Archive for February, 2007

On Newsnight last night, Blairite fatster Sion Simon MP demonstrated that he is too stupid to be trusted with glue. And Jeremy Paxman demonstrated that he no longer has any credibility, but we’ll get to that later.

Well, let’s deal with the fool before the knave. Simon was on the show to defend the government against trade unionists who are angry about private-equity funds buying into their employers. Now, there are a number of arguments you can have about this, for example whether the private-equity guys are more likely to squeeze the company for cash, or whether their ability to ignore the stock market is likely to offer stability.

But Simon wasn’t going to be bothered with any flummery about efficient capital markets, contestability, or similar rot. When the GMB representative he was facing suggested that the government should end subsidies to private equity, Simon pigged at the cam and snarled, several times, that “there is no subsidy!”

He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Private-equity funds typically borrow heavily to buy into target companies, thus benefiting from leverage. This is crucial, because the tax system treats two forms of return to capital very differently. Dividends, paid to shareholders, are taxable. Interest, paid to creditors, is considered a cost of doing business and is tax-deductible. This is a subsidy to capitalists who use debt financing rather than equity financing, such as private equity funds.

Interestingly, nobody really knows why this is so – the convention that interest is tax-deductible began in the 19th century for no very clear reason. But the last person to ask about it is clearly Sion Simon MP.

Whilst I’m on the topic of last night’s TV: what the fucking fuck is fucking Jeremy Paxman doing pretending not to know the basic facts on the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act 2001?

Recap: this legislation made it possible to deport or lock up foreign nationals on the basis of secret evidence, which did not have to be disclosed to a court or to the detained. Their only legal recourse under ATCSA is to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, SIAC, which hears their cases in camera, the detainee being represented by a special advocate approved by the government. Even he, though, doesn’t necessarily get to see the full case.

Now, recently, ATCSA has been used in an attempt to get rid of some people who were originally subject to the iniquitous, no-evidence “control orders” before they were struck down by the courts. Most recently, the alleged spiritual leader of Al-Qa’ida in Europe, Abu Qatada, failed in an appeal to SIAC against his deportation to Jordan.

SIAC ruled, it seems, that because the Jordanians had promised not to torture him, he would be perfectly safe there, and therefore his deportation would be lawful. They promised, see. Not that this protected another man who was deported to Algeria in a similar case, and was promptly locked up despite the fact the Algerians promised not to lock him up. But, apparently, they promised, so that’s all right.

We could stop at this juncture to debate whether the fact a powerful actor promised not to do something is any kind of security, especially when that actor is a sovereign state, or whether a judge has any business relying on promises as an argument to trump the law. But we won’t. We’ve had these arguments many, many times already.

But what Jeremy Paxman thinks he is doing in shouting at some chap from Amnesty that “he KNOWS the charges against him! he KNOWS the evidence!”, when the whole point of the case is that he DOESN’T and neither does anybody else (did you know that the SIAC judgment is going to appear in two versions, one secret and one public?), well, that goes beyond me.

A close shave

Apparently, the Red Army in Afghanistan called the kind of raid it calls a “zachistka” in Chechnya a “prichyoska” or haircut. “An unnecessarily brutal cordon-and-search operation, sir, and something for the weekend?”

Looking at this inspiring achievement, I fell to wondering exactly how YouTube is serving up its videos. Now, so far I can remember seeing YouTube content from hostnames with the form lax-vXX.lax.youtube.com or ash-vXX.ash.youtube.com, where the x stands for an arbitrary number. Clearly those are either LA or Ashburn, Virginia, where the big Equinix East Coast IX is located.

What interests me, though, is whether or not YouTube makes any effort to serve files topologically close to the user. They don’t use any multicast or CDN-ing, so do they just dump the stuff out there, or do they traffic-engineer at all? Now, being in the UK, I’d expect to get ash.youtube.com all the time, but I don’t – it seems to be about equally likely to come from Ashburn or LA. Now, if you were trying to shorten the haul, a simple way of doing it would be to replicate content between the two data centres and do some form of traffic engineering. That would also allow fail-over between them, which is nice.

YouTube might be doing this, but something else as well. For example, they might be working on the principle of serving from the nearest data centre, but also load-balancing across them, so you would get the nearest unless it’s congested. Alternatively, they might just be accepting uploads to whichever data centre and then pouring it forth.

Now, I seem to recall seeing somewhere that they account for 20Gbps/s of outbound traffic, rising fast. That was back in June last year. Their own blog claims 45 terabytes a day, i.e. 52 GBytes a second. What would be interesting to know would be the average number of times one of their items is viewed, which would give an idea of the net imbalance between their upstream and downstream traffic. In so far as the two match, YouTube could cover this through peering – after all, it might as well be a fair-sized ISP. But the excess outbound traffic is what they have to pay for.

Now, I did a quick check on the selection of “most viewed” videos. With the top one being viewed 553,934 times and the bottom 6,837, I used the Malatesta estimator to arrive at an estimate of 196,270 views for a top-100 video. Supposedly, 100 million clips a day are accessed, but it’s not clear whether those are unique – does anyone know how many are on there? But if the top 100 accounts for, say, 60 per cent of the viewing, we’d be looking at a figure of, say, 270,000 views per vid, with a highly skewed distribution.

To put it another way, YouTube is a giant copying machine, that kicks out 270,000 bytes for every byte it takes in. Call it the content replication factor. Because the replication takes place at source, and the replicated traffic has to be carried over the backbone network, this implies that essentially all YouTube’s traffic requirement must be covered by paid-for transit, which costs about $20/Mbits-sec/month at this scale. That would be – ouch – $8 million a month…

And at that price, you certainly don’t want things like this happening:

11 t3-1.mpd01.dca01.atlas.cogentco.com (130.117.2.102) 165.207 ms 108.370 ms 112.946 ms
12 t9-3.mpd01.iah01.atlas.cogentco.com (154.54.2.222) 186.815 ms 186.259 ms 191.197 ms
13 t7-1.mpd01.lax01.atlas.cogentco.com (154.54.5.194) 231.125 ms 187.475 ms 188.842 ms
14 t4-2.mpd01.lax05.atlas.cogentco.com (154.54.6.230) 187.148 ms 187.109 ms 191.818 ms
15 g0-3.na21.b015619-0.iah01.atlas.cogentco.com (38.112.36.50) 174.083 ms 175.773 ms 174.523 ms
16 10.254.254.233 (10.254.254.233) 350.527 ms 278.645 ms 202.520 ms
17 ash-v83.ash.youtube.com (64.15.118.204) 184.436 ms 183.616 ms 182.910 ms

Oops.

This time, Blair seems to mean it about British troops beginning to draw-down their presence in southern Iraq. All the usual provisos still apply – so far, it’s just part of the extra force that is going, and the last squaddie is scheduled to leave in three Friedman units’ time, like he has been since 2003. But this time we have a timetable within one Friedman and a number.

So it’s time to talk seriously about the people who have worked for us in Iraq. The Americans are only accepting risible numbers of refugees. 50 per cent of Iraqi refugees in Europe are in Sweden. It won’t do to claim that the situation is peachy in Iraq. The interpreters, for example, are marked men.

Back in August, 2005 I said that

Unfortunately, the best form of support the British Left can offer secular Iraqis would be to countersign their applications for political asylum. I think someone suggested this recently – perhaps we could get a Pledgebank going?

The government is still trying to force existing refugees onto aeroplanes to Irbil in Kurdistan, this being the only place not so dangerous that the law would forbid it – apparently, if you get killed between Irbil and home that’s OK. It’s high time that we went operational on this.

This time, Blair seems to mean it about British troops beginning to draw-down their presence in southern Iraq. All the usual provisos still apply – so far, it’s just part of the extra force that is going, and the last squaddie is scheduled to leave in three Friedman units’ time, like he has been since 2003. But this time we have a timetable within one Friedman and a number.

So it’s time to talk seriously about the people who have worked for us in Iraq. The Americans are only accepting risible numbers of refugees. 50 per cent of Iraqi refugees in Europe are in Sweden. It won’t do to claim that the situation is peachy in Iraq. The interpreters, for example, are marked men.

Back in August, 2005 I said that

Unfortunately, the best form of support the British Left can offer secular Iraqis would be to countersign their applications for political asylum. I think someone suggested this recently – perhaps we could get a Pledgebank going?

The government is still trying to force existing refugees onto aeroplanes to Irbil in Kurdistan, this being the only place not so dangerous that the law would forbid it – apparently, if you get killed between Irbil and home that’s OK. It’s high time that we went operational on this.

Over the last few months, I’ve done a succession of posts which can be read under the tag TWOS, for the war on stupidity, which explore various forms of ideology and consensus. More related posts will be tagged as I go. But is this just an exercise in pooflinging? Beyond tirades about managerialism, Tony Blair, bad engineering, and other stupidity-generating institutions, does TYR offer anything? Daniel Davies, of course, would argue that poo-flinging is indeed enough, for a variety of reasons.

He’s right, up to a point. After all, when the forces marshalled behind incredibly bad ideas are so powerful, who would want to waste time discussing alternatives when you could be concentrating your fire, or rather poo, on the enemy? And his rationale – that most people can identify the flaws in a proposal, but coming up with ones that have fewer requires ability – is reasonably persuasive.

But I think this doesn’t go far enough. Stupidity in organisations is like noise in information systems. Claude Shannon worked this stuff out at Bell Labs in the 1940s, when he theorised that the factor governing the informational throughput of any communication channel, all other things being equal, was the error-rate. Therefore, for a given bandwidth, the fastest link is the one with the better error-cancelling procedure.

We can see similar processes at work throughout the natural world, and throughout society. Evolution, markets, debate – these are all processes that create a big pool of errors, and then use a stupidity-elimination process to sieve out the least silly. Then shuffle, recombine, iterate, and destupidify. The persuasive force of this is well shown by simple computer simulations – like this one, ICE, which aims to defeat the argument against evolution from irreducible complexity. ICE sets a simple challenge, to catch as many randomly dropped balls as possible using crosses on a grid. Its organisms are randomly-generated, then tested and ranked in order of fitness. Then they are recombined, with random changes, and the whole thing is run again, with those below a threshold level eliminated. Evolution is visible within two or three iterations.

So, here we are at my first point. The Redwood consensus, as we identified in this post, relies on the creation of anxiety about security issues that the core executive of the state can offer relief for, as a substitute for anxiety about economic issues that the state will offer no relief for. It further assumes that a managerialist elite consensus knows what to do on all issues.

Clearly, this is highly stupidogenic. Managerialism relies, after all, on the use of pseudo-scientific methods to enforce compliance with the managers’ a priori beliefs. The deliberate exemption of a large sector of the political sphere from normal debate is at the heart of the consensus – UK-US relations, control of drugs and borders, the workplace. Where de-stupidising processes are not at work, stupidity accumulates.

Therefore, we need a more hostile memetic environment.

But that’s not all. If we want faster memetic evolution, as well as sharpening the stupidity-remover’s blade, we need to increase the size of the pool of errors behind it. I’ve said before that I can’t understand why conservatives, and for that matter right-libertarians, think that innovation is best encouraged when the cost of failure is maximised and the barriers to entry high. Consider the experiment Jonah Lehrer describes here, in which monkeys were raised in three environments of varying richness. Poverty of experience had visible effects on the monkeys’ brains. Interestingly, though, the benefits of a richer childhood showed diminishing returns – above a certain point, the monkeys derived no further benefit.

Now think of society. Can anyone seriously argue that a few percentage points shaved off Bill Gates’ income would deter any significant innovation? Can anyone seriously deny that a few tens of millions of dollars wouldn’t have a seriously beneficial effect on a significant number of children in, say, Africa? (Bill Gates certainly wouldn’t, after all, as he is giving substantial amounts of his money to them.) Just as importantly, trying to do anything new needs space, time, and freedom. And, as we pointed out, there is a sense in which greater equality is greater freedom.

But wait. Isn’t this contrary to our first principle? Might there be some awful social failure mode concealed in a left-libertarian utopia? You’d be right. If there’s one philosophy that has achieved more than any other and is still to cause any pyramids of skulls, it’s scepticism.

Now, scepticism may not tell us very much about what to try, but it does have a built-in stupidity-reduction process. Even if you’re a fascist, if you are a coherent sceptic you won’t be able to do too much damage. Whatever your ideology, it doesn’t matter, so long as you get your methodology right. Rather than thinking about end-states, utopias, and anti-utopias, wouldn’t it be a more robust practice to think about processes, methods, and principles that minimise stupidity and maximise creativity? Another lesson from evolution is that incremental steps towards problem-solving are more likely to hit the target than revolutionary change.

This brings us back to the importance of negativity as a creative force. If democratic participation, evidence-based policy, and other nostrums are to have any meaning, they must have one vital feature – they must be able to force the government, the management, or whoever to change course. This is what Tony Blair’s friends fail to realise whilst havering about “engagement”, “community” and other pabulum – it won’t gain anyone’s trust whilst the only result of a negative answer is that Blair’s office sends out millions of e-mails to tell the citizens that they are stupid.

One of the most important reasons we need stupidity-removing institutions is control lag, coupled with the salience heuristic. As a rule, people overestimate the importance of the loud, the obvious, the dramatic, and the immediate. Equally, they find it difficult to manipulate anything when the response to their actions is delayed or ambiguous – an excellent example is Goodhart’s law. Lag tends to cause exaggerated control input – the longer you wait, the greater the temptation to press the button again. (Two words: John Reid.) The end result can be a positive feedback loop, with the deviations getting bigger and bigger as you struggle to get ahead of the cycle.

It’s another reason why politics should be difficult. It’s also an argument against hierarchy. John Boyd’s concept of the OODA loop, drawn from his experience as a fighter pilot, argues that in any competitive activity, the actor with the fastest process of observation, orientation, decision, and action will win. Boyd argued that this implied a flatter command structure for the military, among many other things. Similarly, David Stirling originally thought that the SAS’s four-man teams would prevent a leader emerging in each. Empirical data shows that small teams capture most of the benefits of aggregating information. At a lower level, lag and information loss are always less the shorter the link. People who actually do the job usually know how it works, and anyway will find out first if they are wrong.

To recap briefly: ideas are not the problem, as they will be generated in conditions of freedom and maximised horizontal exchange. Stupidity elimination is the problem. Hierarchy is the problem, management is not the problem. Final goal targets are not the problem, psuedo-statistics is the problem.

And most importantly of all, if we’re serious about a new left-wing consensus, we ought to install it on top of a sceptical operating system.

The party of business, again

Anyone remember this post from March last year? The Tories somehow managed to swing a deal on the freehold of their HQ in Smith Square that would have left them paying a yield of 6.42% to the buyer, a £2.2m hit to cashflow. I had originally had the impression that the deal had been suspiciously profitable, but it turned out that the Tories lost on it.

Anyway, since then, there has been some more hot, filthy, frenzied property action down in SW1. And, it turns out, Minitrue has news. Specifically, the property wasn’t bought, but a mysterious British Virgin Islands entity which owned it was. The sale netted precisely the £30m Jonathan Marsland said it would, but this company has been kept in existence despite the sale of its only assets. Funny that.

It’s come to my attention, again, that the fine Samuel Smith’s Brewery of Tadcaster, West Yorkshire produces beer that a nontrivial number of bloggers enjoy and recommend. Smiths is best-known outside Yorkshire and the real ale community for the clutch of pubs it owns in central London, much favoured for their low prices and scruffy ambience. Exhibit A: Brad of Sadly, No! brandishes a Smiths glass. Exhibit B: Alex “WorldChanging” Steffen advocates sustainable lager. Exhibit C: well, me, really. Sam Smiths: top bloggers recommend it.

Over the last few months, I’ve done a succession of posts which can be read under the tag TWOS, for the war on stupidity, which explore various forms of ideology and consensus. More related posts will be tagged as I go. But is this just an exercise in pooflinging? Beyond tirades about managerialism, Tony Blair, bad engineering, and other stupidity-generating institutions, does TYR offer anything? Daniel Davies, of course, would argue that poo-flinging is indeed enough, for a variety of reasons.

He’s right, up to a point. After all, when the forces marshalled behind incredibly bad ideas are so powerful, who would want to waste time discussing alternatives when you could be concentrating your fire, or rather poo, on the enemy? And his rationale – that most people can identify the flaws in a proposal, but coming up with ones that have fewer requires ability – is reasonably persuasive.

But I think this doesn’t go far enough. Stupidity in organisations is like noise in information systems. Claude Shannon worked this stuff out at Bell Labs in the 1940s, when he theorised that the factor governing the informational throughput of any communication channel, all other things being equal, was the error-rate. Therefore, for a given bandwidth, the fastest link is the one with the better error-cancelling procedure.

We can see similar processes at work throughout the natural world, and throughout society. Evolution, markets, debate – these are all processes that create a big pool of errors, and then use a stupidity-elimination process to sieve out the least silly. Then shuffle, recombine, iterate, and destupidify. The persuasive force of this is well shown by simple computer simulations – like this one, ICE, which aims to defeat the argument against evolution from irreducible complexity. ICE sets a simple challenge, to catch as many randomly dropped balls as possible using crosses on a grid. Its organisms are randomly-generated, then tested and ranked in order of fitness. Then they are recombined, with random changes, and the whole thing is run again, with those below a threshold level eliminated. Evolution is visible within two or three iterations.

So, here we are at my first point. The Redwood consensus, as we identified in this post, relies on the creation of anxiety about security issues that the core executive of the state can offer relief for, as a substitute for anxiety about economic issues that the state will offer no relief for. It further assumes that a managerialist elite consensus knows what to do on all issues.

Clearly, this is highly stupidogenic. Managerialism relies, after all, on the use of pseudo-scientific methods to enforce compliance with the managers’ a priori beliefs. The deliberate exemption of a large sector of the political sphere from normal debate is at the heart of the consensus – UK-US relations, control of drugs and borders, the workplace. Where de-stupidising processes are not at work, stupidity accumulates.

Therefore, we need a more hostile memetic environment.

But that’s not all. If we want faster memetic evolution, as well as sharpening the stupidity-remover’s blade, we need to increase the size of the pool of errors behind it. I’ve said before that I can’t understand why conservatives, and for that matter right-libertarians, think that innovation is best encouraged when the cost of failure is maximised and the barriers to entry high. Consider the experiment Jonah Lehrer describes here, in which monkeys were raised in three environments of varying richness. Poverty of experience had visible effects on the monkeys’ brains. Interestingly, though, the benefits of a richer childhood showed diminishing returns – above a certain point, the monkeys derived no further benefit.

Now think of society. Can anyone seriously argue that a few percentage points shaved off Bill Gates’ income would deter any significant innovation? Can anyone seriously deny that a few tens of millions of dollars wouldn’t have a seriously beneficial effect on a significant number of children in, say, Africa? (Bill Gates certainly wouldn’t, after all, as he is giving substantial amounts of his money to them.) Just as importantly, trying to do anything new needs space, time, and freedom. And, as we pointed out, there is a sense in which greater equality is greater freedom.

But wait. Isn’t this contrary to our first principle? Might there be some awful social failure mode concealed in a left-libertarian utopia? You’d be right. If there’s one philosophy that has achieved more than any other and is still to cause any pyramids of skulls, it’s scepticism.

Now, scepticism may not tell us very much about what to try, but it does have a built-in stupidity-reduction process. Even if you’re a fascist, if you are a coherent sceptic you won’t be able to do too much damage. Whatever your ideology, it doesn’t matter, so long as you get your methodology right. Rather than thinking about end-states, utopias, and anti-utopias, wouldn’t it be a more robust practice to think about processes, methods, and principles that minimise stupidity and maximise creativity? Another lesson from evolution is that incremental steps towards problem-solving are more likely to hit the target than revolutionary change.

This brings us back to the importance of negativity as a creative force. If democratic participation, evidence-based policy, and other nostrums are to have any meaning, they must have one vital feature – they must be able to force the government, the management, or whoever to change course. This is what Tony Blair’s friends fail to realise whilst havering about “engagement”, “community” and other pabulum – it won’t gain anyone’s trust whilst the only result of a negative answer is that Blair’s office sends out millions of e-mails to tell the citizens that they are stupid.

One of the most important reasons we need stupidity-removing institutions is control lag, coupled with the salience heuristic. As a rule, people overestimate the importance of the loud, the obvious, the dramatic, and the immediate. Equally, they find it difficult to manipulate anything when the response to their actions is delayed or ambiguous – an excellent example is Goodhart’s law. Lag tends to cause exaggerated control input – the longer you wait, the greater the temptation to press the button again. (Two words: John Reid.) The end result can be a positive feedback loop, with the deviations getting bigger and bigger as you struggle to get ahead of the cycle.

It’s another reason why politics should be difficult. It’s also an argument against hierarchy. John Boyd’s concept of the OODA loop, drawn from his experience as a fighter pilot, argues that in any competitive activity, the actor with the fastest process of observation, orientation, decision, and action will win. Boyd argued that this implied a flatter command structure for the military, among many other things. Similarly, David Stirling originally thought that the SAS’s four-man teams would prevent a leader emerging in each. Empirical data shows that small teams capture most of the benefits of aggregating information. At a lower level, lag and information loss are always less the shorter the link. People who actually do the job usually know how it works, and anyway will find out first if they are wrong.

To recap briefly: ideas are not the problem, as they will be generated in conditions of freedom and maximised horizontal exchange. Stupidity elimination is the problem. Hierarchy is the problem, management is not the problem. Final goal targets are not the problem, psuedo-statistics is the problem.

And most importantly of all, if we’re serious about a new left-wing consensus, we ought to install it on top of a sceptical operating system.





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