Archive for June, 2009


Am I daft, or was the Apple iBook G4, 12″ screen, the least annoying computer of my experience?

Another On Roads thing is the special role of the North; indeed, as he points out, it’s the construction of the M62 that made the North of England a sensible geographical construct rather than an awkward stereotype that uneasily combined Lancashire and Yorkshire.

And so much early motorway building started up north; you have the role of tireless boosters and chief engineers James Drake in Lancashire and Stuart Lovell in West Yorkshire, the A580 East Lancs Road (the very first), the Preston bypass, the Manchester and Leeds urban motorways, and the epic engineering drama of the M62 itself. As its chief engineer put it, “for seven years we ate mud, walked in mud, sat in mud and were aware of mud, and there was mud in the sandwiches”.

This would have far-reaching consequences; not so long ago, I recall some journalist or other saying that they were very surprised, on going to Yorkshire to report the miners’ strike, to find all these huge roads leading everywhere. They would, of course, be a major theatre of that conflict, and a few years later, the rave/drugs wars as well. Later still, both the protestors and the Sheffield-based professional climbers hired to get them out of trees would go that way.

Can it be true that my mother and I ran the length of our local bypass, twice, wearing donkey jackets, boots, hi-viz vests, and carrying shovels? I rather think it is. It was a fearsomely hot day, and I don’t think we were even formally protesting, although, in a sense, what else were we doing?

Which reminds me; one of the very first road protests in the UK, against the Westway in the late 60s, or rather in favour of playgrounds under it, was started by someone who’d been reading about Guy Debord and was looking for something to start a row about.


After the Mancunian love-in at Jamie Kenny’s, my own thoughts on Joe Moran’s On Roads are inevitably coming.

I didn’t know that we have Tony Benn to thank for the big-box supply chain logistics industry. But yes; at the end of the 1960s, the then Minister of Technology tore off a £150,000 innovation grant for the Co-op to investigate the idea of developing a small number of giant, automated distribution centres. Specifically, they started work at Birtley in County Durham, where they built a huge regional warehouse that used new articulated trucks and robotic cranes, and an ICL mainframe computer to keep track of it all, achieving a then-unheard of 5,000 boxes an hour.

As a condition of the grant, the Co-op had to share the details of their trial with the rest of British industry. For once, they soaked it up but good, and the rest is history. I find this fascinatingly ironic, especially in the light of Benn’s status both as pope of the 80s green-left and, later, as professional national treasure. Most of his fans in the 80s would have been delighted to burn Birtley down, and the cardigans who go to his speaking engagements are exactly the people who drive everywhere and oppose all planning applications on principle.

Benn was famously keen on nuclear power and Concorde (even if Roland Beamont really saw him coming, when he let the old pilot execute a barrel roll in the prototype); he also bought BT’s first billing systems computer as postmaster-general. I very much doubt if many people who considered themselves Bennites would have accepted any of these things, still less the UKAEA police force he created with its special nuclear role, routine and heavy armament, and nationwide area of operations. Similarly, he was forever despised by some people for the infamous bonfire of TSR-2 blueprints.

Some would say that this is a sign that he was always oversold, and in fact was just trimming to the winds of popularity for most of his career. Isn’t he the only third-generation cabinet minister to have a cabinet minister for a son, after all?

But I suspect it’s deeper and wider than that. One thing about Moran’s book is the way nothing lasts less than the perception of modernity. By the time that ICL ‘pooter was being set up in Birtley, the great road burst was already losing momentum; it had run into serious trouble at the 1970 local elections and along the Westway, and a property boom was straining the economics, to say nothing of altering the politics and demographics of many of the road projects. By M6 completion in 1972, the Department of Transport had already accepted that “the day of the supremacy of the motor car and the roadbuilder has come to an end”. Leeds was about to make a fool of itself by declaring that it was the Motorway City of the 70s; the 60s would have met with great approval.

By the 90s, who on earth imagined roads as being the future? This was one of the reasons, I think, the Major government was never able to come to terms with the road protestors on the political level. The only language they had to argue against them was all about Luddites, stick-in-the-muds, progress, and such – the language of 50s corporation socialists and youve-never-had-it-so-good Tories. But the future now looked like one of solar panels, synthesisers and Web servers – everyone agreed there – and maybe genetics and TGVs – much more controversial, of course. And what on earth were conservatives – members of a party that believed in the scepticism of Burke and the libertarianism of Hayek…it says here – doing talking about progress and plans that were bigger than those of Julius Caesar?

Now, of course, with the grandeur stripped out and the brakes applied, no-one really cares. And it is no surprise, really, that a book like On Roads should appear at this moment; it’s about time for motorways to become part of the palaeo-future. The notion of ironic hipster A40(M) widening, however, makes me feel like I’ve got used to too many things.

on my radio

OK, so there’s the magic army vehicle project that spent more on powerpoint presentations than Drayson managed to spend buying several hundred actual vehicles. FRES, as it is known, started off as the British half of a US project that ended up being the Future Combat System, a pharaonic lashup of vehicles, radios, computers, and individual equipment that was meant to “network enable” everything.

The US end has now been cancelled, which will have nontrivial consequences for the various BAE-owned companies involved, who were probably hoping to use the work there for our job. This would be a great moment to rethink; after all, why would you try to design a large motor vehicle from the radio outwards? The whole point about “network enablement” everywhere else it has been tried is that it doesn’t matter what you attach the mobile phones/PCs/RFID chips/whatever to, so you have great technical flexibility.

admin: opentech

It’s that time again: OpenTech is next Saturday. I’m not presenting anything, which will leave me more time to argue about random things in the ULU bar. But I’m especially keen to do this with readers, and anyone who’s interested in the political uses of Asterisk, starting out with Ardour, which I’ve just installed, and all kinds of weird things.

Brilliant post from Dan Lockton on the design problems of making smart meters usable and useful.

In a sense, it relates to this post at the RSA’s Social Brain about “the dark side of “nudge””; of course, the downside of all these neat ideas about adjusting people’s decision processes into ones that are more rational, or at least less harmful, isn’t a sinisterly hyperefficient world where all troublesome individuality has been, blah, blah, but instead a world of undermaintained, malfunctioning good intentions.

In science-fiction terms, rather than a space-opera dystopia, it’s a New Wave one we’ve got to watch; all greasy handrails, important safety devices rigged to stop them making a noise, and infinite reserves of bitterness and resentment. From Dan’s scenario-planning:

The display is still there on the fridge door, but when the batteries powering the display run out, and it goes blank, no-one notices.

Quite; like the indefinitely deferred maintenance that tends to kill modern buildings. In fact, what that snippet reminded me of was democracy.


Arbor Networks has a great post with data on Iranian Internet censorship. As well as the deliberate transit shortage, they seem to be targeting specific protocols, notably SSH, the secure shell protocol one uses to administer servers and also quite often to provide a VPN tunnel. This isn’t surprising, really, but it is depressing; practically any shell account and any machine, including my mobile phone, will let you set up an SSH tunnel, and it is strongly encrypted, so it’s one of the most reliable and easiest ways to beat the censor.

Arbor’s analysis suggests that the point is to limit traffic to levels that their existing censorship infrastructure can handle; interestingly, e-mail, and bogstandard Web traffic on port 80, seem unaffected, which suggests they already had the big squid proxy etc. in place. There is, of course, nothing to stop you configuring your server to do SSH on port 80, but it might be a little obvious. An alternative would be to use something like OpenVPN, which uses the same HTTPS protocol and port that all the e-commerce and corporate e-mail things do.

Fascinatingly, levels of gaming application traffic are unaffected, and Arbor wonder if it would be possible to use this for clandestine communications. (Perhaps the government wants people playing computer games?) This is, of course, a major plot point from Charlie Stross’s Halting State, although the exploit is rather more sophisticated there – rather than just meeting up for a chat in-game, they are mapping their data to the game’s commands and reversing the process at the other end.

Depressingly, according to Renesys, many of the open proxy servers that have been set up for the use of Iranian dissidents are being heavily abused by Chinese spammers. This is a hard problem; any tunnelling system intended to defeat the censor must be open to anyone, it’s insanely risky to keep any logs of who accesses it, so it seems inevitable that the vermin will get in.

Lynne Featherstone MP: for workers’ representation, against managerialism, for Iraqi employees. WIN.

More seriously, I’m increasingly convinced by the argument that the fundamental driver of the economic crisis is the falling labour share of national income. This was J.K. Galbraith’s take on the Great Depression; despite the roaring 20s, wages had been flat for years.

Living standards for the great majority could only rise in so far as technological change and competition could hold down inflation; beyond that, there was quite simply a limit to how much the rich could actually spend, and as they got richer, more and more of national income was being taken out of circulation and eventually used in the stock market, either directly or as part of the “great river of gold that converged on Wall Street, all of it to help Americans hold common stock on margin”, where it was eventually destroyed by the crash.

I’m still strongly in favour of the agenda in this post.

OK, so I got no takers for this prediction.

My money’s on the Latvian or the Hungarian to out himself as a buffoon or neo-nazi.

Not surprising, really. But what I didn’t expect was that even though the Latvian turned out to be the neo-nazi, the buffoon would turn out to be Timothy Kirkhope MEP, the Tory leader in the European Parliament, who I had always assumed to be an uninspiring but roughly acceptable placeman. But it looks like the Borat Party’s Borat is actually its leader. However:

He and the Latvian LNNK denied that it was in any way sympathetic to Nazism. “There was a commemoration of those who had served in the Waffen divisions of the Wehrmacht in the Second World War. The Labour Party has been churning this thing out over and over again,” Mr Kirkhope said.

“The truth of the matter is that attendance of the commemoration service for those who have died in wars is not just by members of LNNK — it is by others attached to the EPP because the Baltic states were taken over and oppressed by the Russians and the situation was that the Germans conscripted a number of people to join the Waffen.”

“The Waffen divisions of the Wehrmacht”? What the fuck is that even supposed to mean? For a start, “Waffen” means “weapon or “armed”. Did the German army of the Second World War have any unarmed ones? Of course, it’s completely nonsensical as a unit designation. Kirkhope was presumably trying to skate around the phrase “Waffen-SS”, which refers to the SS’s field units as opposed to its “general purpose” administrative staff.

But even if we straighten out his mangled words, his argument is still ignorant and morally awful, as it rests on the long-discredited idea that all the atrocities of the Eastern Front were the work of the SS, and the regular German army obeyed the laws of war. Further, even if that wasn’t wrong, he would still be hopelessly ahistorical, because the various locally recruited units the Germans set up starting in 1942 were administratively attached to the Waffen SS, not the Army. The Army did recruit a lot of foreigners as individual replacements, but it didn’t create a foreign legion; the SS did.

And worst of all, the earliest Latvian SS were recruited from a vicious militia which emerged as the Russians pulled out in the early summer of 1941 and immediately started murdering the local Jewish population without even waiting for the Germans to show up. The degree of horror they achieved regularly sickened hardened soldiers and deeply impressed the SS Einsatzkommandos that followed the army; they lost no time in signing them up and using them all over Central and Eastern Europe to do the dirty work, including acting as the guard force at the extermination camps.

As if you needed any confirmation of this, the Times report has a useful photo of a Latvian remembrance day parade, complete with red-and-white flag, swastika, and Adolf Hitler’s likeness. A note for the guidance of readers, and Timothy Kirkhope MEP: if you need to know if your allies might be fascists, check if they like to wave flags with Hitler’s face on them. This is not an exclusive test, but the false-positive rate is essentially zero.

(Oh, and if anyone’s still interested in the bet, I’m taking the Belgian guy or at least his party to place.)

What is the legacy of the so-called “loony left”? The conventional wisdom is clear; it was all their fault, for panicking the swing voters and preventing a sensible, Newish Labour solution emerging earlier. Well, how did that work out?

And it has always seemed disingenuous for the Labour Party establishment to blame local councillors for a period when the party’s central institutions were regularly totally out of contact with the public mood and spectacularly incompetent; it certainly serves the interests of the top officials and MPs to push responsibility onto an amorphous and vague stereotype essentially based on hostile newspapers’ take on the 1980s. Arguably, believing hostile newspapers’ take on itself has been the fundamental mistake of the Left since about 1987; the entire Decent Left phenomenon, after all, was all about demonising anyone who was right about Iraq in identical terms. Does anyone imagine that the Sun in the Kelvin McFuck era wouldn’t have savaged and libelled any non-Tory power holders?

In a comment at Dunc’s, Paul “Bickerstaffe Record” says:

I want to kick off a bottom up meets top down economic analysis of how Labour /Left leaning local authorities should now be challenging the Thatcherite orthodoxies of cost control/rate capping in a sort of ‘1980s no cuts militant’ meets 2000s grassroots-dictated economic policy. The institutional/legal framework has of course changed out of recognition since 1984, but heh, that’s a challenge rather than an insurmountable problem

He has a point. Consider the position; it’s still conceivable that Labour might luck into a hung parliament next year, cue Liberal and Nationalist (of various types) rejoicing, but any realistic planning has to include a high probability of a fairly rabid Tory government in the near future. Further, the financial position is not great – it’s nowhere near as bad as Gideon Osborne makes out, as a look at the gilt rates shows, but it’s very far from ideal.

So whoever is in charge will be looking for cuts, and it is a reliable principle of Whitehall politics that one of the best ways to get a policy implemented that you want for your own ideological aims is to attach it to a supposed saving. Only the special relationship and the police-media complex can beat this principle as all-purpose justifiers.

The possibility space includes a Labour government in coalition or under a toleration agreement with the Liberals, which is likely to still be strongly influenced by the Blairite stay-behind agents, a Conservative government heavily influenced by products of 80s Tory culture (the mirror image of the London Labour party in the same period), and some sort of grand-coalition slugthing. It is clear that the balance of risks is towards an effort to legitimise a lot of ugly hard-right baggage through an appeal to cuts.

The Tories are planning to make all spending departments justify their budgets at line item level to none other than William “Annington Homes” Hague; it’s certainly a first in British history that the Foreign Secretary will control the public spending settlement, if of course he finds the time to show up.

Therefore, even though there is a need to steer the public finances back towards balance once the recession is clearly looking over, there is a strategic imperative to push back and push back hard against the agendas the cross-party Right will try to smuggle through. After all, the nonsense industry is already cranking up.

Which brings me back to the importance of being loonies, and a bit of politics by walking around. One thing that strikes me about North London is how much stuff in the way of public services here was visibly built in the late 70s and the 1980s; there is a reason why Ken Livingstone hopped right back into the Mayor’s office. Despite all their best efforts, the Thatcherites were never quite able to shake the core welfare state; was it, in part, because down on the front line people were still pushing out its frontiers and changing its quality?

A lot of ideas (service-user activism, notably, environmentalism, a renewed concern for architecture and urbanism, and the whole identity-politics package) that were considered highly loony back then are now entirely orthodox and are likely to stay that way, especially given the main parties’ obsession with putting taxpayer funds into the “third sector”.

I fully expect that anyone who talks a good game about making black schoolboys click their heels in front of teacher – you know the stuff they like – will be able to secure reliable venture capital funding in the million class from a Cameron government, just as they have been able to from Boris Johnson’s City Hall, with remarkably little monitoring. William Hague will be snarky. Let him. Nobody cares what the Foreign Secretary has to say.

This creates both opportunities for action – perhaps someone should prepare a Creative Commons or GPL toolkit for citizen-initiated delivery quangos and thinktanks – and also targets for ruthless mockery, when the Tories’ preferred third sector entities fuck up. We’ve already had some very fine examples of this courtesy of Boris Johnson. Clearly, the only rational response to the times is to go mad.