Archive for October, 2008

It seems that Andrew Gilligan has been stung by the phrase “Bendy Jihad”. So much so that he has devoted a whole column to moaning about it, or rather to moaning about anyone having the cheek to disagree with him. It’s a pity, then, that he couldn’t see his way to attributing his attack correctly, quoting accurately, or refraining from beauties like these:

There’s a certain mad nobility in the way Boris’s opponents seem determined to strap themselves to the most unpopular causes going. You wonder what’s next a support group for double-glazing salesmen? A bid to rehabilitate that misunderstood feminist icon, demonised by the Right-wing media, Rose West?

Do stay classy, Andrew. Anyway, to get to the point: Tom Barry is not responsible for the phrase “Bendy Jihad”; it was me. I invented the phrase to express the bizarrely gratuitous nature of the campaign against these peaceable giants of the urban savannahs; is it really a top priority, after all, to replace some brand-new buses with other brand-new buses which have had some glassfibre curlicues added?

And it is gratuitous. We know now that they do not kill cyclists. Not one authenticated case of a Bendy attacking cyclists has been provided. No evidence for any of the other horrors they supposedly inflict on the public has been adduced whatsoever. But rather as so many Conservatives are indiscriminately in favour of killing small animals, the Bendy Jihad rolls on, despite the fact that the contracts between Transport for London and the bus operators mean that come what way, 50 bendies will still be in operation at the next mayoral election, despite the fact that some of the routes involved are impassable to double-deckers because they go through the Strand underpass, despite the fact Boris Johnson forgot all about paying for the extra drivers and conductors required for 24-hour operation…clearly, the role of the Bendy Jihad is not instrumental, but symbolic. Rather than fighting for a secular triumph in which the Caliphate of a better transport system is actually achieved, the Bendy Jihadis hope to prove themselves worthy of their place in paradise (also known as the House of Commons) by their sacrifice.

However, their religion is actually considerably less advanced than Islam in anthropological terms. Rather than propitiating god by good works or asceticism, they are still at the stage of making sacrificial offerings of dead animals; in this case, these savages intend to stage a mass cull of defenceless bendies. Perhaps they will build a giant pyre and dance round it, or burn Peter Hendy in a wicker man atop City Hall. It’s potlatch politics; they’re doing it purely because they can. Politically, it’s an appeal to the primitive instincts; watch us smash their big, long, red totem!

I suspect the authors of the Bendy Jihad are well aware of this; it’s hard to remember this now, but it wasn’t that long ago that the main strategic problem facing the Conservative Party was how to win an election in a climate of prosperous housing-boom contentment, without risking any of their core ideological substance. The answer, of course, is to pick an aesthetic and push it as far as you can.

Now, Gilligan claims that “one tireless Johnson-basher, Tom Barry, explains how the Mayor’s opposition to bendy buses is actually part of a sinister, global neo-conservative conspiracy”. Unfortunately, he’s got this the wrong way round. The opposition to bendy buses is actually a conspiracy which consists of sinister global neo-conservatives.

For example, we have Policy Exchange’s founder Michael Gove, shadow Schools Secretary. Mr. Gove is on record as recommending the pseudonymous “Bat Ye’or”‘s book Eurabia, in which you can learn that the European Union is secretly controlled by Arabs. (There are pills you can take for that, I think.) We have its recent director Anthony Browne, the toast of US extreme-rightist group VDARE, who apparently thinks we are “on the edge of anarchy” because of the not-ricin not-plot, now Boris Johnson’s policy chief. We have the truly odd figure of Policy Exchange research director Dean Godson – advocate of “political warfare”, former special assistant to John Lehman as Secretary of the Navy (that’s the US Navy, and he’s now the head of John McCain’s transition team), and shaky-on-facts thinktanker. Why am I bothering with this obscure thinktank?

Because, of course, not only did Boris Johnson staff up from it, but it published a paper back in 2005 which specifically proposed the Bendy Jihad in the following terms:

One of the remarkable things about the debate over the Routemaster – London’s much loved hop-on, hop-off double deckers complete with conductor – is that it is about much more than just a bus. It is highly revealing about so many aspects of public policy in Britain today. The first is the rising tide of the group rights agenda (or at least a particularly extreme interpretation of it) which has overwhelmed key public utilities and those who do business with them.

That’s Godson. “The group rights agenda”, no less. Here’s some more:

The Routemaster’s crime, in short, is not that it is ineffective; it is that it is unfashionable. It does not fit with the modern, sleek, concrete-and-glass Euro-city that Mr Livingstone wants to create; never mind that this city exists only inside the Mayor’s head.

It’s always the EU in the end with these people, isn’t it? You’d think that Andrew Gilligan might have been aware of this document’s essentially partisan and political nature; after all, he wrote that last bit and Godson edited it.

What a bunch, and how bizarre that they all share a deep interest in buses despite having never been at all interested in transport policy before. I suppose their nonsense is explicable by the Dunning-Kruger effect – the principle, experimentally demonstrated, that incompetent people are not only unaware of their incompetence but convinced that others are even more incompetent than they.

Anyway, this is all very interesting, but it’s just a pity that Tom Barry didn’t actually say it, just like he didn’t invent the Bendy Jihad. The two halves of the quote, each side of the oh-so-convenient ellipsis, come from two distinct pieces of writing, welded together like the halves of a dodgy secondhand car and with much the same purpose. Tom Barry says in the first one that there is a curious overlap between the Bendy Jihad and a neo-conservative worldview, quoting me. I think we’ve amply demonstrated that. He says in the second that the Boris Johnson campaign was motivated by Tory hatred of Ken Livingstone for cosying-up to the “new economic superpowers”. That’s an opinion, on a whole range of stuff that has bugger-all to do with bendies.

Comment is free, facts are sacred. Remember? Much more of this and I might conclude Alistair Campbell was right. Which would be a considerable stretch for me. But then, they say you should never meet your heroes. Especially not when they get caught sockpuppeting.


I grinned at this comment at the Stiftung:

“Joan Walsh, are you telling me, really telling me here, now, on TV, that because Charlie Black worked with this Savimbi guy, this so-called Reagan ‘freedom fighter’ in Africa who is alleged to have been a cannibal, are you really telling me that this means Team McCain eats people???? Are you making that allegation here tonite ?! I am asking you directly. That Team McCain are cannibals. Is this guilt by association? Yes or no !!”

Joan Walsh: “Chris, no one wants to do that. Not at all. We are just saying that this relationship between Savimbi and the McCain campaign needs to be investigated. We need all the facts. What exactly was the relationship with this notorious Savimbi character. There is a lot there that should concern the American people. We need to know it all so the American people can decide.”

Well, ha ha. But then it happened. Via Making Light, this brainblitzing turdspurt:

Bree Keyton told the tribal “Christians” you are NOT Christian if you practice “tribalism” where they do voodoo to conjure up a goddess spirit or a “genie” and then come to church on Sunday to worship Jesus! What she discovered there is apparent in most churches around the world; namely, mixture in the church. Some renounced their devilish practices of blood covenant by killing sheep, goats, humans to be inducted into the tribe or to get a wife or to get revenge.

She said the current president of Kenya is a Christian. However, Obama’s cousin Odinga ran aganist him and said he rigged the election and stirred up the masses to rape woman and boys, kill and burn and torture Christians, etc. until Obama contacted Condeleeza Rice and she granted Obama the right to contact Odinga and other ruling elders and he “convinced” them to stop terrorizing the Christians. Bree Keyton said the current Christian President was forced by our government (!) to “create” an office for Odinga (to make “peace”) so he was made the Prime Minister (!) to make peace between the Christians and Odinga’s Muslim religion!

Long pig; it’s this year’s Ibogaine. Relatedly, I was just reading back over some of the Pierre Falcone posts, and it struck me that McCain’s public image has come a long way since I blithely remarked that Falcone had been a fool to offer him money. True, I was thinking of relative rather than absolute integrity – I said Falcone should have offered Tom DeLay the cash, and got a far better deal in terms of value for his bribe dollar.

Perhaps McCain should try a different West African warlord; Charles Taylor knew a good campaign slogan when he saw one. He could help him mend fences with the crucial evangelical vote, thanks to his links to Pat Robertson. And eating UN personnel would probably go down well with the base.

You are unlikely to find anything much better to read than Nir Rosen‘s report from Afghanistan. It’s the journalism we’ve been yelling at the professionals to do for years. There’s far too much to summarise, but one thing that strikes me is the sense of a world of tiny, hyperlocal, byzantine conflicts, with sudden interventions by people who may as well be on the moon – Taliban chieftains based in the UAE phoning in to say whether or not to kill the journalist, staff officers in Combined Air Operations Centres doing much the same thing, like gods in a Greek play.

Relatedly, Abu Muqawama deserves thanks for not swallowing idiotic red-baiting about “embedding with the Taliban”. Whilst you’re over there, don’t miss the excellent series on Darfur and the complexity of a situation where the insurgents in one part of the country are effectively the counterinsurgents in another, the importance of missing one stage of student radicalism, and just how close they came to overrunning Khartoum.

Also, Dan Hardie is back.

Zombies march on Sarah Palin campaign event, as they do in Halting State (although this seems to have been planned well in advance, and that was a flashmob). Charlie couldn’t predict Sarah Palin, however; politics can always outweird science fiction.

Relatedly, the BT 21CN network upgrade always promised to unearth a ton of weird things in the way of surplus real estate. And the daddy of them all, the fortified Kingsway long-lines exchange under High Holborn is on the market. Originally built as a deep air-raid shelter, with a view to later being part of the Central Line, it became part of Special Operations Executive and then, in 1954, one of four major long distance switching centres that got deep bunkers. The others are or were in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. The Manchester facility, codenamed GUARDIAN as in the newspaper, caught fire a few years back, causing a major outage across much of the North West.

There’s video, too; what struck me is that the entire site is painted Light Straw, BT’s standard colour for absolutely everything (including vans when I was a kid), throughout. Supposedly they rejected the first Ericsson AXE digital switch because it didn’t come in light straw.

Among other things, the Kingsway site was the terminal for the first transatlantic telephone cables, and like all really cool stuff, was imported into the science-fiction canon in 1980 by James Herbert, who gave it mutant rats. Read the whole thing; there are some great stories – they locked the facility down for nuclear attack in October 1962 and didn’t come up for two weeks, occasionally it overheated and bits of the walls melted, the canteen originally served a three-course dinner and had trompe l’oeil murals of tropical islands for windows, there was at one point a pub down there as well, and supposedly the original builders were “from another European country and didn’t know where they were”.

Or *what* they were? Seriously; it’s so Laundryesque it’s not true, especially because the SOE department that was down there packed up lock, stock and barrel on VE Day and BT was never informed what they had been up to. (The Laundry, of course, is a section of SOE that somehow didn’t get shut down in 1945 by the career spooks in SIS.)

But the really spooky and science-fictional detail is this: there are no rats.

The true genius of our society: we invented a drug that turns fat people thin but then makes them depressed.

Yer ORGANISE project. Right. There’s been some activity lately; specifically, there’s a new and more detailed spec (available here), a separate and improved section on the design philosophy (here), and some embryonic requirements/notes on implementation (here). Thanks to contributors.

Meanwhile, something interesting; you look at stories like this and this with suitable awe. As Mark Kleiman says, it’s somewhere between Booz Allen Hamilton and Saul Alinsky. A few weeks back, I had the impression that there was an emerging rightwing meme that field organising itself was suspect and trrrist; the association chain went something like hippies/Weathermen>scary black people>cellular structure>Obama is a terrorist!!

Here we are; note that he’s defining all kinds of things characteristic of the campaign as “terrorist”.

My view is that the community organizing was actually kind of sham event that really Bill Ayers was testing him. Because the way these radicals work, they don’t give you a big project until you pass muster with a small project. And so they sent him out to Chicago to see what he would do. He passed the test.

It’s been softpedalled since then, but it’s worth watching. This kind of anti-politics politics has been a keynote of the Bush years. For example, look at this Crooked Timber thread, specifically the quote from Jonah Goldberg.

He’s not arguing against redistribution; he’s arguing against the other side by simply mentioning it. It’s not that their argument is wrong, it’s that they have an argument. He’s working the false consensus bias for all that it’s worth.

I was reading the various Boris Johnson blogs earlier this week when something struck me. It was the combination of the Boriswatch story about the basis of the whole obsession with Routemaster buses falling apart, and the news that Boris Johnson’s crazyarse idea about building an airport in the Thames Estuary was being examined “in-house” at the GLA, an organisation with no airport expertise at all. I thought, hell, this really is the Dunning-Kruger Effect at its best. Come to think of it, you could call this lot the Dunning-Kruger administration.

The DKE is a major result in cognitive psychology, discovered in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger at Cornell. They tested groups of students on various skills, and asked them to evaluate their performance relative to the rest of the class. They then marked the test papers, and informed the students of their scores. Here’s the clever bit: they then asked them to self-evaluate again. What they found was this: high self-evaluation was correlated with low performance. The worse students, across all the skills tested, consistently thought they were the best; in fact, the worst 12 per cent marked themselves, on average, in the top 38 per cent.

That wasn’t all. The gap between ego and reality shrank with greater competence; but it did so faster than you might expect, so the two lines crossed early. The most competent students actually tended to underrate their own abilities. And here’s the really interesting bit. The genuinely sick bit; every psych experiment needs one of those. When the incompetent students were shown their grades, their self-evaluation got worse. The good news is that intensive teaching and practice improved both their performance and their self-evaluation.

Mayor of London? Sure I can do that. Piece of piss. Anyway, then there was some kind of kerfuffle in the Corfu yacht club involving my favourite shadow chancellor. Dunning-Kruger? You bet. And I’m suddenly faced with the thought that perhaps Boris Johnson *is* the clever one. Politically speaking, I mean. Obviously he’s DKE up to here when it comes to airports, buses etc, but think about it; suddenly, the Tories are in a major fix. The economy is going down the toilet, but at the same time, the Tories’ credibility on the issue is doing the same…and they’re the opposition.

Perhaps Boris recognised that the Mayoral election was going to be a great opportunity, and there wasn’t going to be many of those going for a while? Despite a lot of red-flashing warning signs the economy hadn’t really suffered yet, the great consumer boom was still going strong, the Tories’ success in the game of personality politics was still intact. All he needed was a good framing campaign; and the Bendy Jihad was it. In the same way as the subjects in the Dunning-Kruger experiment simply adjusted their view of reality to match their internal reality, this sort of media campaign surrounds us with false consensus, relying on us to adjust our internal references to match it. The Bendy Jihad was quite clearly designed to exploit two of the standard cognitive biases – DKE, and the availability cascade. This worried me quite a lot; it suggested that the Policy Exchange/Tory Decent crew could win anything.

But now? I don’t think so. The times are not for bendy jihads and bicycling twerps. And George Osborne’s horribly botched attempt at a political stabbing? So Dunning-Kruger.

It all started with this Making Light thread; Bill Higgins was musing about improvising a radiation detector, which led him to this deeply cool device – scroll down for the cunning methodology that goes with it. But James MacDonald beat him, I think, with this cloud chamber implementation:

Field-expedient cloud chamber:

  1. shot glass.
  2. High-proof vodka
  3. Rubber balloon
  4. Rubber band
  5. Dry ice
  6. Light source

Pour a shot of vodka. Drink it. Do not wipe out glass. Put rubber balloon tightly across mouth of glass, fixing it in place with rubber band. Set glass on block of dry ice. Shine light through side. Pull up on rubber sheet to lower pressure in the shot glass. Observe tracks in the cloud.

And then I saw this story; it turns out that when you rip off sticky tape (that’s a scientific term) in a vacuum, there is a discharge of static electricity, so electrons are transferred from one side to the other, and when they strike the tape, they slow down. Energy is of course conserved, so it has to go somewhere, and somewhere in this case is a astonishingly powerful burst of X-rays. This is yer bremsstrahlung, right?

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Now, who sells dry ice in London N19? The spirit, obviously, is no problem. Need to think of a way of arranging to peel off the tape under a vacuum, though.

Hey, it’s significantly less crazy than freeze-distilling H2O2, or doing the same thing to Timothy Taylor’s Landlord Ale. (You know who you are.)

Shorter Tim, Energy Edition:

Commodity prices always come down in the end; except when I really want the price of steel to stay at 2007 levels because it harms the economics of wind power. Further, supply of manufactured goods always responds to price signals except when I have a bizarre ideological opposition to some particular technology. And nuclear power is magically proof against the price of materials, the cost of labour, the rate of interest, and the planning process.

Tim – nuclear power stations are made from reinforced concrete. What is reinforced concrete reinforced WITH? Perhaps this is why he doesn’t go on about his metals trading business so much these days.

Actually, the article he’s drivelling about is fairly sensible and much more optimistic than either Timmeh’s deranged take on it or the Obscurer‘s headline; it is here. Basically, the worldwide boom in wind power is putting the industry under capacity constraints; like, say, the semiconductor industry in the PC boom. They can sell’em for almost any price as fast as they come off the line, and they’ve built up a huge order book. Of course, what will eventually happen is that the wind turbine makers will expand and probably eventually end up flooding the market in a few years’ time. This will, however, definitively not happen with nuclear, because a nuclear power station is essentially a working definition of one-off job production; it’s a hell of a lot easier to make something cheap when you’re making thousands of it on a production line.

Further problems mostly centre on the planning process; both for turbines and for grid interconnection.

Of course, in Timmehworld this shouldn’t be happening, because wind power is a bizarre plot organised by British socialists, which no-one else in the world would possibly use. But Tim lives in Portugal, one of the world’s biggest and fastest wind developers; and as far as I know, the hens haven’t stopped laying, the skies have not darkened, and the rain has not become chubby there. This doesn’t change the essential issue, though; his problem is that it’s gay electricity.

We’ve blogged before about the NHS’s computer project. So I’m not at all happy about this remarkably silly post at Timmeh’s. He takes issue with a post of Richard Murphy’s about bank nationalisation:

Yup, the people who brought you the NHS Spine are to be put in charge of developing all banking software in Britain.

Well, this is a strawman to begin with. Is Murphy the Chancellor now? But let that pass. Really? A group of mostly American healthcare computing specialists? Several of which no longer exist? Or does he mean the big IT consulting firms involved – like IBM, BT Global Services, and Accenture? Because I’m pretty sure they do a hell of a lot of financial work as it stands; in fact, everyone was worrying last week about IBM’s third quarter results precisely because banks are big customers. (They turned out to be OK, in that mysterious IBM way.*)

But perhaps he thinks the NHS NPfIT was developed by teh government bureaucrats? Or at least, he’s willing to pretend it was to suit ideology? The whole problem with NPfIT, as we’ve said before, is that the system was developed completely in isolation from NHS bureaucrats or indeed anyone else who would have to use it. The NHS trust IT departments were kept well out of it. The upshot was that the developers knew literally nothing of the NHS’s requirements, its business processes, or the data the system was meant to handle.

No wonder it was a disaster. In fact, when a group of US hospital bureaucrats had a go at designing a medical IT system, they came up with a beauty – there’s even a satisfied customer in the comments. Why? Because they knew what it was meant to do and how. Compare this comment:

I met a guy who works for this company. I cannot repeat what he said, since he has a family to feed. But suffice to say he was deeply worried about the implications for safety of life. That was a few months ago.

The whole thing is rotten to the core, and desperately needs to be scrapped. Now.

The good news is that the thing still doesn’t work well enough to turn it on even as a pilot project, so we’re safe for a while yet. But what did happen the last time the Government took on a really challenging in-house IT project? You ask Daniel Davies.

(* probably something to do with asking the fucking users – that or the staple Nazi market, or wearing a lot of pale blue shirts.)