Wednesday, December 30, 2009

CCC vs Wanktanks

Other people's TDLs. I note that this year's CCC has devoted some time to the wanktank phenomenon in Germany, and also elsewhere. Volker Bilk's slides are here; it makes a lot of sense, but there's quite a bit of German philosophical maundering in there, and I'd have liked to see more case studies/howtos. As far as his call to action to map the wanktanks goes, I fully agree.

In other CCC presentations, it looks like there's going to be a lot of GSM hacking in 2010. See here, here and here.


To-do lists are good. Grandad Bill lived by them; we found ones up-to-date for the day before he died. In that spirit, here's a rough one for this blog in 2010:

1) Finally, end this twin-blog nightmare.

I've had requests from multiple readers for this. I think I'll standardise on WordPress and host it myself somewhere. This may require some cunning SQL manipulation, as there are some differences between the two copies of the blog - some things got duplicated, some dropped, and of course there are comments on both from after the fork.

However, I am not going to bring back the JavaScript mousetrail clock.

2) Make an impact on WhoseKidAreYou

The git on hackernews who said that starting a USENET group for it was the best possible way to prevent the project making progress wasn't wrong. In my defence, other matters frequently demanded my attention this autumn, and it does involve learning two new programming languages. As usual, the difficult bit turns out not to be the semantic-web query join across tens of thousands of crowdsourced records, but the bloody in-line parsing and tidying up of the bylines.

When the squid take over, they'll realise that what we were doing all this time was HTML parsing and string processing.

3) Strike hard against press distortions

The news media is pissing me off more and more, and just shouting at them doesn't seem enough. WKAY will help, especially when it gets to include things like Sourcewatch in its data sources. But what can we do in a positive sense?

4) Rapid reaction to Tories

I think this should be central, shouldn't it? I've drivelled on about "pre-emptive activism" already, but I'd like to put some flesh on the idea and push it before they arrive - that's the pre-emptive bit...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

going quiet

Before the blog goes quiet for the traditional Christmas ceasefire, I'd like to say that my grandfather, Paul William Gibbs, died yesterday. I'll be posting something about him when I've finished writing it.

Now for the quiet.

mystery jet update: Malian 727

More mystery jets. In the last couple of weeks there's also been some progress on the 727 abandoned in North-Eastern Mali. For a start, it's a 727, which is something. And, finally, there are pictures. The National of Abu Dhabi - a newspaper that is developing into a surprisingly useful source - has a good piece on the case and the growth of the Trans-Saharan drugs route more broadly.

Mr Lyman, a former US ambassador to both South Africa and Nigeria, warned that a heavy-handed approach by African officials would probably exacerbate the problem and threaten the desert region’s delicate security balance.

“Taking on the smuggling problem presents the danger of driving these tribal groups into the arms of AQIM because they resent a government presence that impinges on their smuggling activities, so it’s a delicate area how you increase in security” he said.

“You’ve got to build greater trust between Tuaregs and their home governments, and that requires more development and maybe even closing their eyes to some of the more benign smuggling activity that’s taking place. It’s not an easy task at all.”

Unsurprisingly, AFP wire service reporter Serge Daniel was the first journalist to get to the crash site, or more importantly, the first to file having done so. There are pictures of the wreck, which has been extensively scavenged for scrap metal; of course, the scrapmen will have helped to get rid of the evidence.

Hawa Semaga of Journal du Mali has an excellent piece which makes clear that the Guinea-Bissau authorities were looking for the plane at the time of its last flight, for a variety of reasons involving safety and registration violations. Further, it seems that the crew used false documents claiming that the aircraft was registered in Saudi Arabia. In yet another piece of useful information, the article confirms part of the route, and introduces the news that the plane passed through Cape Verde airspace on its way to the fateful airstrip, and then headed for Guinea-Bissau. They also suggest it stopped in Colombia as well as Venezuela.

My sources add that the current route was thought to be Dakar-Fortaleza-Panama-Maracaibo and then to the crash site, but there would have had to be intermediate stops between FOR and PTY and between MAR and Gao, as the sectors in question are 2,952 and 4,820 miles respectively. Replotting, with the new data:

(The map details are here.) That's all possible, but the 727 would have needed a further South American stop between Fortaleza and Panama outward bound and between Maracaibo and Sal, Cape Verde inward bound - the simplest option would be to have gone via Maracaibo outward bound and via Fortaleza inward, which is marginal for the 727-200 (2,489 miles), but there might have been a fair wind that day.

Here's their destination: N18.00031, W0.0031.

View Larger Map

Bugger all is an understatement. This Senegalese Web site has a gripping account of a visit to the crash site, starting off with a roast sheep party, hours of gruelling desert travel, fear of stumbling on another clandestine landing, and proceeding to a chat with security sources. Key facts appear to be that the landing zone was prepared on a dry lakebed, that the aircraft was taxied off the hard surface into the sand, and that some five vehicles with Niger registration plates met it, but that the Niger plates were faked in another neighbouring country. There's also some detail on the scavenging of the aircraft:

Mais ce 10 décembre 2009, je constate que l’appareil a perdu beaucoup de poids. Je trouve sur place la réponse : je vois des traces de tadjila, nourriture prisée chez les touaregs. Alors que s’est-il passé ? Des dizaines, et des dizaines de personnes dont des touaregs viennent s’installer et couper l’épave, récupérer de l’aluminium, et aller le vendre aux forgerons. 1 500 FCFA le kilo d’aluminium. Triste fin pour l’épave. Triste fin pour l'avion.

Everyone is now working on the assumption that the aircraft was deliberately destroyed. It's possible that the aircraft was driven into the sand in order to give the impression of a runway excursion accident. The author states that the aircraft's registration is visible, and that it's South American, but he or she doesn't say what it was.

Boeing 727-230F number 21619, currently the top suspect, was placed in storage in Dakar by "Africa Aviation Assistance" in June, with a view to ferrying the aircraft to Rio in July. This company was shut down in July after it turned out that its AOC had never been issued. Around about the same time, another 727-200 freighter, number 22644, operating for DHL under the Saudi registration HZ-SNE, was destroyed in an accident in Lagos. And, after this crash, the first 727 was registered HZ-SNE for a while.

I therefore guess that the fake Saudi documents were used to pretend that the 727 that ended up in the desert was actually HZ-SNE/22644, respectably carrying general cargo for DHL. AAA planned to register it in the Guinea-Bissau (J5-) registry; apparently they involved Guinea in some way, as the Guinea authorities were looking for the plane. But we know that if it used the registration J5-GGU at all, as previously thought, it was yet another fake.

It doesn't seem obvious, though, that anyone would casually torch an aircraft that had the special feature of having a twin identity.

All the 4L-AWA that's fit to print

I should have done this earlier rather than committing fanfic with a sliver of valuable blogging time, but it's high time to catch up with the 4L-AWA seizure. It's looking like this is a serious coup - not only is the aircraft one with a long and complex history in the trade, but a lot of data about the consignors has surfaced. Grant Peck of AP has a round-up of the state of play here. And Viktor Bout, from his remand cell, has given ITAR-TASS his opinion (shorter Vik: he knows nuffink and it's not his plane innit).

However, one of the aircrew (Mikhail Petukhov, who was the flight engineer) turns out to be an old comrade of Viktor's from his time in the Soviet Air Force's 339th Air Transport Regiment in Vitebsk during the 1980s, as reports. Simon Shuster of Time has a good story about the aircrew and specifically Petukhov:

The chief engineer on the flight was Mikhail Petukhov, 54, an out-of-work Belarusian with nearly two decades of experience in the Soviet air force. His wife Vera told TIME by phone from Belarus that the flight was Petukhov's first for a company whose name he never told her. Before that, he had waited more than six months for a job. "That's how it always is," she says. "Only once in a while by chance they'll get a call about some one-off job. And they take what they can get. Once he was gone for three months and came back with only $50; other times it's more. Then he waits around again." She said he had never the other crew members, all Kazakhs, before he left in early December for Kiev, where the flight is believed to have originated.

Sensibly enough, the Thai police have secured the data from the crew's mobile phones. Asia Times gives details of the cargo:
The haul included large numbers of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), man-portable surface-to-air missiles, and two mobile multiple-rocket launchers, either M-1985 or M-1991's, capable of firing 240mm rockets. The weapons were removed by the Thai military to Takhili Air Force base in central Nakhon Sawan, north of Bangkok. Thai authorities estimated the value of the cargo at around US$18 million. The crew, who are likely to be telling the truth, said they believed they were carrying heavy equipment for oil operations.

The next step is for the weapons to be inventoried and reported to the UN's North Korea Sanctions Committee, which is mandated to investigate violations of the sanctions. Under UN resolutions, the weapons should then be destroyed, although there is some debate in Thailand about whether the weapons will be kept for its armed forces.

Asia Times also says, quoting Kazakh officials, that some of the crew members were on leave from East Wing at the time.

As for the plane, 3D-RTA/TL-ACY has been on United Nations lists of aircraft involved in illegal arms transfers since at least 2001 - the 2001 Expert Panel on Sanctions for Liberia report refers. So does the matching report from 2003.

112. The Panel also examined film footage from August 2002 that showed several hundred M70 assault rifles captured in Tubmanburg. Serial numbers from these also matched the six Belgrade shipments of 2002 (see para. 72 above). The Panel has also obtained film footage of LURD members in Liberia handling nine Strela surface-to-air missiles. LURD claim that these were captured from Liberian-backed dissidents who invaded Guinea in 2000 and they appear to match a sanctions- busting shipment of weapons organized by Sanjivan Ruprah and delivered to Liberia in May 2000 by an Ilyushin-76 (registration TL-ACU) of the now defunct
Centrafrican Airlines run by arms dealer Victor Bout (see S/2001/1015). The Panel has obtained a copy of the shipment order obtained by Belgian Police from Mr. Ruprah when they detained him in 2002. LURD in all probability were given these weapons by Guinean forces after they captured the weapons from the Liberian-backed dissidents during fighting in Guinea in 2000.

The Times and AFP both tackle the question of who chartered the plane. The Times piece is perhaps the most detailed, pointing out that the ostensible charter party was a shell-company in New Zealand, set up by a local company agent, for an owner (with a Chinese name) registered in Vanuatu.

The Wall Street Journal reports, using information from TransArms and IPIS, that the aircraft routed from the Ukraine via Azerjaiban and the UAE to North Korea to load, and then planned to return via Bangkok, Sri Lanka, and the UAE to Tehran. The arms were listed on the manifest as various types of oil drilling equipment. However, it's far from clear how meaningful the flight plan was - as long-term Viktor Bout watcher Peter Danssaert points out, stopping in Bangkok is a strange decision in itself, and they could have refiled en-route at any time. They also shed more light on the consignor - apparently, the Vanuatu company was owned by two companies in Hong Kong eventually controlled by a firm in the British Virgin Islands.

The Jerusalem Post discovers, on the basis of this, that the aircraft was carrying Taepodong-2 ballistic missile parts. Unfortunately, Bloomberg reports that this has been denied by the Thais and the heaviest rocket in the cargo is a tactical multiple-launch rocket system.

AP reports that the crew may well not have been planning to visit Bangkok - they were intercepted by Thai fighters and forced to land there after an intelligence tip-off. Another AFP story confirms the tip off, states that it came from the US, and names "Overseas Cargo FZE", a company based in the...Sharjah Airport Free Zone! where else? as the aircraft's real owner.

Also, meet the Mayor of Careysburg, Liberia.

Monday, December 21, 2009

the untrue history of the Conservative Party

Charlie Stross has done a short story that is set in an NHS facility. This done, I feel he needs to take his unique view of Britain's national institutions to its logical, strategic target. The whole project of much of his work deals with the civil service; he's had a go at the military, at industry, and now at the NHS. Clearly, the next step is the Conservative Party.

"Sir Peter Viggers...I think I've heard the name. Should I look him up in Who's Who?"

"No. Perhaps you should try Who's What."

"Who's What?"

"It's a Laundry Intranet project - run out of Section MH. It's an internal wiki, intended to gather our collective knowledge of the political establishment - something we've perhaps neglected since the Healey plan of '76. Basically we're trying to collate key facts - who's associated with who, who voted for what, what kind of pan-dimensional squidthing ate and replaced whose brain."

"You mean like TheyWorkForYou, but with ineffable alien gods from somewhere we inadequately describe as hell?"

"Actually, the formal name is WhoWorksForThem. And we're beginning to worry about Tom Steinberg. But that's the idea. Haven't you ever wondered what went wrong with Peter Hain? Where they found Tony Blair? How Mandelson got like that? If William Hague is alive? Why did they have to get rid of Charles Kennedy, and why they sent him to the old Benbecula rocket range? What species George Osborne actually is? We have a remarkable amount of implicit expertise here - we're trying to crowdsource it into structured data."

"You mentioned the Healey Plan. What.."

"Technically you don't need to know. But that wasn't long after the creation of the Police National Computer under Roy Jenkins, who as you know had a Bletchley Park background. There was concern that certain field agents had...overreached. There were violations of the Civil Service Code."

"Peter Wright and all that?"

"That was one way of looking at it. Sir Peter chose to be helpful, and the Australians backed us all the way."

"You may have wondered what happened to the LEO Computers intellectual property, to the first patents on packet switching and public key encryption. After the discovery of improprieties at MH, Denis Healey launched the first effort to create a distributed database of the service's political information, based in a cover entity at the National Girobank processing centre in Bootle. The software development team were in the Inland Revenue offices decentralised to Shipley. Data entry was in Longbenton, Newcastle..."

I stared at the government tea in my Vi Reference mug. It looked like childhood - not that it was a reminder of innocence, normality, or love. No, it reminded me of school in the 1980s - it was grey. I expected Angleton to tell me that, unfortunately, there would only be enough textbooks for one between three rather than one between two. Thankfully I realised talking would be better than thinking about that...I always make that mistake.

"Wilson thought there were spies in his office. He thought coup plotters would burst through the garden windows. He was probably in the early stages of Alzheimers, they say.."

"He was more right than you might think. A highly susceptible personality - charming, slightly alienated, ambitious, not deeply principled or introspective. Healey, Callaghan, Sir Frank Cooper - they were very different men. Not enough imagination to end like the PM, but certainly the intelligence to grasp the situation once properly briefed. As were the others - Weinstock, Scanlon, Barbara was her data centre, after all."

"So Healey wanted some kind of encrypted USENET for spooks in 1976? To trace..."

"A lot of work was done at ICL, Plessey, Ferranti, GEC-Marconi in Edinburgh and Basildon, DERA Malvern, BT Martlesham Heath, Racal, and elsewhere. You'd be surprised at the scale of the project - and some of the people involved. Mr. Ibrahim was a post-doc, newly arrived at BT MHRC. There's a notable gap in Mr Berners-Lee's career - make of that what you will. The cabinet was not informed except for the GEN-261 committee. Go-live was set for the 29th July, 1980.

We descoped a number of requirements and committed substantial extra resources in late '78 in order to bring forward an initial operating capability. As you know, the rest is history - did you know they actually burned magnetic tape drives in the car park at Martlesham? Must have been a heavy night in the Douglas Bader..."

"I read somewhere that the Queen sent her first e-mail in 1976.."

"You're not wrong - specifically, Her Majesty sent it from the Royal Signals' HQ in Blandford Forum. Sir Frank had a deep commitment to the constitutional niceties. No doubt you understand the importance of out-of-band connectivity.

Anyway, look at this photo."

"You mean...he's one of the undead?"

"Not the rest of them, you idiot!"

Update: Ken MacLeod contributes a much better ending - "Not him - the rest of them, you idiot!"

Viggers as the only human being in the 1922 Committee. I mean, who would believe that thing with the duck house? Clearly a cover story to exfil him before the tentacles closed in...

(Update: Amendment to make clear who's speaking.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

look what the cat dragged in

So this is the best news story on the Ilyushin 76 seized in Thailand I've yet seen. Based on that, we know that the aircraft is ex-Beibars (a company that suddenly appeared on the Viktorfeed at the end of 2007, and which is banned from the EU) and ex-East Wing. But we still didn't have a registration or a serial number.

But looking up Air West Georgia (ICAO: AWG), I could simply look for an aircraft described as ex-Beibars or ex-East Wing. had a reference to 4L-AWA at AWG as being ex-East Wing; following it back, I found it had been supposedly transferred from East Wing to Beibars but the transaction had been cancelled. That, however, was enough to find the serial number (3426765). And what did we find in the database for that?

4L-AWA is none other than Air Pass/Air Cess's Swazi registry 3D-RTA, Centrafricain Airlines' TL-ACY, and GST Aero's UN-76007 - to put it another way, it's been with Viktor Bout companies since 1997, when it was taken off the Russian register in order to be exported to Malaysia - entirely fictionally. In fact, it was already a regular visitor to Sharjah in 1996, according to photo evidence, which places it there while Richard Chichakli was setting up the SAIF Free Zone.

Since then, ATDB has updated its files to confirm the aircraft is indeed number 3426765. At Beibars, it was operating along with none other than the former YU-AMJ, an aircraft previously used by Tomislav Damjanovic's Air Tomisko to run guns and ciggies in and out of the Balkan wars. 3344804, also with Beibars as UP-I7623, is also ex-GST Aero (and a few others - Aerolift of Somalia fame and Air Leone). In fact, every aircraft there had seen service moving arms into war zones.

East Wing, in case you ask, is itself banned from the EU and owned the bulk of the old GST Aero fleet of Ilyushin 76 before they were mostly moved on to Beibars. It also has another ex-GST Il-76 via another company and the former ST-AQA, formerly of both GST and Phoenix Aviation - and this aircraft in northeastern Brazil.

Supposedly it was carrying a sizable cargo of arms from North Korea declared as "oil drilling equipment". (wot no fish?) I don't know where to, or whether there is truth to the North Korean bit, but it was an aircraft well worth stopping on suspicion based on an asset operating history analysis. It is fair to say that the UAE would have been a likely call before going somewhere else, perhaps in Africa or southwest Asia.

Wild speculation would be that this can't help Viktor Bout's case very much and that therefore this is quite a coup.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

submarine, cocktail party, etc

I'm going to America. Specifically, I'll be organising Telco 2.0 Americas in Orlando on the 9th and 10th of December. Then, I've got a two-and-a-half day layover in a hotel with marching ducks. The prose is worth quoting:
In a special elevator, the five North American mallard ducks, four hens and one drake, comprising The Peabody Ducks, descend from their $100,000 penthouse Royal Duck Palace.

When the elevator doors open, The Peabody Ducks, accompanied by their crimson-and-gold- braid-jacketed Duck Master™, take up their positions on a plush red carpet and begin The March of The Peabody Orlando Ducks to the strident tones of John Philip Sousa's King Cotton March.

They waddle their way in formation through the hotel's marble halls, and when they reach the magnificent, orchid-crowned fountain, which takes center stage in the Atrium Lobby, the ducks mount three red-carpeted steps and splash into the fountain's waters. Tumultuous applause reverberates through the lofty, foliage-draped lobby...

I bet it does.

progress in the arsehole theory of terrorism

Here's something interesting, from Kings of War; statistical analysis shows that there is no correlation between arrests on terrorism charges and the concentration of Muslims in the population. It's almost as if...a gratifyingly small percentage of people are completely fucking stupid and pig-ignorant, that this is normally distributed in the population, and it’s essentially a matter of chance what pig-ignorant fucking stupidity they get up to You know - like the BNP.

Actually, I can think of one less snarky explanation that fits the facts. This would be that converts are disproportionately likely to either a) become jihadis or b) fall under police suspicion. Assuming that the relative salience of Muslim converts in the general population is likely to be higher where there aren't many real Muslims, that would explain this effect. Like the guy in Exeter. It would also fit my original Bloody Idiot hypothesis; angry, not too bright and not too stable, and pretty ignorant, suddenly finding a kit of new obsessions to channel their unfocused rage.

Just like...the BNP.

Meanwhile, Johann Hari has a good piece in the Indy in which he interviews a lot of ex-jihadis. He clearly got a serve from the Quilliam Foundation, the Institute for Studies, and probably the Cats' Protection League in doing this one, but it's well worth reading - especially the bits about Amnesty International.

revenue engine

We had a post about the MQM in Karachi and the Taliban. Strangely enough, Reuters got a fascinating interview with the MQM mayor of Karachi a couple of days later. It's a must-read - one of the main points that comes through is the way in which the struggle up on the frontier and in Afghanistan is indivisible from the trading world of the Gulf and the Arabian Sea.
The city of 18 million people generates 68 percent of the government revenue and 25 percent of Pakistan's gross domestic product but it is vulnerable to both militant attacks and political violence, said mayor Syed Mustafa Kamal.

"As Karachi is the revenue engine for Pakistan, it's the same revenue engine for the Taliban," Kamal told Reuters in an interview in his office...."People are being kidnapped here in Karachi and the ransom is taken in Waziristan," he said, referring to a northwestern ethnic Pashtun region where the army has been battling militants since October.

Four hundred million rupees ($4.8 million) had recently been sent from one Karachi bank branch to various parts of the northwest in one month, he said. "That's abnormal," he said. "For sure, the biggest chunk of Taliban war ... resources are going from Karachi."
He also has some interesting things to say about NATO logistics in Afghanistan:
Kamal said a large proportion of supplies bound for U.S.-led forces in landlocked Afghanistan arrive at Karachi's port, which he said was still vulnerable to an attack that could cripple the U.S. war effort.

"If they don't get their water supply through this route the next day they'll be drinking Afghan water and the next day half the army will have stomach problems," he said.
I don't know if we really are shipping water in through Karachi, but it's certainly an answer to the trick question about the MQM's current tactical alignment. I'm not sure what to make of Jeremy Scahill's piece on ex-Blackwater (a "media scouring" outpost in Karachi that's also a "lilypad to jump off to Uzbekistan" - jumping past other major US bases like Bagram and Kandahar, presumably?), but it's worth noting that, for what it's worth, Kestral Trading, the local firm that actually seems to handle the cargo and guard the convoys is usually accused of being part of the Musharraf family (low-grade sources, but then....)

I should really think of an Ali Farka Toure lyric title for this post

OK, so there's a recently wrecked aircraft on an airstrip in northeastern Mali and the UN reckons it brought over 10 tons of cocaine into the new West Africa-Southern Europe smuggling route. However, no-one seems to know what type of aircraft it is or what the registration was. All sources I can find - which amount to AFP wire service bulletins in the main - describe it as a Boeing 727. Rumour claims it was J5-CGU, but J5-CGU is a Boeing 707...which might also be registered J5-GGU. And sources of mine are talking about a 707 as well.

Anyway, that particular airframe (serial number 19372/655) is the sort of aeroplane you'd expect to be mixed up in this; it was one of Peak Aviation's aircraft at the time when this name was used for shipments of arms to the northern side in the Yemeni civil war, apparently on behalf of Saudi Arabia. One of the 707 captains involved was none other than coke smuggler Chris Barrett-Jolley, who recalled in a TV interview seeing Saudi AWACS operating on his route into Riyan Mukalla.

There's only one problem; this photo, which both identifies J5-CGU and J5-GGU as being one and the same, and also attracted a comment which places the plane in Mombasa on the 25th of November, 2009. AFP reports that the wreck was discovered on the 2nd of November, and UNODC official Alexandre Schmidt made public the details, such as they are, on the 16th.

This is interesting; supposedly, J5-CGU/GGU travelled from Panama to Maracaibo, Venezuela, arriving there on the 16th October, and there refuelled and filed a flight plan for Bamako, Mali, where (in this account) she never arrived. But, it seems, the plane reached Mombasa on or before the 25th of November. Even if the commenter was wrong, and meant the 25th October, this version still won't hold together.

According to a source who follows the official view, the aircraft routed outbound from Sharjah via Mombasa and Conakry to Panama. It seems unlikely that the aircraft would have gone to Panama to load, and backtracked to Venezuela, rather than loading in one of the producer countries further south. But in fact, it's impossible for a standard 727 to have routed as described at all.

With a range in still air of 2,700 nautical miles, it could certainly have got to Mombasa, but Conakry is roughly a thousand miles out of range from there. And Conakry to Panama City is two thousand miles further than the range of a 727-200. Maracaibo to Bamako is similarly impossible. And the crash-site is even further.

Now, the 707-320 might have made it; 10 tons is one sixth of the possible total load, leaving the rest for fuel. Doing a rough calculation, that would leave enough fuel for well over 4,500 miles. But we know it wasn't the 707, or at least not that one. It shouldn't be difficult to clear this up, because all you need to know to distinguish a 727 from a 707 is that one has three engines and one has four.

Of course, the Venezuelan government reckons the Americans are making it up. Well. Another aircraft had a bad landing in Mali recently - AFP again.
A US aircraft that was in trouble had made a "difficult landing" in Mali, causing slight injuries among some people aboard, the US embassy in the west African country said on Friday. "An aircraft made a difficult landing yesterday (Thursday) at around 100 kilometres from Bamako. The plane was carrying six passengers and three crew members. Cases of slight injury were reported," the embassy said in a statement.

"The Malian air force immediately sent its aircraft to help find the plane in difficulty and to co-ordinate the ground movements of rescue teams and ambulances with medical personnel."

According to a source close to the Malian army, the US plane "came from a neighbouring country". "It had serious problems near a place called Kolokani," the source added. "It was in Mali for reasons related to security and it made more than one forced landing." Neither the kind of plane nor its mission in Mali were disclosed.

I bet they weren't. It's probably worth pointing out that this place is nowhere near the other crash site, which is located near Gao. To my surprise, this place turns out to be a substantial city (58,000 people); there is an airport with an 8,200 foot runway, which would be too short for a laden 707 of any type and especially a -320 but adequate for a 727 unless operating at absolute maximum take-off weight.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Profiles in Wanktankery: GWPF

This is why the wanktanks (thanks, Brett!) anger me, and why they should anger you. In today's Obscurer:
The intriguing fact that the global warming trend of the late 20th-century appears to have come to a halt for the time being has led to growing public scepticism about claims of impending climate catastrophe.

In view of what increasingly looks like an unbridgeable stalemate and after years of inflamed global warming alarm, we are beginning to see a period of sobering up, where national interests and economic priorities are overriding environmental concerns and utopian proposals. It seems reasonable to conclude that the diplomatic impasse cannot be overcome in Copenhagen or, indeed, anytime soon. Global CO2 emissions, as a result, will continue to rise inexorably.

What is needed in these circumstances is a calm deceleration strategy that will cool future climate negotiations...
It's Benny Peiser, "director" of the "Global Warming Policy Foundation", still hawking the intellectually dishonest, busted on its own terms talking point about "no warming for 10 years".

We mean it, maan!

The "Foundation" has existed for all of a week. It has no staff other than Peiser and no publications and no thoughts other than worn-out old US Republican talking points. And instantly it has apparently open and uncritical access to the pages of a national newspaper.

These people can't handle it, can they? They have no resistance to this tactic at all. Just show them some headed notepaper and they'll slurp, slurp, slurp up any old nonsense you choose to tell'em.

Who is Benny Peiser? Sourcewatch knows. He's a social anthropologist specialising in sport, and a fan of worrying about near-earth objects. He has published a total of three peer-reviewed papers, none of them on anything remotely relevant.

He also does things like this:
Originally published in the prestigious publication, Science, the Oreskes study looked at 928 research papers on climate change and found that 100% agreed with the scientific consensus.[1] Peiser originally stated in January 2005 that Oreskes was incorrect and that "in light of the data [Peiser] presented... Science should withdraw Oresekes's study and its results in order to prevent any further damage to the integrity of science. On October 12, 2006, Peiser admitted that only one of the research papers he used in his study refuted the scientific consensus on climate change, and that study was NOT peer-reviewed and was published by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.


Can anybody tell me why this isn't a bigger story? Essentially, the government is buying 20-odd new Chinook helicopters for the RAF support helicopter force, and transferring the existing "green" Merlins to the Navy's commando helicopter squadrons. This means a significant increase in helicopters, and relief for the Navy support helicopter squadrons, who have been getting on with the oldest aircraft in the inventory, divided into no fewer than four sub-fleets. They get a proper helicopter; all the Merlins will be concentrated in the Navy, thus getting rid of the need to duplicate bits of the support system. And the RAF support fleet gets a lot more Chinooks.

The key to this is that Boeing has at last been willing to let Chinooks be built under licence in Europe, which sounds like a detail until you realise that the production line in the States is tied up with an order for Canada. There has never been a pony, no matter what the Tories might say.

This should finally close the long-running saga of buying new helicopters; over the last 15 years or so, there have been three different projects, which agreed only that the requirement would be a helicopter of some sort. Geoff Hoon unwisely decided to spend quite a lot of money upgrading the RAF Puma force in 2004, but those can't carry a useful load in Afghanistan. Around about the same time, the government chose to save on the support helicopter budget as well as on the infantry, which killed off a plan to get the Navy marinised Chinooks. This would probably have been the last opportunity to get any new ones before the big commitment to Afghanistan.

So yes, blame Hoon and indeed Gordon Brown by all means. But it was never as simple as that.

Avient; still tolerated, but for how much longer?

Old friends Avient have got it wrong, losing their newly acquired MD-11F in an accident on take-off from Shanghai. We've blogged about this lot here, here, here, and here; I also happen to know they sometimes read the blog. There is much material on PPRuNe as well - try here.

The weird bit about Avient is that they seem to enjoy some degree of official toleration. While others were banned, they've been able to use first Chateauroux, then Chalons/Vatry airfields in France without trouble, despite all the allegations detailed above and the innately weird nature of an airline with its management in the UK, its place of registry in Robert Mugabe's capital, and its operational base in France. Weirdly, as I mentioned in this post, the French government was willing to start a row with its No.1 pal in Africa, Gabon, over their right or otherwise to operate freight flights there.

And the civil aviation authorities can't plead ignorance; very few Ilyushin-76 are compliant with Stage 3 noise regulations. Although it's possible to hushkit some of them to this standard, Z-WTV is possibly the oldest airframe in circulation, the last Il-76T flying. In fact, when its last major overhaul came up, they decided to put it in storage/leave it to rot as very little fatigue life remains. So every movement their Il-76 made through the EU required an individual exemption, which gave away a certain amount of information.

More recently, yet another scandal blew up around them when they executed a midnight flit from Chalons, moving their base overnight to Liege, and allegedly welshing on €1 million worth of fuel. The aircraft that crashed in Shanghai had apparently spent much time sitting in storage since Varig sold it.

(Also, does anyone know if Avient people were around in South Africa in 1998?)

Update: Here's a visualisation of Avient traffic through the UAE.

not such a giant database

This is hilarious. Computer Weekly reports on Sir Joseph Pilling, Identity Commissioner, and discovers that he didn't have to apply for the job. And he's very proud that the National Identity Register now contains 538 people. That's almost one-and-a-half records a day for a year.

(Where are we on that "300 day delivery timetable" again?)

more "cyberwar" nonsense

Also spinning off that post, I'd like to reiterate a couple of points from this post and this one. As far as I can see, not much has changed since Beijing was identified as the world's biggest concentration of compromised Windows machines; Spamhaus ROKSO looks pretty bad for the big provincial networks in ChinaNet and China Unicom, and the Abuseat Composite Block List also shows the Chinese Internet as a very large source of spam and nasties in general.

By network rather than by country, ChinaNet is still the eighth spammiest domain on the Internet. Arbor Networks has some interesting charts on fast-flux DNS abuse, which show .cn as being the biggest real TLD for this particular form of mischief. Tellingly, it takes on average 7.8 days to get rid of a domain taster in .cn, as against 1.6 for .eu; however, Verisign is not doing great either, as it takes 7.23 days on average to get rid of one from .com.

Arguably, the correct model here isn't some kind of cold war vision of satellites and missiles and invisible hackers, but either a wild frontier or a failed state - which are of course the same thing, looked at from optimistic or pessimistic points of view.

That China has "Internet police" is beside the point. Afghanistan has a force called the Civil Order Police, Italy has Tax Police, and the US has something called the Central Intelligence Agency, but you wouldn't necessarily expect civil order to be maintained, taxes to be paid, or signs of intelligence. The UK even has a commission on standards in public life, and we know that's a joke.

a trick question

Cracking post of Londonstani's; perhaps he should retitle as Continuity Abu M?

However, it leaves me with one really big question. If I was a Taliban leader under Pakistani protection, I'd be really worried about moving to Karachi unless I knew whose side that city's various armed factions were on. They're various, as I say, but they're more or less linked to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement or MQM, a rightwing/nationalist entity that emerged after the Indian-Pakistani wars among the refugees who moved to the cities of (West) Pakistan. It's historically been very close to the Pakistani Army, quite violent, and an important factor in politics.

In as far as they are on the side of the Army, they're opposed to secessionist Pashtuns and crazy Islamists. In as far as the particular army unit they are dealing with is the ISI, get the picture.

Of course, it would be naive to ask "Whose side is the MQM on?" Like all such movements, it's always on the same side - its own side. Rather, at the moment the movement will have aligned itself on a temporary and tactical basis with one or more factions in Pakistani politics in order to pursue its interests, and I'm curious as to which ones.

It may be worth noting that, quietly, Asif Ali Zardari is still president of Pakistan and still not dead, which suggests he may be doing something right. The MQM and the Bhuttos and the PPP, although they're both based in Sindh rather than Punjab, have been at daggers drawn ever since the MQM changed sides on them at the end of the 1980s, but then this was very likely because the army wanted them to be. Now, though:
...but perhaps they're protesting too much.

Bizarrely, the world headquarters of the MQM is officially in a shop in Station Road, Edgware; I'm almost tempted to bus it round there and ring the doorbell.

making the pie higher

Well, ha ha. But I'd like to flag another case of Really Bad Data Visualisation from the Murdoch world. It's in this story from the Scum; mysteriously, the famous paywall still doesn't seem to be functioning, but the paper isn't in the habit of publishing any of its graphics online. This is possibly because they are so embarrassing; this is something the good folk at TSL could profitably have at.

Anyway, the story is that net migration has fallen drastically; it's the lowest it's been for years, and the biggest single group of immigrants turn out to be returning British expatriates. So naturally, the line to take is that TEH IMMIGRANTS ARE COMING. And the Scum backs this with a half page infographic - or rather, disinfographic - showing net migration since 1997 as a column chart.

The first thing is that the chart shows the numbers IN and OUT as elements of a stacked column chart, so the columns actually seem to show total migration, because it's moar that way. The second thing is that they are flat across the whole period; there are highs, there are lows, but a trendline would be essentially dead flat. Naturally, there is none.

But the whole thing is capped with a headline reading "THE FLOODGATES OPEN!" Just in case you needed prompting as to what to think about this data. In fact, the headline and the text use the chart to mean the exact opposite of its content. It's not, really, a chart in any meaningful sense - rather, looming columns and hurtling lines are a sort of aesthetic toolkit of the Menace.

The whole thing goes out over the byline "Tom Newton-Dunn: Political Editor", which reminds me irresistibly of the last week or so's Doonesbury strip.

Good luck, Phil. Again

Phil Carter quits; more here. I rather wonder if it had some connection to this.

Is it any consolation that the Obama administration has a better class of resignations? I think not.

Meanwhile, another voice of sense is silenced by trolls. I said a while ago somewhere that CNAS was likely to be to this generation of crazy rightwingers what the Council on Foreign Relations was to an older one. It is ironic, however, that a counterinsurgency expert's comments box turned into a virtual failed state. As Teresa Nielsen Hayden would say, expecting a community to form without moderation is like throwing seeds over a wall and expecting a garden, rather than weeds, empty beer cans, and well-fed rodents.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

links, the light alternative to writing

Ill-coordinated links. Great news in RepRapping - South Korean scientists have succeeded in getting bacteria to make polylactic acid. PLA is the RepRap project's favourite feedstock because it's a reasonably tractable, general purpose plastic that can be synthesised from starch. The synthesis is not exactly simple, which is why outsourcing the job to germs is interesting. As the kit of parts now costs about £395, I really ought to get started with one of these. Now there's a Christmas present for you. "Engineered bacteria not included." MUM! YOU FORGOT THE GERMS!

The uranium-enrichment deal with Iran is still on, but they are looking for stronger guarantees of getting the promised fuel for their research reactor. I reckon this is going to come down to the exact number of kilos that leave at a time, and therefore to a fine judgment about the efficiency of their centrifuges.

Spencer Ackerman mourns a great Mod shop. I remember that Klass Clothing in Leeds was about the first business of any kind in town to have a Web site, apart from these guys for obvious reasons. That's gone, as is Sam Walker in Covent Garden...and possibly even the SL1200!

content is free, feet cost extra

So how's that ContentFree Comment doing?

Rather well in the last week or so. Here's Melanie Phillips:

If this is from a legitimately constituted country...

And again:
Jewish leadership organizations have sold out to rubbish and Tom Gross...British Jews controlling the Labour government, and Israel's Climatic Research Unit at the material is a world Jewish conspiracy theory appears to Iraq, not merely from pro-Israel's foreign affairs spokesman Inayat Bunglawala, is the absurdity Islamist website Islam Online

It's astonishing - loads of hers come out as raving about Jewish conspiracies. It's as if...she was, in fact, writing reams of paranoid extreme-right wing conspiracist gibberish, just with a different race, religion, or nationality as the sinister target-group!

You doubt? More:
This verbal pogrom is because of the recycling bin or going on Facebook and Islamist stranglehold over public service

Martin Kettle:
Martin Kettle Kettle Kettle Kettle is above all so advanced, the completion by Deryck Cooke and mysterious, its elusive harmonies recalling Arthur Rubinstein's observation that Brahms should they
would, of musical and musicglobal. It looks like a modern composer.

It looks like a miserable shotgun political relationship, just waiting to happen.

Martin Jacques:
Goldman Sachs projections
about BRIC economies Goldman Sachs projections about BRIC economies Goldman Sachs projections about BRIC economies Goldman Sachs projections about BRIC economies Goldman Sachs projections about BRIC economies Goldman Sachs projections about BRIC economies Goldman Sachs projections about BRIC economies Goldman Sachs projections about BRIC economies Goldman Sachs projections about BRIC economies Goldman Sachs
projections about BRIC economies Goldman Sachs projections about BRIC economies

That one's almost eerily accurate.

But the pick is this autogloss of a Simon Jenkins thumbsucker:
Global; retreat from humiliating defeat? Fence Defence policy it had beggared itself with the foot. Ed why the best book on this content is indeed allowed by the Syrians in the Times and concrete frames, overlooked by a determination better precedent as doves offer military spending. America had squandered the DIY sector, hair salons, hotels, restaurants anywhere that defeat to a lowering ceiling and double glazing. P as is a Tory smokescreen for the west Tories.

George Osborne has a fixation with the foot.

The unconscious speaks.

If the seagulls follow the Tory, it is because they expect thinktanks will be thrown in the water

Something else. This week saw the Tories deploy yet another inflatable thinktank - rightly mocked here, here, here, and essentially everywhere blog is sold.

Clearly "ResPublica" is hilariously vacuous, and where it's not vacuous, it's fucking frightening, as well as being weirdly reminiscent of Iranian revolutionary political thought according to Alistair Crooke. But it's far from the worst instant thinktank to separate from the rocket, deploy its antenna, and commence transmitting this week.

I see that Norman Lamont has launched a "Foundation for Global Warming Policy" in the same week as the HadCRU smear campaign. Interestingly, it's already being puffed by the "TaxPayers Alliance". Looks like enemy action to me, sir.

Now I used to think that Daniel Davies was a little too concerned with chasing micro-thinktanks' accounts up, rather as I used to think that Tim Ireland was perhaps too obsessed with fighting endless rows over netiquette with obscure Tories. But it's become increasingly clear that the other side care deeply about Tim's activities, especially when things like this happen.

Clearly, this has become a major form of political action - a new non-kinetic weapon. But how best to get rid of them, in the absence of funding for my TV show?

I think one of the first steps is to come up with a good word for it. "Astroturf" is good, but it's very specific - it's a fake grassroots campaign. The instant thinktanks are more of a fake elite campaign, a simulation or simulacrum of intellectual life. Snackthinktank, as in snackthinker? Too obscure. Doublethinktank is good, but worth saving for a headline. Don'tthinktank?

I'd also be interested to know if any of them have expired yet. What is their life expectancy?

Links And Ties

The affair of the stolen HadCRU e-mail should tell us a couple of things. The first is that this is why you should worry about privacy. If you do enough naive traffic analysis, not only will you find a pattern - people communicate in patterns - but you'll be able to find something that you can misrepresent. This is the inevitable outcome of pareidolia, the false positive problem, and the infinite possibilities that open up when you don't have to show your working out.

It's a methodology that is common to cranks who stare at the patterns in their heads, to stupid politicians who don't understand or don't want to understand the maths of false positives, and to spooks, red-baiters, and other political thugs who understand them all too well. Viz:
I don't quite understand the HP Sauce concept of 'links' either. Pretty much everyone in the world is damned as an extremist if you take the idea of 'links' as far as they do.

Give me a representative 62MB of your archived e-mail and I'll give you a reason to really hate me.

Secondly, it's about expectations. The scientists involved are condemned for, among other things, being angry about a crappy denier paper getting published in Climate Research and strategising together about how best to protest it. We are expected, in other words, to be shocked that they aren't like the liberal in the joke who is too even-handed to take his own side in a knife fight.

The purpose of the exercise, of course, is to get people sacked if they aren't like that - to impose this stereotype. This is why George Monbiot is wildly wrong. You can't appease the authoritarians; weakness provokes them still further. (Mark Lynas is right, by the way.)

Thirdly, it's based on epic stupidity. The famous "hiding the decline" actually consists of including the actual observed temperatures in a group of parallel data series, rather than, say, removing the anomalous ones. The series in question, Keith Briffa's Yamal tree-ring proxy for temperature, tracks with the observations from the beginning of observed data to the postwar era, and with other proxies before the observation era. Then, for reasons we don't understand, it diverges. Nobody makes any secret of this: they published it in Nature! But you'd have to be incredibly stupid to pick the diverging proxy series over the observed temperatures. (If you want detail, try here.)

Actually, one explanation is that Yamal is in northern Siberia, one of the fastest-warming parts of the planet, and the trees may not be able to respond quickly enough to more warmth. Hilariously, it's also one of the biggest gas fields on the planet.

Fourthly, it's pathetically trivial. If, in fact, the e-mails showed that literally every paper on climate published since whenever was drivel, it wouldn't matter a damn unless the fundamental laws of nature were vastly different. A mixture of gases containing more carbon dioxide absorbs more infra-red radiation than one with less - it's a trivial lab demonstration. And something that absorbs more heat than it radiates will get hotter. It's Newtonian thermodynamics.

And fifthly, Eric Raymond is not the son of God - he's a very naughty boy, who appears to have missed that the code he keeps ranting about is commented-out of the program and never used. (And the less said about this HOWNOTTO and the associated queeny snit, the better.)

Anyway, far from wanting anyone to resign, I'm going to write to the UEA vice-chancellor for research, Trevor Davies, and compliment him on standing up to the red-baiters so far. And I recommend you do too, before he goes floppy.

If anything at UEA wants investigating, it's their IT security practices.

Friday, November 27, 2009

do you want me to draw a bloody diagram?

After this post, I thought it might be useful to provide a visualisation of the data involved. I then realised I ought to do it rather better, so I collated the figures for all 47 names from the paper accounts into a spreadsheet and graphed them. This chart shows average monthly spending on mobile and fixed telephony and travelling expenses. (You can get the bigger versions here.)

Telecoms and travelling expenses

Not perhaps too revealing like that. But if you sort the data on the mobile column, the dark blue one and the one we're supposedly interested in...

the same, sorted

I think I see the pattern! There's clearly a core group up the top there around Viktor - they're doing a hell of a lot of phoning and they're also travelling a lot. After that it falls off into the spear carriers; near the bottom, there are people who were clearly close enough to get the odd air ticket but nothing else. The big spike in the fixed (orange) bill is the fixed base operation's Johannesburg office. "Ukraine Builders" probably refers to the fact Viktor and Alla Bout were building a house in South Africa when the mercenary laws chased them out.

There are also a couple of interesting anomalies; the biggest mobile user of all is "Paul Popov", who also has a token fixed-line bill, but who never travels. Strange, that - a heavy mobile user who never travels. My first thought was that he might be the information centre of the whole operation (he's the biggest single phoner of the lot), but then, it doesn't make sense that the fixed bill is tiny compared to the Joburg office.

Actually, I rather suspect he doesn't exist. You can well imagine the usefulness of an anonymous phone number or satellite phone terminal to such an organisation. Perhaps everyone was Paul Popov.

Of course, the names give the whole thing its due dose of seedy glamour; especially the fact that so many only have one. There's Olga - the beautiful spy, I suppose. And "Dr Oleg" - apparently a nontrivial figure going by the data. But one of the surprises in here is how many of the core group never re-appear in the official literature. Naydo is on all the blacklists, but who is Ange Karamakalinijabo, and who is Yuri Stass (it's short for Stassioukatis)? Possibly Alan Smith is a pseudonym for Andrew Smulian?

This is also why you shouldn't worry about the government tapping your phone calls; you should worry about them analysing your phone bill.

Monday, November 16, 2009

we love dancing and...

We saw Rachid Taha and Vieux Farka Toure on Friday night, one of the few occasions when something held in the Royal Festival Hall actually felt like a proper gig. Taha's shtick is somewhere between a Clash-influenced dub/punk mix and North African things like rai (it sez here - I wouldn't really know to be honest). On the night, there was a hell of a lot of a sort of French 70s big-clattering-soundspace racket that even folk like Daft Punk are tempted by.

For a self-declared punk, he also does a good Mick Jagger act. There was a lot of showboating and wanking about with the audience and jokes in French that made less sense to me than anything Farka Toure said when he wasn't speaking English...or French. The punk tradition of contempt for stage business obviously didn't get across.

yes, he really means it

However, he does do a lot of fucking great dramatic funky noise, and eventually the whole hall was dancing, quite an achievement given the venue. Oddly enough, there was a sort of steel helmet faction in the front left hand stalls who took a long, long time to get on their feet; I theorise that the rest of us were the cheap seats.

Of course, we'd miss bombastic frontmen if they weren't there; someone noted they were in a spotlight and apparently set about recreating the cover of the Wild Beasts' Two Dancers. (Actually, there's a prediction I should be declaring victory on.)

hey, you know the Wild Beasts album cover?

Vieux Farka Toure had done a note perfect show earlier on; he got hauled back to take part in "Rock the Casbah", which got going after the longest daft intro ever and eventually rocked the concrete.

long distance information, give me Goma, DRC

Alex de Waal has an interesting post on the role of satellite phones, and specifically the Arabic and more importantly cheap Thurayas, in the wars of the Sahara today. He argues, in essence, that the capital requirements of being a warlord are coming down; if you don't have a Toyota, you're cannon fodder, if you do, you're a gang leader, and if you have a satellite phone and a Toyota, you're a significant political force. The consequences in tactics and operational art are also important.

In comments, it turns out that Jean-Pierre Bemba of the RCD was an early adopter of the satellite phone too; you may remember him as the Congolese warlord who married off his daughter to Sanjivan Ruprah and who shared a BAC-111 private jet with Richard Chichakli's company. Of course, a number of journalists had Osama bin Laden's phone number before he chose radio silence as a policy.

You can imagine the importance of mobile telephony to these folk; but as the Giuliano Andreotti character in Il Divo says, an archive is better than an imagination. During the period in 1997-98 when Viktor Bout's businesses briefly set up camp in the wilds of northern South Africa, before the South African anti-mercenary legislation caused them to head for the friendly skies of the UAE, they left behind an audit trail in the books of the company they used, having promised huge investments. They also left a gigantic unpaid credit card bill.

Here's the point. In a typical month in 1998, the phone bills ran to some ZAR62,000 for mobile, ZAR49,000 for landlines and fax, and a further ZAR32,000 for telecoms services at their fixed base in Pietersburg. That's a total of ZAR143,000 in phone bills; at the prevailing rate, that's £17,763 a month. More to the point, that's 48% the size of the wages bill and four times the size of the bill for lodging "VB's staff". Even split over the 16 phone numbers broken out in the books, it's a lot of phoning.

Of the names given, it may be worth noting that the biggest talker in "Commodities" is Kumar, with a phone bill over £300 a month, followed by Khalid and Bakri, and in Flight Operations it's "Paul Popov", who almost broke the grand. Smulian is doing about £125-150. Valery Naydo is doing £150 a month; "Dr Oleg" makes it to £350 in October 1997 as the circus wheels into town. "Ange Karam'jabo" spent £665 in January that year.

This last character, whose full name is probably Karamakalinijabo, was also charging a lot in travelling expenses; he'd spent £3,000 on airline tickets the month before, plus maybe another £2,500 if the second appearance of the surname is the same man. According to the AMEX bills, he travelled on South African Airways Flight 055 to Rome and on to Vancouver, SAA 014 again to Lusaka, and finally on Austrian Airlines Flight 066 for Chicago.

Unsurprisingly, Bout was a big chatterbox himself - he got through £845 of fixed-line calls from two numbers in January '98 alone. (The numbers are no doubt assigned to other innocent South Africans by now, or I'd quote them.)

It's old news, really; I've had the documents for some time and I've occasionally used bits, too. But oddly enough, I hadn't thought of looking at the phone costs. I hadn't marinated in telecoms culture then; as always, if you're worried that they're listening to your calls, you don't want to think about what they're doing with the traffic data. Told you billing was exciting.

If there's a nut here, apart from me, it's that I reckon the signature of being operationally important in the system is likely that you were a big source of phone traffic and a big air ticket bill. Who is Ange Karamakalinijabo? Who is Valery Naydo? Who is Paul Popov? One thing about them, they've had the sense to keep their names off the Internet. Naydo only appears in the UN asset blacklist. Popov is a cipher, probably not the long-dead Orthodox bishop in Alaska.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

what M-PESA is not

Over at James Nicoll's blog:
Cellphones don't require landlines to be strung before they can be used and apparently people have been rather cunning about coming up with ways to use them to replace services they otherwise would not have access to:

Some people carry just a card and borrow a phone when needed. Safaricom, in Kenya, has a service called M-Pesa that lets the cell work as an ATM; to send someone money, you text-message the appropriate code to them, and they get cash from a local M-Pesa agent. Cellphone minutes are traded by phone as a cash substitute. Credit card payments are made by cellphone. Remittances from relatives overseas come by cellphone. [...]

It's like the Street finds its own use for technology.

Well, sort of. People to tend to think of the success of mobile banking in the emerging markets as being a triumph of the Bruce Sterling/Kevin Kelley school of thought, at best, or an example of triumphant libertarianism - to hell with those stuffy old international-aid bureaucrats and state-owned telcos!

However, M-PESA was originally a project sponsored by Vodafone's CSR department, and even less fashionably, by the UK Department for International Development. Much of the engineering was carried out by BSS-OSS (Billing Support Subsystem-Operations Support Subsystem) consultants in Newbury, and you literally can't get less favela-chic than telco billing systems engineers*. And Safaricom is a Vodafone partner network, but the main shareholder is the Kenyan Government.

Once they rolled it out, as history relates, all sorts of exciting unauthorised innovation got going. But getting to that point involved a lot of boring, statey, European Union things happening first, including those awful Aid Industry Bureaucrats getting involved.

*Joke: how do you tell an OSS engineer? He used to work in billing but he couldn't stand the excitement. Since M-PESA, though, that's where all the excitement is...


Stupidity about pirates. (Yes, this again. When will it end?) No doubt the usual suspects will already be drivelling about this story.

Frankly, if you think the best opportunity to rescue the hostages was when they were between a tossing, fibreglass 40-odd foot boat and a 25,000 ton hijacked containership, using as your main equipment a 32,000 ton oil tanker (Wave Knight is a fleet tanker, not a warship), I suspect you may not have done enough research.

iWorm - a truly social virus

The iPhone worm is a thing of beauty. Not so much because of the technology involved, which is simple - although, since when has simplicity not been a good thing? - but because of the superb social engineering involved. Its designers demonstrated a perfect understanding of their target user population and came up with an elegant exploit of their psychology.

To recap: an iPhone, underneath the shiny stuff, is basically a little BSD Unix machine. Apple applies a lot of its own security and restrictions-management stuff to it, but this can be circumvented if you want to use software without getting Apple's approval for it - this is the process known as "jailbreaking". One of the most common things people do with the gadget after removing the Apple restrictionware is to install SSH, so they can log into a remote server and administer it from the phone.

Unfortunately, installing SSH also makes it possible to log into the phone from a remote machine, if you know the root password and the current IP address. So, before you do this, you absolutely must change the root password from the default ("alpine") to a strong passphrase. Otherwise, as soon as SSH is available, anyone on the Internet can get access to the phone with root-level privileges - i.e. they can do anything they like.

The worm generated random IP addresses and tried to log in through SSH using the default iPhone password, and if it succeeded, it replaced the home screen with a picture of Rick Astley. Haha. They could also have made hundreds of hours of international phone calls on your bill, scarfed your bank details, grabbed the log of who you called and who called you and carried out some sort of evil social-graph analysis...but they didn't. For now.

What gets me about this is that they obviously had an image in mind of the target user as someone who was clueful enough to install unofficial software on an iPhone, or who at least wanted badly enough to be seen as technically competent that they got someone else to do it, but who was sufficiently incompetent not to realise that they needed to set a real password or that they were connecting a full-blown unix box to the Internet without any security precautions whatsoever. (Given that having a server to ssh into implies you know that you can log into remote machines over the Internet if you know the password, I wonder how many of the victims had actually used the SSH client on the phone?)

As well as a practical implementation of the Dunning-Kruger effect, it's a genuinely social hack in that it identified and targeted a specific social group - annoying moneyed wannabe-geek hipster prats. It was a wanker-seeking missile. It is sheer brilliance, and I'm not at all surprised it was invented by Australians.

Update: As pointed out in comments, why would you need the daemon half of the ssh package? Apparently, some of the jailbreaking methods use it. The virus's creator specifically mentions the fact that so many iPhones had an active ssh service when he tested the scanning element of it in the comments to the source code of the virus.

we flippin' murdered them

Peter Beaumont goes for a Holt's battlefield tour of southern Lebanon:

Cruising through the serene green wadis that connect south Lebanon to the Litani river to the north, the commander explains what happened at the end of the last war. "We knocked out three of their tanks on the first day, as they tried to enter," he explained at a turn-off by the village of al-Qantara. "But after they entered the wadi, we knew they were going for the river and had to be stopped. So we called out to all the special forces anti-tank teams in the area. And they all swarmed the wadi. Boys would set up and wait for the tanks, fire off their rounds and then pull back. Then they would pull back a kilometre or so down the wadi and wait for them again."

According to Israeli military reports, after the first and last tanks were hit by rocket fire or mines, killing the company commander, the 24 tanks were essentially trapped inside a valley, surrounded on all sides and pinned down by mortars, rockets and mines. Eleven tanks were destroyed and the rest partially damaged and Israel lost at least 12 soldiers.

Go read the rest; there's a fair amount of speculation of the informed sort, and an appearance from Andrew Exum opining that the reinforced UNIFIL has succeeded in moving Hezbollah away from the border, rather as it was meant to. Actually, the reinforced UNIFIL should surely be counted as one of the unexpected successes of the last few years - especially if you remember all the yelling at the time.

However, this may be less important than it appears, especially if the Hezbollah guy's account of their tactics in 2006 is representative - there's no reason why they couldn't keep doing that every kilometre, and indeed that's what the original idea of a screen of small groups of men with guided anti-tank weapons was meant to do in front of the main NATO armies in Germany (remember this post and Stephen Biddle's analysis?)

Further, the whole concept of a buffer force assumes that both sides would rather not fight, but that neither is willing to make the first move - that a classic security dilemma is operating. If one or both parties are determined to initiate more violence, though, this breaks down. And it's worrying to see how a lot of Israeli commentary about 2006 has changed over time - in the first 18 months or so, there was a lot of frankness around. The war had clearly been a failure, and Hezbollah had surprised everyone by defending southern Lebanon effectively. Roughly since Gaza, there's been a denialist phase - a bit like David Lloyd's crack that "we flippin' murdered them" after the England cricket team ran out of time trying to beat Zimbabwe. A lot of stuff was blown up in Beirut, and if it wasn't for those pathetic politicians, we'd have won. You know the pattern.

permanently operating factors

Aaronovitch Watch reflects upon dinner with Denis MacShane. There's an important point here, and one that was well made as a by-product of Nick Davies' brilliant reporting on Operation PENTAMETER 2, a giant police sweep looking for prostitutes brought into the UK by force that failed to find even one. It turned out that the entire project was driven by policy-based evidence - a succession of politicos and thinktanks progressively taking what had once been the upper bound in an actual study, treating it as an actual forecast, and then adding a bit.

Not so long ago, I had the opportunity of discussing this with a source in the Met vice squad, and the take-home message is Davies was being conservative - it was actually worse than that.

Anyway, one of the most egregious examples of PBE in the story was the fault of none other than MacShane, who promptly responded by writing to the Guardian and accusing Davies of "taking the side of the managers of the sex industry". As Davies pointed out in the original story, the whole thing followed the pattern of the campaign for war with Iraq with uncanny accuracy.

There was the exaggeration by stripping out caveats, the practice of using deliberately extreme limiting cases as central forecasts, the search for anyone who would provide the right kind of intelligence when the intelligence services' intelligence didn't fit around the policy...and the shameless red-baiting attacks on anyone who disagreed. Sniff, sniff. Are you a good anti-Fascist? Will you condemn, etc, etc?

The lesson, however, is that some people seem to gravitate to this set of tactics or political style (because that's what it is); if Denis MacShane worked for the Party of Kittens, he'd be secretly briefing the press that Mickey Mouse was part of a decadent Hollywood-liberal elite in league with feline leukaemia, based on his summary of a leaked report from the newly established Council for a Flea-Free Future, and if you called him out on it, he'd get all the members of the Accuracy in Cat-Related Media mailing list to write and accuse you of being objectively pro-dog.

Come to think of it, it's part of the package of modern thinking; you need a Boris Johnson-esque clown figure, a Tony Blair-esque tebbly tebbly concerned type, and a MacShane-esque underhand thug.

a reminder that things happen quickly

If you think the Superfreaks had demonstrated the truth of the Dunning-Kruger effect well enough, especially after this further hammering, and their attempt to gain everyone's esteem by having NewsCorp send out copyright nastygrams, think again.

Here's some science, via Lou Grinzo's blog. We've been taking very, very thin samples of the leafmould in the bottom of a rather special Irish lake (peat - not much oxygen, so things *last*), and it's possible to draw some interesting conclusions about the Younger Dryas event, which flipped the planet into an ice age 13,000 years ago after a huge ice barrier in North America collapsed and let vast amounts of fresh water pour into the Atlantic.

The killer detail, literally: the new ice age kicked off within months. We had thought it took decades, but instead it tore in within a year. A year. No time to adjust; not even that much time to flee.

This should surely kill off any daft ideas of fiddling with the atmosphere. Shouldn't it?

Monday, November 09, 2009

it is never too late to MEND

This won't be a substantive post, but more a notice to myself to build one. A seriously under-reported story on the global guerrilla beat is that the Nigerian government has succeeded, at least for the moment, in either defeating the Niger Delta rebels or making deals with them.

It's worth rolling back a little; time was when they were roaring about the rivers of Rivers State in RIBs with three or four huge Evinrude outboards, assaulting oil installations and demanding money, following a strategy that was based on the current situation of the oil market, including things like the latest hurricane sweeping towards the Gulf of Mexico, refinery stock drawdown - essentially, they followed the market for oil like IPE traders in London. Their faceless spokesman operated from a Hotmail account and a PAYG GSM phone somewhere in South Africa, usually.

Everyone, especially J-Ro, reckoned they were our insurgent future. The lumbering energy infrastructure, supposedly, could never be defended from persistent but random disruption aimed at its key network nodes. They certainly were a guerrilla navy that was tactically and operationally very effective, and whose leaders were pursuing an intelligent strategy; their technology was obviously of the moment.

But what happened, then? A key element, of course, was the price of oil. However, the relationship between the Brent index and the violence in the Delta wasn't linear; as the price of oil rose, MEND was more able to cause trouble, but the Nigerian government and the oil companies had more money. They could spend it on soldiers, or on bribes. In the other direction, as the price of oil fell, the power of the insurgents to send bursts of panic into the market fell - but the Nigerian state would itself be weaker, and the pool of recruits wider.

Crucially, the demand for oil fell; this is possibly more important than its price. Here's me in August 2008 on this subject. As an oil-bombing insurgent, it's not so much the price that you're interested in as your ability to cause trouble. Much of the industrialised world has passed its peak demand for oil; the US may have done, or it may be the recession. We will only know in hindsight. This means that the oil market is structurally less sensitive.

This is, of course, less to the point if MEND was indeed a new kind of rebellion. I rather doubted this; it always struck me as a fight for a share of export revenues. Oil, as resources go, is remarkably suited to landlordism. Its extraction is capital-intensive, not labour intensive; much of the work is done by expatriate specialists. And, crucially, it helps to run an artificially high exchange rate, which is an excellent way for an elite to loot a country. As a robber elite, most of what you want in the way of goods are imported, and most of what you want in the way of the capital account is an export. You want to get your money out. This also tends to destroy local industries and favour importers; especially importers who need to get a licence from you.

This, and the back story of the rebellion, suggested that the main aim was what they said it was - to extract oil revenues from the Governor's gut. Unlike tension in the oil market, the money you raise from high oil prices can be stored for later use; the government deployed it this summer, both for force and for persuasion.

I hope this post can expand to take in more information; I'd like to know more about how it happened. I do know that some of the rebel leaders' men paraded through Port Harcourt getting drunk and shooting in the air before piling their rifles. But that's about it.

the pundit internationale

Here's that that jihadi having a row with an Aussie blogger. Quick recap - she linked to a text of his as an example of Al-Qa'ida thinking, he noticed the referral and the traffic, he replied to deny association with the OBL team but to boast of everything else.

Some points on the text.

1) Black humour. Abu Walid certainly likes his snark. Example?
It is relatively easy to believe that the eagle has turned into a canary after a minor facelift. But it is difficult to imagine that academic work can turn a security officer into a natural person, like the rest of God’s creatures.

Something probably gets lost in translation, but you can't deny the punch of the joke about spooks. And this is hilarious:

If this was the case I would have opened an office for consulting and terrorism and become very rich.

As is this:

But if the reverse is proven, I will donate all money seized in order to build a Jewish settlement in Holy Jerusalem.

It's like Bernard Manning with much less booze.

2) Self-mockery. You usually expect to find that a fanatic is someone who is utterly blind to the possibility they might be funny. I've always thought that the knowledge of one's own absurdity is a force for civilisation; we're all bloody ridiculous at some level and we should all probably wind our necks in. Orwell thought this about trying to make people goose-step in Britain; H.L. Mencken's crack about a good horse-laugh is much the same point. So this is pretty good writing.

Mrs Farrall is looking at the subject of Islamic groups, in particular “Al Qaeda”. I am the only one with the chronic writing disease...

3) A certain amount of the truth. It's always better to deliver the truth in highly controlled doses than it is to lie.

In general, the security services always deliberately inflate the risks and invent things from scratch. So we can see them exaggerate the ability of people who are against the law so the efforts of their departments will be admired and valued so they will get the awards and admiration. More importantly, they will get more authority and power so they can fully put society and the country under their control, if that is possible. This has actually happened in many countries, whether big or small.

4) Women. On the other hand, there's something seriously wrong here. The text is laced with a sock-pong of misogyny. He constantly goes on about "beauties", and he's obsessed with the figure of Lynndie England - of all the other US war criminals and torturers he could mention, it's only the woman who gets a jersey. Yoo, Bybee, Addington, Cambone, Feith, Cheney, and Miller are nowhere to be seen. Rumsfeld just scrapes in at the finish.

horrible images of the beautiful female soldiers...the beautiful American...the same beauty with a sweet smile...Today another beauty is researching on a living person and they are a candidate to become the next victim...So we become ready for an intellectual dialogue with the security beauty and the terrorist fighter, Mrs Farrall...The beauty “Leah Farrall” ( the fitna is worse than murder)...our brothers in the Arab media relied on comments in the article written by a woman “Farrall”...the Arab media who only relied on what the Australian beauty said...It is okay because whatever comes from the beauty is beautiful even if it is interrogation techniques approved by the ugly Rumsfeld

The fitna is worse than murder. And then I opened my eyes and saw a cup of tea....

5) Paying the cost to be the boss. It seems that denying the Holocaust is something you have to do in these circles, like saying "trust the people" and promising to do, well, something with the European Communities Act 1972 if you're a Tory. Abu Walid makes a couple of sick jokes in this line, but I have the impression he doesn't really believe it; his heart isn't in it. Which only makes it sicker.

And now they cry over the remains of false tragedies that they invented or made themselves like the holocaust lie or the demolished buildings of New York...........I am fully aware that my picture won’t improve even if they prove I am one of the disciples of Jesus Christ. Also, my picture won’t become worse than it is now, even if they discover I was a consultant to “Adolf Hitler” for the Holocaust.

This doesn't strike me as a real troofer. Although, that's the first time I've ever seen Hitler in scarequotes. The really sad thing here is that, if you were to swap out some nouns (you can probably guess which ones) and pass the whole thing through a proper spike-helmeted chief sub, you'd end up with something indistinguishable from the average output of, say, Fraser Nelson.

eternal September

An American PR man in Afghanistan speaks some Pashto. Actually, the fact he speaks some Pashto is the news he's currently engaged in pushing on the press. As David Petraeus says, they managed to teach noddy German to hordes of US servicemen going there in peacetime. More to the point, the British army managed to slurp chunks of German into its own culture.

Looking back at this post from June, 2005 - and wasn't the summer of 2005 a fucking joy? - it looks a lot like nobody really wants to do this. Which mirrors the strategy with uncanny precision. Bureaucracy knows; if you want information, measure what you're actually doing.

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