Sunday, October 30, 2011

I know, but I don't know

I am reliably informed that an individual who was a member of Tony Blair's 10 Downing Street staff, and then one of the Tony Blair foundations (I'm not sure which one - the Faith, or the Sports, or just the Tony Blair Associates commercial version?), is now a scriptwriter for Simon Cowell on the American version of the X Factor. John someone, apparently.

non-Thursday music link

By special recommendation from the other author of this blog.

What these people need is a national biometric identity register

The creation of a database containing all 9 million Israelis' demographic, family, and medical information plus identifying biometrics has not necessarily developed to their advantage. Bonus points for use of the phrase "Hasidic criminal underworld". They'll make you an offer it takes years of painstaking theological scholarship to understand.

G3 Good Governance: what is it?

Following up on last week's pull the records post on Foxitty and tasers and stuff, what if "G3" really refers to G3 Good Governance Group? Here's the data, on LevelBusiness, which is even better than CompaniesintheUK. There are four names involved, two of which - Hugh Petre and Andries Pienaar - quit the board at the end of April 2010. Petre is on LinkedIn. There's also one Katharine MacGowan, who doesn't seem to be anywhere on the web. Hmmm.

And one Mungo Soggot. That's the kind of name that should be easier to track down, and it turns out that he's a South African journalist who did some pretty impressive work on corruption and also rocks and early 2000s emerging market GSM weirdness before moving to the UK. Depressingly, it sounds like he's essentially an exile. His dad was Sir David Soggot, a lawyer, judge, and apartheid resister. Here's Soggot opining on South African politics.

The same people, plus a couple of others, are also directors of RB4R UK Ltd., created 2 years ago, which has never traded, and Risk Analysis UK Ltd, which has been around for 13 years and is very much a thing. It provides "strategic risk advice, investigations, and litigation support", and intended to move the litigation and investigation business into a separate company in 2011 (presumably RB4R). Its accounts showed a profit of £2.39 million on a turnover of £12.1 million for 2010-2011. It employs 46 staff and spent about £3 million on salaries. It has about £3 million cash on hand, and paid just under a million pounds in tax.

Despite that, its ultimate owner is in the Isle of Man. However, as you can see from the above, it paid about a third of its profits in corporation tax, which is charged at 28%, and therefore isn't obviously using this to avoid tax. For what it's worth, the Manx company record is here.

It may be true that some of the people involved are former spooks - certainly the guy who's a CB and a former Defence civilian with absolutely no other qualities sounds like one. There's also an old friend of the blog, Alex Yearsley, who worked there after leaving Global Witness! Cryptome quotes a newspaper article that suggests that the people involved are ex-MI5.

The FT Westminster blog asserts that one Chester Crocker is the chairman of "investigations company G3", but as we have seen, no Crocker is a director of G3, G3 UK, G3i, or G3 Good Governance. Perhaps they mean the IoM holding company.

I don't know quite what the upshot of all this is, but it does seem that G3 Good Governance is a thing, unlike the other G3, it doesn't have any obvious conflicts of interest like the tasers, but it does have spooky directors. Oh, and the press have no idea which company they mean.

it flies! well, that's what it was bloody well designed to do

The question isn't so much "did Eric Pickles eat all the pies?", it's "who paid for the pies, and how many did he declare in the register of members' interests?". TBIJ is on an absolute tear on Tory lobbying stories at the moment, and the combination of photo and caption for the Eric Pickles one is masterly.

But this story reveals more than it says. So, four cabinet ministers accepted donations to their private offices since May, 2010. Those would be William Hague, George Osborne, Liam Fox, and Michael Gove, or to put it another way, most of Atlantic Bridge and the core of the neo-conservative group within the Conservative Party. I do not think this is a coincidence.

Curiously, it seems that if you get donations to your private office you don't also get them to your constituency party branch and vice versa, with the exceptions of George Osborne and Michael Gove, who would have more jam on it, wouldn't they?

Pickles, for his part, received zero, which makes perfect sense. You can't eat money, and as for spending it on unofficial advisers, that only makes sense if you ever take advice from other people and the Bradford food-mountain has always known he's right.

Meanwhile, Lord Astor of Hever turns up as a trustee of the Bridge and an pal of the Werritty-funding SAS walt, Iraq contract hunter, and intimate of mercenaries Tim Spicer and Anthony Buckingham.

I think I've said before that Astor of Hever came out of the Lobster Project proof of concept script as being a surprisingly important gatekeeper - although in himself, he isn't a major node, people who meet him also tend to get one-to-one meetings with the most important ministers. His weighted network degree, a measurement of how many links in the lobbying network involve him adjusted for how many people took part in the meetings, is 0.125, pretty low (78th in the league), but his gatekeepership metric is 2.533, the third highest overall and the very highest score for a minister with UK-wide responsibility. (I discount the gatekeepership numbers for Scottish and Welsh ministers, as their role is partly to represent Scottish and Welsh interests and they are structurally heavily lobbied.)

The gatekeepership metric in Lobster is the ratio of the average weighted network degree of those who lobbied a given minister to the average of all lobbies, to the ratio of that minister's network degree to that of an average minister, thus capturing the degree to which meeting that minister was associated with meeting more or less important ones while taking into account the fact that some ministerial jobs are more important than others. If it is greater than 1, you're likely to get a boost, if less, you're being heard out.

A limitation is that obviously, the Prime Minister can't help you meet a more important minister, so it doesn't yet deal with the situation where you meet the PM to get your word across and are then referred to a junior minister for action. I accept that this is a problem, although you would expect that it is easier to lobby the small fry, so the metric is nevertheless useful. However, at a network degree of 0.125, Lord Astor is not affected by this phenomenon.

OK, so we have a prediction - other ministers involved with the Werritty/Fox/Atlantic Bridge case will demonstrate unusually high gatekeepership. Step forward Gerald Howarth MP, Minister for International Security Strategy, who achieves a gatekeepership of 2.36, the fourth highest overall and the second highest UK-wide, on a network degree of 1.2. That's some pull, when you note that he's a significant node in terms of quantity.

Lobster detected a sinister network of influence! How awesome is that?

Why not foundation courts?

Thinking about the political castration of Ken Clarke and the fact that not even the Treasury in its most R.G. Hawtrey-esque mood seems to be able to stop the expansion of the prison industry, it struck me that the political class's attitude towards the public service known as justice is fundamentally different to its attitude to all the others, including defence and policing.

Since the mid-1980s and the rise of the New Public Management - possibly an even more pernicious intellectual phenomenon than New Classical economics - it's been a universal establishment consensus, shared by all parties, that any public service can be improved by giving bits of it a pseudo-budget to spend in a pseudo-market. Playing at shops is the defining pattern language of post-80s public administration. (This chap wrote at the time that the whole thing was remarkably like the 1960s Kosygin reforms in the Soviet Union, and perhaps we can induce him to post it up on his blog!)

For example, the 1990s Tory government wanted "fundholder" GPs to buy hospital services in an NHS internal market. Now they want to do something similar again, but more, faster, and worse. All sorts of local government services were put through a similar process. Central government agencies were ordered to bill each other for services vital to their operations. The Ministry of Defence was ordered to pay the Treasury 6% a year of the value of all its capital assets, such as the Army's tank park, reserve stocks of ammunition, uniforms, etc. As a result, the MOD sold as many vehicles as possible and had to buy them back expensively through Urgent Operational Requirements when they had to fight a war. Supposedly, some vehicles were sold off after Kosovo, re-bought for Afghanistan in 2001, sold again, re-bought for Iraq in 2003, sold again, and UORd in a panic in 2006.

(Off topic, if you're either a reporter hunting a story or a dealer in secondhand military vehicles, watch closely what happens to the fleet acquired under UORs for Afghanistan in the next few months.)

But there is one public service where the internal market is unknown. I refer, of course, to criminal justice. For some reason, it is considered to be normal to let magistrates and judges dispense incarceration, one of the most expensive products of the state, as if it were as free as air. The Ministry of Justice is simply asked to predict-and-provide sufficient prisons, like the Department for Transport used to do with motorways. Like motorways, somehow, however hard the bulldozers and cranes are driven, it never seems to be enough, and the prison system operates in a state of permanent overcrowding. Interestingly, the overcrowding seems to prevent the rehabilitative services from working, thus contributing to the re-offending rate, and ensuring both the expansion of the prison industry and the maintenance of permanent overcrowding.

The new public managers bitch endlessly about "producer interests" - they mean minimum-wage hospital cleaners, but somehow never GPs - but you never hear a peep about our bloated and wasteful criminal justice system. In fact, now that we have private jails, this producer interest is vastly more powerful as it has access to the corporate lobbying system and a profit motive.

Clearly, the problem here is that the gatekeepers to the system - the courts - have no incentive to use taxpayers' money wisely, as they face neither a budget constraint nor competition. There is a rhyme with the fact that a British Army company commander in Afghanistan has a budget for reconstruction of $4,000 a month, which he must account for meticulously to the Civil Secretariat to the Helmand Task Force, but in each section of ten riflemen under his command, at least one of them can spend $100,000 on destruction at any moment, by firing off a Javelin anti-tank missile, every time he goes outside the wire. As once the thing is fired, he no longer needs to tote the fucker any further, you can see that a lot more is spent on Javelin rounds than reconstruction, and indeed the task force was getting through 254 of them a month at one point.

But it's not a precise match. The military do, indeed, have to worry about their resources, as do the police. Only the courts can dispense public money without limit.

What if we were to give every magistrates' court a Single Offender Management Budget, out of which it could buy imprisonment, probation, community service, electronic tagging, etc in an internal market? This would make it obvious to the magistrate how much cheaper non-custodial interventions are than jail. It would force them to resist the temptation to jail everybody out of risk-aversion or political pressure. If a court was to start off the year handing down 16-month sentences for stealing a packet of fags, and end up in queer street by Christmas, well, that will teach them to waste taxpayers' money.

In fact, we could go further. Foundation courts would be able to borrow, if necessary, to tide themselves over to the end of the year, although of course they would have to make efficiency gains next year to repay it. It would be possible for a foundation court to go bankrupt and close. This, of course, will drive up standards. Perhaps we could even introduce an element of choice, letting defendants choose which jurisdiction they are prosecuted in.

I am, of course, joking. But not entirely.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Don't faze me, sorry, tase me, bro!

OK, so the report by Gus O'Donnell into Liam Fox and Adam "I can't believe he's not Mike Ledeen" Werritty specified some companies as donors to the various odd parallel structures that supported Fox and Werritty. One of these is given in the report as G3 Ltd. This has been described in the papers as being an "international investigations and security company founded by former MI6 officers". Sounds kewl, no? In fact, I suspected it might be an international logistics and security company of similar name from this post - didn't the blog used to be good back then? - but it's not.

Of course, there's no mystery about the directors of a British company. You just look'em up on Companies House's Webcheck service. OpenCorporates and Companies in the UK are also very handy. But if you want the directors of a company, you've got to put up with Companies House's dreadful website and pay them £3 a time. Hey - it's less than a pint.

So I looked up G3 Ltd. It's based on a featurelessly dull business park in Daventry. It has one director, Glenn Mark Cameron, born on the 25th of March 1977. He is, as far as I know, no relation. He also had another company, G3i Ltd., based in the same business park. But that isn't the name we're looking for. However, G3i Ltd. did describe its business as involving "investigations and security". Mr. Cameron lives in Daventry - the address is available to anyone who can find £3 and use the website. It seems to be completely unremarkable.

G3 Ltd, though, has a couple of interesting features. One of them is that it was incorporated as recently as the 30th of August. G3i is much older, but was shut down in March. So it was set up in August and immediately started sending money to political causes? Further, it doesn't seem to have any visible business. (It doesn't need to file accounts for a long while yet.)

Glenn Cameron has a LinkedIn profile, which mentions G3i but not G3. (He's also on Twitter.) G3i is no James Bond venture, but apparently a perfectly sensible small-town IT shop, which later diversified. This is where things get interesting. One of the advantages of CompaniesintheUK is that although you can't query companies for their directors, you can query by director. Glenn Mark Cameron is also a director of a small plastics firm, a pet shop, and two near-identical firms called Pro-Tect Systems and Pro-Tec Security Systems. All of them are located close together in Daventry.

Forget the pet shop. Pro-Tect was around for a while, but Pro-Tect Security Systems was incorporated as recently as April 2011. Which leads us to this December 2010 blog post. Now, let's hop back to the LinkedIn profile. Cameron claims to be in charge of Tactical Safety Responses Ltd, which owns and sells tasers to the British military and police forces. Blogger Richard Taylor pointed out that Glenn Cameron is one of its directors, as well as being company secretary of the first Pro-Tect.

Well, why care? The old Pro-Tect was stripped of its authorisation to own tasers, which are legally considered to be weapons for the purposes of the Firearms Act 1968 and need a licence from the Home Office. Instead, TSR Ltd. sprang up and was given the authorisation, despite the same people being behind it. Why did the Home Office take the T-bird away from Pro-Tect? Because they let the Northumbria Police have a new and untried version of the Taser, without the Home Office giving its approval, and they pointed it at one Raoul Moat while he was pointing a gun at his head, and the police pulled the trigger, and the gun went off!

So, Pro-Tect/Pro-Tect Security/Tactical Security Responses seem to be one and the same, and to have hastily swapped company in order to evade the consequences of this regrettable, sticky, and pinkish mess. Right. And their business model is that they have the exclusive right to sell Tasers to the police and the MoD. I wonder what possible interest they might have had in exerting influence on the MoD, and who knows, the Home Office too?

Put like that, it's a story of fairly petty influence-peddling. However, Gus O'Donnell didn't get to become Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, the Pope of Bureaucracy, by making mistakes over detail. It wasn't G3i or G3(UK) Ltd or Pro-Tect or TSR that appears in the report. It's G3 Ltd. (Even if the last revision time on the PDF is 1719, or about 26 minutes before the thing was finally handed out.)

Which leaves us with the strong impression that donations were being collected through this channel very recently, since the 30th of August, via a firm that has not apparently traded in any way. You might suspect that it exists just for this purpose. Further, people involved had financial interests in lobbying the government. And somebody in government felt it necessary to push out the message to the press that this story involved mystery spies and people with funny South African names. Why?

For the record, even if it was G3(UK) Ltd. and GOD had made a cock of the job, Andries Pienaar is not a director of that company. And if G3 Ltd is a company in some foreign jurisdiction, well, it's got no legal business donating money to politicians.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

non-Thursday music link

I think you'd have to be a perfesser to miss this point (h/t Jamie Kenny's twitter feed).
But even Mass Observation conceded the startling contrast between the ‘mechanized barbarity’ of dancehall music and the wordless decorousness of the dancers’ movements. In order to request a dance, a young man would simply touch a potential partner lightly on her elbow, and they would move silently on to the floor. It was quite normal for partners to dance for hours without speaking to each other, before going their separate ways.

Well, a big dance hall implies big sound. That implies either electronic amplification, or before that was invented, a fuck-off big horn section. And either of those will help the dancing while cramping your conversation. (I SAID, HOW ABOUT ANOTHER DRINK!) In fact, the electric guitar was invented in the 1930s as a substitute for quite so many wind players providing the wash.

It's true, as William Baumol said, that you need as many people to play a concerto as you did in 1900 and the same isn't true of producing steel, farming, or running a phone exchange or a bank. Interestingly, the electric guitar was originally an attempt to substitute capital for labour in the music industry, with enormous unforeseen consequences.

Don't believe me? Compare the horns-as-power-chord here and the the rhythm guitar-as-horns here, although those are ahistorical. Anyway, it's not Thursday, so how about a music link?

Moving swiftly on

So yer Djanogly and his legal aid bill and his insurance companies. Something I'd love to know more about is his rather odd statement that his kids had "non-interest bearing non-voting shares" in these companies and that they were "of no value". This is of course another case of the principle that lawyering a statement is much like doctoring it.

So, I presume that Djanogly (whose name is remarkably hard to type if you're a pythonista and therefore have the word "django" wired into touchtyping muscle memory) didn't really intend to leave his kids something of "no value". Had he wanted to do that, he could just leave them nothing, and save the lawyers' fees.

Now, the financially interesting thing here is that the securities involved are shares. Most shares are ordinary shares - they convey a share of ownership of the company, which is expressed by the fact they carry votes in the annual general meeting, and they carry the potential right to a share of profits if the directors (who the shareholders elected) so decide. However, they come dead last in terms of the company's credit and they pay no interest. All your capital is at risk if the company can't pay its bills, as everyone else gets paid out first. This is the nature of ownership - you have control over whatever it is you own, you can draw on its profits if you want to, but if it goes bust, it's your funeral.

Non-voting shares are usually preference shares. The difference is that you give up the vote, in exchange for a regular, guaranteed payout of income rather than just a chance of a dividend. Further, the preferred shareholders have to be paid their money before any dividends or anything else are paid to the ordinary shareholders, so there is an additional measure of security. This is why they are "preferred".

But Djanogly's statement excludes both preferred and ordinary shares. Note that there is neither a vote, nor any interest. Who would want such a security?

There are reasons. If a company is wound up, its creditors get paid first, with the government at the front of the queue. At the back of the queue are the shareholders, of all kinds. But this is only of interest if the company has creditors - i.e. if it is in debt. If there were no creditors, then its assets would be divvied up by the shareholders in return of their capital. Even if the company, like most companies, has some debt, such a residual claim would be worth having if the company's assets are worth much more than the debts.

Or the company might buy out the funny shares, or swap them for ordinary or preference shares. Also, you'll note that the shares are not "interest bearing", but then shares usually aren't and this is very important. If the shares aren't preference shares - i.e. they are not "interest bearing" - it's entirely up to the directors to decide what to pay out to them and when. They could hold a board meeting tomorrow and pay a huge special dividend in cash, on the special class of shares alone. Or they could wind up the company and divvy-up the pool. In a public company with thousands of shareholders, they might struggle to get away with this, but the Djanogly family controls 100% of the company.

So. The shares are worthless now, but the directors of Djanogly's firm are in a position to make them very valuable at a time of their choosing. Why would you want this set-up? The short answer is "inheritance tax".

As is fairly well known, inheritance tax has a time component. If you give away your money, and then die, it counts as an inheritance for tax purposes if you died seven years or less after giving away the money. If you give it all to the kids, you then have to live seven years without your money, and with the risk that you might survive much longer. And even if you commit suicide, you've to stick the seven years first. Of course, it is extremely annoying to tax-evaders that you can only control the moment of your death in a negative and unpleasantly dramatic fashion.

So the value of a device that permits you to bequeath something that is worthless until activated by a third party ought to be obvious. Ideally, you'd want something that permitted activation from beyond the grave, like the Soviet nuclear missile command system in Charlie Stross's The Jennifer Morgue. But that is impossible, and I think that a contract that required your executor to convene the board and pay out the money the day afterwards would break the rules on related-party transactions, although who knows?

Thanks are extended to Jones the tax.

Adventures in radial graph visualisation - Sindy edition

The Independent on Sunday has another really excellent piece on Liam Fox including a very good network visualisation. See the power of the radial graph paradigm, and understand why I want Lobster to look like that! kc claffy wasn't wrong.

to be filed for reference

It's a truth universally recognised that if you find one security exploit you'll find another. Something called CivilServiceLive has published a really excellent rundown of Tory and Lib Dem special advisers and - what is the word? - non-adviser advisers, here. I note that super-neocon journo William Shawcross's kid has been placed with George Osborne, as one of two non-adviser advisers. Hilariously, one of his official special advisers glories in the name Poppy, a monicker she shares with my neighbour's charming cat. Of course, you can't be held responsible for choosing your parents, even if Tories often seem to believe you should.

The Council for Emerging National Security Affairs, though, sounds like a wanktank of the first water but turns out actually to be a thing.

Now that's what I call lobbying

In the recent case of Liam Fox and Adam Werritty, there was an issue that the news media spent an enormous amount of time and effort dancing around with innuendo, newspaper code, and carefully lawyered prose. It is a fact that the word "lawyered" is to the word "lawyer" as the word "doctored" is to the word "doctor". Without understanding this hidden and sordid side of the issue, you would have been seriously misinformed. The matter was very sensitive, and there was an excellent chance of getting sued and probably also demonised as being deranged by shameful prejudices.

I refer, of course, to whether or not the Defence Secretary's private office was having unprotected sex with other defence secretaries' private offices.

It took a while to surface this at all - the Guardian let a wee squeak out on Thursday, and eventually it was the Sindy that took the plunge and surfaced it in the same way you surface a submarine, with an enormous roar of compressed air thundering into the ballast tanks under pressure while the nuclear reactor cranks up to full power. It's a must read.

The fact that Werritty's freebies included trips to the Herzliya Security Conference paid for by pro-Israeli lobbying groups should have been a screaming giveaway, but then, that's what a good cover story is for. I presume that was what the Sindy eventually followed up.

I mentioned this element of the story to Daniel Davies earlier in the week. I can offer no special insight except for the enduring value of pattern recognition. This has, after all, happened before in recent memory, with really bad consequences.

Consider Mr. Michael Ledeen and the affair of the weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Ledeen, a professional neoconservative, claimed to have intelligence about Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium and various other things, which came from his contacts in Iran, some of whom were recommended to him by his contacts in Israel, one of whom, Larry Franklin, was convicted of spying for Israel in the US State Department. Ledeen believed these contacts to be renegade members of the Iranian secret service. (He had never visited Iran, and I think to this day never has, and he doesn't to the best of my knowledge speak Persian, so how he would have known is beyond me.) The CIA, for its part, believed that this was partly true. They just disagreed with the "renegade" bit. But Donald Rumsfeld had deliberately decided to ignore the CIA, so Ledeen's intelligence was accepted. However, that wasn't the end of the story. At some point, the Department of Defense became suspicious and called in its own Counter-Intelligence Field Activity to investigate.

At this point, a thick curtain of secrecy was drawn down on the story, even if we did eventually get the Phase IIA report. Whatever CIFA found out, Ledeen was able to introduce the famous forged documents on uranium from Niger, which seem to have come from the Italian secret service, as being Iranian information with Israeli approval, and this was used in the even more famous dossier.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if old blogging chum from way back in the day, 2004, Laura Rozen hasn't also had this thought, as she was instrumental in digging into the whole Ledeen affair and she's too smart to miss it. Also, hilariously, she and Spencer Ackerman had the honour of being targeted by Ledeen's mates in Silvio Berlusconi's intelligence service with a scurrilous smear-campaign. I should probably hat-tip the lady's Twitter feed.

Note the elements of the story. Ledeen is a semi-official adviser with special, privileged access to policymakers. He is outside the formal requirements of government service, but has access inside it. He is seen to have special access to an important ally, and therefore to be trustworthy. A third party observed this, and took advantage of it to introduce information (or rather, disinformation) into the policymaking system. Does anybody see a pattern here? Similarly, Werritty was offered privileged access from outside the government firewall because he was ideologically congenial. It seems that this was considered acceptable because the influence exerted came from a country considered friendly. But then, there were the rogue Iranian intelligence agents, or were they just ordinary Iranian intelligence agents?

In May 2009, Mr Werritty arranged a meeting in Portcullis House between Mr Fox and an Iranian lobbyist with close links to President Ahmadinejad's regime. In February this year, Mr Werritty arranged a dinner with Mr Fox, Britain's ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, and senior political figures – understood to include Israeli intelligence agents – during an Israeli security conference in Herzliya, during which sanctions against Iran were discussed. Despite Mr Werritty having no official MoD capacity, an Israeli source said there was "no question" that Mr Werritty was regarded as anyone other than Mr Fox's chief of staff who was able to fix meetings at the highest levels, and was seen as an "expert on Iran".

Well, at least Werritty actually went to Iran. Unfortunately this is the worst of the story, as it seems he was going round encouraging Iranian dissidents, or people he thought were Iranian dissidents, and promising them British support. This is really incredibly, shamefully irresponsible - he could have got people killed, and it cannot be ruled out that he did, although it's also quite possible that the whole affair was just a massive exercise in bullshitting and wanktankery.

Probably he really believes that he was in contact with the opposition. I'm fairly sure Ledeen doesn't think he's an Iranian agent either. This is where this classic Onion article comes into play. As I said at the time, why *do* all these Iranian agents keep sucking Michael Ledeen's cock?

It is all reminiscent of Bruce Schneier's thoughts on what happens if you create a backdoor into some computer system, so people like us can get in and out without anyone noticing. The problem is that once you do that, it immediately becomes the biggest security threat to the system as anyone else can use it too. Once this new interface to the MoD was created, with Werritty accepting connections from the wider Internet and forwarding them to Fox, of course it attracted dubious actors. Hence the parade of various people trying to sell aircraft spares and dodgy encryption software to the military or to get someone's knighthood expedited.

For my next trick, what parallels do you see between Werritty's role with Liam Fox and those of Andy Coulson and Neil Wallis with No.10 Downing Street and the Metropolitan Police (and of course the Conservative Central Office) respectively? Remember that both of them were at various times funded by third parties. Further, is it not interesting that the same key Conservatives who defended Coulson to the bitter end - George Osborne and Michael Gove - also tried to save Liam Fox? (Jonathan Freedland seems to have sensed something here - check out the reference to "Cheneyite Tories".) And is it not even more interesting that George Osborne actually recommended Andy Coulson for the job? And is it not completely fucking outrageous that William Hague, Atlantic Bridge board member and Foreign Secretary (I think this is the right order of precedence), dares to claim that proper Cabinet government is back in the midst of this berserk threat-chaos?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Leeds. LEEDS. Leeds. (Look, you're the richest club in the northern union. Get a better song)

So, I managed to get to watch the Grand Final on Saturday night! The first pub we tried had a private function where the TV is, although it also had Timothy Taylor's Landlord Ale, and the other bar contained a group of Irish union fans who'd been drinking steadily since 6am. We moved on, and actually found rugby league on the Holloway Road.

John Kear apparently thought it was the best of the Grand Finals he'd seen, and he ought to know. He also thought Danny McGuire was Leeds's defence leader, a clearly inspired judgement.

Saints were all about width, the classic pattern of trying to extend the line faster than the sliding defence and creating the overlap. Leeds were all about depth and tempo, trying to force defenders to turn and beat them for short sprint pace. It was a classic clash of styles.

A few years ago, people used to talk about the "midfield triangle" in league, being the half-backs and the loose forward. This doesn't quite make sense, as the hooker in league is a specialist acting halfback and one of the most important distributors in the team, and organising a league team around the scrum is beside the point. Instead you've got a square, or a quartet, or something with four in it. A box with four pies in it, if you will. A four-pack of beers.

Leeds re-organised theirs quite radically - in the playoffs, they'd been using Kevin Sinfield as the scrum half and saving Rob Burrow to run at tired legs. In the final, they played Burrow from the first 20 minutes with his regular partner McGuire and put the Sinner back in 13. But that doesn't tell you much. Burrow didn't do much distribution or tactical kicking and McGuire's role in the game was almost totally defensive. Instead, Sinfield and Danny Buderus did the distribution, Burrow had a free role to dash and buzz and harass Saints, and McGuire had a parallel defensive mission to hunt the Saints first receiver, coordinate the defence, and generally get stuck in whereever the attack came from. And he did a hell of a job on this.

Saints didn't really come up with an answer to this, once it got going. Kicking penalties flattered the score a bit. McGuire broke up their moves regularly, Burrow kept catching defenders on the turn and eventually won the Harry Sunderland trophy, and Buderus and Sinfield kept control of the pace of the game.

This may bring back the old "is a stand-off really a loose forward" thing from the 1990s. Back then, there were quite a few good players who operated in either slot - Daryl Powell, Tony Kemp, Phil Clarke, Ellery Hanley, and earlier, Wally Lewis come to mind. The 1994 Lions, coached by Hanley, used first Clarke and then Powell in this role to mark the great Laurie Daley (who was the absolute opposite). It worked at Wembley, but the plan rather broke down after both of them got injured, and it also made the team pretty negative. On the other hand, once Powell was off the pitch and Garry Schofield back on, Daley ran rings round Great Britain for the rest of the series.

But Leeds's game plan didn't really reduce to that. Anyway, it was a hell of a game and Rob Burrow's first try was a bit of brilliance beyond tactics, exploiting a gap in depth rather than width - one side of the defence hadn't come up quite as smartly as the other - and ducking under the big men to make the initial break.

Oh yes, and that makes it a Yorkshire clean sweep of the three divisions with Leeds, Featherstone Rovers, and Keighley. Keighley! They told me it was Warrington's year, and Wigan were back...

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Liam Fox: Not Fit For Purpose

OK, so "Not All That" Foxy Liam Fox is in trouble.
"He is an odd bloke," said one fellow minister. "He has fingers in so many pies that you kind of think one of them will land him in trouble somewhere along the line."

Another Tory MP said Fox's tendency to name-drop and brag about his close friendships with Republicans in the US, media magnates such as David and Frederick Barclay (owners of the Daily Telegraph), and his endless globe-trotting, even before he entered the cabinet, has made many bristle and help explain why he has plenty of enemies in the Tory party and in Whitehall. "I think you either roll with the bluster or find it repellent," said a Tory MP.

Ah, one of them. Anyway. Part of the problem is this famous meeting where his bestie Adam Werritty just happened to turn up. What was on offer? Well, a product called Cellcrypt, whose makers were trying to sell it to the MoD to stop evilly-disposed persons from eavesdropping on British soldiers' phone calls back to the UK. (Note: this is going to be long. Technical summary: voice encryption apps for GSM-style mobile networks can guarantee that your call will not be overheard, but not that your presence cannot be monitored, and not necessarily that the parties to your calls cannot be identified.)

Back in the early days of Iraq, the CPA permitted one mobile phone operator in each of its three zones to set up. The British zone, CPA-South/Multinational Division South-East, let the Kuwaiti national telco, MTC (now Zain and busy running Mo Ibrahim's old Celtel business into the ground) set up there with a partner some of us may have heard of. It's from Newbury and it's not a pub or an estate agency and its logo is a big red comma...funny how Vodafone never talked that particular investment up, innit? Anyway. Later the Iraqi government did a major tender for permanent licences and Orascom got most of it, but that's another story.

One thing that did happen was that soldiers took their mobiles with them to Iraq, and some of them pretty soon realised that buying a local SIM card in the bazaar was much cheaper than making roaming calls back to the UK. Either way, lots of +44 numbers started showing up in their VLR, the big database that keeps track of where phones are in a GSM network so it can route incoming calls.

Pretty soon someone who - presumably - worked for the MTC-Voda affiliate and whose purposes were not entirely aligned with Iraq The Model realised that you could use the VLR to follow the Brits (and the Yanks and the Danes and the Dutchmen and Kiwis and all sorts of contractors) around. Not only that, you could ring up their families in the UK and make threats with the benefit of apparently supernatural knowledge.

This obviously wasn't ideal. Efforts were made to mitigate the problem; soldiers were discouraged from using local GSM networks, more computers and public phones were made available. The eventual solution, though, was to get some nice new ruggedised small-cell systems from companies like Private Mobile Networks Ltd., which basically pack a small base station and a base station controller and a satellite backhaul terminal into a tough plastic box of a suitably military colour. You open it up, unfold the antenna, turn on the power, and complete some configuration options. It logs into the mobile operator who's providing service to you via the satellite link.

Now, because radio signals like all radiation lose intensity with the inverse square of the distance, you'll be vastly louder than everyone else. So any mobile phone nearby will roam onto your private mobile network and will be in the UK for mobile phone purposes, a bit like the shipping container that's technically in Egypt at the end of Four Lions. And none of this will touch any other mobile network that might be operating in your area. Obviously you can also use these powers for evil, by snarfing up everyone else's traffic, and don't for a moment think this isn't also done by so-called IMSI catchers.

You're not meant to do this, normally, because you probably don't have a licence to use the GSM, GSM/PCS, or UMTS frequencies. But, as the founder of PMN Ltd. told a colleague of mine, the answer to that is "we've got bigger tanks".

So, where were we? Well, the problem with trying to do...something...with Cellcrypt is that it doesn't actually solve this problem, because the problem wasn't originally that the other side could listen to the content of voice calls. Like all telecoms interception stories, it was about the traffic analysis, not the content. Actually, they probably could listen in as well because some of the Iraqi and Afghan operators may not have been using up-to-date or even *any* air interface encryption.

But if you're going to fix this with an encryption app like Cellcrypt, you've got to make sure that every soldier (and sailor and diplomat and journo and MoD civilian) installs it, it works on all the phones, and you absolutely can't make calls without it. Also, you've got to make sure all the people they talk to install it.

And the enemy can still follow you because the phones are still registering in the VLRs!

So, there's not much point relying on OTA voice encryption to solve a problem that's got nothing to do with the voice bearer channel. However, bringing your own small cell network certainly does solve the problem, elegantly, and without needing to worry about what kind of phones people bring along or buy locally.

And the military surely understand this, as by the time of the famous meeting, they'd already started deploying them. Also, back when this was a big problem, 19 year-old riflemen usually didn't have the sort of phones that would run a big hefty application like Cellcrypt, which also uses the mobile data link and therefore would give them four figure phone bills.

To sum up, Werritty was helping someone market gear that the MoD didn't need, that was hopelessly unfit for purpose, wouldn't actually do what the MoD wanted, and would cost individual soldiers a fortune, by providing privileged access to the Secretary of State for Defence.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

keighley keighley boing boing


Keighley 32, Workington 12. Yeah.

Not the kittens!

I have just finished reading The Stones of London: A History in 12 Buildings. Not a gem by any means - far too much broadbrush Tory-ish and not much of an edge - but I did think he had a couple of good points. One was in the chapter on Keeling House and Denys Lasdun, in which Leo Hollis makes the very good point that the Brutalists specifically didn't want to impose international style modernism on everyone but the reverse - they wanted to adapt modernism to the peculiarities of sites, communities, materials, and projects. It's quite possible that trying to be enormously localist and consult everyone is a great way to get things drastically wrong, eh, Pickles? There's no such thing as a Wharfedale shipping container.

In fact, some of Lasdun's remarks he quotes would probably please Prince Charles if only he didn't know who said them, and you might even think that part of the problem was the silly name. Although, I guess they said that about Operation KITTENS.

As a result, I guess I'll have to denounce comrade Hatherley as a right-deviationist.

Another one was about the fate of Victorian houses in London, and specifically the way that people buy them and immediately set about ripping out the interior walls, dragging the kitchen forwards from its kennel in the back garden, and building - essentially - an open plan, white-walled modernist interior inside the brick skin.

Throwing out the bums

What if the entire political response to the Great Financial Crisis could be summed up as "Punch the incumbent"?

Americans threw out George Bush. Obviously this was overdetermined, but still, they did it in the winter of 2008. If you look around the democratic world, what seems to make the most difference is timing - how much distance was left to run in the political cycle. Nicolas Sarkozy got hugely lucky by running for election a couple of months before the crash, thus getting a full term. But then he married Carla and got away with paying all that cash into the Balladur campaign's account at the Boulevard Haussmann Credit du Nord, so falling in the shit and coming up smelling of roses is hardly unusual in his life. Had the election somehow held off until the winter, though, after the whistle blew for the crisis, who would have bet against the electorate lashing out at the incumbent?

In Spain, Zapatero was in charge when the storm broke and took the punishment, although one does begin to wonder if he might eventually pull it round, having survived this far. I'll come back to that. In Germany, the incumbent-bashing reflex hit both the coalition partners, but the biggest winner was the FDP. Wasn't that simply because they hadn't been in charge for many years, unlike the Greens? As a result, Angela Merkel was able to stay on and form a coalition with them. In Austria, the crisis hit with a rightwing government in power and the Social Democrats got back in. In Greece, we had the same pattern, unfortunately for the Socialists who got stuck with the bill. Poles threw out the Kaczynski brothers and brought back the Social Democrats. Swedes threw out the Social Democrats, who were in charge, and brought in the conservatives. Ireland sacked the Right and brought in Labour and Fine Gael. Australia finally binned the rightwing coalition that had been in charge since 1996 and pulled in Labour. Danes threw out the Right, who were in charge, and brought back the Socialists. The pattern was the same everywhere - whoever was in charge, was replaced at the first opportunity. Rather than anything like a coordinated move right or left, there was a rush to throw out the bums.

In the UK, therefore, what would you expect a priori? Labour were in charge when the crisis blew up and therefore they got a beating. However, it's worth unpacking this a little. As things got progressively worse, so the Tories did better and Labour did worse, until the winter of 2009. From then on, the Tory lead began to fade through the spring, and eventually they collapsed just short of the line and were carried over by the Lib Dems. This fits perfectly with a burst of rage at incumbents that just looked like a move to the Right because of the electoral calendar.

It's also worth considering Germany carefully. In many ways, German politics since the crisis has been a preview of British politics a few months ahead. They had an anti-incumbent backlash and a bout of Cleggmania. The conservatives held onto their core vote, with the broad Left fracturing, and the Liberals getting an unusually good score by virtue of not having been in government recently and smiling a lot. (This is quite like the British election of 2010.) As a result, a Tory-Liberal coalition was formed, started yelling for austerity, and began to decay almost as soon as it was launched. It made a lot of rather silly pronouncements, adopted a cuts budget and a succession of gimmes to clientele groups...and now the Liberal element of it is down to 2% in national polls as the economy turns for the worse.

Interestingly enough, they're now seeing (as well as the crushing of the FDP) a broad revival across all the Left parties - the SPD, the Left Party, and the Greens, whose halfleader J├╝rgen Trittin was making a lot of sense about the Euro last week.

But it would be foolish to think May 2010 was a judgment on the Left or the Labour Party as such. Given the hugely favourable circumstances, it was also such a judgment on the Tories.

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