Archive for May, 2007

Hard to say what the credibility index is here, but it’s certainly an interesting idea: were the IRA volunteers caught in Colombia there essentially as mercenaries, hiring out their valuable experience and technical advances to finance the movement after US donations dropped off?

It’s an exit strategy more than a few armies have followed – getting out, going into guerrilla consultancy.

The Obscurer is usually Blairite Pravda, but now and then it does something worth reading. Have a read of this story. One Anthony Bailey, a rich PR man, is apparently running a Labour Party entity called the “Faith Task Force” charged with raising donations from the rich and religious.

What is fascinating is exactly what Jamie Dowson’s story doesn’t point out. For a start, Mr. Bailey claims to have raised £7 million for the City Academies program. Yes, the same one at the heart of the police investigation into cash-for-honours. And honour – or rather, influence – is what he got for the cash. He is, it turns out, an “advisor” to the Department for Education and Skills and a member of its “Gifted and Talented Task Force”.

Wonderfully, even Lord Levy was suspicious of where his money came from, rejecting a £500,000 donation to the Labour Party from Bailey’s own pocket on suspicion that it came from abroad, in breach of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 1999. That law, let us point out, does not restrict donations to a nonparty pet project like the academies.

Bailey appears to be the Vatican’s chouchou flack, running a supposedly ancient order of chivalry for them. But let that pass. What worries me more than that is his client list – including the House of Saud and the Syrian Government. Lovely. And what about this?

As chairman of ‘Painting and Patronage’, a regular cultural exchange of artists between Saudi Arabia and Europe, Bailey has presented paintings by Prince Charles at exhibitions sponsored by British Aerospace.

Paintings by Prince Charles? In Saudi Arabia? Sponsored by BAE? And this chap gets to “advise” government on the prime minister’s pet policy? Actually, let’s not let the order pass. His order of chivalry “bestowed honours” on Margaret Thatcher and donated charitable funds to “pro-life causes”. I wonder how much of the charity came from either the Saudis or BAE? And did any of that money wander into one of the Blair academies?

It all has a smell of John Latsis’s £2m bung to the Tories, which was also backed up by lavish funding of Prinny’s various hobbies. It goes without saying that the link with the cash-for-honours case is tastefully elided.

Update: Via Labour Humanist, Bailey’s official biography according to his website. And what do we find? Not only is he on the board of a thing called the United Learning Trust that has been given not less than 12 schools to run, but he’s an Ambassador-at-Large for the Gambia. Yup, that’ll be the same Gambia whose president claims to be able to cure AIDS by magic, and whose private Ilyushin-62 C5-GNM is on a UN Security Council blacklist.

How could the principles in this post be put into effect? Here’s an opportunity. Legendary trade reporter Roger Ford discusses the situation at GNER, where the company’s franchise to operate the East Coast Main Line has been withdrawn because the parent company, Sea Containers, is in financial difficulty.

The details of the difficulty can be sketched briefly – unlike all the other rail franchises, GNER is profitable and rather than receiving a subsidy from the state, it actually pays the Department of Transport for the right to operate the service. There’s the rub – when the contract with the DfT was last renewed, these payments were considerably increased, Sea Containers believing that it would be possible to operate more trains. However, under open-access requirements, they later had to hand over the train paths required to other operators. Without the extra net income, the payments to the Treasury couldn’t be met, causing a cash crisis at the parent company.

The interesting thing is, though, that the DfT rather likes GNER. Wouldn’t you? Even if it didn’t make as much money as planned, it was after all one part of the rail network that wasn’t either haemorraghing cash or becoming a national synonym for incompetence. They want to keep the existing management in place until the franchise is re-awarded, and perhaps even under new owners.

Which begs the question – what on earth would the new franchisees be for? Using GNER occasionally, and at times quite a lot since 1999, I strongly agree with the DfT Railways Directorate that they ought to keep the job. And, even in the event that the franchise changes hands, most of the staff will change hands with it, as will assets like the traction depot in Hornsey Green.

So – if all that a franchise change implies is a swap of top executives, it’s arguable that the most likely change in the business this will produce is negative. Why not, then, just give the franchise to the people who work there? It could be structured in several ways, the simplest being the creation of a company owned by the 5,000 staff to take over the management of GNER.

Arguably, if GNER’s position as the operator of the ECML doesn’t give it any special claim to control access on the route, the very notion of a franchise from the government is absurd. They are just a large buyer of train paths and electricity from Network Rail’s London North Eastern Region. What is the state, as opposed from the quasistate entity Network Rail, providing here? Nothing, is the short answer. Therefore it has no claim to any money, except for corporation tax and VAT. This is, of course, unlikely to go over well with DfT Rail or the Treasury. Note, by the way, that I’m highly sceptical of open access on the railway – it works for telecoms/internetworking because there is very loose coupling between services and networks, and the privatisation experience has told us that railways are a lot different. (Look at the pain and difficulty the SNCF and Deutsche Bahn had agreeing terms for their high speed trains to run through on each other’s metals.)

If the government must have a piece of the action, I suggest this: it should lend the putative GNER Co-op the cash required to buy out Sea Containers, to be repaid over the life of the franchise at a reasonable interest rate. The risk would be minimal, backed as the loan would be by a stable cash flow and the right to re-award the job if GNER(C) went bust. Obviously, GNER(C) could choose to finance itself privately if it could get better terms, but this version is nice because it satisfies the objection that the Treasury wants its pie. (If it insisted, there could be a state profits participation defined as a percentage above some value, rather than a cash sum.)

At the moment, the new agreement provides that DfT Rail gets to grab all GNER’s revenue, and then pay back “incentive payments” if it achieves various targets. I think mine is rather more elegant. The current position also foresees the business’s net worth somehow migrating to the Government – mine would see the Government carrying an equivalent sum as an asset, and Sea Containers getting cash on the nail to go away.

To begin with, the scheme could have a fixed term of five years, with the option to continue or re-award – thus it would fulfil my criteria about test-driven development. It would be limited to one rail network, but could be generalised to others if it worked. It would get around the problem of “lemon socialism” – this is a real, successful operation.

Since 1982, it’s been a piece of conventional media/political wisdom that Britain prevailed in the Falklands War because of invaluable American support. This is especially true of Margaret Thatcher, both in office and in the post-ministerial Thatcher industry, as well as a wide range of pundits, Tories, and others. Up to a point, it’s also true that a lot of people on the Left seem to believe that “US support” somehow caused the war, operating on the common heuristic that Europeanism is a sufficient condition of pacifism.

For the frothing Right, of course, it’s a truism that we needed US support because the Europeans “betrayed” us – some people will even claim that France sent more weapons to Argentina during the war, which is (as we shall see) wildly counterfactual. Both groups use their specific versions of the myth to justify their general policy prescriptions.

So how great was that US support? Politically, it wavered throughout the war. The US government was understandably unkeen to see their pet dictator and closest military ally get in a fight, and some people (notably Jeanne Kirkpatrick) seem to have thought that a British fiasco would not have significantly damaged the alliance, while a triumph for the Argentine junta would have dramatically strengthened their hold on power. Perhaps a disaster for the British would, indeed, reinforce their dependence on the US. Hence, the net balance of US interests lay on Argentina’s side.

However, this view never carried the day, and it seems to have been stronger at the State Department (and presumably the CIA) than the Defense Department, especially the uniformed military. The US moderated its position somewhat as the first British forces reached the South Atlantic, and stayed that way.

Materially, it’s traditional to thank the US for the use of the Ascension Island airfield. It was indeed vital, but after all, it was our airfield, and the RAF began using it without waiting for political approval. The total US presence consisted of about a dozen men, mostly civilian employees of PanAm. The RAF had to bring all its own logistics, including getting the Royal Engineers to build a pipeline from the tanker landing point to the airfield. Speaking of which, the US also supplied a lot of jet fuel under the existing fuel-exchange agreement. Anything less would have been astonishing (they didn’t, for example, cut off the fuel exchange deal at Suez as far as I know), and anyway jet fuel is available in commerce.

There was also some kit, specifically the newer AIM-9L version of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile which was already on order but was delivered quicker. Again, it would have been a serious breach in the relationship to refuse this, and anyway, the Fleet Air Arm was ready to go to war with the missiles it had.

It was traditional to refer, if pressed, to the intelligence special relationship, the most secret and elite heart of post-war Anglo-American relations. Here are all those sets of initials – UKUSA, CAZAB, ECHELON – denoting treaties whose contents remain concealed from the grubby mob to this day, 59 years after UKUSA’s conclusion. Surely there must have been vital secret intelligence?

Here’s the shocker. Early in the war, a British delegation containing the then Defence Secretary, John Nott, and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Ronald Mason, visited Washington to ask for satellite reconnaissance of the Falklands (and presumably the Argentine southern air bases too). They were refused. It is widely believed that the basic content of the UK-US intelligence agreements includes provisions to the effect that in return for the use of British intelligence product, the US would provide access to things like satellites we don’t have. It seems that the argument from spookery was always quite simply an appeal to things mortals are not allowed to know.

Another question hangs over the offer of a US aircraft carrier for the Royal Navy’s use. The idea was apparently that the RN would crew the ship and provide its air wing. This is often cited as an example of US generosity, but this is naive. The crew requirement alone would have be huge, and everyone would have needed to requalify on equipment they had never seen before, not to mention learning to handle the huge unfamiliar ship in company with the fleet. No Royal Navy pilots had carried out arrester landings since the old Ark Royal had been decommissioned five years ago, and all the suitable aircraft (F4G Phantoms and Buccaneers) had been transferred to RAF squadrons and stripped of their specialist gear. What of the secret equipment? Crypto? Refuelling at sea? Given that the whole operation was governed by the need to finish the job before Admiral Winter got involved, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this offer was a white elephant in the original sense of the phrase – a gift intended to exhaust the recipient.

It’s a mixed picture, frankly.

What about the Europeans? The then EEC joined in a trade boycott of Argentina, even if the whole thing was rather divisive within Europe. France offered extensive intelligence and diplomatic help to round up stocks of the air-launched Exocets that might otherwise have been sold to Argentina, a crucial point. French naval aviation also took part in a discreet project to develop counter-Exocet tactics, using their Super Etendard aircraft to simulate attackers for British ships and planes in the North Sea, and opened the books on all the equipment they had sold to Argentina. The Swiss manufacturers of the Skyguard and Super Fledermaus radars and Oerlikon 35mm guns did likewise. The French Air Force also opened its staging post in Dakar to the RAF.

Conclusions? Well, if the Falklands experience is meant to be a guide for future policy, the obvious lesson is not “The Americans are great – let’s rely on them even more.” Neither is it “I don’t need a defence policy, I’m pro-European.” More seriously, it shows that the key characteristic of any policy at all is adaptability – what Rupert Smith calls organisational mobility. It’s not going to be like last time.

Further, don’t count on “the West,” “the integrated core,” “the world of order”, “the democratic world”, or “the Anglosphere” to know what to do if a conflict breaks out within its own walls. Certainly, the US considered Argentina part of the Western system at the time, and you can just about make a case that it used to be in the Anglosphere. But nobody had the faintest clue what to do about it. There was no measurable pressure to resolve the conflict beforehand, nor did anyone (this means you, Uncle Sam) try to restrain the Junta or warn the British. Nor did anyone do anything effective to stop the British “going to war with horse, foot, and guns in the year of Our Lord 1982!” as Max Hastings put it.

Meta-historiographical note: This myth nearly contained another myth. I thought I remember that Belgium refused to sell the British Army more ammunition in 1982. Googling, I learn that this in fact happened in 1991, but the myth seems quite common. It’s a pity because I had to lose quite a good joke as a result.

How could the principles in this post be put into effect? Here’s an opportunity. Legendary trade reporter Roger Ford discusses the situation at GNER, where the company’s franchise to operate the East Coast Main Line has been withdrawn because the parent company, Sea Containers, is in financial difficulty.

The details of the difficulty can be sketched briefly – unlike all the other rail franchises, GNER is profitable and rather than receiving a subsidy from the state, it actually pays the Department of Transport for the right to operate the service. There’s the rub – when the contract with the DfT was last renewed, these payments were considerably increased, Sea Containers believing that it would be possible to operate more trains. However, under open-access requirements, they later had to hand over the train paths required to other operators. Without the extra net income, the payments to the Treasury couldn’t be met, causing a cash crisis at the parent company.

The interesting thing is, though, that the DfT rather likes GNER. Wouldn’t you? Even if it didn’t make as much money as planned, it was after all one part of the rail network that wasn’t either haemorraghing cash or becoming a national synonym for incompetence. They want to keep the existing management in place until the franchise is re-awarded, and perhaps even under new owners.

Which begs the question – what on earth would the new franchisees be for? Using GNER occasionally, and at times quite a lot since 1999, I strongly agree with the DfT Railways Directorate that they ought to keep the job. And, even in the event that the franchise changes hands, most of the staff will change hands with it, as will assets like the traction depot in Hornsey Green.

So – if all that a franchise change implies is a swap of top executives, it’s arguable that the most likely change in the business this will produce is negative. Why not, then, just give the franchise to the people who work there? It could be structured in several ways, the simplest being the creation of a company owned by the 5,000 staff to take over the management of GNER.

Arguably, if GNER’s position as the operator of the ECML doesn’t give it any special claim to control access on the route, the very notion of a franchise from the government is absurd. They are just a large buyer of train paths and electricity from Network Rail’s London North Eastern Region. What is the state, as opposed from the quasistate entity Network Rail, providing here? Nothing, is the short answer. Therefore it has no claim to any money, except for corporation tax and VAT. This is, of course, unlikely to go over well with DfT Rail or the Treasury. Note, by the way, that I’m highly sceptical of open access on the railway – it works for telecoms/internetworking because there is very loose coupling between services and networks, and the privatisation experience has told us that railways are a lot different. (Look at the pain and difficulty the SNCF and Deutsche Bahn had agreeing terms for their high speed trains to run through on each other’s metals.)

If the government must have a piece of the action, I suggest this: it should lend the putative GNER Co-op the cash required to buy out Sea Containers, to be repaid over the life of the franchise at a reasonable interest rate. The risk would be minimal, backed as the loan would be by a stable cash flow and the right to re-award the job if GNER(C) went bust. Obviously, GNER(C) could choose to finance itself privately if it could get better terms, but this version is nice because it satisfies the objection that the Treasury wants its pie. (If it insisted, there could be a state profits participation defined as a percentage above some value, rather than a cash sum.)

At the moment, the new agreement provides that DfT Rail gets to grab all GNER’s revenue, and then pay back “incentive payments” if it achieves various targets. I think mine is rather more elegant. The current position also foresees the business’s net worth somehow migrating to the Government – mine would see the Government carrying an equivalent sum as an asset, and Sea Containers getting cash on the nail to go away.

To begin with, the scheme could have a fixed term of five years, with the option to continue or re-award – thus it would fulfil my criteria about test-driven development. It would be limited to one rail network, but could be generalised to others if it worked. It would get around the problem of “lemon socialism” – this is a real, successful operation.

Not depressed yet? You soon will be. Iraq is already a drugs transit route, but now it’s becoming a heroin producer.

I’d cry, but in fact things are already so bad it’s hard to see how this makes anything in Iraq that much worse. The Iraqi insurgents do not seem to be constrained by money in any obvious way – after all, there’s that other addictive substance whose production is often associated with violence and criminality that Iraq exports. And, given the agricultural problems referred to, it’s not as if it’s going to be a second Afghanistan in terms of production.

But it probably will mean more turf wars and blood feuds, not to mention more heroin addicts and more AIDS cases. Purple fingers.

There is still, still not going to be a war with Iran. Carrierwatch: Carl Vinson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington are all in deep refit. Enterprise and Harry S. Truman are still at the stage of doing CARQUALs, in the Big E’s case for reserve squadrons, Ronald Reagan arrived back in San Diego on the 20th April, and Dwight D. Eisenhower was due in Norfolk on the 23rd of May.

John Stennis and Nimitz are currently on station in the Gulf of Oman, the latter ship having just steamed back from Somali waters. Kitty Hawk is due out of Yokosuka for her summer cruise soon, but is tied to the North Pacific by her commitments there. Stennis sailed on the 16th of January, so is due to turn for home on the 16th of June, Nimitz being on station until September.

However much cruft is retailed to the press, literally no reserve exists in the fleet. (It’s also worth remembering that the Charles de Gaulle returns toFrance soon.)

Every blogger and their cat has opined on the brace of sooper sensational stories in the Grauniad by Simon Tisdall. The first rehearsed the usual Dr Evil theories about Iranian super spies controlling the war in Iraq, as usual without any facts. Tisdall’s source pointed to the supposed Revolutionary Guardsmen arrested in Kurdistan – you would have thought that if there was any evidence, they wouldn’t need to keep trotting that one out, but the paper wasn’t in the mood to engage in source criticism, instead devoting much space to a variety of cool infographix – woo! a silhouette of a Bradley armoured fighting vehicle!

The second claimed that the US was considering doing a mea culpa and trying to turn to the UN, again factlessly. My two cents are as follows – obviously the first is empty, looking at the carrier plot. The second, unlikely as it may sound, might contain a grain of truth. It was recently reported that the Baker-Hamilton plan was being reoffdusted, after all.

This post, and this one, not to mention this one, recommend themselves.

Update: The Iran-Syria Operations Group, it turns out, has been disbanded.

Not depressed yet? You soon will be. Iraq is already a drugs transit route, but now it’s becoming a heroin producer.

I’d cry, but in fact things are already so bad it’s hard to see how this makes anything in Iraq that much worse. The Iraqi insurgents do not seem to be constrained by money in any obvious way – after all, there’s that other addictive substance whose production is often associated with violence and criminality that Iraq exports. And, given the agricultural problems referred to, it’s not as if it’s going to be a second Afghanistan in terms of production.

But it probably will mean more turf wars and blood feuds, not to mention more heroin addicts and more AIDS cases. Purple fingers.

There is still, still not going to be a war with Iran. Carrierwatch: Carl Vinson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington are all in deep refit. Enterprise and Harry S. Truman are still at the stage of doing CARQUALs, in the Big E’s case for reserve squadrons, Ronald Reagan arrived back in San Diego on the 20th April, and Dwight D. Eisenhower was due in Norfolk on the 23rd of May.

John Stennis and Nimitz are currently on station in the Gulf of Oman, the latter ship having just steamed back from Somali waters. Kitty Hawk is due out of Yokosuka for her summer cruise soon, but is tied to the North Pacific by her commitments there. Stennis sailed on the 16th of January, so is due to turn for home on the 16th of June, Nimitz being on station until September.

However much cruft is retailed to the press, literally no reserve exists in the fleet. (It’s also worth remembering that the Charles de Gaulle returns toFrance soon.)

Every blogger and their cat has opined on the brace of sooper sensational stories in the Grauniad by Simon Tisdall. The first rehearsed the usual Dr Evil theories about Iranian super spies controlling the war in Iraq, as usual without any facts. Tisdall’s source pointed to the supposed Revolutionary Guardsmen arrested in Kurdistan – you would have thought that if there was any evidence, they wouldn’t need to keep trotting that one out, but the paper wasn’t in the mood to engage in source criticism, instead devoting much space to a variety of cool infographix – woo! a silhouette of a Bradley armoured fighting vehicle!

The second claimed that the US was considering doing a mea culpa and trying to turn to the UN, again factlessly. My two cents are as follows – obviously the first is empty, looking at the carrier plot. The second, unlikely as it may sound, might contain a grain of truth. It was recently reported that the Baker-Hamilton plan was being reoffdusted, after all.

This post, and this one, not to mention this one, recommend themselves.

Update: The Iran-Syria Operations Group, it turns out, has been disbanded.

Guess what our old pal Jim Gamble is up to? The man who gave us Operation Ore is about to solve the Madeleine McCann case.

Can we guess how he’s going to do it? Yes, that’s right. With a big database and a stunning ignorance of the rules of statistics.

Senior police officers within Ceop – the child exploitation and online protection agency – appealed yesterday for anyone who had been on holiday in Praia de la Luz in the two weeks to May 3, the day Madeleine disappeared, to send in photographs taken in the area of the Ocean Club complex, where the McCann family was staying. Jim Gamble, chief executive of Ceop, said police were looking for pictures with people in the background who were not connected to the photographer…

The technology, known as the Child Base, uses image recognition to analyse and compare pictures of online abuse and abusers in a fraction of the time it takes to do so manually. The system can scan and analyse 1,000 images per hour.

Officers believe whoever abducted Madeleine must have been watching children at the complex run by tour operator Mark Warner for some time. They hope by scanning holiday snaps they might be able to match up the perpetrator with their online library of paedophiles.

Of course, we’re faced with the problem of distinguishing national press crap from police crap here. But it’s mental suicide to funk the data one has, Watson. Apparently, they want to collect a lot of photos from the area and run them past an image hash algorithm that compares them with a database of…well, it would seem to be their collection of Internet filth, right?

The flaw is obvious. The comparison sample will be full of a few people who took a lot of photos. Taking lots of paedophile photos and putting them on the Web is a fundamentally weird and strange thing to do – after all, it’s as good as walking into a police station with your photos. So, unless you are Cesare Lombroso, this isn’t going to be very informative. The chance of one person in their sample from the whole online world being on the spot is not that great. Given that the hash algorithm is fallible, this is basically an automated version of my mother’s principle that “His eyes are too close together – he must be guilty!” After all, the people they have culled from whatever horrible images they have on file will be representative of at least some of one group – humans. People with Internet access tend to be quite self-similar – between 15 and 65 and white, sad to say. Like people who go to posh resorts in Portugal, really.

This gives us two failure modes – either the killer doesn’t look remotely like anyone on file, and therefore the search is trivially defeated, or a lot of people in photographs look enough like the ones on file to drown them in false positives. Worse, it looks like they’re trying to investigate a priori this way – look for anyone who looks weird and therefore must be a suspect.

Further, it goes without saying that the upload form is not SSL or START TLS encrypted.

Update: To put this a little more formally – given that Cesare Lombroso was wrong and not all criminals look the same, and that there is a large number of people who appear in the photos, there’s a significant chance that someone in the large set of people looks like someone in the database because they are both sets of people. You have to add the false positive rate of the comparison to this, too. This actually gets worse the more photos the public send in. The chance that the killer (realistically) happens to look like someone in the database is likely to be tiny.

This illuminates the fundamental difference between starting with someone who is linked to the crime in some way and looking for them, and looking for someone the crime can be linked to in some way..





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