Sunday, June 27, 2010


This looks interesting, although could they not have put together a much lower grade single PDF, or even an OCRd text? (I know this is a regular whine.)

pessimism+optimism = future

Pessimism: if we keep burning the coal, eventually keeping warm will be the least of our worries. Where's your discount rate now, Timmeh?

Stupidity: can we get out of this Bruce Sterling novel now please?

Blame: it's Coalistan vs. Everyone Else.

Logistics: China can't lay railway track fast enough to move as much coal as they would want to burn if they don't clean up.

Science: energy use drops spectacularly once density goes over 50 people+jobs/hectare.

Schadenfreude: the Murdoch Times retracts its IPCC-bashing. Detail; the text agreed with Prof. Simon Lewis was then mangled to fit with the Party Line.

More schadenfreude: Steve McIntyre hits peak readership and enters inevitable decline.

Optimism: Exponential growth curves cut both ways, dammit. If the wind and solar people keep it up, in 2027 they'll be in charge. Prepare now for the Danish future.

More optimism: I remember when this used to be in books about the FUTURE.

2002-style blog community bleg!

Here's a question for you: when you're not reading blogs, what else do you do?

oppression in software

Adam Greenfield responds, and anyone who uses the BOAC speedbird as their avatar is probably worth listening to:
“But that becomes a political problem, something almost all geeks seem incapable of understanding, probably because its a social rather than a technical problem.”

Well, “geeks” may be incapable of understanding that, Cian, but that happens to be where we start. I mean, you guys’d know this if you actually bothered to look into what happens at a walkshop instead of taking the lazy way out and slagging it as a “kool kids” thing. The whole point, as far as I’m concerned, is to take a good close materialist look at how communities, institutions and individuals contest public space and the public sphere.

In this case, sure, the lens we’re using is technological. But the concerns predominantly have to do with accountability, agency and control, and the language is everyday. Come join us on a walkshop sometime and contribute your insight, and I think you’d be hard pressed to come away with any other conclusion.

I think what I'm getting at here is that in many ways, the power-relationships in our cities aren't embedded in architecture some much as in software, as it were. Sometimes it really is software, too - the social services' disastrous computer system that played a role in the death of Baby P, and did so by imposing a sort of dysfunctional and extreme-Taylorist workplace on the social workers, or the systems that allocate tax-credits and then sometimes demand repayments that essentially amount to the recipients' entire economic surplus.

But it's broader than that - it's about people's expectations, levels of economic security, and the strategies they adopt to cope with life. After all, everyone adapts in some way, it's just that some local optimisations cut off more options than others.

It's also about how institutions adapt to people; one difference between having visible, hardware favelas and having them in software is that it's easier to think that it's just another damn fool, or someone who is In Need of Care, although the flip is that it's also easier just to adopt a hardware fix and build a fucking great wall...

In Victorian England, the poor risked going to debtors prisons. In contemporary America, the poor face a different form of lockup.
Its walls are built out of predatory mortgage loans, rent-to-own contracts, payday lending, instant tax "refunds," the repo man, the old-fashioned pawn shop, bait-and-switch debt consolidators and a rogues' gallery of scam artists.

their law

Ackerman links to an interesting piece from Antonio Giustozzi (direct here); one of the things that comes over strongly is the degree to which the expansion of the Taliban hasn't been driven by the acquisition of public support, still less by conquest, but rather by branding, co-option, and freelancing by significant leaders in Afghan society. Arguably, the picture he draws is one in which deciding that your followers are now the Taliban is an option in politics, rather like deciding to block a road, to accept or resist a particular district chief, to tax, molest, or ignore one or the other heroin smuggler.

As a result, their specialness as a movement is being eroded even as they survive as a power. Their opposition to education and to the education of girls is being dropped as unpopular (and presumably, not supported by new recruits to the federal network); similarly, their opposition to tribal and customary law is going the same way.

Interestingly, the chief selling-point of Taliban government, rather than just tactical arrangements, seems to be that they offer basic justice and dispute resolution; this rather reinforces the view that for much of Afghanistan, they are more of an intermediary institution than a revolutionary movement. Of course, the Pakistan-based leadership may not see it that way, and may well not welcome this development. It's also interesting that Taliban judges are accepted, but aren't particularly popular - it's the absence of alternatives that makes them an attractive option.

Another very important point is the primacy of personality - it really is an environment where specific individual leaders deliver their followers to one allegiance or the other.

This interrelates, of course, with the regional politics; rather like a miniature version of Europe in the 1600s, the war is being fought over whether particular princes accept one of several particular versions of Islamic law or some hybrid of the old Afghan civil code and customary law, all of which are supported by major powers for their own political ends. David Ignatius has a sensible take on this:
The recent Washington debate over Af-Pak strategy has had it backward: This war is less about trying to defeat the Taliban militarily in Afghanistan than it is about reaching an understanding with Pakistan that closes Taliban havens there and allows a political reconciliation among the warring Afghan parties. It's a Pak-Af problem, not the other way around
Which, of course, makes it a Pak-Af-Ind-Iran-Russian problem. There's also an interesting piece on the various regional actors' plans for railways in Afghanistan.

Now, what can we say about this? The story is from Gizab, which is one of the places Giustozzi describes as having accepted a Taliban judge. The people are now dissatisfied with him and have taken the shortest way, as they would have said in the English civil war. Of course, the Americans are delighted and are dreaming of Anbar. And this is good news - it demonstrates the thinness of Taliban control, and their dependence on local affiliates of doubtful loyalty. But without attention to the wider politics - a second Geneva Accords, this time with feeling - it won't change anything.

sometimes, style is content

The Rolling Stone piece on McChrystal is actually surprisingly thin in terms of information. I give as an example this gem:

After arriving in Kabul last summer, Team America set about changing the culture of the International Security Assistance Force, as the NATO-led mission is known. (U.S. soldiers had taken to deriding ISAF as short for "I Suck at Fighting" or "In Sandals and Flip-Flops.") McChrystal banned alcohol on base, kicked out Burger King and other symbols of American excess

Those Europeans with their Burger King in the field. Really? Most of it's at that level - the RS guy seems to be as unaware as McC that the week he was in Paris began with the death of a French soldier in Afghanistan. And, as Spencer Ackerman points out, the only substantive criticism that makes it into the piece is Ralph Peters-level yelling for more brutality.

A soldier complains that under the rules, any insurgent who doesn't have a weapon is immediately assumed to be a civilian.

Right. These remarks from Paul Yingling apply. This is where the RS story comes into its own. In many ways, style is content; it tells us something about the thought processes that will be applied to other issues, about others' private culture.

But what really interests me is the concurrent sacking of Sherard Cowper-Coles. Londonstani's piece is vital, and it's well worth reading down the comments. Certainly, if it's true that he's
figured out exactly how to strike a chord with the kind of people who run Pakistan
then losing him is the biggest Taliban strategic victory since the Cheney administration blocked ISAF deployment in early 2002.

I'm especially suspicious of the role of William Hague here. Call me suspicious, but he spent the years 2002-2008 talking exactly like a hardcore neo-con. Cowper-Coles is exactly the kind of diplomat he used to insult during the run-up to Iraq. In the background to this, it seems that Richard Holbrooke is re-gaining influence, and specifically by dealing with the Pakistanis. In that sense, it was obviously intolerable for the General to be campaigning against him with the press.

Laura Rozen, meanwhile, reports on a discreet conference on political approaches to Afghanistan.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

fast zombies shoot!

So the England Zombies are looking more like Fast Zombies again. If I've bored you by talking up James Milner, I'd like to take this opportunity to claim my bragging rights. Here's something interesting; back at the weekend, in the depths of self-loathing, the Obscurer published a table showing the teams with various statistics, including shots on goal. It struck me that England were looking rather good on that, and that the top four looked mostly like a plausible semi-final line up. So I've put together a spreadsheet ranking the teams by shots on target/matches played.

Data source here. Having in my browser history makes me feel dirty for some reason.

That puts England 5th in the world - quarter finals again - but ahead of all the three possible opponents in the second round, Germany (7 on target/game vs. 7.333 - Google Spreadsheets is lax about sig figs), Ghana, and Serbia, and well ahead of the Netherlands and Italy. Further, out of the top four, Spain aren't looking a cert to qualify out of their group, and they have an even worse tradition of World Cup choking than we do. This may be daft, sunshine and beer optimism; but it's daft, sunshine and beer optimism with data.

Update: Well, would you look at that.

how Dunning met Kruger

Here is a really fascinating interview with David Dunning, of Dunning-Kruger Effect fame. As a taste, the incident that inspired Dunning:

Wheeler had walked into two Pittsburgh banks and attempted to rob them in broad daylight. What made the case peculiar is that he made no visible attempt at disguise. The surveillance tapes were key to his arrest. There he is with a gun, standing in front of a teller demanding money. Yet, when arrested, Wheeler was completely disbelieving. “But I wore the juice,” he said. Apparently, he was under the deeply misguided impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to video cameras.

He'd done tests.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Shia rage in Basra, over electricity that goes north to Baghdad. Joel Wing has more, including that the trouble spread to Nasiriyah. He also provides a short history of the Iraqi grid since 1991, including the fact that the first Gulf War reduced capacity to the level of 1920. A few years ago, even suggesting that 1991 damaged anything marked you out as an extremist.

From the same source, details of the raid on the Iraqi Central Bank. Central banking is not a trade that usually demands physical courage; Ahmed Rashid documents a rare example of the contrary with the Taliban governor of the Afghan central bank who was summoned to the front and eventually killed.

On this occasion, the interesting thing is that it's a complex, integrated attack. Suicide bombers exploded at the entry checkpoints. Infantry charged the breaches and stormed the building. Snipers established themselves on the roof, and other infantry may have created stop-groups in the streets, all in order to block the response.

The attackers destroyed files and computers and killed people. But they didn't take any money. As Masaryk said and Mao quoted, don't lie, don't steal.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Bout sidelight

Anyone know who this is?

SHARJAH // A former associate of the suspected international arms dealer Viktor Bout, had his appeal against his conviction for murder postponed yesterday because of power cuts which hit parts of Sharjah.

AS, 47, was just one of around 90 cases due to be heard at Sharjah Appeals Court which were disrupted yesterday morning due to the electricity cuts.

The defendant, who is being held at Sharjah Central Jail, was taken to the court building but never appeared inside the court because the electrical systems failed. The power cuts also affected traffic lights, homes and businesses across the emirate.

writing about Afghanistan, rather than about Brunssum or Qatar

I've finally got around to reading Ahmed Rashid's Taliban and Descent into Chaos. They are as good as everyone says. Specifically, there are perhaps three things that set Rashid apart as a writer on Central Asia. (His contacts book is outstanding, but then, he's not the only one.)

First of all, he writes about Central Asia, rather than about American politics as expressed through the foreign-policy establishment. He writes about Central Asia in the sense that he places the complex regional politics, the competition for power among Pakistan, Iran, and Russia, at the centre of the story. In fact, you could make a case that the Taliban as a phenomenon is almost irrelevant; if it didn't exist, and the political situation was otherwise unchanged, something else would be playing the role of Durrani Pashtun caucus, drugs logistical system, sink for Saudi malcontents, and Pakistani proxy.

He also writes about Central Asia in the sense that he emphasises the intelligent agency of the regional powers, the Afghans of all allegiances, the Pakistani political parties, and the intelligence agencies. This implies taking a very calm view of the actual extent to which the Americans ever controlled anything in the area - in fact, one of his key points is that the current chaos is largely due to the absence of a US policy in the 1990s, and in many ways, its continued absence up to 2005 and even now.

Rashid also provides an interesting view of Taliban sociology - his version of them is essentially another of the child-soldier and refugee camp movements of the 90s, strongly mutually similar across an arc of suffering from Afghanistan to Liberia. He suggests that their ideology is more of a substitute for Islam and for Afghan culture than anything else - a cut-down set of tropes for people brutally removed from the real things.

Of course, there are certain functions that any good tyranny needs to fulfil. You have to have outward signs, so that it is possible to enforce conformity and identify a hated target-group; it may actually be better if they are content-free, so as not to limit flexibility. You have to have exemplary violence, and again, it may help if it isn't actually directed towards victory. Eliminating people for no reason is the ultimate costly signal that anyone could be a target. No tyranny can function without denunciation - arguably, it's more important than all the other functions. And you need the possibility of competitive observance, in order to get individual initiative on your side. "Working towards the F├╝hrer" is the classic example. This may actually be a more useful view of the Talibs of the 90s - a sort of minimal dictatorship.

Finally, he provides an integrated systems view of the politics, economics, and societies involved. The creation of the Taliban, in his view, involved many overlaid political networks, those of the Pakistani trucking industry and its partners in organised crime, those of the Sindhi feudal landlords who were frequently investors in the trucking and smuggling business and also powers in the PPP, the Saudi-financed system through which international jihadis were recruited, fetched to the training camps, supplied, and sent out as cannon fodder to pursue Pakistani aspirations in central Asia, and the ISI.

From a purely Anglo-British point of view, it's worth noting that he is very hard on the Americans about the intelligence picture available to the NATO powers in 2005 when Rumsfeld finally dropped his opposition to ISAF deploying outside Kabul. He strongly supports the line that, having maintained practically no presence there and diverted their satellite and other reconnaissance resources to Iraq, the Americans let 16th Air Assault Brigade deploy into a zone of the unknown, which in the way of these things turned out to be full of the enemy. If true, this is the second occasion on which they've welshed on the agreement under which the UK doesn't operate its own imagery satellites. Rashid argues that there was a vital window of opportunity to get a broad-based political settlement in 2002-2003, which the Cheney administration* squandered in the interests of invading Iraq and pleasing the ISI/Saudi intelligence services.

In general, I can't escape the conclusion that Kashmir is still the issue.

(* - Rashid's view of the last US administration is very much a Cheney administration)

ticket punching

I recently sent off another report through FixMyStreet, pointing at the horrible state of the roads round here. (I am more than a little disappointed with the Android client app, by the way.) Within a week, some of the worse potholes had been tar'n'gravelled. Meanwhile, even more seem to have appeared or worsened. What it needs is someone to have a look down the street and think about resurfacing, or at least for some sort of statistical alert to fire showing an unusually high level of potholes based on the incoming reports.

I'm not aware that any of the councils are doing anything clever with the stats, which is itself disappointing. All the cool kids, meanwhile, are fascinated by people like Adam Greenfield and his "walkshops on networked urbanism". He likes the idea of using a ticketing paradigm for things like FMS; I'm not so sure. (More here. First, as friend of the blog Duane Griffin pointed out, geeks love trouble-ticketing and nobody else does.

In fact, Duane's exact words were that every young programmer eventually decides to design their own ticketing system. (What he didn't say is that once they have wasted their time and failed, they are no longer young.) I suspect that this is simply a case of the face growing to match the mask - a hell of a lot of IT people spend significant chunks of their time in symbiosis with either a ticketing application, a distributed version control system, or both, and as a result they come to imagine that all the world's problems are soluble in a typical Sourceforge project page.

Secondly, there is a more fundamental problem with this - it requires problems to be discrete, atomic, and transactional. In fact, as our keen and agile minds will no doubt have noticed, these characteristics are also intrinsic to the MySQL or SQLite databases that underpin these applications. You open a ticket, it gets assigned, it gets updated, it gets closed. But how do you model a persistent or repeating task, or one that involves a relationship rather than a truck-roll? I don't, in fact, want potholes patching; I would like the road surface to be maintained, which implies changes in Islington Council's budgeting and management procedures.

And I suspect that an unintended consequence of ticket-based support in general is that it trains everyone involved to prioritise cancelling the noise. Do the minimum necessary to outprocess the ticket. It requires a further, meta-level of analysis to recognise any root causes - there's a kind of old fashioned Taylorist view of organisation embedded here. If change is needed, it has to come from some sort of management layer analysing the stats. Further, and more subtly, it models the user, customer, or citizen as an entity that is either silent, or whining. You are expected to shut up, until your environment becomes intolerable, at which point you squawk.

Now, Daniel Davies would probably say that negativity is useful. It is harder to contribute positively than it is to oppose stupidity, so you're more likely to do some good to society by flinging poo than by drafting a manifesto on the future of the Left. He has a point. And Stafford Beer's Cybersyn actually worked on this principle - enterprises were silent while they could deal with their own problems, and only escalated issues in the system when they encountered something they couldn't fix themselves. But I can't help being sceptical that this is any way of organising a city. By the time you get significant numbers of tickets for cracks in a viaduct, your problems are well advanced.

free school meals

Basically, what Ian McMillan said. Never buck the Nameless Dread. It tells the truth. It may not be particularly expressive, but neither is a tail-warning radar and the two concepts are similar in function.

It's interesting how many people remember sharing school textbooks as a 1980s trope. It's my generation's version of "if you can remember the 60s you weren't there" - if you didn't share your textbooks, you didn't live the Thatcher years. I have a specific sense memory of the feel of the title page of a book that has been missing its cover for a while. Thinking about it, unsold books are stripped of their covers before being returned-for-credit to the publisher, so perhaps it wasn't wear and treat, and we had managed to get hold of some surplus stock.

Weirdly, although we couldn't afford books, we did have computers - BBC Micros, the wonderful machine designed by, among others, the man (Dr Christopher Evans) who J. G. Ballard glossed as "Dick Sutherland" in The Kindness of Women and, perhaps less of a friendly gesture, as "Robert Vaughan" in Crash, and a trans-woman (Sophie Wilson, later to work on Broadcom's DSL chipsets). So that probably explains 90% of this blog.

This is of course a convoluted way of getting around to saying that I'm quitting the Lib Dems, as should perhaps have been obvious earlier.

retrospectively consulted

Now this is truly remarkable. The Safer Birmingham Partnership has agreed to suspend its ANPR deployment. Hilariously, this is operationalised by putting bags over the cameras' heads; no doubt the good people at Harry's Place will be furious, as Muslims and RESPECT have at last succeeded in forcing something to cover its head. As supporters of the only political party that explicitly promises more CCTV, the fact that it is a surveillance camera that gets to vanish under the burka will no doubt be especially poignant for them.

However, the 72 covert installations will not be embaggened, as this would reveal their location. This probably means that any bag-free camera one encounters in Sparkbrook can be taken to be one of 'em. And of course it is amusing that they think there is any secrecy left to preserve. But the really interesting fact here is that there is going to be a retrospective public consultation, which seems to imply that ACPO and friends would like to remedy their mistake in not giving the public the opportunity to be ignored before acting, and having ignored the public's opinions, to remove the bags and turn the cameras on.

What else could be subjected to retrospective public consultation? In a sense, all British governments are subjected to such a consultation - they do what they damn well like for five years, and then the public has an opportunity to voice inchoate rage or cynical resignation. Hence our charming new government.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

all quiet on the Viktorfeed

A bit of Viktorfeed news. I've noticed, in the last few months - when the damn thing's been working - that the traffic seems to be concentrating into relatively fewer operators, and ones with less horrible reputations. Ariana, Iraqi Airways, Southern Air. There are surprises, of course - what, pray, is Tropic Air? - but there does seem to be a trend that way. And overall traffic is down a tad. Here's the chart.

I theorise that the heavy Southern Air activity through 2009-2010 was driven by the US withdrawal from Iraq.

parallel networks

Another story, but this time with real policemen - sort of. The interesting thing about the Safer Birmingham Partnership and its drive to cover Muslim areas of the city with ANPR cameras, using money from an "anti-terrorism fund", isn't so much the project in itself as what it reveals about the huge effort it will take to roll back the Major/Blair surveillance era.

This project exists in a zone beyond the public or private sectors, or central and local government; its lines of accountability, funding, and control bypass not just most of Birmingham City Council, parliament, and that stuff, but also the entire ministerial government. The funding, and therefore, presumably, the initiative comes straight from ACPO. The back-end infrastructure - the data centre and telecoms network - is also managed by ACPO, although it's located at Hendon, on the government's property.

At the local level, the agency responsible is a "partnership" between local councillors and the police - note that it's not between the local council and the police, which implies that not all of them have been informed, and there has certainly not been a vote.

In fact, a cover story was used when the project broke ground - it was described as:
Those suspicious enough to ask what the cameras were for were given the impression they were part of a Home Office initiative to tackle vehicle crime on the Stratford Road corridor, an arterial route into the city.

This statement contains two lies, one of them regarding the cameras' purpose, another regarding the institutional background. ACPO is not part of the Home Office and is not subject to parliamentary responsibility, civil service line management, the Freedom of Information Act, or indeed anything else.

Both the director of SBP and the police liaison officer (one Inspector Kevin Borg - presumably we will be assimilated. Join!) deny any knowledge of the scheme's real aims, although there does seem to be some sort of problem with coordinating the many brains of the Borg.

"It was badged as Home Office money," he [the Borg] said. "Terrorism and allied matters was not mentioned at that stage. I just don't think it was a detail that needed to be discussed at that stage."

He said he and the director of the SBP, Jackie Russell, who is in overall charge of the scheme, only discovered themselves that the cameras were installed as part of a counterterrorism initiative less than two months ago.

Very tellingly, though, the CCTV bureaucracy has no such trouble:
Colin Holder, who runs CCTV and ANPR for West Midlands police, said: "I've always known where the funding has come from. As far as I am aware, there was no intention to hide that from anyone.

the fake policemen rob a bank

We've not had any fake policemen for a while. This used to be a blog trope back in 2004-2006 - a major feature of the various wars that represented facets of the War On Trrr was the presence of forces made up of armed men either posing as policemen, or sometimes, policemen posing as nonpolicemen, or perhaps even insurgents posing as policemen posing as insurgents or vice versa (fake fake policemen, if you will). We even had a case from the United States, with a detailed HOWTO guide.

Here's a notable instance of fake police, or rather, real police robbing banks in Iraq, from Joel Wing's blog.

First was the jewelry heist in Bayaa , a southwestern neighborhood in Baghdad. Before noon five SUVs drove up to a street filled with jewelry stores and set off bombs killing four, and wounding three. The gunmen then got out of their cars and opened fire on twelve stores, their owners, and guards, leading to eleven more deaths. They were armed with RPGs, AK-47s, machine guns, and silencers. To cover their escape the robbers threw grenades. On their way out they got into a gunfight with the security forces, wounding four policemen, before they got away. The Baghdad Operations Command claimed that they had killed one of the robbers, and arrested two others. The New York Times however, talked to a local witness who said that the dead man was not one of the robbers. Iraqi commanders quickly blamed the robbery on Al Qaeda in Iraq, saying that it was meant to replenish their coffers after their two leaders were killed, and many others arrested. The intelligence chief of the Interior Ministry however said that they didn’t know who the culprits were. The neighborhood was surrounded by blast walls and only had two entrances in and out that were blocked by checkpoints. Later, several senior police officers were arrested. It’s not clear whether they were directly involved in the attack, or whether they were just detained for negligence for letting it happen.

Three days later in the town of Mishkahb, 20 miles south of the city of Najaf, a branch of the state-run Rafidain Bank was robbed. A police officer served drugged tea to the guards at the bank. Then five other men entered, and made off with $5.5 million. A day later, $1.3 million of the stolen money was found, buried near a house of one of the thieves. The bank was holding such as large sum because it was going to pay government officials at the end of the month. The branch was just yards away from a police station as well.

Drugged tea? Joel also has reports on infiltration of the police in dear old Diyala.

If there is any conclusion to be drawn here, it's that this probably isn't good news.

More reprapping futures, including Burma

Geoff Manaugh (as well as Worldchanging and basically everyone else in that line) has a post on a project at the RSA to think about the architectural consequences of RepRaps and other forms of decentralised industry. Like a lot of Manaugh's stuff, it's interesting...but it breaks off before confronting some of the more concrete impacts. What happens when the circus leaves town? Isn't part of the point of this whole project to render the economy less dependent on the macroenvironment of capital investment?

(This is a great idea, though.)

Also, arms control in the age of self contained CNC machines; Geoff Fordan from Armscontrolwonk finds out what's inside a big shed in central Burma. In fact, it's a collection of the latest computerised machine tools, but not organised into a production line of any known type, or even a Canon-like system where the robots serve the workers.

Are they planning to reverse engineer missile or nuclear technology? Of course, they could be planning for industrialisation; but who builds a CNC shop in the middle of a jungle, far from where anyone lives who might work there, or anyone who might buy its products?

peering over the bows...

I want one of these. There's more here; the sheer coolth of a USB-based PCR analyser is hard to beat. Even if the potential for Wakefield-scale contamination fuckups is not to be denied.

In general, I'm trying to get up to speed on things biotech. it is true that, so far, cyberpunk has been a strategically undervalued source of science fiction, politics, and general weirdness - we keep thinking we've got to the end of computers and networks, only to find there's more weird out there - compared to biology and nanotech, which has been a bit jam-tomorrow, always promising the revolution in five years' time. I suspect this is changing, not least in the light of this and this.

That's going to be quite a boat trip for one little robot, if not a giant step for mankind for quite a while. We might have to declare Titan a planetary nature reserve, if they don't do it to us first.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

thatcherite lysenko, and some very strange behaviour with goats and children

I knew Andrew Wakefield was full of shit, in a conflict of interest, practicing crappy lab technique, a hypocrite who thought autism was caused by measles viruses when he was in Britain and mercury when he was in America, someone who dealt with people who were promoting quack treatments like giving your autistic kid chemical castration and washing all the electrolytes out of their bloodstream...but I didn't know precisely what he was proposing as an alternative to the MMR vaccine.

Nor did he, in fact; he hadn't characterised the agent he proposed to extract from mice infected with measles, inject into goats, sorry, pregnant goats, extract from the goats' colostrum, mix with human bone marrow cells, and then inject into other people's children. His patent doesn't actually say what the "transfer factor" is supposed to be, and his proposed production process wouldn't select any specific cell type, protein, or other chemical. In so far as anyone has any idea what "transfer factor" might have been, it looks like the likeliest mechanism of action was the same one that caused a recent drug trial to go horribly wrong.

In fact, one of the main barriers to taking it further would seem to be that it might not have been permitted by the Home Office...because it was unnecessarily dangerous and cruel to the goats.

Read the whole thing - you'll learn quite a lot about human (and goat) immunology, about the man who got Wakefied interested in autism in the first place (he claimed to have cured patients by injecting them with his own bone marrow , before he got into trouble for helping himself to the opiates) and you'll be amazed that the Royal Free Hospital let him get this far with a project based on the immunology of the 1940s, at best.

It may have been for the best that Wakefield got sidetracked into being a media oaf, rather than actually getting to the point of injecting randomly selected goat cytokines into children.

One of the things that struck me was that it sounded like the sort of thing Soviet scientists might have got up to at the Stalinist nadir. Lysenko, of course, confined himself to plants. The Randi people reckon the Royal Free were influenced by the possibility he might have brought in research funding; a very Thatcherite Lysenko.

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