Sunday, July 25, 2010


Zac Goldsmith! I wonder if they could perhaps have a look at this?

Building a modern army is not simply a matter of buying the first armoured mortar system in sight

This is hilarious, from a blog I thought had gone on hiatus for good. This is pretty good too, though I say so myself.


Did you know that each successive generation of German high-speed trains has had air-conditioning plant built for higher temperatures? The trains from the early 90s handle a temperature range from -20 to +32 degrees Celsius. Those from the mid-90s, -20 to +32, but if necessary they can exceed that. The ICE Type 3 handles temperatures up to 35 degrees, and the ones still to be delivered up to 40. And the next class? They're planning for 45 degrees. Apparently the International Railway Union standard is going to be revised upwards.

three links about false positives

Via Bruce Schneier's, an interesting paper in PNAS on false positives and looking for terrorists. Even if the assumptions of profiling are valid, and the target-group really is more likely to be terrorists, it still isn't a good policy. Because the inter-group difference in the proportion of terrorists is small relative to the absolute scarcity of terrorists in the population, profiling means that you hugely over-sample the people who match the profile. Although it magnifies the hit-rate, it also magnifies the false positive rate, and because a search carried out on someone matching the profile is one not carried out elsewhere, it increases the chance of missing someone.

In fact, if you profile, you need to balance this by searching non-profiled people more often.

The operators of Deepwater Horizon disabled a lot of alarms in order to stop false alarms waking everyone up at all hours. Shock! In some ways, though, that was better than this story about a US hospital, from comp.risks. There, a patient died when an alarm was missed. Why? Too many alarms, beeps, and general noise, and people had turned off some devices' alarms in order to get rid of them.

Unlike Transocean, they had a solution - remove the off switches, because that way, they'll damn well have to listen. At least the oil people didn't think that would work. Of course, they didn't think that if your warning system goes off so often that nobody can sleep when nothing unusual is going on, there's something wrong with the system.

cuts near me

I think everyone's linked to this excellent piece on building a campaign against the cuts already, but I'd like to seize on this bit:
The more we can build up a modern ‘doomsday book’ of the effect of the cuts, the more we can help people to make the second stage of that journey when they realise that they are not alone in being hit with unfair cuts, and that they therefore need to call for a thorough-going alternative. Combined with resources to help people organise locally, and popular material that can put the economic arguments, such a web-site could be an important tool.

I keep thinking of "Cuts Near Me". As far as I can see, it would need:

Cuts ingestion. Obviously it would be cool to get the cuts automatically, but no-one seriously expects the government to issue press releases for each cut, headed "Cut" and provided in a standard XML format for structured parsing. So we need a simple form to gather some details - notably the ministry to blame and some categories - and a location, probably found on a map. Source links would be good, too, as would the nominal value. And a link to any group protesting it would be gold dust.

Validation. Kick open a form on the www and people (and other things) will type any old twaddle into it, so we might want to peer-review incoming cuts.

As far as I can make out, that's it for the write elements.

Search by category

Does what it says on the tin.

Search by date

Also self-explanatory, and the basis for an RSS feed of recent cuts.

Search geographically

Probably the most difficult bit, but it's not much more than getting cuts that fall within a given postcode, constituency, or bounding-box.

Output would need to provide a list/feed, plus a map view. I'd want the individual cuts to come with the TWFY links to the MP whose patch it is and the minister responsible, so need to get the postcode -> polygon -> contains constituency centroid mapped at the point the cut gets written.

Alerts would be nice, as would a couple of eye-catching visualisations. I think this is doable.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

repeating the 2002-style bleg...

So, if you needed a band for a 30th birthday party...come on, or I'll put it on craigslist....

stuff I disagree with

Adam Greenfield is reading about the notion of "military urbanism". I think this is oversold, and also that like a lot of concepts relating to the social aspects of architecture, it's overbroad - people chuck in bits and pieces of anything that seems to fit. CCTV? Surveillance, whack it in. Temporary buildings? Logistics and containerisation, got to be in there. The Olympics (and much of modern thinking)? Well, that seems to land up in there as well. And, of course, a lot of border security stuff, Israeli settler town planning.

I'm not convinced that the concept holds together once you squeeze quite so much stuff into it; it starts to look like a list of Stuff I Disagree With, and a lot of it isn't particularly military. There is a big difference between blowing things and people up and putting a big blue plywood hoarding round the Olympics site. One of them pisses off Iain Sinclair and the other...insert joke here.

read the whole thing

How did the British Army decide to fight the Helmand campaign as it did? Chatham House has a fascinating paper by Anthony King on the development of the campaign, the abandonment of the original plan, and the processes of decision-making that led the British to fight as they did. The original plan, it turns out, was very different to the implementation - quite a few observers in the summer of 2006 tended to think that the infamous "platoon houses", outposts in northern Helmand held by small groups of Paras, were an ill-thought out effort to implement a counterinsurgency strategy and live among the people. If they had been, this quickly became impossible due to constant and intense fighting with the Taliban just to hang on.

But it seems that, whatever the aim of this deployment, it was a major departure from the original plan.
The plan identified the area around Lashkar Gar, the provincial capital, and Gereshk as vital. This area was defined as an Afghan Development Zone on which British inter-agency efforts would be focused. DFID and FCO would work within this area,
improving living conditions and governance. As part of this plan, the Helmand Task Force was ordered to establish a British centre of operations at Camp Bastion and to secure a triangle of territory between that base, Lashkar Gar and Gereshk.

The military plan for Helmand developed by 16 Air Assault Brigade involved two fundamental elements. In order to secure the Lashkar Gar–Bastion–Gereshk triangle, one company from 3 PARA would be deployed to Forward Operating
Base Price near Gereshk. The other companies would be used either to secure areas for the provincial reconstruction team or to conduct raids against areas in which ‘insurgents/criminals’ were known to operate.11 With 3,500 troops, of
which only 600 were infantry, the plan for Herrick 4 was ambitious, as Stuart Tootal, the commanding officer of 3 PARA, recognized: ‘Even if our operations could be limited to the region around Lashkar Gar and Gereshk as we planned,
it was still a huge area for the limited number of troops that I would have at my disposal."

But as it turned out, there was immediate pressure from Afghan politicians to drop this plan and to send soldiers much further north, on the basis that the Taliban were about to overrun various places where there was meant to be some sort of Afghan government presence.

British troops were quickly deflected from their officially designated task of securing the Lashkar Gar triangle. Almost immediately upon deploying to Helmand in April 2006, the commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, Brigadier Ed Butler, came under political pressure from the incumbent governor of Helmand, Mohammed Daoud. Daoud claimed that various settlements were about to fall to the Taleban, and would do so if the British did not deploy immediately. As a result, Brigadier
Butler deployed his already meagre forces across Helmand province from Garmsir in the south to Musa Qala in the north. In all, the battlegroup spread itself across seven major positions, about 600 square miles of difficult terrain.

According to Antonio Giustozzi, what was happening was that the Quetta Taliban leadership was trying to move to the third phase of the classic revolutionary war strategy and build up a force there to attack Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the hope this would lead to a general collapse of the state, and northern Helmand was on the main infiltration route from Pakistan via the Ghilzai tribe's territory - but nobody on the Allied side knew this.

The upshot was a string of vicious localised battles around the outposts; over time, they became surrounded by a depopulated war zone of ruins, wrecked by Allied firepower, itself surrounded by the enemy. There were nowhere near enough soldiers to go out and pursue them, or to expand the defences to include the whole local area. The British were isolated from the population by their own close air support and fixed in place by their isolation from their own forces.

The FOBs formed an archipelago of partially secure islands whose small forces were unable to suppress Taleban activity beyond a narrow strip of territory: ‘The soldiers might push the Taliban back a kilometre or two. In the process they might uncover a small-arms cache or a bunker which they would then blow. But they did not stay to hold the ground.
They trekked back to base and the Taliban crept in again’.

This quote refers to the situation in April, 2008 - even though the summer fighting of 2006 was recognised as a disaster for the campaign, surprisingly little had changed.

King's key point is that in the light, or perhaps the darkness, of the lack of information about the Taliban in Helmand, it's very hard to say what the British leaders were trying to do. It wasn't counterinsurgency - even they admit that. It wasn't an effort to stop the Taliban offensive in its tracks with a spoiling attack, because nobody outside the Taliban knew about it at the time. It wasn't that nobody considered any alternatives.

There was little pressure from NATO or ISAF itself for the British to disperse. General
Richards, commander of ISAF at the time, was actively opposed to the platoon house strategy although he did not have direct command of Helmand until 31 July 2006. Major-General Ben Freakley, who was commanding coalition forces in the south, was vehemently opposed to the platoon house strategy. Decisively, instead of dispersing across the province, it would have been possible for 16 Air Assault Brigade and, to a lesser extent, its successors to concentrate as planned on the Bastion–Lashkar Gar–Gereshk triangle, notwithstanding the evident pressure which Governor Daoud applied on Ed Butler.

In fact, he argues that there wasn't really a rationale - instead, the decisions were guided by culture, habits of mind, the tendency to apply skills learned in other contexts, and bureaucratic factors.

Thus, British commanders like Stuart Tootal knew full well that they did not have the forces to secure Helmand and that therefore dispersal was likely to be counterproductive in the long term. However, ingrained with a professional
imperative to act, it was as impossible for 16 Air Assault to refuse Daoud in 2006 as it was for subsequent commanders not to engage in recurrent offensive operations, even though they knew they could not hope to secure the areas they were seeking
to clear. The professional self-definition of the British officer corps made tactical inactivity impossible for them....

It is noticeable that each brigade tour of Helmand has sought to define itself by a major operation: 16 Brigade ‘broke in’, 3 Commando Brigade retook Sangin, 12 Brigade ‘mowed the grass’, 52 Brigade retook Musa Qala, 16 Brigade transported the turbine to Kajaki, 3 Commando Brigade seized Nad-e-Ali and now 19 Brigade have taken Babaji. Until the final two rotations
there was very little continuity between the tours

There's something incredibly grim about this list of flags in the map. And that turbine still hasn't been installed, because the cement hasn't got there yet.

Much of this is an example of one of the key themes in the history of the British empire - the tension between Whitehall and the Man on the Spot. Better communications were never the answer. Lord Milner in South Africa complained bitterly of the "tyranny of the telegraph", but it cut both ways - the telegraph helped him indulge in alarmism and self publicity as much as it helped the Government control him. Here's an example.

On 19 June 2006, Brigadier Butler warned Stuart Tootal that Sangin was about to fall and gave Tootal 90 minutes to decide whether to deploy or not. Tootal and his tactical headquarters ‘quickly rehashed the pros and cons’. Tootal recognized that his troops ‘were here to support the government of Afghanistan’. However, the decisive impetus for insertion was regimental, as Tootal himself confessed: ‘Finally we were Paras and being asked to do difficult and risky things was what we were meant to be about.’ Tootal confirmed that he was ready to deploy 20 minutes after Ed Butler’s initial communication. Deployed for a 24-hour operation, A Company were finally extracted in early July, but the battlegroup remained besieged in Sangin until the end of the tour.

Whatever had been said or thought in London, Kabul, Brunssum, Brussels, and Washington, this was the defining decision. We might well wonder what else it defined.

King also discusses what might have defined that decision. He argues that a major, unspoken factor in the whole decision to go to Helmand was the Army's fear that a post-Iraq reckoning would result in its budget being slashed. For the MOD more broadly, a similar factor may have been the experience of failure in Iraq and a desire to demonstrate continued willingness to support the US.

The availability of the newly acquired Apache helicopters played its own special role. Having bought them and made the investments necessary to put them in service, the bureaucratic momentum meant they would be used the next time the Army was called on, which meant that the Airborne side of the Army would be called on. That had consequences for the way they would fight, too - King quotes some truly startling remarks from Lieutenant-Colonel Tootal.

‘I also made the point that running out of supplies when surrounded was part of our history. When I talked of what conditions must have been like for paratroopers who held the bridge at Arnhem for nine days against ferocious German assaults, having only planned to hold it for two, in 1944, people got the point that I was making.’

Further, the Apache's capabilities made it possible to survive the plan as amended. At one point in 2008, there were only 50 British soldiers in Lashkar Gah, supposedly the strategic centre of the entire war - unsurprisingly, the Taliban chose that night to attack, and only the helicopters prevented them from overrunning the place.

King concludes by suggesting that there is still scope to change course, and that the Army is now turning back to the original plan. He argues that, as preparing for a handover to the Afghan government becomes more important, some of the culture issues will start to work the other way; using more Special Forces as advisors, for example, will tend to bring their prestige to a task that has been seen as secondary to the goal of finding a decisive battle with the Taliban.

If you're after some crumbs of optimism, this could be one - Hezb i-Islami cooperating with ISAF, which if true argues that the Pakistanis mean it about supporting a political solution. Efforts at forming an anti-Taliban firqat are on. Ackerman calls it a
a hodgepodge of improvisation that manages to keep the structure from totally falling apart in the near-term
. I'd take that.

Anyway, read the whole thing.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

the right to be ignored

Chris Dillow has a good go at the Government's "Thatcherism - Choose Your Own Adventure" Web site and the Have Your Say-style idiots who frequent it. But the fate of another, related Government Web project is interesting.

The e-petitions site will be remembered mostly for its role in kiboshing the horrible "road-pricing" (aka total surveillance of all vehicle movements) proposal. It's now officially "under review", and isn't accepting any more petitions or signatures on existing ones. (Also, the ones that were outstanding at the election have been binned.) At the same time, a variety of suggestions-box websites have proliferated across the public sector.

The distinction is clear; the e-petitions project was intended, among other things, as a way the public could protest about policies it didn't like. The example of road pricing shows that it was more effective in this role than cynics like me might have expected. "Spending Challenge" and friends, however, don't lead to anything - nobody has to respond to them, there's no mechanism to build a campaign on. It's just a pipe leading to the government's File Zero.

Also, the e-petitions site was engineered by competent people, notably Chris Lightfoot. The Coalition's multifarious efforts went online and duly crapped out as soon as production traffic hit them. You can read how MySociety scaled up the e-petitions system here. It's the Big Society for you - a meaningless suggestions box for half-literate blowhards, as opposed to a fairly useful tool, incompetently built by SomeCompany, as opposed to MySociety.

Martin Kettle is still a worthless old hack

So there was Martin Kettle, talking about "bright Tory shadow cabinet minister Greg Clark" (he's the one who is now the central government's Minister for Decentralisation). Now here's Kettle claiming that David Cameron "wins this season's golden boot" because, well, he's really nice. In fact, Kettle actually seems to have been handed this nanosecond's version of the talking point about Bill Clinton's aides stealing all the "W"s from the keyboards/Ken Livingstone's secret wine cellar/whatever. So I'm declaring victory on the statement that Martin Kettle is a worthless old hack.

(By the way, some examples of the delight of Brown's staff at his departure - or otherwise - and his total lack of emotion towards 'em - or otherwise - can be sampled here. That would have required Kettle to read his own newspaper.)

Here's Henry Porter, who thinks that:
From health to foreign relations, from defence to civil liberties, the coalition has moved with degrees of fair mindedness and deliberation that are refreshing.

Apart from ordering its own budget office to secretly change its forecasts in order to justify cutting the income of the poorest people in the country by 20%, I guess. Apart from deciding to pretend that across-the-board cuts in departmental spending of 25-40% will happen, but the public sector won't have any effect on unemployment. Frankly, anyone who calls themselves a Liberal should be especially outraged by this, just for the insult to us as intelligent citizens, layered on top of the blatant cruelty. The OBR story has been the most sustained, most fully realised exercise in official lying since Iraq.

probably a robbery

Here's an interesting follow-up on the recent raid on the Iraqi central bank, from Joel Wing. You may recall that the attack, a classic NOIA multi-layered assault using suicide bombers, snipers, and infantry, successfully took over the building and held off the Iraqi army for some time before disengaging, and that although a large quantity of documents and computers were destroyed, no money was taken.

I read that as being an insurgent effort to project incorruptibility, in the style both Tomas Masaryk and Mao advised their followers to adopt, in the context of an operation designed to wreck the bank as an institution. Wing's follow-up suggests that there may have been other motives at work - the fire began in the office of the Inspector-General, and the files destroyed include the records of an inquiry into a huge fake-cheque fraud ($711 million - a reminder that frauds in Iraq grow to enormous size). Further, there was a previous unexplained fire in the bank's archives in 2008 which destroyed evidence in a corruption case.

Wing's sources speculate that employees at the bank might have taken the opportunity of the raid to start the fire, that the attackers were involved in the original fraud, or that those behind the fraud hired the attackers to destroy the evidence.

Fascinatingly, almost a year ago, The Guardian reported that similar motives might have played a role in the kidnapping of British IT consultant Peter Moore and the murder of his bodyguards. Moore was working on a new accounting system for the Finance Ministry, that would track all the Iraqi government's income and expenditure in detail, when he was kidnapped from the Ministry's data centre by a platoon-sized force of gunmen posing as Ministry of the Interior forces. It is rarely obvious in Iraq whether the fake policemen are fake policemen, or real policemen posing as fakes, but several different kinds of insurgents had the capability to manoeuvre forces that size in central Baghdad at the time.

Among other things, this is a reminder that the recent history of Iraq cannot be written without paying serious attention to its aspect as the biggest robbery in human history, a fat city for every crook in the Middle East and far beyond.

remember this?

Here's something interesting. I'm getting people googling for details of resettlement for Iraqis who were employed by the British during the occupation, again. This is the first such incident since February. The request came in from a netblock registered to an Iraqi ISP and VSAT provider based in Baghdad. I will not provide any more details, as their WHOIS record is quite personally-identifying.

Last night, the links in this post were 404ing; today, two of them (the Arabic PDF and the Miliband statement) are now resolving again, but the one to the application form is still returning a page which (disingenuously?) claims that
We are currently experiencing exceptionally high traffic volumes on the website. Please try again later.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

again with the nameless dread!

So there's this web application that does a corpus analysis of your writing and compares it to others....I chucked this post at it.

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I suppose Charlie Stross is right in linking the Lovecraft mythos and international politics. Further evidence - I tried the post before that one, about satellites and private finance initiatives, and got the same result.

Update: But when I write for Stable & Principled...

I write like
Ian Fleming

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

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