Sunday, May 20, 2012

Admin: The move is here, at last

Our long national nightmare of bifurcation is over! Thanks to this guy for fixing the WordPress Blogger importer, the Ranter is moving. Our new home is over here. Comments please in the new blog. I'd like to recommend Suffusion, not so much a WP theme as an HTML5-based design toolkit. To-do list: fix the old picture and download links (should be one SQL statement), fix links forward and back within the blog, import the WordPress-only comments, do something about ManyEyes charts and the like, do something about the Blogger- and images, eventually tackle the problem of restoring the old Enetation comments (yes, I have backups). Faintly terrifying how much cruft has accumulated over the years. Much of that TDL ought to be simple, if only WP can be relied on to output the same post title given the same input (i.e. just a question of replacing y.w.c domain names with ones). No doubt we're going to find out. Similarly, if WP can be trusted to ignore all duplicate content, it ought to be fairly easy to get the TYR 2.0 comments - although I would be happier if I could find a way of exporting the comments only. One upshot of this is that this blog is no longer going to be updated, and I'm going to close comments in order to avoid creating more migration work.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

not at all defanged

Remember that thumbsucker I did on the Great Firewall? Well, here's some data, via this post (thanks, Jamie). It seems that Fang Binxing, China's Chief Bellhead, boss of the Beijing University of Post & Telecoms, and king of the great firewall, really is in trouble due to his special relationship with Bo Xilai. He briefly came up on the web to threaten to sue a Japanese newspaper which thinks he was detained for investigation. Then, the former head of Google in China (who obviously isn't neutral in this) prodded him, and he denied having the power to block the offending story.

The FT, meanwhile, thinks Zhou Yongkang, the head of the security establishment, is on the out. That shouldn't be overstated because he's due to retire, but he has been doing a rubber chicken circuit of second-division official appearances, and his key responsibilities have been taken over by others.

Fang is supposedly being replaced by Yan Wangjia, CEO of Beijing Venustech, who was responsible for engineering the Great Firewall. Her company's Web site is convincing on that score. Here's the announcement that they got the contract to provide China Mobile with a 10 gigabit DPI system:
Recently, Venustech successfully won the bid for centralized firewall procurement project of China Mobile in 2009 with its 10G high-end models of Venusense UTM, thus becoming the first company of its kind to supply high-end security gateway to telecom operators.

It is said this centralized firewall procurement project is the world’s largest single project of high-end 10G security gateway procurement ever implemented, drawing together most of world-renowned communication equipment vendors and information security vendors such as Huawei and Juniper. Through the rigorous test by China Mobile, Venusense UTM stood out, making Venustech the only Chinese information security vendor in this bid.

Looking around, it sounds like they are the hardware vendor of the Great Firewall, specialising in firewall, intrusion detection, and deep-packet inspection kit for the governmental, educational, and enterprise sectors "and of course the carriers". Well, who else needs a 10Gbps and horizontally scaling DPI box but a carrier? Note the careful afterthought there. Also, note that they're the only people in the world who don't think Cisco is a leading network equipment vendor.

Land of Kings report back

So I did Land of Kings last weekend. First point: this post of JWZ's, written about Homeless WiFi Fest....sorry, sorry...SXSW, has quite a bit of general validity. The points about not sticking to the schedule, not sticking around if someone is late, and not chasing the party, are all gold dust. I worked this out by following none of that advice.

On day one, we checked in for the wristbands, bounced off the new venue (Birthdays) which turned out not to be ready, and to the Shacklewell Arms to see some vaguely Kitsuné-ish French band, who were mediocre. I can recommend Hasan's for the kebabs, which were excellent even in the light of twitter updates from Alexandra Palace, where they'd finally got their finger out to tell us about the mayor.

Pressing on, we headed to the Vortex for the Mauritian folk-dub bloke (it was hard to say if he was playing or not), the Alibi for Dollop (forgettable and in fact only not forgotten by consulting the schedule), and the Servants' Jazz Quarters for someone with an outrageously silly band name who was actually very good. By this point, disenchantment with the whole project was setting in.

In fact, it had been feeling like work for some time, and my partner was getting into a multiple-walkout sort of mood, and in the end she wasn't up for day two. As the rules have it, day two was actually much better, and the line-up should have told me that. This time out I made a list (it's always the solution), with Is Tropical, Maurice Fulton, Speech Debelle, Hannah Holland, and the special guest who turned out to be Gilles Peterson listed as options.

I had to spend a week listening to a man in a white leather Schott Perfecto jacket yelling into a mobile phone in a mixture of Polish, Spanish, and what Ian Thomson called "a ghastly pimp's English" on the 87 bus - I couldn't work out if he meant it, as every so often he stopped speaking, listened, and replied "Yes. Yes. Of course. No. Yes." like someone's IT director - but even that didn't worry me much.

As it happened I didn't get away from the Brownwood/Peterson set until Tropical had done their thing and gone, due to dancing (someone thrust a DSLR at me, but as far as I know the photo didn't make the cut, and anyway I saw them last year at XOYO), but the Debelle gig was fantastic even if it involved perching on a flight case and hanging on to the DJ's PA stack. The cover of Tupac's "Changes" was special and amazingly nobody seems to have youtubed it.

I had to be back for an early start, to get down to the French polling booth, so more Hollande than Holland.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Your inbox is over its size limit

Does anyone else see a parallel between the Murdoch e-mail timeline and some of the recent new information?

For example, the meetings with Cameron regarding the Sun coming out for him seem to have happened not long before the new policy of "eliminating in a consistent manner across NI...emails that could be unhelpful".

More tellingly, just as the lobbying campaign for the BSkyB deal peaked in December 2010, with the push to get rid of Vince Cable, the barrage of meetings with Hulture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and the secret meeting in Oxfordshire with the Prime Minister, there seems to have been a surge of activity. This was the moment when three different NI executives lied publicly about the e-mail, Scottish editor Bob Bird claiming that it had disappeared in India, solicitor Julian Pike saying that it had all been deleted in June, and CIO Paul Cheesbrough saying that everything since September 2007 was gone.

Actually, the spring of 2010 (i.e. the election run-in, the crisis, and the decision to bid) was busy, too. There was a large deletion at HCL in April, management were interested in the matter and were badgering for more e-mail to be destroyed, and Pike seems to have thought it important.

an original idea? the archive is full of ‘em

Ralph Musgrave's economics blog makes a case for a program of time-limited payments to companies who hire the unemployed, although I'm not sure if Musgrave is thinking of it as a permanent feature of the welfare state rather than an emergency response to depression. I might quibble with a couple of aspects - for example, it seems possible to me that businesses might exploit it by churning workers every three months to collect the subbo as often as possible - but I think that could be mitigated with a bit of thought.

It's all very sound, but it only misses one thing: the policy exists and it's called the Future Jobs Fund, and it was about the first thing the coalition found to cut.

On the other hand, the archive is also full of bad ideas. I note that the pre-Queen's Speech trailing is talking about "a British FBI" and stuffing everything you can think of into "a National Crime Agency". This idea was repeatedly briefed out to the Sundays by David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, and John Reid, and its reappearance is a sign that the government is so directionless the circulation of bad ideas round the Home Office files is beginning to influence it. The last time they came up with it, the result was the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, and nobody seems to know what that's for.

Further, after things like the old National Hi-Tech Crime Unit were rolled into it, fairly quickly it became necessary to re-create them at the police force level because they were no longer responsive to the needs of the police. Apparently, the problem this is meant to solve is that the immigration queues have got out of hand. John Reid decided to save the world by making immigration officers wear a remarkably, depressingly crappy uniform and putting up signs reading UK BORDER, as if wet feet or a big hole in the ground didn't make it plain.

Now Theresa May wants to hurry up the queues by stuffing bureaucracy A into bureaucracy B. We are clearly at about 2007 in the last government's timeline. Alternatively, perhaps we never left Late Blairism.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Balls to the Bank

Following up on intemperate twitter feuds seems to have become a theme around here. I had a lengthy set-to with Pawel Morski about voting for Ken Livingstone, in which I pointed out that Ken was right about Iraq, that in general being right about Iraq should be rewarded, and being wrong about Iraq should be punished.

This may seem like ancient history to some readers, but it is true that Iraq was an important issue, there was no profit in being right, and powerful people were insistent in bullying and cajoling people who were right and promoting people who were wrong. People who manage to be right in situations like that are worth electing.

To which he responded that I don't have any objection to Ed Balls being Chancellor. I'm actually quite a Balls fan - he was right about austerity in 2010, another moment when the three conditions I mentioned were in force, and he seems to annoy the hell out of Tories. But wasn't he wrong about the economy?

Well, the specific decision everyone associates with him was Bank of England independent control of monetary policy. At the same time, and as part of the same package, the Financial Services Authority was set up to take over many of the Bank's regulatory functions in the so-called tripartite structure. The Balls-critical case is that this particular decision was wrong, and that it was one of the reasons why the banks got so bad. Interestingly, far fewer people object even now to giving the Bank control of monetary policy, partly because central bank independence was a really deeply felt and broadly spread ideology, and partly because the period 1997-2007 was actually rather prosperous and it wasn't all chopped liver.

The Balls-critical case is strongly identified with the Bank itself. Of course it would be - tell me more about this "not our fault" idea, I find it strangely fascinating. It also implies that it wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for pesky kids, which appeals to Tories. It also suggests that things would be different if the Bank had kept more powers and more staff, and this obviously appeals to any institution. Anyway, here is an excellent profile of Mervyn King and the Bank as he thought it from the Financial Times's Chris Giles.

To say the least, it does not sound like the King-era Bank was going to stop the bubble and restrain the banks if it weren't for that terrible man Balls. It sounds a lot more like just what it says, that the Bank's remaining responsibility for financial stability in general was not taken seriously, that it was a Siberia assignment, and that Mervyn King personally was convinced that markets were perfectly efficient and nothing could possibly go wrong. Further, the idea of the central bank being a "monetary policy only" institution was King's as much as anyone else's, and he took steps to staff and organise it as such.

It's possible to argue that the whole shape of British economic policy was wrong and Balls shares responsibility for that. However, even if he didn't forecast the storm, he did realise the weather had changed, unlike the Bank which kept the sails set just as they were through 2008. And he was also aware that we might only be passing through the storm's eye in 2010, rather than (like King and the Bank) clapping himself vigorously on the back.

Death by powerpoint, for real

Here's the list of talks that Gareth Williams might have attended at BlackHat 2010. The slides are here.  I wonder if he got the "I'm the Fed" t-shirt?

filed for reference and indeed referred to

From the archive, George Pascoe-Watson in 2006, on just what a hands-off manager Rupert Murdoch was.

Birthday present bomber

Paul Klee's students apparently celebrated his 50th birthday by dropping presents through his (flat) roof at the Bauhaus from a Junkers aircraft. An interesting story, although Mark Brown doesn't pick up on it (Rowan Moore does here but only superficially).

Junkers was the home-town industry of Dessau by then, which is probably why the students were able to arrange the stunt. It's mildly interesting that Marcel Breuer wanted Junkers to fabricate the alloy tubes for his furniture, but it's more interesting going the other way.

Hugo Junkers started out working on gas heating systems and two-stroke engines, first as a product of the industrial R&D departments that emerged in Germany before anywhere else and that would later become the key manifestations of J.K. Galbraith's technostructure, and later as an entrepreneur in his own right. He was the first to build an aircraft entirely out of metal, in 1915.

This was a crucial invention. It combined changes in metalworking and metallurgy with others in structural engineering and aerodynamics. It also meant that aircraft would no longer be craft products of varying quality, like the German fighters of the late first world war, but genuinely industrial ones. Stressed-skin construction would also mean that aircraft would no longer have external guy wires to heave their structure taut, and therefore that their wings would be aerodynamically clean.

In some ways, this would make the original design of the aircraft more important, and its production into a question of mass-producing metal components on standardised machine tools. But that could be overstated. When BAE set about converting the Nimrod MR2s built in the late 1960s to MRA4 standard, they found to their consternation and the Ministry of Defence's financial horror that the new wings, cut identically on computer-controlled machines, matched the old blueprints but none of the actual aircraft, which had been fabricated mostly by hand. Aircraft still occupy a niche on the scale of industrialisation, rather less mass produced than cars or computers, rather more so than ships.

Of course, the Bauhaus was all about trying to mass-produce the change you wanted to see in the world. So was everybody. As Adam Tooze pointed out, mass production and product design were also part of how the Nazis wanted to escape the uneven economic development of Germany in the 1920s, along with the genocidal imperialism, of course. And it didn't quite work, as so many of the Volksprodukte remained stubbornly pricey, as the Bauhaus's had.

As well as aircraft, Junkers wanted to mass-produce buildings, and in fact he did. If you bought their planes, they could also sell you prefabricated hangars to park them in, and that was also how Hugo Junkers made a living between 1933 and 1935, after the Nazis expropriated the company. They had big plans for it, and it grew to enormous size as part of the nationalised Hermann Göring Werke (and part of the man himself's corruption-empire).

Specifically, they liked three aircraft designs from Junkers - only one of which dates from the company pre-1933, the Ju52 trimotor airliner, which was produced in huge numbers for transport. Then there was the Ju87 dive bomber, the Stuka, the only war aircraft that deliberately screamed at you as it dived in a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk dedicated to violence. When it did so, it was often being filmed, in order to convince Germans at home and everyone else abroad of German power.

In fact, even by 1939 it was rather dated, but it was cheap to build and packing the numbers of front-line bombers with them spoke to the aspirations of pro-Nazi politicians, the fears of the general public, and the empires of airpower bureaucrats everywhere.

It also had a successor, the Ju88, much closer to Hugo J's vision of a rake-thin streamlined rocket ship.

It's not too much to say that the hope of a Nazi future rested on it. The air force procurement plan for 1941 foresaw a mammoth build-up to challenge British and US industry, and the Junkers industrial complex began to spread across Europe in search of enough aluminium alloy. In fact, Nazi plans for Norway and the Balkans were heavily determined by the needs of the Ju88. And the Ju88 design was meant to trump the advantages Rolls-Royce and North American Aviation had, by being a multirole combat aircraft before its time, a masterpiece of product design.

Of course, it didn't work. It wasn't big enough to make a strategic bomber, it was too big to be a decent fighter, and its high performance made it dangerous as a close-support dive bomber (the role of the Ju87 and interestingly, also of the very first Junkers). They lost and the plants were eventually bombed out to make sure of it. Not only them: the town of Dessau was destroyed to 80% on the night of the 7th March, 1945 by RAF Bomber Command.


Another thought, in the light of my last post and this one, is that the Murdoch wars have been effective because they get to the Tories' System One, kinaesthetic, internalised skills, just in a context where they are unhelpful.

It's cricket, really - it's all about trying to identify the circumstances where the batsman's initial, muscle-memory, trigger movements put him out of his ground. And once you've worked that out, it's about keeping consistently at it. Line and length, line and length, until the percentages and the shameless psychological torture deliver.

Matthew Norman picks up on the prime minister's tendency to turn puce and behave horribly, although surprisingly for a cricket obsessive he didn't pick up the connection.

why the London election means we should...

So I was having a minor row on twitter with Adam Bienkov the other day, about whether the Labour Party was right to put so much effort into attacking the Murdoch Party and especially the Secretary of State for Hulture. I think the London mayoral election shows I was right, for reasons that ought to be clearer to Adam than anyone else.

Essentially, it's not just that reporting of London politics is biased. It is not reported. If you don't consume the Evening Standard and don't watch local TV, you won't hear anything about it, except what occasionally bubbles up into the nationals. And that is pretty much always whatever Andrew Gilligan is floating this week. The local papers don't really do City Hall. Dave Hill on the Grauniad is good but gets minimal space in the paper.

So, the choice is between propaganda, ignorance, or bloggers. I wouldn't, actually, discount ignorance as a choice. The Standard is a newspaper whose editor was literally appointed by Boris Johnson, which is to say that it is not a newspaper. If you can't get information you can at least avoid exposing yourself to disinformation. However, since it's become a freesheet, it is actually quite hard to go a day without becoming aware of what the Standard's headline is, and availability wins. Further, it has influence in setting the agenda for the others, which is reinforced by logistics. National journos on deadline are likely to have seen a copy.

And in many ways, the history of Boris Johnson as mayor is one of the avoidance of politics. The Tory group in the London assembly has operated a policy of shutting down the assembly whenever questions are put to the mayor. They could do this because without the Tories the assembly was inquorate. This will no longer be true due to the bigger Labour representation.

Individually, you can deal with this by reading Tom Barry and Adam Bienkov and Dave Hill's blogs.

On the bigger stage, though, I think the upshot is that three approaches to the Murdoch (and equivalent) media environment have been tried. The Project 1.0, an accommodation, is sunk, full fathom five. The Project 2.0, full integration between the Conservative Party and Murdoch, is holed beneath the waterline, and the central fire-control is malfunctioning, water splashing onto the fizzing computers, even if the individual turrets (like Boris's City Hall) fight on in local control.

Ken Livingstone's unique approach was to pretend it wasn't happening, to put up with it, to dig forwards street by street and parking ticket by parking ticket. It worked, some of the time, and not consistently. It's necessary to change the circumstances, and finish off the Project, 2.0.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

All mayors are not the same. All columnists, however...

Rebuttal is futile, but sometimes it is necessary, and at least you can help people update their lists of people to ignore. Here's Zoe Williams wilfully misleading the readers.
From two completely different sources – Ted Reilly, a road safety campaigner, and Alice Bell, a lecturer in science and society and part-time Sack Boris campaigner – I heard astonishing things about air quality in London. They say it correlates, not vaguely but absolutely precisely, with the traffic volume, that it is the largest threat to public health after smoking (seriously!), and that once you get any distance from its source – 20 yards – it vanishes.

In other words, if you pedestrianised major thoroughfares from 8am til 8pm, if you dropped speed limits, if you made public transport cheaper, if you consolidated deliveries to the periphery and got one provider to bring it all to the centre ("We used to call it the Royal Mail," Reilly remarks, erm, wryly) you could do as much for the health of London as the person who discovered that smoking caused cancer.

Economically, it comes up repeatedly in living wage analyses that the cost of transport is not just a pest, it changes people's lives. The tube has become a luxury, a young professional's option. For someone with two separate cleaning jobs, most likely the only way to make that work economically would be by bus. Say that adds an hour (it's probably more) to the commute, that will ricochet into that person's stress levels, their parenting, their mental health, everything.

The mayor, whoever it is, can do a lot more with the powers he (or she, ha!) has than Boris Johnson is doing, or Ken Livingstone is suggesting. But it is also worth considering that, paradoxically, if they had more power, we would probably hate them a lot less.

Strangely, one mayoral candidate has in the past dramatically cut public transport fares, imposed a tax on motor vehicles in central London, and set up a low emissions zone to restrict how much poison lorries can emit in the city. That would be Ken Livingstone. I put it to you that someone who is unaware of congestion charging or Fares Fair shouldn't be writing about London politics.

Another mayoral candidate gave up on the low emissions zone, abolished the western extension of the congestion charge, and put up the fares. That would be Boris Johnson. I put it to you that someone who is unaware of this hasn't been paying attention and shouldn't be writing about London politics.

On page three of Ken Livingstone's manifesto, he explicitly promises to cut public transport fares by 7% immediately and reduce pollution. The next eight pages consist of nothing but public transport. Page 8 contains the following quote:

Faster, greener, more efficient freight
I will ask TfL to look seriously at the possibility of more freight consolidation centres for London. This would mean deliveries are taken to hubs and aggregated together before being taken into central London, saving on costs and cutting traffic.

The next page is about cycling, and the one after that about the necessity of investing in public transport in order to reduce pollution.

Page 66 is devoted to air pollution, including the creation of clean air zones with much lower speed limits and a ban on idling cars around schools, and the issue of smog alerts by SMS (something Boris Johnson directly refused to do). I could go on.

The sad facts are that a lot of journalists, Zoe Williams included, are evidently just fine with the largest threat to public health after smoking so long as their petty personal elite vendettas, the ego wars of media London, get took care of.

why yes, they could fuck it up

David Cameron goes trying to sell Airbus A330s. In his chartered Boeing. Chartered, eventually, from an Angolan company on the EU air safety blacklist.

the difference is that you put your money back into this one!

Here's something interesting. Who knew A4e had a secondary charity it gave money to, that also does public sector work and that also employs Emma Harrison and all her mates? It's like that point in the con where you start setting up another scheme with the money out of the first one. Meanwhile, this has probably done the rounds but it's well worth reading if you haven't already for the sheer twee violence at work.

Also, interesting comment:

A4e stink, charities stink and this coalition stinks

1) and 3) are obvious, but I'm interested in 2. Non-profit capitalism is an interesting concept, a sort of pathological version of a co-operative. And I do think there's an increasing trend towards it. Perhaps NGOs are the new multinationals.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Canalising the marshes: tidying up the people

Well, this is interesting, both on the Bo Xilai story and also on the general theme of the state of the art in contemporary authoritarianism. It looks like a major part of the case is about BXL's electronic surveillance of Chongqing and specifically of top national-level Chinese officials:

One political analyst with senior-level ties, citing information obtained from a colonel he recently dined with, said Mr. Bo had tried to tap the phones of virtually all high-ranking leaders who visited Chongqing in recent years, including Zhou Yongkang, the law-and-order czar who was said to have backed Mr. Bo as his potential successor. “Bo wanted to be extremely clear about what leaders’ attitudes toward him were,” the analyst said.

That's Zhou Yongkang as in the head of the whole Chinese internal security structure, cops, spooks, and all. Bo's police chief (and future sort-of defector) Wang Lijun is described as being "a tapping freak", addicted to the productivity and hence apparent power of electronic intelligence. Not only that, Wang eventually began tapping Bo, who was also tapping the CDIC feds who came down to keep an eye on him.

The practicalities are, as always, interesting.

The architect was Mr. Wang, a nationally decorated crime fighter who had worked under Mr. Bo in the northeast province of Liaoning. Together they installed “a comprehensive package bugging system covering telecommunications to the Internet,” according to the government media official.

One of several noted cybersecurity experts they enlisted was Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, who is often called the father of China’s “Great Firewall,” the nation’s vast Internet censorship system.

It's worth pointing out that the provincial networks belonging to China Mobile, China Telecom etc. are usually organised as companies in their own right, and they often have their own AS numbers, and indeed they often contract for substantial network development projects with Western vendors (Nokia Siemens recently had a big mobile network contract in Sichuan, notably) on their own right.

Anyway, Fang's involvement is very interesting indeed. He is responsible for the state-of-the-art authoritarian solution to the Internet. This is not just, or even primarily, a question of blacklisting websites or turning off the Internet. The Great Firewall's detailed design, as the Cambridge Computer Lab found out a while ago, is specifically intended to be a semi-permeable membrane. Rather like Hadrian's Wall, it is more about the gates through it than the wall itself, and the defences point in both directions.

When a computer within it tries to initiate a TCP connection to one outside that is classified as dodgy, the Firewall sends an RST message back to kill the connection. This permits much higher performance than the DNS-based blacklisting typical of, say, the UAE.

It also means that it's possible to ignore the RST and look through the firewall by using your own firewall utility (specifically, set something like iptables to drop any RSTs for connections in states other than ESTABLISHED before a suitable time has elapsed). However, it would be a fair guess that any traffic doing this is logged and analysed more deeply.

Further, there is a substantial human infrastructure linking the media/PR/propaganda system, the police system, and the Ministry of the Information Industry. This uses tools such as moderation on big Web forums, direct recruitment, harassment, or persuasion of important influencers, the development of alternative opposition voices, and the use of regime loyalist trolls (the famous wumaodang).

The firewall, like Hadrian's Wall or the original Great Wall, also has an economic function. This acts as a protectionist subsidy to Chinese Internet start-ups and a tariff barrier to companies outside it. Hence the appearance of some really big companies that basically provide clones of Twitter et al. Because the clones are inside the firewall, they are amenable to management and moderation. 

And none of this detracts from the genuine intention of the people at 31 Jin-rong Street, the China Telecom HQ, to wire up the whole place. Iran's surprisingly important role providing broadband to Afghanistan and diversionary links to the Gulf reminds us that providing connectivity can be a powerful policy tool and one that you can use at the same time as informational repression.

So, Fang's achievement is basically a package of technical and human security measures that let whoever is in charge of them command the context Web users experience.

Last autumn, several of the Chinese web startups were subjected to the combined honour and menace of a visit from top securocrats. Tencent, the owner of QQ and the biggest of the lot, got Zhou Yongkang in person. In hindsight, this will have been around the time the CDIC landed in Chongqing.

So, where am I going with this? Clearly, there was serious disquiet that somebody was usurping the right to control the wires. Even more disquieting, the surveillance establishment in Fang's person seemed to be cooperating with him. And the systems he set up worked just as well for someone increasingly seen as a dangerous rebel as they did for the central government. (In fact, the people who like to complain about Huawei equipment in the West have it the wrong way round. It's not some sort of secret backdoor they should be worrying about: it's the official stuff.)

I do wonder, depending on what happens to Fang (he's still vanished, but his Weibo feed has started updating again), if we might not see a relaxation of the firewall, which the pundits will consider "reform". In fact it will be no such thing, rather a cranking up of internal chaos to facilitate a crackdown on opposition.

Kahneman for Thugs: some bullet points

So I did a business-class review of Daniel Kahneman's new book over at the Fistful. Of course, AFOE is a very different blog to this one, being all liberal euro-technocratic and whatnot. Therefore I thought I'd write a different review. I therefore give you, in this week of Rupert, Kahneman for Thugs - which is at least appropriate given how much work he put into improving the Israeli army's officer selection process. In this post, I'm going to be deliberately political and action-oriented, and I'm going to express myself in handy bullet points.


The first point is that rebuttal is futile and you can ignore nothing. The so-called psychological anchoring effect means that our intuitive judgments of anything are influenced by whatever information is around at the time. That includes information we know to be false and information that is completely irrelevant. Ask people to guess the weight of a pig, and they will guess higher if you mention a big number beforehand.

Also, intuitive judgments of truth are strongly influenced by cognitive fluency. Things that are easy to remember are true. Things that fit into a coherent story are true. Things that avoid conflict are true. This has some truly weird consequences - if you want people to learn something from reading a text, choosing a font that is hard to read actually increases how much they retain. However, if you want them to believe it and act on it, you want to be nice and sans-serif.

So, you can't ignore anything, repetition works, and getting in first works. Smear politics is effective. On the other hand, the only way you can prevent Andrew Gilligan from influencing your opinion of Ken Livingstone is to just stop reading him. Filtering (on your part) or censorship (on their part) is effective.  


Thinking is work, and as a result, people unconsciously try to answer the easiest question that seems to fit. It's therefore important to a) set up problems so they answer the question you want them to, and b) set up your own intuitions to work with your own interests. If you train yourself adequately, all you will hear from Simon Jenkins is "blah blah blah fishcakes" as Boris Johnson memorably said. Politics as a system of grudges is an effective way to operationalise the points above.


Repetition, fluency, and availability dominate what we believe. But this is only half the point. What if you need to convince? The answer is surprise. Uncertainty is information, and learning is the process by which that information is trained into the near-automatic activity of System One. To surprise is to convince. This doesn't contradict the point about cognitive fluency - the point is to create a coherent story that contains a surprise and therefore a change in opinion.  


Thinking is work. It requires effort, unlike intuition, which is associated with no sense of subjective effort and no change in psychophysical metrics. Therefore, as you get tired (or hungry, or drunk, or ill) you rely more on intuition. Judges are more likely to give you parole early in the morning (after breakfast) or early in the afternoon (after lunch). Therefore, it is effective to target the depleted and deplete the targeted. What did you think all the anti-design graphic noise on the front of the Sun, or Fox News's horrible screen graphics, are for?

Never quote base rates

People find it hard enough to make judgments that involve statistics, and tend to neglect denominators. You can help this process, by never providing base-rate information. Certainly, if you want to mention how many terrorist attacks, crimes, or whatever happened this year, don't say how many there were last year unless that number was unusually low. And never, ever quote more than two data points.  

Never question premises or permit them to be questioned

Many cognitive biases seem to disappear if the decision involved is taken in a wider context. Obviously, if you can control the context (see under Availability) that's all to the good, but this is rarely possible in a pluralistic society. Very often, though, people take decisions without using any external reference, and over-focus on the exact terms of the question (known in the tech industry as bikeshedding), which of course means over-focusing on the easier question they substitute in. This inside view effect is a powerful source of error. Cherish it.

On the other hand, it's almost a cliché that mediocre candidates answer the exam paper while brilliant ones question it. Disputing the terms of the question is an effective defensive tactic.  

Always isolate questions

Many cognitive errors that appear when choices are isolated disappear in so-called joint evaluation. If the choices are isolated, people often make decisions which are mutually inconsistent. Very often, if you put the questions together, they succeed in integrating the information involved into a common picture. Therefore, it is necessary to isolate questions and prevent joint evaluation. Whether Saddam Hussein is a bastard or not must be isolated from the question of whether there are ways other than war to limit the consequences of this bastardy and from the question of what the costs of the war might be.

All clear so far?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Report back: CCG meeting

So, that Total Defence plan. Not long after blogging about the weird way becoming an NHS Foundation Trust member is mostly about the staff discounts, my Google Alert tail-warning receiver lit up. Specifically, it caught the fact that the Haringey Clinical Commissioning Group was going to have a public meeting, so off I went with a little notebook of talking points.

My first impression (as I was on time) was the usual depressing one - they're all 117 years old, there's four of them, and Christ, they're odd, and one of them's reading something called God's Word Made Plain. Why did I volunteer again? But the room filled up, and then filled up some more, and eventually we counted up 53 MOPs who turned out.

The original agenda was all about "how the CCG can communicate with the public", but when it got communicating, the message from the public was that the public wanted no part of that. It turned out that the local "Patients Panel" hadn't met for years. An effort was made to explain the new NHS structure, and at this point, astonishment and disbelief set in as the CCG vice chair and the (existing) NHS finance director tried to draw the organisation on a flipchart. (It reminded me of the enchanted PowerPoint presentation in one of Charlie Stross's novels.) So, GPs were meant to commission everything, and the PCT and SHA had been shut down, with 54% cuts imposed on their staff, but to keep the wheels turning, they were reorganising as a cluster in the meantime. Then, the GPs would take over, but the GPs themselves couldn't be in a position to commission their own work, so they would be commissioned nationally, while some other services would be carved out of local commissioning.

One of the CCG doctors said of the re-org that "in terms of human pain it's quite remarkable - managers are people too, you know". Before the CCG took over, it would be allowed to have a "shadow budget" but no actual money, because it didn't have an accountable finance function. And before it did, everyone would be sacked again. The national commissioning board would replace the SHAs, but would have four or possibly more regional branches that might be quite a lot like them.

The questions kept coming and eventually they abandoned the agenda in favour of just standing there fielding. It turned out that there was a 93 page national test that the CCG would have to apply, but nobody had seen a copy and nobody was clear about who set the test or how. There was a Joint Strategic Needs Assessment, carried out by the cluster and the local authority, but how that fed into this process was a mystery.

On the question of specialist services that would be carved-out of local commissioning and reserved to the national level, the chair had to be told that it wasn't right and it wasn't OK to say that "normal people" wouldn't need to know about it because a lot of them are psychiatric in nature. It turned out that they represent 40% of the budget. The service-user activists got angry. As well as a Health and Wellbeing Board, whose makeup a Lib Dem councillor told me was still being debated, there is a Mental Health & Wellbeing Board, but the GPs have yet to deign to meet them because after all they're only nutters (I paraphrase, but not much).

It turned out that the NHS organisations being butchered have a variety of huge databases of information vital to the commissioning process. Nobody seems to know what will happen to this.

The specialist/local interface seems to be enormously crucial, and a completely undemarcated frontier. The GPs are hugely keen on "continuous follow-up", but it's far from obvious why anyone would want follow-up by someone who has no specialist knowledge of their condition.

The FD confirmed the following figures in my talking points: the Government has budgeted £25 per head per year for the CCGs and the Commissioning Support Organisations. Of this, the NHS North Central London cluster says it can do the CSO job for £15/head/year, which leaves £10*225 kilocitizens in Haringey or £2.25m a year in funds flowing to the CCG as such. The CCG plans to have CSO staff co-located with it, and in fact to rely on the CSO for pretty much all its day-to-day functions.

Apparently the Government arrived at the figure of £25 by halving the existing Londonwide figure and dividing by the population.

Anyway, my take-home points: CSOs are crucial (although we knew that). Status of staff - are they civil servants? Who has responsibility for the public money flowing through them? What happens to this database? Further, the frontier problem between central and local is important. And I've got to get on to some of these assorted boards.

I was really pleased by the turnout, and the degree to which the crowd were intelligently angry. A surprising number of people had evidently taken the time to brief themselves in advance.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Shameless self promotion

Over at Fistful of Euros, my review of Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. Coming up here, far from the eurocratic business-class lounge of AFOE, my action-oriented Kahneman for Thugs post, at least when I get away from debugging Project Lobster scripts. Am I on crack, or does ScraperWiki's datastore do an implicit cast to unicode strings on Python objects you send it?

magic beans, Spitfires, etc

Look what he's up to now. It's amazing how common the "that hillside is full of warbirds/jeeps/whatever" story is, and how geographically widespread. I worked on a north-west Australian cattle station that included an abandoned WW2 airfield, and more than a couple of people had wasted time and money digging into bits of it looking for them.

Near my dad's home town in Hertfordshire, there was an old 8th Air Force base and relatives of mine knew about people who claimed there were whole P-38s, motorbikes, trucks, jeeps etc buried, although the status of the story was "you don't want to listen to old Stick, he'll believe anything". Oddly enough, if they waited long enough they were almost right, because the Americans continued to use part of the site, and allegedly some of it was used for something spooky during Iran-Contra. There are similar stories I'm aware of about a couple of places in Yorkshire.

I presume it goes back to genuine tales of how much surplus kit there was sloshing about, and how much of it was basically thrown away, and perhaps to a deeper awareness of the wastefulness of war. It's also very similar to the cargo cult - like the intersection of buried treasure and cargo cultism.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Clearing out the link pile

Ed Miliband joins Total Defence!
Labour councils across England will act as the "last line of defence" against the controversial health act, Ed Miliband said as he pledged to overturn its "free market, free-for-all principles".

Speaking at the launch of the Labour local election campaign in Birmingham, Miliband said Labour councils would use the public health and well-being boards to resist the most damaging aspects of the Health and Social Care Act.

Meanwhile, the NE London Foundation Trust wrote to me to confirm that I am now a member. An amazingly large proportion of the letter is devoted to encouraging me to join the NHS staff-discount scheme, which apparently I now can. For some reason this reminds me of a remark my old college mate Tim Lewis made in San Francisco the week before last, to the effect that Virgin Atlantic is the New Labour airline. And on the flight back, yes, there is something distinctly Blairite about their general aesthetic. Boomer nostalgia/exciting purple/lower-case type/gratuitous Ginger Spice Union Flags/forced jollity/total lack of anything like dignity or design austerity.

Berlin's city fathers destroyed the world's best airport once, and now they're going to do it all over again by killing off the wonderful spaceship/cold war modern, 20 metres from the kerb to the plane, German architecture and French Army engineering Berlin-Tegel so you can damn well traipse in from Schönefeld, which will become a giant shopping centre with a runway.

France, delightedly nuclear-armed power to our south, has absolutely no doubt about sticking with the Bomb and indeed maintaining both a submarine and an air-launched capability. The BBC interviews Jean-Dominique Merchet, Francois Heisbourg, both well worth reading.

Bruce Sterling apparently didn't hear about the whole homeless-person-as-support-structure-for-WLAN-box thing so he hasn't stuck SXSW right there with the CBOSS stand at Mobile World Congress, but he does have some interesting remarks although as always his commitment to staring right into the future's eyes seems to render him less critical than he should be.

He has company. The New Aesthetic has the “scenius” of London’s Silicon Roundabout to support it. These people are working creatives of Bridle’s generation, with their networked tentacles sunk deep in interaction design, literature, fashion and architecture. They do have some strange ideas, but they can’t all be crazy....It’s also deep. If you want to get into arcane matters such as interaction design, computational aesthetics, covert surveillance, military tech, there’s a lot of room for that activity in the New Aesthetic. The New Aesthetic carries a severe, involved air of Pynchonian erudition.

So, ah, it appears to be me?

“Theory objects” from the Internet are squamous, crabgrass-like entities, where people huddle around swollen, unstable databases

And he thinks that's a good thing. Squamous = either skin cancer or Cthulhu. Swollen, unstable database = big problem. Huddling around it = pointless. And what the North American-blinkered fuck is crabgrass, I've not seen any growing around Telco 2.0 Towers in the Curtain Road heart of Sillyabout? I'm tempted to use it as a synonym for vague futurist-y guff. "Hmmm, I see your point, but I think the next slide is nothing but crabgrass."

Coming soon

A review of Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow for the Fistful of Euros. That will be the high-style eurocratic version.

Another review of Kahneman for this fine blog. That is tentatively titled Kahneman for Thugs and will be a sort of juddering, noisy remix of the other one concentrating on action-oriented political advice derived from it.

Further action on the Lobster Project. I ported quite a bit of it from the pile of scripts on my laptop into ScraperWiki today, and I now need to debug and shake down those sections of the workflow. ScraperWiki now has the awesome NetworkX war-on-some-kinds-of-terror social network analytics lib, so I'm scraping in data, creating NX objects, and then reading out analytics in a string of loosely coupled scrapers. I've even been giving the look and feel some thought...sorry...oohing over fonts.

we pretend to campaign and they pretend to vote for us

Here's some "why the Bradford West result means we should support my politics" that supports my politics: Next Generation Labour.

  1. Don’t take support for granted
  2. We have to realise that the wars still matter
  3. Mobilised youth are a polical force to be reckoned with
  4. Labour has to examine its relationships with Muslim communities
  5. Austerity needs a fighting response

See also Matt Turner's point that Bradford West has had the biggest percentage rise in unemployment in the UK. NGL (which seems to be some sort of Ken Livingstonian tendency, fair enough by me) also say:

One of the more unpleasant responses to Galloway’s victory has been the suggestion that ‘the Muslim vote’ is somehow tainted and invalid

The best thing you're likely to read on this is Irna Qureshi's post here about the day-to-day, dogshit'n'forms processes of Bradford West politics.

She explained that her family had this time boycotted the “apna” (our own, referring to Imran Hussain, although she couldn’t name him either) because he’d stopped making time to attest her extended family’s passport photographs. And here’s my point. This woman and her clan’s vote had nothing to do with policies or even an inkling of research – the only thing that seemed to matter was accessibility

It's easy to forget that quite a significant number of people don't know anyone in the odd, class-based list of professions who are allowed to sign across the back of your passport photo. On Twitter, someone described this as "patrimonial" politics, but it's more than that. Democracy itself is an institution that is meant to cross class barriers. If Hussain wouldn't do it, that's a very clear message about where the local CLP sees itself in the class system.

Also, if you swap out "clan" for "family", this sounds pretty much like the sort of politics that are stereotypical of France, where there are officially no ethnic or religious communities in the secular republic. The explanation of this is that it's just politics, stupid. It's like that everywhere, just the bullshit differs.

Over here, the following excellent points are made.
British people are stereotyped for a tendency to turn to the weather as a means for finding some common ground for smalltalk. In Bradford, it’s the failing regeneration projects first, then the weather if there’s time. Everyone seems to have a better idea of how to run the place than the people currently doing it, and they’re always agitated enough to tell you. Not a great sign.

This is why I knew he would win, despite the answers to my Twitter question: ‘Would Galloway be good or bad for Bradford and why?’ coming back with 50% negative responses based on his showboating, lack of substance, self serving nature, and worse. His policies were quite simple: regenerate the Odeon. Sort out Westfield. Sort out education. He either succeeds, in which case, great. Or he fails, in which case, we’re not exactly losing out are we?

There’s been much made of his appealing to Muslim voters, which he did as well, but 18,000+ votes in Bradford West makes a mockery of the accusation that this is the real reason he won. His policies were pretty broadly relevant and Twitter was buzzing with ‘I wouldn’t normally vote for him BUT… ’. This shouldn’t have been an angle that any of the big three should have had to worry about, because they should have had it covered.

I didn't know he took a view on the Odeon; no wonder he won. One theory I have about this is that the Labour HQ remembered him making a fool of himself on TV, and reasoned from a TV-centric, airpower theorist perspective that anyone who went on Celebrity Big Brother (and doesn't that sound dated) and made a cock of himself would be a permanent laughing stock. Nobody was more obsessed with reality TV than Blairites. In this sense, not only didn't they worry over much about the street campaign in Bradford, they also didn't remember that there are two iconic video clips of him. 1) is him being a cat, 2) is him ripping into the Republican senators. You're unlikely to see 1) again on TV, but there's nothing to stop 2) circulating virally on the web.

Consequently, I do worry that the London election campaign is so virtual. Boris Johnson is a deeply virtual character, of course, a media construct built out of grinning on TV and mildly controversial newspaper columns, and Brian Paddick's public image has apparently been designed to look exactly like a mildly corrupt town-hall politico in a Danish thriller. But it's not as if the campaign is very visible on the streets - I've seen precisely two posters (one this weekend, Ken, in a window in Waterloo, and a Lib Dem billboard which has now ended its run).

Companies House Webcheck, fount of moral judgment. And a full list of USSD code numbers, at last

It looks like Daniel Davies' plan to classify the world into people who file their accounts with Companies House on time, and people who don't, may be less eccentric than it seems. News International missed, and asked for an extension. Obviously a dodgy lot of bastards. Anyway, check this quote out.

Coincidentally, News International's company secretary of many years standing, Mrs Carla Stone, has resigned. A filing to Companies House, dated yesterday, stated that her appointment had been terminated. However, I understand that she left the company in February and her formal employment contract ends later this month.

Stone, a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries, held 212 company directorships in all, almost all of which are subsidiaries of News International and related companies.

You've got to like the "coincidentally", which I take to mean "it is no such thing but we've not finished the story yet". Anyway. The dump of directorships is here, providing an interesting insight into the structure of News International. Am I right in thinking that "Deptford Cargo Handling Services Ltd." will be the company that owned the Wapping site?

Meanwhile, a colleague of mine asked me an Android question, which I misunderstood as being a question about USSD (you know - like *#06# to get your mobile phone IMEI number, but also including things like *21*some-phone-number# to divert all your calls). As a result, I ended up over here and learned that the network password "tends to be 1919", which is very interesting in context and might explain a lot. Bonus: this ETSI pdf actually contains something which is otherwise quite annoying to find, a complete and categorised list of the code numbers.

Shouty letter-writing egghead wins

RealClimate reviews a 1981 attempt to forecast the climate impact of CO2 emissions, and finds that it's basically pretty good (see also The Register eating their words slowly). Which is what you'd expect - the physical processes involved aren't that complicated at that sort of low-earth orbit viewpoint, and the only things that could really go wrong would be some sort of huge data collection problem or else a really big volcano.

That was James Hansen's work, and this week he got an Easter egg! Rather, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued a draft regulation that basically means you can't build a new coal-fired power station. This may be the best news anyone's had for some time.

The politics of the apolitical

So, this post was picked up by SHWI survivor Randy McDonald's blog, who says that:

great efforts are being made to keep new Chinese soldiers depoliticized

I don't think this gets it. Great efforts are being made to keep them politicised, so long as the politics inculcated in them is what the Party wants it to be. It's a very important point that the Chinese army doesn't exist in the same context of civil-military relations that a Western army does, and not even in the same way an army in a Western authoritarian state does. Specifically, they reject the idea that the military is "above politics". They do, very much, believe that the army must serve the civilian power - but the nature of that power is different.

The Communist Party is a party. It also at least believes itself to be Communist, even if it's not obvious how it isn't capitalist. Rather than maintaining a status quo, the point of a Communist Party is to change things, to wage the revolution and re-shape society. In the context of Chinese history, even if the nation seems indestructible, the state has been fragile, has been contested, its borders have moved, its sovereignty has been variable in quality. At the moment, there are two of them, and there have been many more in the past.

In that sense, the People's Liberation Army (the name is significant - it's not called the Chinese Army) is one of the instruments with which the Party intervenes in Chinese society to create the kind of state it wants. The link between the propaganda/media-management plan, the army recruitment cycle, and the National People's Congress process, should be seen in this light. Conscription played a very similar role in French and German history, so this shouldn't be surprising. Rather than permanent revolution, permanent statebuilding is going on - given the uncertainty of the future, and the strangeness of a Communist Party with Maoist intellectual heritage in charge of a capitalist superpower, it's probably much more useful to think in terms of process rather than of an end-state.

It's also true that armies in unevenly-developed societies tend to try to take over the state they are told they are building. As a result, it's very important to the CCP that this process remains integrated into the Party's ideas, culture, and organisation. An army in China that wasn't political in the CCP sense would be very political indeed in the Western, and usually pejorative, sense.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Peasants into...potential CCP members

Something interesting (h/t Jamie) about the Chinese military. The strand I found worthwhile is this:

As a result, for the past decade, a major theme pounded into the troops by the General Political Department is the persistent threat from outside forces (non-Party elements) to separate the military from politics, depoliticize the military and “nationalize” the military (PLA Daily, March 19).

It is unclear who, if anybody within the PLA, proposes to separate, depoliticize or nationalize the military, but these warnings often reach high peak around the National People’s Congress, shortly after over half a million new recruits have entered the PLA and PAP. These young soldiers have just finished basic training and are entering their units. They are likely targets of this political education campaign as are other sectors of the society where such “deviant” thought may exist. A political campaign based on a non-existent (or minimally existing) straw man would not be unique to China or the CCP.

Well, no. But the thing that interests me here is that there is a link between the propaganda/media plan, the big political get-together in the NPC, and the annual conscription cycle. It's as if they were constructing the state anew every year, in a massive theatrical exercise. A real-time exercise in state formation. And it's very interesting that the propaganda construct that is exercised is explicitly directed against nationalism.

Why Bradford West means we should...

So, Bradford West. Chris Brooke already made the point that everyone and his dog has written a Why The Bradford West Result Means We Should Support My Politics. Meanwhile the jamiesphere is having some sort of left-of-the-left carnival of the marginally relevant, although to be honest that could be the banner over the entrance to the blogosphere.

Anyway, here's my effort at Why The Bradford West Result Means We Should Support My Politics. My first point is that it makes absolutely no sense to describe this as a rebellion against the "ethnic Labour machine" or whatever. Obviously there'll be a lot of people crying into their beer (or not) who fit that description. But who was it that Galloway recruited to run his campaign?

None other than the departing Labour MP Marsha Singh's election agent and campaign manager, Naweed Hussein, as this really excellent piece points out. And if anyone would know their way around west Bradford Mirpuri committee politics, the guy who repeatedly got his man elected there would.

Further, I don't think it makes much sense to throw a wobbly about people "voting for him because they think he's a Muslim" or whatever. After all, the Tories can tell you just how much this gets you in Bradford politics in and of itself, after they stood Mohammed Riaz against Marsha Singh on the charming platform that you should "vote for your community" (subtext: the other guy is a Sikh). The answer you're looking for, then, is "that and a fiver gets you a kebab", and come to think of it the influential post of "William Hague's race relations adviser".

One thing that certainly will have helped Galloway is the fact that his rival was a councillor while the council was busy creating the Rubble Zone - in case you don't know, Bradford Council demolished a vast chunk of the city centre in the hope that Westfield would build a giant shopping centre, but the shopping centre didn't happen and now there is just the enormous hole. There is a long history of politically-inspired half-completed projects in Bradford - it's a matter of taste whether you prefer the Interchange, of which half was closed and replaced by an Abbey National call centre (leaving the original Abbey National building facing City Hall empty), the M606, a motorway that tears away from the M62 and ends messily in a housing estate, the Millenium Faith experience (closed due to a lack of faith or indeed experience)...and at last someone's got their just desserts over one of them.

This shouldn't be that surprising, as it was literally the second bullet point on his leaflets!

And finally, I would like to point out that Bradford West politics is usually run by a close-knit network of Labour ward heelers and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Nobody seems to even care, for example, that Boris Johnson fixed it for Sarah Sands (for it is she!) to be editor of the Evening Standard. Politics is organisation, lists, and committees in much the same way that rugby is about tackling.

As a result, unless his new campaign manager really pulls something out of the hat over the next year or so (Bradford West in its current form is going to disappear due to boundary changes) and Galloway puts in much more time than you'd expect of him on form, I predict that he's not going to last. In some ways he's a throwback to one of those old-fashioned MPs who only went to their constituency at elections, that Simon Jenkins loves so much, just with the added twist that he doesn't go to the House either.

Meanwhile, the real Bradford news: he walked from Odsal to Keighley's ground to raise funds for Bradford Bulls, who are going bust if they can't raise a million quid. So far they're up to £234,000.

Bonus extra: it's quite odd that literally every opinionating gobshite knows Galloway's position on Palestine but nobody seems to care what it might be on Kashmir, which is considerably more important in context. Fixed that for you, although I disbelieve the accusations by the Indian 'bloids as being far too similar to the Torygraph's 2003 furphy.

utterly predictable and indeed predicted

Here's a story from the Grauniad about privatised forensics lab LGC getting it Very Wrong Indeed.

Now here's another.

LGC said one of its staff members made a "typographical error" while inputting code, leading Scotland Yard to spend more than a year trying to trace a non-existent suspect. It was confirmed last month, when LGC carried out a review, that the partial DNA profile belonged to a scientist involved in the case.

"Having made further checks, LGC identified the partial profile as matching that of a Metropolitan police scientist who was involved in the original investigation of Mr Williams' home," a LGC spokeswoman said

I think what they mean is that the Met police guy's DNA was taken in order to eliminate him from the inquiry, running the profiles of the police who entered the place against the target samples in order to isolate anything interesting and also to confirm as a positive control that the analysis was indeed working. Then somebody fatfingered, with the result that the elimination profile used wasn't actually the right sequence and therefore didn't match. And what a case, too.

Only Theresa May and Francis Maude cooperating could have thought privatising forensics was a good idea. Mind you, who on earth thought retyping DNA hashes by hand was a good idea?


Fedorcio out they cry! See also this New Yorker piece on Viktor Bout.

On April 26, 2005, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), in the Treasury Department, unveiled sanctions aimed at Bout, thirty companies associated with him, and Chichakli. That morning, F.B.I. agents went to Chichakli’s home, in Texas, to search his office. They confiscated his computer, bank records, flight journals, a copy of Bout’s passport, and more than two hundred thousand dollars’ worth of diamonds. No criminal charges were filed, however, and a week later Chichakli flew to Russia, where he has been living ever since. Soon after the raid, Department of Defense officials entered the names of the companies under sanctions into their databases. They made a surprising discovery: some of Bout’s companies were now delivering tents and frozen food to troops in Iraq.

Not that surprising by April '05. But worth reading.

Exactly what you'll be missing when Francis Maude gets sacked

I had a request on Twitter for more Francis Maude blogging. (Not another one who wants flogging, I said, wearily pulling on the boots and polishing up the cat-'o-nine-tails.) This obsession goes back to this post of Tom Barry's which identified him as:

being the real power behind the entire administration, and making everyone forget he was an idiot in 1997

Tom never did the promised back-story post, so we lack the qualitative interpretation to go with the quantitative observations. But I think his point has been adequately demonstrated by recent events and the existence of Francis Maude Advice. As far back as January 2011, it was disturbingly obvious that lobbyists gravitated to Maude like flies to shit.

At the last count, in September, he had achieved the status of the 4th most-lobbied minister on a quality-adjusted basis. That's behind Cameron, Chris Grayling, and Nick Clegg, and ahead of George Osborne or Vince Cable. Clearly, people doing serious business with government perceive him as someone who can deliver. It's also possible that the government thinks he is the right man to put forward - certainly, he has substantial responsibility for things like procurement.

On the other hand, lobbyists experience Maude as a destination. His gatekeepership score is very low - compare the guilty men in the Werritty/Fox case, who exhibit the ideal combination for a lobbying target, very high gatekeepership with relatively low weighted network degree. Rather than contacting him in the hope of being passed on to somebody important, you contact someone else who can get you face-time with him.

The big question here is on which side of the relationship agency resides. It is quite possible that Maude thinks he is exerting influence on the lobbyists he meets, while the lobbyists meet him because they believe themselves to influence him. I'm not qualified to answer that one, but I will offer advice based purely on the data. If you're looking to get at Maude, try his understrapper Mark Harper MP, Conservative for the Forest of Dean, who offers a punchy 1.37 gatekeepership metric (i.e. people who met him gained an average 37% boost in the status of the other people they met, compared to the average lobbyist's performance) at a network degree of 0.14 - so he's likely to be accessible.

PR men who are incompetent, or men who are incompetent at PR?

This comment at Inspector Gadget makes a lot of sense, and makes the various efforts by the Tories to convince their base (and themselves) that It's The Miners All Over Again look even sillier.

I spoke to the owner of my local garage earlier today. He has 8 pumps on the forecourt, “as a rule” his underground storage is around 33% full, he orders a tanker delivery when it hits 10% full. If he were to completely fill his underground storage he estimates he would have 2 weeks supply at normal rates of consumption…. to do so would cost him nearly £250,000, which, unsurprisingly given the 2.12% profit margin on fuel, he doesn’t have on hand.

The problem is that "stockpiling fuel" at petrol stations isn't a thing, because there is more storage capacity in cars than there is in petrol stations. Further, stockpiling it in cars isn't much of a thing either, because most people drive them and you have to give 7 days' notice of a strike. Put it another way - fill up all the petrol stations to capacity, and by the time the strike goes into effect, half of it will be gone. Therefore, you need only a week's strike to get them dry - assuming no panic buying, which as we have seen is an unrealistic assumption, and also assuming evenly distributed disruption, which is crazily impossible.

The unavoidable conclusion is that the "private message" talking points handed out to be leaked are an exercise in whistling in the dark. As a result, I find this story hard to believe. It just seems to fit better in reality that Francis Maude did a bit of daft freelancing, No.10 spin doctors went with the cosplay David Hart story in an attempt to save the furniture, and then the fogey-right half of the Tories briefed this tale in pursuit of their beefs with David Cameron, than that they really are that flaky.

I mean, if they were, what would that say about us? (Mind you, this is the earliest case of "it's like the miners all over again" I can find, from the 28th of March. But that's Maude again, so it would also be consistent with The Most Able Man in the Cabinet having an idea.)

Also, calm down, jamiesphere.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Links about NHS privatisation in Haringey

More of a scratch pad for me than anything else.

It's not like your friendly local Clinical Commissioning Group would have a web site. Is it. Anyway, there is a list of names in this PDF.

Chair / Central Lead Dr Helen Pelendrides*
Vice Chair / North East Lead Dr John Rohan*
Borough Director Andrew Williams
West Lead Dr Peter Christian*
South East Lead Dr Muhammad Akunjee*
Central GP Member Dr Sharezad Tang*
North East GP Member Dr Simon Caplan*
North East GP Member Dr Gino Amato*
West GP Member Dr Dina Dhorajiwala*
West GP Member Dr David Masters*
South East GP member vacant
Sessional GP member Dr Rebecca Viney*
Borough Head of Finance David Maloney
Director of Public Health Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy
Non-executive Sue Baker
Non-executive Cathy Herman
Patient Representative (West) Patrick Morreau
Patient Representative (East) Ivy Ansell
Haringey Council Mun Thong Phung
Haringey Council Councillor Dogus

There's going to be some sort of public meeting on the 17th of April.

Contacts (for all the North Central London CCGs) are here.

The proposed commissioning support organisation (that's the bit Lansley wants to give the yanks - a technical term, I agree) prospectus, from the existing NHS organisation, is here. Interesting detail:

Our services will be affordable. Our offer will enable you to run your CCG effectively and to deliver commissioning support within your £25 per head allowance. Our working principle is to provide a core offer for £15 per head, with additional or enhanced services available at additional cost. We believe that this meets current CCG expectations that internal CCG running costs will cost up to £10 per head.

There are 225,000 people in the London Borough. That's £2.2 million in "internal CCG running costs" split between whichever people in that list get to draw a salary from it. Fuck me, no wonder Saint GP likes it.

It's personal. Play your part

Red Brick blogs on the new regulations regarding council tenants who want to take over control of their estates. Their view is that this will be much more likely, and therefore that the campaign to prevent the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham demolishing a lot of homes in order to redevelop Earls Court has taken a big step forward. Perhaps. LBHF, as Boriswatch has repeatedly shown, is a bit of a happy hunting ground for really weird Tories, and the final word is with the Secretary of State, aka Bradford's second-worst political product Eric Pickles. Good luck with that.

But there is an interesting point here. I would argue that re-election is not really a concern for the Tories. They have fully internalised the so-called "50% + 1" model dear to Karl Rove. The point is not to "win the centre ground" by triangulating, it is to scrape in by mobilising the base and demobilising the other lot. Then, one tries to change the conditions by making deliberately excessive and maximalist demands on the basis that whatever you ask for, you'll probably get less, so it makes sense to shoot for the moon. Eventually, you'll lose, but in doing so you will have pissed off the right people and hopefully changed the character of the terrain. Further, the new integrated Atlantic market for bullshit means that being a minister is no longer a life's work, but rather an apprenticeship for much better rewarded punditry.

Think of it as an approach that isn't about manoeuvring over the landscape, it's about changing the landscape itself.

As a result, there is no strategic focus in terms of policy. Instead, there is a focus in terms of time. The point is to have a lot of things happening simultaneously in the hope that this will confuse the enemy - that's you - and also in the belief that some of the bombers, or perhaps the bulldozers, will get through.

I see two responses to this. One is assymetric reaction - for example, throwing the kitchen sink at the Murdoch wars. There is no direct link between the NHS and Leveson, but you bet the sale of the News International papers would make it far easier to repeal the NHS Bill. This is why my blog is so obsessed by it. It's an opportunity to change the terrain.

Another is total defence. If the attack is meant to be decentralised and localised to the NHS trust level, the defence can be as well. This is why you must read this seminal, classic post from Richard Blogger now and act on it. You can get a list of NHS foundation trusts whose membership is nationwide here. I just joined the one that covers my local mental health service - a likely early target - and now I am the NHS candidate for governor. Oh, yeah, and my local acute/general hospital. Go, read, work through the checklist.

(Title taken from faintly Orwellian-meets-Hazel-Blears but remarkably apposite Singaporean Ministry of Defence website. They used to have one that said "Total Defence. What will YOU defend?", which is on point as well.)

the missing link between slimming tea and tactical electronic warfare

Well, speak of the devil. Peter Foster makes his appearance in the Murdoch scandal and fingers the Sun directly.

He said he then received an email from a Dublin-based private investigator calling himself ''Autarch'', who told Mr Foster he tapped into his mother's phone in December 2002.

That month, The Sun published the ''Foster tapes'', which featured transcripts of Mr Foster talking about selling the story of his links with Tony Blair's wife, Cherie. Yesterday, Mr Foster said he had since had a Skype conversation with the investigator in Dublin, in which Autarch described how he tapped into Mr Foster's mother's phone.

''He said she was using an analogue telephone which they were able to intercept,'' Mr Foster said. Autarch said he discussed the hacking with Sun journalists.

However, this story - at least this version of it - probably isn't true. It is true that the first-generation analogue mobile phone systems like TACS in the UK and AMPS in the States were unencrypted over the air, and therefore could be trivially intercepted using a scanner. (They were also frequency-division duplex, so you needed to monitor two frequencies at once in order to capture both parties to the call.) It is also true that they were displaced by GSM very quickly indeed, compared to the length of time it is expected to take for the GSM networks to be replaced. In the UK, the last TACS network (O2's) shut down in December 2000. It took a while longer in the Republic of Ireland, but it was all over by the end of 2001.

So Foster is bullshitting...which wouldn't be a surprise. Or is he? TACS wasn't the only analogue system out there. There were also a lot of cordless phones about using a different radio standard. Even the more modern DECT phones are notorious for generating masses of radio noise in the 2.4GHz band where your WiFi lives. It may well be the case that "Autarch" was referring to an analogue cordless phone. Because a lot of these were installed by individual people who bought them off the shelf, there was no guarantee that they would be replaced with newer devices. (Readers of Richard Aldrich's history of GCHQ will note that his take on the "Squidgygate" tape is that it was probably a cordless intercept.)

This would have required a measure of physical surveillance, but then again so would an attempt to intercept mobile traffic over-the-air as opposed to interfering with voicemail or the lawful intercept system.

The Daily Beast has a further story, which points out that the then editor David Yelland apologised after being censured by the Press Complaints Commission (no wonder he didn't go further in the Murdoch empire) and makes the point that such an interception was a crime in both the UK and Ireland at the time. They also quote Foster as follows:

According to Foster, the investigator told him that, for four days at the height of Cheriegate, he had been sitting with another detective outside Foster’s mother’s flat in the Dublin suburbs, intercepting and recording the calls to her cordless landline

The Sun hardly made any effort to conceal this - they published what purports to be a transcript, as such.


I don't think Jonathan Freedland will be wanting this piece of his in the Bedside Guardian book-of-the-year. In terms of basic journalistic standards, it may be the worst article to appear in the paper in the last 12 months. Look at this:

His autobiography is similarly unrepentant and notable for its repeated interest in Jews, Israel and Zionism. I'm told that Miliband's office saw an early draft which had plenty more on those subjects, including statements that had them raising their "eyebrows to the heavens" – and which they were mightily relieved to see did not make the final version.

You might expect that somebody who is going to throw around allegations of anti-semitism and demand "repentance" about a book might be able to quote something from this book, in order to support this very grave accusation. Even if the book is so repellent that Freedland can't bring himself to physically touch it - so much so that he doesn't even need to read it to know this - surely there must be an intern knocking around Kings Place who could do the dirty work? But no.

Further, since when has "I'm told" been acceptable sourcing in a serious newspaper? Close reading is valuable in this case. There are many conventional ways of signalling the source of a statement from someone who wishes to remain anonymous. Freedland uses none of them. We do not get as much as "Sources close to..." or "The so-and-so camp...". I regularly bitch and moan and whine about tiresome newspaper code for "Their PR man told me", but it has the virtue of indicating that a source actually exists whose identity the writer is protecting, and whose identity is known to the editor. In this case, our man is not even willing to take that much responsibility, which is quite shameful given the gravity of the matter.

Careful readers will also note that there is no statement or implication in the text that whoever told him is a source in Ed Miliband's office. This is an important lesson in the craft of dishonest writing. Juxtaposition gives the impression of a logical link, but without its semantic substance. You simply place two unrelated statements together and let the reader associate them. It is therefore very useful in later defending your work in front of your editor or a court.

In this case, the substance of the allegation is something that supposedly got edited out of Ken Livingstone's memoirs - that is to say, something which is by nature invisible. Further, disproving that this text (again not quoted) was deleted requires you to prove a negative. Freedland didn't actually ask if Livingstone had stopped beating his wife, but in the light of these standards of intellectual honesty and journalistic practice, why the hell not?

There is more of this stuff. The core of the piece is a meeting Freedland had with Livingstone and a group of other Labour activists. Freedland won't say who they were or what they were up to (of course, in the print edition you can't click through) but does say the following:

One explicitly said he sought no recantation of past remarks nor a change of position on Israel

However, the letter they sent jars with this.

Despite his seeming obsession with Israel, which gives some quarters cause for concern....

Also, perhaps it might have been more honest to mention that the deputation to see Ken included:

key people from Labour Friends of Israel

Further, Freedland harps on the fact that Livingstone had a paying gig with Press TV, which apparently:

put him in the pay of a theocratic dictatorship that denies the Holocaust and believes that both homosexuality and adultery merit stoning.

Unfortunately, this comes literally in the same paragraph as:

He's been in further trouble over his tax arrangements

Which is, of course, an allusion to Andrew Gilligan's discredited story, in which Gilligan made a schoolboy accounting mistake and confused the total of retained profit in a company with its annual trading profits, inflating Livingstone's income by a factor of 7. Oddly enough, Freedland is perfectly happy to quote Gilligan despite the fact that in Freedland's own terms he is:

in the pay of a theocratic dictatorship that denies the Holocaust and believes that both homosexuality and adultery merit stoning

Because, after all, Andrew Gilligan has been working for Press TV for some time. Strangely, his pals on the Policy Exchange/neo-con wing of the Tories find this acceptable, and so does Jonathan Freedland.

Anyway, this ugly little bit of business reminds us of something important. There may be Blairites and Brownites in the Labour Party, but there is also a third pole of Ken-nites, and there is no reason to think either group will be any less vicious towards them than they are to each other.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Failure of a lobby

Sherwood Rowland, one of the scientists responsible for discovering that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer and fixing the problem, has died. Realclimate has a good write-up, as does Eli Rabett, who makes the excellent point that we needed to invent quite a bit of the chemistry involved before we could discover there was a problem. Perhaps more telling is this NASA web page, which describes the output from the Goddard Space Flight Centre's Chemistry-Climate Model given inputs corresponding to a world that kept using the stuff. It's either utterly terrifying, or enormously inspiring, depending on how you look at it. Rowland, Paul Crutzen, the British Antarctic Survey people who did the fieldwork...they essentially saved the world.

But what really interests me was how they got the Vienna and Montreal protocols passed. I had the vague impression that something had changed since 1989, that the ex-tobacco industry unscience industry was only cranked up later to bash the climatologists. In fact, I'm wrong. A comment at Realclimate points out that they were indeed targeted by the usual suspects. Rowland was accused of being a KGB agent trying to destroy capitalism.

Jeff Masters of Wunderground has a really handy rundown of the pushback campaign against the ozone scientists, who were subjected to direct smears as above, plus a barrage of general-purposes PR, psuedo-scientific doubt-mongering, all with the assistance of Hill & Knowlton, Tom DeLay (for it is he) and (interestingly) some of the same characters who turn up both in Big Baccy and later on in the climate wars.

But here's the interesting question, though. In the case of CFCs, it didn't work. Thatcher's late swing towards environmental issues is fairly well known, and prime ministers are certain of ratifying treaties they sign. Something must have induced Reagan to sign and Congress to ratify, though. Did the CFC makers just not give it one more heave, a few more millions?

A report back from the NHS demo

So, I was at today's NHS demo. Somebody had to be - I was shocked by how many people weren't there. The streets were full of people who weren't there. And there was a pretty standard demo pitched up on the pavement outside the Department of Health at Richmond House, 97 Whitehall. Speeches. Depression. Workers' Liberty tried to sell me a paper. The last time I met that lot, they wanted to explain why the lesson of the Paris Commune was that you needed to be nastier to the Muslims. Anyway.

After a while some people from Occupy London and a couple of other orgs turned up to join in. Not long after this there was some sort of interaction with the police (I heard later that they asked us to leave the pavement), and as a result the demo moved onto the street and formed a block across it. Very quickly, a couple of carriers appeared from the Parliament Square side with TSG cops aboard (one of whom, presumably in charge, was out and about talking to the ordinary bill). After some parley - I don't know the details - they suddenly moved off towards Parliament Square. I expected them to re-appear behind us, but it didn't happen. Instead, traffic was diverted at each end of Whitehall.

So we stood and sat there, singing our songs and waving our banners. There was more police coming and going, but no real change. Occupy started to work through their standard occupying procedure of holding a meeting and getting a human microphone going.

About 1530, a police carrier appeared from the direction of Trafalgar Square and delivered a slack dozen TSG men, who formed a line across Whitehall between the levels of Richmond House and Downing Street. The demo, which had been facing towards Westminster, swung around to face them. At this point I was seriously worried that the next move would be a line moving up from Westminster to form a kettle. The police deployment was quite thin and extended, whether because this lot were the first to arrive or because they deliberately wanted to filter people through the line.

At 1536, I tweeted (so probably a little earlier), the demo started moving towards Trafalgar Square, partly pushing forwards and mostly moving around the flanks of the police line. (This is a fair characterisation, I think, as is this.) The police moved back towards Downing Street and then towards the Women's Monument, and there was some sort of outbreak of shouting on the Downing St side in front of the Cabinet Office, where a lot of people were trying to get by between the police line and the buildings. I passed by on the other side close to Alanbrooke's statue (my twitter feed says this was 1600). This is the widest point of Whitehall, and the police line now had demonstrators on both sides.

From this point on, the demo moved fairly quickly up Whitehall. Ahead, I saw a police 4x4, possibly a senior officer's vehicle, parked in the middle of the road, which suddenly moved off with squealing tyres. That sounds dramatic, but in truth the pace was little more than a brisk walk, and nothing violent had happened so far.

Approaching the top of Whitehall, a choke point where the street narrows before entering Trafalgar Square, I looked back and saw that beyond the demo, and the police, and the demonstrators who were on the other side of the police, many more police had arrived. I think I saw between five and eight carriers.

At the top of Whitehall, the demo started to pass into Trafalgar Square. I was one of the first in the retreat at this point. Due to the demo, and to an "event" in the Square, there was very heavy traffic on all the streets around it. As we emerged from Whitehall, the next vehicle to move forwards from the direction of the Strand and Northumberland Avenue was a police van, specifically one of the red Transit minibuses used by Met Diplomatic Protection and anti-terrorist branch units. (Wail Qasim identified them as such at 1606.) It was, for the record, in the traffic jam rather than parked off the street, and everyone was inside with the doors and windows shut.

One of the Occupiers immediately lay down in front of the van, I think to stop it or any traffic blocking the exit from Whitehall. Other demonstrators gathered around it. There was a hiatus as they realised that they had kettled the cops, and the cops realised that something unusual was going on. Then, one of them got out of the vehicle, with his H&K rifle slung, apparently intending to talk to the people. It can only have been at this point that the now-famous photo was taken. Like everyone else, as far as I can make out, my first thought was "Er, armed police?" (as my Twitter feed records at 1604).

Nothing very much happened. I was one carriageway from the van, and I don't remember that anyone raised their voice between the police or the protestors around their van. However, I presume they radioed for help, as the first TSG unit now caught up in a real hurry, eventually forming a line (very tight and concentrated this time) in front of the van.

People now began to gather on the mini-roundabout facing them, which seemed to me to practically invite the creation of a kettle around it as more and more police were still appearing. As a result, this didn't last and the demo moved on across the Square and into the Strand. By the level of Charing Cross, I had the impression that the demonstration had melted away, which struck me as a smart move. In fact, according to Twitter, some of us pressed on up Aldwych and encountered quite rough treatment from the police.

So that was my experience. Everyone seems to be furious that armed police were seen on the demo. I'm not sure that they were used, and I wouldn't want this to detract from getting after, for example, this bloke or this one.

However, I think the real reason for this is that the Met usually has a group of armed officers and their vans based at Charing Cross nick, as it's close to various ministries, the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, and some embassies that get armed police protection. The van could have either been coming from Charing Cross to start a shift, or perhaps on the way back via Northumberland Avenue. They didn't seem to be particularly aware something unusual was going on, and they were sitting in a van in a traffic jam rather than being deployed in any tactical fashion. My twitter feed records this view at 1608, as do some others.

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