and the like were basically huge industrial sheds, covered with playful flourishes of style, plush carpets, neon signs; but the reason why they could get away with this is that a huge clear-span shed is a pretty efficient solution for housing a business process of some kind, whether it's a semiconductor fabrication line, a giant distribution warehouse, a brewery, or a giant exercise in legalised fraud controlled by Lucky Luciano. The huge plaster likeness of Nefertiti draped in purple neon canted over the entrance at 27 degrees from the vertical isn't getting in the way of anything.

But this doesn't work in a setting of engineering rather than architecture. Changing the internal layout of a bus affects its primary function directly; one of the key limiting factors in the capacity of a bus route is how long it takes to load and unload the bus, which determines how long it waits at each stop and therefore how fast it travels. Making people climb the stairs to get in and out has real performance consequences. As pointed out here, when the rear door is shut, anyone trying to get off the bus will have to push past people getting on to use the middle door.

Also, carrying around a platform and a staircase takes up space that could otherwise be used for...well, that could otherwise be used rather than pissed away on content-free curlicues. As pointed out here, the new bus has fewer seats downstairs than a Routemaster despite being 3 metres longer. I thought we were trying to take up less space on the street and improve the turning circle?

Of course, the reason why giant motorway-side warehouses and casinos can be like they are is that they are usually built in places where land is cheap and there is lots of central London, right?

So what does this tell us about the design politics involved? The first, and obvious, point is that design has consequences. As a result of the whole daft crusade, for years to come, bus users will be putting up with a worse quality of service. Frequencies will be lower, because dwell times will be higher. Alternatively, London will just have to buy more buses to maintain frequency, and fares will go up. Using the buses will be a more exasperating and unpleasant experience than it is now (and that's saying something). Further, people who for whatever reason find the stairs difficult are going to be punished.

Second, it's the victory of form over content. It's not a Routemaster; it certainly hasn't had the years of kaizen that went into the original design and specifically into the hard engineering of it, the engine and drivetrain and running gear. It doesn't even look much like one, but the key stylistic tropes are there in order to pretend it does. I'm surprised they didn't stitch a Lacoste croc on it. And, of course, the costs of this shameless fuckery will endure.

Third, the past must have been better. There is really no reason at all to try to make a modern bus look vaguely Routemasteresque other than kitsch and nostalgia, and it's no better for being Gill Sans/Keep Calm and Carry On kitsch rather than the Laura Ashley version. You bet there's going to be a lot of this crap in the next few years. (Fortunately, it also looks like the official aesthetic of David Cameron is going to be achingly unfashionable, like an official aesthetic damn well should be.) But if there is any reason to be nostalgic for Routemasters, it should surely be for the unrivalled engineering record of high reliability; being nostalgic for slower boarding times is like being nostalgic for the good old days of rickets. Come to think of it, Tories do that as well.

In conclusion, this is modern conservatism, implemented in hardware, with your taxes. The obsession with PR, spin, and guff in general? Check. The heel-grinding contempt for the poor? Check. The pride in technical and scientific ignorance? Doublecheck. The low, ugly, spiteful obsession with getting one over on political enemies? (It's of a piece with behaviour like this.) Check.

Key quotes:
(via Boriswatch): "Never underestimate our masters’ obsession with outward form, as opposed to function and content." That's Gilligan, of course.

Via Adam Bienkov, "When there is no extra staff to mind them, the platforms will be closed with what Boris called a "shower curtain type jobby."

There's a point where his risible little village idiot act crosses over into a demonstration of overt contempt for the public, and this is it. I propose to refer to him as Shower Jobby from now on, and I would like to see this elsewhere.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

it's not about the science

It's a rare day when Andrew Wakefield gets struck off and Nick Griffin is forced out of the BNP leadership. But this will not do:
Today's verdict ‑ the striking-off of Wakefield and Prof John Walker-Smith, who was in charge of the department of paediatric gastroenterology at the Royal Free hospital in London, where the research took place and the acquittal of the-then junior consultant Simon Murch, who had doubts about the project ‑ was about ethics and honesty, not science.

It was about the attitude of the doctors to their child patients. While Walker-Smith made errors of judgment and ultimately paid the price because of his position of responsibility, Wakefield emerged from the hearings as a tarnished character, branded dishonest. He was found to have subjugated the needs of vulnerable children to his desire to prove a theory....

But Wakefield's disgrace will not stop him arguing over the science, flawed as experts say his arguments are. Based in the US, where he will still be able to work as a scientist ‑ if not a doctor ‑ and with a considerable following among the desperate parents of autistic children who get too few answers about the distressing illness, he will continue to portray himself as the victim of the British medical establishment. It is not all over yet.

As Anthony Cox says,
However, while Wakefield has gone, the media environment that allowed him to drive down vaccination rates continues to exist.

Bizarrely, the papers - not even the Grauniad - still seem unable to even mention the fact that Wakefield's results were worthless. For that, you've got to go to some random blog - like Holfordwatch, devoted to harassing the tiresome media nutritionist of the same name. Fortunately, Mr. Holford decided to get involved in the Wakefield affair, and so some of Holfordwatch's light was shed on Wakefield. As they rightly say:

But Holford is concerned about the measles antibodies in the cerebro-spinal fluid and the gut tissue of the children Wakefield examined; Holford believes that Wakefield found evidence of this. Whatever significant problems there may be with the rest of Wakefield’s work, surely this is the crux of the matter?

Indeed; if there was evidence of measles virus, then there is at least the faintest possibility that he might have been on to something. But there was no such evidence, or rather, the evidence he presented of them was spurious. Dr. Nick Chadwick, Wakefield's student in the late 90s, actually carried out most of the tests for measles RNA - and he repeatedly got either negative results, or else results that turned out to be false positives on closer scrutiny.

Chadwick and Wakefield were using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to look for measles viruses. It works by using the enzymes that copy DNA sequences in nature, causing base molecules to polymerise - link together in strings - in the same order as they are in the original sequence. Many millions of years of evolution went into this process, and it is very efficient indeed at copying the nucleic acids. There is the rub. If there is any DNA at all anywhere near the sample, PCR will copy it, and once copied, it will copy it again, and again, until the concentration is high enough for other methods to be used.

The danger of high sensitivity is the creation of false positive results. It is absolutely essential to success that experimenters with PCR take truly obsessive precautions against cross-contamination. In order to check the validity of the positive results, Chadwick sequenced the RNA (measles viruses don't have DNA - technically, what he was doing was RT-PCR, using a reverse transcriptase to copy the measles RNA) from the positive results and compared it with that in the MMR vaccine. If the viruses were those from the vaccine, the sequences would be identical; if not, the result was invalid, as whereever they came from, it obviously wasn't the vaccine. He also compared the sequences with samples of measles collected in the wild.

All the nine hits achieved with PCR turned out to be false positives.

Wakefield was also sending samples elsewhere for analysis; Chadwick found that, again, the results were false positives, and that the lab in question was producing an unusually high false positive rate, evidence of possible contamination. Also, some of the samples sent away were duplicates, included as a check - if measles was present in one duplicate, it would also be present in the other, so both of them would be hits. If only one of the duplicates was a hit, this would suggest that something was wrong.

He formed a theory that the measles antibodies they were using to detect the virus were suspect, and might be reacting to one of the gut bacteria rather than measles, which if true would have required tearing up all the results and starting again. The sequences did match an artificially bred strain of measles, unknown outside the lab environment, which strongly suggested that some of the material or equipment in use was contaminated.

But none of this bothered Wakefield, who pressed on; Chadwick eventually refused to be cited as a co-author of the paper Wakefield sent to the Lancet. The whole sorry story is on the public record - Chadwick testified in a lawsuit in the United States in 2007, and his testimony is here. Elsewhere in the case, there's also an interesting technical discussion (go to page 145) about PCR and false positive results.

Can anyone guess why the British press doesn't want to discuss this part of the story?

The Amnesty Rule

Has anyone ever accused Amnesty International of being silent on (insert abuse here) and not been lying through their teeth? Seriously; I've had this argument so many times on the Internet since, ooh, 1996 or thereabouts. It always follows this pattern:

A: Amnesty International says that some government/movement/company/faceless mob B supports is doing something incredibly evil.
B: Amnesty International? Well, A, why doesn't Amnesty do anything about government/movement/company/faceless mob, opposed to my cause, and their incredible evil?
C: Actually, Amnesty organised a entire campaign against it. It's in their annual report for YEAR, which is online, at LINK.
B: Woof woof woof. *waves hands*

I don't think I've ever seen this happen when B actually had a point - time after bleeding time, it followed this exact course. I therefore intended to declare this as a law, like Godwin's Law. The Amnesty rule - anyone who asks "why doesn't Amnesty speak out on X?" is lying.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

very real concerns

What Sunny said. One of the most depressing things about the Labour leadership candidates' focus on The Very Real Concerns is that it enforces a deeply negative, ungenerous, and futile definition of what those Very Real Concerns are. If you're concerned about - to be brutal - the labour share of national income, and how it might possibly nudge up a tad, about housing, about unions, about green issues, you're out of luck. Your concerns are not Very Real ones.

These issues only get to the status of being Very Real if you can somehow work an immigrant in there. It's a circular process - the Serious People are only interested in Very Real Concerns if the Concerns concern immigrants. Why? Because only concerns concerning immigrants are Very Real Concerns that interest Serious People.

Of course, this is probably because it's hard to use a privatised immigration detention centre to build council houses. Once you've acquired certain skills, habits of mind, contacts, networks, etc, you will try to apply those solutions to everything. Part of the problem, of course, is that toughosity has a zero lower bound, a bit like the interest rate; there is no utopia of immigration detention.

the tape recorder, for special music

As relief from that 1,210 word wall o'text, this:

Things to Make and Do was an oddly foreshadowing title for 1999.

we're the muslimeen, creating a scene

So, I went to see Chris Morris's takfiri flick, Four Lions. Short review - it's desperately, barkingly hilarious. Stupidly funny. It started with the snickering. The snickering led to giggling and the giggling led to batshit honking horselaughs all night long.

Perhaps too funny - one of the markers of Chris Morris's work is that everyone is an idiot, is responsible, and deserves the most extreme mockery and sarcasm. The jihadis are either simpletons, paranoiacs, or deluded. The police are bunglers. The defence establishment is desperately trying to be as ruthless as the CIA but can't manage it. Democracy is represented by Malcolm Sprode MP, a contemptible Blairite stooge, brilliantly observed, babbling nonsense. The mainstream of British Islam is represented by a Sufi imam who is an obscurantist windbag full of half-digested quotations, who keeps his wife locked in a cupboard ("It's not a cupboard! It's a small room!", he protests). The general public are either tiresome eccentrics or half-wits. The NHS employs the jihadi leader's wife as a nurse - she is charming, tough, probably the most sane and competent person in the entire movie, and she offers him crucial psychological support when he doubts the wisdom of exploding. Even his little son is cool with Dad blowing himself up and encouraging all his friends to do so as well, and weighs in to help him through his dark night of the soul and on the way to self-induced fragmentation. The real jihadis on the North-West Frontier treat the international volunteers as especially low-grade cannon fodder, hardly surprising given the volunteers' self-regarding pomposity and utter inability to do anything right.

This plays out in a nicely observed version of Sheffield; it's as much a Yorkshire film as Rita, Sue, and Bob Too or This Sporting Life. There are a hell of a lot of jokes that turn on this; they only need to drive up a hill and climb over a dry stone wall in order to go from the deep city to somewhere you can safely test-fire a bomb without attracting attention. While meticulously reducing their stash of hydrogen peroxide and assembling the devices, they pose as a band - it's Sheffield, after all. What else? Inevitably, they attract a rehearsal studio hanger-on somewhere between cool and fairly serious mental illness. Again, who else? Their in-house psychopath is responsible for proclaiming the Islamic State of Tinsley (I really began to lose it with this bit). The volunteers hugely overestimate their knowledge of Islam, and suffer from a sort of quasi-colonial superiority complex to actual Pakistanis in Pakistan - one of them makes the serious mistake of calling a Waziri sentry a "Paki banchut!". (George MacDonald Fraser would have had him knifed for that, but Chris Morris has crueller plans for him.)

They learn that their cover has been blown from a news screen on the Sheffield Supertram; Omar, the leader, works as a security guard at Meadowhall.

There is a great moment of direction early on where the camera catches the shopping centre roof lit up just as the sun is coming up, catching it briefly showing off its oddly Islamic dome. Around the same time, we watch the CCTV feeds from within the centre through Omar's eyes - the place is entirely empty and a large sign announces "SHOPPING", with an arrow pointing upwards. Clearly, when he looks at Britain, this is what he sees.

Omar is a classic type, an autodidactic revolutionary, the only member of the cell with any self-reflection or intellectual depth or capacity for anything much. He's a man surrounded by novelty-marathon running managers, daft younger brothers, and SHOPPING with an arrow; arguably, what he's really rebelling against is the sheer horror of Chris Morris's worldview. A main force in the plot is his progressive self-corruption - he is throughout the least convinced of them about the rightness of their cause, chiefly because he's the only one with any capacity for doubt. As the mission progresses, he resorts to increasingly sordid deception to keep the show on the road through this or that crisis, and his eventual explosion is more motivated by horror at his failure to stop the others from blowing themselves up and a sense of having run out of options than anything else. It's also telling that, despite his fury and loathing at British consumerism, self-satisfaction, etc, he's by a distance the best dressed, shod, housed, and generally equipped member of the gang, redrafting his manifesto on a shiny new laptop in boxfresh trainers, although he does have to communicate with the others and The Emir through a children's social network website called Puffin Party.

Barry, on the other hand, would have been the Islamic State of Tinsley's chief of secret police. Barry is the only offcomed'un and the only white man in the group, not so much a convert to Islam as a lifelong convert to non-specific extremism and raging paranoia. As the plot progresses, despite his spectacular ineptness, he begins to take over as the driving force, and eventually it is his action that forces them to go ahead with the attack. One thing he has successfully learned in a long implied career of political madness is that paranoia, ideological enforcement, and ruthlessness pay. This doesn't mean his thoughts make any sense, though; his idea of strategy is to blow up the mosque in the hope of triggering a wave of race riots and the revolution, but he rather undermines his planned false-flag operation by insisting on recording a martyrdom video taking responsibility for it. A hopeless case in anything that involves practical work, he helps to doom the plot by recruiting any fool he falls in with and blames everything that happens on Jews.

Cameras play a special role. The wannabe terrorists are compulsive film-makers - a running gag has Omar with a laptop at the kitchen table, despairingly trying to edit the latest rushes of his comrades' martyrdom videos into something presentable. They keep filming and filming, but they always get it wrong - accidentally advertising fast food, posing with a tiny plastic gun, falling out about strategy as the camera rolls. Barry insists on doing a second video just in case they attack the mosque anyway. Omar is secretly keeping an out-takes reel for his own amusement. Reliably, people freak out and fuck up as soon as the red light comes on; Faisal falls over a sheep and accidentally triggers a suicide vest while clowning for a bit of impromptu iPhone video. Hassan makes a fool of himself at training camp by firing off a Kalashnikov for his holiday snaps. As well as Omar's official making-of project, and their own unofficial video diaries, the state is also making a movie - several scenes show that they are under surveillance as they carry out a test explosion. But it's a blooper in itself, a sight gag; the cops raid the wrong house and only succeed in giving themselves away and encouraging Omar to bring forward the attack.

The police response, like the mad conspiracy theories and the bomb making and the ratty, third rate band scene gaffs, has obviously had the benefit of careful observation and a close reading of the Stockwell II report - it follows the detail for Operations KRATOS and C closely, and as actually happened, the command and control system breaks down at once and the wrong man is shot, but there is far worse left to happen.

I urge you to see this film at once, although given that you read this, you probably already have done.

Friday, May 21, 2010

stable and principled

Meet the new project, everyone - reporting on our new Stable and Principled government, especially its unstable and unprincipled bits. I have just broken my duck.

There's also a twitter feed, facebook group, so on and so forth. It comes with Tom Boriswatch and Naadir Random!

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Yr Viktorfeed. I fixd it agin. Kthanx fr fiting evul strukturd html!

In other admin, I finally found out what the mysterious referrals were. London Fixed Gear and Single Speed, indeed. Maybe I should get a new haircut?

Flushing the cache

Well, ha ha. But I do think we should note that David Cameron's appointment as Prime Minister was greeted by the markets with a dramatic spike in the price of gold, not usually seen as a vote of confidence. Here's the data, at Felix Salmon's; as he points out, trying to map events in consensus reality to market charts is a sucker's game (although I did once have to explain that the giant V-shaped downspike in MTN stock on the chart was the day when half the management team died in a plane crash).

In other post-election cleanup, YouGov did some polling about the public's preferences. The only group of people not to be consulted about the coalition - that's us! - broke 20% Tory, 33% Unholy Alliance, 39% Lib-Lab. Anthony Wells, like a good Tory, points out that this means 53% of the public wanted Tories in government, but doesn't mention that by the same token, 72% wanted Liberals in government. Ah, the times when we were the nation's least despised option. Also, how many people would have wanted a Labour minority government?

Hopi points out that the key lubricant in the coalition is money, and that both parties have agreed to give money to each other's pet clients. Interesting contributions in comments from Alan Beattie and Dan Paskins, babbling idiocy from others.

Computer Weekly is interesting on the future of the NPfIT debacle. Also here.

Healthcare volunteers in Kenya: it doesn't work. Turns out you need to "pay" people to "work" in "jobs" if you want to achieve anything lasting.

Whatever the coalition does, I've a feeling this story will determine how it ends up - on China's property bubble, banks, and the coming blowout of the government deficit as it inevitably bursts and lands on the government's books. As Doug "always up to no gooood" Henwooood would say, he believed in the collapse of capitalism until he realised the power of a good bailout. When the Chinese banks blow up and get bailed out, will American right-wing nuts blame that on black people?

Moving swiftly on

Well, that was grim, wasn't it? I refer, of course, to the new government. Having read through the coalition agreement, I'm almost convinced by Charlie and Jamie's argument that it's really not that bad. Almost. I'm not particularly worried by the supposed 55% thing either, for reasons well explained here - it's fairly obviously an attempt to self-bind, a costly signal of commitment to cement the deal, and it's probably content-free.

On the other hand, there's the NAMELESS DREAD. It's pre-rational, emotional, Lovecraftesque...political. And look at some of the gargoyles and Queen's bad bargains in the government. Also, Vince Cable at the Mandelsonministerium is a reasonably good idea, but couldn't we have got at least one real job? Obviously, the Tories couldn't have worn a Liberal foreign secretary for ideological reasons.

What went wrong with this post? I think the key unexamined assumption was that the Labour Party could be treated as a united actor for negotiating purposes; I didn't take into account that significant numbers of backbench MPs wouldn't support a coalition or wouldn't support an electoral reform bill. I still believe that significant numbers of Tory backbenchers will rebel, but the coalition whips have more leverage over them with the Liberals as a reserve pool. Obviously, it's telling that the Labour whipping operation would pick this moment, rather than - say - March 2003, to break down.

It's also telling just who was lobbying the Labour backbenches; David Blunkett, John Reid, and Charles Clarke! The three monkeys of Blairite authoritarianism, a sort of negative triumvirate of failed home secretaries. Because, after all, as I said about identity cards back in 2004, we are going to win. That is, in fact, the only good thing here; the achievement of NO2ID and Phil Booth is that all political parties except one went into the 2010 general election pledged to abolish the National Identity Scheme. And, crucially, the civil service gets it - I hear that IPS is actively looking at contingency plans as to what to do with its officials when the NIS shuts down, how to cancel the contracts, disposing of office space and kit, that kind of stuff.

Hilariously, my dad spent quite a lot of time trying to get the IPS to give him an identity card, in order to demonstrate various flaws in the process - he was eventually issued one after the intervention of the chief of identity cards. He's now trying to decide whether to sell it on EBay or frame it. Does anyone have suggestions as to what to do with an British National Identity Card?

So, no ID cards, no NIR, no ContactPoint. Home Office junior ministers have swung from people like Phil Woolas to Lynne Featherstone. I should be delighted. But then, yes, nameless dread. I agree that it wasn't so long ago that it looked like we'd get Dave from PR with a majority of 100, so I should be pleased that the damage control exercise has been a success. But, no. Perhaps I should concentrate on MySociety stuff; perhaps I should concentrate on London politics. I have no idea if I'm going to stay a Liberal member.

One thing that will be happening is a new blog patterned on Boriswatch that will be covering our Stable and Principled new government, especially the unstable and unprincipled bits.Check out our statistical model of coalition survival, which is currently showing them sticking it out for the full five years...yup, nameless dread all right.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

sampling the ambient

ContentFree Comment has been turning up some real nuggets just lately.

a politics lesson

Back to the politics, although of a different kind. Here's the Guardian's piece on Alfie McKenzie, the 14-year old socialist who succeeded in voting on Thursday. What strikes me as politically interesting here isn't that Alfie's a socialist, or that he pulled it off, or even that he refused to speak to the Daily Hell on principle, but this bit from the news story:
He went home, changed into his uniform, and got the bus to St Aidan's school, where he made the fatal mistake of confiding in a few friends, and telling a teacher in strict confidence. "The teacher went straight to the head, and the head called the council – but I don't think the council had a clue what to do about it in the beginning."

What a wonderful human being that teacher must be. There's a political lesson for you - if you tell them anything in confidence, they'll rat on you. Alternatively, the behaviour of responsible adults is to snoop and betray confidences. Obviously, which lesson is learned will depend on the pupil.

the tape recorder, for special music

OK, something other than a relentless focus on politics for a moment. I mentioned on my facebook profile - which is showing worrying signs of developing into a permanent fixture, at least for elections-related stuff - that my boss's band was supporting the former singer of this lot at what turned out to be her new band's first gig. Turns out there's a blog. And there's video.

what hits?

My favourite election moments, in no particular order: Posters go viral. Donal Blaney gets disavowed. David Vance decides to test the ripcord on his suicide vest before going on the mission. Tory candidate quotes TheyWorkForYou on his leaflet; DemocracyClub volunteer gets tasked to document local campaign; uploads leaflet to TheStraightChoice; rejoicing and LotsOfInterCapping on MySociety DevelopersPublicMailingList.

how criminals communicate

A quick lesson in political plane-spotting: we observe, about 2.25pm today, a small business jet type, with minimal wing sweep and a tail about half-way up the fin, in an approach profile heading northwest over North London. Conclusions? It's an RAF Hawker 125 heading into Northolt, and Gordon Brown is probably back in London.

This article, meanwhile, is one of the most factual I've read so far.

Something I think is worth pointing out: Labour plus the Liberals, plus the sister parties who take the whip automatically, only need three seats to reach the 322 mark (don't forget the Sinn Feiners). Plaid Cymru would do. And it's not a question of forming a three- or four-party coalition. You can have a coalition with the Liberals and a toleration agreement with Plaid (or the SNP, or whoever). Arguably there are constitutional issues with Scottish, Welsh, or NI parties having ministerial posts with UK-wide responsibility - I'm on record as saying that no-one has ever been killed as a result of the West Lothian question, but it's a point.

Also, Labour has leverage on the Scots and Welsh parties; Labour did well in Scotland, and could only do better campaigning against an SNP that put Tories in national office. The Tories did unexpectedly well in Wales, and a similar effect might be expected for Plaid Cymru.

Another point is that the bargaining payoffs are quite interesting (I finally get to use my International Relations MSc!) - the Tories must get Liberal support to get Labour out, so they have an incentive to bid high. Labour can stay in office to the wire, and then dare the Liberals to vote in a Tory government - because of the King-Byng Thing and the Senex letter, there is no requirement for a second election in the event that the government is voted out on the Queen's Speech, so this would make Nick Clegg into a suicide bomber. Therefore, they have an interest in starting the bidding low (although not so low as to risk insulting the Liberals).

On the other hand, the Tories probably think they are still winning, so they have an incentive to cheat, making a high offer to the Liberals without any intention of carrying it out, rather than calling an election at the first opportunity. As significant numbers of Tories are potential rebels against electoral reform, the Tories' bid incentives are high offer but low credibility. Labour's are lower offer but higher credibility.

In classical IR theory, we'd be looking at this point for a costly signal, as described so well in Diego Gambetta's classic book Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate. The reason why the Tories and Labour can try to obfuscate their credibility is that talk is cheap. For a signal to be credible, it has to cost the signaller something. This could be either general or specific; whatever the cost is, the fact it exists lends greater credibility to the signal, but signals can also be "cost-discriminating", when it costs someone who is telling the truth less than it would a liar.

Labour has apparently already hoisted a costly signal - offering the Liberals a referendum on strong proportional representation and several cabinet seats. The cost here is that Labour might lose out from PR, and that offering cabinet seats to Liberals means sacking existing cabinet ministers.

But the Tories' offer is startlingly puny. Offering a Speaker's conference real-soon-now pretty much defines the concept of a cost-free and therefore worthless signal. Perhaps they are trying to signal that they don't think they need the Liberals, so as to bargain us down? If so, they're very close to the point of making an insultingly pathetic offer. Of course, there's no reason to assume the Tories are competent, or that they have an accurate assessment of their own capabilities - the Dunning-Kruger effect will be playing a major role here, especially as no Tories have ever operated in coalition since the time of Winston Churchill. The "Tory coup" strategy, which is the Tories' bargaining threat, seems to be going the way of the Schlieffen plan - once it starts losing time, it's doomed.

And von Schlieffen famously wanted to keep the right wing strong; Tory unity is far from given.

What's the Liberal position in signalling terms? Obviously, the more Labour thinks it can count on Liberal votes, the less it's going to offer - if they are certain we won't vote with the Tories, their optimal strategy is to sign up Plaid or the SNP, form a minority government, and take it to the Queen's Speech. The Tory position is similar, but marginally less so - they don't have the option of simply digging in on the high ground.

So, we need to signal Labour that they have to make us a real offer. We also have to make an opposite signal to the Tories that a centre-left coalition is a serious prospect. And the signalling has to be costly to be credible, although obviously the least costly signal is to be preferred. The simplest way of doing the first of these is to let the Tories keep talking. It keeps the press hanging on, but it doesn't involve any actual policy commitment. And, if they act rationally, the longer they wait, the higher they'll go. It pisses off most of the party, which would appear to be the cost of the signal.

So I suppose I agree with Nick. That leaves a question; what should the corresponding signal to Labour be?

a centre-left nation needs what kind of government?

One outcome of all the MySociety work for this election was the survey administered by DemocracyClub volunteers to all candidates. The results by party are graphed here, with standard deviations and error bars.

Some immediate conclusions: Surprising egalitarianism. Look at question 1, which asks if the budget deficit should be reduced by taxing the rich. Only the very edge of the error bar for the Conservatives touches the 50% mark; the only parties who have any candidates who don't agree are the BNP and UKIP. Also, question 4 ("It would be a big problem if Britain became more economically unequal over the next 5 years" - agree/disagree) shows that there is a remarkable degree of consensus here. The three main parties of the Left - the Greens, Lib Dems, and Labour - overlap perfectly, and even the lower bound on the Tory percentage is over 50%. Only the 'kippers and the fash even skim the 50% mark at the bottom end of their distributions. This may actually not be a statement about far-right thinking, because of...

Extremist internal chaos. On every question except the one about immigration for the BNP and the one about the EU for UKIP, these two parties have huge error bars for every question. As soon as they get off that particular topic, the error bars gap out like the bid-offer spread in a crashing market. Clearly, they agree about very little other than their own particular hate-kink. So the result in my first point could just be because they always have the widest standard error and deviation.

Immigration, or a field guide to identifying British politics. If you're a Liberal, Labour, or a Green, you've got no problem with immigrants. Even the upper bounds only just stroke the 50% line. All the parties of the Right, however, overlap around the 80% line. Need to identify someone's partisan affiliation quickly? Wave an immigrant at them. The other culture-wars question about marriage is similar, although the gap is smaller and the error bars bigger.

The consensus on civil liberties. Everyone, but everyone, thinks there are far too many CCTV cameras about. All parties overlap at between 68-78%...except for Labour. Labour is the only party that supports CCTV and it supports it strongly. There is just the faintest touch of overlap between the top (i.e. least supportive) end of the Labour error range and the bottom (i.e. most supportive) of the Tories'.

Trust and honesty. Liberals, Labour, and Conservatives all think politicians are honest. No doubt this is because the respondents are themselves politicians. Interestingly, the exceptions are the BNP and UKIP. Very interestingly, the BNP is united in cynicism, whereas the UKIP error range gaps-out dramatically on this question. The Greens' error range converges dramatically on exactly 46% agreement - they are almost perfectly in agreement that they don't agree.

Art and culture; only 'kippers, BNPers, and a very few extreme Tories don't support state funding of the arts.

Britain is a European country and is committed to the European Union. You can't argue with the data; the Tories and Greens average between 20-30% support for withdrawal, zero for the Liberals and Labour, and even the upper bound for the Tories is well under the 50% line. Obviously, the BNP and UKIP want out, which is obvious and after the election result, arguably trivial.

Pacifist fascists; bellicose conservatives; divided lefties and 'kippers. OK, so which parties are least keen on military action against Iran, even if they are caught red-handed building a nuke? The Greens are unsurprisingly 86% against with minimal error - perhaps the only occasion they would turn up a chance to oppose nuclear power! The other is the BNP - 82% against. Who knew we would find a scenario in which the BNP would turn up a chance to kill brown people? Labour, the Liberals, and UKIP would split down the middle - they overlap perfectly around the 50% mark. The Tories, however, are the war party - 39% against, with the lower bound well clear of the other parties. The UKIP result is strange - you'd expect them to be basically like Tories or like the BNP, but they are most like Labour on this issue, although they have a tail of happy warriors. The BNP is also the party most opposed to continuing British involvement in Afghanistan - even more than the Greens. Labour, the Liberals, the Tories, and UKIP overlap heavily around being narrowly in favour, although UKIP as usual gaps out when it's not discussing how much it hates the EU.

Even the Toriest Tories say they support UK Aid. This one's fairly clear - even the upper bound for the Tories is well below 50% and everyone else serious is much lower. UKIP and the BNP are strongly against, but their error bars are quite wide - clearly, they're not sure whether they hate foreigners enough that paying them not to be immigrants is a good idea.

Summary: We're a broadly social democratic European nation, with a few nutters for comic relief. And Chris Lightfoot's Political Survey results (the primary axis in British politics is liberty-vs-authority, strongly correlated with internationalism-vs-isolationism, and the secondary axis is egalitarianism-vs-libertarianism, but there is surprisingly little variance along it) from 2005 appear to be confirmed.

I don't know what they mean by that...

I'm actually quite pleased with our little demo. I wasn't particularly enthusiastic when we assembled in Trafalgar Square, where various speeches were made of which not one word was audible (note to the various orgs involved: I'd happily spring for some batteries for the loud hailer. I mean, my student union would have got that right, to say nothing of the SWP...). And Morrismen kept invading our space.

I originally thought this was some regrettable, Lucky Jim example of sandal-socks liberalism. Actually no; I'm informed by Tom from Boriswatch that this is actually our mayor's idea of culture, and actual taxpayers' money is being paid out to them. Perhaps it's a sort of defensible-space gambit to make it harder to protest there.

Eventually, Billy Bragg - for it is he! - suggested from the platform that we march to Smith Square and picket the Local Government Association building, where the Lib Dem MPs were meeting. This basically turned the demo around, and at least it stopped him singing; off we went down Whitehall, snarling up the traffic, calling on the recently expanded camp around Brian Haw's pad, hurling abuse at the Sky News media-slum in College Green, flanked by policemen radioing each other to work out where we were heading.

Smith Square is not roomy; this is why those TV pictures of Tories celebrating outside Central Office always looked like more of a party than they probably were. So the crowd looked bigger and the shouting was louder. And, well, we stuck around yelling until Nick Clegg came out to speak. Again, I couldn't hear a word, and we actually found out what he said via Twitter on Tom's BlackBerry. Which made sense, as a major aim of the demo was to get onto the TV streams and RSS feeds the MPs would no doubt be obsessively monitoring.

It wasn't a big demo, but it was targeted - the LGA building was already staked out by a huge media presence, with the steps of the church opposite festooned with camera crews, reporters buzzing around like flies round shit, and a big ambush of photographers and more TV cams on the LGA's steps.

This was crucial - as we were arriving during the meeting, there would be nothing for them to report on or film other than the outside of a decentish Queen Anne block, which is better architecture than it is telly. All it took was for the camera gang on the steps to swivel through 180 degrees to get a perfect angry-mob shot, while the ones on the church had a reverse angle view of a crowd apparently besieging the building. Cropping in to emphasise the speakers would tend to compress the scene, giving the impression of a more dramatic confrontation.

The results? Well, we got far more news than I expected; and we seem to have traumatised Kay Burley.


The expression on her face at the beginning is priceless. How dare they! This wasn't on the autocue! There's more here; later in the day, I was with Boriswatch and his charming son, Alfie, who seems to be training as a Dickensian pickpocket (he relieved his father of a £10 note with positively Sicilian panache), in the Westminster Arms, which offers its customers two TV screens, one locked on Sky News and the other to BBC News-24. With a bit of neck-craning, you could just about watch both simultaneously in a sort of split brain media experiment - what was telling was that there was more Shannon-information in the BBC feed, far less repetition, the BBC didn't deliberately misquote Nick Clegg in all its on-screen graphics, and the BBC didn't insist on informing me every three minutes that Mohamed Al-Fayed had sold a rather unfashionable department store.

Seriously - yesterday of all days, Al-Fayed's sale of Harrods was in the top three stories on Sky News for at least two hours. And, as a hint, Nick Clegg didn't say the Tories had a "right to govern", which they repeatedly asserted as a direct quote; he said that the largest party had the right to be consulted about a coalition first, which is far from the same thing.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Resisting the stitch-up

Does anyone know what time the Liberal parliamentary party and federal executive committee meetings happen? I presume the first will be at the House and the second at party HQ...

a great time to be a crazy backbencher

So how did I spend the election night? As it happens, I decided to go to bed about 1am, noting that I was beginning to get as drunk as most of the people on the BBC visibly were and there was still a while to go before any really substantive data came through. Did anyone else notice this, by the way? I've never seen so many important people visibly pissed before. The ruling class drinks in psychic defence, as Mr. Pop would say. And the inhabitants of the best election night thread ever.

And I am amazed that my wave of doom from yesterday has passed. I'm also delighted by the virality. Horrified by our fantastic electoral system - 800,000 more LD votes than last time, and a smaller parliamentary party? Guilty for not going to campaign for Susan Kramer. Informed that actually, "the markets" don't care about us and there is plenty of other stuff happening in the world. Delighted by BNPFAIL and Charles Clarke and David Heathcote-Amory and Nancy Mogg and Jacqui Smith and Peter Robinson joining us all in obscurity.

I do have a serious point in this post, which is credibility. Tories on the Today programme this morning were talking about offering electoral reform for the Lords and local elections; this is not a meaningful offer, as a proportional Lords wouldn't be much different from the current one (which has been fixed to be roughly even). For the Tories, it's cost-free, and therefore meaningless in terms of signalling theory.

More seriously, what credibility does David Cameron have to offer anything?

To make any realistic offer from the Conservatives to the Liberals credible, they have to prove that they're willing to pass PR for the Commons with Liberal votes against their own backbenchers.

One thing we do know about this parliament is that it's going to super-empower everyone's backbenches and the odds-and-sods - this is what happened in the Major years, and he had a (bare) majority. And the last-ditch Tories hate PR - hell, some of them probably aren't fully reconciled to the Reform Act of 1832. They have nothing to lose but their safe seats; they would have every incentive to hold the government hostage at every opportunity, and they'd be roared on by the extra-parliamentary Tory right.

We simply can't accept promises from Cameron, because there is no credible assurance he can deliver on them. And it is simply unacceptable for the outcome of an election in which 51% of the public voted for either Labour or the Liberals, and no overall majority emerged, to be that a party with 36% of the vote forms a minority government. Demonstrate tomorrow. 2pm Trafalgar Square. If you're not in London, why not put the show on right here?

(I just noticed that the BBC results page now puts Lib-Lab ahead of Tories-DUP-Lady Sylvia if they somehow manage to bribe her round. And you've got to count in the 4 NI MPs who take the Labour whip.)

According to the boy Band, "London lost it for Cameron". So meanwhile, here is some music.

ruhbarab rhubrabb rhubarb

What have they done to Kenneth Clarke?

Thursday, May 06, 2010

you know what to say

Michael "The Arabs Are Comeeeenk" Gove on t'telly. Not convincing as a master manipulator. Even he doesn't dare claim victory. Says we need "humility".

Loads of guff about uniform national swing projections based on the exit polls. UNS probably doesn't work on this data. Everyone agrees with that. But everyone's being Tebbly Serious about the poll. Except for Flipper Gove. I wonder why that is?

Dave from PR: I think I can govern. I don't have a majority, even on the projections we know don't work, but I THINK I CAN GOVERN.

Jesus wept - Sheffield polling stations have been turning queues of voters away.

resist the stitch up

So here's the plan; it looks like Bush vs Gore 2.0. Bullshit, bluster, and fake it 'til you make it. This is actually incredibly outrageous - we're in the middle of a contested election and one party doesn't feel itself bound by what is, effectively, the constitution. And the original version of the Grauniad story in the print edition was considerably worse; it included quotes from a "Tory frontbencher" being actionable about the Cabinet Secretary on the grounds that he worked in the Treasury, was in fact Treasury Permanent Secretary, at the same time as Gordon Brown. Among other things, it is terrifying that the "frontbencher" is so ignorant about the Civil Service that they didn't know that it's entirely normal - even expected - for the top man to be a Treasury civil servant.

This seems relevant, not to mention this; I've been slipping into a deep sense of fear and loathing all week, rather as you might slip into a silk nightgown.

So I'm going to launch my own counter-narrative now. The answer to "we won we won we won" is "resist the stitch up". And, as soon as the polls close, I want to get this out as much as possible. As soon as you read this, kindly go and use the phrase.

Update: Sunder Katwala; there's already a Twitter hashtag and a provisional date for a demo - 2pm Saturday, Trafalgar Square.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Pyramid schemes in Darfur

I briefly touched on South Sudan's new instant brewery yesterday. A associated, rather than strictly related, development is this startlingly weird Reuters AlertNet story; OK, so there's been a riot in a refugee camp in Darfur. Right. People have been killed. Not good. But a riot by people who lost money in an investment fraud? In the wilds of western Sudan?

Seriously. It seems that someone in El Fasher ran a classic Ponzi burn on a large number of people. They paid in money or goods and received "certificates"; to begin with some of them actually received payouts; then, as always, the curve went exponential, the inevitable crash arrived, and they lost it all. And then they went looking for the guy who burned them, with a view to burning him.

The weirdest bit of this is that you can actually promote a Ponzi fraud there; Charles Ponzi invented his eponymous scam in the hyperurban world of Italian Boston in the 1920s. How many people would you expect to be even vaguely familiar with the concept of investing money in securities in a Darfuri refugee camp? A few years ago, there would have been no chance.

The Sudanese government's own peculiarly vicious take on counter-insurgency, which bears a similarity to the Soviet strategy in mid-80s Afghanistan, was to bomb and raid them until they flee to the big city (in relative terms), where they are thought to be easier to keep an eye on. Samuel Huntington - for it is he! - thought something similar was happening in South Vietnam in the 1960s. In an odd symmetry, the logistics of international humanitarian aid reinforced this - aid is delivered to the refugee camp, because it's where refugees are, and it's near an airfield.

The result has been a form of instant urbanisation; interestingly, however, there is little evidence that the strategy was successful in its own terms. The population has become an urban one, but that doesn't mean its opinions are any different, and the problems of policing an instant city are hardly any easier than those of patrolling a vast wilderness; the guerrilla base area still exists, but rather than being the desert, now it's the urban wall of silence - a fortification in software.

In other news, you may consider this a contribution to Daniel Davies' ongoing international symposium on "The Geneva Conventions - Actually Pretty Good When You Really Think About It".

Sunday, May 02, 2010

notes on denial culture

Just a couple of disorganised thoughts on this. There's a sort of integrated cultural package of denialism out there; rather like Michael Berube's Wingnut Software Package.

Key components: Computer hate. I encountered people complaining that the Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud was being forecast with "the same computer models that forecast global warming". No doubt we'll soon see the reverse argument. In general, anything involving a computer is wrong.

Bending it like Ulrich Beck-ham. There's a sort of bastardised version of the thesis of Beck's The Risk Society, which is that "politicians" or "bureaucrats" are uniquely risk-averse. This isn't content-specific; any and all decisions get the same response. It also doesn't preclude you from attacking them for being incautious if the decision is later reversed. Essentially, the notion of taking precautions that you might then reverse in the light of better information is unacceptable.

Hating women. Intelligent men in positions of responsibility were willing to blame Harriet Harman for a volcanic eruption. This is literally a witch-hunt.

self-refuting dave is self-refuting

Meanwhile, Dave from PR reckons his own spending cuts aren't tough enough. All election campaigns go into the surreal phase eventually.


Quietly, as the election campaign goes on, the NHS IT programme has gone from "heading for the rocks" to "sailing into the cliff". Has NPfIT put us back 10 years? asks the NHS chief in Rotherham, who's taken the recently announced option to bail out of the project and deploy something of his own choice. He's also chosen to do a soft-launch rather than a monster all-or-nothing go-live - so he's probably worth listening to.

A key problem, apparently, is a lack of the right skills - people have simply drifted away from the project as the reek of zombiedom has become ever more intense. It's somehow awe-inspiring that it was possible to spend £12bn without attracting hordes of the talented and the merely opportunistic.

The guy who got out earlier - the Paul Allen figure - speaks, and says that the project was doomed because the clinicians didn't support it. Where have we heard that before?

A safety critical bug emerges.

Some areas have suspended uploading patient data to the Big DB; weirdly, it turns out that the official business case for the summary care records was never approved.

Even weirder, many of the trusts that sent out letters to millions of people, red-alerting NO2ID into action, weren't actually planning to upload - they just did it because some budget became available for publicity, and hey! budget! Thus accidentally throwing a giant NO2ID demo at the taxpayers' expense.

killer meme watch

Apple's internal security team may be scary - and especially the name (Worldwide Loyalty Team). But they are as nothing, in terms of creepiness, to this Microsoft web page, which provides the criteria against which MS employees are assessed for their use of humour and the targets they are given to improve. You will not be able to unread this.

In fact, it's the kind of thing for which the only valid response is to pretend to take it seriously. Why not print out a copy and carry it around? Score your friends against this fine 4x4 matrix chart!

Via this comment, it turns out that the program is based on the ideas of a 70s cult leader who fell out with the Scientologists in a dispute about intellectual property - how very Microsoft of him - and who reconverted his organisation into the management consulting industry. (I've often thought a terrorist group should try that one some day.)

The Wikipedia article on the dispute is very funny - two blind men fighting over a comb doesn't really do justice to the full absurdity of it, as two cult/hucksters duel over the rights to the kind of ideas that shouldn't be treated so much as property as like toxic waste, or one of those weird codicils that occasionally force some poor swing-voter to fork out for a new church roof. If they were sane, they'd be fighting to get rid of this stuff; but then they wouldn't be there.

But the really interesting thing is that Werner Erhard's ideas have already killed one of the great computer-development groups, Doug Engelbart's Augment Lab at SRI, which dissolved into a stew of project failure and ego wars under their influence. Here's the money quote, from What the Dormouse Said:
A woman who Bob Albrecht, the People's Computer Company guru, had been involved with went through the training and came back transformed into a very un-Zen-like creature. She no longer believed that everything was interconnected, but rather had decided that she wanted it all for herself and would do anything to get it.

There's a key cultural inflection point right there. And I bet Linus Torvalds doesn't make sure to check that
Do I ever encourage a near party atmosphere because of my comfort with using humor?
always returns False, or worry about finding his personal brand.

IPPR: I agree with...

The Institute for Public Policy Research has issued a report on the correlates of BNP membership and support (pdf).

Fascinatingly, they reckon that there is very little or no correlation between BNP support and key socio-economic indicators like GVA per capita, growth, unemployment, immigration, etc. It's as if a typical BNP supporter was, well, a case of free-floating extremism. (A dedicated swallower of fascism; an accident waiting to happen.)

Oddly enough, this replicates an earlier result.

The Nottingham University Politics blog has a more nuanced response, but I'm quite impressed by the fact that two analyses based on two different metrics of BNP support - votes in the IPPR study, membership in mine - converged on the same result.

it's called "power" for a reason

This story from Rajiv Chandrasekharan about two rival approaches to sorting out Kandahar's electricity supply is informative, but not just about its apparent topic. Basically, the US Army wants to go for a quick fix, installing a lot of mobile generators and trucking in the diesel fuel, in order to get the lights on as soon as possible. The US civilians in Afghanistan disagree, on the grounds that it's a temporary hack that will be far too expensive for the Afghans to support in the longer run.

Incredibly, it turns out, the US/NATO base at Kandahar air field produces and consumes about 100 megawatts of electricity; the estimate for the gap between current levels and requirements is 42 megawatts. Obviously, the military has a point in that if it's possible to produce that much electricity in the field, it may be foolish to keep playing around with grandiose projects when a call to Aggreko could cut it.

On the other hand, as in Iraq, electricity is deeply political. We speak of generating power for a reason.

Deploying 42MW of mobile diesel gensets to Kandahar is one kind of solution; it defines the issue as a discrete project, which can be solved by standard logistics methods, drawing on a private contracting firm that specialises in delivering surprisingly large electricity projects in containerised form. It also commits whoever rules in Kandahar to import large quantities of diesel through the shaky logistics pipeline from Pakistan, which means that somebody has to find the foreign exchange to back the most expensive way possible of generating power, and keep the roads reasonably open, which has its own military and political consequences.

You could argue that it's not actually a solution - in fact, it's a substitute for a solution, a temporary, containerised fix delivered as part of a standard tool-kit for counterinsurgency. A lot of people would argue that there is no such thing. Certainly, though, this option implies that donors continue to pay the bills, somebody continues to patrol the roads, and someone continues to pay off the Taliban between there and Quetta. I can't help thinking, looking at a lot of the growing technology of instant urbanism (suitcase GSM base stations, palletised VSATs, Aggreko gensets, Sun Microsystems containerised data centres...) that a lot of this stuff might actually be a sort of negative toolkit of local optimisations. I'm trying to be optimistic, though; a less depressing example is here, in which South Sudan gets its own brewery. (I never realised producing beer was so bulk-increasing that it was worth importing all the inputs except for labour.)

On the other hand, the US civilians' alternative is to press on with the Kajaki Dam project; the British Army brought off an incredibly complex tour de force in finally getting its new turbines delivered, involving a major operational-level deception plan, the building of a new road, and 4,000 men, but it's still not making much progress. Adam Curtis would probably have something interesting to say about the fact that it's been the major development plan for southern Afghanistan since the 1950s. The reason is, of course, that it embodied a particular political vision.

In terms of what might be called conflict urbanism (see this post) the Kajaki dam would seem to be a really bad idea; the plan is to generate power out in Taliban territory and have Kandahar depend on that. We know how well long-distance transmission lines survive in an environment of insurgency and counterinsurgency from Iraq; not at all. Of course, given that something like 40% of the power goes missing in transit, this is itself a sort of suboptimal political solution on the part of the people who live near the wires.

By comparison, generating power in town and having it radiate out to the villages is obviously a very different kind of politics - the conceptual fit with the counterinsurgents' intellectual legacy is quite clear. However, I can't help but doubt that anyone's going to be importing all this diesel into Kandahar in two years' time, nor that Aggreko or whoever's expat staff will be entirely cool with a stint there. Of course, the problem is deeper than that; the contractors' war-risk insurance policies come to mind.

The bill is apparently a cool $200 million; at $4/watt, a 42MW concentrating solar power plant would come in at $168m and produce power independently.

But I suspect this is as likely to happen as the other way of getting enough foreign exchange for Kandahar to buy its own fuel is to be accepted. Another notable fact is that the US Army is looking at getting the GCC countries to pay for the diesel bill - entrenching, in other words, southern Afghanistan in the Saudi sphere of influence.

they're protecting us, but we don't know who they are

Jamie Kenny mentions Thailand's "black clads". Who they?

Reuters has an excellent article that gets into this question.

Witnesses and grainy video footage revealed armed men with assault rifles and M-79 grenade launchers appeared under cover of darkness on April 10 during a heated standoff between red shirts and troops trying to break up a protest in Bangkok's old quarter.

The government says the rebels, who wore black and covered their faces with hoods and balaclavas, appeared in the crowds of protesters and opened fire on troops, triggering chaos and prompting panicked soldiers to fire back in self-defence.

Government officials and the army believe the men in black are politically aligned with the red shirt movement and sought to cause bloodshed severe enough to force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call a new election.

Red shirt leaders say the "black clads" are protecting them, but they don't know who they are.

They're protecting us...but we don't know who they are. This strikes me as being very much of the times, a sort of inverted version of the Iraq war's icon, the fake policeman.

The Reuters piece also digs into the back story some distance. A possible explanation is that the men in black - surely a better translation - are former members of an army unit created in the 1970s to fight insurgents, as part of the broader cold war counter-insurgency strategy. The force in question is the Rangers - the name is important, as US advisors created the same force in several countries, apparently unaware that the term's cultural associations aren't particularly resonant outside the US. How do you even translate it?

They were eventually disbanded 10 years ago, which suggests that there may well be people plying for hire or else just on the political market generally who served in them. Interestingly, quintessential modern thinker Thaksin Shinawatra was politically close to the army officer responsible for their creation.

Also, meet the community-radio hackers of Thaksinite rebellion.

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