Archive for March, 2008

Genius. Not only can the Chaos Computer Club tell you how to fool a fingerprint reader, but they’ve got Wolfgang Schauble’s dabs.

I recently bought a copy of Mobile Python, Scheible and Tuulos’ guide to Python for Nokia S60 devices. First up, I’d like to point out that Scheibe and Tuulos adhered strictly to the well-known titling convention, Programming Book: Really Long Subtitle You’ll Forget And Have To Fetch Your Copy To Cite It. No wonder they decided the URL should be mobilepythonbook.com. That aside, to business. Mobile Python is one of the best tutorials on Python, never mind mobile, I’ve yet seen; it scoops the pot for conciseness and action-oriented goodness, whilst being almost alarmingly economic with the stuff it includes. You’d be surprised how little you actually need to explain the core concepts.

There are plenty of good examples, and there is a suitably fun attitude to mistreating mobile phones; it’s also eye-opening how well the Nokia development team did in making the APIs to interesting stuff like location, digital cameras, messaging, and telephony simple and pythonic. The authors also did well in explaining complex concepts like double buffering graphics, and in having the gall to include scary cool things like how it would interwork with the Arduino microcontroller board, as seen in the new version of the RepRap, and with a robot.

On the downside, there is no excuse for calling your website www.leninsgodson.com – that’s more than a little Nathan Barley-esque, to my mind. Neither can they do anything about the bloody awful code-signing procedure Symbian and Nokia insist on you going through; if you ever wonder about that chilling effect lark, it’s successfully put me off brainwashing my mobile just yet. Fortunately, I see that somebody’s hacked the damn thing.

I recall I once told readers of this blog to watch out for anyone who starred in a “Young Enterprise” program or won an award for the so-and-so most likely to succeed in business. They’ll be the ones vanishing over the hills with Acme Materials Science Ltd’s total cash balances, while you try to work out what you’ll do with all the squid beaks and what to tell the Financial Services Authority, or else they’ll be the ones being sucked down the whirlpool at the centre of some kind of fraudulent trainwreck, just as the fascist octopus sings its swan song.

Something similar appears to have happened in the case of these young entrepreneurs, who took on a contract to supply US-supported police and soldiers in Afghanistan with arms despite a total absence of relevant experience, common sense, or integrity. The result has been the export of a scary quantity of Albanian ammunition, much of which is either dangerous or useless or both, and the waste of large sums of federal money.

It is highly probable that our friend Viktor Bout got in on the deal at some point, too, as it involved sending armaments from the Balkans to Afghanistan and Iraq by air freight. (I just did a Freudian typo: “air fright”.) But the whole business has a saving personal touch. Here’s a photo of executive vice president and licensed masseur, David Packouz: 27ammo03_190.jpg I have to say that had I been the NYT pictures editor, I’d have been unable to resist captioning this photograph Dude, Where’s My Kalashnikov? There’s also this:

When the police searched Mr. Diveroli, they found he had a forged driver’s license that added four years to his age and made him appear old enough to buy alcohol as a minor. His birthday had been the day before.“I don’t even need that any more,” he told the police, the report said. “I’m 21 years old.”

Oh, the humanity!

The Times has been doing the best reporting from Iraq by far at the moment. Here’s some evidence.

Now, to substance. Note this:

“We have received a shipment of Strela antiaircraft rockets,” Abu Sajad boasted to a Sunday Times reporter.

“We intend to use them to prove to the world that the Mahdi Army will not allow Basra to be turned into a second Falluja.”

This could get bad, especially if the Sadrists can be as good at shooting down helicopters as that NOIA outfit in early 2007 were. Anyway, the last dispatch is that far from the Iraqi government offering anyone mercy in exchange for surrender, Moqtada al-Sadr has just issued an official Leave It, Daz, He’s Not Worth It order to his army to stop beating them. I can’t see any evidence of this being due to imminent government triumph, so I reckon it’s a mix of an exercise in contemptuous indulgence and a renewed assault on the moral high ground.

Think of that; officially at least, the Sadrists have been on ceasefire, more sinned against than sinning, acting only in self defence, but they’ve also kicked the shit out of the Iraqi government, and now they’re looking to exit the confrontation on their terms. The question about this is of course whether the big red stop button will work; Sadr has historically had only coarse control of his army, basically a choice between STAND BY and BURN SHIT DOWN. It’s quite possible that the political dynamic will get out of hand, though, and there are signs of this round taking on a life of its own.

For example, it is reported that the Mahdi Army in Baghdad has been going after the usually ex-NOIA, Sunni “Awakening Councils”/”Sons of Iraq”, even to the point of attacking Sunni territory; apparently, their outposts are being rolled up into more defensible concentrations, which would mean at least a temporary disruption of the US counter-insurgency strategy, and at worst the enduring loss of territorial control and a major NOIA counteroffensive, probably (if you want a guess) in Diyala. Policemen are deserting in droves of up to battalion strength. It may be that this round of violence, like all the others in Iraq, is breeding its own army; 2004 gave us the original Mahdi Army and the NOIA, 2005 the SCIRI fake policemen, 2006 the ex-NOIA countergangs, 2007-8 the Mahdi Army 2.0?

There’s more evidence of renewed sectarian war here. Brief thought; has anyone else noticed that as well as improving its coverage, the Times has started referring to Moqtada al-Sadr as Hojetoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr? This shows both greater respect, and significantly improved spelling. (So has the US Army.)

Finally, let’s all be thankful the Mahdi Army mortarmen missed Tariq al-Hashemi, this blog’s favourite not-quite-an-insurgent Sunni politico and Iraqi vice president. Because that probably would have been the starting gun for the various Awakenings to turn.

Update: I spoke too soon. Someone tried to assassinate the governor of Diyala earlier today.

Despite the title, this is not a post about Boris Johnson. Can anyone trace this story, one of my favourite tech war stories, to an original source? It’s the early days of semiconductor fabbing at Texas Instruments; the process is still a bit of an art, both in the sense of a science with more than seven variables and in the sense of something less certain than science, and for every chip that passes quality control reams are discarded. But there is a shortage of chips; TI can command silly prices for them.

So they adopt a sort of inverted lean production; run the line as fast as possible, ship the good ones, and throw away the rest. The crap, obeying Sturgeon’s law, piles up; fortunately the company is growing fast, and needs to create more parking as the workforce expands (and this being Richardson, Texas, so do their cars). The dead chips get mixed into the tarmac and spread on the new car park.

Future archaeologists will dig down, find the car park, write it off as a typical mid-20th century automotive facility…until they look at a sample with a microscope, and FREAK!

Anyway, I’m very certain of the details – car park, waste chips, Texas Instruments – but I can’t find any trace of the tale on the Web. And it is the kind of thing that grows in the Internet. Can you help, dear Lazyweb?

Crack BBC journo Peter Taylor’s film The Secret Peacemaker, about Brendan Duddy, the man who maintained secret communications between the IRA leadership and the British government from the early 70s to 1993, was a cracker; it provided rich detail about the practicalities of ending the war, the missed opportunities of the first ceasefire, and moreover it conveyed something of the weird atmosphere. Secret meetings with spooks and terrorists were held in a Thatcherite DIY conservatory, and it struck me that most media coverage of Northern Ireland was always urban; intellectually, I knew there had to be countryside, and that due to its latitude and geography it would look vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t prepared for it looking quite so much like the moors. And the killer detail is surely that Duddy knew Martin McGuinness from when he delivered fish to his dad’s chip shop.

But rather than the mood music, a real point which nobody picked up on: here’s something from Taylor’s summary of the film, as published in the Guardian.

But one of the great mysteries of the peace process remained. Who did send the famous “conflict is over” message? I pointed out to Duddy that if he didn’t send it and McGuinness didn’t send it, that only left “Fred”.

Duddy was protective of the man he had come to admire. “I don’t want to say, as he’s a wonderful, honourable man.” The message was written in pencil in a hotel room in London. “It seems to me that message was to encourage the British government to actually believe dialogue was possible,” Duddy said. But the revelation of the messages and the unauthorised March meeting also marked the end of “Fred”. The government was appalled at how he had exceeded his brief, disobeyed instructions and almost brought the prime minister down. “Fred”, in Brendan’s words, was “court-martialled”. As he said goodbye, he gave Duddy a farewell present, a book inscribed with a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid: “One day it will be good to remember these things.”

When I read this I double-took; did he really just say “the conflict is over” was actually sent by an MI5 agent exceeding his authority? You what? It was what I think of as an Embassy Phew, after the bit in Conrad’s The Secret Agent where Comrade Ossipon finally gets clued-in to the fact Verloc has always been a stool pigeon for both the plod and the Russians. Police! Embassy! Phew! The political equivalent of the sensation of a cricket ball not quite hitting your head.

You would have thought that this was front-page stuff; “Fred” ended the war in Northern Ireland and nearly disposed of John Major, at one stroke of his pencil, whilst also precipitating the interrogation of Duddy. Frankly, he deserves a knighthood for the first two out of those three; he may of course have got one. But there are some pretty gigantic constitutional issues here, no? I mean, did the spies deceive the prime minister? As usual, the limits of British political discourse are that it stops as soon as you get to the question of power.

Alternatively, it’s possible that the message was given to “Fred” by a third party; it’s certainly not impossible that he had other Republican contacts, a back channel to the back channel. Or perhaps, as it seems that whatever the facts about the message, it accurately described the IRA leaders’ thoughts, an intelligence source in the IRA clued him in? (If it was the near-legendary Freddie Scappaticci, you’d be forgiven for suggesting it was more of a back passage than a back channel.) After all, it would be surprising, had he simply made it all up, if the results had accurately matched the IRA’s intentions. That suggests strongly that if the message wasn’t received from someone, it was composed with extensive knowledge of the IRA leadership’s thoughts; which begs the question of exactly what the word “message” means.

Presumably “Fred” was required to report on what was said at the meetings as well as what the IRA told him to pass on; it’s not impossible that a text which contained his opinion of their intentions, or a summary of the conversation, was taken for a verbatim message. In which case, it’s possible that the IRA deliberately signalled its content to him in order to stay plausibly deniable; a virtual back channel within a channel. At which point, the brain reels.

Well, it’s not as if we weren’t warned; the Iraqi government had been threatening to move against Fadhila in Umm Qasr, and there had been increasing tension between the Iraqi government and the Sadr movement going back to Christmas. Not so long ago, there were demonstrations in Sadr City against Sadr; they thought the movement wasn’t standing up to increasing provocation from police/SCIRI as was//Badr Corps men feeling braver now they didn’t have to fight NOIA any more.

You can read the violence in a number of ways; the government/ISCI/Dawa probably briefed it to the Americans as an extension of their counter-insurgency plan to the deep south, with the added twist that this was an operation the Iraqi army would throw all by itself, hence good politics. Sadr of course will consider it an outrage by the collaborationist-Iranian bastards, eerily mirroring Petraeus’s response to the Green Zone bombardment; if you adopt Jamie Kenny’s policy of trying to think like Leonardo Sciascia, you’ll see it merely as a fight for oil rake-offs between (as Douglas Adams put it) rival police gangs. As always, SF leads the way into history.

Daniel Davies has apparently finally taken my much repeated advice and read A Bright Shining Lie, which has apparently led him to conclude that the Dawa-Sadr fighting is a good thing on the grounds that it strengthens the government, even if only as the biggest gang. Well, it has led the annoying look-at-me contrarian Daniel Davies to do so; what the real one thinks I don’t know. I don’t agree; the Sadr movement demonstrated its deterrent capability on day one, when it resumed rocketing the Green Zone and seized police stations across the Big Gap in southern Iraq, as well as the road between Amara and Basra, rather as they did in the first and second Shia risings in 2004. Further to its massive popularity, the Sadrists also have had at least a tacit alliance with some currents in NOIA – there’s a risk of the whole shithouse crashing down. Note that the Dawa and Sadrists, and ISIC, are on the opposite sides of one of Iraq’s worst territorial fights.

So inevitably, the US authorities seem to have swallowed the “southern surge” thing, and are now pressing for more British troops to be sent – not just that, but for an advance back into Basra. This is genuinely bugfuck insane and the Prime Minister has no choice but to reject it; there is literally no-one left. Army planners are already looking at calling out at least 2 TA battalions in their entirety to cover routine tasks; a mass of resources is going into Afghanistan; there is some question as to whether there is another brigade in the tubes for the next but one rotation in Iraq. The inter-allied shit just hit the fan.

Of course, nothing would do more for Gordon Brown’s polls than turning the fan right up…it’s worth noting that officially, the only support MNDSE is giving this operation is aerial reconnaissance; that could perfectly well be provided from Kuwait. However, maybe not.

This is interesting. Jim Bates, an expert witness for the defence in some of the Operation Ore cases we discussed, has been accused of misrepresenting his qualifications. Specifically, the charges relate to whether or not he claimed to be an electronics engineer, despite not being one, and to his career in the Royal Air Force. I frankly have no idea what he may or may not have done in either of these, but I would like to be the first to point out that neither of them change the facts of the case. Bates is not the only person to have reviewed the data; and anyway, he wasn’t asked to carry out any electronic engineering.

You do not need a degree in electronic engineering to use the Unix grep command, which is all you need to check if the IP addresses in list A (the alleged buyers) appear in list B (the Visa merchant terminal log). Further, I fail to see how this changes anything about the 54,348 stolen credit cards; we even know which company they were stolen from (Levenger, Inc.) and that they were stolen from their MS Access database.

Further, it is something of an IT industry tradition that not everybody who knows anything about computers has a “Computer Engineer By Royal Appointment” coat-of-arms; we think this is something akin to freedom. Hell, I’ve got an MSc in International Relations, and so has the CEO of British Telecom.

I’m not at all surprised to see this bit of the story:

‘It is critical that those who serve as expert witnesses are credible on an ethical basis and do not have any alternative agendas which may affect their independent status,’ said Jim Gamble, chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which brought the case against Bates.

Indeed, indeed. How’s the Forest Gate case coming on, fella?

As a change from the austere scientism hanging around this blog after Arthur C. Clarke’s death, Michael O’Hare reminded me of another wonder of British postwar culture today.

Among the religious doctrines that run me axle-deep in the mud whenever I try to follow them is literal resurrection to eternal life. I’m astonished to learn via Rachel Zoll that expectation of a literal, personal, physical resurrection is coming back in serious theological circles.Physical? What can this really mean: my body has done OK for me over the years but some parts are getting worn out, and most people die old and pretty beat up; will almost everyone in heaven wear reading glasses, and be in walkers or puffing up stairs? Will paraplegics spend eternity in their wheelchairs, the blind tapping canes? Do they get to take their service dogs? Come to think of it, before I sign up for this, are there dogs generally – resurrected (this seems impious; I love my dogs but they aren’t people) or some other sort?

I’m more than a little shocked that this mode of belief is on the rise; maybe I shouldn’t be. But there’s plenty of time for number crunchin’, logic choppin’,ScienceBlogs.com atheism; what strikes me about this is the dogs. Are there dogs generally? How could anyone possibly imagine a dogless heaven? It’s as absurd as a universe that ends on the nine billionth name popping out of the computer. It’s as absurd as not knowing whether that would happen when the if x is in NamesOfGod condition evaluates True when n=9,000,000,000,000, or whether it would have to output to the printer first.

In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film A Matter of Life and Death, David Niven’s character is washed up on the east coast of England after the shooting down of his aircraft, believing himself to be dead. Walking along the beach, disoriented, the first creature he meets is a dog; obviously, this convinces him that he has arrived in heaven. I always hoped there’d be dogs, he says, stroking its head.

Abu Muqawama on Pakistan:

Raise your hands if you think Pakistan would totally sell the U.S., India, and Afghanistan down the river to earn it a (temporary and illusory) respite from the Islamist insurgents currently
threatening Islamabad. (You can’t see it on your computer monitor, but Abu Muqawama is typing with one hand because the other is extended into the air.)

With all due respect…wrong. I haven’t blogged on Pakistani politics for a while; partly, I think, out of the pathetic cognitive bias that tells me I shouldn’t for fear of jinxing a string of almost frighteningly hopeful developments. Let’s recap; the Americans didn’t insist on saving Musharraf, the Saudis didn’t succeed in kiboshing the PPP, which hasn’t fallen apart, and – wonderfully – the PPP and the PML-N have managed to agree.

So we’re looking at the possibility of a Pakistani government with majority support nation-wide and in both the Punjab and Sindh. That hasn’t happened since….too long. And it has enough majority to restore the old judiciary and – should this be considered advisable – get rid of Musharraf. Pakistan voted against both the jihadis and their/our mates in the military establishment, and for once its political class has delivered. Strategy beats tactics. The reason why the jihadi movement has been able to operate in Pakistan is very probably that it has been so close to the military establishment for so long; Musharraf was, famously, the top proponent of using them to harass India and carve out a sphere of influence in Afghanistan all the way up to September, 2001. He wasn’t always Plucky Pervez, ya know; our special relationship with him has been very special indeed.

Plenty could go wrong; more assassinations, coalition breakdown. But one thing will not happen, which is that the jihadis win. What is the key strategic objective of an insurgency? The hearts and minds of the…zzzz. The elections demonstrated conclusively that the jihadis have nowhere near this – they have bare tolerance in restricted parts of the country, mostly among people who are ethnically and politically at odds with the vast majority of Pakistanis. Insurgents are able to let off bombs; they are not “threatening Islamabad” in the sense Vietcong sappers massing in Cholon were threatening Saigon, or 1920 Revolution Brigades men raiding the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior back in 2006 were threatening Baghdad.

In Iraq, the US co-opted the Sunni insurgency; it’s at least arguable that the Pakistani military dictatorship co-opted the US counter-insurgency. Further, when things like this happen, you’ve got to consider the risk that somebody wants a spiral of intervention, attacks on the interveners, more intervention, and so on; especially if the somebody stands to benefit on both sides.

Update: PPP PM picked. And it’s not Mr 10% or Hi My Mum’s Benazir!

Update Update: See Jason Burke, and also this story a commenter brung us; this is really fucking serious, and injecting more random violence into the situation is not the answer. Further, sending convoys via Landi Kotal? Don’t these people read Kipling?





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