Archive for January, 2011

Something else.

Around the table sat his son James– the head of News Corp’s European and Asian operations – Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of its British newspaper division News International, plus the editors of the Sun and the Times, Dominic Mohan and James Harding respectively. Meatballs were on the menu, although staff preferred not to get too close to see what the boss actually ate.

I’m not sure whether I hate the psuedo-celebrity reporting style (who cares about the damn meatballs?) enough not to enjoy either the portrayal of News International as a workplace so nightmarish that people are too frightened to see whether the boss had the meatballs or not, or the subtextual suggestion that Murdoch eats something…different. Lovecraft vs. Royston Vasey.

Also, my permanent search request on data.gov.uk for more meetings releases keeps appearing to be updated, but as far as I can tell they haven’t released more meetings. However, the scraper should get them all.

the tapes

So what about that Murdoch? Gordon Brown is suing, and the government has been claiming that meetings between David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks were covered by MP-constituent privilege; Tessa Jowell (for it is she!) alleges that the monitoring was going on as recently as last week. The police investigation is back on with a new chief. Lord (Norman) Fowler, of all people, accused the News of the Screws of being a conspiracy against the public interest. At the same time, Jeremy Hunt gives himself an out, Murdoch turns up in person. There’s the whole comic relief with ex-footballers, and the US division falls out with 400 rabbis.

There’s a genuinely weird feeling to this. Obviously there’s some sort of political re-alignment going on, but it’s impossible to say what it is or how far it will go. It all seems to be dependent on things like the story about the journalist who started taping all his phone calls because his drinking problem meant he couldn’t remember what they told him and he feared they would use this to exploit him. Charming people. Someone apparently has copies. But who?

The Grauniad, of course, is congratulating itself on the Nick Davies investigation. However, their leader yesterday pissed me off – they referred, for the first time since the story re-erupted, to the fact that Andy Coulson was condemned by an employment tribunal as being a bully in a case in which the paper had to pay out £800,000 in compensation. And they claimed that only three newspapers covered this story – themselves, the Independent on Sunday, and the Huddersfield Daily Examiner. This is a good point, but a better one for the Huddersfield Daily Examiner than for the Guardian – this blog post refers. Although the Guardian did run the story, they ran a full version on the Media Guardian Web site and cut the story down to a one-paragraph NIB deep inside the paper. They could do with being less self-congratulatory about this.

Coulson and his managers’ behaviour in the case is telling – they tried to force one of their employees to see a tame doctor in order to get rid of him – and it is probably no surprise that according to the very limited list of the hacked that is available, both Coulson and Rebekah Brooks were themselves being spied on by their own side.

Out of the whole sordid story, the thing about Brooks/Wade having meetings with the prime minister as a constituent sticks out. Some people marry for money, others for title, but doing so to become the PM’s constituent is genuinely cheeky.

surveillance

The Viktorfeed shows an Eastern Skyjets (icao ESJ) flight from Cairo into Dubai. Flight number ESJ020, arrived 2300Z, very likely one of their two executive-config DC-9s.

Dumb Blond

The Philip Blond test: if you have a new policy idea, ask if Philip Blond would support it, and if so, bin it.

interesting project

This looks interesting. The low-cost base station element is already increasingly well served commercially, and also by the OpenBTS team. But I’d be really fascinated to learn more about the mesh-WLAN side, and I rather think they ought to concentrate on one or the other.

Looking back at Tunisia, and forward at Egypt, I think there’s an important point that this post almost hits but not quite.

Specifically, I’m fairly sceptical about “Twitter Revolutions” and such – if your revolution has someone else’s brand name on it, how revolutionary is it? – but I don’t think it’s irrelevant.

I’m feeling a little sorry for Evgeny Morozov at the moment. He’d just hacked out a niche as Mr. Grumpy by royal appointment to the blogosphere, when first Wikileaks and then Tunisia and Egypt came sweeping through, and the Tunisian secret police hacked all the Facebook pages in the country, and the Egyptians turned off the Internet, just pulled all the BGP announcements… Sometimes it’s not your day.

I do think, though, that there is an important way in which a whole lot of Internet tools contributed to the revolutions. I recently posted on the way in which people can at least for a while function as if they were part of an organisation just because they shared certain assumptions. It’s the idea of the imagined community, which can be defined as a group of people who are behaving as if their weak social ties were strong ones. If you want a mental model of this, the revolution happens when enough people change state and start doing this, and it stops again when they revert to pursuing their interests in the normal way. Of course, what happens in between may have changed what those are and how they do it. From a different direction, look at Chris Dillow’s post here – it’s theoretically irrational to take part in politics, until it’s not. The point when it stops being irrational, though, is the point when people stop thinking it’s irrational.

In that sense, a lot of the work of starting a revolution is starting a myth. An ironic salute to this was the Egyptian government’s decision to turn off the Internet, and later the GSM networks as well. If the value of the Internet really had been as a way to pass on the time and place to assemble, this would have been a serious blow to the movement. But once you’re a really angry Egyptian, where else would you protest but Tahrir Square? It wasn’t that they needed it for tactical communication, but rather for strategic propaganda. Also, once they took this step, they had also inadvertently demonstrated to the other world media that This Was It. The mainstream media remains very good at bringing its own connectivity, and the main barrier to them covering the news is usually that they don’t think something is news. Giving Al-Jazeera and friends – who had been heavily criticised on the Web for being soft on the Egyptian government – a monopoly may have been a really bad idea as it forced them to cover the news or look indistinguishable from Nile TV.

I suspect that a lesson here is that the last thing authoritarian governments will do in future is turn the Internet off. For a start, they will increasingly need to keep it up for economic reasons – the ISP that serves the Egyptian stock exchange and central bank was left alone, and with time I would bet that it would become increasingly porous to information. But much more importantly, this is not a policy that has a great track record. Burma managed it, but started with advantages (not many users, only one network, and a strong position to start with). Iran did far better with its throttle-down-and-spy plan. Even though the Tunisians funnelled all the Facebook accounts in the country into one, controlled by the secret police, it didn’t seem to help.

Jamais Casco (via here) asked if you could start a genocide on Twitter – a sensible point, as we know you can do so with the radio, the cinema, television, the newspapers, and (thanks to Serbian turbo-folk) rock’n’roll*. Terrorists tried to start a nuclear war with a spoofed caller-ID. Whether or not you could do that, you can certainly start a mob of quasi-fascist loyalist paramilitaries on QQ. Out of all authoritarian governments, China does best, with strategic trolling and semi-official moderators, which may be more important than direct censorship. Andrew Wilson’s Virtual Politics makes the interesting point that Russia in the early Putin years didn’t so much censor the Internet, as distribute government talking-points and favours to carefully selected bastards.

Then again, was the greatest success of the wumaodang model the 2004 US presidential election? The best way to fight one myth is perhaps with another. And the best ones are distinguished by the fact they are sometimes called principles. The really depressing consequence of this is that Paul Staines probably has a job for life, although the less depressing corollary is that he gets to herd several hundred idiots yelling about ZaNuLiebour for the term of his natural.

A couple of other interesting links: Charles Bwele makes the point that in much of the world, the so-called new media are more like the first ones. Did you know about the Grozny riots of 1958?
*The world’s first genocidal remix is yet to come, but I wouldn’t rule it out by any means. All art aspires to the status of music, and just look what people get up to with books.

fan service

I wonder who is heading on a steady course of 280 degrees True along the Mediterranean in their Boeing Business Jet from the Texan/Saudi operator MidEast Jet. If they started from Egypt, given the time they came into range and their air speed, that would fit with the BBC reporting that prominent persons had left the country at 2117 GMT, quoting Al-Jazeera (although I was watching it and I didn’t see this).

Whoever they are, they’re about 15 minutes from Tunisia.

fremdscham

Faintly disgusting at the Register.

“The corporation vowed to increase the spending on “devolved nations” – which is Beeb-speak not for Bangladesh or Papua New Guinea, you may be surprised to learn, but Wales and Scotland. This will increase from 12 per cent to 17 per cent.”

Because people who aren’t as pale as Andrew Orlowski have “devolved”, perhaps to the point where they haven’t even noticed the benefits of shutting off comments on all their articles.

Does anyone know if I can trust this stack exchange answer (referring to wordpress bug 14818) that wordpress won’t mangle all the Google Maps, video, ManyEyes visualisations and the like from the old site during a programmatic import? I’m now down to two blockers before moving TYR Classic.

For George Osborne read Bernie Madoff: he’ll take your money and take your job, but don’t worry – if you wait long enough, he promises you’ll get it all back from someone else.

(Ed Balls, here.)

Note he didn’t say “Of course, we accept the necessity of cuts, but George Osborne is really like Bernie Madoff”. This was rather the point of this post. In the end, the people who thought themselves masters of rhetoric, campaigning, and media management were stuck with a hopelessly confused message that they would have rightly mocked had it come from anyone else. On the other hand, funny old Gordon (is he going mad?) had a clear and immediately comprehensible message.

Of course, neither I, Ed Balls, or probably anyone else in Britain actually thinks we’ll never need to do anything about the budget deficit. The question is what, how much, from whom, and when. The official answer from Labour on the campaign trail and since was “about half as much, or as much over twice as long”.

Even keeping the plan target from the Pre-Budget report, to reduce the deficit by half over the next parliament, there’s still significant room to do a better job. You could look at the distributional impact and call attention to the fact that poor families with children lose out the most. You could look at the breakdown between growth, inflation, taxation, and cuts, and perhaps dust off the file from the late 90s. During the 90s fiscal stabilisation, Ken Clarke and Gordon Brown pursued a policy of splitting the adjustment burden equally between spending restraint and higher taxes. You could even use “the Clarke-Brown plan” as a talking point, seeing as Ken Clarke is back in the government. Beyond that, we could look at aiming for stabilisation first, and reduction only once the risk of a second recession is past.

But none of this is likely to help if it comes with an initial disclaimer that it should not be believed too hard. Rhetorical commitments are not much, as Nick Clegg would point out, but they do have more self-binding power than saying nothing. If you preface everything with a statement that you don’t really believe it very hard, you risk convincing everyone that the other half of the statement is the bit they shouldn’t take seriously.

How did we get here? I think it’s worth looking at the idea of “the centre” carefully. In my opinion, the idea that the centre ground plays a special role in politics is a sort of wrapper round a package of interesting assumptions. One of these is something like the median voter theorem – the idea that if voter preferences are roughly normally distributed along a scale between two camps, then the preferences of the voter halfway along the scale determine the outcome. Another is related, but different – that the political scale translates into practical priorities for government. Even if the spectrum is primarily made up of statements about identity, ethics, and emotion, it can be transcribed perfectly from political DNA into practical proteins. (Perhaps institutions are the RNA in this metaphor.)

This set-up is quite robust. There’s the classic version of centre ground politics, where preferences along the classic left-right scale are normally distributed and therefore most people are somewhere in the centre. As a result, democracy equals moderation, and campaigning is basically all about assembling a policy package that pushes the party line over the median. There are a couple of others. One is a version in which preferences have a binomial distribution, one peak for Labour, one for Tories, and there are a few swing voters in the middle. As the two peaks are roughly equal in size, though, this doesn’t change much – the decisive factor is still which way the centre goes. This is probably closer to the standard operating procedures of big political parties, although the theoretical legitimacy still comes from the first, moderate majority model. This still works in a world like 1970s Germany, where the swing voters are represented by a third party, and the primary form of political competition is trying to be the bigger of the two big parties and therefore the swing party’s preferred coalition partner. Here’s a fine example of living in either world, as is this.

Another one is a pathological variant – the 51% model beloved of Karl Rove. This accepts the two camps, but denies that there is a significant zone of potential agreement in the middle. Instead, it argues, the biggest source of potential voters for either side is the reserve army of the nonvoters; in a low-turnout polity, on the assumption that nonvoters break the same way as the general population, there are so many nonvoters with some prior party affiliation that they outweigh the swingers. The policy recommendation from this is that a party must do all it can to achieve asymmetric mobilisation, to rile up its own base while trying to damp down the others. Rather than trying to adapt to whatever the real preferences of the people are, as in the first model, or micro-targeting the relatively small group of swing voters, as in the second, the point is to wind up a bigger gang for whatever makes up a minimal consensus in your party.

Interestingly, this should have as a consequence the incremental radicalisation of the party that starts it. As anyone who wanted higher wages would be replaced by a member of the original reserve army of the unemployed, so anyone who deserts i is likely to be replaced by someone more extreme.

There’s a limiting case for this. If the political rhetoric that marks the scale is really meant to be transcribed into action, at some point the initiating party will get so extreme that its position is intolerable to a large majority of the public. But here’s a serious problem. In the well-behaved, school politics lesson world of scenario one, politicians are thought to set their positions on the political scale by reference to the practical policies they will command. They are flying by reference to the horizon, or at least to the artificial horizon of the polls. But I think it’s fair to say, at least going by the fact that they frequently say this is precisely what they’re doing, that politicians also set their positions by reference to other politicians. Rather than watching the horizon, they are watching the other guy’s wingtip and flying in formation.

Now in some cases this might actually work. If they are all working from a common view of reality, it’s entirely valid to reckon that the central axis of the Labour Party is however many degrees to the left of the leftmost Tory. There will be drift over time, but nothing too drastic. They can adjust their relative positions without colliding. What matters is that the constraints in their calculations are mutually consistent. They are linked because they have the same republic in their heads. This is, I think, what underlies the whole concept. It assumes a common public sphere and no bad behaviour. This is why operationalising postmodernism was important.

Of course, basic cognitive biases suggest that people who work together and share an institutional culture will think this even if they are competitors in practice.

The problem here is that the whole thing relies for stability on nobody adopting the counter-game strategy and either trying to change the rules, or just to drag the opposition so far off their home ground that they lose all credibility and fail first. I’m pretty confident that, to borrow a phrase from Nick Clegg, 1931 plus a pound does not equal “progressive”, and neither does it equal a winning strategy for the opposition. I’m much less confident that there is any way to correct the course except for adopting the 51% strategy or something very like it and trying to drag the lot bodily leftwards. I don’t particularly like the look of 102% World (two hypermobilised and completely mutually intolerable camps) either, but there you go.

Update: I have just read this post of Steve Randy Waldman’s which is more than relevant.





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