Archive for November, 2007

Here’s Simon Jenkins’ latest piece of work.

For the Tories it is sex, for Labour it is money. Financial scandal sticks to the latter like political napalm. From formula one to ministerial mortgages, privatisation contracts and cash-for-honours, the sign of a £50 note waving in the wind sends Labour politicians weak at the knees. Their only moral is don’t get caught, yet they get caught all the time.

Subtext: Tories are honest, really; all that stuff in the 90s was made up. No-one really cares how many women Alan Clark had, now, do they? Let me tell you how the world works, son..

Unfortunately, there’s a two billion quid a year probby in there; and for some strange reason, Simon Jenkins has forgotten all about it.

Labour’s third biggest donor of the year has turned out to be a David Abrahams, known to Durham planning officers as David Martin. He was selected to fight William Hague in the Yorkshire seat of Richmond but was deselected when his curriculum vitae, including a reference to a non-existent wife and son, proved less than authentic. Yet he was close enough to Blair to attend his farewell in Sedgefield earlier this year….

Guy Hands, late-90s head of Nomura Securities’ principal finance unit and the man who brought today’s fancydan finance (securitisation? CDOs? nifty mezzanine subprime strangelet entities? Yes.) to London, was close enough to none other than William Hague – having been a friend at Oxford and a colleague at McKinsey – to advise him to “forget about the leadership and spend the next five years fucking your brains out with Ffyon”.

…In Brown’s Britain there is no longer a public service ethos, only a business ethos applied to public services. No longer do Presbyterians render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. Everything goes to Caesar under a private finance initiative.

Them, eh? Let’s see a take.

“Forty per cent of the £5bn set aside to improve military housing will be spent on renting the buildings from a private landlord, the BBC has learned. The Ministry of Defence has said the money would be spent on upgrading accommodation over the next 10 years.

But figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show £2bn will be spent renting back premises sold off by the state in 1996….In July, Defence Secretary Des Browne said the MoD planned to spend the £5bn on “upgrading and maintaining” accommodation. But the BBC freedom of information (FOI) request has revealed that property developer Annington Homes will receive almost £2bn of that sum.

The Conservative government sold most of the defence housing stock to Annington in 1996 for £1.6bn…In January, BBC News published photographs sent in by soldiers of their accommodation, depicting blocked urinals, uncollected rubbish and peeling floors. Recently a committee of MPs reported that although there had been some improvements, much accommodation was still unacceptable and this was having an effect on morale.

In April 2006, the MoD also signed an £8bn Private Finance Initiative deal to upgrade accommodation for single soldiers.

Annington Homes, eh? Back in ’96 – those strange days when the Labour Party was an alternative and William Hague was actually in charge of something – that was, well, another word for Nomura Principal Finance. Let’s join the dots, shall we? Treasury (Kenneth “Cancer Stick” Clarke) went to MOD looking for a tax cut for the election giveaway. MOD – Michael “Magic Lips” Portillo – somehow came up with the idea of flogging the MOD housing and renting it back. MOD went to Cabinet, a Cabinet including William “Save the Pound” Hague, and got approval to flog it to William Hague’s best friend.

William saved so many pounds through this deal that the Government received no less than £1.6 billion of them for an estate that they have been renting for £2 billion this year, and very probably more in all the 10 intervening years. Why so probably? Well, the original contract specified a number of things. First, the MOD Defence Housing Executive would pay rent for all the buildings in use. Second, DHE would pay for their upkeep – something of a departure from the normal law of landlord and tenant. Third, Annington – William Hague’s best mate – would have the right to sell a chunk of the property every year. Fourth, DHE would pay for improvements to them before sale.

You read all right – the total supply is guaranteed to always go down, Annington’s costs are guaranteed to be zero, the spectacular capital gain in property was reserved to William Hague’s best mate alone, and the Government subsidises the sale process while still having an obligation to house soldiers on the open market. Soldiers have returned from Iraq to queue for their own homes. One might think such a PFI would be somewhat noticeable; but it’s radio silence from the Conservatives, and from the hairy truthscreamer Jenkins. You’ll just have to read blogs.


I can’t begin to imagine why LibDem polls are up; especially as at the same time more of the population now oppose than support ID cards.

Whilst we’re on the Pakistan blogging, immense respect is due to the Pakistan Policy Blog. It looks like Nawaz Sharif is coming home – like football, remember that? – apparently because the Saudis insisted that he be released from exile in Jeddah. The PPB makes the very good point that Musharraf has been gradually mutating into Nawaz over the last few years; now, one of the reasons why the general doesn’t want him back is that there is a niche for him, or the general, but not both.

To govern in Pakistan he needs the unqualified backing of one of the two big power blocs, Sindh or the Punjab, and the acceptance of the army, which is mainly Punjabi. This was the plan, after all; Benazir would return and give the government some actual popular support and her powerbase in Sindh, and Musharraf would stay on in a suit to reassure the Punjabis and the army. Now it looks like she’s coming, like it or not, and so is Nawaz Sharif; in which case, if she can bring herself to treat with him, nobody needs Musharraf any more.

As far as I can make out, he’s got himself into this position entirely of his own making; calling a state of emergency has just pissed off everyone, including his only non-military support, the Punjabi bourgeoisie – who of course have a ready-made replacement limbering up in Saudi. And there is nothing Pakistan needs less than either a) a US-armed tribal ex-Taliban movement or b) a powerful Saudi influence. But the defining factor of Musharraf’s career is his Napoleon complex.

This NYT story is an example, I think, of the way one’s mental models control one’s perception. The report deals with a proposed U.S. policy of providing the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary police of the North-West Frontier Province, with aid directly rather than via the Pakistani military. This is one thing. It is not an obviously stupid policy, nor is it unproblematic; but this isn’t the point.

I come away from the article unsure whether the constant references to “tribes” and activities in Iraq mean that the writer is analogising the Corps to the tribal militias the US Army has been recruiting in Iraq, or whether there is a further policy of recruiting such forces in Pakistan. If the first, it’s a silly analogy – the Frontier Corps is a part of the Pakistani federal government, not a group of ex-insurgents in a tactical alliance with an occupying army. And he’s clearly bought into the superduper surge narrative. If the second, it’s extremely worrying.

Trying to create local countergangs in Pakistan would have a serious downside; what or who would they be fighting for? Better be clear it’s Pakistan, and a version of it that is tolerable both to the wider world and (more importantly) to the majority of Pakistanis outside the NWFP. And who can say, at the moment, what Pakistan is? At least the Corps will fight for whoever runs the Pakistani government, but who knows what US-empowered ex-Taliban (the closest analogy to the various ex-insurgent groups in Iraq) would do with their new weapons?

Similarly, the tactical peace with the NOIA (New-Old Iraqi Army) has been one way to reduce violence in Iraq, at the price of creating new forces that don’t answer to the Iraqi government or for that matter anyone else. And the NOIA are precisely who these “Concerned Citizens” are; all accounts of ’em seem to mention the Islamic Army and the 1920 Revolution Brigade, always my favourite NOIA outfit. My own analysis, by the way, is that having stepped their operational tempo right up in the spring in response to the abandonment of the Baker-Hamilton commission’s proposals (which they were probably consulted on via Tariq al-Hashemi), they’ve now made an operational choice to crank it down and cooperate in order to buy US concessions – specifically acceptance of their control on the ground and arms, in return for dead Saudi jihadis.

(Anyone else notice that the insurgency has better data management than HMRC? Five terabytes – or should that be TERRORBYTES? – of detailed records on all their foreign recruits. That must surely be a unit error, but 0.5GB would still be plenty. However, it does look like their encryption wasn’t strong enough – but then nothing ever is if the enemy has physical access and infinite leisure.)

Slower and slower

Dan Hardie keeps getting desperate e-mail from stranded Iraqi employees of the British Army. I haven’t yet, but I do regularly get people on NewSkies satellite-Internet links searching for information on how to apply for asylum.

Expect dramatic news from him tomorrow; you’ll need to write to them. Apparently David Miliband doesn’t think the matter is urgent.

Right, I’ve got this honking great MySQL dump file, and I’d like to use the data in it without needing a MySQL db server; so I thought I’d turn it into a SQLite db, as python has native sqlite3 support. Various suggestions are on offer around the web; SQLiteBrowser, for example, claims to import and export from various SQL flavours and CSV files. Nice; but it chokes on the file.

So I saved a copy of the thing as a plain text file with the mysql tags trimmed off and tried a few options; a posting on the UK Python list reminded me that the csv module in Python can take arbitrary characters as delimiters, not just commas, which sounded useful. After all, I couldn’t just split it at the commas because the contents are basically a lot of tuples, like this: (data, data, data),(data, data, data) And I need them in groups.

I thought I was being clever when I did a global find/replace, taking out the ),( because the csv module doesn’t support multiple characters as delimiters, and replacing it with \t; then I wrote this script:

#! usr/bin/env python

import sqlite3
import csv

f = open('/home/yorksranter/Documents/Geekery/airports.txt')
csv.field_size_limit(100000) #see below!
input = csv.reader(f, delimiter='\t')
conn = sqlite3.connect('/home/yorksranter/Desktop/airport.sql')
curse = conn.cursor()

curse.execute('''CREATE TABLE airports ('id', 'country', 'latitude', 'longitude', 'name', 'timezone', 'shortname')''')

for item in input:
........curse.execute('INSERT INTO airports VALUES (%s)' % item)

Each item should be a tuple of seven values, and they should be in the same order they were in the original db, so this ought to recreate the data in an SQLite 3 file.

Then my problems began; I got the following error message:

_csv.error field larger than field limit

. Google found me this and this; it seems as far as I understand that the DB is too big for the csv module; there does seem to be a way of altering the limit, going by the module source code.

Thoughts? Update: There is; csv.field_size_limit(), and I altered it until the thing ran properly; but there’s still no data in the db!

The Biggest Data Fart In The World Ever (BDFITWE) just keeps on getting better/worse. Check this out:

Sir John Bourn, the outgoing comptroller and auditor general, told a secret session of the public accounts committee that a senior business manager at Revenue & Customs had authorised the information to be released in its full form. His email approving the sharing of the data was copied to an assistant director….It asked for all child benefit numbers, national insurance numbers and names but did not want bank accounts and addresses and dates of birth. According to Bourn, Revenue & Customs told the NAO that removing the extra information would be too costly.

You what? Too costly? How? Oh, right, it’s the old standby – “there’s a contract“. We can’t find you the plates for your flak jacket/diagnose your cancer within less than three months/type SELECT (names, addresses) FROM families WHERE child=Yes rather than SELECT * FROM families because there’s a contract.

So how does it work? Do they have a little taxi meter on their desks that increments every time they issue a database query? How much is Crapita or Siemens or whoever charging them per SQL statement? But yes:

The e-mail states that the data would not be “desensitised” in the way that had been requested as it would require an extra payment to data services provider.

I think I just ate my hat. Mmm, felt.

Shawn Williams, a partner in a law firm specialising in fraud cases, said he regularly received confidential data from Revenue & Customs in CDs with either no password or the password written on the disc itself.

Realistically it’s only going to be “password”, isn’t it? Or maybe something more secure like “passw0rd”. Of course it’s meaningless, because a CD can’t actually check passwords; if you were to access it with a program that didn’t perform the password check (like, say, a slightly altered…) this would not help in the slightest.

Further, on a general point, can anyone point to any evidence that The New Public Management – contracting out, next steps agencies, numerical targets and all that jazz – has ever achieved anything useful anywhere?


So now we know; looks like the Glock 17 caucus got a clean sweep of the “independent” MPA members.


The MPA chairman, Len Duvall, said the watchdog body risked bringing itself into disrepute by the public and vitriolic attacks on Sir Ian.

I think I’m going to vomit. Excuse me, will you?

Anyway, the result was 15 votes against, 7 for, one abstention; I think the abstention was probably Whittaker, as her e-mail account autoreplies that she is away until tomorrow. Does anyone have a rollcall?

Here are some of the replies I received from members of the MPA:

Am sorry alexander. I do not know who you are and contray to your message I have received many messages of support for ian. Perhaps you could give me examples of what performance issues of concern you have of the Metropolitan Police’s command and control systems.

With crime at its lowest level in 5 years in london and reassurance levels up I would be interested to read your views

Thanks you for taking the time to e mail me.

John Roberts

I replied in-line:

On Nov 20, 2007 3:01 PM, John Roberts wrote:
> Am sorry alexander. I do not know who you are

Merely a citizen, a Tube user, a target.

> and contray to your message I have received many messages of support for ian.

Well, this is not one.

>Perhaps >you could give me examples of what performance issues of
concern you have of the >Metropolitan Police’s command and control

According to the IPCC Report, no-one ever positively identified de
Menezes as a suspect, but after this had filtered through the system,
the senior commanders were given the impression he *had* been
identified as such. Further, the CO19 group were receiving filtered
information from headquarters after these errors had got into it, but
not direct information from the surveillance team; the commander on
the scene didn’t control all the units involved and wasn’t deployed
forward with the surveillance team, so didn’t actually know what was

Have you read the IPCC Report?

And he replied:

Thank you for a quick reply your comments have been noted.

Take care

John roberts

Here is a reply from Green MLA Jenny Jones:

Alexander Harrowell wrote:
>This is an edited version of the response I prepared to the IPCC Report:

….(ed: snip a version of this post without the swearing)…

>Who are you?

>Cllr Jenny Jones AM
>Green Member of the London Assembly
>City Hall
>The Queen’s Walk
>London SE1 2AA
>Tel: 0207 983 4391
>Fax: 0207 983 4398

And this is an oversight body. I could laugh; I suppose I’d better. A colleague remarked that the whole thing had been an example of “democracy theatre” by analogy to “security theatre”.

It’s usually the Home Office that leads the way in the British government’s eternal Olympics of stupidity; but now and again, someone is inspired to go that bit further, to be a tiger, to raise the bar.

Having built a monster centralised database of every last child in the UK, the Revenue burned it to a pair of disks and sent them off with a courier…and never saw ’em again. With no less than 25 million records compromised including names, addresses, National Insurance numbers, and bank accounts, this must be the world champion securifart.

“Dear Sir, The Department for Work and Pensions requires you to update your bank details now or face losing out on child benefit for your” (son/daughter) ($name)…

We told them it would happen, and they went ahead and did it.