Archive for August, 2007

Michael Hodges’s new book on the history of the Kalashnikov assault rifle is clearly a work that fits in with this blog. And we can say that it’s also well worth reading; not just for the knockabout, although there are some good stories (the brothel in the Izhevsk arsenal; Mikhail Kalashnikov’s special elk soup).

As history, it covers the development of the weapon, and neatly debunks the notion that Kalashnikov merely copied the German Stg44. Hodges does well to point up Mikhail Kalashnikov’s background as the son of kulaks exiled to Siberia, and his running away to join the engineers – he fled the penal colony and jumped a train, eventually landing an apprenticeship in the Turk-Sib railway yards. This is something a lot of people fail to realise about the Soviet Union; as well as a bureaucratic tyranny, it was (especially up to the 1940s) a continent on the move, full of transients and orphans and bastards and geniuses. Rather than merely being ideologically blind to the tyranny, western visitors failed to realise that both co-existed.

Rather like the generation of twisted-but-brilliant people who emerged from deep-south rural poverty in the United States of the 40s, these men went on to make the Soviet state’s technological achievements. Alexei Leonov was the son of an exile; Sergei Korolev did time in the gulag. The railways were a good place to disappear, and that’s precisely what young Kalashnikov did; by the time he was invited to join the Communist Party, his background was long forgotten. By the time he was commanding a T-34 tank, everyone was (at least for the duration) past caring.

But the weapon Kalashnikov designed to fill the firepower gap between German and Soviet infantry wasn’t ready in time to be used on fascists. This is the central irony of the book; though the Red Army loved it, and vast quantities were soon ordered, they weren’t going to be used to defend the Motherland, or for that matter the revolution. Although propaganda lionised the ex-kulak Kalashnikov as the maker of an anti-fascist weapon, the Soviet Union had soon begun using them as an instrument of realpolitik.

Hodges overstates, I think, the importance of the weapon as a weapon; I’m not sure it’s possible to characterise any such thing as a “Kalashnikov insurgency”, and the defining weapons of Iraq have been RPGs and bombs of various kinds. I suspect he also overstates the Vietnam-era stories about throwing away M16s.

But where the book scores is on the weapon’s role as a symbol; as he makes clear, in many places it’s far more important as such than for any actual military effect. He is especially good on its role in recruiting jihadis – for the lads he interviews, just handling one was enough to partake of the movement. (Update: See also here.) Far more important than its image as the weapon of revolution, it appears, is its role as an icon of machismo.

And its sheer quantity; where everyone has one, everyone needs one. This is another paradox; despite all the ideological overlays (the revolution, the jihad) and association with personal security or dignity, one thing is clear. The more Kalashnikovs somewhere has, the worse life is likely to be. Which makes it a pity, then, that in his chapter on the rifle’s role in US gang culture, he didn’t quote Ice Cube: I didn’t even have to use my AK/I can’t believe it. Today *was* a good day.

At least, as good a day as you can expect when everyone has automatic weapons. Believers in the idea that an armed society is a polite society are strongly advised to read this book.

This is interesting; apparently one of the problems with Iraq’s electricity supply is that the original control centre was looted back in 2003, with the result that local switching stations were instead given instructions on the phone. Over time, however, these sites have come under the control of whoever has the most guns; and they don’t want power to leave their manor.

But this is interesting:

The precision with which militias control electricity in the provinces became apparent in Basra on May 25 when Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army carried out a sustained attack against a small British-Iraqi base in the city center [i.e. Basra Palace PJCC], and turned that control to tactical military advantage.

“The lights in the city were going on and off all over,” said Cpl. Daniel Jennings, 26, one of the British defenders who fought off the attack.

“They were really controlling the whole area, turning the lights on and off at will. They would shut down one area of the city, turn it dark, attack us from there, and then switch off another one and come at us from that direction.

Ticking of the clock

The clock is ticking ever faster on British withdrawal from Iraq. This is of course nothing but a good thing. However, as I’ve said before, this is also a reason to hold the Government’s feet to the fire; the more time passes, the harder it is going to be to get people out. Nobody wants to cling to Basra Palace, which is just another reason why we can’t turn them away.

Disturbing Search Request of the decade: 213.42.21.150, searching Google for “who would handle a commercial shipment of arms and ammunitions from Sharjah to Baghdad”. That’ll be someone downstream of AS5384, or Etisalat (Emirates Telecom), the UAE’s fun-loving national telco monopoly, best known for blocking more websites than China.

Ha. But there is some actual substance in this post; ever wondered what Tony Buckingham and Tim Spicer’s Heritage Oil & Gas was up to these days, now that their separate oil deal in Iraq’s looking like the subprimest mortgage of the century? Instigating a frontier incident between Uganda and the DRC, it seems, thanks to the Uganda Sunday Vision. Heritage is drilling for oil around Lake Albert; the Congolese seem to have taken exception to their straying across the (undemarcated) frontier, and the issue was dealt with at the Kalashnikov’s point, with the result that a security guard for Heritage was killed, (Update: No he wasn’t; at least, he wasn’t a “security guard” but a geophysicist and ex-lifeboatsman from Whitby) as was at least one Congolese soldier.

Fortunately, at least if the statements in this Reuters DeathWatch story are true, the matter is being referred to a four-power conference in Kampala next month for (one hopes..) settlement. The Great Lakes region as a flight to quality? Well, well, oil well.

It sounds more likely that the region might be a good place for flight; if there’s anywhere you’re less likely to get caught, I’ve not heard of it. Which is why this came as no surprise; Italian police have exposed a huge sale of arms by various Italians to Iraq, specifically to the Iraqi Interior Ministry without reference to the US Multi-National Security Transition Command. Very suspiciously indeed, the 105,000 weapons (AKMs both standard and folding stock, and some machine guns) were ostensibly ordered for the Iraqi police in Anbar, although the number is not much lower than the total number of policemen in Iraq.

The deal was discovered by chance, during an investigation into Mafia drug-smuggling; one of the suspects’ luggage was searched en route to Libya, but rather than drugs the police found various nonlethal military gear, and incriminating documents. Further inquiries showed he was conspiring to sell weapons to Libya, and also Iraq. Four men are in custody, but a fifth is on the run and is believed to be in the DRC; where, surprise surprise, he’s in the diamond business. The prosecution is seeking information from the Congo on him; good luck with that.

By December last year, the deal had reached the stage where the Italians were looking into how to fly 105,000 guns from Bulgaria to Iraq; although their counterparty was apparently suggesting that the guns could be delivered to some other location and forwarded. Can anyone guess what (or more precisely who) a DRC diamond smuggler might have to offer a bunch of mafiosi who need to move a dubious air cargo?

This is a case of something I’ve been concerned about since at least 2004, and especially since the missing 99 tonnes of guns affair; we know that Iraq is full of a) guns and b) money, but who needs all these imported firearms in a country bursting at the seams with uncontrolled armaments? Where are they going?

One answer is “the insurgency”; if it is recruiting rapidly, or stockpiling, defections, captures, and corruption could mean that the coalition train-and-equip effort is arming the enemy. This is the Harkins option; in the early days in Vietnam, General Harkins’ mismanaged distribution of weapons lost so many that the Vietcong for a while relied entirely on US equipment, forming infantry battalions with a bigger allocation of Browning machine guns than a typical ARVN unit had. It’s also possible that security is so dire, and administration so hopeless, that entire shipments are being diverted. (Still haven’t read A Bright Shining Lie, despite everything I tell you? You may be running out of time to astonish your friends with your apparent prescience.)

But the combination of Iraq’s initial wealth of arms, and the sheer scale of spending, seems to surpass any possible rate at which anyone in Iraq could consume guns; and that would suggest they are being exported.

There’s something about this, that I’m not sure if I find intensely cool or deeply disturbing; that is, of course, a neat definition of anything worth writing about. (It’s certainly the sci-fi project; thrilling wonder and uncanny menace.) So, a ski resort is short of snow due to the gradually warming winters; they make snow, but this uses lots of electricity, which costs money…and is actually making the problem worse.

Solution; they invest in a honkin’ great wind turbine, to make their own electricity. And snow; their electricity demand profile peaks in the winter, which also happens to be the windiest period of the year. The wind blows; the blades spin; the snow cannons plaster the slopes. The parallel with da Vinci’s fantasy that his helicopter would bring snowflakes down from the Dolomites to scatter in the stinking hot piazzas of August is clear.

But there’s something horribly…baroque about it.

Disturbing Search Request of the decade: 213.42.21.150, searching Google for “who would handle a commercial shipment of arms and ammunitions from Sharjah to Baghdad”. That’ll be someone downstream of AS5384, or Etisalat (Emirates Telecom), the UAE’s fun-loving national telco monopoly, best known for blocking more websites than China.

Ha. But there is some actual substance in this post; ever wondered what Tony Buckingham and Tim Spicer’s Heritage Oil & Gas was up to these days, now that their separate oil deal in Iraq’s looking like the subprimest mortgage of the century? Instigating a frontier incident between Uganda and the DRC, it seems, thanks to the Uganda Sunday Vision. Heritage is drilling for oil around Lake Albert; the Congolese seem to have taken exception to their straying across the (undemarcated) frontier, and the issue was dealt with at the Kalashnikov’s point, with the result that a security guard for Heritage was killed, (Update: No he wasn’t; at least, he wasn’t a “security guard” but a geophysicist and ex-lifeboatsman from Whitby) as was at least one Congolese soldier.

Fortunately, at least if the statements in this Reuters DeathWatch story are true, the matter is being referred to a four-power conference in Kampala next month for (one hopes..) settlement. The Great Lakes region as a flight to quality? Well, well, oil well.

It sounds more likely that the region might be a good place for flight; if there’s anywhere you’re less likely to get caught, I’ve not heard of it. Which is why this came as no surprise; Italian police have exposed a huge sale of arms by various Italians to Iraq, specifically to the Iraqi Interior Ministry without reference to the US Multi-National Security Transition Command. Very suspiciously indeed, the 105,000 weapons (AKMs both standard and folding stock, and some machine guns) were ostensibly ordered for the Iraqi police in Anbar, although the number is not much lower than the total number of policemen in Iraq.

The deal was discovered by chance, during an investigation into Mafia drug-smuggling; one of the suspects’ luggage was searched en route to Libya, but rather than drugs the police found various nonlethal military gear, and incriminating documents. Further inquiries showed he was conspiring to sell weapons to Libya, and also Iraq. Four men are in custody, but a fifth is on the run and is believed to be in the DRC; where, surprise surprise, he’s in the diamond business. The prosecution is seeking information from the Congo on him; good luck with that.

By December last year, the deal had reached the stage where the Italians were looking into how to fly 105,000 guns from Bulgaria to Iraq; although their counterparty was apparently suggesting that the guns could be delivered to some other location and forwarded. Can anyone guess what (or more precisely who) a DRC diamond smuggler might have to offer a bunch of mafiosi who need to move a dubious air cargo?

This is a case of something I’ve been concerned about since at least 2004, and especially since the missing 99 tonnes of guns affair; we know that Iraq is full of a) guns and b) money, but who needs all these imported firearms in a country bursting at the seams with uncontrolled armaments? Where are they going?

One answer is “the insurgency”; if it is recruiting rapidly, or stockpiling, defections, captures, and corruption could mean that the coalition train-and-equip effort is arming the enemy. This is the Harkins option; in the early days in Vietnam, General Harkins’ mismanaged distribution of weapons lost so many that the Vietcong for a while relied entirely on US equipment, forming infantry battalions with a bigger allocation of Browning machine guns than a typical ARVN unit had. It’s also possible that security is so dire, and administration so hopeless, that entire shipments are being diverted. (Still haven’t read A Bright Shining Lie, despite everything I tell you? You may be running out of time to astonish your friends with your apparent prescience.)

But the combination of Iraq’s initial wealth of arms, and the sheer scale of spending, seems to surpass any possible rate at which anyone in Iraq could consume guns; and that would suggest they are being exported.

The Government is trying to define down the Iraqi employees it is under pressure to accept as refugees after the forthcoming UK withdrawal from Basra. With the Murdoch press, it is signalling that some 91 interpreters might be accepted, but at the same time that there are as many as 20,000 people involved. That figure of 91 remains remarkably constant, although it’s never been explained who exactly is covered by it and who is not; for example, are the interpreters’ dependents included?

On the other hand, the figure of 20,000 looks suspiciously round; and anyway, if we had had 20,000 informers in southern Iraq, we might not be in this mess. I have good reason to suspect that this figure is deliberately exaggerated, in order to either a) scare the public with visions of hordes of refugees, or b) to make the real figure look smaller. Obviously (b) is preferable, if you believe the government might do it. Interestingly, this upper bound estimate is now coming down; I saw 15,000 quoted today.

But the entire shadow play is ridiculous; it is not a question of numbers, but of principles. This does not make it an impractical question, either. The principle is simple; that the people most at risk should go first. The solution is simple; the Government should accept all those whose service endangers their life, and make arrangements for their evacuation.

What is required is not immensely complicated. Everyone on the list should be considered, and for that matter anyone else they think of. Members of the MND(SE) Interpreters cell, the Army organisation that recruited them, know the people better than anyone else. The UK Visas organisation in the Foreign Office and the Borders and Immigration Agency are in the business of interviewing refugees and issuing travel documents; MI5 or the Defence Vetting Agency that of security vetting. An ad-hoc processing group from these organisations could be put together reasonably quickly and deployed to Iraq. Its task would be to interview everyone who thinks they are in danger as current or former employees, and issue the papers.

Simultaneously, it should consult with the Army in preparing a plan for evacuation. This would involve moving the families into the Basra Air Station for the time being, a better idea than trying to collect them all on evacuation day, and then sending them to the UK in small groups on the regular airbridge, so as not to present a target. This would be fairly similar to one of the various evacuations of foreign nationals from war zones that the military has occasionally conducted, although there is a time factor – it would be far easier to conduct it whilst there are still troops in the city itself, rather than having to re-enter.

But crucially, there must be no arbitrary decision to take some number and no more. It is time to stick to principle, and that’s why the campaign goes on.

The Government is trying to define down the Iraqi employees it is under pressure to accept as refugees after the forthcoming UK withdrawal from Basra. With the Murdoch press, it is signalling that some 91 interpreters might be accepted, but at the same time that there are as many as 20,000 people involved. That figure of 91 remains remarkably constant, although it’s never been explained who exactly is covered by it and who is not; for example, are the interpreters’ dependents included?

On the other hand, the figure of 20,000 looks suspiciously round; and anyway, if we had had 20,000 informers in southern Iraq, we might not be in this mess. I have good reason to suspect that this figure is deliberately exaggerated, in order to either a) scare the public with visions of hordes of refugees, or b) to make the real figure look smaller. Obviously (b) is preferable, if you believe the government might do it. Interestingly, this upper bound estimate is now coming down; I saw 15,000 quoted today.

But the entire shadow play is ridiculous; it is not a question of numbers, but of principles. This does not make it an impractical question, either. The principle is simple; that the people most at risk should go first. The solution is simple; the Government should accept all those whose service endangers their life, and make arrangements for their evacuation.

What is required is not immensely complicated. Everyone on the list should be considered, and for that matter anyone else they think of. Members of the MND(SE) Interpreters cell, the Army organisation that recruited them, know the people better than anyone else. The UK Visas organisation in the Foreign Office and the Borders and Immigration Agency are in the business of interviewing refugees and issuing travel documents; MI5 or the Defence Vetting Agency that of security vetting. An ad-hoc processing group from these organisations could be put together reasonably quickly and deployed to Iraq. Its task would be to interview everyone who thinks they are in danger as current or former employees, and issue the papers.

Simultaneously, it should consult with the Army in preparing a plan for evacuation. This would involve moving the families into the Basra Air Station for the time being, a better idea than trying to collect them all on evacuation day, and then sending them to the UK in small groups on the regular airbridge, so as not to present a target. This would be fairly similar to one of the various evacuations of foreign nationals from war zones that the military has occasionally conducted, although there is a time factor – it would be far easier to conduct it whilst there are still troops in the city itself, rather than having to re-enter.

But crucially, there must be no arbitrary decision to take some number and no more. It is time to stick to principle, and that’s why the campaign goes on.

A prerequisite for good alternate-history is good history; as Ken MacLeod says, the trade secret of sci-fi is history. So I wasn’t too impressed by this, of James Nicoll’s, who really ought to know better.

Would it be funny to do an AH where WWI never happened and the old order never fell, one in which it took decades for the British Space Explorers to grudgingly admit that one does need a vacuum suit on the Moon?

Well, perhaps in a snarky blog comment. It wouldn’t hack it as literature, though. Consider the timelines; by the time the British Space Explorers set out, who would be the scientific-technical intelligentsia who ran the project?

Clearly, the same people whose minds the aviation and electronics industries in the original timeline relied on; Sydney Camm, Alan Turing, Frederick Handley-Page, Roland Beamont, Maurice Wilkes, Frank Whittle, Robert Watson Watt, R.V. Jones, among others. Suddenly it don’t look so quaint, nicht wahr? Of course, you can handwave frantically that none of it ever happened without the first world war, but it wasn’t as if technological and scientific progress wasn’t quick before WW1. Further, it’s been done: by Stephen Baxter.

Of course, it’s based on a fundamentally crappy folk-history view of the Scott expedition; no, they didn’t think “using dogs was cheating”, and they didn’t load them on the sledges (Scott didn’t want to use them at all, no?). In fact, one of the critical flaws in the plan was that the high-tech element, the motor sledges, broke down. They had been the long pole in the tent, the critical path; so long as they worked, they could get lots of stuff south quickly. An overreliance on unproven hot-ship gadgetry doesn’t fit with the folk history, hence forgotten.

Another issue was that the Royal Geographical Society’s plan for the expedition was dominated by the real scientists, who took up a large chunk of the cargo with their research station. In fact, they didn’t want Scott’s romantic mission to the pole to come at all – they had science to do. The crazy romantics were actually Amundsen’s party, who had nothing on their agenda and loading scale except the dash south.

It was only the profoundly weird character of Clements Markham as chairman of the Society who insisted on the polar mission being included, and on many of its odd features. We are short of a good biography of this man, who personified the kind of pompous imperial incompetence long baked into the stereotype James was looking for. A curious romantic-rightwing exploration fanboy, who surrounded himself with polar curios, he maintained a sort of anti-rational, Straussian devotion to heroic myth and believed himself to be deceiving the scientists into supporting his higher mission. The scientists, one presumes, had the opposite feeling that his nonsense was only supportable insofar as it provided them with transport.

Markham had been responsible for a rocambolesque fiasco in South America, when he was in charge of an expedition intended to collect quinine-producing trees for cultivation in India; unfortunately he disagreed with the botanists and went into a sulk (he would today have been described as a professional drama queen), refusing to listen to them, and also managed to offend the only two Spanish-speakers he thought to bring. The upshot was that he transplanted several thousands of the wrong trees. Preparing the Scott expedition, he paid around 1 per cent of the whole budget to his handsome secretary for nine months’ work.

He died in his bed in 1916, having set fire to the bedclothes with the candle he was using to read; the killer detail, literally, being that the bedroom had electric light. That might seem to bear out James Nicoll’s point, but the significance of Markham is that he was a man out of time, constantly trying to live in the 1850s of his youth although he had spent the 1850s studiously trying to be an Elizabethan. (If you wish to know more about him, you’re strongly advised to read “I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination” by Francis “Backroom Boys” Spufford.)

We don’t just moan about today’s government surveillance projects and fiddle with other people’s webcams here. No. Sometimes we can offer you better things; like the solution to a huge mass-surveillance IT disaster that hasn’t even happened yet.

Spyblog reports that even before Alastair Darling’s deranged scheme to monitor all motor vehicles by GPS has made it off the green paper, it’s already been hacked. How did they manage that? Well, a GPS is essentially a radio receiver that picks up time signals from multiple satellites and compares the time from each one with its local time, thus plotting its distance from each. Providing you’re within geostationary orbit (damn, I love that subclause!), this can give you your position in three dimensions.

Obviously, as the signal is not encrypted, the way to spoof a unwanted GPS is to replace the real signal with one more to your liking. As your jammer is a few metres away, and the satellite many thousands of kilometres away, this is trivial. Because of this, the amount of transmitter power required is tiny, and therefore damned hard to direction-find on. Detailed instructions are available here. Those, however, only go so far as to jam the device with noise and stop it working. (For that, an afternoon with a GPS receiver and a range of commercially available TV antenna boosters might suffice.)

But there are smarter things you could do – like feed it with fake data. During the Second World War, the RAF’s electronic warfare “Y” Service did this to German aircraft using nondirectional radio beacons to navigate over the UK. NDBs are simple; they broadcast a carrier wave with occasional morse idents in all directions, and you direction-find on them to either home in, or else plot a fix with two or three of them on your chart. The hack was elegant; the beacon signal was received at a station on the coast, and relayed by landline to a distant transmitter (often a borrowed BBC station), where it was rebroadcast with the tx power turned up to 11. Evidently, the result was that the direction finder would point the wrong way. The process was known as Meaconing. In a refined version, because once the German aircrew were thoroughly haxx0red they would transmit on their radios and ask their controller to take a bearing on their own transmission, the Y Service would Meacon the transmission from the plane.

Similarly, you could produce a GPS signal set that would correspond to the centre of your driveway, or No.10 Downing Street. I’m indebted for this suggestion to none other than Charlie Stross, in a sadly-lost comment to this post. Specifications are here (pdf); the most complicated element of such a scheme would appear to be keeping the spoof consistent in an environment of changing numbers of satellites. Very interestingly (insert evil laughter here), there is a section in the signal that gives details of the various satellites’ health – unhealthy ones are ignored by the receiver.





Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.