Archive for February, 2009

Keep the shit and the drinking water separate, and you’ve gone most of the way from an average life expectancy of 35 to one of 75. Boris Johnson, famously, decided that replacing London’s water mains was a minor issue that could be thrown out as a sop to the roads lobby.

So here’s the Borisfeed. It monitors Transport for London traffic data, BBC travel alerts, an automated Google News search, and posts to Flickr, filters everything but burst water mains, and excretes them as stinking RSS. This is only the beginning; I’m planning to keep statistics as well, and perhaps pull everything together in a little page of Boris Johnson, with the inevitable IBM ManyEyes charts. (For some reason I nearly wrote MakingEyes.) Perhaps I could even have it push out updates through Twitter or some XMPP thing.

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A total disjuncture between cost and value; such was the problem facing Gorbachev. Consider this; Pajamas Media, that heroic attempt to refute the principle that putting 15 idiots around a table gives you the average of their intelligence, not the sum, is reorganising as a subscription video site. You will be able to pay $15 a month to watch them “debate”.

Well, no-one ever went bust underestimating the public’s desire to jeer at the confused. But that doesn’t make it a good thing. And you have to wonder at the situation; in Africa there are mobile phone networks that make a good business on a monthly ARPU of one-third that. And they have a product that helps you reduce the percentage of fish that go rotten before getting to market – with absolutely no Jonah Goldberg in it!

But they expect to charge three times that. Maybe they’ll start building an ekranoplan if this doesn’t work out?

Via Airminded, find your local V2 rocket strike. London, Antwerp, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Riyadh, and Tehran have what in common? That’s right, it’s the list of cities that have been subjected to attack from space.

Then, why not go here and look up how big a hole it made? Someone’s photographed and flickr’d a whole set of London County Council damage assessment maps.

My local strike is now a small, never-used park on one side of the street and a pretty grim council estate on the other. But damage in this corner of London was limited compared to further down the Holloway Road. Oddly, there seems to be a correlation between the degree of damage and the London Profiler crime rate; the area south of Torrington Way, which has a sky-high crime rate, was pretty much flattened. (Sadly, the LCC maps aren’t geotagged, so making up a KML overlay would be annoyingly difficult.)

Question – is it that these areas were rebuilt as council housing and filled with the poor, or that the architecture caused the crime? After all, they were hardly peachy suburbia before being destroyed. Strange, though, to think that Wernher von Braun partly decided where tonight’s post-pub kebab stabbing is likely to happen.

Predicting Iraqi election results is one thing this blog has been so awful at that it basically gave up. I will, however, venture a couple of comments on the results of Iraqi provincial elections. It seems more than clear that the current Iraqi government’s Dawa side gained over the ISCI (ex SCIRI) side, that the Sunni side was essentially deadlocked three ways, and the Sadrists held ground.

Anyone who tries to spin this as a victory over Iranian influence, however, is wrong. That Dawa did well, an Iranian-exile party whose PM Maliki is in constant contact with Iran, refutes this in itself. It certainly reduces the chances of southern separatism (Fadhila had a really bad day as well), but then, Iranian interests in Iraq are served just as well by a friendly Shia-dominated central government with weak sovereignty as by an ISCI-run Sumer down south – possibly better.

Carving out an Iranian proxy state would likely crank the civil war right back up, and would imperil the general balance of power. It would likely also need money, when Iran itself has serious financial problems. Having an established but weak government in Baghdad means that Iran gets what it wants – primacy of influence in the south – but without having to put too much in the way of resources into it or cause too much international trouble.

As it happens, the best analytical framework here is the history of Iran itself. Either the UK or Russia would have been in a position to carve out a client state in their zone under the Anglo-Russian Convention, but neither wanted either the expense or the trouble, even with the huge oil interest in the British zone. Instead, it was much more advantageous to play the game and prop up a centralised but ineffective sovereignty, whilst pursuing real interests like the oil through informal influence. The Iranian monarch was well aware of this, and played the game – perversely, the empires’ influence supported his authority up to a point. Much the same pattern applies to British policy towards the late Ottoman empire, and indeed to Qing China.

And you can bet that the relevant policy-makers are highly aware of the semi-colonial era. On both sides.

After all, the permanently operating factors are the same; Iraq and Iran are big and share a frontier, a majority of Iraqis share Iran’s majority religion, there are important economic ties, a history of competition for power, the Coalition main supply route and line of retreat runs across the Iranians’ strategic front, and Iraq is between Iran and its major power competitors in the GCC.

Therefore, a weakened Iraqi sovereignty means strong Iranian influence in Iraq – not least because a Shia government in Iraq whose international legitimacy is not totally certain will always look at Sunni Iraq and the other Arab states as potential enemies. In that sense, it’s no surprise that Iran would take an each-way bet on both Dawa and ISCI, giving themselves the choice between a friendly unitary Iraq and a half share of a partitioned Iraq. It’s a hedged position.

I am in awe of this. Surely this must be some sort of brilliant artistic prank? Where is Chris Morris?

Yes, that is Richard Branson

Yes, that is Richard Branson

The story behind it is that he’s a simulated refugee in an event held during the WEF. Many jokes are of course possible regarding the fact that the people pretending to be refugees are themselves thousands of miles from home, packed into a remote location surrounded by armed guards and dogged by grandstanding journos. If you follow the links from the post at Foreign Policy, you’ll find that they have all been made.

My objection to this is that even if it helped to induce empathy in the participants, that’s not enough; in fact it’s more likely to play into confirmation bias by relieving them of some cognitive dissonance. And then, of course, it’s back to the toolkit of pat solutions you carry with you. Pigeon religion again.

For example, consider this ruck in the comments at Abu Muqawama. I really don’t get why, for some people, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict seems to be framed by rightwing nostrums from 1980s urban policy about “dependency culture”; what next, a zero tolerance drive to fix all the broken windows, vandalism obviously being a gateway drug to terrorism? But I’ve repeatedly seen this, almost always from Americans. And it’s not just a debating point – Donald Rumsfeld thought of appointing Rudy Giuliani chief of police in Baghdad, after all, and aren’t you almost disappointed not to have seen that epic cluster-fuck?

But quite a lot of people’s political views are best understood by posing this question; what qualifies my opinion as serious in a given peer group? Analysing Gaza as if you were running for election in New York City circa 1987 on a law-and-order ticket is objectively insane – it makes as much sense as using one’s remembered views on pay-beds in the NHS from 1978 as a guide to EU-Russia diplomacy.

And the outputs from it are as bad as you might expect; yer man is absolutely furious with me, although we appear to agree that there must be a Palestinian state and by corollary the Israelis will just have to cut their coat according to the cloth. The chief difference is that he thinks that abolishing the UN Relief and Works Agency will somehow lead to the state, rather than the other way around. Again, it’s very 1980s – slash their child benefit until they become better people, dammit, because otherwise…a generation of superpredators will knifecrime the suburbs!!!

There must be a reason for it, though; a meme this strongly conserved is conserved for a reason. I’d guess it’s twofold – one, this is the sort of thing a sensible conservative citizen is meant to say, two, it’s a screen-statement which protects against the fact that we are, after all, discussing the creation of a Palestinian state. And just as the only way to make Richard Branson a refugee is to persecute him out of London…

But then, what kind of pat solutions and dead ideas am I carrying about?

Ha. Ha. Ha.

So, how are those ID cards going? It seems that despite the government’s fanfare, repeated several times, of announcing the issue of the first ID cards, it is impossible to check anyone’s card because there are no card readers.

Of course, it’s actually worse than that – even if the card readers had been issued, they would be entirely useless, because the heart of the entire ID project doesn’t exist yet. The point of the readers is to look up data from the card against the National Identity Register’s monster database. But the NIR doesn’t exist yet, either, and there are still no signs of any substantive work in progress. One small contract has been issued to Thales, but beyond that…silence.

So, the launch of the ID card programme, the climax of Liam “I used to be an IT consultant, me” Byrne’s 300 day delivery plan, has consisted purely in distributing a few bits of plastic of no practical purpose whatsoever. The target groups for the first cards were foreign students and airport workers. So far, the universities have shown unwillingness to take part, and the unions representing pilots and airside workers have threatened to strike.

I’m actually really impressed by the sheer obstructive dumb strength of the public on this; the government has tried to get the doctors, the aviation industry, the social services, the universities, and the business community to deploy card readers, and the result is quite literally sweet fuck all. It’s positively Sicilian; politicians and officials flap their arms and speechify and manoeuvre their police force, and on the ground, none of it makes a blind bit of difference.

I was wondering whether any cards have actually been issued. There have been expensive press events, cards have been brandished by ministers; but the issuing of cards to airside personnel has been repeatedly put off, and the trial at Manchester remained a trial.

So how many cards are actually in the wild? Guy Herbert of NO2ID reckons he’s yet to encounter one documented case of an identity card being issued. This may be a brilliant solution – faced with the scheme’s mountainous problems, the State might simply decide to pretend to issue the cards.

Come to think of it, this might be ideal; the control bureaucrats would remain employed, their contractors would share in a modest stream of income, some of which would inevitably be kicked back in the form of directorships and sinecures for old officials, honour would be satisfied, and an unseemly confrontation with the public forever delayed. It would indeed be an Italian sort of solution.

It is, after all, called the National Identity Scheme. And whether you think of a tax-evasion scheme, or a decaying tower block in Scotland – another technologically flawed white elephant imposed on the working class by the state – you’ve got to admit it’s appropriate.

Look what the Ministry found. Remember the business with Harrow Borough Council and the secret Israeli lie detector? We noted that it was unlikely that the signal it claimed to detect would be transmitted through the telephone system; an expert pointed out that it might be manifested in other ways; eventually we obtained a copy of the patent including a reference implementation in MS Visual Basic, and discovered that even if this was so, that wasn’t what it did.

In fact, it did very little of any use, and the actual content of the code directly contradicted Nemesysco’s claims regarding the system. For example, far from measuring 129 different parameters, it measures two, and claims to derive information on no less than eight different scales from these. And the actual judgment of truth or falsehood is based on entirely arbitrary reference values.

Swinging from tragedy to comedy, someone who was almost certainly Nemesysco founder Amir Liberman was then sighted sock-puppeting in the comments, and further inquiries showed probably the same person spamming Wikipedia. Very funny. Anyway, the Ministry has found an article from the International Journal of Speech Science and Law i which a pair of Swedish academics scrutinise the claims of some supposed lie detectors, Nemesysco’s among them. You can read it here. Here are some highlights:

The author describes the program as ‘detecting emotional status of an individual based on the intonation information’. But whereas intonation in phonetics means variation in pitch encoded by fundamental frequency (albeit almost always accompanied by other prosodic factors) the author of the LVA mistakenly believes that what he calls ‘thorns’ and ‘plateaus’ represent intonation..

Don’t get scratched by them thorns.

When an analog signal is digitized the complex continuous variation found in the original signal is replaced by a simplified discrete representation. How closely this representation matches the original depends on the sampling parameters but the match will never be perfect. It is in the digitization process that the ‘thorns’ and ‘plateaus’ are created. There is obviously an indirect relationship between thorns and plateaus and the original waveform, but the number of thorns and plateaus, which is the very basis for all computations in the LVA, depends crucially on sampling rate, amplitude resolution and the threshold values defined in the program. It is therefore correct to say that these computations are basically no more than statistics based on digitization artefacts.

And that is all there is. There is nothing special with these computations, except that there is no theoretical basis for them or independent motivation for the proposed ranges… The program would analyze any sound the same way, be it a man speaking, an idling car engine, a dog barking or a tram passing by. Secondly, the number and distribution of thorns and plateaus depend crucially on a number of factors that have to
do with how the digitization is performed. Different sampling frequencies and amplitude resolutions would produce different results.

the code is rather messy and not particularly well structured and we decided it would not be worth the time and effort to clean up the code in order to convert it into a running program. The Damphouse et al. group report that the program crashed repeatedly during their experiments so it is obviously rather unstable too

Ouch. But it gets worse.

The performance of LVA on the VSA database … was similar to that observed with CVSA. That is, neither device showed significant sensitivity to the presence of stress or deception in the speech samples tested. The true positive and false positive rates were parallel to a great extent.

That is to say, the results were entirely down to chance. And finally….

The output of an analysis is structured much along the same lines as horoscopes…To sum up by saying that there is absolutely no scientific basis for the claims
made by the LVA proponents is an understatement. The ideas on which the products are based are simply complete nonsense

Just for good measure, it seems that Liberman promoted himself as a significant Israeli mathematician whilst trying to sell the program in Sweden; it turns out he is no mathematician of any kind. However, he did know just what to do; sue the International Journal, which took the article off line. So much for that. Now for the DWP.

I’ve always thought Sir Nicholas Winterton (how on earth did he get a knighthood?) is one of the most egregious old farts in British politics; a pompous old buffoon of zero legislative achievement, a hard-right Monday Clubber and Rhodesia groupie, who despite representing a bog standard rural/suburban English constituency manages to be consistently one of the most expensive men in the Commons. Chuck in the fact that his wife, fellow-MP, and disgraced racist Ann also manages to be one of the most expensive MPs, despite representing the constituency next door to Sir Nicholas – yes, two constituency homes, two offices, two of every damn thing – and you’ve got a right pair of fat, self-satisfied wankers practically pregnant with taxpayers’ funds, whose prehensile bottoms cling with uncanny certainty to their perch. He’s been there since 1971!

And Christ! I’d actually forgotten that they charged themselves rent on a flat in London they already owned, so they could expense it.

Now, here’s the proof: he’s the one who suggested banning demonstrations near parliament and outlawing Brian Haw, “because of the noise”. Among other things, his sense of democracy goes only as far as hyaaah hyaaah, expenses, and private bars. Fuck you, you rotten turdster.

(Update; Greasy Nick is apparently the 636th most expensive. Where did I have this impression from? Either the flat thing, or possibly the two-of-everything deal.)

I love the fact the phrase “snake palaeothermometry” exists, and even more that it defines an actual scientific experiment.

(I should probably have a “reptiles” tag, seeing as I just blogged about David Miliband and I’m about to mention Sir Nicholas Winterton.)

This is wrong;

Gitmo will be closed. Binyam Mohammed will be returned to Britain, or put on trial in the USA. Either way the details of his treatment, and that of all the other inmates, will become public. What are Foggy Bottom and the CIA playing at? Get it over with

Consider this BBC story. The interesting thing here is that Miliband’s position requires him to argue two mutually impossible things at once; first, he can’t possibly let evidence of Mohammed’s torture appear in court, for fear of terrible retaliation from the United States, second, that the United States has not threatened such a thing.

The two are mutually dependent, because if the first one was allowed to stand on its own, who would imagine that good relations with the United States were anything worth having? Therefore, it’s necessary for the protection of the self-regard of the political classes that the US threat be both unambiguous and invisible. It is like the chapter in The Art of Coarse Rugby about fields with bulls in them; eventually they conclude that the ideal scenario is a field next to the rugby ground with a large sign in it, reading BEWARE OF THE BULL, but no bull.

That way, if you need to play for time, you can hoof the ball into the field and count on your opponents’ fear of the bull to waste time – but should you find yourself a couple of points down as time runs out, you can always declare that the bull was taken away years ago and just get on with it. Similarly, no evidence was ever provided of Saudi threats back when this legal dodge – the BAE gambit as I call it – was invented.

Providing evidence of the threats would spoil it. If the government had to admit it was being bullied into covering up for appalling torture or spectacular financial corruption, this would alter certain political facts. But that is not all. The beauty of the BAE gambit is that it’s so flexible; because the evidence of the risk is itself secret, it can be invoked whenever required. I said this at the time, and now they’re doing it. If they had to demonstrate the threat, this would spoil its effectiveness.

I see no reason to think that the Government is lying now about the Americans’ position. In fact, it’s very likely that the Obama administration has not contacted them; for example, here’s the new CIA director explicitly stating that he considers torture and refoulement to states that practice it illegal. Here are his own words:

On January 22, 2009, the President issued an executive order directing all U.S. agencies to use Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions as the baseline for the treatment and interrogation of persons detained in any armed conflict. The executive order also states that agencies must notify the International Committee of the Red Cross of such detainees and provide the Red Cross with access to them. The intelligence community must follow the executive order.

With respect to renditions, the intelligence community must comply with U.S. obligations under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, including Article 3 prohibiting the rendition of a person to a country where it is more likely than not he will be subjected to torture.

Here’s the relevant paragraph in the executive order:

Nothing in this order shall be construed to affect the obligations of officers, employees, and other agents of the United States Government to comply with all pertinent laws and treaties of the United States governing detention and interrogation, including but not limited to: the Fifth and Eighth Amendments to the United States Constitution; the Federal torture statute, 18 U.S.C. 2340 2340A; the War Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. 2441; the Federal assault statute, 18 U.S.C. 113; the Federal maiming statute, 18 U.S.C. 114; the Federal “stalking” statute, 18 U.S.C. 2261A; articles 93, 124, 128, and 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, 10 U.S.C. 893, 924, 928, and 934; section 1003 of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, 42 U.S.C. 2000dd; section 6(c) of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, Public Law 109 366; the Geneva Conventions; and the Convention Against Torture. Nothing in this order shall be construed to diminish any rights that any individual may have under these or other laws and treaties.”

No torture; no handover to states that torture. So it would be surprising if they were to do so. And, indeed, Miliband explicitly says that no approach to the new administration has been made.

However, the Government has chosen to regard not being explicitly told to stop as equivalent to a reiteration of the threats (whose existence it denies, lest we forget) issued by the Bush administration in 2007. It has done this because it suits the Government’s interests. For once, William Hague is right – they should simply ask the Americans to state whether or not the non-threat is still not-in force.

Of course they will not, because it suits them to be able to kick the ball over the BEWARE OF THE BULL sign whenever they think fit. As Scott Horton points out, there are a lot of people about who desperately want a new US administration to be guilty, because it detracts from their own guilt.