Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bandwidth! Low latency! Sexy!

OK, so Thomas P.M. Barnett is purring like a kitten at the discovery that his Blueprint for Action has been translated into Turkish. Barnett's famed prescription, the so-called SysAdmin Force, seems to be vanishing under the far horizon. Check out this NYT report from western Afghanistan. It seems the Iranians are dramatically out-competing NATO & Co in reconstruction in Afghanistan.

What's more interesting is the how. As well as building roads, they laid a new fibre-optic link across the border into Herat, whose far end will interconnect with the Europe-Asia 1 and 2 cables and the FLAG and SMW3 landings in the UAE. They are also planning to extend the railway from Mashad into Afghanistan - hell, even the British Empire didn't manage to build a railway in Afghanistan, and that's saying something. Note, by the way, that quite soon there will be through standard-gauge track from anywhere in Europe, and onward towards China not long after that.
Iranian officials said they had focused on roads and power as a quick way to strengthen Afghanistan's economy. A major project has involved upgrading roads linking Afghanistan with the Iranian port of Chabahar, on the Gulf of Oman.

In many ways, Muhammad Reza Dabbaghi embodies Iran's new approach in Afghanistan. Mr. Dabbaghi, a 46-year-old engineer, is the top executive here for the Iranian company that built the new 70-mile highway linking western Afghanistan to Iran two years ago, is paving much of the northwestern city of Herat and hopes to build the new railway, all with Iranian government financing.
Can anyone provide an economic and technical rationale for the Western reconstruction effort that succinct and credible? Meanwhile, in Kabul, some ugly signs:
Last year, the Iranian Embassy opened the Iranian Corner, a room in Kabul University's main library filled with computers, books and magazines from Iran, promoting Iran's ancient culture and modern achievements. Librarians say it is more popular than the adjoining American Corner, sponsored by the United States Embassy, primarily because it has a better Internet connection. Unlike in Iran, where the government blocks thousands of Web sites, the Iranian Corner offers open Internet access.
Consider that for a moment. We're being beaten for openness and connectivity by the Iranians. Wi-Fi: it's the Marlboros of today, if that isn't too Friedmanesque. And we are still offering outreach projects, speeches on the radio (to quote Carlo Levi), and the occasional AC-130 strike-in-error. When was the last time you heard of an Iranian F14 accidentally bombing an Afghan wedding?
When the Taliban were ousted in 2001, Iran promised to help stabilize Afghanistan. In Germany that December, it was Iranian diplomats who stepped in to save foundering talks to form a new Afghan government, persuading the Northern Alliance to accept the agreement. Soon after, Iran pledged $560 million in aid and loans to Afghanistan over five years, a "startling" amount for a nonindustrialized nation, according to James Dobbins, the senior American envoy to Afghanistan at the time.

A week later, President Bush situated Iran on the "axis of evil." But even as they assailed that characterization, Mr. Dobbins said, Iranian officials privately offered to train Afghan soldiers. The Bush administration rejected the offer.
Elsewhere in the story, it seems the Iranians have got rid of $230 million of that budget already. When the British Army headed for Helmand this year, there was talk of a £50 million aid budget in its baggage train, or $97 million, almost twice as much as the apparent Iranian annual total. At the last count, I'm not aware that any significant capital amount had been spent. Certainly DFID hasn't bought 40 per cent of the Iranian effort.

Ian Blair: Still Ignorant

All right, I said I'd held Sir Ian's comments on the Today programme on Christmas Eve for treatment. What he did this time was to complain at length about the extra paperwork a cop has to complete after making an arrest. He reckons it's increased by a factor of three since his wild youth. But I'm not arguing about that.

He claims it's all down to stricter requirements on the prosecution to disclose unused evidentiary material to the defence. But what concerns me is that he proceeded to blame this on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. RIPA is the legislation, much criticised itself, that sets the conditions under which the police can spy on you - phone taps, surveillance, that sort of thing.

The duty on the prosecution to hand over all the evidence the police collect is, in my humble opinion, entirely right (why, if they find information that suggests you didn't do it, should they be allowed to keep it a secret?). But it ain't RIPA that determines it. It's the Criminal Investigation and Procedure Act, 1996. Not just that, but it's also a pre-existing principle of Common Law (see the Crown Prosecution Service legal guidance, here).

What I would like to know is whether he simply got it wrong, or whether this was a wilful misrepresentation. I have absolutely no doubt he'd love to get rid of the provisions of RIPA that require him to get authorisation from the Surveillance Commissioner to do various forms of spying (not that this gentleman has ever refused) - it would fit near-perfectly with the pattern of behaviour he has shown over the past few years, and a pattern of behaviour is admissible evidence these days. If Sir Ian had checked the CPS guide, he would have noticed that, in fact, RIPA actually limits the scope of advance disclosure:
There is no duty to disclose either at Common Law or under CPIA:-

* material for which a claim of public interest immunity is upheld by the court
* material which falls under statutory exceptions: section 2 Interception of Communication Act 1985, section 17 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
* material which attracts Legal Professional Privilege;
* material which is detrimental to the credibility of someone who might be called as a defence witness..

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas ceasefire

The traditional TYR truce will be observed until the 27th of December. Sir Ian Blair should note that his performance on the Today programme this morning has been noted for future action.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

There is still going to be no attack on Iran

Chatter builds that the US govt is considering moving another carrier to the Gulf to put pressure on Iran. Meh. Fleet availablity is still low. Eisenhower is on station, Enterprise back from deployment and due to go in dockyard hands. Nimitz is doing her COMPTUEX off Southern California. Reagan is still in the CARQUALs phase of the training cycle, Theodore Roosevelt is also a long way back in the deployment cycle.

Vinson, Lincoln, Truman, and Washington are all in drydocks. That leaves only the John C. Stennis. She has recently signed off her JTFEX, which means she has all the ticks in the right boxes to sail. There is also the Kitty Hawk in Japan, but she is essentially marking the Korea and Taiwan commitments and would have to be replaced by another ship to go to the Indian Ocean.

Two carriers is not going to cut it. Still no attack in prospect.

You must have scared yourself

Dear God, John Redwood says something entirely sane. This frightens me - there is something we agree on. Naturally, I followed a link from Chris Dillow - I don't read his stuff, you know.

But I think he's right that a big part of the solution to party spending is that the buggers ought not to spend so much. As energy geeks will tell you, only half the problem is supply. After all, if they couldn't rely on spin, broadcast ads, and billboards they would rely so much more on their activists, which would imply greater accountability of the politicians to the base. Broadcast, by the way, should here be read to include all forms of one-way, centre to mass communication.

In a sense, large donations and their pal, broadcast campaigning are to British politics what oil revenues are to (enter 'orrible rentier state here). That is, they provide a way of escaping not only from accountability, but also from the realities of society.

Sir Ian Blair: Ignorant

Whatever Sir Ian Blair says, the opposite is probably true. It's a basic working assumption that has at least one major advantage - that even when it's wrong, it won't lead you into anything too terrible. Rather like the Malatesta estimator. To estimate a value people disagree about accurately, take the most and least exaggerated values, total them, and divide by 2, then subtract 30 per cent. This last manoeuvre takes into account the fact that exaggeration has no limit, but underestimation can only go as far as zero.

Sir Ian is currently furious that one of the suspects in the murder of Bradford PC Sharon Beshenivsky apparently fled the country posing as a veiled woman. Why didn't the Immigration Service stop him, he wants to know? Subtext: if real men like Sir Ian were in charge, they would have been more offensive to brown people.

Unfortunately, the Immigration Service hasn't operated any embarkation controls for some time. When there is a APB out, police detectives are deployed at ports to look for the suspect. As he is believed to have passed through Heathrow, it's Sir Ian's very own Special Branch who missed the unusually hefty lass.

Electricity - let it wash all over me! Or not

James Glanz of the NYT reports at great length on the electrical siege of Baghdad, with detail, network maps, and more. Great.

Obviously, this being a blog, the primary meaning of this is an excuse to moan about the press. Why didn't Glanz (or anyone else at the NYT) report on this back in 2004, say? It was a commonplace as early as the summer of 2003 that electricity production was a crucial indicator, that pylons were being destroyed and wire dragged away to sell. John Robb was writing about it then. So was this, ah, blog.

Did I say I loved the FT? Check out this story (subreq) on Gazprom, and especially the Robbtastic pipeline map (direct link (swf).)

I see a ship in the harbour

Yet more stupid giant floating radar news. Not only can't it keep the sea if the weather turns bad, not only is there no sea boat, and no security - but its support vessel won't be able to go alongside it most of the time, according to the US Coast Guard. This really is one of the poster children for Stupid Defence Procurement, no?

Speaking of stupid defence procurement, Richard North has issued a Christmas list of stuff he thinks the armed forces need. Predictably, all but one item on it comes from either BAE or the United States, and it's all very expensive, electronic and Rumsfeldesque, not to mention tactically defensive. For example, he advocates we buy a "system" (a word that is usually the key indicator of useless expensive kit) whose manufacturers claim it can shoot down mortar rounds in flight.

Well, when it's working, if the enemy chooses to shoot at the camp that got the scarce gadget, and until they invent a countermeasure (like chaff stuffed in the tail of their 107mm rockets, say). This is a classic example of cheap, highly available 4GW that entrains incredibly expensive technofixes on the part of conventional armies. Far better to take the money Northo wants to give Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Rockwell, Raytheon and Co and pay a large bonus to recruit more linguists and agent handlers for the Intelligence Corps, so there might be a chance of finding out who is firing the mortars. And that way, perhaps we wouldn't just have discovered that General Richards' interpreter was an Iranian spy.

(Seriously, the guy is a nightclub owner and salsa instructor as well as a TA I-man. How could he not be a spy of one persuasion or the other?)

In other North-related news,
HRW picks up the "ambulance hoax" bullshit and hoofs it into Row Z.
Bloggers were said to be collapsing with asphyxia awaiting Dick's apology.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

When you feel the heat you've got to move your fleet

An interesting couple of mystery-jet stories - last week saw an aircraft using a Flying Dolphin/Dolphin Air callsign (ICAO: FDN), the company in Sharjah that took over the assets of Viktor Bout's Santa Cruz Imperial and that continues to deal with Phoenix Aviation, pass through Dubai en route to Baghdad. Not that unusual, but interestingly it was bound for Al-Muthanna, the old airfield next to the Green Zone, not Baghdad International Airport (or SDA for Saddam Airport, as it's still known by ICAO). You might well wonder who was aboard.

The week before, Kyrgyz-registry/Sharjah-based outfit Tenir Airlines - ICAO TEB - who fly regularly between the UAE and Iraq did something interesting. They sent one of their Il-76s from Sharjah to Baghdad International and from there on to Kabul. Now there's a trip. Tenir, according to, has three Il-76s, all from Moldovan operator Airline Transport Incorporation. This company, which was suddenly wound up in 2005, had a sizeable fleet of Ilyushins, which were transferred to companies including Click Airways (a regular on the Sharjah-Baghdad run), Jet Line International, and Tenir. The association with JLI went pretty deep - when their aircraft ER-IBR crashed into Lake Victoria on the 23rd of March, 2005, it was operating with Jet Line's documents, or possibly the other way around. ATI's planes sometimes used the callsign "Air Trans", a company that doesn't exist but has often cropped up being used by Viktor Bout's planes, and they also traded aircraft with Aerocom (and Jet Line). Two of the three Il-76s owned by Tenir have been reported under this designation.

Those are EX-065 (serial number 53460832) and EX-071 (43452546). The other is EX-075 (53463908).

In other news: Firedump-listed 727 UN-B2701 photographed in Nizhni Novgorod on the 26th of November. Something tells me that one is safe.

Update, 03/01/2007: Now we know how UN-B7201 got to Budapest, anyway. Carrying a Kazakh football team, apparently.

..with diesel power!

You may recall the incident off Somalia where a cruise ship beat off pirates using a LRAD, a long-range audio device - essentially a weapon that produces a very loud noise in the direction of a target. Here is a civilian version, with a standard MIDI interface. Now we make beats with computer technology, indeed.

Paying the cost to be the boss (of the civil service)

I knew roughly what Resource Accounting and Budgeting was all about, but I never imagined they could invent a system that would require NHS trusts to pay back any overspend twice. Especially as, at the same time, the introduction of payment-by-results means that their income scales directly with their output. So, they can't reduce the number of operations performed, because their income would go down still more. That also means they can't really cut any variable or semivariable costs - pay is set by long-term negotiations with the unions that aren't readily adjustable, and inputs such as drugs are dependent on the scale of production.

Worse, a lot of them are committed to paying unalterable PFI charges, so even the overheads cannot be trimmed. It's less well known, but MOD has been struggling with RAB ever since its inception. By definition, MOD has a lot of stuff that is only used if there is a war on - vehicles, sets of combat body armour, bandages. RAB requires government departments to pay a notional cost of capital charge on the value of their assets back to the Treasury, which is or used to be 6 per cent. This was a significant drag for the MOD, which responded by flogging stuff it then had to buy back when the wars started. There are vehicles in Afghanistan that were acquired for Kosovo, sold, bought back for Iraq, sold, and bought back again. It's hard not to see the whole thing as an exercise in treating the public servant as a servant.

Latest is that the RAF is leasing-back two Canberra PR9 reconnaissance planes it disposed of literally months ago. The Canberra was the RAF's first jet bomber, going into service in 1949 or thereabouts, and it is planned that it will finally be replaced by the (delayed) ASTOR reconnaissance plane, a business jet stuffed with gadgetry. That isn't in service yet, so it's yet another of those "capability gaps" Blair's defence secretaries are so fond of. PR-9 had some extremely advanced cameras, the like of which are unavailable on anything else - it was one of the few UK or NATO assets the Americans specifically asked for in Afghanistan in 2001.

I'd very much like to know what the two (officially civilian) PR9s are doing.

Say yes and let's enjoy the...

Did I say I loved the Financial Times?

When everyone else was frontpaging with Princess Diana, the paper had the following stories on the front: the BAE investigation kibosh (this was the lead), Blair grilled by the rozzers (number two, opposite the lead and separated by a photo of the man), then the OPEC meeting and Vodafone's €67 million fine in the Greek snooping case.

Spyblog, via Iain Dale, carries a table of journalists using illegal "data brokers" to get at private information. It's fascinating that the more illegal snooping was done, the less actual news. Here's the data. The left column shows the total transactions, the right the number of individual hacks involved.

Daily Mail 952 58
Sunday People 802 50
Daily Mirror 681 45
Mail on Sunday 266 33
NOTW 182 19
Sunday Mirror 143 25
Best Magazine 134 20
Evening Standard 130 1
The Observer 103 4
Daily Sport 62 4
Sunday Times 52 7
The People 37 19
Daily Express 36 7
Mail Weekend mag 30 4
Sunday Express 29 8
The Sun 24 4
Closer Magazine 22 5
Sunday Sport 15 1
Mail Sunday mag 9 2
Sunday Business 8 1
Daily Record 7 2
Express, Sat 7 1
Sunday MirrorMag 6 1
Real Magazine 4 1
Woman’s Own 4 2
Daily Mirror Mag 3 2
Mail in Ireland 3 1
Daily Star 2 4
Marie Claire 2 1
Personal Mag 1 1
Sunday World 1 1

Do you see a pattern? Quality is inversely proportionate to bastardness. This even holds for the Guardian Media Group papers - The Grauniad isn't in there with even one request, but its super-Blairite stablemate the Obscurer put in a performance worthy of the Daily Beast. It's also noticeable that the Murdoch press was almost restrained compared with Rothermere and Northern & Shell titles.

The generals bow to the government: they're tired of the truth

Via Pat Lang's, the American Enterprise Institute's plan for yet another atttempt to secure Baghdad. You won't be very surprised to learn that neither Lang, nor I, think very much of it. Peter Kagan's strategy - a PowerPoint presentation, natch - is risible. The first and most basic fault is the frantic insistence on victory, victory, victory - there is no consideration of how it could fail or what to do if it does. This is Lysenko-esque. I know they say that if you fail to prepare you prepare to fail, but that isn't an argument that if you prepare for the consequences of failure, you are more likely to fail. At every point where he is challenged, he simply asserts away criticism. Will it break the Army? It will not. No why given. Analysis of possible enemy reactions goes beyond trivial; he merely suggests there might be a surge in violence and attacks on civilian and coalition targets. No consideration at all of the long MSR down to Kuwait.

When he does try to think about it, it's noticeable that, somehow, everything is vitiated of meaning. Apparently, the enemy might respond by launching attacks in already secured areas. Well, they obviously aren't secured then, are they? That would signal the failure of the whole strategy. He suggests that better intelligence might deal with this threat - well, yes, and a pony. No word on how.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, General Chiarelli hands over to Raymond Odierno, who brought the 4th Infantry Division into Iraq after the invasion and was responsible for all those silly operation names like RIFLES FURY and PLANET X, not to mention the silly operations and worse they designated. The learning process appears choked with Lysenkoist crap - the change of command comes just after Chiarelli launched an effort to recommission some of the state-owned industries Paul Bremer's merry men shut down, in order to cut the unemployment rate. So, it's taken him his entire tour to get a clue, and now a freshly clueless general is rotated in to replace him. They did that in Vietnam, too. I've said before that if you want to understand Iraq, you nneed to read Neil Sheehan's A Bright, Shining Lie - I get my copy out every so often to check what's going to happen next.

But the worst assumption of Kagan's paper is that "we must not be defeated in Iraq". Kagan defines defeat as withdrawal from Iraq, which is a very silly assumption he doesn't trouble to make explicit. If everything had gone as he and pals predicted, we'd have been out in months, after all. I'd agree that we must not be defeated in Iraq in the sense of losing a major battle, being routed, but this isn't what concerns him.

What would the consequences of Kagan-defeat in Iraq be? The civil war would go on, and get worse. How this differs from the current position is not clear. Iranian influence down south would rise, as would Saudi and Syrian influence up north. Multiple tension would continue to exist about Kurdistan. This is no different to the current situation. Whether the worst-case scenarios for all of these came to pass would depend on how retreat from Iraq was managed, militarily and politically. If it was botched, we get most or all of the bad consequences plus a military disaster. If it was carried out in an orderly fashion, with regional agreement to contain the crisis (for example, the Kurds agreeing to continue their Shia alliance and abstention from formal secession, the Saudis and Iranians observing mutual nonprovocation) and the US forces in the region moving out to ships and existing bases (Qatar and Kuwait, but please, not Saudi Arabia), it would be no worse than the position at the moment, and possibly bettter.

Why "must" we not face this? Any discussion of operational level changes around Baghdad or tactical level changes in the streets must start with a discussion of what the total strategy is that these serve. Bad strategy cannot be saved by good tactics or operational art.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Operational sovereignty

So what is in the Memorandum of Understanding old Virus Drayson signed with the Pentagon and Lockheed-Martin? As far as I know, he says it guarantees that no USAF personnel would be necessary in the chain of command. This says very little in and of itself. No US personnel are necessary in the chain of command for Trident, nor for any US-made aircraft in foreign service I've heard of, though I am open to contradiction in the space provided. It would have been astonishing had the opposite even been suggested.

Of course, it wasn't the chain of command we were arguing about. It was more the intellectual property rights, and specifically the ability to fiddle with the software ourselves (without necessarily telling LM, or the Pentagon), what we were doing. Secondarily, it was more the commercial terms under which UK IPR embedded in the Unified Control System (specifically the VAACS stuff, without which the F-35s wwe are ordering cannot fly) was supplied that we were worried about.

I have heard and seen nothing bearing on this.

You've been bought and paid, you're a whore and a slave

Well, where to start with my utter rage at the kiboshed Al-Yamamah investigation? It's a total map of state direness, New Labour subtype: we have hypocrisy, we have a good day to bury bad news, we have cash, we have Lord Goldsmith, the professional get out of jail card himself. Obviously, this being a blog, we'll start by abusing a leader-writer.

In today's Guardian, we have Martin Kettle, who wants to say that we aren't serious enough and we don't understand how tough it is for politicians. In fact, our understanding is so minimal we will slide into fascism, and be raped by the dogs of a British Pinochet. No, this is not snark. Mr. Kettle actually threatens the nation at large with a British Pinochet, which put like that sounds pleasingly like some kind of baroquely obsolete firearm. Look at him! Look at Martin Kettle!, as Withnail would say.

I've said before that I'm not comfortable with the fisking tradition, but then, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Here goes.
It had been Tony Blair's day of infamy, the veteran pundit Anthony Howard told Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. By yesterday morning, having drunk deep from Thursday's heady cocktail of police interviews, discontinued fraud inquiries, and furtively announced airport expansions and post office closures, the amalgamated union of right thinking people all seemed to agree with him.

Well, count me out of this facile consensus. A difficult and politically damaging day, yes. A shaming day too, in some respects, particularly on the killing off of the BAE Systems probe. Further evidence of the Blair government's terminally battered condition? Certainly. But a day of infamy? Get real. Kenneth Williams rather than Franklin Roosevelt spoke with more relevance about Blair's real predicament. Infamy, infamy, they've all got it infamy.
Ipswich Killer: "By yesterday morning, having murdered five women, I found the amalgamated union of right-thinking people all seemed to agree that killing them was wrong. Count me out of this facile consensus!" Yes, I know it's tasteless. I know it's not serious. But if seriousness and good taste are what Kettle defines them to be - and we'll get to that - you can, ah, count me out of this facile consensus. "Seriousness", "responsibility", "consensus" - these are all words that are very useful translations of "in the interests of power". Kettle:
The government has accumulated many failings over the years. Yet it is not alone. Especially since the 2005 general election, much of the wider political culture, of which the media also forms part, has failed too. As a society, we seem to be living through a collective suspension of seriousness about how politics and government should be carried out in modern Britain. This is doing sustained damage to our ability to think clearly about what we expect from politicians and ministers. Of course, some of this deepening disengagement and cynicism is the government's doing. But it is time there was more honesty and self-criticism about the role of the wider political culture too.

The issues of the week exemplify what's wrong. Yes, it is embarrassing that a serving prime minister should be questioned in Downing Street as part of a criminal investigation into political donations. And yes, part of the issue lies in the way Blair leads his party and his government. But the fundamental failing is not his. As a country and culture we have not worked out an open and fair system of financing necessary political life in a rapidly changing world. We wish for the end, but persistently ignore the means. Yet with a general election to fight in 2005, the parties had to act. The rest of us can afford to hold our noses. The parties needed big money in the bank. In that sense, Blair is a victim of our collective failure, not the perpetrator of his own individual one.
Note the tropes of establishment journalism, the false balancing (yes, the government has failed, but so has the media, and apparently the nation, every man jack of us, too, so no-one is responsible), the false generalisation that lumps the government in with the opposition, the politician and the bureaucrat with the journalist and the activist, the worker and the boss. Everyone is to blame, so nobody is responsible - it's not new, but it's effective, something bound to go over well at the Glasgow Empire.

So, what would have happened if all of us - tweed-makers on Harris, tarts in Ipswich, programmers in Reading, immigrant cleaners in the West End, unemployed ex-miners in Featherstone, BAE bagmen in Mayfair (they have rights too!) - had bent our minds to designing a state funding scheme for political parties? Precisely nothing, if the government had not wanted to find parliamentary time for a bill to make it so. Let's be clear: Tony Blair did not find the parliamentary time for such, and he's the man who decides. Of course, the opposition could have, but they didn't - and do you think the Government would have voted with them?

The parties had to act, the poor dears. Well, they could have cut down on TV and billboard display ads, on tele-harassment, and sent the MPs to hammer the streets more. Perhaps they might have had to reconsider their policies, if they had discovered a lack of activists. Perhaps, with less money for neat debate-framing tricks and mass bullshit, we might have had some token of a real debate on institutions, aims and values. Who knows? Instead, they accepted bribes.

Or take the BAE Systems inquiry. Yes, it is humiliating that a multi-million pound corruption investigation should be pulled in the interests of keeping onside with the Saudis. Lord Goldsmith's announcement that the rule of law at home has to be sacrificed to our failing foreign policy entanglements will haunt him - though he also says, and it can't be merely ignored, that he thinks a prosecution would fail. The whole saga underlines that close relations with the House of Saud come at a price - which others remain happy to pay - that is neither politically perverse nor materially trivial. Oil supplies matter. Middle Eastern peace, stability and security matter, even though, Lord knows, we get these things badly wrong. Defence contracts and jobs matter too. It is too easy to brush aside the complex web of practical issues as if they are of no account. Ministers do not have that luxury.
So - it is wrong to kill the SFO inquiry, our foreign policy is failing, Goldsmith will be "haunted" (may I suggest a donation to Combat Stress? some people have had to do more haunting things than give the Prime Minister what he wants, when he wants it), but nobody should be responsible. Trebles all round. We don't import very much oil, although we will more and more, and Saudi Arabia is not the obvious place to get it (Norway isn't far). Obviously, if they were to stop exporting, the price would shoot through the roof - but why, pray, would they do that rather than just buying French?

The TYR research staff recently did a simulation of Saudi Arabia stopping oil exports, and we gave up at the point where the king was lynched by a screaming mob. It is not, by the way, beyond the bounds of possibility that they might export a lot less in the future simply because they run out - perhaps a more useful topic to direct a national newspaper column at. Anyway, "Middle Eastern peace, stability and security"? Have these ever been served by sending more guns? Is Tony Blair really the best man to ask what might lead to them? (After all, Lord knows, we get these things badly wrong.) And these jobs? Well, the aircraft being sold to Saudi Arabia are the ones the RAF was told it couldn't have by the Treasury. They are not additional airframes. Had Lord Drayson not signed his historic piece of paper with Lockheed - on the same day! - they might have gone to the Navy. BAE would have got rid of them somehow.

Similar realities dog every decision across the political board. It's what politics and government are about. Expand our airports or keep them as they are? Things to be said on both sides. Close down lots of barely used post offices or maintain them as a community resource? Pros and cons again. But in the end, decisions must be made. I think the way we raise political donations is wrong. I think the government should not have killed the BAE probe, especially, post-Iraq, for security reasons. But I can see what was at stake, and even respect its seriousness. The bigger the issue, the bigger the stakes and consequences, as John Major rightly said about withdrawal from Iraq yesterday.

This is not to maunder about how difficult everything is. It is to insist that we must not oversimplify. For the past five years, far too much of the British political conversation - disproportionately dominated, as ever, by the educated middle class of both right and left - has been reduced to an assumption of contempt and superiority, above all towards Blair himself, but also towards the Labour government and to politics in general. This is both wrong and dangerous. Our politics has never been as sleazy as we pretend, either in the Major years or now. Our politicians are not moral pygmies. Ultimately such talk paves the way for a Le Pen or a Pinochet - or worse. We may be drifting towards such a point.
Worse than Pinochet? Worse than thousands of dead, 40 per cent unemployment, electric shocks, death squads sent abroad? Apparently, we now have a duty as citizens to forget our citizenship, to ask no questions, to help the enlightened ones (and who the hell are they but the educated middle class?) in power in their aims - or face the slide to fascism.

The bigger the issue, the bigger the stakes and consequences. Very true. Doesn't that mean that "the issue" affects all the citizens? Kettle seems to argue that the more important something is, the less scrutiny is required. This is roughly how the state functions, anyway - it is true that planning decisions in local councils go through tortuous examination and careful precautions against corruption, and civil servants' mileage expenses are scrupulously audited. But the odd open-ended guerrilla war goes through on the nod. This is, at a deep level, the whole Kettle argument - that pomposity sanctifies. He argues that
The continuing and inevitable disappointments of the last decade have been legion. Thursday was a shabby day.
It is whether the particular record of compromises and best efforts that they make over a generation means that they have passed on a better country than the one they inherited.
So if the disappointments were legion, surely things ain't quite just so peachy as all that? Ah, no. We are the adults, and we know best. We are Serious. The rest of you refuse to realise our problems. You ought to be grateful. Peter Hennessy remarked, apparently, that all British males are products of empire. Kettle, here, is a very specific one. He is the Sirkar, the "ruler as the gift of God" in the Moghul honorific hijacked by the Indian Civil Service.

Classic DSR!

You want disturbing search requests? We got'em.

Two days ago, someone searched Indian Google for "security systems for British crown jewels" and landed here. Now, I think there's a movie in that. They are to be found somewhere on VSNL's network in India: traceroute.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Here we go again

Whilst we're on the subject of dubious Anglo-American diplomacy, it looks like nothing at all has been done about the F-35 intellectual property question. The HOC Defence committee says, essentially, that the supposed agreement on this is worthless and urgent steps should be taken to prepare a plan B. There is still no word on the fate of the VAACS flight control system developed at Boscombe, which is apparently going to be licensed back to us at vast expense. (There's a nice article on what VAACS is in Flight International, but nothing on the politricks.)

All together now: You can't get these people to do a fucking thing/Oh, you can't get these people to do a fucking thing.

The possible alternatives, you ask? I answer. Option 1 would be simple, if unpalatable. Rather than the JSF, we could order the Dassault Rafale from France, which is the aircraft the French will fly from the carriers we are building together. This would mean changes to the carrier design, as Rafale is a conventional take-off and landing type, but the good news is that this would just mean that all three ships would be identical. This would probably be the lowest-cost and lowest-risk option, as Rafales are already with at least one operational squadron.

It would, however, be very likely to suffer from "Not Invented Here Syndrome" to the Nth degree. French aeroplanes? The (US-encouraged and probably funded) jingo whingeing would be intolerable, as would the reaction at BAE. Never mind that quite a few of the Forces' major systems are part-French.

The remaining options are a long way back. Navalise the Eurofighter? BAE has done design studies for this, but it would be yet another expensive design change and delay, and would also necessitate changes to the carrier design. However, if the Saudi deal fell through, it might be an attractive option to keep the Warton line running and get rid of one extra platform's support costs.

There's also the Saab-BAE Gripen, which is considerably cheaper per aircraft than either Eurofighter, Rafale or F35, and doesn't involve the French or Germans but does involve BAE, hence politically palatable. Gripen is a lightweight aircraft and might be technically easier to navalise than Eurofighter/Typhoon, and the Saab line is currently going begging as the export sales have not been great. This, though, would be a step off the map and must therefore be discounted. One thing that speaks for it is that going either to Rafale or "Sea Typhoon" (perhaps Neddy as in Seagoon?) would definitively end the RAF and Fleet Air Arm's ability to operate without prepared bases-since 2000, the Harrier force has operated as a single outfit, JF Harrier, across carriers and land bases in support of the Army and Royal Marines. Like most Saab designs, Gripen can operate off unprepared strips, roads and such, although it isn't VTOL. Even the monster Viggen, for example, could fly off roads, and the Swedish air force regularly practised this. (The RAF's Jaguar, now going out of service, had a similar "rough CTOL" capability which was tested on the new M55 motorway outside Blackpool before the road, and the plane, went into service.)

Finally, there is option 4, an entirely new design or a rework of the Harrier so drastic as to be equivalent to a new design. This would delight BAE and lobby precisely because it would be fearsomely expensive, and would entail an entirely new support base - loads o'pork! It's fair to say that this one is a nonstarter, as much from the time factor as the cost. To avoid the HOCDC nightmare scenario of carriers without aeroplanes, they need to be here by 2012, and to avoid the end of the Harrier CAS capability, by 2010 (as the Harrier's out-of-service date is the end of 2009). Designing a new combat aircraft in this timeframe is not really an option, certainly not with BAE in charge.

Old "Virus" Grayson really needs to get his finger out. Alternatively, we could give the job to one of these cocktail robots.

Update: Reuters reporting that a Memorandum of Understanding has been signed. Document was last seen crumpled and sailing off into the wild blue from the window of Lockheed Martin CEO's Cadillac.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Colonel of the 36th

You may recall that we've followed the career of the Iraqi Special Forces, née Ministry of the Interior Commandos, née 36th ICDC Battalion in some detail. This force is one of the few reasonably capable Iraqi units, made up of a mix of exiles and SCIRI Badr Corps men.

Kazimi has a mildly hagiographic post on its leader, Colonel Ya'arub al-Hashimi, who has been assassinated. Finishes with the line Some commentators on Iraq make a habit of deriding ‘the exiles.’ I would have liked to see them do that to Harbi’s face.

Indeed, because he would have had his boys drive a hammer drill through their balls.

For Dawkins' sake...

Get your idle legs over to the Weblog Awards and vote for Fistful. Exercise your democratic rights here. We're losing to some random bunch of Dutchmen, but you can help us finish ahead of the demented thrappers of Brussels Journal.

As usual with blog awards, it's stuffed with the overrated and the clichéd. There was only one category where it wasn't blindingly obvious who to vote for (hint: the one that hadn't advocated anything amounting to a crime against humanity in international humanitarian law or propagated a deliberate falsehood this year), excluding the ones that were just obscure. That was the Middle East one, where there's a choice between AFOE's sister blog Aqoul and the Secret Dubai Diary...

This crapness is a result of high traffic blogs exporting their traffic. I suggest a better idea: why not weight the voting per capita? It would be the number of votes divided by the average unique hits/day, thus putting BoingBoing, Scripting News, Little Genocidal Fuckwit et al on an equal footing with everyone else.

Saudi Nuclear Watch

Within months of the invasion of Iraq, Saudi Arabian sources began hinting at a contingency plan to obtain nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Now, some more. I'm not sure whether to take The Business seriously, but they seem to have been briefed in some detail:
Western and Middle Eastern sources have told this magazine that, if and when it is clear that Iran has the bomb (or is close to it), the Saudis will respond by buying one from Pakistan, a fellow Sunni state. They would also likely purchase Pakistani ballistic missiles to replace the Chinese ones they bought in the 1980s. Everything is already in place for this to happen.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, the Saudi-Pakistan connection has been close for some time. Western intelligence services are now convinced that Saudi Arabia played a large role in financing Pakistan’s nuclear bomb project. Riyadh’s aim was to guarantee it immediate access to a nuclear arsenal to counter the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran. The Business has learnt that British Intelligence (MI6) already regards Saudi Arabia as a surrogate nuclear power, able to join the club whenever it chooses.

Riyadh’s long-standing links with the Pakistani bomb are only now being scrutinised. A senior Saudi who defected to America in the 1990s warned Washington that Riyadh was financially supporting the nuclear ambitions of Islamabad to ensure access to nuclear weapons of its own in the future. The Pakistani nuclear scientist and leader of the world’s biggest nuclear proliferation ring, AQ Khan, was invited to Saudi Arabia by its Defence Minister, who toured Pakistan’s nuclear facilities in 1999 and 2002 (the 1999 visit prompting a diplomatic complaint from Washington). A Saudi Prince was a guest of honour at a 2002 Pakistani missile test. Pakistan was given almost $2bn-worth of Saudi oil after the international community initiated sanctions against Islamabad following its 1998 nuclear test.

Read the whole thing, as they say.

Sunday Princess Diana Blogging

Rare feature, this, but the Observer has news: the Stevens report says, apparently, that the US National Security Agency was monitoring her phone calls the night of her death. A couple of questions: didn't they have anyone better to bug? And, more importantly, what was the French government's position on this?

The Obscurer makes the point that this, and especially the fact that MI6 wasn't informed, raises some difficult questions about the so-called "intelligence special relationship". Well, it's not as if there wasn't plenty to be getting on with in terms of scrutiny there - CAZAB, UKUSA and the rest being the world's most highly secret treaties. But it's hard to see the direct relevance - bugging the French phone system would have needed access to it, or else the use of some super-fancy platform like Rivet Joint, and the chances of the French permitting that are between zero and zero.

Else, there would have had to be folk physically on the ground, or some special arrangement with France Telecom, and presumably with the DST or SDECE. Still, we can always blame the French for this one, so no chance of anyone learning anything there.

Update: 1900 16/12/06: The Obscurer was sold a furphy. Spyblog explains, having read the 782 page report.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Teh data, fools!

SpyBlog hits the nail on the head: isn't it time for the government to disclose the actual numbers on how much po-210 (and anything else) was floating around Alexander Litvinenko's carcass? Scaramella walked from UCH two days ago, just after having told his boss's pet paper back in Italy he was dying of radiation sickness. Now, Kotvin vanishes into a sealed hospital ward just as the Yard pitch up in Moscow. It's possible he's really ill, of course. It's very strange that - seeing as he was exposed, presumably, at the same time as Litvinenko - he should suddenly fall ill now.

After all, the biological half-life is 50 days. So, assuming his argument is that he got a smaller dose, he's hardly likely to keel over now. And - seeing as he flew to London to see Litvinenko on a plane that somehow got contaminated, saw him, returned on another plane that is hot, and seems to have left traces in all kinds of places - there are some questions he needs to answer. It's certainly convenient that he's in an isolation ward, no?

Only the data will clear up even a little of the fog of bullshit floating around the case.

Sources of stupidity

In comments, Teresa argues that Rumsfeld's incompetence can be traced to his time as a fighter pilot. Over at Yglesias's, "Ajay" makes the same point with regard to John McCain, with impressive brevity:
Good grief. Aviators. I admit the cocky buggers are handy to have around if you want a plane flown somewhere, but they should seriously be barred from public office. Bush I, Bush II, Rumsfeld, Cunningham, McCain...
Well, sort of. Certainly, assuming that someone like any of the people on this list has strategic insight because they were a short-service aviator is unwise, chiefly because with the possible exception of McCain none of them were in it for the long haul, so weren't required to specialise. Instead, they could rely on the classic assets: two good eyes, a bad case of Short Man Syndrome, and one asshole.

But I think this is trivial. Stupidity in power has many sources, and from tomorrow on this blog will explore it with a new feature: Sunday General Blogging, by analogy to Rob Farley's Sunday Battleship Blogging.

BTW, "Ajay", who appears to be either a current or past holder of the Queen's commission and sound on most issues, is one of those people who badly needs a blog.


So the BBC was blegging last night for information on Transaero's B737 EI-DDK, an aircraft involved in the Litvinenko case which is reportedly all hot with po-210. You just knew this blog would end up being involved, didn't you?

Transaero is a fairly respectable outfit, set up as a competitor to Aeroflot in 1991 and mostly operating Boeing types from Moscow-Domededovo. EI-DDK is a 737-4S3, serial number 24165, which has been knocking around unremarkably since 1989. Transaero bought it off Boeing's resale division in 2003.

It was in Heathrow on the 28th-29th of October, having come from Moscow, which is presumably why it fell under suspicion - reportedly, Lugovoi, Kotvin and Co. travelled aboard it on their way to meet Litvinenko. Arriving on the 28th; leaving on the 29th. The last photo I can find of it puts it in Tegel Airport, Berlin on the 2nd of December.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Don't throw me into that...

So Mike Turner, CEO of BAE SYSTEMS, and friends are moaning about being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office over the Al-Yamamah kickbacks. They are claiming that thousands of jobs are at stake if the Saudis pull out of their order for Eurofighters, and therefore the government ought to quietly call off the SFO and give them a free pass. God knows I've been critical enough of BAE before, but this is mendacious.

Right. BAE will not build any more Eurofighters as a result of the Saudi deal. The planes for Saudi are the ones the RAF decided it didn't need, Tranche 2 of the original order. They could flog them elsewhere. Much of the cost is already paid, largely from the public purse.

But the Al-Yamamah contracts - the guns-for-oil deals - are more complicated than that. Al-Yamamah 1 and 2 included, essentially, a turnkey air force. Not only would BAE deliver fighters, and bombers, it would provide training aircraft. Not only that, it would provide flying instructors to teach Saudi pilots to fly them. Not only that, but some of the work would be done in Saudi Arabia, and the necessary technical experts would be supplied. Not only that, but Saudi maintenance personnel would be trained.

Another detail of the contracts is that they were signed between the governments of the UK and KSA, with BAE being a mere contractor to the MOD. Now, one trick in this is that if the civilian flying instructors - grizzled veterans in reality - employed by BAE quit, the UK must fill the gap with RAF officers on secondment, at the public charge. Presumably similar arrangements apply for other trades.

Since 2003, many of the instructors - not men who are easily scared - quit and left the Magic Kingdom, for fear can guess. They were replaced. Please, King Abdullah, don't throw me into that not-training-your-air-force-at-my-expense patch.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Even More Iraq!

That leaked Rumsfeld memo. What strikes me is that it's incredibly poor in quality. Rumsfeld was clearly...well...labouring under delusions of adequacy when he wrote this.

Consider the "options". "Significantly increase the number of US trainers and transfer more equipment to Iraqi security forces," "Reduce quickly the number of US bases, currently 55, to five by July 2007", "Position substantial US forces near the Iranian and Syrian borders to reduce infiltration and Iran's influence", "Withdraw US forces from vulnerable positions, such as patrols, and use them as a quick reaction force to help Iraqi security forces when needed", "Reconstruction efforts should be in those parts of Iraq that are behaving and no more reconstruction assistance should be given in areas where there is violence", and "Provide money to key political leaders (as Saddam Hussein did), to get them to help us get through this difficult period."

Well, not only is none of this very inspiring, but most of it is mutually incompatible. How the hell do you reduce the number of bases whilst increaing the numbers of advisors with the Iraqi forces? They are both good ideas in themselves, but more advisers means lots of little camps with US officers and NGOs in. Reducing the number of bases to five fortified desert superbases has been official policy since June/July 2003, so must anyway be considered pure ponyism.

Further, how are the substantial US forces meant to be positioned near the borders and be withdrawn to five big bases at the same time? At best, this would mean big bases with the field forces out on the borders, hence lots of road convoys between the two. Which means that US forces will have to get out and patrol the roads to keep them open. And how will these forces on the borders secure them without either going out on patrol, or else placing lots of small observation posts along them?

Not doing reconstruction in places where there is violence is, well, interesting. It is probably the truth - where there is violence, the contractors won't go. And anyway, one doesn't try to persuade one's allies. Finally, showering cash on Iraq has been tried continuously since the 9th of April, 2003, and seems to have resulted in the biggest theft in history.

Donald Rumsfeld was actually stupider than I thought.

Supporting Iraqi democracy

The war comes to Iraq the Model. A modest proposal, if I may. Comments like this one are not "supporting Iraqi democracy":
Congratulations Mohammed.

You and your neighbors have taken the first step toward democracy and living as free people. It appears you are coming to the realization that being “free” comes with taking the responsibility of government.

By government, I refer to the small group you and the others in your neighborhood have organized for your mutual benefit and protection. Soon, you will join with other neighborhoods and the area that is safe for your families will expand.

In time, most people will figure it out that they, not some nebulous “government”, are responsible for the future of their country. True leaders will rise, criminals will be turned in or be dealt with within the community and the type of society the people want will become reality. Above all, it will be done with a feeling of ownership by the people in the way things run.

Chaos and corruption exist where the people believe the “government” should solve problems for them. Peace and fairness exist where people know that they are the government.
j.west | 11.27.06 - 3:08 pm | #
And a pony. Whoops, the pony got blown up. And another pony. Shit, they cut its head off. And another pony. Looks like KBR just delivered us a squid and charged the government $50 million. Pony attrition seems to be getting dangerously high. Send more ponies!

Seriously, I fear for the mental health of anyone who could write that. But not as much, say, as the physical health of the ITM two, or for that matter anyone else in Iraq. If you want to support Iraqi democracy and you're a US citizen, sponsor someone's green card. Especially in the UK, you might want to try to ensure the government's essentially vicious impulses towards "asylum seekers" do not get too far out of hand. After all, the Home Office was struggling to get existing Iraqi refugees shipped back, into Irbil in Kurdistan because it was the only airfield the charter line would fly into, for fear of their lives. Apparently, even if they came from Fallujah or Baqubah, the legal requirement not to send them into danger was fulfilled if the point of release was itself safe.

In other related news, this article on the potential for peaceful change in Iran is well worth reading. Note: does anyone think strategic bombing will lead to anything but the people involved being strung up as traitors?

Pinball Wizard

Apparently the alternative to the Baker commission/TYR solution in Iraq - get the fuck out under a negotiated settlement with Iran - that the White House is floating is a "tilt to the Shia and Kurdish 80 per cent. I find it a little hard to work out how we are meant to tilt to them any more-after all, I've been saying since 2003 that our presence in Iraq is dependent on the continuance of a Shia-Kurdish alliance, and the Shia have the government of Iraq that is held up by British and American bayonets.

But anyway. In pursuit of this, apparently, urgent talks are underway with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of SCIRI, presumably with a view to throwing the Dawa guys like Maliki and Jaafari overboard. The obvious flaw in this strategy should be, well, obvious. SCIRI is the closest Iraqi actor to Iran. If you want Iranian and Shia power extended, this is just the right way to go about it. I suppose there is an argument that it's better to talk directly to SCIRI, who are strong, than to talk to Dawa and the Allawi fan club and through them to SCIRI, but the benefits are marginal at best.

Mark Kleiman, and many others, point out that the implication of tilting even further to the Shia is essentially that we are going to take sides in the religious war, which they argue will mean genocide. I'm not so sure. NOIA looks like it can look after itself, and it is being repeatedly made clear that it will have official Saudi support. But there is another concern, even before we get to the mind-buggering prospect of getting the Magic Kingdom involved.

If we align explicitly with the (pro-Iranian) SCIRI in its war with the NOIA, what happens with the Sadrists, who are at least as strong as SCIRI? Moqtada al-Sadr's movement frequently denounces SCIRI as an Iranian Trojan horse, little better than the Americans, although they have until recently cooperated in government after a fashion. The Sadrists are nationalistic and violently opposed to a) occupation and b) Iran, and they have on occasion cooperated with NOIA in the past. If we tilt the table towards Tehran, we risk bringing the whole thing crashing down on us as the Mehdi Army is called out along the MSRs to help the "besieged Iraqi resistance" fight the "Iranian invaders, American occupiers and their collaborator scum in Baghdad".

Indeed, if we really must continue to behave as if there was any hope of a non-terrible outcome, we would be much better off tilting towards Moqtada al-Sadr. What his price would be I dare not speculate, but it would certainly involve getting troops off the streets in short order, and an accommodation with NOIA in its stronghold regions. (You say that like it's a bad thing.) This post of Phil Carter's on the Sadr movement's civil-operations activities would argue strongly for it. David Hackworth would have said he's the G who's out-G'ing the other G's. (Phil's ten lessons from Iraq are highly recommended as well.)

And finally, can we please, please, please not do anything that is likely to get the Saudis involved? They do have some things that could greatly strengthen the NOIA, specifically an endless supply of cash and an equally endless supply of deranged takfiri killers who they are desperate to see explode, well, somewhere else. They also have no shortage of arms. This was, of course, their 1980s strategy of shipping jihadis to other wars so as to prevent revolution at home - call it the Anywhere but Abqaiq Approach. Unfortunately, they were left with an underutilised maniac industry after the Afghan campaign, and rather lost control. Doing it again is likely to have similar consequences, but much closer to home.

After all, as Michael Ledeen puts it in this criminally irresponsible tirade, They know their people hate them, and they know that revolution could erupt if we supported it. He's talking Iran and Syria. Perhaps. But somehow three little words show up nowhere - "Saudi", "Arabia", and "oil." Listen to this, too. Once we do, we will find that we've got many political and economic weapons, most of them inside our enemies' lands. Indeed, habibi, we call them debt, energy inefficiency and the exhaustion of the US Army's infantry. If they are fools enough to...where was I? What, this isn't the head of the Revolutionary Guards Corps speaking?

Ledeen is intellectually dishonest, ignorant, mercenary, mendacious and more. But I ask of you - surely he knows that there are 2 US Navy carriers capable of operations, that practically all US Army and Marine manpower is committed to Iraq? So what is this madness, from an objective point of view? We know his old chum Manuchar Ghorbanifar is almost certainly an Iranian intelligence asset, and his mate Chalabi told them their ciphers were insecure. Has he never wondered if he's being exploited?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Just one more Friedman

Chatter builds around the suggestion that security control of Basra might be handed over in early 2007. We've had quite a lot of this stuff before, tales that significant reductions in force might occur in six months' time (one Friedman) and more recently announcements that such-and-such a province has been "handed over".

What we haven't had is beef. "Handing over security control" of a province appears to entail a flag-swap outside some prominent building and a new job title for the local Sadrist, Fadhila or SCIRI boss. But so far, none of the handovers have involved the withdrawal of even one single soldier. This time, Des Browne has suggested that troop numbers might be lower "by thousands" at the end of 2007.

There may be some evidence that this has a slightly higher reality content than past promises. I hear that the Shaibah logistic base outside Basra is going to close "early in 2007" with the services and installations being transferred to the RAF's Basra Air Station. That, to me, sounds like clearing the decks - reducing the number of bases and perhaps the number of logistics personnel, whilst concentrating around the APOD (Aerial Point of Departure).

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Big SD cards

Zawinski reports trouble with a 4GB SD card and a Treo 700p gadget. I am not very surprised, although for other reasons. Earlier this year, I was offered a Qtek S200 Windows Mobile PDA, and I transferred a 1GB Mini-SD loaded with photos, Stone Roses and Steely Dan songs to it. Within the week it had somehow managed to destroy the card and everything that sailed in it. Not the gadget I had before, nor a HP 6915w, nor a USB cardreader in a Mac could even detect the card's presence. Caveat emptor.

Friedman: a man of two halves

Why, asks Chris Dillow, do we consider Milton Friedman a man of the Right? Dillow was thinking of such things as the earned-income tax credit and his opposition to conscription, but the question requires some unpacking. I don't believe, for example, that his concern with liberty is incompatible with the Left. Neither is it impossible to imagine a leftwing critique based on ownership and control, rather than markets versus planning. I certainly agree with him on floating exchange rates, and on the legalisation of drugs.

But all these things - which so many people chose to pick up on when commemorating his death - were sideshows at best to his main achievement, monetarism. Like few other economic doctrines, monetarism was actually tested and met with shattering empirical refutation. The US Federal Reserve lasted three years before kicking the habit. In the UK, the experiment went on until 1986, by which time the government and the Bank had successively failed to control all the main monetary aggregates. Inflation had been forced down, but at the cost of high unemployment - not only is this what the Phillips curve suggested would happen, it arguably happened for the reasons a Keynesian would have predicted it would happen.

The British government applied fiscal and monetary tightening, raised the rate of interest, and permitted sterling to appreciate - and guess what, aggregate demand tanked, unemployment soared and prices eventually fell. Eventually, Alan Walters and Charles Goodhart convinced the government to ditch monetarism. Instead it chose an exchange-rate targeting regime, learnt the hard way just as it had with monetarism, and finally arrived at final-goal symmetrical inflation targeting. We live not in a monetarist world, but a New Keynesian one, where although the preferred policy tools are monetary, the thinking is demand-driven (something that has become much more important with the growth of customer credit).

There is part of your answer, then. In practice, Friedman's doctrine put hordes of workers out of work, and we are still struggling with the social impact. Now the North Sea oil years are behind us, we shall miss the export industries that went to the wall in the combined sterling hike and credit squeeze. But what about the other side? Well, it's very notable that none of the politicians he hawked his ideas to ever wanted to them put into practice, beyond simply squeezing the poor until the pips squeaked. Certainly, he thought it would be better to provide public services as cash or quasicash (vouchers) and let the market sort out how they are organised. But who ever saw any of the money? As with so many self-described libertarians, this was left as an exercise for the creative imagination. Rather than the NHS, let's have fully-funded healthcare vouchers for all...and a pony.

There is, however, a seriously inspiring lesson ex Friedman, now we need new ideas. We urgently need some new ones - how, for example, to shape a politics against managerialism and elite consensus? How to assault inequality without Polly Toynbee-esque control bureaucracy? He was never elected to anything, and never owned much capital himself. He commanded only his pen, but changed the world. Ideas still count.

1239. 7018. 4766. Now start a war

This is very bad news from Baghdad, via, but note some details. For a start, a neat primer on modern urban warfare:
On Saturday, the Web site displayed a recipe for civil war. It recommended protecting Sunni neighborhoods by "spreading snipers on the roof of buildings," planting roadside bombs at neighborhood entrances and distributing grenades. It advised "antitank missile holders" to make trenches and to attack the first and last vehicles of any convoy.

At the end were instructions for preparing ambushes by "attracting the enemy by using small cars as bait so they would chase them and be dragged to the killing zones."
It's the full Grozny toolkit - snipers on the rooftops, RPG teams in the shopfronts, set up and fight the vertical battle. Note also the mystery flood of SMS messages - I wonder whether this is simply a social cascade attack, as fear spreads like a virus, or do the insurgents have access to the Cell Broadcast interface on the GSM networks? In a sense it doesn't matter which insurgents - fear and hate-mobilisation work as well for both sides. You could well find it useful to spread terror on your own side.

Back in July, Charlie Stross floated the idea that "it's not virtual reality until you can stage a coup in it." Perhaps the bandwidth required for such a thing is far less that we assumed - SMS seems quite effective, and that will work at 9.6Kbits/s. Alternatively, it's easier to hack society at the human level - it's not the medium, but the message in this case. As long as there is sufficiently credible fear/revenge floating through the memepool, it's of secondary importance how it is transmitted - what matters is the mesh network topology, which means the spread has increasing returns to scale.

Bravery doesn't exclude stupidity

J.D> Henderson chez Intel Dump writes that General Abizaid should be relieved of his command. But first, he says, he respects Abizaid for the courage he showed in his past career. Fair enough.

But there is some historical evidence that extremely brave generals are a bad idea. Consider the British experience - we brought several First World War heroes into the second world war, and most were terrible. Gort was a VC holder, and was uninspired at best. Philip Neame was another VC and was a disastrous numskull. Of course, I'm wrong - Freyberg was a VC and a damn good general, Alexander was a multiple DSO and a damn good general. Upshot? Courage doesn't predict ability.

Maybe I should do a Sunday General, like Rob Farley's Sunday Battleship Blogging..

Anarchy in the UK!

It's been a weird political week, no? There was "Loyalist" (scarequotes included because my definition of loyalty doesn't include shooting fellow citizens, constables & c) nutbag Michael Stone's public freakout-cum-terrorist attack on Stormont. I haven't laughed as much in years - seriously, ten years ago this would have meant blood in the streets, all 39 Brigade leave cancelled, Belfast burning. These days he gets pistolwhipped with his own gun by a woman who isn't even officially a security guard and publicly ridiculed. It's progress of a sort. Slugger was of course all over the story, and has the details on his motive: apparently he wanted to be put in a cell for his own safety. It's also progress that you can barge into Stormont with a gun to get yourself arrested, rather than simply shot.

I rather liked the commenter who suggested that the whole thing was an exercise in performance art by the amateur painter Stone, designed to mock the NI politicians' desperate efforts to get the world's attention.

Much more depressing is the death of Alexander Litvinenko. The Viking catherd has details on polonium-210 and comments that it was "a curiously elegant and vicious assassination method". Indeed. The horror of it should be argument enough against the notion that he administered the poison to himself to discredit Vladimir Putin. Suicide-bombers, after all, go out in an instant, and self-immolation (Buddhist/Prague style) is both easier to arrange and more publicly theatrical. And where would he have laid hands on enough of the stuff? Any theory of his assassination must first climb the mount improbable of his killer having access to something found only in quantity in a nuclear reactor or linear accelerator, and in a form pure enough to be handled safely and innocuous enough to be administered easily.

Steinn points out that, at least within the US, small quantities of it are on open sale, but the amount required to kill would have cost $500,000, not to mention being a very noticeable sale. George "Dick Destiny" Smith points out that half a gram in a capsule would reach 500 degrees Celsius - "Litvinenko was cooked from the inside".

There is something about this story, though, that almost makes the suicide theory plausible - the rainswept November streetscapes of London and the doomed radioactive exile wandering towards death through the flickering mobs of Christmas shoppers. There have always been exiles and foreign secret policemen conspiring in obscure corners of the city, and Litvinenko's death is almost uncannily fitted to the genius loci. I am reminded of "The Professor", the prototype suicide bomber and proto-fascist in Conrad's Secret Agent, who carries an explosive charge triggered by a pneumatic bulb in the sleeve of his jacket, ready to blow himself up if arrested. In conversation with a comrade, he lets slip that the fuse is not instant - twenty seconds must elasp before the explosion, to the comrade's utter horror and astonishment.

But a suicide-weapon that means not seconds, but weeks of irreversible radiation sickness, is innately improbable. The Government, of course, is desperately hoping against hope that it was anyone, anyone but Gazprom the Russians.

Enron and Iraq

There seems to be an increasing belief around that we're still in Iraq because the UK/USA leaders can't bring themselves to book a loss, as Ezra Klein puts it over at Tapped. David Kurtz at TPM argues similarly that Bush thinks the only way the US can be defeated is if it chooses to leave Iraq. He blames this on Henry Kissinger, which if true is wildly out of character, and compares the situation to that of a very wealthy man who owns a lossmaking business - he can, if he so chooses, keep covering the loss from his own funds, and he might convince himself that the business will eventually succeed if he just hangs on long enough.

Back in February, the mighty Chris Dillow made some interesting comments about Iraq and sunk costs. Chris pointed out that in some circumstances, the sunk-cost fallacy might be rational - for example, "staying the course" in Iraq might signal determination to our enemies, or on the other hand, worrying about the 2,800 dead soldiers might be an effective way of signalling to oneself that decisions have consequences.

Victor Davis Hanson is apparently peddling the first of these two arguments, which should tell us something. After all, as I think Dsquared says, past performance *is* a guide to future performance when it comes to individuals. VDH's point - that fighting on in Iraq might shore up our deterrent credibility - could be sensible, if it wasn't for the continuing costs. Our enemies can be expected to measure us by capability as well as intention. Whilst the US Army and Marine Corps are mired in Iraq, the US (and the UK) has little substrategic deterrent credibility, to say nothing of the financial cost. It will take time to restore the fabric of the army after the war, too. And, vitally, any cost-benefit analysis has to take into account the risk that things will get much worse - that we will get a serious kicking. The danger of this is rising steadily: Sadrists seize the TV station, this after last week's insurgent reconnaissance-in-force of the Health Ministry, which is just over the bridge from the Green Zone, the car bomb inside the Zone on Monday, and the Sadr City massacre. (Did you know they think the bomb was made inside the Zone?)

But, it seems, the mindset is that as long as it's not formally signed off as a loss, it don't exist. Enron used to do this. As the end of the quarter approached, by which time they needed to publish results showing steady profits growth to satisfy the stock market, there would be a frantic review of contracts. If a deal was dead, then the costs involved would have to be booked that quarter. But if there was the slightest hope, or at least someone was willing to sign their name to saying there was the slightest hope, of it eventually completing, then it didn't need to be accounted for then. Mark-to-market accounting meant that anything that was profitable (or rather, was predicted to be profitable) would be accounted for at the first possible moment - hey presto, stellar results.

But, of course, the toxic waste didn't go away, and the very real costs involved were, well, real - although they could be temporarily kept out of the profit and loss accounting, they consumed actual cash from the cash flow, just as Iraq has real consequences that aren't dependent on whether or not we accept them. When I last reread Bethany McLean and Peter Elkin's The Smartest Guys in the Room, one thing leapt out at me: Enron's culture neatly prefigured the last six years. It wasn't just that it was a scandal associated with George Bush, but the culture of it was identical. The same dominant narrative (Enron is a roaring success/GWB's policy is a roaring success) flogged, despite flying in the face of publicly available facts, to the public with the help of uncritical intermediate institutions (Wall Street and Andersens/the New York Times) and the demonisation of critics (Skilling's bully rhetoric and manipulation/the troll industry), the same unpleasant language of sexual violence people on LGF and Free Republic are addicted to, the delusions held together for internal consumption by groupthink and mutual reinforcement, and of course the corruption.

Also, the fundamental incompetence at everything but propaganda. Rumsfeld's DOD couldn't find enough body armour, Enron Energy Services couldn't issue accurate bills to its customers or even cash their cheques. Bush didn't know there was a difference between Shi'ites and Sunnis, Enron Broadband thought you could transfer spare capacity between physically separate DSL lines without using a backhoe. If you haven't read it yet, you'd better. The denial, too - there is still a lobby that Enron was really a good business, just as John Hinderaker still claims to think Iraq isn't really more dangerous than Washington DC. Well, if all those marked-to-market contracts from 1991 to 2001 really had been profitable, Enron would have had more than $500 million net cashflow less trading collateral and trades with self in 2000, as the already-booked profits arrived as cashflow.

And if Iraq wasn't really violent, you wouldn't be able to light up a government ministry within half a klick of the Green Zone with your whole platoon and get away with it. Neither would the members of parliament want to bring the Kurdish army into Baghdad, because they don't trust any other troops.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

HOWNOTTO build a computer system

Ziff-Davis Baseline carries a huge report on exactly why the NHS National Programme for IT is a disaster. (Thanks, Charles.)

First of all, a reiteration of a past point: they mention as one of the few successes the N3 tranche of the project, which turns out to be the deployment of DSL lines to GP surgeries and the national VPN-over-MPLS backbone. Well, if BT couldn't get that right, it would have been astonishing. Why it even needed a project is worth asking - why not give each doc £25 a month and tell them to get their idle legs over to Carphone Warehouse, then get the VPN client from the NHS website? (Answer: because a nontrivial proportion probably think computers are for secretaries.)

Anyway, it looks like Blair's inability to critically assess the statements of powerful actors has got us into another fine mess.
"The inspiration to digitize this far-flung bureaucracy first surfaced in late 2001, when Microsoft's Bill Gates paid a visit to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at No. 10 Downing St. The subject of the meeting, as reported by The Guardian, was what could be done to improve the National Health Service. At the time, much of the service was paper-based and severely lagging in its use of technology. A long-term review of NHS funding that was issued just before the Blair-Gates meeting had concluded: "The U.K. health service has a poor record on the use of information and communications technology—the result of many years of serious under-investment."

Coming off a landslide victory in the 2001 general election, Blair was eager to move Britain's health services out of technology's dark ages. Gates, who had come to England to tell the CEOs of the NHS trusts how to develop integrated systems that could enhance health care, was happy to point the way. "Blair was dazzled by what he saw as the success of Microsoft," says Black Sheep Research's Brampton. Their meeting gave rise to what would become the NPfIT."
Couldn't they have introduced him to Richard Stallman? But, as ever, the one eye was shining and we were all off on a happy crusade.
After a February 2002 meeting at 10 Downing St. chaired by Blair and attended by U.K. health-care and Treasury officials as well as Microsoft executives, the NPfIT program was launched.
In quick order, a unit was established to purchase and deliver I.T. systems centrally. To run the entire show, NHS tapped Richard Granger, a former Deloitte and Andersen management consultant. Granger signed on in October 2002 at close to $500,000 a year, making him the highest-paid civil servant in the U.K., according to The Guardian.

In one of his first acts, Granger commissioned the management consulting company McKinsey to do a study of the massive health-care system in England. Though the study was never published, it concluded, according to The Guardian, that no single existing vendor was big enough to act as prime contractor on the countrywide, multibillion-dollar initiative the NHS was proposing. Still, Granger wanted to attract global players to the project, which meant he needed to offer up sizable pieces of the overall effort as incentives.


The process for selecting vendors began in the late fall of 2002. It was centralized and standardized, and was conducted, Brennan and others say, in great secrecy. To avoid negative publicity, NHS insisted that contractors not reveal any details about contracts, a May 2005 story in ComputerWeekly noted. As a byproduct of these hush-hush negotiations, front-line clinicians, except at the most senior levels, were largely excluded from the selection and early planning process, according to Brennan.

I've bolded the key failures here. First of all, letting the producer interest poison the well. Microsoft execs, eh? The big centralised-bureaucratic proprietary system vendor Microsoft was permitted to influence the whole process towards a big centralised-bureaucratic proprietary system from the very beginning. This occurred at a time when Health Secretary Alan Milburn was constantly railing against "producer interests" blocking his "modernising reforms". This was code for the trade unions that represented low-waged nurses and cleaners, and the British Medical Association that represented doctors. Can anyone spot the difference between the two groups of producer interests? One of these things is not like the other..

The managerialists inevitably called on a management consultant to run the show - as we all know, we are living in a new world, and the status quo is not an option, so nobody who actually knew anything about the NHS, hospitals, or for that matter computers could be considered. (Granger failed his CS degree.) With equal inevitability, he called on management consultants to tell him what to do. The great global consulting firm McKinsey duly concluded that only great, global consulting firms could do the job.

Choosing which ones was clearly a job only central authority could undertake, and the intervention of the press, the unions, competitors or elected representatives would only get in the way, so the whole thing vanished behind a cloud of secrecy. Secrecy enhances power. It does this by exclusion. The groups excluded included the doctors, nurses, technicians and administrators of the NHS - which means that the canonical mistake, the original sin of systems design was predetermined before the first requirements document was drawn up or the first line of code written. Secrecy specifically excluded the end users from the design process. There are two kinds of technologies - the ones that benefit the end-user directly, and the ones that are designed by people who think they know what they want. They can also be described as the ones that succeed and the ones that fail. Ignore the users, and you're heading for Lysenkoism.

Among the "problems" of the NHS system was that most hospitals had their own computer systems, developed either by small IT firms or in-house. The contracts stated that each of the five new regional service providers and the "spine" (BT) would have to replace them, design a single regional system, but also maintain "common standards" nationally. The sharp will spot the contradiction. If you have common standards for information exchange, why can't you have them within the region as well as between regions? Why do you need the regional system at all? Why do you need the big global consulting firm - standards, after all, are for everyone, from Google to the hobby programmer cranking out a few lines of Python or such. In fact, almost all developments in computing in the last 10 years have been in the direction of separating levels of abstraction. It doesn't matter if the web server runs Linux and the database Windows Server if they both speak XML at the application layer.

This was actually recognised for some purposes. The NHS bought 900,000 desktop licences for MS Windows and further commissioned Microsoft to develop a common interface for the NPfIT, thus ensuring that any common interface would be proprietary and unalterable except by Microsoft. But no-one seems to have thought through the implications of common standards. Instead, the contracts specified that the old systems must be torn out and the data transferred to the new, thus adding a huge sysadmin nightmare to the costs.

Trying to keep down the costs, iSoft outsourced the development to India. But the Thomas Friedman dream of hordes of crack coders as cheap as chips showed some flaws - specifically:
the programmers, systems developers and architects involved didn't comprehend some of the terminology used by the British health system and, more important, how the system actually operated, the CfH conceded.
Neither did IDX's developers working with Microsoft in Seattle know anything about the NHS. This choice, like the secrecy, ensured that no NHS institutional memory would be available to the developers. So, 100 medics were shipped off to the coder farm to explain. Naturally, this effort to fix fundamental architecture problems by tinkering just added complexity and cost, as Pareto's theory of the second best bit. Eventually, one of the regional systems contractors decided to take iSoft's off-the-shelf product and hack it into something vaguely suitable, and another walked away. IDX and GE Healthcare's product was so dire that even BT couldn't make more than one implementation work in two and a half years, and then sacked them.

But, there is no sign any of this will affect policy whatsoever. Instead, the managers content themselves with intermediate statistical targets (apparently they are installing 600 N3 lines a month, a rather poor performance for any normal ISP), rigged definitions (the deal with Microsoft is said to have saved £1.5 billion - compared to what? certainly not open-source..) and bully rhetoric about feeding the slower huskies to the faster ones (I am not joking). The inevitable signs of failure, meanwhile, emerge - it doesn't work.
"As an example, in July, mission-critical computer services such as patient administration systems, holding millions of patient records being provided by the CSC alliance across the Northwest and West Midlands region, were disrupted because of a network equipment failure, according to the CfH. As a result, some 80 trusts in the region were unable to access patient records stored at what was supposed to be either a foolproof data center or a disaster recovery facility with a full backup system. Every NPfIT system in the area was down for three days or longer. Service was fully restored and no patient data was lost, the CfH says.

That was not the first such failure. In fact, in the past five months more than 110 major incident failures having to do with NHS systems and the network have been reported to the CfH, according to ComputerWeekly."
But, of course, the users are lying and everything is wonderful.
"The CfH responded in an e-mail to Baseline: "It is easy to misinterpret the expression 'major incident.' Some of these could have been, for example, individual users experiencing "slow running." We encourage reporting of incidents, and we are open and transparent about service availability levels, which we publish on our Web site."
Perhaps they'll put the chocolate ration up there too. But guess who is driving the march into the marshes?
Still, for every setback, Granger, CfH and Tony Blair's Labour Government announce a step forward. Blair, in fact, is CfH's biggest ally. Addressing some 80 senior doctors earlier this year earlier and, according to The London Times, sweating profusely under the bright lights, Blair said, "The truth is that we have now reached crunch point where the process of transition from the old system to a new way of work in the NHS is taking place. Each reform was in its time opposed. Each is now considered the norm. The lesson, especially at the point of difficulty, is if it's right, do it. In fact, do more of it."
I remember thinking, when I first heard of the project, that Palm had just confessed to a huge stockpile of unsold PDAs in a warehouse in Long Beach, and that we ought to buy the lot at firesale prices and turn loose the programmers at local level, with a common data exchange standard. Standards, not standardisation, as David Berlind says.

Oh yes, guess who's still running the world?

Update: This post has been approvingly linked by the Adam Smith Institute's blog, which positively scares me. But I think it's worth pointing something out here, which is that this story is not really about planning versus markets or private versus public. The Government brought plenty of stupidity to the table, but so did the Big Consultants, and so did little iSoft. Commercial motives led to as much stupidity as planning did. Very likely, had there been 10 more bidders for the Regional Service Provider contracts and therefore more competition, the same institutional factors would have entrained the same stupidity.

Van Creveld in Gaza

The great Israeli historian Martin van Creveld argued, years ago, that the occupation must end because of the "power of the weak", that eventually the degree of violence that would be needed to maintain it would destroy Israeli moral cohesion. It seems someone on the other side has read him. Within the last month we've seen a mass protest by hundreds of women being staged to spring a group of Hamas men from a building they were surrounded in, and now an airstrike is called off as civilians surround the target. Ruthlessness is harder than you think.

A Hamas commander at the scene said people had gathered to show that the demolition strategy of the Israelis could be defeated.

An Israeli military spokesman confirmed to Reuters news agency that the raid had been called off because of the Palestinian action.

The Hunt question

The Bath University RepRap project (to build a rapid-prototyping tool that can make copies of itself) is coming on with all due speed, and I especially like their latest test part, a natty Linux penguin. Which is fitting for a project that's all open-source. Back when they got started, Phil Hunt of Cabalamat Journal posed the fascinating question of what happens when every workshop in the DRC can make surface-to-air missiles.

DefenceTech is nearly there, discussing the spread of cheap CNC machine tools and the US Army's mobile parts hospital, a workshop in a shipping container that can run off parts for almost anything they use. It's not true RepRapping, but it's close, especially as the RepRap team has discussed using signmakers' CNC plastic jigs to multiply first-generation RepRaps.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


There's been plenty of debunking aimed at the Weekly Standard's claim that more US troops in Iraq always means less violence, but I haven't seen this point. Stuntz argues that 18,000 more troops were deployed between November, 2004 and February, 2005, and the butcher's bill fell.

Well, it would. November, 2004 was the peak of the Fallujah campaign, the second Shia rising, and the insurgent seizure of Mosul. Violence continued fearsome into January, then dropped off some as the offensive wound down. It's simply an exercise in choosing a stretch of the trendline that agrees with you, then placing the goalposts at each end. Or to put it another way, an egregiously dishonest abuse of statistics.

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