Archive for August, 2009

I am who I am!

Simon Jenkins is opposed to forecasts in general. He thinks they are surrounded by too many caveats:

We hear much talk about those who study English needing to be taught science. In my view, it is those who study science who need to be taught English. What is the point of public predictions so smothered in caveats and qualifiers as to be drained of significance? The same scientists who lecture ministers on the exactitude of their calling – on the purity of “the science” – use qualifiers that any English student could see render nouns worthless.

Fish excuses his colleagues with weakening words such as chance, might, could, possibly, probably and even pot luck. Yet he is supposed to tell us what is going to happen

He also thinks there are too few caveats:

The office now claims that it is “66% certain” that next winter will be warmer and wetter than last. The figure is an ominously precise advance on the 65% certainty of a warm summer. The information is useless without knowing the likelihood of the “66%” being correct.

He thinks the weather forecasters always say it will be sunny when in fact it rains:

This is from the same people who said that both 2007 and 2008 would be “warmer than average”, when they were cooler and wetter.

He also thinks the weather forecasters always say it will be rainy when it is sunny:

There is rarely a weekend forecast that does not stress rain (or that curious synonym, showers) at the expense of sun, even if the rain falls, if at all, for a mere hour a day. Nor do forecasts favour coastal microclimates, which are mostly sunnier than inland and are where most holidaymakers go.

A pub in my Welsh coastal village used to print out the BBC weather forecast each Friday – invariably “rain in Wales” – and put it on a board so visitors could hurl darts at it. The Scottish village of Carrbridge once threatened to sue the Met Office for a continually inaccurate forecast of rain that was ruining its tourist industry.

Strangely, the two cheapjack silly season tabguff anecdotes above are the only factual evidence produced in the whole piece. You might think a slightly more, ah, numerate and forensic approach, cold accountancy as Corelli Barnett liked to say, would be appropriate for such a statistical matter as relative forecasting skill. One explanation is that his nibs didn’t touch this bit of work – does it taste of unpaid intern, perhaps? The Lord’s Test and Goodwood are behind us.

But Jenkins, Lord of the Manor by purchase, seems to take the worst version of any calculation the IMF or the Conservative Party comes up with as gospel writ. When it agrees with him. Curious, that. And he likes to impute treasonable motives; not as hard as the Craven Heffer, but it’s there.

Yet whenever criticised, the Met Office pleads for more staff, more research and a bigger computer….The purveyors of British weather forecasts are relentlessly upbeat in the long term and gloomy in the short, in other words they are probably political

This is kinda noticeable, no? He thinks voices on the TV weather forecast are plotting against the Conservative Party. If you live in the Elthorne Estate, London, N19, or close equivalent, this gets you a prescription likely to make you gain 60 pounds of weight and give up independent life forever. Jenkins, though, not so much.

He also imagines that the Met Office is a serious problem in terms of the public finances. Now this is where it gets serious. There is only one bit of that institution that has been investing urgently in high performance computing; the Hadley Centre for Climate Research, proud owners of one of the most powerful computers in the world.

Jenkins is working his way towards coming out as a climate change denier; he’s not on the dancefloor yet, but you might spot him looking shy at the Carbon Bar when his wife’s out of town. He’s hanging out with the landed knobber set that make up the denier group in the Tories. Mark my words.

A really good fisk is almost like a remix; you should be thankful for the original chunk of hackwork for giving us the chance to do something interesting. Hence Matt Carr, who dons the positive-pressure mask and takes the scalpel, chops up Christopher Caldwell’s book, and demonstrates the throbbing worm guts to the eager students in the audience, before dropping the lot in liquid nitrogen for the permanent record.

Caldwell, of course, is the man who thought that Robert Kilroy-Silk was going to rule Europe, and who got the New York Times Magazine to publish a six-page hagiography of the silly fool. I tackled it at the time; he drooled over RKS’s desres mellow-crunchin’ country mansion whilst ranting at “the old country-house condescension”, among much else that was ridiculous. He could have said less about the tan and the ice blue eyes…

Now he’s written a whole book called Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, whose content seems to be much the same as Mark Steyn’s America Alone. He’s been described as “knowing his way around the banlieue”, having written some berserkly alarmist pieces back in the winter of 2005. Perhaps he talked to a cab driver…a cab driver who voted FN.

But enough. It’s not that surprising that he’s still a hard-right libertarian/Republican, after all that’s happened – it’s not an ideological position, it’s an identity. It’s slightly more interesting that the tactical disasters that have happened didn’t affect him in the least – in 2005, he went looking for a catastrophic mob crisis in Europe, and he was damn well going to find one. He’d already got the title, and probably the advance. And so, despite the failure of all his predictions, here we are with his Revolution.

What keeps him in business, then? My explanation is that he plays an important role among right-wing intellectuals in the US. Specifically, people who don’t want to read Mark Steyn or Michelle Malkin read him. Indeed, they read him in order to know, themselves, that they don’t read Mark Steyn. They are Caldwell-people, who imagine themselves in the columns of the Financial Times, not the willingly ignorant teabaggers. If they do read Mark Steyn, they only read him to know what the masses think. They say. W. H. Auden’s crack that we say Masses when we mean ourselves in our weaker moments is very much to the point.

To be brief, Christopher Caldwell is an example of a group of writers who cater to people who believe of other conservatives the things conservatives believe of the rest of humanity.

tory of the week

OK, here’s Tim Loughton, Tory MP for Worthing, who’s utterly dedicated to fighting the surveillance state. He says so:

Using pupils’ fingerprints in schools has been criticised by many MPs, including Sussex Conservatives Nick Gibb and Tim Loughton, who fear sensitive information about children could fall into the wrong hands.

Mr Loughton, MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, has said it is another step towards a surveillance society.

And again:

The Conservatives’ children’s spokesman, Tim Loughton, challenged the value of such a database [ContactPoint].

“Which do you think is more likely to protect vulnerable children – investing in more permanent and appropriately trained social workers and reducing their caseload or instead throwing money at another expensive data disaster waiting to happen?”

He’s even against identity cards.

However, he’s pretty strong on Internet censorship:

That this House expresses its deep concern at the availability of child pornography on the internet; congratulates the Romford-based internet service provider, Real Data Services, for blocking users from being able to access websites containing child pornography; and further calls upon other internet providers to follow suit, in order to track down the perpetrators of this obscene crime against children.

And he’s all in favour of Radio Maryja, which ought to get him on the same page as Michal Kaminski – here he is on religious broadcasting.

And, of course, he’s £30,000 a year in favour of installing CCTV in classrooms, with a little help from some dodgy number-style products.

Harrop Fold, a comprehensive in Salford, is another school that has installed cameras and microphones in its classrooms, but just to monitor teachers, the school says.

In the last four years, since executive headteacher Antony Edkins took the helm, the percentage of pupils achieving five GCSEs with grades of A*-C has grown from 18% to 52%. The cameras have made a “very significant” contribution to the rise, Edkins says.

Is that significant with 95 or 99% confidence?

Of course, what’s genuinely telling here is the name of his company; Classwatch. I’m interested to know if any of you have a view on what the difference between the two worlds in his head is; I reckon he thinks that CCTV is OK because it’s directed at the mob, or at kids in state schools, who clearly deserve it.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his junket to Syria, where I think they know a thing or three about mass surveillance. There’s contemporary authoritarianisms for you.

[Shall I make Tory of the Week a regular feature? Thrashing the corpse of Labour is so 2005, and, y’know, pre-emptive activism and all that]

If it’s possible to get Americans to start a string of minor riots in order not to have at least $80bn worth of national healthcare, surely it must be possible to start a good row about whatever it is the Conservatives have in store for us? We stand to lose at least that and more. I ask in the light of this post at Bickerstaffe Record, which suggests, not stupidly, that making an Aunt Sally of the credit rating agencies might be a good idea for a demo.

After all, it’s very true that they played a key role in the great crash, and before that in the post-dotcom Enron/telecoms fraudfest. As Eavis & McLean point out in The Smartest Guys in the Room, the rating agencies were in the best possible position to work out just how much debt Enron had hidden down rabbit holes and in other people’s wheely bins – because every time Enron pulled another fancy dan financing, they had the ratings agencies rate the bonds that came out of it.

We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.

And, strategically, this is always going to be a problem, because unlike all other forms of credit risk assessment, the agencies make their money from the party issuing the debt, so it’s always in their interest to be optimistic. (Similarities with this little beauty of a deal are entirely appropriate.) When they are dealing with private clients, that is; if it’s Argentina or Britain involved, they just go ahead and shoot. John Quiggin has an excellent post on their failure and their role in pushing PFI in Australia.

But I have my doubts that any such action will change their opinion; in fact, it wouldn’t be the aim of such an action. The point would be rather to render their opinion less relevant and alter the conditions under which it is formed. However, I have just ordered the domain name, and I welcome suggestions for what we might do with it.

More broadly, what worries me is that the Tories will pull some horror out of their back pocket in the financial year 2010-2011, and by the time it’s passing through the House, we’ll just have started getting angry. This is one of the historical lessons of On Roads; if you really want to stop something, you need to start earlier than you think.

This is why, by the way, projects like FreeOurBills are important. If there’s no point protesting about a road project after it gets into the national programme, the answer is to shorten the feedback loop and react quicker. This is much more interesting and important – real citizen technology – than Twittering for Iran, DDOSing low value Russian Web sites, or any of the other manifestations of the fake version.

So this is one of the few good features of open primaries I can think of; they provide an opportunity to put together an organisation early in the game, which is roughly how Obama dunnit. In a parliamentary system, though, this is much less important.

Shouldn’t we be getting our lists together now, rather than waiting for the Tories? I agree that this implies giving up on the elections, but then, who wouldn’t, and who doesn’t suspect that a surviving Labour government wouldn’t be just as bad?

…from the sea

What’s wrong with PROFIT?! Death to all Marxists! Hey, I usually try to remain calm, but this is getting unnerving. Everyone with any sense knew there would be an epic wingnut freakout after the US elections – the structural forces made it inevitable, after all the time spent denying plate tectonics – but who imagined that the tactical triggering event would be the healthcare bill? I was thinking in terms of carbon tax, or something that could be presented as a racist issue – immigration, perhaps.

But there you have it; you really can turn these people on and off like a tap and turn them on anything, like a hose. If there’s one remark I never want to hear again after the last few years, it’s the one about “if you don’t believe in God, you’ll believe in anything”.

Meanwhile, things like this happen:

“We are working taxpaying jobs, paying taxes, and we can’t get insurance because we make $6.55 an hour,” said Laura Head, 32, of Rogersville, Tenn., the first person in line Friday for the first day of the Remote Area Medical clinic, an annual three-day event offering free medical care. “This is really a great beneficial thing, but it doesn’t have to be this way; we could all have insurance.”

A single mother of three who mows yards and moves trailers for a living, Head said she arrived at the fairgrounds Tuesday, to camp out at the fairgrounds until the health fair began Friday morning. Her motivation was simple: severe, constant pain.

Close to two years ago, her boyfriend smashed her teeth, she said – but, without the $6,000 needed to have the teeth pulled she has endured infection after infection, making literally 100 visits to the emergency room for antibiotics and pain medication.

Back in February, 2008, I blogged about the French Navy dropping off a load of school books for New Orleans during a port call. I’m beginning to think that someone should write the story about one of their new Mistral-lclass Batiments de Projection et Commandement doing a free clinic on the tank deck, like the US Marines do from their LHAs in West Africa, as part of a semi-acknowledged drive for political influence in a zone of potential pre-insurgency and instability.

Or would the redcoats be more shocking? Albion would be the obvious ship, just for the name.


Danny Rampling:

Since I’ve become a property developer my life has changed for the better

I suppose this was always on the cards. Kasimir Malevich:

We are in a desert …. Before us is nothing but a black square on a white background!

he wasn't kidding, you know

Meanwhile, look who’s got a new album out; others agree. Northern Stomp is officially twice as interesting as anything else you might find to listen to this year; I agree with Stylus that their main problem back in the late 90s was that they were a preview of the future, with a less…hideously white, as Greg Dyke would have put it, record collection behind them.

Also, if the title song is anything to go by, they’re swinging back towards the northern anger of the first album; I’m currently seeking legal advice as to whether destroying Brighton would be necessary and proportionate in order to get at the Indelicates.

false positives

I got around to updating the Viktorfeed whitelist, and whilst I was at it, doing a clean-up of the database to remove all the known false positives by deleting all the movements that came from an airline that was on the list. Interestingly, this gave me an opportunity to calculate the false positive rate – as it turned out, about 7% of the entries in the DB were false positives, in other words, an accuracy over about a year of 93%. Which I don’t think is at all bad for a system based on adding airlines to the whitelist as they appeared in the feed, but then again, this only covers the first phase of filtering and doesn’t include a lot of once-off movements.

left behind

I was hoping we wouldn’t be seeing any more of these., on a high latency satellite link, searching UAE Google for IraqLEStaffScheme. My original post on the official instructions for UK employees in Iraq is here. This is why I was keen to re-raise the issue before the final withdrawal, which is now looking more and more final.

Meanwhile, I still haven’t heard from my new MP, marquee name Campaign Grouper Jeremy Corbyn….even Greasy Phil Hammond was better.


The remaining British training team in southern Iraq has been moved to Kuwait to await negotiations on their future status. A suggestion: couldn’t they perhaps wait in…Britain?

Over at CT, a link to two polls – here and here. The killer finding is that the same sort of percentage of the US population, and the same sort of people, deny that Barack Obama is a US citizen *and* that the American and African continents were once part of the same landmass.

Specifically, an actual majority – well, a plurality – of Republicans disagree with plate tectonics. The crossbreaks are hilarious; the only groups of which this was true were Republicans and Southerners, but the most likely groups to get it right were blacks, Latinos, and Democrats, in that order, so those were almost certainly the same individuals.

So far, another stupid Americans story. But the differences between the groups can be summarised as follows:

  1. Less Republican groups had a small but real advantage in the percentage who voted yes.
  2. More Republican groups had a considerable lead in the percentage who voted no.
  3. More Republican groups had many fewer Don’t Knows.

I think the most important statement is number three. The Democratic- and fact-leaning groups, although they had significant numbers of people who got it wrong, were much more likely to say they weren’t sure than to choose No. Being unsure of the answer, they expressed doubt.

Republican-leaning groups weren’t just more likely not to know, but more likely to plump for an answer anyway. Fools, you could say, rushed in.

Now, I really don’t believe quite that many of them are ignorant of basic geology – I rather suspect that the question tripped a number of trigger words (Africa!) before getting to that point. Everyone thinks like that a lot of the time.

This is, of course, how operationalised post-modernism works – what matters is the theatre of action, jumping and yelling and trying to dominate the mental space, and all that determines which way you’re pointing is a small set of identity-defining talking points. Did you know Senator X is weak on fufferum? Did you know that?? But why aren’t you talking about his position on elefurt? That’s what I want to know! The base have probably internalised this to a considerable degree.

That does raise the possibility of getting things done by tailoring your message to fire their immune receptors. The classic example is adding the word “security” to whatever proposal you have. Similarly, the Decent Left project was based on giving a whole lot of ugly right-wing ideas the right biological markers to stimulate a certain kind of leftie.