Sunday, June 26, 2011


A question, 200 or so readers. How many of you also follow the twitter feed?

Embassytown: a partial review

While we're on drugs, why not a look at China Miéville's Embassytown, in which an unusual one plays a big role? This isn't quite an AFOE "Premature Evaluation" as I'm actually reading it, I just haven't finished it yet. A couple of points...

Pass by reference, not by value

This is the big-idea high concept here. It's sci-fi where the sci is linguistics, and fairly hard science fiction too. The aliens - and one thing that stands out is that we've got some seriously alien aliens here - are creatures that are comparably intelligent with humanity and indeed with a couple of other species and an occasional unusually bright robot, but who don't make use of a symbolic language.

As a result, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds good for them - words are their own referents, language is limited by perception, and action is therefore constrained by language. One of the first results of contact between them and us is the development of what is essentially a creole, back-porting elements of symbolism into their vocabulary. This offers huge new intellectual possibilities but also a really awful failure mode.

After all, it's not as if they can't hear people or things speaking their language if it obeys their rules. The result is a little like a catastrophic, and accidental, buffer-overflow attack. Stuff leaks and gets incorporated into their internal thought processes.

Addiction and performance

Addiction is not a state of being, it's a relationship. This is why people rarely commit murder to get hold of coffee. It's the economic relationship, not the drug physiology, that does the work of corruption, and that works for the supplier as much as for the addict. When the aliens become dependent on a very specific product the humans can provide, this might sound like a grant of absolute power. It doesn't turn out very well for the humans, for just the reasons that suggests.

Similarly, people do the same sort of thing with their dependencies on each other. It's the diva mindset - when you can't tell "I need them" and "They need me" apart.


In part this is a love letter to diplomatic culture in its weirdness and anachronism and necessity. It was fashionable a few years ago to say that the whole thing had outlived its purpose. There were a couple of versions of this. One was that as Prime Ministers X and Y could just phone each other or fly off and meet, there was no need. This was astonishingly stupid and naive and the people who pushed it - Simon Jenkins for example - should have known better, knowing as they did just how much preparation goes into summit meetings and how journalists covering them generally start, the day before the meeting, by reporting what is likely to be in the communique as the diplomats have already drafted it.

Another, less idiotic but more pernicious, was that there was nothing to discuss. Free markets ruled, businesses spoke to businesses, and for the rest, all that mattered was brute force. The neocons liked this and it went with the old US military contempt for "Foggy Bottom". Since 2007 and the roles of Ryan Crocker, Emma Sky, and the State Department PRTs in getting them out of their self-dug hole in Iraq, you don't hear that so often.

Diplomacy is the weird and paradoxical medium in which states swim. (This is a trope of the book - people and other creatures manoeuvre through language, spaceships in space and in another convenient dimension, and states through diplo-space.) At the very least, it's a continuing exercise in killing as few people as possible, like emergency medicine. Like lawyers, it's one of the things I learnt to stop hating in the Bush years.


The ambassadors in Embassytown are rather odd creatures, selected, raised, and trained to think precisely the same thing at the same time and express it with great discretion and irritating charm. Meanwhile, the embassy staff are really in charge behind the scenes. Who the hell can he be thinking of?

a theory of some people's moral sentiments

(Or, imagine you had to make a Homo economicus. Other than money, what chemicals would you immediately look up in Angewandte Chemie?)

So Dave from PR's constituency chairman was found dead in a portaloo at Glastonbury. Who now remembers William Hague in Notting Hill?

This made me think of something. There used to be a microgenre of writing in the late 90s that ascribed historical events to drugs. (Reader Richard J. occasionally threatens to write a history of the world titled Shitfaced: How Drunks, Junkies, Drink, and Drugs Created the Modern World or words to that effect, so it's not entirely dead.) I remember a piece in The Face (yeah, it would be) ascribing peace in Northern Ireland to the right pills.

But what if the polarity was reversed? If Michael Howard was right, but in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons?

Throw your hands in the air! You'll need the clearance from surrounding obstacles...

Because we're about to do some serious handwaving.

What if there was a long-term pathology of MDMA abusers in which serotonin production, or perhaps more likely sensitivity, was permanently compromised? This was a big official-line fear back in the 90s and not totally implausible.

Steroid abusers run the risk of losing their balls as the levels of androgens in their system are artificially kept high and therefore the negative-feedback control never kicks in to demand more production. This is why they shoot HCG - it's an alternate positive control - and hence why some of them can show up positive on pregnancy tests.

Similarly, keep a stimulus turned up long enough and the system will trim it out to deal with the new normal.

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Paul Staines

What might be the symptoms?'ll need even more space to wave your hands for this bit, but here goes. Permanently lacking in empathy, with lowered affect, and a tendency to blow up irascibly if challenged. Are you thinking what we're thinking?

Actually, I'm indebted to Owen "Owain the marxist architecture critic, see" Hatherley for this insight: like so.
I like CIF's preponderance of ravey right-wing libertarians. 'MoveAnyMountain', 'TakeMeHigher' etc

Yes. Yes. Perhaps we could do a poll on which Mancunian music hero is likely to make it to the Tory A-List first and therefore derive some assumptions towards a dose-response curve. Hooky? Squire? Barney? Shaun Ryder? Bez? Tony Wilson? I know he's dead, but seriously, it's the Tories and I'm kinda surprised he never had a serious crack at electoral politics. (John Squire, for his part, repeatedly threatened to but didn't get enough tuit. But you're a long time retired as they say.) Surely they'd find him a constituency down near Jake Rees-Mogg's where the mere termination of his biological existence wouldn't matter too much.

Aetiology, Diagnosis...and Treatment

I don't know about treatment, but it should be fairly easy to devise a screening protocol based on demographic and biographical information and a few clinical markers. Not quite the Voight-Kampff test, but similar. Anyway it's too well known, especially in the target generation.

The good news is that the demographic bulge ought to be near its peak and things should get better from here on in. A bit like public pensions.

Waste is a waste of time

Twitter is no fun when it comes to referencing a whole conversation, so you'll have to do some work here. So Matthew Turner and I had a row with "Hopi Sen", who apparently thinks the absolute top priority for the Labour Party is an attack on "waste". If you browse through the pile o'tweets you'll find that my argument breaks down as follows:

1) Government efficiency drives are hard and always disappointing

Literally every PM since Lloyd George, never mind Attlee, has declared a campaign for efficiency, against waste, against "scroungers" or whatever, at some point. Yet they are still with us. Cost-managing an organisation the size of government is very hard, expensive, and imperfect. Further, it's almost as common for government ministers and officials to complain about Treasury micro-management and obsession with the next five minutes' cashflow account. Strict cost accounting is not rare in the British civil service, in fact it is the primrose path of promotion.

2) Power is real

So the prime minister says we've got to be more efficient. Ministers and permanent secretaries fan out with his words. What happens next?

Obviously, the bureaucracy will partially cushion and vitiate the directive. Equally obviously, the directive will create opportunities to do stuff you couldn't before. Bureaucracy creates as many opportunities for a tactical excess of zeal as it does veto-points and buffering committees.

But the distinction between the two is non-random. Easier and more promising things will be done in preference to harder ones. Harder things will get watered down in drafting or held in the administration's delay loops. Who, honestly, doubts that a savings review would be enforced with greater enthusiasm on claimants of disability benefit than on BAE Systems, Capita, or EDS? Will anyone take a bet?

3) Waste is a pony

One of the reasons why governments and oppositions both love arguing about "waste" is that it's nicely undefined. Forecast the right amount of "efficiency savings" and you can promise all sorts of stuff without moving the slider marked "Income Tax" or touching the knob marked "NHS".

Whether any of this is deliverable at all is completely vague. Basically, it's equivalent to assuming a pony. And there is no pony.


You do realise there is no need to debate this? We have data. We can observe. The Conservative campaign of 2010 promised huge efficiency savings and claimed that its cuts policy would be just fine thanks to the waste pony. How's that working out for you? The cuts have been hard to deliver (point 1), the efficiencies even harder (point 3), and in fact, they have fallen on the powerless (point 2) rather than the powerful.

We don't need a debate.

4) The issue is trivial

Even the comedy "fraud and error" numbers in the welfare bills aren't actually all that much money in the context of the government budget. Whether there is a lot of waste or a little waste, by definition it's going to be a couple of percent either way. If it wasn't, we wouldn't need to launch a massive auditing exercise to find it. This isn't Greece.

However, gigantic management-information systems and complex rules do cost serious money to implement. Especially if they're going to be commissioned from Capita or EDS, the people we know are rooking us anyway. So the real question is "How much waste is actually recoverable, considering the costs of recovering it?"

Intermission 2

If you're being cost conscious, be cost conscious. Spending on The War On Minor Fraud And Some Administrative Errors is spending. It's money. It doesn't become un-money because it is dipped in Blairite holy water. It's money.

So much for rehashed tweets. But there are some other issues here. So, that "savings review".

5. It's All Gordon's Fault. No, Really, Trust Me This Time

This made an appearance in Tony Blair's memoirs. I don't recall it being much discussed in 2006, the period it supposedly refers to. A quick look on google shows 363 total results, most of which are in articles reviewing the memoir.

It is worth pointing that he was prime minister. If he cared so much, why didn't he order it? He had the Bomb, for fucksake, and as prime minister he was also the minister for the civil service. So, making the hilariously generous assumption that the memoirs are a reliable source, Blair cared so much about the public spending menace that he...nearly said something. Of course, when it suited him, he usually managed to find some ruthlessness, but on this occasion clearly not.

Alternatively, it's a lot of old honk he made up because it was fashionable in late 2009 and an opportunity to moan about Gordon Brown - just another tiresome diva snit.

6. Actually, New Labour Was Obsessed With Civil Service Management

This bit of self-justifying guff is rapidly becoming the object of a post-Blairite founder cult. If it hadn't been for Gordon, zowee, we'd have clamped down on spending in 2006 and...

And what? What possible change in fiscal policy in 2006 would have prevented the great financial crisis? How? Remember that the US housing market's key bubbles peaked and crashed in the winter of 2006. After that, it was all whistling past the graveyard.

There was in fact no boom in public spending at the time. So any possible savings review would have achieved nothing. You can't fix a problem that isn't there. Again, we don't need a debate. We have data.

Hurtling upwards out of control!

7. How you say...Public Service Agreement?

Did I somehow imagine the creation of a massive infrastructure of management-information systems and numerical targeting linking the departmental civil service and its outside contractors to the Treasury and the No.10 Delivery Unit?

Was I having weird management consultancy hallucinations? Was everyone? Was my dad imagining that he'd suddenly found himself with an actual government minister as his line manager?

It's not as if there wasn't a hell of a lot of work going into this. But of course that was all over at the Treasury and has therefore been memory-holed.

8. Tell Me, Great Masters of Narrative Control...

Since when is it a strategic master-stroke to let the enemy's narrative control your actions? Look, you're meant to be a sinister Millbank PR Svengali. I thought the whole point was to control the narrative, not be defined by the other side. But here we are trying desperately to buy into the whole drivel-mythos that everything was just pony-licious until The Socialists Ran Out Of Money.

9. Slight Return to Point Three

Wages for the median UK worker have been flat to falling since 2003. Prices and taxes are going and up and the social wage is being cut. Just how much money do you possibly think you could extract from the waste pony and then recycle back into the wage packet? This isn't an argument. It's just an order of magnitude error, a missing zero.

Especially as - because New Labour made the economic majority significant claimants of in-work benefits - attempts to save money will primarily affect them. It's the original self-licking lollipop. For some reason the referent of this tweet is missing - how could it happen?

10. Jerry Springer's Final Thought

I think the deep play here is that the metaphors we use to speak about politics are themselves obstructive. We talk about creating "political space" and "holding the centre" and use a repertoire of phrases that map the issues into geography and tactics, just as we convert numerical data into graphics to understand it faster.

But what do any of these things actually mean? What is the causal relationship between them? One can argue that you need to say something "tough" about "waste" before going after George Osborne, and you might even be right, but what's the actual link between them?

Or is this just a way of exercising power?

Monday, June 20, 2011

failure of a stinker review

So I went to this. Unfortunately I actually thought pretty much everyone was good. Damn good. Brilliant, in fact. So the spirit of this post is not available. By about midnight the floor had got to about optimal density - not quite to the point where you start worrying that you're going to be knocked down in the ruth or tread on someone important's head or catch a dreaded skin disease but well past the point of running at maximum efficiency. People kept packing in and the tall ones turned up. You know the ones - I first encountered them in a pub in Highgate, looking around and being amazed by the vast cliffs on every side blocking out the light.

kitsuné - 0

Anyway, despite the inverse Randy Newman problem, the hit and hope photos over the wall of tall turned out a bit more fire and forget than I expected.

kitsuné - 1

And I was asked for drugs - on the contrary to this post, I wasn't taken for a user but a dealer. I should worry that I'm being accused of progressively more serious offences, I guess.

kitsuné - 2

Later I found out that someone had sent me a work e-mail while I was dancing. Gah, pales in comparison with the Frenchman I spotted peering at "courriels (professionels)" on a BlackBerry. Faut mieux laisser, quoi. The following isn't mine but the result of a cursory trawl.

There is no crisis, dammit

From yesterday's Obscurer, a story:
A senior union source told The Observer that it was clear Alexander had jumped the gun as the Treasury attempted to show it was taking a hard line on the burgeoning pensions bill.

"Danny Alexander has been reined in by the Cabinet Office," said a union source. "What he did was inflammatory and showed no sense of the seriousness of these issues for people's lives."

Did the senior union source really? Probably he said the bit that was directly quoted, but I doubt anyone senior in a union would talk about a burgeoning public-sector pensions bill. Because there is no such thing. No. There is no crisis.

They're lying to you

It is not, in fact, burgeoning. It is shrinking. Wilting. It falls year on year for the next forty odd years in the worst case scenario. This is not the work of subversive Bolshevik infiltrators, either, but of the government's own actuaries.

From today's Grauniad, here's Lord "Not the Judge" Hutton himself.
"It's an uncomfortable truth, but I'm afraid it's the reality, that the world is changing around us and people are living for much longer, and we have not been paying for those extra years of pensions – the taxpayer has. Strikes won't make this problem go away, we have to act now. If we don't act now, it's our kids who are going to pick up the tab, and it's not right."

Well, the problem is going away. Strikes or no strikes.

What bit of this chart don't you get, fucko?

Hutton can't plead ignorance. It's in his own report. Iain Duncan Smith commissioned it but he's not read it either:
He is expected to say: "We're heading towards an unprecedented burden being placed on the next generation who will have to pay for their parents' retirement on top of paying for the national debt. It's not fair. This bill will address the realities of our increasing longevity by sharing the costs between the generations. We will stand by the 2018 and 2020 timetable."

It's precedented alright - the precedent is now. It goes down from now on if we do nothing. Doing nothing fixes the problem.

Jesus wept - how many times do I have to say this?

Now, I don't expect very much from the pundit-wanker types like Patrick "Unseasonably Mild" Wintour or Toby "Toby" Helm. They're beyond help. But Allegra Stratton is usually worth reading in the Grauniad because she's a reporter rather than a pundit wanker political editor. However, even she didn't find it worthwhile to read the report or even just to look at a couple of blogs, or if she did she didn't think it newsworthy that this whole row is being sold to the public on false pretences, in total and absolute denial of the facts.

In the opinion of the people whose business it is to pay them, public sector pensions will cost less every year from here on in.

Surely, if you're writing a story about a labour-management dispute over pensions, it's incumbent on you to say something about the state of the pension scheme involved? It's as if the Islington Gazette covered Friday night stabbings without mentioning the location, the motive, or even that a knife was used. But national press journalism seems to inject people with some sort of morally fattening and neutralising hormone. And this is the Guardian!

Shall we take it to the bridge? Yeah? Yeah!

There are reasons, of course.

Pensions: the public sector is in denial, from Saturday's Money supplement. Oddly there isn't a Poverty supplement.
Ian Naismith, head of pensions market development for Scottish Widows, said although more people were saving adequate amounts towards retirement in the public sector, and the changes will still leave them with reasonable pensions, those in the private sector who are saving towards retirement are contributing a bigger proportion of their earnings — 9.7% compared to 9.3%.

Well, they oughter as they probably don't get any employer contributions.

Sadly, the Grauniad's hack doesn't mention them at all at any point and you have to rely on one Ken Chu, an NHS sysadmin, who gets randomly voxpopped to raise this issue. But the paper has bigger fish to fry. Scottish Widows' "head of pensions market development" - yes, really - has to get his sales-driven "research" in the media somehow. No doubt the nice lady from SW will be striding along the beach in next week's glossy for a sizable payment.

To finish, and repeat:

Public pensions as a percentage of GDP will fall every year for the next forty years.

There is no crisis and everyone in the newspapers is lying to you, personally, quite deliberately.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

a few thoughts on the exciting world of social media

So how do you get from Shoreditch to the South Bank? Well, as Tom from Boris Watch pointed out, you take a number 243 bus. Or you wait 15 years - one way or another. Or you practice, baby. Or you get a haircut. Anyway, so much for taking the opportunity to reuse what I thought was quite a good joke. If journalism is the first draft of history - an ill-thought out exercise in speed-typing riddled with basic factual errors that aspires one day to be edited into ideological propaganda - and blogging is the first draft of journalism, then Twitter is evidently a lot of old cock.

I wanted to flag this article on how the tube map is a lie. Apparently, people tend to underestimate how long their routes will take when using the Beck map, not just tourists but natives (or as we call 'em round here, slightly less recent immigrants) too.

I think the explanation, and the fix, are as follows. Beck's key insight was to analogise the system to an electrical circuit and draw a schematic diagram of it, showing the key components (stations) and how they interconnect. However, the problem is that we expect a map to show geographical information whereas the Beck map shows logical information.

The fix is, I think, to adopt cold potato routing. The Internet normally uses hot-potato routing - networks hand over traffic to each other at the first possible interconnection point, trying to get rid of it as soon as possible. This has some advantages - it avoids the situation where traffic for Network B is routed into Network A, carried across it, and then carried back towards its source because the furthest interconnect point has failed.

Occasionally this causes a pathological equilibrium - consider a network with customers on both coasts of the US and interconnections with another similar network. Under hot-potato routing, traffic from a customer of A on the East Coast to a customer of B on the West Coast could get routed into B on the East Coast, back out to A, and eventually into B on the West Coast.

Cold-potato routing is the opposite. You carry the traffic as far towards its destination as you can yourself, then hand it off. Roughly, cold is more efficient but hot is more robust. Basically, the recommendation from this would be to avoid changes as far as possible, including changing between modes of transport - which includes, of course, getting onto the tube in the first place. When everything breaks down - every five minutes - of course you can revert to hot potato to route around the break.

You'll note that Tom's solution gets it in a one-r.

I fought the Laws and the half-molten clock seduced a giant tortoise

This sycophantic FT piece on David Laws has been kicked around quite a bit already. Personally, I feel it represents a new kind of journalism - writing that should have been kept behind a paywall, so nobody would have to read it. Beyond that, though, it's pretty weird. Check out this par:

From 1987 to 1994 he worked in the City, ­earning “an incredible amount of money for somebody of my age – and frankly for anybody” in senior positions at BZW and JPMorgan. Going to work for a then fringe political party was not the most obvious career choice. “I seem to remember I was in a bath at the top of a skyscraper in Hong Kong when we were there on a quarterly conference when I finally decided that if I didn’t make this move that year, I never would.”

The surrealism of it. André Breton didn't say that nothing was as beautiful as the chance meeting of a skyscraper, a bathtub, and a very serious centre-right banker turned politician on the expensively crunchy gravel driveway of a cottage in Somerset, but you bet he'd have got the joke.

In fact there's a painting in it. The horizon lines thunder off into the distance like a gang of TGVs, the South China Sea standing in for the Mediterranean. Lurching in from the near future, an erect skyscraper dives upwards into the swimming pool. Suddenly an ornate, brassbound Victorian bathtub freed from its stifling interior is zooming and twirling and throwing baroque flick rolls and Lomcevak manoeuvres around it! And here's the intrepid aviator, trailing an enormous Hérmes silk tie as a squadron scarf over the desert landscape interleaved with the wine-dark sea. The bath bubbles with sticky cash as he gazes into a future - or conceivably, a past - of drastically reduced housing benefits and unprecedented PFI opportunities, inflating to enormous size as a tiny Michael Gove beckons in the foreground, saying:

“David has an old-fashioned English manner and he does look like a Tory, but he has an intellectual coherence that few human beings have.”

And here is a pile of damp Polo mints. Orgasmic shame ensues. (Do you realise Laws borrowed the fifty grand off his dad to pay back the money he ripped off the taxpayer?) PS, if anyone better than I wants to actually draw this and put it up on DeviantArt or wherever, I'll buy you a drink and I may even buy the thing to go on my wall.

Seriously, having an epiphany about massively redistributing income from the poor to the rich in a bathtub on top of a skyscraper in Hong Kong is not what I call intellectual coherence. Obvious would do it, as would flaky.

the 1980s considered as a battle in the air war over Germany

Thinking about my last post brought one of the ideas in this one to mind, especially given today's front page. That is, was the miners' strike a strategic bombing campaign?

You what? But consider the strategy the NUM adopted. The basic idea was to concentrate on the supply of coal to the steel industry - hence the battle of Orgreave. The point of this was to force British Steel, as it then was, to idle production. That would, they hoped, cause the steel managers and the downstream industries that consumed steel to put pressure on the government to settle. It might even bring out the steelworkers on strike.

The other option was to concentrate on the other big coal consumer, the electricity industry. Power cuts would hit the economy generally, and would hit consumers directly, unlike cuts in supply to the steelworks.

An important difference between the two was that much of the steel industry's coal was delivered as coke, whereas the power stations received coal directly from the mines. (Other differences included the fact that the power sector had more options and that power cuts might have unfavourable political consequences because they affected the public directly.) This created a number of critical network nodes between the coal and steel industries. The NUM hoped to target these and therefore send the crisis cascading through the downstream industries until the adversary cracked and gave in or the population rioted and got rid of them.

This really is very close to the whole package of airpower theory, or for that matter John Robb's global guerrillas concept. As readers will be aware, I'm sceptical of both. Anyway, why didn't it work?

Arguably, the big problem with this as a strategy was that the government didn't actually care about what happened to the downstream industries. For the government, even the maximum degree of trouble the miners could inflict on the steelmaking and metalworking economy was a price they were willing to pay.

A question to the reader: What is it that the Tories value most?

MGIs for cleaner skies, and Power Tool of the Week

Swinging off a discussion at Jamie Kenny's of climate deniers, I wonder what Jamie thinks about Steve Levine's thesis here that China's emerging culture of mass protest, the famous Mass-Group Incidents or MGIs, may have major and positive consequences for Chinese energy policy and therefore for the world.

It's surely time we started calling the MGIs a movement; they are big, they are angry, they are common and increasingly so. Also, they seem to be getting more simultaneous as well as more frequent. The range of issues involved is enormous, from pay to police violence via public corruption and land appropriation. And they're effective - the Chinese Communist Party, although it has more than enough brute force to crush them, often seems to semi-tolerate mass protests by trimming policy or sacking discredited officials. I've suggested before that the top level of the Party may actually see them as a useful force in disciplining the industrial bosses and territorial proconsuls who rule below it. The emperor may be far and the mountains may be high, but that's the last thing you want when an enraged mob is trying to burn down the Public Security Bureau offices.

Beyond that, it's conventional to say that the Party wants stability above all and that the organising principle of Chinese politics is Hobbesian fear of chaos. JK would probably point out that they're damn right - if you had China's history, you'd be obsessed by chaos because there's been so much of it and it was so fucking chaotic. Anyway, Jamie is the blogosphere's MGI expert and therefore I'd like his opinion.

Levine's argument is that forecasts of China's economic and energy future tend to arrive at an enormous and prolonged boom in coal-fired generation. They do this by projecting current rates of growth into the future. This scares the shit out of everyone with any sense, as it's this huge, epochal belch of CO2 (and a lot of other stuff besides) that will eventually fuck us all up. Of course, if the CAGRs for coal consumption were wrong quite a few assumptions would need to be reviewed.

Levine argues that it's the other stuff you get with coal, especially the low grade brown coal China uses a lot of, that will intervene. Basically, he reckons, air pollution, power-plant development, and mining will become a major and rising source of serious MGIs and will result in the Party restraining the coal industry before the mob does it for them. L

Levine points out that Chinese interests were quite restrained during last year's rush of coal-related mergers and acquisitions - which is interesting when you think that if the Party wanted them to, they could bid almost without limit thanks to SAFE's enormous foreign exchange reserves.

Further, and I seem to remember James Hansen making this point, there are real constraints on how much coal the Chinese economy can get through, in that moving that much coal from mines and ports to power stations will fairly soon use up most of the State Railways' freight capacity. As most of this coal is going to drive the machine tools in all those export processing factories...well, either the bulk haul trainload of coal moves or the intermodal linertrain of containers of exports moves. Are you feeling lucky, punk? Building a completely new railway is of course the sort of thing that gets people in an MGI mood.

From a technocratic perspective, as Joe Romm explains here, restrictions on all the other stuff coal-fired power stations shit into the atmosphere are basically as good as a ban on them.

The question is therefore whether "green MGIs" are a serious possibility. It's not actually necessary that the MGIs be specifically about what Greenpeace would call a green issue, of course. Rioting over pay or safety down the mines, over ethnic resentment in the coalfields, or over land appropriation for new power stations or railway lines would do as well. But it's worth noting that environmental protests happened in the 1980s in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and acted as a sort of gateway drug to dissidence more broadly. Not that people who are willing to burn down the police headquarters and run the mayor out of town when they feel their interests are insufficiently recognised need one.

Relatedly, and also via LeVine, meet the Unitec Model 5 pneumatic hacksaw, guaranteed by the manufacturer to slice through a 24" pipeline in one blow and only 16lbs dead weight to tote away from the scene of the crime. And it's nothing but good American workmanship, too. Mesh wireless is so pre-Iraq by comparison, don't you think?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

at last, a post with rockets

Did the UK and France get around the Missile Technology Control Regime in order to sell Saudi Arabia the Stormshadow air-launched cruise missile just by draining off some of the fuel to get the range under a key number? This should probably get more publicity than it has.

outrage turns out not so outrageous and actually quite sensible

There's a good story to be told (somewhat in the New New mode) about the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo Station.

It's basically as follows: after the Eurostars moved to the new St. Pancras, the thrillingly modern structure Nicholas Grimshaw gave them was abandoned to rot by "Sir" Brian Souter's privatised train empire and eventually used as the stage for a production of The Railway Children "with a real steam train!" This, of course, is an example of everything that's wrong with our society, nicely dramatised by the fact that the home of nuclear-powered, French super-express rockets has become the setting for a slap-up feast of Victorian kitsch and is now entirely surrounded by additional retail opportunities. Hey, the panto advert even has "Welcome to Yorkshire!" on it even though you're very unlikely indeed to get to Yorkshire from Waterloo.

Like all the best myths it even fits the facts. Pat Robertson's best mate is indeed responsible. But then you read a good blog; London Reconnections's horrifically detailed discussion of the possibilities of improving the South West main lines. In fact, although the trains suck, it's not because they're short of platforms at Waterloo, and the best option for making use of the Eurostar terminal requires building a flyover near Clapham Junction and painfully reworking the timetables.

It does worry me, though - how much of what passes for a national discourse is just weightless aesthetic guff? There's a big difference between the sort of thinking you get with just the look-and-feel and the sort you get once you shove in something like that LR post under it.

If you did want some weightless style page handwaving guff, though, I'd like to point out that I really was a 1980s kid and because of this, I *don't* have any memories (fond or otherwise) of The Breakfast Club - I'm too young. So if you're younger than I am, you surely don't. Nostalgia for the past you don't remember. Now there's a bit of conservative culture for you.

meet Project Lobster

My lobbying project has been entered in the Open Data Challenge! Someone posted this to the MySociety list, with rather fewer than the advertised 36 hours left. I was at a wedding and didn't read it at the time. After my partner and I had tried to invent a tap routine to the back end of Prince's "Alphabet Street" and had got up at 8am to make it for the sadistic bed & breakfast breakfast and gone back to help clean up and drink any unaccountably unconsumed champagne, and the only thing left to look forward to was the end of the day, I remembered the message and noted that I had to get it filed before midnight.

So it was filed in the Apps category - there's an Ideas category but that struck me as pathetic, and after all there is some running code. I pushed on to try and get something out under the Visualisation category but ManyEyes was a bit broken that evening and anyway its network diagram view starts to suck after a thousand or so vertices.

As a result, the project now has a name and I have some thin chance of snagging an actual Big Society cheque for a few thousand euros and a trip to Brussels. (You've got to take the rough with the smooth.)

The most recent experiment with the Lobster Project - see, it's got a name! It's got you its grips before you're lets you think you're king when you're really a prawn...whoops, wrong shellfish - was to try out a new centrality metric, networkx.algorithms.centrality.betweenness_centrality. This is defined as the fraction of the shortest paths between all the pairs of nodes in the network that pass through a given node. As you have probably guessed, this is quite an inefficient metric to compute and the T1700 lappy took over a minute to crunch it compared to 7 seconds to complete the processing script without it. Perhaps the new KillPad would do better but the difference is big enough that it's obviously my fault.

Worth bothering with?

As far as I can see, though, it's also not very useful. The results are correlated (R^2 = 0.64) with the infinitely faster weighted graph degree. (It also confirms that Francis Maude is the secret ruler of the world, though.)

The NX functions I'm really interested in, though, are the ones for clique discovery and blockmodelling. It's obvious that with getting on for 3,000 links and more to come, any visualisation is going to need a lot of reduction. Blockmodelling basically chops your network into groups of nodes you provide and aggregates the links between those groups - it's one way, for example, to get department level results.

But I'd be really interested to use empirical clique discovery to feed into blockmodelling - the API for the one generates a python list of cliques, which are themselves lists of nodes, and the other accepts a list of nodes or a list of lists (of nodes). Another interesting option might be to blockmodel by edge attribute, which would be a way of deriving results for the content of meetings via the "Purpose of meeting" field. However, that would require creating a list of unique meeting subjects and then iterating over it creating lists of nodes with at least one edge having that subject, and then shoving the resulting list-of-lists into the blockmodeller.

That's a lorra lorra iteratin' by anybody's standards, even if, this being Python, most of it will end up being rolled up in a couple of seriously convoluted list comps. Oddly enough, it would be far easier in a query language or an ORM, but I've not heard of anything that lets you do SQL queries against a NX graph.

Having got this far, I notice that I've managed to blog my enthusiasm back up.

Anyway, I think it's perhaps time for a meetup on this next week with Who's Rob-bying.

pointless whining

Really. Seven months. Six updates including a major version. Still no fucking blogger import into WordPress.

Why is this being such a fucking pain? Does anyone know if Movabletype (or whatever) has a working importer? Note that solutions that involve downloading the complete TYR Classic and then re-uploading it over home "Very" ADSL are not working solutions.

Monday, June 06, 2011

post-IKEA and indeed post-furniture

Quiggin is discussing why some things are neo- and others are post-. How do we deal with the current revival of high modernism (see Owen Hatherley's blog and indeed his career, the proliferating Mid-Century Modern groups on Flickr, the wave of preservation campaigns for mid-20th century landmarks)? It's obviously silly to call it post-modernism and in any case it's explicitly opposed to it. I've heard post-postmodernism but that's more of an admission that it hasn't got a proper name yet than a solution.

Neo-modernism? I can't help but feel there's some stylistic problem with calling something both new and modern in the same word. I guess you could call it the New New, like the science fiction world's New Weird, but that would get irritating quickly. But the vaguely pejorative sense of neo- might work. Modernism was always half in love and sometimes quite a bit more with either fascism or communism. To say nothing of the times it was involved in a bizarre love triangle with both of them, or its repeated flings with developmental dictatorship, urban corruption, Gaullism, liberal technocracy, and really anyone with the keys to the planning office, when the other two weren't in town. Then, architecture is the slut of the arts, almost as much as journalism, and always has been. It can be no other way; somebody has to build something and that takes serious amounts of money. (So what's the journos' excuse?)

I would guess that a camp revival of it would enjoy the trains-running-on-time/white concrete rostrum aspect even more. Of course the revivers would furiously deny this, and indeed that there was anything camp or revivalist about it, thus inadvertently confirming it. In fact, I suspect they'd prefer just to insist that it is continuous with earlier modernism and that it's just modernism, dammit. At this point I see the nightmarish academic plural lunging from the flank and sidestep.

Or perhaps it should get a -punk suffix. As it goes with nostalgia for the great compression and the era of giving us the fucking money, I would suggest we call it something like reasonablepunk. (After all, punk itself began very near to the historic peak of economic egalitarianism in the UK.) Because social democracy is basically reasonable. It's the other side who want the moon on a stick. This reminds me a bit of Hasek's Party of Measured Progress within the Limits of the Law, but then again that's too long. Perhaps it was snappier in Czech.

There's obviously a resonance with what Paul Mason calls "gut Labour" here. It's worth remembering that although Tony Blair talked a good game, in practice he was just as horrified as Prince Charles at the suggestion that he might have an aesthetic hidden away somewhere on his person, so I would argue that this is unequivocally a good thing. We've already got gut Labour wanktanks so we may as well have an aesthetic. (Although, who's going to feed the bugger?)

Elsewhere, I read this weekend that IKEA is going to adjust its product line for the UK to be more "British". This turns out to be a question of function. The Swedish designers have apparently been struggling to grasp the problems involved with fitting their products between the chimney breast, the bay window, and the landlord's washing machine sticking out of its chipboard kennel by 10-14 cm depending on which end you measure. As a result, one of the new products is a wardrobe that's only 35 cm deep. I am looking forward to their next lineup, which will include a table whose legs can be removed quickly to beat your relatives senseless over the last tin of catfood, a bookcase that doubles as a coffin, and a range of products designed to be easily converted into firewood.

Friday, June 03, 2011

why we fight

Stop! Don't do it, man! Barclays is the UK's most powerful single private lobby with a weighted network degree of 0.36. The Co-Op Bank is on 0.003 - 120 times less lobbyish. Really.

Obviously, nothing in this post should be taken to condone or encourage such irresponsible, inconsiderate, and basically stupid behaviour. Especially not as I was stuck on a bus moving through Watford town centre not long after the event.

Funny place, Watford. Opposite Watford FC's Vicarage Road ground there is now a Brazilian evangelical house-church. Over the entrance to the ground, a banner for "The Watford Wedding Show" promises "Where your dream strats". On adverts for the Harlequin Shopping Centre, "1990-2011: 20 Years of Inspirational Shopping".

Also, I spotted what I'm convinced is the last Hutchison Rabbit private mobile radio hotspot in the wild...or at least the ghost sign for it.


lazyweb: terms and conditions

OK, so there's a month to go before gets sold and anyone who hasn't agreed to the new Ts & Cs gets zapped. I asked this on Quora but so far haven't had a useful reply. I know the Ts & Cs are substantially different, but is there anything in them that should dissuade me from having the bookmarks transferred?

it's not Thursday...

So it must be time for a non-Thursday music link. New Order "Beach Buggy". Not sure if this counts as a remix - IIRC it actually predates Blue Monday. It's certainly a far better version of the same theme.

Also, this rocks although I found it looking for a shareable version of something else. They're supporting this lot next week but this has probably fallen prey to my disorganisation.

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