Archive for October, 2004

Very short post

When the book of this election is written it’ll be called Margin of Error.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the world’s most pointless headline: “Bush, Kerry in Reach of Electoral Win” (Washington Post)

This site contains absolutely no “gay wank chatrooms” or indeed any chatrooms of any kind. I have never possessed this material. I have no intention of providing gay wank chatrooms at any point in the future. UN inspectors are welcome to verify this.

What the chap in Ireland who searched Yahoo for them was doing here at 0247 last night is beyond me, as is the reason the Ranter is the 8th highest Yahoo result for them.


Depending on who you listen to, the withdrawal of the European Commission candidates in the face of the Parliament’s refusal to support them was either a shameful left-wing assault on religion (the Times went so far as to use the phrase “witch burning” yesterday) or “the birth of parliamentary democracy” in the EU. There are a couple of points that stand out to me.

The first is that the row about Buttiglione obscures the real concerns the Parliament had with some of the other commissioners. They also rejected Neelie Kroes, an impeccably liberal Dutch businesswoman, on the grounds that she was in a conflict of interest as Competition Commissioner. Looking through the list of her former directorships it’s hard to disagree – practically every Dutch and quite a few other companies of substance are there. They also rejected the Latvian Ingrida Urbe as Taxation Commissioner. She is a Green, but a Eurosceptic Green, and they were dissatisfied with her statements about her own finances. They also threw back a Socialist, Laszlo Kovacs, who was proposed as Energy commissioner, on the grounds that he wasn’t up to the job. In fact, the Parliament’s ire seems to have been very fairly distributed across Europe – here goes a southern, Catholic conservative! Followed swiftly by a Protestant, northern economic liberal! Thrown out chiefly by the Liberal group! And a Baltic Green! And a Central European Socialist!

This kind of equal opportunity castigation is just what a parliament should look like. Appointments should never be made because they represent a constituency or faction. Neither should they be unmade. Instead, the parliament should be united in distaste. The “lefty witch hunt” loses even more cogency when you notice that 33 of the Liberals were in favour of the Commission and 11 British Conservatives out of 28 were against it. This was the real stuff, and it’s almost a pity that Barroso chose to give in rather than force a vote.

Secondly, there are very good reasons for the EU to remain secular. The settlement between the member states and the organisation is based on a division of powers. One of the areas the EU does not touch on is the content of national constitutions. If we are going to have secular France, devout Poland, a UK whose Queen is head of a Protestant state religion, and perhaps Turkey, a secular state with a Muslim population, in the same Union, we have to seek the minimum on which agreement can be reached. The minimum, in this case, is also the best answer – keep religion out of the EU institutions entirely. If the central institutions take a turn towards militant secularity, this will be unacceptable to many of the member states. The same goes in the opposite direction. Only at the zero point is this issue stable.

The Proof

Video evidence shows that explosives were indeed under IAEA seal at al-Qaa Qaa when the US 101st Airborne Division passed through. Watch the video, prepared by a local TV station from Minneapolis, here. From the text:

“Using GPS technology and talking with members of the 101st Airborne 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS determined our crew embedded with them may have been on the southern edge of the Al Qaqaa installation, where that ammunition disappeared. Our crew was based just south of Al Qaqaa. On April 18, 2003 they drove two or three miles north into what is believed to be that area.

During that trip, members of the 101st Airborne Division showed the 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS crew bunker after bunker of material labelled explosives. Usually it took just the snap of a bolt cutter to get in and see the material identified by the 101st as detonation cords.

“We can stick it in those and make some good bombs.” a soldier told our crew.”

There’s more too in the New York Times, here.

“The photographs are consistent with what I know of Al Qaqaa,” said David A. Kay, a former American official who led the recent hunt in Iraq for unconventional weapons and visited the vast site. “The damning thing is the seals. The Iraqis didn’t use seals on anything. So I’m absolutely sure that’s an I.A.E.A. seal.”

One weapons expert said the videotape and some of the agency’s photographs of the HMX stockpiles “were such good matches it looked like they were taken by the same camera on the same day.”

Independent experts said several other factors – the geography; the number of bunkers; the seals on some of the bunker doors; the boxes, crates and barrels similar to those seen by weapon inspectors – confirm that the videotape was taken at Al Qaqaa……Mr. Caffrey provided The New York Times with the latitude and longitude of the camp, which places it between 1.5 and 3 miles southeast of Al Qaqaa bunkers. A commercial satellite photograph of the region shows that the camp was close to the storage site. Mr. Caffrey said the soldiers used bolt cutters to cut through chains with locks on them, as well as seals. He said the seals appeared to be lead disks attached to very thin wires that were wrapped around the doors of the bunker entrances, forming a barrier easily cut in two.

They visited a half dozen bunkers, he said. The gloomy interiors revealed long rows of boxes, crates and barrels, what independent experts said were three kinds of HMX containers shipped to Iraq from France, China and Yugoslavia. The team opened storage containers, some of which contained white powder that independent experts said was consistent with HMX.”

There’s even a photo of a seal marked IAEA.

Not only that, the photos released by the US Department of Defence showing a truck parked near a bunker have already been discredited. So has the brief story that a “secret IAEA document” showed only 3 tons of RDX at al-Qaa Qaa in January, 2003. Link:

“ABC News, citing IAEA inspection documents, reported Wednesday night that the Iraqis had declared 141 tons of RDX explosives at Al-Qaqaa in July 2002, but that the site held only three tons when it was checked in January 2003.

The network said that could suggest that 138 tons were removed from the facility long before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

But Fleming said most of the RDX – about 125 tons – was kept at Al-Mahaweel, a storage site under Al-Qaqaa’s jurisdiction located outside the main Al-Qaqaa site. She also said about 10 tons already had been reported by Iraq as having been used for non-prohibited purposes between July 2002 and January 2003″

It’s all gone, then. And this much-cited story must now be rated officially nonsense. I somehow doubt John A. Shaw, the official whose unsupported assertion is the only source for the “Russians took it!” story, will be resigning, although he was patently lying.

So, the explosives were gone before they got there? FOX didn’t think so at the time.

In this story, the news station mentions that the US 3rd Infantry Division found something it decided was an explosive at the site.

“Col. John Peabody, engineer brigade commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, said troops found thousands of 2-by-5-inch boxes, each containing three vials of white powder, together with documents written in Arabic that dealt with how to engage in chemical warfare.

Initial reports suggest the powder is an explosive, but tests are still being done, a senior U.S. official said. If confirmed, it would be consistent with what the Iraqis say is the plant’s purpose, producing explosives and propellants.”

In the end, as we know, they concluded it wasn’t a chemical weapon. But what does RDX look like? Let’s look it up and check our facts, shall we? defines RDX as

“an explosive nitramine compound. It is in the form of a white powder with a density of 1.806 g/cc. Nitrogen content of 37.84%. The chemical name for RDX is 1,3,5-trinitro-1,3,5-triazine. The chemical formula for RDX is C3H6N6O6 and the molecular weight is 222.117. Its melting point is 205°C. RDX has very low solubility in water and has an extremely low volatility. RDX does not sorb to soil very strongly and can move into the groundwater from soil.”

Mind you, it wasn’t as if they were looking for it, or at least their brigade commander, Colonel Dave Perkins, doesn’t seem to think so. Who do you believe – Colonels Perkins and Peabody and all the evidence, or the spin? I suppose it depends if you’re in the reality based community or not. Or perhaps they’ve just been chewing the RDX:

“Troops have also become intoxicated during field operations from exposure to composition C4 plastic explosive, which contains 91% RDX. These field exposures occurred because C4 was either chewed as an intoxicant or used as a fuel for cooking. Thus, the route of exposure was ingestion or inhalation. At least 40 American soldiers experienced convulsions due to RDX ingestion during the Vietnam War.”

Well, whatever turns you on I suppose…

John Peel

I never appreciated him as much as perhaps I should have done, for the key reason that my dad listened to him. Still, I recall in about 1997 hearing him play the following three bands: Folk Implosion, Ash, and the Jungle Brothers. What a choice.

One of the fashionable fields in recent economic thought has been trying to apply rational expectations theory to political events. Famously, the Pentagon had to pull its “policy analysis market” due to outcry. Now, I see via Brad DeLong that a couple of academics have tried something similar, using a US sports betting website to trade futures in various political events. You can get the paper here.

Now, the theoretical underpinning for this is the rational-expectations hypothesis familiar to economics students. It states simply that market participants make their decisions through a rational calculation of costs and benefits based on all the information available. Although the possibility of their being mistaken is accepted, it is assumed that all errors are equally probable – that errors are randomly distributed. With enough data, then, there should be just as many errors on each side and they should be equally extreme. Therefore, they cancel out and can be ignored. This has important repercussions – for example, the price of a share is assumed to reflect a precisely accurate estimate of the firm’s future profitability at any moment. Any attempt by government to reflate the economy is futile, in the extreme view, because everyone will simply adjust their behaviour instantly so that only inflation results.

In a betting market, then, the odds on any event should represent an accurate prediction of its likelihood. Now, a lot of us would tend to be sceptical about this. We might be even more so, when we see some of their results. Apparently, according to the market, the capture of Osama bin Laden becomes more likely as the election approaches. This can hardly reflect an accurate assessment of available information, as there is practically no information available. Clearly, this is a shadow effect of the belief that the capture of bin Laden would influence the presidential election. The nearer the election, the greater the impact – this seems intuitively sound. That doesn’t mean, though, that the event is more likely. In fact, the hypothesis that the capture of bin Laden might occur in time to save the President’s bacon is driving the market for the likelihood of Bin Laden’s capture – an independent variable. There is no known connection between the two. There’s been a lot of rumours, but nothing solid. One kind of rumour might be that a political betting exchange was seeing a lot of money going on. Yep, it’s Soros’s idea of reflexivity in town.

There are some serious questions involved with this. For a start, gambling isn’t a rational activity. A majority of gamblers lose. Why should their decisions be treated as economically rational? Secondly, rational expectations theory assumes perfect information. In this case, the participants are betting on something they almost certainly have no information on. The only guide they have is the behaviour of others. Thirdly, there is no reason to believe that errors are random. In fact, crucially important instances of error tend to show not randomness but very strong patterns. Stock market bubbles would not occur if error was random – does anybody really believe that Bookham Technology’s share price in early 2000 was a cosmically correct prediction of its profitability? Well, it was a very bad prediction. Politics provides an endless supply of these examples. The German leadership in the Second World War showed a strong tendency to make the same mistake again, and then to reinforce it. At the battle of Avranches the Panzer Group Eberbach was sent again and again further into the attack although its rear was increasingly threatened. The year before, something similar had happened at Stalingrad. The year afterwards it would happen at the battle of the Bulge. In the field of aviation safety, the human ability to make a mistake and keep on making it, convinced of the rightness of your cause, is tragically frequent. Men have been known to convince themselves that, even though a physical stall warning was wildly clattering the control column, the aircraft was not about to stall, and to yell down their colleagues until the crash.

Gamblers, of course, are the ultimate example of this trait. Although the house has the edge, they can be willing to keep betting in an effort to recoup losses, even running bigger risks. When you think of qualitative examples – where a particular structure of thought constrains reason – you could keep going forever on these. To get away from this psychological digression, think of the problem of representation. Is it possible that people who bet on political events in a manner favourable to George Bush share certain views or preferences – a particular political indifference curve – that affects their results?

That was quick

The Guardian website is now showing a Press Association story that David Blunkett has scrapped the idea of adding ID card functions to new passports and driving licences after 2007. Instead it’ll have to be an ID card that says ID CARD on it. This is considerably more honest than the last plan, which implied trying to introduce the cards without us really noticing. It also means that we will have to pay for the passport AND the card – a thick £108 a throw.


At Kingston Crown Court today, former Siemens Business Systems IT worker Barry Dodgy was jailed for five years for his part in a plot to sell information held in the national ID database – to terrorists. Database analyst Dodgy, 37, of Uxbridge, accepted large sums of cash from the banned Ba’athrobe organisation in exchange for providing them with the Citizen Reference Numbers, addresses and medical records of people the group targeted for assassination. As a supervisor with the giant IT contractor that runs the national citizen registry, he had full access to all levels of data in the system, including the independent audit trail system that is meant to detect unauthorised access by recording every time an ID record is checked.

The terrorists found plenty of uses for the system. Once they had a contact within SBS, they were able to provide almost any piece of information on a target – a car number for example – and get back their address, biometric data, ID number, access to medical, police and Inland Revenue files, and even details of their children’s schooling. Although Dodgy came under suspicion when his colleagues noticed his sudden wealth, it is unknown whether or not he also took advantage of his position to change records in the database or even to issue perfect fake IDs. Although agents from MI5, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, and computer engineers are investigating, independent expert Ima Geek told the Ranter that such changes would be undetectable in the vast quantity of information involved.

The Ba’athrobe, whose ideology combines Nasserite nationalism and socialism with a passionate advocacy of European integration and an elegant taste in pyjamas, used the data to assassinate a string of public figures including Marks and Spencer executives, politicians and journalists…

Well, it wasn’t quite like that. But Barry Dickinson did indeed penetrate a huge government database of personal information on behalf of terrorists. Link There are differences, of course. Davies was a civil servant, not a contractor, and he acted out of conviction rather than pure greed. The terrorists in question were an extremist animal-rights group, and the database was the DVLA’s register of motor vehicles. But the security breach was pretty bad all the same. Dickinson was given car registration numbers collected by terrorists staking out a farm in Staffordshire. He simply ran them through the database and returned the names and addresses associated with them. The group then began to harass the people living at those address, vandalising their homes and vehicles, sending hate mail, attempting blackmail and threatening to kill. They didn’t go quite that far, but they are probably up for it given suitable weapons. After all, they clocked up no less than 50 incidents of violence or intimidation and stole an old lady’s remains from her grave. Any sensible person should see the relevance of this to the prospect of a national ID card scheme.

Criminals, terrorists and unscrupulous political or commercial marketers are all likely to make extreme efforts to get access to a citizen database. Can any person experienced with IT put their hand on heart and say they are confident that such a huge scheme will be watertight? The struggle between sysadmins and hackers is just another of the ceaseless updates of the eternal struggle between armour and weapon. The crucial feature of this struggle is that the weapon is always in the lead – just as the attacker has the advantage in all strategy. This is to say nothing of the human factor. In the Dickinson case, the computer system functioned perfectly, but one of the people deputed to work it was sympathetic to the attackers. This defeats all technical security. There is always at least one person with access to the root directory, and as the geek proverb goes, Root is God. Better yet, the possibilities for an infiltrator in the development team who build the system would be literally without limit. They could set up back-door access to the database or even add extra fields of information hidden to other users. The biggest security system we build must, by definition, be the biggest security risk.

Curiously, the only newspaper to grasp this story was the execrable Daily Mail, which splashed the story under one of their extremely long screamer NOW IT’S THE FRANKENFISH! headlines.

Well, the inevitable leftwing infighting has now had a few days to marinate since the European Social Forum, and it’s boiling down to one of the most spiritually important rites in the lefty calendar – the exchange of angry letters to the Guardian. This always happens, and it takes the form of each party to the split getting everyone they know to sign the letter so it appears with “..and 6 others” after your signature. The greater the number, the stronger the tribal mana associated with the rite. The only honourable response is to conduct a counter-ritual with more signatories. Eventually, a particularly influential lefty in the spirit world might get the ultimate compliment of a piece on the Comment page, with the attendant prestige.

I’ve never done it myself, but I think if this happens you have to sacrifice a goat or two and undertake the shaman’s flight.

What it all concerns, aside from the punch-up at the ESF, is apparently that the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition don’t think one of their members, the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, is sufficiently anti-war because they think the occupation should not end until the elections have been held. This has led to one of the trade unions involved, UNISON, deciding to pull out. You have to say it seems a little odd for people in north London to tell Iraqis whether they are fighting the occupation enough, but then this is the left. Deeper, it’s the usual thing of the main-streamers versus the Socialist Workers (Trotskyists), who may or may not be up to their traditional practice of entryism depending on who you talk to. Whether they are or not, their very presence tends to make the trade unionists paranoid about infiltrators. So far, the UNISON leadership has got in the first blow, with a follow-up from the IFTU representative in Britain. Today, the SWC (or perhaps the SWP) hit back and moved the mana level radically higher, when they achieved a piece in the Guardian’s comment page.

They’ll be out on Hampstead Heath tonight with the goat, I don’t doubt.

Why anybody should think this kind of student politics nonsense is a worthwhile response to the world’s problems is beyond me, but then, you have to feel sorry for the goat.