Archive for May, 2011

Did I mention that Arms Control Wonk is still great? The guided nuclear bomb. Bureaucratic consequences of A.Q. Khan. The clean-up of Semipalatinsk, including an actual loose nuke, which was disposed of back in 1995 without anyone getting hurt.


At Fistful of Euros: so what did Nicolas Sarkozy know about DSK, why did he only leak the bits he leaked, and what are the voters going to do about it?, how I was wrong about the euro, NATO for dictators, floating without a strategy, although if we had one it would probably be wrong.

At Stable & Principled: my entire post on Dr. Tim Morgan, how we were right as far back as July about the coalition economic strategy, the Kübler-Ross model of grieving, and the coming Sad Donkey Economics movement has vanished into thin air. This is a disturbingly common event with S&P, although nowhere near enough to account for its general lack of content. You know you want it, though. Update: Up!

I’ve just been reading the Resolution Foundation Growth without Gain report like every other left-wing blogger. Here’s something interesting. About economics and the success or failure of New Labour’s administrative devolution. Don’t all rush at once.

Is devolution good for you?

You read that right – between 2003 and 2008, disposable income in the UK fell on average by 1.1% annually. Anyway, this leapt out at me: the only three regions to see actual growth in their take-home pay were London, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Of the rest, the least bad was Wales, which at least beat the spread if it didn’t get into positive territory. All four above-average performers have devolved administrations. The data only runs up to 2008, so we don’t get to see what having administration that’s devolved in the political sense, run by someone who’s devolved as in Devo or the opposite of evolved, will do for you.

Via yet another really excellent Arms Control Wonk piece on Indian and Pakistani nukes, it turns out that A.Q. Khan, formerly of Khan Research Laboratories, the man who sold the world the unofficial open-source community version of the Urenco enrichment cascade, and now of luxurious house arrest right up until the Navy SEALs climb over his back garden wall, has a blog.

It’s in Urdu, but I know a man who can deal with that and who has blogging time on his hands.


I went with the ThinkPad option in the end – the wily denizens of the computer souk managed to upsell me from the ThinkPad Edge 11 to a fully fledged X200S that looks like you have to wear a tie to start it up. Next step, clear up my data enough to look at moving my non-Windows activities over to the new ‘pooter. I’m assuming I’ll run OpenSUSE Linux on the new machine again, unless anyone has a good reason not to.

I noticed at OpenTech that not only did something like half the presenters bring a Mac (and as someone on twitter observed, forget the VGA adaptor for the overhead projector), but at least half of the Mac users were running Ubuntu on them. Everyone else seemed to be Ubuntu-ing as well except for one Fedora and one Debian (I think) user. Nobody, but nobody, ran Windows. (Actually I think I caught sight of a netbook running XP at some point but the owner covered it up sharpish.)

Also, this looks handy. No more £1 Webcheck lookups!

So we did the Stag & Dagger festival. This translated into the following facts on the ground, which I propose to review briefly.

Toro y Moi, at XOYO

This lot could be interesting – if they stopped, ugh, jamming. EDIT. Ended up back in the bar with the house’s DJ. Venue is pretty great, too – fantastic sound, disturbingly reasonable drinks prices and surprisingly nice people. Even though I spotted someone holding a pint in their teeth to facilitate tweeting with both thumbs. Quote: “You’ve really done that skinhead look haven’t you – is that, er, deliberate?” No, I fell under a barber’s shop.

YBAs at the Old Blue Last

If you like vaguely punky, you’ll like this, but there’s a lot of it about. Also, could people stop pretending to be the Jesus & Mary Chain? This was the second act of the night I would have dropped in favour of the house’s DJ like a shot.

Wire at Village Underground

Legends, but ruined by terrible sound in the cavernous railway arch.

James Yuill at City Arts & Music Project Basement

This is going to be harsh, but stop trying to be Jarvis Cocker, especially as you’re a DJ. No-one dancing. Beer prices the highest I’ve seen anywhere in the world. I also refuse to believe that their basement really looks like this and suspect that decorators spent serious money making it look that cheap.

Star Slingers at Queen of Hoxton

This lot sounded interesting and they got the floor going, but for some reason we didn’t like them much. Don’t remember exactly why, probably because they were the last act of the night. And they kept pointing a laser at me. Prices appalling (I brought Daniel Davies here once and even he jibbed), not much point if you’re not on the roof terrace. Handy for the office.

I forget who played at the Hoxton Bar & Kitchen but we couldn’t stand the gaff for more than 30 seconds at a time, so the only way to take part would have been to take turns to duck in and out like Soviet submariners during a nuclear accident.

Another OpenTech result

I need to be more damn effective and better organised.

If it helps at all, I just bought the O’Reilly books on Android development and on JavaScript, as it’s getting increasingly ridiculous to not know it.

So it was OpenTech weekend. I wasn’t presenting anything (although I’m kicking myself for not having done a talk on Tropo and Phono) but of course I was there. This year’s was, I think, a bit better than last year’s – the schedule filled up late on, and there were a couple of really good workshop sessions. As usual, it was also the drinking conference with a code problem (the bar was full by the end of the first session).

Things to note: everyone loves Google Refine, and I really enjoyed the Refine HOWTO session, which was also the one where the presenter asked if anyone present had ever written a screen-scraper and 60-odd hands reached for the sky. Basically, it lets you slurp up any even vaguely tabular data and identify transformations you need to clean it up – for example, identifying particular items, data formats, or duplicates – and then apply them to the whole thing automatically. You can write your own functions for it in several languages and have the application call them as part of the process. Removing cruft from data is always incredibly time consuming and annoying, so it’s no wonder everyone likes the idea of a sensible way of automating it. There’s been some discussion on the ScraperWiki mailing list about integrating Refine into SW in order to provide a data-scrubbing capability and I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes ahead.

Tim Ireland’s presentation on the political uses of search-engine optimisation was typically sharp and typically amusing – I especially liked his point that the more specific a search term, the less likely it is to lead the searcher to a big newspaper website. Also, he made the excellent point that mass audiences and target audiences are substitutes for each other, and the ultimate target audience is one person – the MP (or whoever) themselves.

The Sukey workshop was very cool – much discussion about propagating data by SMS in a peer-to-peer topology, on the basis that everyone has a bucket of inclusive SMS messages and this beats paying through the nose for Clickatell or MBlox to send out bulk alerts. They are facing a surprisingly common mobile tech issue, which is that when you go mobile, most of the efficient push-notification technologies you can use on the Internet stop being efficient. If you want to use XMPP or SIP messaging, your problem is that the users’ phones have to maintain an active data connection and/or recreate one as soon after an interruption as possible. Mobile networks analogise an Internet connection to a phone call – the terminal requests a PDP (Packet Data Profile) data call from the network – and as a result, the radio in the phone stays in an active state as long as the “call” is going on, whether any data is being transferred or not.

This is the inverse of the way they handle incoming messages or phone calls – in that situation, the radio goes into a low power standby mode until the network side signals it on a special paging channel. At the moment, there’s no cross-platform way to do this for incoming Internet packets, although there are some device-specific ways of getting around it at a higher level of abstraction. Hence the interest of using SMS (or indeed MMS).

Their other main problem is the integrity of their data – even without deliberate disinformation, there’s plenty of scope for drivel, duplicates, cockups etc to get propagated, and a risk of a feedback loop in which the crap gets pushed out to users, they send it to other people, and it gets sucked up from Twitter or whatever back into the system. This intersects badly with their use cases – it strikes me, and I said as much, that moderation is a task that requires a QWERTY keyboard, a decent-sized monitor, and a shirt-sleeve working environment. You can’t skim-read through piles of comments on a 3″ mobile phone screen in the rain, nor can you edit them on a greasy touchscreen, and you certainly can’t do either while looking out that you don’t get hit over the head by the cops.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of armchair revolutionaries on the web who could actually contribute something by reviewing batches of updates, and once you have reasonably large buckets of good stuff and crap you can use Bayesian filtering to automate part of the process.

Francis Davey’s OneClickOrgs project is coming along nicely – it automates the process of creating an organisation with legal personality and a constitution and what not, and they’re looking at making it able to set up co-ops and other types of organisation.

I didn’t know that OpenStreetMap is available through multiple different tile servers, so you can make use of Mapquest’s CDN to serve out free mapping.

OpenCorporates is trying to make a database of all the world’s companies (they’re already getting on for four million), and the biggest problem they have is working out how to represent inter-company relationships, which have the annoying property that they are a directed graph but not a directed acylic graph – it’s perfectly possible and indeed common for company X to own part of company Y which owns part of company X, perhaps through the intermediary of company Z.

OpenTech’s precursor, Notcon, was heavier on the hardware/electronics side than OT usually is, but this year there were quite a few hardware projects. However, I missed the one that actually included a cat.

What else? LinkedGov is a bit like ScraperWiki but with civil servants and a grant from the Technology Strategy Board. Francis Maude is keen. Kumbaya is an encrypted, P2P online backup application which has the feature that you only have to store data from people you trust. (Oh yes, and apparently nobody did any of this stuff two years ago. Time to hit the big brown bullshit button.)

As always, the day after is a bit of an enthusiasm killer. I’ve spent part of today trying to implement monthly results for my lobby metrics project and it looks like it’s much harder than I was expecting. Basically, NetworkX is fundamentally node-oriented and the dates of meetings are edge properties, so you can’t just subgraph nodes with a given date. This may mean I’ll have to rethink the whole implementation. Bugger.

I’m also increasingly tempted to scrape the competition‘s meetings database into ScraperWiki as there doesn’t seem to be any way of getting at it without the HTML wrapping. Oddly, although they’ve got the Department of Health’s horrible PDFs scraped, they haven’t got the Scottish Office although it’s relatively easy, so it looks like this wouldn’t be a 100% solution. However, their data cleaning has been much more effective – not surprising as I haven’t really been trying. This has some consequences – I’ve only just noticed that I’ve hugely underestimated Oliver Letwin’s gatekeepership, which should be 1.89 rather than 1.05. Along with his network degree of 2.67 (the eight highest) this suggests that he should be a highly desirable target for any lobbying you might want to do.


The National Rail website has borrowed the sensible URIs from Although it does seem a bit of a miss that there’s no shortener like – say –, as those are by definition quite long strings.

The website that identifies the satellite a dish is pointing at, or tells you where to point the dish for a given satellite. Includes a mobile augmented-reality app!

The Vatican has IPv6, and they peer with major Italian ISPs.

Blackwater, after the party. Curiously the entire piece doesn’t mention that the UAE military operates Mirage 2000s and such things, but it still makes it fairly clear that Erik Prince’s new job in Dubai is basically providing foreign goons to beat up the subcontinental construction workers if they make any trouble.

An interview about Piggipedia.

You know there’s been a revolution when people enjoy a talk by Alex Callinicos.

So that Michael Lewis – you know, the one who writes articles about how stupid Icelanders were. Via The Oil and the Glory, here’s what he was saying in January, 2007, just as the last bulls in the US housing market’s dizziest bubbles finally cracked and the big plummet began. Here it is.

But the most striking thing about the growing derivatives markets is the stability that has come with them. More than eight years ago, after Long-Term Capital Management blew up and lost a few billion dollars, the Federal Reserve had to be wheeled in to save capitalism as we know it.

Last year Amaranth Advisors blew up, lost more than LTCM, and the financial markets hardly batted an eyelash. “The financial markets in 2007,” some member of the global economic elite might have said but didn’t, “are astonishingly robust. They seem to be working out how to absorb and distribute risk more intelligently than any member of the global economic elite could on his own.” Once the laughter subsided — and someone took down his name to make sure he didn’t make next year’s guest list — he might go on to point out that in spite of a great deal of political turmoil the markets have remained calm.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act sticks a wrench in the American market for initial public offerings, and the capital-raising business simply removes itself to London and Hong Kong. Thailand installs capital controls and the markets force it to reverse its policy, virtually overnight — again with nary a ripple. The Brazilian real is now less volatile than the Swiss franc; Botswana’s debt is now more highly rated than Italy’s. Oil prices double, the U.S. housing market tanks — no matter what happens, financial markets adjust quickly and without hysteria.

This is a case in point of Daniel Davies‘s contention that while forecasting the future is great, forecasting the recent past is almost as good and much more likely to be successful. That is to say, it’s not just enough to have the information, it’s also important to draw consequences from it and react to them. This is why John Boyd held that the most important element of his Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop was the Orientation.

In this case, Lewis was well aware that a massive housing market bust was actually in progress, that the oil price was very high, and that a range of generally weird things had happened. But he didn’t integrate this information into his broader situational awareness – he noted that nothing had exploded yet and reached for a variety of rationalisations, notably confirmation-bias, to explain why nothing would happen.

However, for his own part, he actually responded more effectively. He spent quite a lot of this article whining about people who weren’t taking risks and wondering why nobody was going short if things were so bad. Well, in fact somebody was going short the US housing market. (Logically, somebody had to be short if so many people were so long – someone had to be taking the other end of those trades, as in fact he said in as many words.) And Michael Lewis later wrote a book about him, making a considerable profit.

Obviously, he was in a position to wait and see what happened, and then write the book either about the Great Bull Run of 2008 or the Great Crash. That helps. From a Boydian point of view, it is critical to all strategy that you keep your options open as far as possible and avoid being forced into reacting on the other side’s time-table. It’s also true, though, that the precondition of not being bankrupt in 2008 and therefore being able to take opportunities as they came was not taking risks in 2007, perhaps by doing a well-paying writing gig at Bloomberg in which you moan endlessly about people who aren’t taking enough risks.

In fact, anyone looking for economic advice from Lewis in 2007 would have been well advised to ignore everything he said and instead study what he was actually doing.


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