Archive for May, 2009

coming up…

Just to say that next week we’ll be reviewing David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla.

no data for some

OK, this space should be occupied by a visualisation showing time series of airlines in the Viktorfeed by week, which ought to show what happened to BGIA’s share of the business. But IBM ManyEyes is down or at least not up, the data hardly fits on an OpenOffice spreadsheet in any sensible way, so you’ll have to wait.

However, I would like to say this: what is happening in Zahedan that needs several Ilyushin-76s a day, provided by companies like Click Airways International/Click Airways, Transaviaexport, Eastern Express, Sakavia, and East Wing? Rather, that has been generating 2-4 inbound flights to Sharjah a day for 10 days? That’s 30 rotations; 40 tons payload a time; 1,200 tons of stuff. Eh?

Wikipedia has it a bigger place than I assumed; apparently work is going on to link up the Pakistani and Iranian railways there. But surely nobody exports bricks or livestock feed (key local industries, apparently) by air? Especially when there is a road straight to a major sea port?


An idea, seeing as no-one is very interested in ORGANISE and it looks like I’ll have to learn erlang to make any impact on it.

Observation 1: The price of voice telephony is falling fast. Mobile operators provide some truly huge bundles of minutes, and there’s Skype and Co.
Observation 2: Political campaigns of all kinds often need either outbound or inbound phone banks.
Observation 3: Asterisk rocks.

Conclusion: Wouldn’t a distributed phone bank, based on Asterisk’s AGI interface, be cool?

You could: Register volunteers and their availability. Create a campaign. Send talking points to participants as they become available. Dial them up, then dial the target number, and bridge them in. Log the results of the call.

You could also use it for inbound calls – for example, to take statements after a G20-like event, to provide advice, to register participants. And you could initiate and route calls intelligently, for example, to put callers through to people near them, or to send notifications to groups of volunteers.

Anyone interested? I raised this on the MySociety list and we’ve been discussing use cases.

Resistance – The Essence of the Islamist Revolution is Alistair Crooke’s survey of modern Islamist thought. It would be clearer to say it is a couple of books occupying the same space; one would be a history of Islamist thought since the origins of the Iranian Revolution, with a polemic for greater understanding of such thought, and another would be a slightly eccentric, neo-Platonist rant with overtones of Ian Buruma’s notion of Occidentalism.

Well, that sounds fun, doesn’t it? Then you have to add in Crooke’s career; the book glosses him as an advisor to the European Commission on the Middle East, but makes absolutely no mention of his term as SIS station chief in Tel Aviv, in which role he negotiated a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which lasted until an unfortunate air raid resulted in the deaths of a round dozen civilians and not the Hamas man the Israelis were after. (The story is here.)

The war resumed, and Crooke was recalled; officially this was for “security reasons”, but if anything imperilled his security it was probably that after the event, the Israeli tabloids discovered his job title, identity, and photograph with un-mysterious suddenness. He eventually fetched up in Beirut, running a thinktank called the Conflicts Forum, devoted to contact between Western powers and Islamists. (Time was, it would have been a nightclub, but we live in fallen times.)

So, what upshot? Crooke makes a strong case for modern Islamism as a classical reaction to colonialism and modernisation, or rather an interwar vision of modernity. He relies on an impressive battery of reading ranging into cultural Marxism at one end and into hardcore conservatism at the other. More controversially, he tries to place Islamism since the 1950s in a context of rebellion against free-market economics drawn from Naomi Klein; but the Ba’athist and similar regimes hardly qualify as Friedmanites, with their nationalised oil companies, state military industries, and extensive Soviet influence in administration, secret policing, and military doctrine and structure.

He draws on a battery of confidential interviews, which are some of the most interesting things in the book, to illuminate current ideas and practice, specifically among Hezbollah thinkers. Notably, they argue, the Caliphate should now be seen as a world-wide network of loosely interconnected “communities of resistance”, rather than a state or any other kind of hierarchical organisation. The aim of these is to uphold the practice of an ideal, self-organising community of believers against a total onslaught by the forces of liberalism, which wishes us all to be atomised individuals.

In practice, this demands a sort of liberation theology/community-organising/vaguely anarchist drive to create base groups everywhere, drawn together by the practice of mutual aid and the study of critical texts, and if necessary to form the underground shadow-administration common to all good guerrilla armies.

Crooke is interesting on the military implications of this, but I think what he describes is less original than he suggests. Flat, highly networked command structures, with a high degree of autonomy down to the squad and the individual, are not characteristic of Islamic or Islamist warfare; what he is describing here sounds a lot like Auftragstaktik. Also, he describes the requirements of a Hezbollah leader as integrity, authenticity, reliability, personal charisma, and ability to mobilise others; would anyone at all disagree?

There is an interesting side-trip into Islamist economic ideas. He criticises Westeners who assume that the main aim of these is to find technical workarounds to make the normal course of business sharia-compliant; apparently the real thing is considerably better. However, a lot of it (as described here) consists of accepting a market economy but not letting money be the be-all and end-all of everything, etc, etc; in practice, this seems to mean a welfare state. No surprise, then, that one of the thinkers he quotes had to write an entire book to rebut the charge that his ideas were indistinguishable from European social democracy.

According to Crooke, the main distinction is in the field of monetary economics; but, in so far as his writing is a true misrepresentation of it, it seems to be distinct in a way which isn’t particularly original. Apparently, Islamist economists are very exercised about M3 broad money growth, on the grounds that this represents the growth of credit in a fractional-reserve banking system and that this is the root of the evils of capitalism. Instead, they are keen on…the gold standard, that most free-trade imperialist of economic institutions!

At this point you might want to halt briefly; Islamist Auftragstaktik applied to community organising? The Caliphate in terms suited to Clay Shirky? Dear God, Islamist monetarist gold bugs? Phew! And you could, perhaps, take comfort from the thought that however strange Iranian political thought may be, their economic thought is no stranger than Fraser Nelson’s or Jude Wanniski’s. Placing an upper bound on the strangeness, after all, is probably an important step towards international understanding.

Then we get into the second book. Crooke is always quoting Plato, specifically the apposition between the port and the city; he attacks Karl Popper, and uses a great deal of Horkheimer and John Gray. It is fair to say he accepts entirely the complex of critiques that argue that life is meaningless without a higher purpose usually decided by higher people, that the freedom offered by liberalism is no such thing, that trade (or commerce, or industry) is “mere”; it is harder to say whether he accepts this for the sake of argument, as much of the Islamist thinking he is discussing bases itself on these ideas.

And there is a valid argument that a lot of it claims to represent the up-side of such critiques – the need for a self-empowered, cohesive community, the problems of the free market – but might just as well be the downside. The economy should be directed, at a national level, towards certain “great concepts”; this could be post-war French indicative planning, and might well be, having been written in the 1950s – or it could be a Straussian exercise in National Greatness Conservatism. We should work and care for society; or is it, as one of Crooke’s interviewees says, that “life is not worth living without something worth dying for”?

None of this stuff about “false reconciliation” and “self-pacifying”, materialism, etc, etc, answers E. P. Thompson’s classic attack on “theories that assume that ordinary people are bloody silly“, either. Strangely enough, towards the end of the book, we have a sudden swerve back towards liberalism; freedom is not so bad after all, it turns out, compared with a neoconservatism informed by Leo Strauss.

Curiously, I left the book with a feeling that it had set out to make right-wing Americans feel closer to political Shi’ism.


Whining about Firefox crashes. Here’s one day last week:

Start 0930
1515 – 5 groups, 111 tabs. Pressed page down key; CRASH. Resume successful.
1538 – Hang. RAM usage peaks at 66%, CPU 1 goes to 100%
1541 – Running, very slowly. Resource utilisation still very high
1542 – Hang
1550 – Cache cleared, normal ops resumed
1813 – Hang. RAM goes from 23% to 40%, CPU 1 to 100%
1828 – Memory leak – top shows RAM usage at 55%, but the system is using the swapfile heavily
1845 – Memory leak – RAM 84%. CPU 1 2%
1910 – RAM usage down to 63%, but still crappy
1917 – Memory leak – RAM 80%, CPU 1 3%

Next day:
1110 – Hang. CPU 1 103%, RAM 44.2%
1115 – Hang. Firefox process killed from command line. Fails to launch, “existing process already running” error message. Kill -9 from command line.
1335 – Hang CPU 1 99%, RAM 33%
1337 – Wow; it’s recovered to tolerably normal functioning.

I agree 111 tabs is a lot, but you can see why I’m pissed off.

What is all this whining about MPs doing constituency work? It seems to be conventional wisdom across the more fogeyish commentators (Simon Jenkins, Vernon Bogdanor etc) that members of the Commons are spending too much time representing the interests of their constituents; no article on the upshot of the great expenses row is complete without a ritual reminder that in the 1950s hardly anyone actually lived in their constituency, with shoutouts to Barbara Castle for some reason (saves research, I suppose).

This is painfully crappy.

Constituency work is great, for a whole range of reasons. For a start, it is very hard to be secretly working for the Sun or the Saudis in chasing down Mrs Miggins’s housing benefit claim.

Secondly, there’s the argument from organisation theory; legislating is the original activity in which you are most affected by the loss of information in a hierarchy, and it is almost proverbial that the Commons is good at passing laws – or repealing them – which then turn out to have some dire consequence down the track, usually to the poor. However, getting stuck into some concrete injustice has every chance of making somebody’s life marginally less awful, and an hour spent on constituency work is an hour not spent passing a dangerous dogs bill.

Thirdly, it keeps them off the streets and out of trouble. You cannot be boozily lying to a journalist about your friends and colleagues – the essential activity underlying all the nostalgic crap about the tearooms, all night sittings, etc – or selling security passes to the Palace of Westminster to passing lobbyists if you are busy harassing the UK Borders Agency to get them to leave some bewildered refugee’s kids alone.

Fourthly, in which other field of activity are the assorted lawyers, poshos, moonlighters, and ruthless expenses hounds that make up the Commons ever going to encounter the facts of ordinary life? Annie’s Bar? I think not. If you’re lucky, a few will be old trade-union hands, but we can all think of examples of those turning rotten. Constituency business is about the only force that keeps the political establishment from adopting my proposal to seal itself in a huge glass box.

Fifthly, you can be a repellent pig-bastard on the floor of the Commons but still do some good in the world if you devote some time every week to constituency work. A truly surprising number of really horrible Tory MPs have been willing to engage in things like anti-deportation campaigns which would shock the piss out of their colleagues and their pet newspapers. It is simply more difficult to be evil at this level.

So why do so many commentators hate it so much? Jenkins (who can stand for the others, as their views do not differ much) tends to argue that the problems that reach MPs should be sorted out by local government, by councillors or mayors. This is ponyism. MPs doing less constituency work will not by itself restore local politics. There is no pony. Unless you have a plan to restore the dignity and power of local politics to go with it, you’re arguing for power to be left alone to do its worst. And constituency work generally involves the confrontation of the forces of authority with the poor.

Further, it is almost always local authorities who are in the wrong; this is why it is called “constituency work”. In a Stafford Beer-influenced (Beer-sodden?) view, problems are resolved within a subsystem until they go beyond its capacity to resolve them, at which point they are escalated into the next recursion level or transferred horizontally into a different decision network. It is both right and natural that problems created by a local authority should be resolved by either a more central one, or else one in a different network. It is also very true that local authorities in the UK are probably more frequently corrupt than central government. John Poulson’s ghost is not yet quiet.

It goes without saying that Simon Jenkins and Vernon Bogdanor opposed, to the best of my knowledge, every proposal to return powers to lower levels of government that has ever been seriously suggested. Jenkins occasionally toys with the idea of an English parliament, but it is far from clear how a body representing 53 million citizens is much less administratively remote than one representing 60 million, so this should be taken as a matter of style rather than content.

If they don’t actually want – and their actions and words show they do not – devolved government, what is the point here? It is surely that they don’t consider the sort of thing covered in constituency work worthy of MPs’ time. Grand legislators don’t do this sort of thing; it is too much like work, it involves working-class people and their problems, and perhaps there is even a hint that it is women’s work? Instead, the debating chamber is a truer life, an idealistic project which keeps the messy, vigorous concerns of democracy well away.

news-style product

I recall saying about the British press’s coverage of the US elections that, in contrast to 2004 when the British papers were where you went to for actual information, this time around they delivered the most anodyne and skewed conventional wisdom possible, just three days late. They’re still at it. Journalism!

If you were going to write about Dick Cheney, would you choose to get all your quotes from William Kristol, Grover Norquist, Michael Barone, and just to cap the lot, Dan Senor? Further, Senor is described as a “foreign policy advisor during the Bush administration”. He was, of course, nothing of the sort; in fact, he was the highly ridiculous press spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the man who actually said that he was “listening to the silent majority” of Iraqis. He was, in fact, a foreign policy advisor to the Rudy Giuliani campaign for the Republican nomination, that atavistic replay of the entire neocon fiasco.

Unsurprisingly, this little exercise provides a number of doggishly loyal quotes. We have to wait for the 37th par to learn that, whatever Dan Senor may think, the silent majority is remaining very silent indeed; Cheney’s disapproval rating in representative polls stands well over 60 per cent. It’s those professional standards of established journalism, I believe.

oh, the interwebs

Journalism! Where would we be without it?

You can already see some of the risks of a country reliant on the internet without the traditional checks and balances provided by the professional standards of established journalism. During last year’s US election, several stories whirled through the media sourced to one political pundit, Martin Eisenstadt. You may even have heard of some of them: a casino planned for Iraq’s Green Zone; the shock of Paris Hilton’s family at being used in a John McCain TV ad; the failure of Sarah Palin to understand Africa was a continent, not a country. But Eisenstadt was a fraud, created by an Israeli prankster, Eitan Gorlin, via a fake think-tank website. Yet his tales had a life of their own, permeating the net, eventually appearing on television and in magazines, creating reaction until they became part of the debate.

The horror. Imagine if, say, most of the world’s most respected newspapers, and the entire Murdoch empire, had uncritically repeated a succession of entirely false and basically implausible stories briefed to them by a string of nebulous thinktanks and anonymous government mouthpieces, based on the unsupported word of various frauds, Iranian agents, and prisoners under torture. Imagine if The Observer itself had been printing material it was given on the quiet by the British government’s intelligence services.

If newspapers face a crisis, a major part of this crisis is a crisis of self-awareness and humility. Another major part of it is a crisis of ownership – not a problem with their business model, but their financial model. To his credit, Paul Harris does actually mention that the US newspapers that have gone under have done so for one single, simple reason in all cases – they fell because The Proprietor loaded them up with debt, and then squeezed the paper ruthlessly for cash. But he devotes a total of three out of 34 paragraphs to this, and buries the point under 10 pars of colour and “oh, the Internet!”. In a real sense, what we are seeing isn’t a crisis of the press but a crisis of the press baron, that highly leveraged capitalist figure of the 20th century.

The press baron emerged in the late 19th century, arguably as a response to the capital-intensive technology of the first mass circulation newspapers. It was an era of railways and mammoth presses, and the press became more concentrated and oligopolistic to round up the capital this demanded, just as so many other industries did. The political and ego advantages of owning a huge newspaper both grew out of and contributed to this process. More recently, this tied-in with the trend towards tax-efficient, return-boosting thin capitalisation – the Leverage Jihad, as I think of it.

This had three important effects on the press. First, it empowered the proprietor even further. When the bulk of his capital was tied up in the newspaper, he could sack the editor on a whim, insist on reprinting Hitler’s speeches in their entirety like Viscount Harmsworth, but he could only abandon the paper with difficulty and at considerable cost. He could sell or float the paper, but killing it implied losing a lot of money. Second, by decreasing the barriers to entry, it created more potential press barons, and consolidated the existing ones. It also, by boosting their returns, made them personally much richer. Third, it hugely increased the papers’ operational gearing and therefore their vulnerability to any shock to cash flow.

This also meant that the possibility of the press baron losing his investment was considerably increased, and the case of the Sam Zell papers neatly points this out. Now, all this was chiefly possible because the papers were experiencing a long period of great ad markets, and also because of technological changes. The arrival of the Apple Macintosh, the Ethernet LAN, and the fast offset-litho machines meant it was possible to run a lot more glossy colour pagination, and hence more class-A ad space, with fewer people and, after this leap had been undertaken, less capital.

Arguably, the nature of a newspaper has changed; it’s now much more the kind of business whose assets walk out of the front door. What does this imply for its model of ownership?

Craig Murray seems to have taken a blog pill.

Britain’s most disgusting journalist, New Labour creep and Jack Straw cheerleader Michael White, is on Sky News trying to justify his New Labour chums…

That information comes from two sources both of which I trust not at all – White and a New Labour minister. …

It is bad enough that he gets to bully everyone on the Guardian who criticises New Labour. White is Associate Editor of the Guardian and he regularly hints to other journalists that his friend the City Minister, Lord Myners, Chairman of the Guardian Media Group, will be most unhappy with their anti New Labour stories.

White is the most disgusting reptile in the British media, which is saying a lot. He is on a salary of £182,000 at the Guardian, incidentally….

Tory blogs had become very popular as showing opposition to a rightly very unpopular governemt. But what the stupid, stupid, stupid thousand times hypocrite Dale shows is that the Tories are just the same kind of tribal predators as New Labour, simply itching for their turn to get their snouts in the trough.

Dale’s credibility as a blogger has been entirely compromised by his support for the Nadine Dorries scam. Actually, he’s only a Tory version of Michael White, with a thin veneer of good nature stretched over the hard party man…

Our old friend S9-DAE, Ilyushin-76 serial 83483513, has been scrapped at Fujairah last month.