Archive for February, 2009

More information is becoming available about the Christopher Hitchens brawl. It appears to have been a telling moment in Decency. The crucial detail is that Hitchens didn’t just deface any old SSNP artefact – he scrawled on the monument to the first shots fired in resistance to the Israeli occupation of 1982. Now, I’m sure the Syrian Social Nationalist Party – funny name, funny guys – are far from ideal. Funny swastikoid logoware, want to annex Cyprus, you get the picture.

But it’s hugely telling that Hitchens’ squiffy decision to take The Greatest Intellectual Struggle Of Our Times outside resulted in him doing three things – thinking he was fighting fascists, while in reality he was taking the side of Ariel Sharon, with the upshot that he got a kicking about which he could moan in a publicity-generating manner.

This is, after all, precisely the pattern of his career since the neoconservative turn in about 1998; protesting bitterly that he is on the Left, while mocking and demonising anyone who didn’t agree with the most aggressive hard-right US Republicans and Likudniks, and using the outrage and betrayal that resulted to prove his commitment to his new mates. Up on the Hill, they think I’m OK…they just don’t say, and it is in the nature of being the pet defector that you’ve always got to go further than the others to maintain your position. Hence things like his bizarre appearance on Newsnight to claim that the victims of Hurricane Katrina weren’t Americans.

Down at the tactical level of debate, it’s notable that he spent so much time between 1998-2005 strawmanning the opinions of various deranged groupuscules onto the great majority of British voters; someone like the SSNP, or George Galloway, has always been necessary for successful Decency.

The unconscious speaks. Considering the whole affair as a weird kind of liberal-hawk psychodrama, it’s significant that Hitchens took his stew of unresolved inner conflicts to Beirut, city of unresolved conflicts par excellence and a taste for high living. Both the SSNP brawl, and his self-administered waterboarding, can possibly be seen as a sort of ritual self purification through which he hopes to return to the Left (a Lacanian would call it the Father’s Law), now that gonzo-reporting CPAC has become something for the mainstream rather than a move reserved for Sadly, No!.



On the Viktorfeed – we’ve got a wave of aircraft leaving the UAE without saying where they’re going. Leaving tonight at 0100Z, there’s a gaggle of 8 aircraft from Phoenix Aviation, Sakavia, Sudan Airways, Red Star, and Kenuz. Eh what? There are also some given as supposedly private flights – one uses its registration as a call sign, ST-EWX. That’s Ilyushin 76 serial number 1013409282, of GST Aero (remember them?) and Airwest/East-West in the Sudan. Kenuz is apparently using Kinshasa Airways’ ICAO code KNS. Beyond that there are 15 Phoenix/AVE movements to unknown locations. It all starts at 0100 UK time tonight.

Update: ST-EWX didn’t get away last night – now scheduled for 2100Z tonight. No less than 8 Phoenix are heading for unknown locations today – next one out is PHW6007 at 1300Z followed by PHW402 at 1700Z.

I often miss chunks of the humour at the Stiftung because I would rather do almost anything than watch US business-spot TV news. If you wanted to hide something from me, you could do worse than put it next to a TV tuned to CNBC. But I think I experienced something of the culture the good doktor despises so much the other day.

The scene; 3GSM/sorry/MWC keynote session. Dramatis personae: Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, ditto of Nokia, Ralph de la Vega, ditto of AT&T Mobility, and moderator Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. Others present – diverse delegates, press, staff, self.

It was of course dull; you don’t go to the keynotes at tech conferences for content, you go to the actual conference sessions, or for that matter, the cocktail parties. De La Vega’s presentation at least contained actual factual material, Kallasvuo’s was inoffensive and reflected a Finnish disinterest in conference stardom, but Ballmer’s was vacuous to an incredible degree. I was aware of his reputation for histronics, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the degree to which the entire performance was divorced from its content.

He shouted, he stomped around the stage, he gave every impression of passion, but the text was content-free. It was the style of rolling TV news – had the sound been turned off, it would have been possible to synchronise almost any imaginable text with the video. David Hockney once said that in the theatre you don’t put a tree on stage, you put treeness there; this was an exercise in the theatre of Ballmerness.

One reason why I went to the keynote was to witness what happened when Ballmer of all people had to speak on the topic of “openness”; in the event, he avoided the obvious problems here by talking a great deal without saying anything.

He reminded me a little of the only time I ever heard Arthur Scargill speak; he didn’t have anything like Scargill’s style, but he acted in much the same fashion. This is of course the heart of demagogy – it’s all about turning your audience into a crowd, through a display of free-floating emotion. In this case, much of it consisted of a display of empty optimism and emotional stroking – that uniquely American mode, boosterism. We were called on to be optimistic, bullied to be bullish, badgered with progress.

We proceeded to the panel discussion, during which Mossberg encouraged the Great Men to waffle with him at great length about the Apple iPhone, possibly because this was a level of discussion he felt comfortable with. Then, he turned to taking the rise out of the head of Nokia (clearly some minor provincial), apparently having no idea where he was and who the audience were. At one point he used the success of the US automakers as an example; apparently, even if the Europeans had invented the car, blah, blah. Why was Nokia so weak in the US? Kallasvuo replied to this at some length, taking in several major news announcements of the day, some technical issues, questions of design and more.

The subject was changed back to iPhones.

By this point I was only staying in the hall in anticipation of the promised questions from the floor. I had a strong sense of having wasted my time.

Asking provocative questions is a time honoured way of drumming up business at conferences, as well as a contribution in itself. After the next homey anecdote about so-and-so’s wife and the funny little keys on their Nokia, my finger was itching. It was time to throw a pavé in the water. Questions were finally announced, and the first to be called was none other than John Strand, who I interviewed for the first ever story I wrote for Mobile Comms International in 2005.

And that was when the comfortable round of anecdotage was broken up; Strand started positively shouting that the session was outrageously US-centric, that the iPhone made up a tiny percentage of the market, and why weren’t we talking about something more useful? Dead silence…and then, applause. The viewpoint of the entire hall had shifted to yer man, standing near the back, surrounded by horrified organisers.

Neither Mossberg or Ballmer had any answer to this; it was a My Pet Goat moment. The rest of the world had turned up and crashed their OODA loop completely. In a theatrical sense, it was positively Brechtian; his intervention, in breaking the frame, forced an alienated re-evaluation of the characters. Kallasvuo maintained a poker face; there was a rumour that De La Vega sought Strand out later.

Before I or anyone else could move in with a further question, Mossberg announced that the session was closed and left quickly through the stage door, as Strand was still orating, having been deprived of the microphone. I couldn’t help imagining a helicopter on the roof. It was the most fun all week.

In which the Database nearly got me.

So I went to 3GSM (sorry, sorry, Mobile World Congress). Now, these things are usually fairly good previews of the ID-card future – constant RFID-tag badging, lists everyone in the world is either on or they aren’t, security theatre aplenty. On this occasion, when I visited the registration Web page, I was invited to check off sessions I wanted to take part in from a list. Oddly enough, one of the options was given as “Cocktail and Ministerial Dinner”.

Of course, I’m enough of a chancer that I put a tick in the box. Later, my registration e-mail pinged through; and, next to the seminars on credit transfer by SMS, unified communications APIs, progress in billing systems, etc, etc, there it was. No detail of when or where, though. So, on Monday night with no – no invitations and paralysed for the evening, I quizzed a GSMA staffer about it. They made some calls. Eventually the word came that I should take a cab to the National Theatre at once.

When I got there, perhaps I should have realised this was going to be a little heavy; a little heavy stood on each street corner, in that “serious security” way. I showed documents, and there was much phoning, and eventually I was shown through a door into what appeared to be security control. At first, there was someone who was coming to meet me; then, a tiny intense woman in an expensive suit appeared. There was a “grande problema” – people kept saying this.

“This isn’t an invitation”, she said. I suggested it was a lot like one. “It didn’t come from us”. It seemed an unusual coincidence. “If it had come from us it would be on a formal card and it would have come from the Spanish embassy!” No answering that one. Then: How did I get it? I must photocopy all the documents. Do you mean to say you could register for this from the general congress site? Do you realise the king could be here and – the president of Catalonia?

Her voice dropped sharply out of sheer reverence when she got to the bit about the president of Catalonia. I was beginning to worry I might be deported, possibly to Spain, or else that they would cancel my security pass. It went on; they now insisted that they needed to send me a letter of apology. I said they shouldn’t bother; eventually I was allowed to slink away like a dog, presumably cleared of ill-will towards the president of Catalonia.

What struck me most about the whole scene was that nobody seemed to accept that the Big Database could possibly be wrong. It seemed easier to imagine that I had forged the entire invite.


I may not be blogging 3GSM for this blog, but you can look at the pictures on Flickr, here.


Thrill! as the counterinsurgents meet dance culture. (Americans – don’t you just want to chuck them under the chin sometimes? When you don’t want to start building rockets like sausages, that is.) Watch with mingled awe and horror as Norwegian anarchist and occasional reader bonds with walking pile of unexamined fascist tropes over awful US punk bands. I couldn’t find the RSW song this immediately called for (The Last Freedom Fighter, clearly) on youtube, but it should be near the end of this.

Meanwhile, a little something at AFOE about the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

fun with drivel

Via Jamie Kenny, Tim “The Tory Blogger for Tories Who Actually Read Blogs” Montgomerie approvingly quotes someone who thinks the world financial crisis is all down to people living together without the approval of either a) your friendly local shaman or b) the State*. The argument, if this is the right word, runs like this; those terrible sinners are more likely to break up, therefore they are more likely to default on their mortgages, therefore the bad mortgages must be theirs.

Even before looking at the factual content of this, there are already a couple of logical flaws here – the assumption that all relationship breakdowns lead to a mortgage default, which assumes facts not in evidence, and the further assumption that because you have one group of hypothetical bad loans, and the banks have a lot of bad loans, it must be that group of bad loans whatdunnit.

Anyway, let’s plug in some numbers. Here’s the divorce rate at the very top of the boom – 2006-2007. It was the lowest for 29 years, 132,562 divorces. Now, obviously, you can’t be divorced if you didn’t get married; but the same forces drive the rate of relationship breakdown for everyone. What are they?

Essentially, people split up because they can’t stand each other for reasons internal to their relationship, or because of strains from outside, which are basically economic. The first group of causes, if it changes at all, changes over decades with change in the broader culture; it would be fair to assume there will always be some percentage of relationships that fail, and over the whole population they are fairly random. It went up from the 50s to the 80s, now it’s going down.

The second group is driven by external forces, specifically the economy – now you would expect this to fluctuate quite a lot, and I would be so bold as to forecast a sharp rise this year. So even if you grant that the rate is higher among the unmarried, it would be really surprising and unlikely if they weren’t correlated – they didn’t respond similarly to the tectonic shifts of the culture and the winds of the economy. Therefore, the whole argument is really unlikely to hold any water, because there probably wasn’t a surge of relationship breakdowns at the top of the boom, and that is still when the damage we are now seeing to the banks originally happened.

Now, the IMF estimates that the total writeoff from US-originated mortgages will be about £1.5 trillion. The US economy is between four and five times the size of ours. Taking a wild-arsed guess, and assuming that the property craziness was roughly similar in both countries (fair enough IMHO), that would mean a total loss of £0.3 trillion – 300 billion quid. (Yes, this is not a very serious model, but as Daniel Davies would say, at least I’m using a model.) The average house price was £224,064 at the peak. Let’s be conservative and project an average LTV (Loan to Value) of 90%, so an average loan would be £201,657.

Even if every divorce resulted in a 100% total loss, we’d still only have £26.7bn of losses from this cause. In fact there aren’t enough divorces even to cover the losses at RBS alone. Even if there were – what? – three times as many nondivorces, which is a crazily charitable assumption because the married are more likely to buy property, that gets us only to £107bn. And this is assuming that the property involved in a default becomes completely worthless. This is obviously silly – the only person who believes that is George Osborne. In fact, if we reckon the crash will get to 30% off the average, we’d need three times as many relationship failures again to balance the books. Not even wrong.

So, why bother spending time and effort refuting an argument that is clearly utter nonsense?

Well, one of the things that struck me was that the comments at Monty’s were surprisingly reasonable. I went in with a crude financial model and my Patent Pachyderm Pants, expecting the bearpit. But the ambience was, indeed, conservative in a good way. So what is Monty up to pushing this crap? The best argument I can see is that the Tories are still starry-eyed about the US Republicans, despite everything that happened since 1995.

This is weird – the Tories didn’t win the Thatcher wars by copying the Republicans, but rather the opposite, and the kinship between Thatcher and Reagan is overstated on the right out of nostalgia. Reagan would have been thrashed around Thatcher’s cabinet room as a Wet and a Spender, and there simply is no parallel in UK politics for the Culture War stuff. But the Tories did, post-Thatcher, fall in love again with the Gingrich years, and it’s arguable that Michael Howard’s ministerial career and 2005 election campaign were efforts at drumming up something in that line.

Clearly, the idea is not yet dead. Which is possibly a good thing – if the Tory gut is still wishing to Live Like Republicans, there’s a racing chance of beating the buggers with post-1995 tactics.

*What is conservative about having your personal life approved by the State or the Church, anyway?

write to them

The RBC’s Andrew Sabl wonders whether it’s best to write, e-mail or what? your elected representatives in a political pinch. What, what, what if there was a Web service that accepted, say, your ZIP code, found the relevant state and federal legislators, and routed your message to an online fax service? Well, there is, if you’re British.

It is of course WriteToThem, another fine MySociety project. Just get in touch – or better, why not grab the source from MySociety CVS and make a start. Greece to their Rome, etc, etc.

This is not much of a blog post, but then, if the RBC didn’t have the world’s brokenest OpenID support I’d have left it as a comment.

Despite the warnings, Donal Blaney is being an arsehole again. For some reason connected with her being 20 years old and female, he’s formed a creepy obsession with the Labour PPC for Skipton & Ripon; but a Straussian reading is worth carrying out.

He’s very pleased by the fact she is unlikely to win; but there is absolutely no mention of her opponent. David Curry is a survivor of the Knights of the Shires, a Tory of the tradition of MacMillan, a moderate and rational burgher who enjoys huge support in the Dales. Running against him is indeed a suicide mission, but the reasons for this are ones Don could never admit to. Curry is reconciled to a welfare state, enthusiastic for the European Union, a classic constituency MP, a strong fighter for local autonomy, who has remained rock solid against all central party pressure to change his views.

Pity he voted for the Iraq war. But then, so many other Conservatives believe worse.

Amnesty International once again show their true political colours in a campaign ad against the practice of waterboarding.

Don is fighting the real enemy.

3GSM, sorry MWC

I’ll be at 3GSM, sorry, MWC in Barcelona from Sunday evening to Thursday morning.