Archive for June, 2007

This Grauniad essay on Robert Byron raises an interesting question. Y’know the chap – wrote The Road to Oxiana, very typical Eton’n’Oxford gay aesthete, pretty much a standard template for 1890s-1950s British travel writing, obsessed by foreign architecture but didn’t care for the people over much. Consider this:

Byron wrote that the catalyst for his fascination with Persian art was a photograph of Gumbad-i-Kabus, the great 11th-century tomb-tower near the Caspian sea. An obsession with Persian brickwork followed, as he studied the works of Arthur Upham Pope, doyen of Persian art studies. By early 1933 Byron was hatching a plan for an expedition to Chinese Turkestan, today’s Xinjiang, but it was thwarted by native insurrection. So the goal became Afghanistan through Persia. At first he was to link up with an eccentric two-lorry expedition testing the use of charcoal gas instead of petrol; but he parted from it, with relief, within hours of their rendezvous in Afghanistan..

What might have happened otherwise? Imagine him staying on with the grimy mechanics and their project. No doubt a discreet preparation for U-boat blockade. AEC wheels churning through the wadis, rough chemistry in the gasifier. It’s a long shot but it might just work. Does he become a mid-century science-fiction exponent instead?

This Grauniad essay on Robert Byron raises an interesting question. Y’know the chap – wrote The Road to Oxiana, very typical Eton’n’Oxford gay aesthete, pretty much a standard template for 1890s-1950s British travel writing, obsessed by foreign architecture but didn’t care for the people over much. Consider this:

Byron wrote that the catalyst for his fascination with Persian art was a photograph of Gumbad-i-Kabus, the great 11th-century tomb-tower near the Caspian sea. An obsession with Persian brickwork followed, as he studied the works of Arthur Upham Pope, doyen of Persian art studies. By early 1933 Byron was hatching a plan for an expedition to Chinese Turkestan, today’s Xinjiang, but it was thwarted by native insurrection. So the goal became Afghanistan through Persia. At first he was to link up with an eccentric two-lorry expedition testing the use of charcoal gas instead of petrol; but he parted from it, with relief, within hours of their rendezvous in Afghanistan..

What might have happened otherwise? Imagine him staying on with the grimy mechanics and their project. No doubt a discreet preparation for U-boat blockade. AEC wheels churning through the wadis, rough chemistry in the gasifier. It’s a long shot but it might just work. Does he become a mid-century science-fiction exponent instead?

Meme time

I’ve been tagged with a Gordon Brown-related meme by Tom “The Green Ribbon” Griffin.

2 things Gordon Brown should be proud of

A sensible monetary policy, based on rules rather than “judgment”.
A sensible fiscal policy, based on rules rather than “judgment”.

2 things he should apologise for

Supporting the war in Iraq, while pretending that drawing down the whole contingency fund to pay for it every year means “it doesn’t cost anything new”.

Mulcting the poor to fund tax cuts for the less poor in the last Budget.

2 things that he should do immediately when he becomes PM

Withdraw from Iraq, yesterday.
Start an urgent scenario planning exercise on what to do if/when Pakistan falls apart.

2 things he should do while he is PM.

Kill ID cards and the associated database mania – send the Treasury devils to dig through it.
Restore the fuel-duty escalator, and redistribute the cash.

Tag 8 more bloggers

Dsquared, Bradford Vision, Bradistan Calling, James Nicoll, Dan Hardie, Eurozone Watch, Mark Thoma, and Koranteng.

Casualties

A commenter asks about non-fatal casualties in the British sector in Iraq, suggesting that the mass firefight in which Major Paul Harding was killed might be going on all the time. You ask, we answer.

Here’s a chart showing UK wounded in action, by admissions to field hospitals, and killed, from June, 2006, to May, 2007, the last month for which figures are available. The data is in this PDF document, taken from the MOD site.

a chart showing a rapid rise in wounded since September

The rate at which soldiers are being wounded seems to have gone through the roof in September, 2006, and not come back down again. It will no doubt be interesting to review this in a few days when the June, 2007 figures are published. After all, the 4th Rifles already have another death to mourn.

Perhaps that should be in Every Boy’s Handbook?

RSA reports on an online shop set up specifically to drain stolen credit cards. A card costs between $2-5 a throw, presumably reflecting a low success rate in sucking them dry. Setting up a merchant account and DIYing, as most of Landslide’s customers did, is clearly the way to go.

Doug Farah‘s book on Viktor Bout is out. You can read an excerpt in this month’s Men’s Vogue, which is certainly a fittingly Hunter Thompson-esque scene for him, and an interview. Salient points include this:

I think one of the most startling moments for me was when we were talking to Treasury Department people doing Viktor who were completely unaware in 2005 of the whole previous effort to get him in 1999, 2000, and 2001. They had never been briefed and there weren’t any type of intelligence files that they could get. They thought they had hit on this one new person and we told the guys we were dealing with, “But what about the other effort?” and they were like, “What?” It was startling that the disconnect was so huge.

It’s only because I remembered some of the original inquiries in the late 90s that I noticed anything significant about it back in May, 2004. There’s plenty more good stuff in the body of the thing, too – like this anecdote..

In one celebrated case, his operation boldly spirited away a decrepit Ilyushin plane that had been consigned for use as a Soviet war monument. Former Russian aviation official Valery Spurnov recounted a tale of Bout offering one of his pilots $20,000 to fly a shuddering wreck out to a desert landing in the Emirates, where it was promptly turned into a highway-side billboard.

That’ll be this aircraft, TL-ACN, serial no. 53403072, ex-Centrafrican Airlines, now rotting in Umm Alquwain as an advert. Note the engine covers that still carry her Air Pass/Air Cess registration.

And then there’s this:

As soon as Bout’s plane took off, British agents sent an encrypted message notifying superiors in London to prepare for his imminent arrest in Athens. But shortly after the message was sent, the aircraft suddenly veered off its flight plan and disappeared in mountainous terrain. About 90 minutes later the plane reappeared on radar screens, and when it landed in Athens, Greek and British special forces stormed the aircraft, only to find it empty except for the pilots and a few passengers…”There were only two intelligence services that could have decrypted the British transmission in so short a time,” says one European intelligence official familiar with the operation. “The Russians and the Americans. And we know for sure it was not the Russians.”

Every boy’s handbook

This comment of Dave Bell’s at Charlie Stross’s left me thinking of something. Bell refers to a pocket handbook of crop yields and other agricultural data. I’ve always liked this kind of thing – having the data on hand for anything, however weird. Somewhere around I have a copy of Every Boy’s Handbook as given to my dad when he was a little 50s boy, full of useful data on Newfoundland and the De Havilland Comet K Mk.1.

In the light of this megathread, I wonder what you would include in a data manual for the contemporary world (a real User’s Guide to the Millenium..), perhaps the help file for the “shrink-wrapped military-industrial complex” Stross mentions, or more realistically part of the package with the RepRap, DNA synthesiser, printed solar panel kit and Inmarsat BGAN terminal Thomas Barnett might want to drop on Karachi, in between bombs.

One answer would be “it’s called Google”, of course. But there’s a lot of cruft out there. Say, instead, we’re implementing it on a smartphone. We can pack a scientific calc package too, perhaps one of the Python maths libs on a Nokia S60 device. In a 4GB SD card. What would we include?

OK, remember this post on the Labour Party’s “Faith Task Force”, academies, and the PR man to the Saudis, BAE, and HIV-quack dictator Yahya Jammeh? For a start, it’s drawing referrals from the Conservative Party’s network. This story in the Torygraph gives more detail: it’s the PM’s pet priest, Michael Seed, who introduced Bailey and two other plutocrats to Blair via “two senior Downing Street officials” as long ago as December, 2002.

Between them, they fronted up £8 million of donations to academies (presumably the ones controlled by Bailey’s United Learning Trust) plus – fascinatingly – a million-pound cash contribution direct to the Labour Party from Iranian exile Mahmoud Khayami. The other two payers were Jasper Conran and the chief investment officer of super-venture cap fund Apax Partners, Adrian Beecroft.

Khayami is a member of Bailey’s Catholic order of chivalry, and was responsible for selling the old Hillman Imp tooling to Iran in the late 70s. He paid up for the academies (if he did – many of the donors have been very slow to come up with the cash) back in 2005, but the cashdump for the Labour Party was on the 3rd of June this year.

What interests me, though, is Beecroft’s role. Now, we know that Gordon Brown’s best mate in business is Ronnie Cohen, the founder of Apax. But here’s a question. Am I right, or am I right, in saying that the decision to extend taper relief from capital gains tax, from which so many private-equity/VC guys have personally profited, came after 2002? I’m aware that taper relief began in 1998, and it was extended in 2002, but this seems to have predated the events detailed above.

And I’m also aware that someone’s googling for “Tony Blair’s personal meetings with Jammeh of the Gambia”. Somebody got disappeared from there, y’know.

Making a late challenge for the title of the most offensively authoritarian Blairite, with only a week to go: David Triesman, the former Labour General Secretary and now “The Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Deportations.” He apparently thinks that nationality can be determined through…yeees..biometrics. Or DNA sampling. Or something, you know, sciency. Perhaps maglev, or nuclear power, or genetically modified oil seed rape.

Apparently it’s neither the Home Office nor the Foreign Office that is behind this little beauty, which leaves the finger of blame pointing, well, at No.10 Downing Street. Or maybe it’s just Triesman – apparently it’s his “special interest”. What possible knowledge he has to evaluate claims on this is left to the imagination.

What would be really nice to know is just how our institutions were conquered by some sort of weird neo-Lombrosian cult, which appears to be the simplest explanation of this nonsense.

This interview with the architect of MySQL looks very cool indeed. Rather than just hoicking data out of files on a big hard drive, the latest version can use a Web site, or multiple Web sites, as a source of data on which database operations can be performed and the results served up to something else. Among other things, it means that if you can do a specific stable URL and catch the get and post requests for that in some interesting fashion, your website can be an element in someone else’s application, which could of course be the database back-end for their website.

It would be interesting to see if some other protocols might fit in there, in which case this could be a very interesting development mechanism.





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