Archive for January, 2009

Having spent over £1 million collating the files of MPs’ expense claims in order to make them available under the Freedom of Information Act, the Government is now trying to pull off a last-minute parliamentary ambush that would exempt them entirely from this disclosure. They are attempting to use the provision in section 82 of the Act which allows exemptions to be made by statutory instrument (i.e. by executive decision), on condition that the instrument passes a vote in both Houses of Commons.

The document has been laid before Parliament (scroll right down to the bottom); it is the Draft Freedom of Information Order(2009) and it’s all Jack Straw’s fault. Fortunately, not everyone is an arsehole, and Jo Swinton, Liberal MP for East Dumbartonshire, has put down an Early Day Motion against the move.

But the EDM is gravy; the real challenge will be the two parliamentary votes (“affirmatory resolutions”), one in the Commons, one in the Lords, which are scheduled for Thursday. If either fails, the order falls, and being merely a statutory instrument, the Parliament Act doesn’t apply to it, so it can’t be blasted through the Lords. It’s also typical that the passage of a statutory instrument is a very low energy event; no bugger turns up, there is little debate, and this suits the executive government right down to the ground.

This also suits us, as it’s likely to need fewer MPs (or Lords, but I’d like it if we didn’t have to depend so much on a gaggle of corpses and placemen) to kill it or talk it out. So, it’s time to write to them. Your talking points are:

  1. The Government has spent a million pounds preparing the documents for release.
  2. The reputation of Parliament is at stake.
  3. If this goes through, you can be certain that the only information that gets out will be selectively leaked to embarrass political opponents. It will happen to you.
  4. They are trying to get away with this by sneaking it through in the middle of the Heathrow row, Gaza crisis, etc – they think you’re stupid.
  5. Sign the EDM, but most of all, vote against the Freedom of Information Order 2009 on Thursday.
  6. And persuade a Lord to do likewise.

And, finally, do it now. If the order is passed, all existing FOIA data and requests on this topic will be shredded.

Personally, I’ve always been lukewarm about the expenses crusade; it reeks of 80s “your tax dollars at work” know nothing yelling. Did you realise they are paying people to study BEETLES? Eh? Eh? And they shop at….shudder…John Lewis? However, the principle is fair enough. And the Government’s action has invoked a much more important principle. They would love to encroach on much more important FOIA subjects, and this is a fine opportunity to slam the door on their pinky. By all means, blog about this, join the facebook group, but first of all, go hit your MP right now. I just have.

I won’t accept comments on this entry from anyone who can’t prove they have done.

I’m increasingly annoyed by official-media consensus that young people will suffer more than anyone else from the recession. Not that I especially doubt this; I doubt the reasoning, which appears to be that they’ve all gone soft and they’re not like we were in my day. As a general principle, I believe this is usually wrong, being unfalsifiable and all, and also being a projection of one’s own fear of death.

But on the specific case, I dispute the facts. It wasn’t a great time to be young; by definition, when you’re young your only source of income is wages, and the labour share of national income has been flat for years. Indeed, real wages have been flat for donkey’s years. A personal example; I was offered a job at Euromoney Institutional Investor on a salary of £16,000 per year, but on a six-month contract. Even at Mobile Comms International, it was a while before I was earning more an hour than I had been Pritt-Sticking the flaps of substandard envelopes whilst waiting for Bradford City’s second season in the Premier League. However, it improved, and I’m well aware I learnt a hell of a lot there. I spent around 20% of my post-tax income on my railway season ticket.

At the same time, both rents and house prices shot through the roof. This was crucial; the whole idea that home-owners got rich from the rise in the value of their property was dependent on someone buying it from them. People retiring and trading-down was a factor that had to match people trading-up; at bottom, there had to be first-time buyers, who are generally young. The net effect of right-to-buy and the great property bull run was to transfer wealth from first-time buyers to sellers; in the aggregate, the Bank of Mum and Dad was borrowing from the kids.

And, of course, there were tuition fees, top-up fees, and for a cohort including me, both the fees and no student grants. Meanwhile, we were told we ought to consume and keep the economy going, take part in the creative industries and volunteer, but do this while joining the job market, to borrow heavily to pay for further and higher education, to accumulate savings on deposit, to save for retirement (or in other words, to pay others’ pensions), that we were a bunch of unserious greenies, that we were politically apathetic, that we would face the consequences of climate change (after it became respectable to worry), that we were all drug fiends and music characterised by repetitive beats was against the law, that we weren’t getting on the housing ladder, that we were borrowing too much money (this from the people who brought you Citigroup) and that people who were slightly younger ought to be punished for playing hooky in order to demonstrate against the Iraq war. To cap the lot, we were told we were drinking too much. If we were, who could guess why?

Actually, if I was younger, I think I’d be delighted by the crisis. I’ve got plenty of schadenfreude and indeed klammheimliche Freude as it is. Things I need (somewhere to live, somewhere to do interesting things) are likely to get cheap, and me minus five years doesn’t care about the cost of huge cars or Vertu mobile phones because he doesn’t have any money but does have more sense. The strength of ideological drivel is reduced; there has been a catastrophe in the intellectual environment, a meteorite has plunged into the credibility of the market monkeys, and as usual, this is followed by an adaptive radiation, a blossoming of new species into new or newly unoccupied niches.

Even when me minus five years starts working for the clampdown, at least he or she gets to save for their retirement in a low asset price world, and to bore me minus ten years with tales about how they staged bio-hacking parties in abandoned bank C-level offices, and how this gets them off inevitably joining the Conservative Party, or functional equivalent. Which is, after all, the claim to intellectual legitimacy of most of the people who spent all that time ordering me to simultaneously save, work, borrow, volunteer, spend, rebel, invest, and obey.

I suppose they must have meant one of those.

surrounded by wankers

As usual, the Daily Mash catches the zeitgeist. Clubbers ditch ketamine for elephant tranquillisers – “it makes you feel really elephanty”.

In North London, meanwhile, they’re wanking on the streets. Seriously. So far this weekend, I was standing in a toilet in the Sir Richard Steeles* when I heard groaning. I cancelled the maniac. But it kept polling the urban maniac API; I noticed Mr Red Goretex thrapping like a lab-chimp at the other end of the urinal. I’d just been arguing about French education policy and enlarging the zone of sanity by pushing the works of Stafford Beer; I wasn’t prepared for this. And with that, he was gone. By the time I next used the toilet, someone had already updated the graffiti; now that’s what I call social media.

Then, outside my local Budgens, I almost tripped over some character passed out with his trousers round his ankles and, yes, an obvious erection. Daniel Davies will no doubt point out that this is an example of simple probability theory, like Richard Feynman’s joke about the chances of seeing just that particular registration number. Bah, it felt like the world spirit to me. We are all wanking for coins now. I assessed the situation; breathing, obvious risks – cold or violence, funny eyes, weird behaviour (trousers), drooling (seriously – I thought it was a classic symptom of an opiate overdose, but actually it’s stimulants that do that). I donned a tone of command and tried to communicate – frothing, drivel, funny eyes. Skin; coldsoaked. Not a good sign.

Obviously I took out my adrenaline injector and rammed it into his sternum. Yeah, right. They sent for the ambulance, and one was sent. Nobody got lucky, to the best of my knowledge. They were on the scene quick enough; I briefed the Rapid Response medic on the situation. He was both deeply cockney (a rarity round our way) and deeply polite, impressive given that I’d give odds of a pound to a pinch of shit that downer boy puked all over him at some point. As I left he slurred “Youurat zha poison finger!” at me; the patient, I mean.

Happy New Year, Tom, and watch that laughing gas.

* I should stop going there, it’s the wrong crowd. On New Year’s Eve, I ran into David Aaronovitch.

It seems the UAE’s Antonov-12 ban is real. The shortage of inbound flights in the Viktorfeed continues; out of 57 overnight movements, in itself an unusual low, there were 10 inbounds after cleaning up the odd false positive. Here is a list:

South-Airlines STH7002 Erbil Sharjah scheduled 1600Z
Transaviaexport TXC1722 Kabul Sharjah scheduled 1500Z
Safi SFW205 Kabul Sharjah scheduled 1500Z
Sakavia AZG1115 Kandahar Sharjah arrived 0830Z
Beibars BBS1810 Kabul Sharjah arrived 0800Z
Russian Sky ESL9456 Kabul Sharjah arrived 0700Z
South-Airlines STH7006 Baghdad Intl. Sharjah 0300Z
Ababeel Avn BBE200 Riyadh Sharjah yesterday 2115Z

There were also two positioning flights by AVE/Phoenix Aviation 737s between Dubai and Sharjah. The significant thing here is that probably no An-12s were involved. South-Airlines has three, but it also has three Il-76, six An-24s and -26s, and an An-74. TXC has five aircraft, all Il-76s. Safi has one 767 and one 737. Sakavia has two Il-76, one An-26 and one An-12. Beibars and Russian Sky own 2 and 4 Il-76s respectively, and Ababeel has only one aircraft known to be active, an An-24RV.

So, the Antonov-12s have been run out of town. However, there is an interesting paradox here. What about our old friends from British Gulf International? They started all this back in the day, and they operate nothing but An-12s, six of them. At some point there was also an An-26 but this hasn’t been seen for some years.

And somehow, they are still sending off flights. Doing a quick SELECT COUNT(notes), flightno, destination FROM flights WHERE flightno LIKE "%BGI%" AND notes > '1231518600' GROUP BY destination; on the database, I find there have been 68 BGIA movements since 1630 last Friday, of which 62 were outbound, and 6 inbound, all to Sharjah. This is weird.

That’s 8.85 movements a day, which is achievable if half the aircraft made more than one trip a day – as long as they came back, of course. But they haven’t come back; there has been no BGIA inward flight since Friday. So where are the aeroplanes coming from?

It’s possible that BGIA has been sending other An-12 operators’ aircraft out of the UAE using its call sign. But it’s still quite a lot. I put together a chart to visualise the whole strange phenomenon…

89cddf02-e3d1-11dd-b8f6-000255111976 Blog_this_caption

As always, click on it to interrogate the data. Meanwhile, reader Ajay, who desperately needs his own blog, has a suggestion for where the scene might reconvene – Guinea, where the longstanding French-sponsored dictator died over Christmas, leading immediately to a military coup, and where there is a huge airfield with a 10,826 foot runway (that’s longer than Heathrow), which the Soviet air force used in the 70s and 80s as a staging post and a base for Tu-95 maritime patrol planes.

It’s an idea; but West Africa is not quite as crazy as it was ten years ago. There’s the option of getting into the cocaine trade, but if Viktor Bout can get in trouble dealing with FARC, you have to wonder if the small fry will be up for it.

So Shriti Vadera thinks there are signs of improvement in the economy. The Tories have messed themselves, predictably. Hey, she rationalised the railways.

But there are good reasons to think this: there are indicators. Notably, the spread – the difference in interest rates – between blue-chip and risky commercial paper is narrowing sharply. Similarly, the interbank interest rate is falling. And the corporate lending market just had its best week in 12 months.

Now, the credit crunch kicked off in late August, 2007; the signs had been there for years, and if you wanted a short-term alert, HSBC’s property write-off that spring was it. I recall going on holiday and wondering if Barclays would be there when I got back. There was a guy who came back from hols and resigned, if you recall. The commodity bubble cracked in the spring of 2008, and all the other indicators crashed a few months later, many of them retrospectively.

So, there are reasons for optimism; if you base your judgments on data, that is. If the lag times are at all comparable, maybe the Treasury view isn’t entirely stupid. Which is a problem if you believe, like John Redwood, that all economic problems are caused by uppity workers getting above themselves (this is politely called “inflationary expectations”), and a good smack of firm unemployment will make us all harder.

Stability

Bruce Sterling quotes a study into state failure which – counter-intuitively – puts Iceland and Canada at the top of the list of stable polities. It’s worse than that, though; they reckon Hungary is superstable , and they’re in the middle of an epic bank-currency-credit-mortgage crisis which has metastatised into a panic call to the IMF.

But perhaps it makes more sense than that. Despite Iceland’s spectacular financial panic and sovereign bankruptcy, despite Canada’s critical segmentation fault on the distributed queenship node, nothing very terrible has happened. The social fabric holds. Rival mortar teams do not exchange fire over Parliament Hill, the citizens of Reyjavik are not fighting with sharpened CDs over the last can of dog meat.

Perhaps that phrase, the social fabric, ought to be thought of differently. It implies threads straining over some sort of appalling national gut, bulging with the blows of irreconcilable interests, or rotting in the depths of a public crotch out of pure sin. What if it was the wind that tries the social fabric? When it’s just on the point of flapping you know you’re sailing to windward at optimal efficiency, thrashing forward under the gusts.

After all, what does the word stability mean? Stability isn’t immobility or size or mass; it’s an active, agile thing. A stable ship is one that rolls back onto an even keel after being knocked down; a stable aircraft will tend to trim correctly if you take your hands off the stick. A stable operating system will catch and handle errors rather than crash. A stable personality is someone who is capable of recovery from trauma, not someone who is incapable of emotion.

And usually, stability is actually in opposition to authority; try to design a ship that never rolls, and you usually have one that will be a floating hell in a real storm. Try to design such an OS, and you have… Everyone who thought that the best army would be the most obedient has lost since the Napoleonic wars.

Upshot; we need fewer Stability Pacts and more stable control loops.

I’m getting reports that the UAE authorities have revoked permission to fly for all Antonov-12s, and the substantial fleet based on Dubai and Sharjah has been given notice to quit last night. Apparently the proximate cause was a spate of embarrassing and perilous runway excursions, as well as the recent loss of an Antonov-12 with BGIA in Iraq, working for DHL.

Of course I’m monitoring all movements through the Viktorfeed. So far, I’ve noticed a spike of activity overnight followed by a very quiet day; which is roughly what you’d expect if all the Antonovs just left, like the dolphins in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Last night saw over 150 movements, and tellingly they were almost all outward bound. But so far I’ve not detected any pattern in their destinations; they seem to have flown their usual routes and not returned, so the total fleet has scattered across South-Western Asia.

If this is so, a lot will be in Afghanistan (Kabul, Bagram, Herat and Kandahar) and Djibouti tonight, with a few in Kurdistan. This is going to be a serious problem for quite a few people, notably the coalition and NATO forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much passenger activity is now carried in old 737s by AVE/Phoenix Aviation and KAMAir, but with the exception of the Ilyushin 76s, every significant airfield in Afghanistan gets several An-12 runs a day.

It’s going to be interesting to see where they end up, especially the BGIA Boyz, what with being an all-Antonov 12 operation and all. Back to Ostend? Surely not. West Africa gets kinda slow these days, and it’s a long slow haul to Colombia for an An-12. Moldova cleaned up its act. Perhaps Beirut, or somewhere in the Caucasus – which would be off the trade routes a bit. Or maybe they’ll set up a completely new operation somewhere with a long runway and no government, a pirate state?

Remind me to have a look at the airfields of Somalia. However, a search of the logs shows something I hadn’t spotted; “Star Air Aviation” has sent off a whole string of flights from Dubai since Thursday, some eleven, all of them to Karachi. And none have come back. Needless to say, the nearest operator in the UAE to that name doesn’t officially have any Antonovs and has a radically different ICAO call sign…

But if anyone’s wondering where all the old Russian crates came from, get in touch. You can consider this an Operation Firedump alert.

blog awards, still dire

Blog awards, eh? What a gaggle of crap that is. It’s not just the staid and ossified elite who are always in these things (haven’t we had enough chances to vote for BoingBoing or Andrew “Overrated” Sullivan?), it’s the volume of egregious turdmerchants who still get in. 17,000 votes for Hot Air? I’m expecting Vint Cerf to say it was all a terrible mistake, and this Internet lark has got to stop. There’s probably something clever to say about how if your blog attracts the fat end of the social-authoritarianism distribution you’re bound to do well. If you think I’m taking the piss about a staid and ossified elite, by the way, look at the “Best Liberal Blog” nominees; I couldn’t say sight unseen which year that list came from. 2004? 2008? 2010? “The Confluence” is a clue, but then there’s always one you never read.

So I’m not going to offer endorsements, but what I will do is call on the readership to do what I usually do, which is to vote for anyone who looks like beating the most egregious arse in the race. This policy stood Britain in good stead for the last 500 or so years so there must be something to be said for it. As far as “Best Conservative Blog” goes, well, I suppose voting for Victor Davis Hanson can be considered an existential acte gratuit, and anyway the other nominees achieve the rare and impressive feat of actually pushing him into the role of the lesser evil. After all, at least VDH doesn’t post videos of people actually killing an Arab.

Whilst we’re playing philosophy, however, arguably you’re required by the greatest good of the greatest number *and* the categorical imperative, and the fact I tell you to, to go and vote for Army of Dude for Best Military Blog. And you could try to stop a bunch of atmospheric physics dodgers winning the Science category. The Fistful is in the Business category, btw. And, of course, there’s this. Don’t let it happen.

Reduced blog; I’ve been working on a version of FixMyStreet for Symbian S60 devices.

If you want snark, how about this? I always thought that the BMW not-minis were telling in themselves. Objects are an ideology made manifest.

The original Mini was a minimal car, one designed to be even cheaper than the ones sold to the workers in the factories that made them. Beyond Ford. As a side effect, it was also light, beautiful, and efficient in space and energy.

The “New Mini” is absurdly large, by comparison – it’s not that much smaller than a 3-door Land Rover Freelander, which is reasonably sensible despite being aesthetically an SUV. The Freelander was, after all, reasonably sized, space planned to carry a load, engineered to work off-road, and driven by a highly efficient turbo-diesel engine. Perhaps not coincidentally, it wasn’t pretty. The BMW Mini, however, is a mass of gratuitous placky bits. Over the last ten years, we have lived in the era of gratuitous auto design; I grew up with cars that were advertised on their drag coefficient and their fuel consumption, but not long after I was legally allowed to drive, there was this weird rococo decadence of trucks without ground clearance.

At the same time there was a binge on property, which swelled outwards where there was land enough, and inwards in crappy construction and natural gas-guzzling, and which swelled even more in price where the land wasn’t available. Foxtons’ fake-neat cars were part of the performance of the property binge; speculating in property was meant to feel subversive and young. You doubt? Look at the arse-awful fake graffiti sprayed on them. Fake art on fake coachwork on a fake economy for fake people.

What would fit? Perhaps, if they go down, there may be a supply of “New Minis” going cheap. Maybe I should apply for an Arts Council grant to stack up 20 or so of them in Trafalgar Square and topple them, using a Chinese-made bulldozer. We could beat them with our shoes and torch them with gallons of bioethanol, or maybe homebrew high-test peroxide.

OK, the last post wasn’t totally serious.

But is it too much to say that John Redwood is back? He’s been given a committee to chair, which sounds like a kick to touch, but we live in committee times. The Government is handling the economic crisis through a combination of outside committee-ists and a civil service-run mixed cabinet committee that super-sets the outsiders, some cabinet members, and some officials.

And the Conservative line is becoming increasingly clear. They believe the rate of interest is too low; this means they want to put it up. So much for independent central banking, the guarantor of sound money. The justification is that they want to encourage saving. They also want to cut or hold public spending. And they vaguely suggest that they want to fix the exchange rate, or at least intervene upwards in it.

These are all deflationary and demand-reducing steps. If you’re a monetarist, they want to increase the price of money by reducing its supply; if you’re a pragmatist, they want to push up sterling and keep imports cheap, which implies pressing down the level of prices generally; if you’re a Keynesian, they want to pull money out of the circular flow into a storage tank, whether private or public. If you’re a 1980s New Classicist, they want to make cash scarce compared to goods, so that the price of labour eventually falls far enough so that the price of goods and services clears the market.

Bing! That’s it. They are still obsessed by the idea of hammering down wages, as they were in 1985, and 1995, until we get to…what? Where can it go, in a world that includes Bangladesh, and overheads? For them, that is the solution. Strangely, no-one ever suggests that the price of enterpreneurship ought to fall; haven’t we had enough bad ideas for a while? The only answer is what it was back then; we’ve got to make good stuff, or good services, and the best way to do this is not by bidding up the price of houses in the suburbs of Middlesbrough.

Yes, there’s the idea of guaranteeing loans to small businesses. But here’s a question for you. Not so long ago, it appeared that the Government guarantee of wholesale interbank lending would result in a monster liability on the public balance sheet – but only if the Government charged a fee for this service. Weirdly, if the Government did it for free, the liability vanished out of the moneysphere. Either way, certain pol…..no. Fuck him. George Osborne used the liability to back his own version of the numbers.

Now, George wants to guarantee £50bn worth of loans to small businesses, and charge a fee; but for him, the wholesale guarantee is “Labour bankrupting the country again”. I know I’m a sad, twisted bastard, but I still remember when lying in the House of Commons was a resigning matter. Perhaps I should have learned something when Jack Straw and Hoon back in 2003-2004….no. The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, said Havel.

Maintain your rage, said Gough Whitlam. I happen to know that some really serious donors to the Tories think Osborne ought to be sacked, moved to Communities and Local Government, /dev/null, Siberia or wherever. Most of all, they want him nixed. Step away from the controls.