Archive for July, 2009

hitler hitler hitler

Here’s Henry from Crooked Timber not getting it. Here’s Randy McDonald not getting it. Look, the fact that neo-con wankers deal in baseless smears and mindlessly repeated talking points should neither be cause for surprise, nor should you hope to convince them of anything.

I occasionally make the point that after the Left invented post-modernism, the Right operationalised it and rolled it out as a coherent political-media-aesthetic package. If your politics depends on disagreeing with objective reality, and persuading people to vote against their interests, there is a huge opportunity in the realisation that it’s possible to have multiple competing truths. Setting the limits of debate, and controlling the language in which it is carried out, is a valid and proven strategy for power.

Since then, among other things, we’ve discovered that in fact it is probably impossible to genuinely ignore anything; cognitive neuroscience has demonstrated that our judgements are measurably influenced by information that we know is completely wrong. Further, the mere availability of information increases its force; repetition works. Repetition works. The availability heuristic means that repetition works. Guess why – HITLER! – they keep talking – HITLER! HITLER! – about Hitler – HITLER! – on the most unlikely – HITLER! HITLER! HITLER! – topics.

The upshot is clear and bears repeating; the purpose of a system is what it does, and what this one does is to pollute the information environment with drivel so as to influence your judgement. Of course they are lying, and of course they are talking nonsense. It’s what they do; they managed to invade Iraq like that, perhaps the most successful exercise in political manipulation in recent history.

They’re endlessly repeating mindless crap because it’s what they do. The answers are probably to do the same back to them, but more importantly, to secede from the information systems they dominate; this is arguably what happened in 2008.


According to Will Page of the MCRS-PRS, the music industry is more than making back the money it’s losing from recording on live performance. That wasn’t in the Digital Britain Report, now was it? We’re doing our best. Meanwhile, MailWatch makes me think there’s probably space for a blog devoted to reviewing films it’s not seen, books it hasn’t read, bands it’s never heard, gigs it didn’t go to. This one is roughly the same, but with politics, so why not? Still, there’s more to life than snark, so I’ll do a review of one I did go to.

A good gig for a Monday night at the Festival Hall. Oddly enough that is the only review I’ve seen anywhere; they are entirely right about Marianne’s punctuality – no Austrian schlamperei there – and the dodgy sound early on. I could lean back, and hear the vocal, or lean forward, and hear the band, but not both. Fluid dynamics is a bit difficult, they say. Anyway, they fixed it, and perhaps it was a handy moment to have the backline slightly out of kilter while getting warmed up.

With a killer session band, faceless and expert like Australian rugby league players, the influence of all that late 70s new wave/postpunk/punkfunk stuff on every band going since about 2002 was only pointed out; it’s probably time for a Broken English revival. They absolutely nailed that one, thrown out early doors in a confident old trick, before moving on to cover a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club song. See what I mean? BRMC certainly come under “memories of the Bush Administration”, and it integrated with the rest of the set near perfectly. The band gave a dark, jazzy/punky edge to everything from Randy Newman to Why’d You Do It.

A good gig for cynics, then. Perhaps that was why there were so many men in the crowd who looked remarkably like Peter Mandelson, First Secretary and Chairman of the Expediency Council? I imagined some nightmare new subculture; Mandies. Just the right lapels and red silk ties, a sort of hyper-Mod flamboyant restraint, perhaps a taste for baile funk? You can probably bet they’re out there; Rule 34 applies. I’d get an Urban Dictionary or Wikipedia definition up quicksmart, but I’m scared that someone else already has. At least the Mandies probably weren’t the ones who kept howling after each song until they got what they wanted, which was to be ordered to “calm down” in suitably Hampstead & Heath Society tones.

The rest of us got away with being pressed into service as a mirror to fix her lipstick; no-one yelled “Up a bit!” but then, it was the first time we’d been a mirror and we’d probably be more fun next time. She’d already remarked that “it’s wonderful how this song has come with us all these years…every time I sing it, there’s another war on”, which set the tone for the rest of the show – dry as a cat’s tongue, like her voice.

Later in the week, Wynton Marsalis played the Barbican; technically fascinating, but I couldn’t help feeling that he talked a very good game about how nothing that didn’t swing could be described as jazz. Whatever could be said for this lot, they swung like an Excel workbook; and the place is perhaps the only situation in the world where paying £4.50 for a pint of beer is a valid economic decision, chiefly because they charge £3.50 for a half. Yes, I’m unfair, but I didn’t have any emotional response to them at all – it really was like reading very good code. You can see the intelligence, self discipline, and cultural depth, but there’s a gut ghost required which I just don’t get. Yet.

next slide, please

We spoke of fake and real online participation. These things also exist in other branches of IT. Thomas X. Hammes writes about PowerPoint presentations:

Rather than the intellectually demanding work of condensing a complex issue to two pages of clear text, the staff instead works to create 20 to 60 slides. Time is wasted on which pictures to put on the slides, how to build complex illustrations and what bullets should be included. I have even heard conversations about what font to use and what colors. Most damaging is the reduction of complex issues to bullet points. Obviously, bullets are not the same as complete sentences, which require developing coherent thoughts. Instead of forcing officers to learn the art of summarizing complex issues into coherent arguments, staff work now places a premium on slide building. Slide-ology has become an art in itself, while thinking is often relegated to producing bullets.

The next version probably will have an option to “Insert Brilliant Idea”; but any competent programmer would make sure it instead inserted an idea mediocre enough not to detract from the charts.

I especially like the quad chart, which was new to me; the military are ahead of the world of business on this one. What’s a quad chart? It’s a PowerPoint slide which consists of four other PowerPoint slides scaled down to fit.


This is depressing; they couldn’t find enough volunteers to count the votes in the Norwich North by-election on the night. What’s especially worrying is that it’s one of those assumptions that you never think about – a sort of minimum of commitment to the special importance of voting. And it’s being eroded, just as the police are gradually making their uniforms more militaristic, having been originally designed to be specifically civilian.

Meanwhile, people like James Purnell get Ernst & Young in to make people change GP more often.


Someone’s been doing a good series on the recent loss of a Mi-26 helicopter near the British base in Sangin, a civilian machine chartered in to carry supplies around Helmand. The aircraft was ER-MCV, and it apparently belonged to Pecotox Air, an old and fairly dodgy charter operator from Moldova; however, it was apparently wearing Artic Group titles. That’s Artic as in the possible owner of some of Jet Line International’s planes. Apparently SkyLink Aviation is involved as well.

It’s also probably significant that it was shot down with a “grenade launcher”, i.e. an RPG, which suggests that the enemy were very close to whereever it was departing from, and that it wouldn’t have helped much had they had a full defensive-aids suite.

making an arrest

Remember those Tuareg uranium guerrillas? Back in the summer of 2007, just before the crash, they were busy raiding Chinese prospectors and intriguing with both the French and the Nigerien government. And blogging, ISTR, on their Thuraya satphones.

Now look what’s happened: they’ve been recruited by the Algerians to fight Al-Qa’ida, or more specificially the GSPC, the local affiliate. Few things can be as valuable these days as a good Al-Qa’ida affiliate; I can almost imagine a Mouse that Roared scenario, where some bunch of accidental guerrillas decide to set up as Al-Q so they can make the government an offer to crush them. Almost as good as having communists used to be.

Meanwhile, has anyone else noticed that the West Yorkshire Police has become an actor in Somali politics?

A judge allowed publication for the first time of a deal which saw the Foreign and Home Offices pay the African state, which has no diplomatic ties with London, to seize 29-year-old Mustaf Jama in the desert two years ago, close to his warlord father’s headquarters.

The ambush of Jama’s Land Rover by 15 militiamen nearly failed when a pilot, hired to fly the captured gangster to Dubai, tried to back out, thinking that he was caught up in an anti al-Qaida operation which could bring reprisals.

You could say that again. And Dubai, of course, always Dubai; it’s the opposite of the Somali badlands, a chaotic warzone with too much marble flooring.

In other news, has anyone else noticed that the word “Hezbollah” in Iran essentially translates as “wingnuts”?

der mensch maschine

Has anyone else noticed that SpinVox achieved the Turing Test in reverse? Rather than constructing a machine capable of conversing in a manner indistinguishable from a human being, they constructed a company to make human beings appear to be a machine. The shock some people claimed to feel at discovering that SpinVox is people! is probably the most interesting thing in this story.

Wired reviews a book on the media of the Middle East, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday. Well, even pirates have press spokesmen these days. It sounds like it could be interesting, but it strikes me that this piece by Tom Griffin about trolls sponsored by various Middle Eastern actors is its critical, rebellious twin.

The GLORIA Center at IDC gathered about thirty Israeli bloggers and members of Israel’s foreign and defense ministries for an informal gathering to evaluate the blogging effort during the Gaza war, new techniques and future challenges. Topics discussed included lessons of the Gaza battle for blogalogical warfare, live-blogging, new technologies and interactions with government. Bloggers delivered short presentations on their personal experiences and discussed future plans for cooperation….

Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall? It practically glows with a radioactive mixture of trollishness, self-righteousness, and raging, thinktank/intern ambition. A weaponised version of MessageSpace. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll read up on freeze-distilling your own hydrogen peroxide to escape all this hideousness!

As always, if you want a practical policy recommendation, make tools. A little investment in annoying javascript thingies pays off hugely by improving the productivity of your trolls; and it doesn’t have to be technically very interesting.

In Italy, meanwhile, they’ve got a truly impressive legislation tracker going.

It allows one to follow an act in its path across the two perfectly symmetrical chambers (La Camera and Il Senato), from its presentation as a proposal, to its final approval.

It tracks all the votations, highlighting rebel voters. It tracks who presented an act, and wether as a first-signer or a co-signer. It also tracks speeches of officials on given acts.

Access to textual documents related to an act is easy and documents can be emended by users online, using an innovative shared comments system (eMend), that allows discussions on a particular act to take place.

Users can describe the acts, using their own words, in a wiki subsystem, acts are ratable and commentable, too.

All acts are tagged with consistent arguments by an editorial board, and that allows to know what’s going on and who’s doing what in relation to a subject.

An event-handling subsystem allows the generation of news. Whenever an act is presented, it moves towards approval or refusal, a votation takes place, someone gives a speech or anything worth noticing happens, news are generated. A dedicated web page and a customized daily e-mail, containing just the news related to those acts, politicians or arguments monitored by the user, allows him/her to follow almost in real time what’s going on.

Pretty cool; better than anything we’ve got. And, I think, that’s much more a piece of real citizen technology than any of the TwitBook propaganda apps, which are all about creating a sense of participation; possibly, they actually exist in order to provide that sense as a substitute for real participation, in order to prevent it.

If that’s not hardcore enough for you, the Make blog has a HOWTO on listening to satellites.

Further, after the last post, BT futurologist says we’re living in science fiction. And what particular works does she mention? Blade Runner, Judge Dredd and Solyent Green.


In the world of Halting State, meanwhile, the Germans have had a wee probby with their electronic health cards. Partly it’s due to a reasonably sensible design; they decided to store information on the card, rather than on a remote system, and to protect it using a public-key infrastructure.

Data on the cards would have been both encrypted for privacy, and signed for integrity, using keys that were themselves signed by the issuing authority, whose keysigning key would be signed by the ministry’s root certification authority, operated by the equivalent of HM Stationery Office.

Not just any PKI, either; it would have been the biggest PKI in the world. Unfortunately, a hardware security module failed – with the keysigning key for the root CA on it, and there are NO BACKUPS. This means that all the existing cards will have to be withdrawn as soon as any new ones are issued, because they will need to create a new root KSK, and therefore all existing cards will fail validation against the new ones.

It’s certainly an EPIC FAIL, and alert readers will notice that it’s a sizeable chunk of the plot of Charlie’s novel. But it’s a considerably less epic fail than it might have been; if the system had been a British-style massive central database, and the root CA had been lost or compromised, well…as it is, no security violation or data loss has occurred and the system can be progressively restored, trapping and issuing new cards.

In that sense, it’s actually reasonably good government IT; at least it failed politely.