Sunday, January 30, 2011

someone has to stay in control

Something else.
Around the table sat his son James– the head of News Corp's European and Asian operations – Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of its British newspaper division News International, plus the editors of the Sun and the Times, Dominic Mohan and James Harding respectively. Meatballs were on the menu, although staff preferred not to get too close to see what the boss actually ate.

I'm not sure whether I hate the psuedo-celebrity reporting style (who cares about the damn meatballs?) enough not to enjoy either the portrayal of News International as a workplace so nightmarish that people are too frightened to see whether the boss had the meatballs or not, or the subtextual suggestion that Murdoch eats something...different. Lovecraft vs. Royston Vasey.

Also, my permanent search request on for more meetings releases keeps appearing to be updated, but as far as I can tell they haven't released more meetings. However, the scraper should get them all.

the tapes

So what about that Murdoch? Gordon Brown is suing, and the government has been claiming that meetings between David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks were covered by MP-constituent privilege; Tessa Jowell (for it is she!) alleges that the monitoring was going on as recently as last week. The police investigation is back on with a new chief. Lord (Norman) Fowler, of all people, accused the News of the Screws of being a conspiracy against the public interest. At the same time, Jeremy Hunt gives himself an out, Murdoch turns up in person. There's the whole comic relief with ex-footballers, and the US division falls out with 400 rabbis.

There's a genuinely weird feeling to this. Obviously there's some sort of political re-alignment going on, but it's impossible to say what it is or how far it will go. It all seems to be dependent on things like the story about the journalist who started taping all his phone calls because his drinking problem meant he couldn't remember what they told him and he feared they would use this to exploit him. Charming people. Someone apparently has copies. But who?

The Grauniad, of course, is congratulating itself on the Nick Davies investigation. However, their leader yesterday pissed me off - they referred, for the first time since the story re-erupted, to the fact that Andy Coulson was condemned by an employment tribunal as being a bully in a case in which the paper had to pay out £800,000 in compensation. And they claimed that only three newspapers covered this story - themselves, the Independent on Sunday, and the Huddersfield Daily Examiner. This is a good point, but a better one for the Huddersfield Daily Examiner than for the Guardian - this blog post refers. Although the Guardian did run the story, they ran a full version on the Media Guardian Web site and cut the story down to a one-paragraph NIB deep inside the paper. They could do with being less self-congratulatory about this.

Coulson and his managers' behaviour in the case is telling - they tried to force one of their employees to see a tame doctor in order to get rid of him - and it is probably no surprise that according to the very limited list of the hacked that is available, both Coulson and Rebekah Brooks were themselves being spied on by their own side.

Out of the whole sordid story, the thing about Brooks/Wade having meetings with the prime minister as a constituent sticks out. Some people marry for money, others for title, but doing so to become the PM's constituent is genuinely cheeky.


The Viktorfeed shows an Eastern Skyjets (icao ESJ) flight from Cairo into Dubai. Flight number ESJ020, arrived 2300Z, very likely one of their two executive-config DC-9s.

Dumb Blond

The Philip Blond test: if you have a new policy idea, ask if Philip Blond would support it, and if so, bin it.

interesting project

This looks interesting. The low-cost base station element is already increasingly well served commercially, and also by the OpenBTS team. But I'd be really fascinated to learn more about the mesh-WLAN side, and I rather think they ought to concentrate on one or the other.

in the future, trolls will be a natural resource like oil

Looking back at Tunisia, and forward at Egypt, I think there's an important point that this post almost hits but not quite.

Specifically, I'm fairly sceptical about "Twitter Revolutions" and such - if your revolution has someone else's brand name on it, how revolutionary is it? - but I don't think it's irrelevant.

I'm feeling a little sorry for Evgeny Morozov at the moment. He'd just hacked out a niche as Mr. Grumpy by royal appointment to the blogosphere, when first Wikileaks and then Tunisia and Egypt came sweeping through, and the Tunisian secret police hacked all the Facebook pages in the country, and the Egyptians turned off the Internet, just pulled all the BGP announcements... Sometimes it's not your day.

I do think, though, that there is an important way in which a whole lot of Internet tools contributed to the revolutions. I recently posted on the way in which people can at least for a while function as if they were part of an organisation just because they shared certain assumptions. It's the idea of the imagined community, which can be defined as a group of people who are behaving as if their weak social ties were strong ones. If you want a mental model of this, the revolution happens when enough people change state and start doing this, and it stops again when they revert to pursuing their interests in the normal way. Of course, what happens in between may have changed what those are and how they do it. From a different direction, look at Chris Dillow's post here - it's theoretically irrational to take part in politics, until it's not. The point when it stops being irrational, though, is the point when people stop thinking it's irrational.

In that sense, a lot of the work of starting a revolution is starting a myth. An ironic salute to this was the Egyptian government's decision to turn off the Internet, and later the GSM networks as well. If the value of the Internet really had been as a way to pass on the time and place to assemble, this would have been a serious blow to the movement. But once you're a really angry Egyptian, where else would you protest but Tahrir Square? It wasn't that they needed it for tactical communication, but rather for strategic propaganda. Also, once they took this step, they had also inadvertently demonstrated to the other world media that This Was It. The mainstream media remains very good at bringing its own connectivity, and the main barrier to them covering the news is usually that they don't think something is news. Giving Al-Jazeera and friends - who had been heavily criticised on the Web for being soft on the Egyptian government - a monopoly may have been a really bad idea as it forced them to cover the news or look indistinguishable from Nile TV.

I suspect that a lesson here is that the last thing authoritarian governments will do in future is turn the Internet off. For a start, they will increasingly need to keep it up for economic reasons - the ISP that serves the Egyptian stock exchange and central bank was left alone, and with time I would bet that it would become increasingly porous to information. But much more importantly, this is not a policy that has a great track record. Burma managed it, but started with advantages (not many users, only one network, and a strong position to start with). Iran did far better with its throttle-down-and-spy plan. Even though the Tunisians funnelled all the Facebook accounts in the country into one, controlled by the secret police, it didn't seem to help.

Jamais Casco (via here) asked if you could start a genocide on Twitter - a sensible point, as we know you can do so with the radio, the cinema, television, the newspapers, and (thanks to Serbian turbo-folk) rock'n'roll*. Terrorists tried to start a nuclear war with a spoofed caller-ID. Whether or not you could do that, you can certainly start a mob of quasi-fascist loyalist paramilitaries on QQ. Out of all authoritarian governments, China does best, with strategic trolling and semi-official moderators, which may be more important than direct censorship. Andrew Wilson's Virtual Politics makes the interesting point that Russia in the early Putin years didn't so much censor the Internet, as distribute government talking-points and favours to carefully selected bastards.

Then again, was the greatest success of the wumaodang model the 2004 US presidential election? The best way to fight one myth is perhaps with another. And the best ones are distinguished by the fact they are sometimes called principles. The really depressing consequence of this is that Paul Staines probably has a job for life, although the less depressing corollary is that he gets to herd several hundred idiots yelling about ZaNuLiebour for the term of his natural.

A couple of other interesting links: Charles Bwele makes the point that in much of the world, the so-called new media are more like the first ones. Did you know about the Grozny riots of 1958?

*The world's first genocidal remix is yet to come, but I wouldn't rule it out by any means. All art aspires to the status of music, and just look what people get up to with books.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

fan service

I wonder who is heading on a steady course of 280 degrees True along the Mediterranean in their Boeing Business Jet from the Texan/Saudi operator MidEast Jet. If they started from Egypt, given the time they came into range and their air speed, that would fit with the BBC reporting that prominent persons had left the country at 2117 GMT, quoting Al-Jazeera (although I was watching it and I didn't see this).

Whoever they are, they're about 15 minutes from Tunisia.

Monday, January 24, 2011


Faintly disgusting at the Register.

"The corporation vowed to increase the spending on "devolved nations" - which is Beeb-speak not for Bangladesh or Papua New Guinea, you may be surprised to learn, but Wales and Scotland. This will increase from 12 per cent to 17 per cent."

Because people who aren't as pale as Andrew Orlowski have "devolved", perhaps to the point where they haven't even noticed the benefits of shutting off comments on all their articles.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

migration: lazyweb

Does anyone know if I can trust this stack exchange answer (referring to wordpress bug 14818) that wordpress won't mangle all the Google Maps, video, ManyEyes visualisations and the like from the old site during a programmatic import? I'm now down to two blockers before moving TYR Classic.

I thought I was following you...

For George Osborne read Bernie Madoff: he’ll take your money and take your job, but don’t worry – if you wait long enough, he promises you’ll get it all back from someone else.
(Ed Balls, here.)

Note he didn't say "Of course, we accept the necessity of cuts, but George Osborne is really like Bernie Madoff". This was rather the point of this post. In the end, the people who thought themselves masters of rhetoric, campaigning, and media management were stuck with a hopelessly confused message that they would have rightly mocked had it come from anyone else. On the other hand, funny old Gordon (is he going mad?) had a clear and immediately comprehensible message.

Of course, neither I, Ed Balls, or probably anyone else in Britain actually thinks we'll never need to do anything about the budget deficit. The question is what, how much, from whom, and when. The official answer from Labour on the campaign trail and since was "about half as much, or as much over twice as long".

Even keeping the plan target from the Pre-Budget report, to reduce the deficit by half over the next parliament, there's still significant room to do a better job. You could look at the distributional impact and call attention to the fact that poor families with children lose out the most. You could look at the breakdown between growth, inflation, taxation, and cuts, and perhaps dust off the file from the late 90s. During the 90s fiscal stabilisation, Ken Clarke and Gordon Brown pursued a policy of splitting the adjustment burden equally between spending restraint and higher taxes. You could even use "the Clarke-Brown plan" as a talking point, seeing as Ken Clarke is back in the government. Beyond that, we could look at aiming for stabilisation first, and reduction only once the risk of a second recession is past.

But none of this is likely to help if it comes with an initial disclaimer that it should not be believed too hard. Rhetorical commitments are not much, as Nick Clegg would point out, but they do have more self-binding power than saying nothing. If you preface everything with a statement that you don't really believe it very hard, you risk convincing everyone that the other half of the statement is the bit they shouldn't take seriously.

How did we get here? I think it's worth looking at the idea of "the centre" carefully. In my opinion, the idea that the centre ground plays a special role in politics is a sort of wrapper round a package of interesting assumptions. One of these is something like the median voter theorem - the idea that if voter preferences are roughly normally distributed along a scale between two camps, then the preferences of the voter halfway along the scale determine the outcome. Another is related, but different - that the political scale translates into practical priorities for government. Even if the spectrum is primarily made up of statements about identity, ethics, and emotion, it can be transcribed perfectly from political DNA into practical proteins. (Perhaps institutions are the RNA in this metaphor.)

This set-up is quite robust. There's the classic version of centre ground politics, where preferences along the classic left-right scale are normally distributed and therefore most people are somewhere in the centre. As a result, democracy equals moderation, and campaigning is basically all about assembling a policy package that pushes the party line over the median. There are a couple of others. One is a version in which preferences have a binomial distribution, one peak for Labour, one for Tories, and there are a few swing voters in the middle. As the two peaks are roughly equal in size, though, this doesn't change much - the decisive factor is still which way the centre goes. This is probably closer to the standard operating procedures of big political parties, although the theoretical legitimacy still comes from the first, moderate majority model. This still works in a world like 1970s Germany, where the swing voters are represented by a third party, and the primary form of political competition is trying to be the bigger of the two big parties and therefore the swing party's preferred coalition partner. Here's a fine example of living in either world, as is this.

Another one is a pathological variant - the 51% model beloved of Karl Rove. This accepts the two camps, but denies that there is a significant zone of potential agreement in the middle. Instead, it argues, the biggest source of potential voters for either side is the reserve army of the nonvoters; in a low-turnout polity, on the assumption that nonvoters break the same way as the general population, there are so many nonvoters with some prior party affiliation that they outweigh the swingers. The policy recommendation from this is that a party must do all it can to achieve asymmetric mobilisation, to rile up its own base while trying to damp down the others. Rather than trying to adapt to whatever the real preferences of the people are, as in the first model, or micro-targeting the relatively small group of swing voters, as in the second, the point is to wind up a bigger gang for whatever makes up a minimal consensus in your party.

Interestingly, this should have as a consequence the incremental radicalisation of the party that starts it. As anyone who wanted higher wages would be replaced by a member of the original reserve army of the unemployed, so anyone who deserts i is likely to be replaced by someone more extreme.

There's a limiting case for this. If the political rhetoric that marks the scale is really meant to be transcribed into action, at some point the initiating party will get so extreme that its position is intolerable to a large majority of the public. But here's a serious problem. In the well-behaved, school politics lesson world of scenario one, politicians are thought to set their positions on the political scale by reference to the practical policies they will command. They are flying by reference to the horizon, or at least to the artificial horizon of the polls. But I think it's fair to say, at least going by the fact that they frequently say this is precisely what they're doing, that politicians also set their positions by reference to other politicians. Rather than watching the horizon, they are watching the other guy's wingtip and flying in formation.

Now in some cases this might actually work. If they are all working from a common view of reality, it's entirely valid to reckon that the central axis of the Labour Party is however many degrees to the left of the leftmost Tory. There will be drift over time, but nothing too drastic. They can adjust their relative positions without colliding. What matters is that the constraints in their calculations are mutually consistent. They are linked because they have the same republic in their heads. This is, I think, what underlies the whole concept. It assumes a common public sphere and no bad behaviour. This is why operationalising postmodernism was important.

Of course, basic cognitive biases suggest that people who work together and share an institutional culture will think this even if they are competitors in practice.

The problem here is that the whole thing relies for stability on nobody adopting the counter-game strategy and either trying to change the rules, or just to drag the opposition so far off their home ground that they lose all credibility and fail first. I'm pretty confident that, to borrow a phrase from Nick Clegg, 1931 plus a pound does not equal "progressive", and neither does it equal a winning strategy for the opposition. I'm much less confident that there is any way to correct the course except for adopting the 51% strategy or something very like it and trying to drag the lot bodily leftwards. I don't particularly like the look of 102% World (two hypermobilised and completely mutually intolerable camps) either, but there you go.

Update: I have just read this post of Steve Randy Waldman's which is more than relevant.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Any idea as to where the Department of Health's meetings data is? There's a PDF here but nothing else.


It strikes me that much of today's blog could be summarised as "gut truth, simple message, shout, get cracking".

Anyway, I found this ironic:
Our financial markets have become a largely automated adaptive dynamical system, with feedback. Furthermore, a dynamical adaptive system with feedback is challenging ordinarily, but this one is also strategic. A flight controller is dynamical, but not strategic. Add an adversarial environment, and there’s no science I’m aware of that’s up to the task of understanding the potential implications of that system.

Hmm, someone could do with a copy of Red Plenty?

Also, this.
“Far more people are investigated, examined and spoken with than actually end up being hospitalized,” says Robert T.M. Phillips, a Maryland-based forensic psychiatrist who worked with the Secret Service for 15 years to assess people who threatened the president.

Sometimes the Person of Concern is referred for mental health services. Other times the Secret Service agents themselves continue to engage the person with frequent visits and calls.

Fein tells of one letter he read, written by a Person of Concern to the Secret Service agent charged with preventing him from harming a government figure. The letter was addressed: “To Agent Smith, my only friend in the whole world.”

Nice caveats, shame about the point

My only complaint about this post from Duncan Weldon is that his caveats are better than the ostensible point. The problem with arguments about the budget is that a very large chunk of the spending side is either made up of long-term capital projects, or worse, PFI-ised capital projects, which often can't and arguably shouldn't be used as in-year balancing items, commitments like NHS spending and pensions that are driven by demographic factors, or else automatic stabilisers like Job Seekers' Allowance that are directly linked to the economic cycle with a minimal lag time.

On the other hand, it's hard to think of a tax that isn't dependent on the level of economic activity. VAT? Corporation tax? Stamp duty? Income tax? Fuel duty? They're all more or less cycle-following. That the government budget is heavily influenced by the macro-economic situation is trivially true, and is determined by the structure of the tax and public sector financial management system. This doesn't change with your views on economic theory - perhaps another case for the idea that one of the groups who got the crisis right were those who saw it in terms of accounting.

I'd also add that worrying about Tory talking points like "deficit deniers" is the counsel of despair. If you're worrying about the other side's nonsense, they've got you where they want you. You need to hang something round the other guys' necks. All this accepted, and I do like Duncan's point that it was indeed the lack of an effective critique of capitalism that led the Blair government to miss the bubble, following this advice would still put Labour in the position of arguing that they would make "nice cuts not nasty cuts".

Which doesn't make any sense at all. I suspect the dividing line between the Continuity Blairites and everyone else on this is as follows: Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, and Ed Balls actually realised how awful the Tories would be and that there was a real risk of a double dip recession, and that therefore it was necessary to fight the "language of cuts". Balls did get to cut loose on this towards the end of the campaign. I suspect Labour would have done better to define against them on this.

However, conventional wisdom demands that Brown be seen as an egghead with no grasp of campaigning. The media-savvy eye catching initiative peddlers, however, were the ones who ended up campaigning on a line of "cuts! cuts! cuts! but not like those evil Tory cuts!" which wasn't clear or convincing.


I am enjoying these people's magazine (although the website leaves something to be desired like a less horrible design), especially as it seems to be based in the pub around the corner from my office. Oddly 90s - people being amused by Japanese TV - but I can put up with that.I am enjoying these people's magazine (although the website leaves something to be desired like a less horrible design), especially as it seems to be based in the pub around the corner from my office. Oddly 90s - people being amused by Japanese TV - but I can put up with that.


I'm not quite as sceptical as some about this. However, it's not clear to me how this differs from the sort of thing UNOSAT does all the time - here's their analysis of imagery over Abyei, the key border area between North and South Sudan. Actually it looks like the "Enough Project" is going to be using UNOSAT imagery itself, going by UNOSAT's own website.

If you follow the link you'll see that they have more than reasonable capability (50cm resolution) and that they routinely observe the presence of refugees/displaced persons and returnees, construction, and the like. There's obvious relevance to an effort to monitor potential conflict along the border, especially as oil prospecting is an issue. You can't easily hide oil exploration from a satellite that can resolve objects 50cm across.

However, the downside is that the UNOSAT report is comparing images over a two-year period. I would suspect that they will need much more frequent passes to be operationally responsive, which is where the costs get interesting.

Also, I've just been over to the website and it's a bit of an unstructured clickaround. What I've always liked about MySociety sites is that they all have a function - FixMyStreet reports things in your street that need fixing, WDTK issues Freedom of Information Act requests, TWFY looks up information on MPs, TheStraightChoice logged what candidates promised and said about each other during their campaigns. DemocracyClub, for example, worked because as soon as you logged in it gave you something to do and some feedback about doing it, and then it hassled you to do something more. It had structure.

Notoriously, if you don't give volunteers something to do as soon as they show up, they'll wander off. It is nowhere easier to wander off than on the Internet. And so there's a button to twitbookspace it and a donation link. There isn't, however, a to-do list or, say, a list of pairs of images that need comparing.

a lot or a little

A question. So the DfT spent £2.7m developing a games site to promote road safety. How much did the TV ads of the 70s and 80s (which got progressively more high-concept, flashy, and shocking over time) typically cost? I have the impression that TV ad production is a pretty profitable and expensive business, and of course the air time itself doesn't come cheap - they often aired in the middle of prime time ITV series, in the days when literally everybody watched them.

This is a problem with government spending data, by the way; how do you answer "is this a lot or a little?", especially when historical comparisons are involved.

say no to the public data corporation

So what about that Public Data Corporation?

I think it should be opposed with full force. Why? Well, the fact they want to structure it as a "corporation" is suspicious in itself - it's going to be tempting to declare it a trading fund and force it to make profits, even if only in the silly Tory sense of forcing other bits of the government to play at shops and pass bits of their budget to other budgeting entities. This would send us right back to 1996 - no access unless you're rich, thanks. The model here is the Forensic Science Service; this was trading-fundised, so that money from the policing budget was sucked back to the Treasury with every DNA test, and has now been sold to the private sector. (Expect to need a DNA-driven innocence project within years two, I would.)

Further, the point of the exercise isn't defined at all well. Sometimes, you might think this was an opportunity. If something is ill defined, there may be the opportunity to define it. However, it is hardly a controversial statement that the current government has something of a record of introducing ill-defined and poorly thought out wheezes that end up in a horrible mess. It's therefore prudent to assume that this particular wizard wheeze is just as poorly thought out as all the others, and will end up in a horrible mess unless someone intercepts it. Just look at what they've done to some perfectly good projects. Hopefully, that's "intercept" as in the way the air force do it - splash it in the North Sea.

Also, the current position makes sense; lives in the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office's core responsibilities are for the machinery of government and the Civil Service. Data disclosure and privacy issues are fundamentally administrative. The dossier is where it should be, and conveniently close to seriously influential people. Bumping it to some sort of thingy-wotsname quango based hundreds of miles from Whitehall would be a defeat.

Finally, the best reason to oppose it is that if we spend the next three months refining our response and debating the philosophical nature of privacy, whatever it is they want to do with it, they'll just do it and the damage will be done. If it turns out to be a reasonable idea, it's always possible to welcome it later. But the flip side of "working with" them to improve it is opposition. It's the early no that buys later influence.

Say no to privatisation and the back to '96 agenda. Say no to the Public Data Corporation. And if you're working with government datasets, scrape and stash as much stuff as you can right now.

Friday, January 14, 2011

disgraced presidents piling up?

If the former Tunisian president's plane overflew Malta going north, that doesn't mean he's going to France by any means. North of Malta is...Italy. Surely not...

a dance to the music of confirmation bias

OKTrends has an amusing post, but what I like about it is that it's consilient with the process I defined here. My idea was that songs that were rated 5 might be good, but might also just be violently weird to the reviewer. By the same logic, the same must be true of the 1s. Assuming that my tastes aren't the same as the reviewer, the information in the reviews was whether the music was either mediocre, or potentially interesting. The output is here.

The OKTrends people seem to have rediscovered the idea independently looking at dating profiles - it's better to be ugly to some and beautiful to others than it is to be boringly acceptable to everybody.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

not Thursday, so it must be a music link

Also a neat remix here, although my Internet link still tends to jam every time a comment comes up on soundcloud.

Tangentially, I saw a poster for Jon Pleased Wimmin (of all possible DJs) the other day, which made me think "Bloody hell, I thought he was dead? Or at least rendered generally harmless?" So much so that I was about to pass some remark to that effect, when I realised I was enormously tempted to follow up with "I know he's dead...because I killed him." Also, I didn't ask someone if the haddock, as a blackboard appeared to say, really was "21 days aged". This sort of thing is funny, and then it gets less funny. It rather worries me that it wasn't so long ago I'd have been unable not to say it. I mean, I told a cold-caller who asked if I was the homeowner that I was a burglar, and another that I was monitoring the line for MI5 in the interests of national security.

Progressively realising that "brilliantly funny" is quite often "fucking tiresome". It took a while. Fortunately there's you, reader, to take it out on.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Brits In Spaaace! Brown Era Edition

Did you know the UK briefly had an independent imagery satellite between 2005-2009? You do now, and so do I thanks to Think Defence. Sample pix are here.

The satellite was designed to return its data directly to a mobile ground station immediately after collecting an image, allowing far more timely delivery of the information which it collects than standard satellites. The system was specifically designed to meet operational timescales, whether for disaster relief, news-gathering, or other applications where speed of response is vital....TopSat weighs just 120 kg, but carries an optical camera capable of delivering panchromatic images with a spatial resolution at nadir of 2.8 metres covering a 17x17 km area, and simultaneous three-band multi-spectral images, (red, green, blue), with a resolution of 5.6 metres. This is thought to represent the best resolution per mass of any satellite launched to date. This camera is integrated with an agile micro-satellite platform to permit pitch compensation manoeuvres, allowing imaging of low illumination scenes.

It would fit on one of these among other things.

I want nothing to do with your company ever again

Things to do this week: withdraw all my savings from ING Direct and take them elsewhere. Seriously, read the whole thing.

operationalising postmodernism

Now here's a worthwhile Canadian initiative for you, from here. And he names the guilty men.

a quick HOWTO

Because someone wanted this: a list of aircraft investigation resources.

First thing: you always need to be able to map registrations to aircraft serial numbers (MSNs) and vice versa, as well as linking registrations to operators and vice versa. So you need to subscribe to one of several commercial databases that provide this information. Otherwise you'd have to follow up each registration individually with the state of registry, which isn't so bad if it's the US (you can query the registry at or the UK CAA's G-INFO. If it's Equatorial Guinea or Kyrgyzstan, though, it won't be available online or really at all, and that's just how the registrants want it.

I use ATDB, but there are others - the biggest one is Airclaims, which is marketed at insurers and debt chasers, but it's seriously pricey.

You'll also often want to find out where an aircraft was at a particular date, and if the registration and operator on file matched with the reality. Fortunately the world is full of volunteer spies, plane spotters, who take enormous numbers of photos of anything that might fly and post them on web sites. This is how German Amnesty managed to characterise the CIA rendition planes. is the biggest and has a full-featured search engine, but JetPhotos and a few others are worth trying if you turn up a blank. ATDB will try to pull photos from various servers matching your current query. Try querying by registration as well as MSN, and note that if you know the exact type (all six digits of a Boeing designation rather than just 737) you can often do a type-at-location search.

A lot of airports publish their movements on the web - this is why I did the Viktorfeed, to automate watching Dubai and Sharjah airports. This is useful if you want to know who is going where, or who's recently been where, and you may be able to find out more by cross-referencing. For example, if Airline X's flight from Dubai to Baghdad is listed as a passenger flight with a 727 and they only have one 727 with a pax, combi, or quick change configuration, you've got the registration and possibly the MSN.

Also, for some parts of the world, you can monitor Air Traffic Control data through sites like FlightTracker or FlightAware and LiveATC. A lot of these are aggregators for people who operate "virtual radar" devices, which receive the SSR transponder data practically all aircraft squawk when they hear a surveillance radar. Here's an example. The problem is, of course, this depends on owning fancy radio equipment being tolerated in the places you're interested in. If your BlackBerry is considered subversive, or there's just no electricity, you're unlikely to find a virtual radar server - and they won't work if there's no radar coverage. (However, if your staff go somewhere weird, why not...)

The Aviation Safety Network website provides a database of accident reports, which can be useful. AirNav has a huge database of airports, although most of them are on Wikipedia. There's a lookup site for ICAO and IATA codes here. The Great Circle Mapper is a useful calculator for ranges and routes and makes pretty maps. Obviously Google Maps and Earth are useful if you're planning more complex visualisation.

Things to look out for: networks of companies that repeatedly trade the same aircraft, especially if they're based in the same location and their corporate registration is somewhere else and bizarre. Inconsistency. Unlikely details (the office that is in Kiev and is a cinema, the manager who is a Soviet ice hockey player and is dead). Things you can't easily find: details of the cargo or whoever eventually controls the company.

Also, do be sceptical and don't turn yourself into Evan Kohlmann (via Patrick Lang - check out Adam Silverman's thoughts in the comments).

I can remember when the Emerson & Kohlmann show sounded fresh and new in late 2001. I can also remember when the Counterterrorism Blog launched and turned out to be really just a lot of drum-banging rightwing propaganda and some really quite horrible guilt-by-association games. Worry about the false positives.

earth-shattering kaboom

Really excellent piece on the Al-Qa'Qaa munitions complex, its looting during the US invasion of Iraq, and the role of the estimated 40,000 tonnes of assorted explosives that went missing in the Iraqi insurgency and the civil war. Also, strategic geography - that area was on the demographic frontier between Sunni and Shia, on the suburban fringe of Baghdad, and near the end of the road from the western borders. Combine that with the explosives, and you can see why it was the crucible of the war and also part of the reason why things quietened down so quickly after mid-2007 - get a grip there and the Americans and the Iraqi government had gone quite a long way already.

Also, October, 2004:
Sanger, still waiting for the editors of the Times to publish his exclusive, discovered that the story was leaking on Sunday. The article went out the next morning: "Huge Cache of Explosives Vanished from Site in Iraq." Shortly after the newspaper hit the streets, Bush's chief political strategist Karl Rove swept into the media area of Air Force One and started shouting at Sanger. "Rove came and screamed at me in front of all the other reporters," he says. "Declared that this had been invented by the Kerry campaign." Apparently, the report had hit a nerve.


big war postponed, small war still on the menu

So what about those North Koreans? As the SWJ put it, a small war in Korea was postponed. I'd query "small", especially in the special sense they use it - it wouldn't have been particularly small and it would have been defined by high-intensity battle - but perhaps they are really thinking of whatever would happen after North Korea, as in David Maxwell's paper I linked to. (Maxwell turns up in the comments thread.) The postwar is reasonably certain to show up; the big question is whether Korea has to go through the big war to get there.

It's worth noting that the North Koreans took care to be seen to be alert and causing trouble during the exercises off Yeonpyeong, but without doing anything that would be unambiguously hostile. It's also interesting that they seem to have used electronic warfare as a way of signalling their continued determination to fight in a field that wasn't a direct challenge to the South Koreans and their allies.

Actually, all parties to the conflict attempted to find alternative forms of confrontation in order to exert power while trying to keep control of the escalation dynamic. I recently saw somewhere on the Web a reference to the idea that having multiple independent forms of power or status was an egalitarian force in society as they could balance each other. It's certainly an important concept in international politics. North Korea's original bombardment of Yeonpyeong was a direct and physical, kinetic, attack on the disputed border - at one level, they hoped that if there was no response from the South, they would have set a precedent that South Korea could not treat the island and part of the surrounding sea as entirely its own territory. More strategically, it was a demonstration that they were willing to cause trouble in order to extract concessions, and that they were willing to escalate significantly.

From the Southern side, there were serious restrictions to the possible response. Anything they could do in the same context would either have involved risking bringing about the big war, or else risking a disastrous fiasco - a major raid over the border would have been too much, a commando operation to destroy the guns facing Yeonpyeong would have risked ending up with prisoners in North Korea. There is not much at the moment they could do to put pressure on North Korea economically, and the North Koreans often respond to economic problems by provocations designed to get economic concessions. The North Koreans held escalation dominance - they could choose whether to go further, without necessarily having to go for the ultimate deterrent.

This is why the navies were so important. Although they were constrained in what they could do in one context, the Peninsula, the US Navy and its allies were not so constrained in bringing ships into international waters in the area. The response was to move the focus of the conflict into a different context. Also, cooperating at sea allowed Japan and South Korea to demonstrate alliance unity in a way that they could not otherwise - nobody would bring Japanese troops to Korea, for example, but there is no such objection to Japanese, US, and South Korean ships (or aircraft) cooperating. This is still true even though the US-made or US-inspired equipment aboard those ships permits them to cooperate very closely indeed, with radars aboard one ship, aircraft from another, a command centre in yet another, and missiles aboard a fourth being internetworked.

Also, there was very little the North Koreans could do about it without taking unacceptable risks (even for them). The biggest concern for the allied ships was that the North might lay mines in the narrow seas west of Korea. Paradoxically, the North Koreans were probably self-deterred from doing this - had they got lucky and sunk the Jimmy Carter while she was spying around Yeonpyeong, the consequences would probably not have been ideal from their point of view.

Another parallel form of conflict was the nuclear issue. North Korea had just revealed its new uranium enrichment cascade when it started shelling Yeonpyeong, after all. Bill Richardson's officially-unofficial mission to North Korea brought back the offer to sell North Korea's stock of plutonium to the South. This sounds better than it is, precisely because they now have the capability to use uranium rather than plutonium. On the other hand, accepting it is sensible - it's a matching concession to de-escalate the situation, less plutonium in North Korea is probably desirable, and it moves the nuclear debate onto the slower "enrichment track".

The nuclear debate also provided an opportunity for the Chinese government to play the role of turning up late but bringing a solution. If the 12,000 rods do leave North Korea, a big question is where they would go. The Chinese might buy them and might even offer fuel of some description in return, a replay of the 1994 framework agreement.

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