Archive for September, 2006

Useless Competitiveness Surveys

The RBC’s James Wimberley posts on one of those wonderful “competitiveness surveys” rightwing people like. Apparently the US has fallen from 1st to 6th, which would be important if it meant anything. Wimberley did a more formal and scientific version of this old post of mine, in which I plotted GDP growth rates and rankings for OECD countries and concluded that it was little better than a random walk. I did that one to back up some complaints of mine about methodology. He did the sums, though, and arrived at a negative correlation of -0.2 – that is to say, falling competitiveness on these things is a signal of faster economic growth.

The important message, though, is not just that they get it wrong. It’s about the entire project. This is not science, and it ain’t economics. If you were doing science, you’d want different inputs – for example, you’d want the actual growth numbers, not assessments of the policy – and you certainly wouldn’t proceed without defining “competitiveness”. In fact, it’s an exercise in what Richard Feynman called cargo cult science. It looks like science, but it’s not the real thing, and that’s why the planes don’t land.

What it is very much like is the Labour Party’s version of evidence-based policy. It’s not about deciding what to do on the basis of evidence, it’s about using statistics to coerce underlings into doing what the elite thinks they should, or in this case, to promote policies it likes.

Celtel terminates its roaming charges between East African markets. Now, SMS credit transfer is a currency acceptable across East Africa. How long before this is recognised? How long before more operators start interworking? GSM airtime – the African single currency. You heard it here first.

Apparently an offshoot of SETI is getting tired of waiting – they want to send, not receive. Quite a lot of their pals disagree. The result is a hell of a thread. Curiously, it’s the Russians who are keenest on howling into the void to see if anyone howls back. The questions are spectacular, not least what to say. (Geek moment: TCP connection request?)

Useless Competitiveness Surveys

The RBC’s James Wimberley posts on one of those wonderful “competitiveness surveys” rightwing people like. Apparently the US has fallen from 1st to 6th, which would be important if it meant anything. Wimberley did a more formal and scientific version of this old post of mine, in which I plotted GDP growth rates and rankings for OECD countries and concluded that it was little better than a random walk. I did that one to back up some complaints of mine about methodology. He did the sums, though, and arrived at a negative correlation of -0.2 – that is to say, falling competitiveness on these things is a signal of faster economic growth.

The important message, though, is not just that they get it wrong. It’s about the entire project. This is not science, and it ain’t economics. If you were doing science, you’d want different inputs – for example, you’d want the actual growth numbers, not assessments of the policy – and you certainly wouldn’t proceed without defining “competitiveness”. In fact, it’s an exercise in what Richard Feynman called cargo cult science. It looks like science, but it’s not the real thing, and that’s why the planes don’t land.

What it is very much like is the Labour Party’s version of evidence-based policy. It’s not about deciding what to do on the basis of evidence, it’s about using statistics to coerce underlings into doing what the elite thinks they should, or in this case, to promote policies it likes.

So Dave from PR’s got a vlog, then. Well, that’s only realistically going to be crap, isn’t it? It almost amounts to a definition of blogging that, if you issue a press release to the nationals before you start, that’s not it.

May I recommend, instead, one of many fine British blogs? Daniel “Dsquared” Davies on the disease of Crap Government IT, managerialism, and statis (it’s the new change). The Ministry on John Reid, Tony Blair and the word “radical”. Forceful and Moderate on the desperately shit nature of jobcentres – why do they have computers in them that are guaranteed not to have access to the majority of job adverts, and why should you be forced to use them?

Any one of these is certain to beat Dave’s efforts, and might even make you think. And if that happens to you, you’ll just have to read Chris Dillow.

User 64

Everyone is talking about this New Statesman story in which so-and-so visits Westminster Council’s CCTV surveillance control centre, which rather wonderfully turns out to be situated in the bowels of the dire Trocadero on Wardour Street. Apparently we have 20 per cent of world CCTV capability in Britain. But it was this response at Spyblog that inspired me. In comments, one Gareth Preston writes that:

They say that the CCTV systems in the UK are set up to tackle crime. So why do so many Male CCTV operators spend their “working hours” zooming in on female members of the public?

Hardly surprising, after all. But this reminded me of an incident in the 1990s, in the first fast upcurl of the surveillance boom, when a major British airport installed a spanking new CCTV network. As is common in many IT systems, the sysadmin had the ability to assign differential privileges to user accounts, so-say-WH Smith on the concourse could access just the camera pointing at the shiny-lettering thrillers, but a “superuser” like, say, the police or ATC could not only watch the feed of any camera on the airport, and not only control the Pan-Tilt-Zoom ones, but also take over control of any PTZ cam from whoever else was using it.

A few weeks in, and someone noticed that an extra, unauthorised user account existed on the system, User No.64. Unsurprisingly, whoever had created it had provisioned it with superuser status. Consternation. Meetings. Terrorists? (This was around about the time the IRA blew up Manchester city centre, doing millions of pounds’ worth of improvements.) It was decided not to blow the gaff, but to monitor User 64’s activity closely.

It was then discovered that the User spent his time zooming in on women’s backsides, and saving the images on tape. In fact he/she/it – well, it was only realistically going to be a he – appeared to be collecting them. Disgrace followed.

This is the full text of John Reid’s speech to the Labour Party Conference. In it, Reid states unequivocally that he does not believe that the State should be subject to law.

And let’s be clear. It cannot be right that the rights of an individual suspected terrorist be placed above the rights, life and limb of the British people. It’s wrong. Full stop. No ifs. No buts. It’s just plain wrong.

This appears to me to mean that, once the executive decides you are a suspected terrorist, you become an unperson and have no recourse against it. Let’s be clear in our turn. Far more important than democracy itself is the restriction of power. This is the central insight of all civilised polities. It is a principle that is besieged from every quarter, but specifically among the states that partake of the original.

How could it happen that Britain, the United States, and some Commonwealth countries – the states that share the great constitutional tradition of 1215 – have become the world leaders in returning to government by whim? It’s telling that there is no good way to express this particular feature of the last few years in English. German has the fine word Willkür, which connotes both whim but also a sort of contemptuous wielding of power, Willkürherrschaft. And that’s what the combination of Blair’s aspiration for a “command premiership” that would be “Bonapartist” rather than “feudal” with the war and the aggrandisement of the security bureaucrats has delivered. “Despotic government” was a term used by British imperial civil servants to differentiate those colonies that simply had a governor from those who had “representative government”, with an assembly of some sort, or “responsible government” where the government answered to it. But they expected that the governor would obey the law.

In fact, there is a better description for Reid. The word tyranny originally implied the usurpation of legitimate power. By that definition, Reid is a practising tyrant. This graph scares the shit out of me.

Apparently an offshoot of SETI is getting tired of waiting – they want to send, not receive. Quite a lot of their pals disagree. The result is a hell of a thread. Curiously, it’s the Russians who are keenest on howling into the void to see if anyone howls back. The questions are spectacular, not least what to say. (Geek moment: TCP connection request?)

So Dave from PR’s got a vlog, then. Well, that’s only realistically going to be crap, isn’t it? It almost amounts to a definition of blogging that, if you issue a press release to the nationals before you start, that’s not it.

May I recommend, instead, one of many fine British blogs? Daniel “Dsquared” Davies on the disease of Crap Government IT, managerialism, and statis (it’s the new change). The Ministry on John Reid, Tony Blair and the word “radical”. Forceful and Moderate on the desperately shit nature of jobcentres – why do they have computers in them that are guaranteed not to have access to the majority of job adverts, and why should you be forced to use them?

Any one of these is certain to beat Dave’s efforts, and might even make you think. And if that happens to you, you’ll just have to read Chris Dillow.

User 64

Everyone is talking about this New Statesman story in which so-and-so visits Westminster Council’s CCTV surveillance control centre, which rather wonderfully turns out to be situated in the bowels of the dire Trocadero on Wardour Street. Apparently we have 20 per cent of world CCTV capability in Britain. But it was this response at Spyblog that inspired me. In comments, one Gareth Preston writes that:

They say that the CCTV systems in the UK are set up to tackle crime. So why do so many Male CCTV operators spend their “working hours” zooming in on female members of the public?

Hardly surprising, after all. But this reminded me of an incident in the 1990s, in the first fast upcurl of the surveillance boom, when a major British airport installed a spanking new CCTV network. As is common in many IT systems, the sysadmin had the ability to assign differential privileges to user accounts, so-say-WH Smith on the concourse could access just the camera pointing at the shiny-lettering thrillers, but a “superuser” like, say, the police or ATC could not only watch the feed of any camera on the airport, and not only control the Pan-Tilt-Zoom ones, but also take over control of any PTZ cam from whoever else was using it.

A few weeks in, and someone noticed that an extra, unauthorised user account existed on the system, User No.64. Unsurprisingly, whoever had created it had provisioned it with superuser status. Consternation. Meetings. Terrorists? (This was around about the time the IRA blew up Manchester city centre, doing millions of pounds’ worth of improvements.) It was decided not to blow the gaff, but to monitor User 64’s activity closely.

It was then discovered that the User spent his time zooming in on women’s backsides, and saving the images on tape. In fact he/she/it – well, it was only realistically going to be a he – appeared to be collecting them. Disgrace followed.





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