Monday, December 27, 2010

a Christmas gift for you: UK Wired edition

I think I'm going to cut the UK Wired out of my diet. They recently got an award, and the mag is usually a handsome book, but it's not good enough. Typically there's a bit less than one genuinely interesting piece per issue, which is nowhere near enough to make the cover price worthwhile. The best stuff is reserved for the US edition - you know the names. And there's far too much filler. A big part of the mag trade is making the inevitable filler part of the whole aesthetic; the best magazines are always good at this. The Face's nibs and odds-and-sods were almost a decent fanzine in themselves, as well as providing spacers between the real stuff and a support-scaffold for the ads. But UK Wired is riddled with advertorial - constant gadget porn, but nothing you could call a product review.

There's a strong argument that there are plenty of publications that do gadget reviews. We used to say on MCI that "we are not a gadget mag". Indeed. So chop it out, unless it really is advertorial rather than editorial that happens to be shit. And if it's paid for, it's polite to say so. Also, given the bulk and kind of ads they carry, they really have no right to be playing daft games with filler. In the latest issue, there are a total of two ads for anything I expect ever to be able to afford and both of them are for web hosting services.

It's a pity, though, that having used one of those advertisers' e-mail hosting and picked endless spam out of Fistful from the other's compromised hosts, I wouldn't use either of them in a fit. This is the tone of the whole thing - the design is fancy, but it's not structural. It's there to look at, not through, or better, with. The writing tends to be tech-y, not techy. The piece on synthetic biology in this month's paper, for example, could have got into a national newspaper, it's that lightweight. (On the other hand, the piece on re-designing Mecca's infrastructure to keep pilgrims from getting killed was genuinely interesting, but crammed into a corner.) The photography is good, and the production is luscious, but here's the problem: high gloss is ads, not content. The columnists are reliably disappointing: Warren Ellis doesn't say anything you couldn't get from his blog, and anyway, if you're going to hire him, why not hire him to do what he does for real? Some people would buy it for Ellis cartoons alone. And there's the guy whose career is based on having marketed MS Internet Explorer, a product you get forced on you when you buy a new PC, and that you have to get rid of by surgery before it explodes messily. That's like marketing the appendix.

But it wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for David Rowan's risible leader column. This month, he decided to cover, or at least mention, Dave from PR's trip to Shoreditch to say how great Internet start-ups were. Unfortunately, all he could find to say was that the industry needed:

"tax incentives, networking events, and an ability to hire and fire more easily to attract people like Le Meur back".

Well, the first adds up to "gimme subsidy", the second is vacuous (and self-interested), and the third is pernicious. Most new businesses die within three years of launch and their employees go down with the ship, so by definition this can't be all that important. But if you work for the contract cleaners, I suspect this is significantly more important to you. There's another hiring constraint, though, that really is relevant here: immigration restrictions. We know much bigger companies have been complaining through the CBI about the new numerical cap on immigration. Strange, no mention of that, especially as it's the current government's own, direct, and specific fault. (And we could also be snarky about the fact Loic Le Meur's business puts on a conference every year in Paris, that well-known paradise of hardcore libertarianism.)

If Rowan had wanted to cover the Cameron trip, though, there was a good story in there for a real journalist. Rumours included that staffers from No.10 had called up BT and suggested that they might want to put in free WLAN "from Old Street to the Olympic Park", with no suggestion that there would be any funding for this. Another suggests that they asked if BT would consider moving their enormous R&D centre from Martlesham Heath to the East End, a hilariously enormous project and one that takes no account of the major operational infrastructure BT has at MHRC.

Less sarcastically, if you're a community broadband project, you're not allowed to offer service to any kind of business if you're using BT passive infrastructure. And you've got to pay business rates on your network as soon as it's built, while the incumbents can wait until it's in service and earning money. There's an OFCOM consultation on the small business telecoms market that's been hanging fire for ages. Journalism!

a Christmas gift for you

What the fuck were you thinking, man?

I approve of this message. What was the BBC development hierarchy thinking? As Vowl says, it wasn't even so much the content, awful though it was, but the quality.

I approve of this message. What was the BBC development hierarchy thinking? As Vowl says, it wasn't even so much the content, awful though it was, but the quality. Airport documentaries: might have been funny, in 1998. Stelios hasn't actually been in charge of EasyJet in years, and IIRC he doesn't own it any more either. An Asian character who's obsessed with hip-hop and constantly talks about "bitches": well, Ali G was funny, in 1996, and he's somebody else's material anyway. Sacha Baron Cohen should sue but he probably doesn't want to associate himself with this shite. Stealing jokes is one thing, but stealing ones that will soon be old enough to join the Army is pathetic.

Also, if you're going to poke fun at crappy low-cost airlines' grasping, self-publicising executives, surely Michael O'Leary's endless grandstanding and bullshitting must be a seam of comedy gold...unless you're Matt Lucas and David Williams, in which case you're clearly too scared he might sue, so the other bucket shop is still Irish but has to look like Aer Lingus.

Something else: production values. Obviously something posing as a cheap docusoap has to look cheap, but once you spend a certain amount of effort pretending to be shit, the face grows to fit the mask. I didn't actually see any sets falling over, but perhaps I wasn't paying attention. Perhaps I don't watch enough TV, but was this the worst slab of dreck broadcast in the last 10 years? Further, you, me, and everyone else is going to be rolling out to defend the BBC enough times in the next twelve months that we'll all get even sicker of it than we did during the Hutton inquiry, and this isn't going to help.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

an infallible scheme for redesigning Britain

This paper in PLoS One is fascinating (if heavily blogged already). Basically, BT let some researchers from MIT, Cornell, UCL, and their own R&D division have an anonymised slice through their call-detail record (CDR) pile, the database from which phone bills are calculated. The scientists filtered out all the numbers that only made or accepted calls, in order to get rid of the call centres and spammers, and drew the rest as a massive directed multi-graph network. The conclusions are fascinating; in human terms, Wales isn't a meaningful unit, and neither is England. Scotland, however, forms a well defined sub-graph.

Instead, Wales splits into three geographic tiers with very little interconnection. These regions don't respect the border at all - not surprisingly, the northern tier is completely integrated with Liverpool and Manchester and the central tier with the West Midlands. South Wales is clearly identified, with a sharply defined border along the water between it and the West Country. There's also a well-defined western border to Yorkshire, and interestingly also between the West and South Ridings but not between them and the North Riding. Essex is an extension of London, but Kent is distinct. So is Norfolk.

In fact, England isn't really identifiable on the maps: surprisingly, the administrative units that fit best to the BT data are the EU regions much hated by 'kippers. More broadly, if it's got a recognisable accent, it's a recognisable presence on the graph - although the big exception is Yorkshire. There's even a territory for people with no recognisable accent, a sort of motorway crescent to the west of London which is described as a "tech corridor" - in fact, if you were to draw all the Formula One teams' workshops on the map, they would essentially all fall within it, as would Vodafone, O2, Cable & Wireless, and 3UK's headquarters, Aldermaston, Eidos, Surrey Satellite Tech, chunks of BAE and Thales, and Electronic Arts UK, so perhaps they have a point. In the end, though, this potentially interesting zone - Ballardia? - gets lumped in with the Cameroonian central-southwest.

a glimpse of imagery diplomacy

This is one of the most interesting stories in the Wikileaks cable dump. The Saudis use the existence of the French national imagery satellite capability, and David Ignatius's column in the Washington Post, to resist efforts by the Americans to stop them using US arms and satellite data provided for use on Al-Qa'ida for other goals of foreign policy, notably trying to encroach on Yemeni territory. Of course, the UK isn't allowed to do that.

Back to 2006

Bérube sez:
So these days, when I talk to my scientist friends, I offer them a deal. I say: I’ll admit that you were right about the potential for science studies to go horribly wrong and give fuel to deeply ignorant and/or reactionary people. And in return, you’ll admit that I was right about the culture wars, and right that the natural sciences would not be held harmless from the right-wing noise machine.

Ah..I said back in February 2007:
the modern global Right has operationalised postmodernism as a system of power

The Googles tells me I actually said it as far back as April, 2006 in a thread at Chris Lightfoot's.

Quoted without comment

"Richard sent me photos of his private parts before I'd even met him," says the redhead. "I thought this was very odd for a politician."

Yahoo! might be going to shut down, the link-sharing and bookmarking website it bought back in 2005 or thereabouts. (They might sell it, too.) This is awful - it's one of the most useful things on the Web and it's a key link in the production chain for everything I've written in the last six years for this blog, Fistful of Euros, Stable & Principled, Telco 2.0, and God knows what else. As well as providing a bookmarks file you can use anywhere, it also provided a huge quick-reference handbook of stuff other people found useful. During 2004, not only did I start using it, but this blog started to provide a list of RSS items from my account and several other blogs in the sidebar.

Yahoo! never did much with - they managed to retire the original domain name and redirect it to, just as link-shorteners became fashionable, they made the web site more ugly, and they tried to impose some sort of horrible terms of service amendment by asking users to sign in with Yahoo! user IDs. I had nothing against this, but when I saw the lengthy new ToS document, I didn't bother reading it - it could only be evil, and therefore I refused. Bizarrely, they never even tried putting adverts on the home page, despite being the world leader in display-style Internet advertising, and neither did they ever try to get me or anyone else to subscribe, although they got me and hordes of others to pay for Flickr accounts.

You'll note that this doesn't include any new features or anything interesting at all. Also, they never did anything about spam accounts, so a lot of the social functionality became useless as "links for you" were always spam. However, they couldn't kill a basically useful product. If they sell it, though, it might survive or it might die - look what happened with Technorati.

A common theme about Yahoo! is that although the company drifts strategically, and every now and then gives the Chinese secret police confidential data about dissidents, the engineers are pretty good. True - they released lots of cool and useful stuff. Pipes, YQL, Term Extractor, YUI hackdays. Similarly, the Firefox extension for is very good indeed. It provides a full-text search over your tags, something the web site itself doesn't, and it can provide offline access to your bookmarks if you need that.

So here's a tip. The FF extension lets you work with your bookmarks offline and without signing in - so it must store them on your local machine. In fact, it uses quite a lot of Firefox's bookmarking functionality. And when you sign out, it asks if you want to keep your bookmarks in Firefox. You can add more bookmarks before you sign in again. Therefore, there's a way to slurp your data out of Yahoo! before it all gets deleted. Obviously they'll stop maintaining the plugin at some point. But once your data is stored as browser bookmarks, it can't be too far from being exported to an OPML file, at which point it could be imported anywhere else. Is available?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

repetition, repetition, repetition

This would do as a HOWTO start a war.
The document, drawn up by John Williams, press adviser to the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, spells out ways to soften up the media, including "critics like the Guardian". Under the heading Not taking the UN route, Williams wrote: "Our argument should be narrow, and put with vigour – Iraq is uniquely dangerous."

In his memo, he said drafts of the dossier at the time had no "killer fact" which "proves" that "Saddam must be taken on now, or this or that weapon will be used against us." When Blair was launching the dossier three weeks later, he told parliament that intelligence had "established beyond doubt" that Iraq had WMDs.

Williams wrote: "Our target is not the argumentative interviewer or opinionated columnist, but the kind of people to whom ministerial interviews are a background hum on the car or kitchen radio. We must think Radio 5. Although the big Radio 4 programmes have to be done, we must not let them set themselves up as judge and jury."

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Here's Grant Shapps applying the same technique:
"We are still saying someone could have rent of £21,000-a-year paid by the taxpayer. How many could afford to pay that?"

Give him some credit - he even let on what he was doing.


Anyone going?


Oh yes, so the IBM ManyEyes people fixed their computer.

I've got much more data now - I still need to do the four (key) departments that release in PDF format, and flush the existing stuff to replace the records with ones with standardised dates, but that should give you an idea. Hit the button in the visualisation with a network on it to redraw the force-directed graph.

in case of Russian invasion, break glass

Shock! NATO is secretly reviewing its plans to defend the Baltic states and Poland in the event of a war with Russia, a Wikileaked cable reveals. Interestingly enough, the details of this are already public - Gazeta Wyborcza published them on the 5th of November, appropriately enough, detailing that the NATO Response Force would be first in followed by up to 9 divisions from NATO states with the biggest contributions from the US, the UK, and Germany, using Gdynia and Swinoujscie as the main reinforcement ports and, of course, the NATO navies to clear the troops' way across the seas. On the 11th of November (again, pretty damn appropriate) Jean-Dominique Merchet's Secret Défense covered the story at its new home. All the leak really adds is that the planning exercise was in large part motivated by the need to get the new NATO members on side with the "reset" of US-Russia relations.

Korea: logistics, and propaganda

In my continuing fit of doom about Korea, this isn't helping - a US Military Sealift Command reserve freighter full of Maritime Prepositioning System kit is practising offloading it all in a Korean port. Supposedly, when they're finished they'll put it all back aboard and sail away. If you believe that, though...

The MPS is the US military's way of saving time shipping stuff around; they basically keep all the gear for an Army or Marine brigade packed in a ship somewhere strategic. Instant force, just add soldiers, who can come by air. This has a nasty logistics sound to it. Meanwhile, there is a real danger of war, says a Korean strategist from CSIS. Serious politicians are saying things like "reunification is drawing near" and that the Japanese military might be sent to look for people abducted by North Korea. That last one, from the Japanese prime minister, has an even nastier propaganda sound to it.

The Chinese envoy has been to Pyongyang, while the Foreign Ministry has had a pop at the US commander in chief in the Pacific, Admiral Mullen. This could be good news in the sense that Chinese engagement might warn off anyone from doing anything dangerous. The US Deputy Secretary of State is going to Beijing soon with a delegation, followed by Robert Gates next month.

keeping your leaks leaky

Image number four here has a certain additional spice, doesn't it? What a week. As well as WikiLeaks being the website they couldn't hang, 4chan became a geopolitical actor, thus fulfilling my prediction that in the future, trolls would be considered a strategic resource like oil. The BBC interviewed a builder from Leeds thinking he was a Liberal MP, but as it turned out, it didn't matter - the real MP did exactly what the fake one said. And of course there was the case of James Naughtie, demonstrating that the BBC really is the voice of the nation. Speak for England! Prince Charles got a nasty surprise from the students, which startled the mainstream media into actually covering the demonstrators' main grievance for once.

A lot has been written about how Wikileaks is staying online and I don't propose to add to it - this piece on CNET and this one from Renesys should tell you all you need. If you're looking for mirrors the list is currently here and there's a mirror of the mirror list here.

However, there are a couple of good technical points to be made here that I've not seen elsewhere.

First of all, Wikileaks is a website designed to be easily cloned. If you look at it, each page is a self-contained file with a flat URI - there are no signs of a query string, and each cable released has a unique ID within the same directory. This is important because it means that the process of creating a mirror is just to copy all the files into the /public_html/ directory of another web server. On a Unix-like system, it could be a one-liner command (the site doesn't actually let you do this the quickest way) - the utility wget is capable not only of traversing the directory and downloading all files, but also of changing links within them to point to the same filename in the target directory. The -m or --mirror option activates the options -N -r -l inf --no-remove-listing, which will in order ensure you only download material you haven't already loaded, that wget will get everything in the target directory or directories, and that any directory listings will be preserved. -p requires that everything needed to make up a page, such as a photo of Julian Assange, will be retrieved. -k turns on link conversion.

It might be enough to do: wget -N -p -k wikileaks.wherever /home/you/public_html/

So it's easy to create a mirror, and it's trivial to keep it up to date - you could just run your script as a cron job to grab whatever gets released every day. Anyone thinking of a really controversial Internet project should, IMHO, consider design-for-cloning to be a useful pattern. The clone count is now in the thousands.

Second technical point: what a horrible idea Mastercard SecureCode (and its pal Verified by Visa) is. I already hated it before this - it's a password, that should be a strong password because it's financial, but that I don't use that often and therefore can't remember, and it trains you to accept the idea of typing confidential information into a random web site you didn't ask for. Essentially all phishing requires you to type your bank details into something that you didn't ask for. Forcing the public to type their bank details into some random website they didn't ask for is howling insane. Right?

Also, the failure case is horrible - you get to reset the password by disclosing a whole lot of confidential information into the same random website you didn't ask for, so an attacker who managed to inject a frame into the original merchant's website could fake a failed payment and harvest all the information they would need to empty your bank account. And the service support when they imposed it on me was dire, especially as the SecureCode web site went down part way through the process.

But it's worse than that. An important part of the way card payments are accepted on the Web is that, as is also true in shops, you interact with the merchant, whose bank interacts with the wider infrastructure. So you should know who you're dealing with. Further, the bank should at least have some idea who its merchants are - they are customers after all - and restrict access to the system to them. And there's more than one bank that provides merchant service, so there are no single points of failure.

The SecureCode (and its Visa twin) websites, though, are customer-facing, so they have to accept traffic from the whole of the Internet. And all the Mastercard payments from the Web have to go via the SecureCode website. So you have a critical operational function, that is a single point of failure, and that is exposed to every last dog on the Internet. It's only surprising that somebody didn't bring it down earlier, especially when things like Bees with machine guns! are available.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

not the Thursday music link

It's not Thursday, so it must be time for a not-Thursday music link. Special "one hand washes the other" edition.

Admin notice: Wikileaks

Need to know how to reach Wikileaks data? All the mirrors, alternative URIs, IP addresses, instructions, etc you could want are here. You might want to grab a local copy of the page itself, from this URI.

not about the Americans

The key fact to remember about the Wikileaks cable dump is this: it's not about the Americans. There's not been much in there that says something huge about US policy, which is why con-wissy types are so happy to deny it any significance. What there has been is something for everybody - a major purpose of diplomacy is to get political information, and leaking a ton of US diplomatic cables provides something for every host country to enjoy.

Here's Italy's delivery, for example. Not that anything about Berlusconi is shocking any more, but it's certainly interesting that he has a very personal special relationship with Russia. That throws an interesting light on the era of the "3Bs", Bush, Blair, and Berlusconi. Modern thinkers all, they also all thought they had special access to Russia.

Here's important confirmation that the Saudis are a major force pushing for military dictatorship in Pakistan, and probably in so far as they support Nawaz Sharif they are only using him as a pretext for military rule. This also tends to confirm that the Saudi influence sphere is a real factor in Afghanistan still.

Here's something for Belgium.

Here's something for us; Mervyn King was a key actor in insisting on cuts and a Con-Dem coalition, and specifically in terrorising Nick Clegg with "it's worse than we thought" stories.

Here's something else for us: there was a major ruck in the intelligence special relationship about the disclosure of imagery gathered by U2s operating from Akrotiri to the Lebanese, Israeli, and Turkish governments. It seems that the Brown government was trying to impose serious conditions on operations from Akrotiri.

Something for the Americans: Robert Gates is a major barrier to starting more wars.

This is interesting, although you've probably already read it.

And of course there's going to be a bank sometime in the near future.

Statistics efforts are coalescing here.

Leave your favourite leak in the comments.

Update: The Grauniad metadata file claims to contain the date, source, tags, and destination of each cable but the destinations are missing.

Moulded from birth. Forged by hatred. Honed in ignorance.

I'm beginning to worry seriously about Korea. There's the wikileaked cable suggesting that Chinese tolerance is running out. There's more recent confirmation. This after the initial non-reaction. Even if Peter Foster is right that the Chinese position hasn't changed that much, it still looks like something has changed in the deterrent balance.

On the other side, Joint STARS has been deployed. You know to start worrying when the ugly grey kit comes out. The US Navy has put 2 carriers and their reinforced task groups off Korea, including a ballistic-missile defence destroyer (USS Paul Hamilton) and four Ticonderoga class cruisers. In all there are something over 900 vertical launch missile tubes on surface ships alone, as well as 70 or so F/A-18s. The Jimmy Carter is in the area, but we don't know which other submarines are, or what percentage of the cruisers' VLS tubes are full of Tomahawks as opposed to SM-3 air defence missiles, Harpoon ship-to-ship missiles, or ASROC antisubmarine ones. And the US Navy has chosen this moment to send 30,000 tonnes of jet fuel to Korea. They do move this stuff around, but it's surely an odd moment to move the jet fuel if you weren't preparing for war. There are also two Marine groups in the area, so chuck in 16 Harriers and a bit shy of a brigade of Marines.

Unlike, say, Iran in 2007, US carrier availability is currently high. They have more ships to send if required.

The South Koreans have been as good as promising to retaliate hugely if there is another attack. They've sacked the defence minister and replaced him with a serving general. People are throwing D'Annunzio-style demonstrations for war. General upcranking is going on. So you can probably see why I'm worried. The whole Japanese navy is at sea, probably in part to get their Aegis missile destroyers deployed on their anti-missile radar picket patrol line early. And there's that unexpected uranium enrichment.

So it's probably high time to worry. Here's more worry: an excellent piece in the Small Wars Journal by US Army Colonel David S. Maxwell, on the problems of either occupying North Korea or just coping with the upshot of a collapse. I hadn't been aware of the degree to which the state ideology is based on the anti-Japanese guerrilla years. In comments, Maxwell says that what worries him more than the prospect of guerrilla war in post-North Korea is a warlord scenario, more Afghanistan than Iraq. Rather, it would be more like the worse-case scenarios for the end of the Soviet Union, given some of the kit that would available.

Maxwell's policy recommendation is to start at once with a propaganda drive to persuade the middle levels of the North Korean state not to go guerrilla and not to sell any highly enriched uranium they may have hanging around, and to come up with a plan for reunification led by Koreans and secured by all-party talks. That's all very sane, but it's not going to be of much help if someone fires artillery into Seoul tomorrow night. So from a British point of view, the best advice I could give would be "get on a plane and go and do an Attlee".

There are also PowerPoint slides to go with that. Hence the title - it could almost be a motto for the blog.

constant levels of outrage

In this thread at Charlie Stross's, it occurred to me that social outrage is a constant, but that its content is infinitely variable. You could almost call it the principle of the conservation of outrage - outrage can neither be created nor destroyed, but only transferred from one object to another. Addiction to drugs or drink has transitioned from being a sin to being a medical condition. Mental illness is doing something similar. Sexuality, for several whole generations, is a ship that has sailed.

But you'd be a fool to imagine that the outrage has gone anywhere. It worries me that, for example, the revival of what Paul Krugman calls New Austerian economics is really explained by the need to be outraged at somebody - the surplus of outrage has been directed at the victims of financial misfortune, who are always in ready supply. Of course, the fact that it went that way is interesting in itself and tells us something about the functions the pool of available outrage performs.

what could possibly go wrong?

So someone's trying to raise $150,000 to buy a satellite from the bankruptcy of TerreStar, in order to "Connect Everyone". I admire the aim, but I'm concerned that this is going to be a round of forgetting that a lot of perfectly good GSM operators are doing just that. Also, I can't find any reference to what they intend to use for the customer-premises equipment except that "we're building an open source low cost modem", which would be better if it came with a link to the source repo, right, or at least some requirements documentation? I'm also a little concerned that the team includes this guy:
Fabian is a NYC based Swiss wanna-be-entrepreneur who spends all his time trying to make meaningful connections between ourselves and business.
(and I chose charitably) but not anyone whose potted bio mentions being an RF engineer.

Actually, I think that it would be more worthwhile to start off with the low-cost open source satellite radio, as this may be the difficult bit and would be highly reuseable in other projects. A lot of Indian or African GSM people would find a cheap satellite radio very useful for their backhaul requirements. Depending on the spec it could be used with things like the amateur radio AMSATs, the transponders on the ISS, and the spare US Navy FLTSATCOMs. USRP is way too expensive at the moment (they cost more than a cheap netbook) so that one's out.

review of a movie that doesn't exist yet

I think most of my readers also read Patrick Lang's blog, but I think this guest post is the best thing yet written on the Taliban/SIS/McChrystal/Petraeus fake sheikh affair. Really, there's a great movie to be made here - the multiplicity of motives, the ironic contrast between the absurd story and the deadly serious interests and emotions that drive it forward, the eternal ambiguity of the relationship between the manipulator and the manipulated.

The ISI comes out of it as being dastardly clever, but in a deeply futile way. They succeed in preventing a dangerous outbreak of peace and sanity, but what have they gained? The wars grind on, the butcher's bill ticks up, the fantasy of a Pakistani empire of trucks and pipes across the Hindu Kush is as far away as ever, the Indians continue with their industrialisation across the other border.

The Americans come out of it as being well-meaning but naive. After all, they only get into this story because they want peace. So does the real Taliban leader. They both share a sort of big, stupid nobility.

The British do almost as badly as the ISI; not only do they end up being the dupes of the piece, they do so without the saving grace of having good intentions. They're as naive as the Americans but more underhanded. SIS gets involved purely as a way of sucking up to the Americans and putting one over its real enemies, GCHQ, Her Majesty's Forces, MI5, and the main-line Foreign Office diplomats. The Government is desperately keen on the project for similarly base reasons - to suck up to the Americans, to grab at an opportunity to solve its problem in Afghanistan, and of course to embarrass the Labour Party. Of course, it would have been a brilliant political fix had it come off - but the master manipulator is not Bismarck but William Hague.

The fake sheikh, meanwhile, is a classic example of the Pinocchio/Hauptmann von Kopenick theme - the puppet of bigger forces who becomes a power in his own right. Without his successful performance, of course, none of the many expectations curling around the tale have a hope of happening. His agency is real, and his character expands to fill the role. The fact that the whole project is an exercise in theatre is interesting in itself - a film within the film. The actors in the film are, of course, puppets of the script and the direction, and it is a work of fiction. The enduring purpose of the theatre and the cinema, however, is that works of fiction have real influence on their audiences. Like the fake sheikh.

After all, the grocer of Quetta (not a bad title) is the only character in the drama who successfully pursues his interests. He gets some interesting time off away from his bazaar stall, and even gets rich. You could play this as the ordinary man who succeeds in making fools of the powerful who insist on involving him in their schemes, or perhaps as a microcosm of all the people who are getting rich off the continued war, Mother Courage rather than Kopenick. Alternatively he could be killed off, casting the whole thing as an utterly bleak tragedy. However, arguably the classic in this vein is The Third Man and that sticks with the tragicomic.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

the intersection of Wikileaks and Viktorfeed

If Bout agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department in a plea agreement sparing him life in prison, “we’ll certainly want to know more from him about the circumstances of those Iraq contracts,” said a law-enforcement official with detailed knowledge of the criminal case against Bout. The official was referring to large U.S. military contracts in 2003 and 2004 in which Bout’s cargo companies were used as subcontractors to deliver military supplies to U.S. forces in Iraq. “We’d want to understand if our officials knew exactly who they were dealing with. If U.S. officials knew they were dealing with Bout, that’s uncomfortable news.” Could U.S. officials face prosecution? “The conspiracy laws are broad,” the official said without elaboration.

Well, that would be fun. I'm also interested by the suggestion of a plea bargain. From here. This is something I don't think Irina from RFE/RL quite grasped.

There are some interesting Viktor Bout-related cables in the Wikileaks dump - this one suggests that part of his defence against extradition was to suggest he was in Thailand as part of a "government to government submarine deal". This one details a visit by US diplomats to Ras al-Khaimah airport, where they viewed some rotting Il-76s and made enquiries about what may have been Viktor's maintenance base. This was in any case around about the same time that the UAE gave the Antonov 12 operators the boot.

I'm surprised there aren't more, although there may be more releases yet. The relevant tags would be AE for the UAE and perhaps some others - NEA for the Near East desk is one.

Update: Moar!

False dichotomy watch

We've seen plenty of this sort of stuff before:
These networks such as the UnCut movement or the student movement with outstanding micro-organisations such as the UCL Occupation (which has received over 60,000 hits on its blog in a little under a week) who have so dynamically organised yesterday, today and going forward will inevitably be more flexible and effective than organisations with generic ‘leaderships’ such as major businesses, the police or even the National Union of Students.

Well, if your benchmark of effectiveness is the NUS... Mere snark, though. This particular Internet prairie fire does seem to be spreading nicely and doing more than tweeting. However, whenever someone starts going on like this, I do tend to suspect what they mean is "...more flexible and effective than organisations with people with funny accents who are train drivers an stuff".

I've said before, though, that I suspect that a lot of this network organising is structurally suited to negativity. Look at the 'baggers, for example. The classic examples political science types use, like open-source software projects, tend to be very different to the implementations in politics - rather than trying to recruit masses of people, they're usually driven by a hard core of the obsessed, or of people whose job it is. Order is difficult, mayhem is easy. Specifically, you can contribute significantly to mayhem by putting in an hour here or there.

On the other hand, though, it's not as if we're likely to run out of rage. This is 'bagger lesson one. Negative tactics and the expression of inchoate rage are not without value. Nigel Stanley gets it right - it's a false dichotomy. Getrennt marschieren, vereint schlagen, and we'll all get there in the end.

the lack of liberals

So I went to protest the London Lib Dems' conference, held in the late Blairite magnificence of Haverstock School NW3. Arriving punctually, what did I find?

London Lib Dems are marked men

No Liberals. In fact, not only had they vanished from the Haverstock, it turned out they'd given up on the whole idea of having a conference and punted it to February. Now you know why the party's colour is yellow. Not only were they afraid of the general public, but their reputation is now so toxic that nobody wants to give them house room.

Meanwhile, here's a prominent London Lib Dem in action.
"Right at this moment of financial peril to the nation is perhaps not the moment to introduce mandatory pay audits."

Just two years ago, the Liberal Democrat MP backed mandatory measures, saying: "A voluntary audit system for private industry is hardly worth the paper it's printed on. We need to know when the government actually plans to step in if progress isn't made."

The Liberal Democrat manifesto pledged to introduce fair-pay audits for all but the smallest companies.

Today Featherstone said: "It was a different world two years ago – financially and in terms of pressures on business. We are in a completely new landscape now … Much more of partnership working, no longer government dictates, this is absolutely the time to make voluntary pay-reporting work."

Two years ago? Two years ago was December, 2008 - hardly a moment of expansive prosperity. Banks were falling like seagull shit. People were trying to estimate what the absolute minimum level of cash balances was that could prevent the bankruptcy of the entire GM and Ford supply chains. Flocks of great empty ships were gathering in Falmouth harbour and off Singapore, forever delayed by the drying up of trade credit.

Also, check out that last sentence, a real classic of pseudo-Blair verbiage without enough verbs.

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