Archive for September, 2009

WhoseKidAreYou: Day Two

OK, we’re getting somewhere with WhoseKidAreYou. 865 hits off Hacker News. Thanks to comments, it looks like DBpedia already has a ton of data we can use – their data class Person includes a subclass Relatives, and their API uses SPARQL, so a lot of WKAY might just be a frontend to that, probably with a caching element. I envisage caching the most-trafficked classes, and routing everything else to a view that does a lookup against DBpedia dynamically.

This is probably quite an important point about “crowdsourcing” – as the crowd is made up of volunteers, you really, really, can’t ask them to double-handle anything, so it’s vital to reuse everything.

We’ll also need to deal with the case where the Wikipedia record doesn’t have any relatives, or when it doesn’t exist at all; I’d like to return an embedded editor and get our users to fill in the gaps. We could perhaps pass the result to another user to peer-review before submitting. The client-side/browser stuff needs to wait until the core system is ready.

Various people have asked how they can help – the short way is to join the group. Send me word at my e-mail address or in the comments and I’ll send you an invite.


Petrov weekend blogging

It’s Petrov weekend.

Apparently by chance, Wired has a story about the Soviet Union’s Perimetr command-and-control system, which it gives a completely misleading headline to.

As the story itself makes clear, the last thing Perimetr was designed to do was to act as the Doomsday Machine from Dr. Strangelove; in fact, it was designed to ensure that the Soviet ICBM fleet would only be launched by an explicit decision to do so, and that this decision would only be delegated to lower levels of command if communications with the STAVKA were lost and nuclear weapons had actually exploded in the USSR.

Further, as the text points out, the strategic purpose of it was actually restrictive command and control; the idea was that the top party leadership would be reassured by its presence that they didn’t have to launch early in a crisis, and would therefore be self-deterred. Rather than doing anything more provocative, they could decide to put the system on alert in the event of a crisis, and then be assured that if they got it all wrong and the Able Archer/RYAN scenario actually happened, it wouldn’t work and the US would indeed be blown up.

It’s one of the many ironies of the cold war; not only could all this nuclear readiness be considered stabilising, but a system that promised to delegate command under certain conditions could actually tend to retain it at the centre until those conditions came to pass.

Meanwhile, I hadn’t known about Vasily Arkhipov, yet another Soviet officer who saved civilisation. He was the weapons officer in a submarine during the Cuban missile crisis; the American blockade force tried to force them to surface by dropping practice depth charges nearby, which they of course interpreted to mean they were dropping them for real, but missing, rather than firing warning shots.

Accounts differ, but it seems the captain wanted not just to fire back, but to use a torpedo with a nuclear warhead against the aircraft carrier USS Randolph. Unlike a conventional torpedo, which could be launched by the captain and the weapons officer, using a nuclear weapon needed the captain, the weapons officer, and the political commissar. Both the commissar and the captain were all for pressing the button…

Arkhipov wasn’t, and eventually the submarine surfaced and called Moscow for orders, which weren’t “get on with it, you lubber”, and there was no war. Arkhipov, unlike Petrov, went on to command most of the Soviet Navy’s submarines and retired with the rank of vice admiral. Arkhipov Day is in a month’s time, although I’m beginning to suspect it might be a bit like celebrating the siege of Gibraltar.

I’m collecting these people; so far, the only Western equivalent I know about was an MI6 agent stationed in the British Embassy in Moscow at the same time and who was Oleg Penkovsky’s handler. Penkovsky vanished early in the crisis, possibly because the KGB had a mobilisation plan item to lock up all their suspects. He had been given an emergency protocol to get in touch with Roberts in the event he learned of imminent nuclear war – this involved phoning a number in the embassy and blowing into the phone three times.

Not long after the peak of the crisis, on the 2nd of November, the call came in; he decided not to activate the procedure to inform the prime minister at once, suspecting that the KGB had found out the code from Penkovsky and were testing the British response for reasons of their own. The story is in Peter Hennessy’s The Prime Minister, but there is no name.

I’d like to introduce you to a new project. The other day, I was reading an imbecilic union-bashing editorial by one “Hugo Rifkind”, and I wondered….whose kid are you? Wikipedia informed me that diary columnist (it’s like a journalist but not quite) Rifkind is indeed the former Defence and Foreign Secretary’s son, and he’s “written” a “book” about “the London media world” called Overexposed Overexposure, which kicks the bottom out of the rotting barrel of satire.

And there, I had it – we need a Web site to monitor nepotism, and backscratching influence-peddling more generally. WhoseKidAreYou! There’s been quite a lot of work on designing machine-readable ways of expressing relationships between people, but to start with, I reckon we need a decent wiki server or else perhaps a Django install, and the British journalists section of Wikipedia as a start. We can crowdsource the rest; we’ve got bitterness and resentment on our side, plus a powerful kicker of personal loathing!

We’ll need to hold basic biographical data, plus job and publication history, a link to corresponding Wikipedia data, and of course, the crucial affiliations. Not just WhoseKidAreYou, but also WhoseThinktankDoYou”Work”For. Once we’ve got a reasonable amount of data, we can think about social-graph visualisations and other fancy twirls; we could also do a browser extension that picks out bylines, searches the DB in background, and shows a notification. “Did you know this was written by Christopher Hitchens’ illegitimate son, working for a thinktank founded by Douglas Murray?”

I am deadly serious about this, and I would like your comments. The project isn’t really suited to – it’s far from neutral and it’s explicitly partisan and generally vicious – so it’ll have to be unilateral. I’ve set up a Google group (aka a mailing list/usenet group) over here.

UPDATE: More is here, including how to take part.

UPDATE UPDATE: Hugo Rifkind has been in touch, to point out that I misspelled the title of his book.

Here’s an interesting example of modern thinking. Appropriately enough, it’s one drawn from sport, which seems to play a special role in the whole phenomenon. The Government wants to force the FA to change its internal structures.

Progress on reforming the FA Council and its endless list of committees has also stalled. As part of the Burns package of proposals, the FA promised to make the 116-member council more inclusive with greater representation for ethnic minorities, women and fans. “Rugby did it with the old farts, cricket has done it – although there are still issues in cricket that need to be faced – and football is in a similar position,” says Sutcliffe. “The old school can’t continue.”

Basically, we’re looking at a case of representativeness – by analogy with truthiness – versus representation. This kind of thing is common throughout modern thinking – you identify some sort of democratic, or at least elective, intermediary institution, and then decide there’s something wrong with it, often framed in terms of making it more “representative” in terms of being closer to a representative sample of the population.

But the way in which this is implemented always involves a net reduction in democracy. The number of elected representatives is reduced, or powers are transferred away from them. More appointive posts are created. Reserve powers are taken out by the central government over institutions, or alternatively they are forced to subdelegate their powers to new organisational entities created by the modern thinkers.

Classic examples include the Blairite attitude to city councils and the like; despite a strong rhetorical interest in decentralisation, what happened was that new, appointive bodies emerged which wielded powers over councils, or that city councils were ordered to delegate part of their budgets to a menagerie of semi-elected (or just obscure) “neighbourhood kitties” and the like. A more radical option was to make city government more “responsive”, “representative”, etc, by creating private or psuedo-private entities like Business Improvement Districts, CCTV-operating Community Safety Partnerships, etc, and moving funds and responsibility into these.

Similarly, many organisational changes in the schoolsnospitals sector were justified by being “representative”, “new localist”, etc, and consisted of transferring power and responsibility either away from elected local authorities, or away from ministerial line management with its associated responsibility to parliament. What is being proposed for football is, again, a devaluation of the vote – the FA’s council, which consists of delegates from the local FAs’ elected councils, would be replaced by an entity consisting of 5 representatives of the professional game, 5 of the “national” game (i.e. elected), and 2 “non-executive directors” who will apparently be co-opted or wished on the FA by the government.

The phrase “non-executive director” is telling here; in its natural habitat, non-executive directors are meant to be elected by shareholders to hold the company’s management responsible. But here, they are going to be either chosen by the management or imposed by the government in order to hold the voters responsible. However, one lesson about company boards is that whatever the nature of a reorganisation, the only important question is always “Who controls the company?”

And this proposal clearly implies that the Premier League, plus the Government, will control it. Theoretically, the two very executive non-execs could side with the amateurs, but that’s just not going to happen.

So, let’s derive some conclusions. What matters here is not representation – the function of picking someone to represent collective interests. It’s representativeness, by analogy with truthiness – the quality of looking like a body that should have been selected to represent the voters had the voters agreed with my own set of prejudices. And this might not be so bad, if it wasn’t for the fact that the vote, and only the vote, checks the process by which demanding more ethnic minorities, etc, gets you more powerful people congenial to other powerful people but who emanate representativeness.

Rather than labour representation, you get Alan Johnson, a perfectly featureless Blairite with stick-on postman’s uniform. Rather than real city government, you get an appointed infrastructure planning commission and an appointed Olympics agency that make big decisions, and a dogshit panel with a whole £5,000 budget.

The Modern Thinkers always like the appearance of democracy, but they are deeply suspicious of voting. On another level of analysis, they tend to be very keen on elections in foreign policy, but much less so on democracy. Remember the purple fingers.

reviewing the results

Here’s a ManyEyes visualisation of the top 40 airlines on the Viktorfeed, after a bit more than a year’s data logging.

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The old gang has shrunk a lot; British Gulf is still in there, but only because of their dominance before the end of February, when they cut off never to speak again. Eastern Express and AVE/Sky Cabs, the new name for what used to be Phoenix Aviation, are the new kings. Compare this one:

Eaf84c40-ada8-11dd-b553-000255111976 Blog_this_caption

and this one:

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Southern Air – a name long associated with the US government in various forms – is back. Oddly, Phoenix Avia, the Armenia mini-me of Phoenix Aviation, has made a comeback and has rapidly run up a surprising number of movements towards Afghanistan. The lesson appears to be that if your protection from the UAE authorities holds, you’re OK.

But we knew that.

a question

Back in September, 2006, we were talking illegal immigrants and artisanal shipbuilding in West Africa, over at the Fistful.

one of the curious economic details you could notice was how the process was in fact exhibiting an increasing returns type feature, in that the increased demand for boats increasingly meant that a number of would-be migrants were actually not sailing but staying since they could make a reasonable living in the newly developing artisanal shipyard industry, with the consequence that more boats were being built as knowledge and experience (human capital) was being accumulated…

One other interesting detail is that the level of workmanship seemed good. They even use, as I say, 1980s style Volvo teams rather than Adam Smith like pin production lines.

As it happened, the crisis passed, and the big attractor – the Spanish housing bubble – collapsed not long afterwards. So, I was wondering what had become of that sudden industry churning out huge versions of traditional boat designs. After all, there is more than one use for a boat in the black economy.

And you know what? I’ve no idea. As far as I can make out, that particular route lost salience during 2007, almost certainly because of the macroeconomic crisis rather than the arrival of EU FRONTEX assistance. With that, it’s passed completely out of the news environment. I couldn’t find anything useful in the way of statistics either; Eurostat is just what you’d expect from someone’s dentist,

So, are there thousands of wooden vessels abandoned on the beaches? Does anyone know? (I’d like this post to grow if possible.)

I told you so

I see the MG Rover report is out. The document is here.

We blogged.

I like the detail that one of the four was caught having bought something off the interwebs to clear his hard disk, and that the investigators were able to tell which folders he’d run through the l33t gadget. Just the people to fix a hugely complex industrial company.

the extra cost society

It’s fascinating how Tories manage to pollute an otherwise sensible idea. Consider Barnet Council, fief of comedy food mountain Brian Coleman, and its so-called Easyjet model. I’m going to get at the lo-co fetish, but first, the substance. Among much else, they want to offer people who receive social care an individual budget, which they can use on the services they feel they need. This proposal is roughly sensible, I think.

One of the problems of the welfare state was always that it tended to work on the principle that if everyone had equal rights, then they also had equal needs and equal preferences. The more confident, articulate, informed, and supported by your peers you are, the more likely you are to defeat this, so there was a source of structural inequality embedded in it. It’s also a source of structural inefficiency; if you’re underproviding some people’s needs, you’re also probably wasting resources elsewhere.

Naturally, this was still an improvement over a system where some patients would be entitled to treatment and others would be charity cases. But it became increasingly necessary to protest and to hammer on the system with sticks to get it to adjust to human realities, and through the 70s and 80s, a combination of service-user activism and change in professional practices actually achieved quite a lot of this.

I suspect that this is considerably more important in social work than in medicine; much less can be reduced to specific procedures. So, budgets are good; on the other hand, I’d object quite violently to making this mandatory. Why?

For a start, there are people who won’t be in a position to manage the budget, and this will be a class- and race-biased phenomenon, and there is a danger that they’ll be left out. Voucherism is also almost irresistably tempting to people seeking low visibility cuts – the usual line is to suggest that you could also make a voluntary top-up contribution, and then shrink the actual funding by the same sum, which is a nice way of levying an invisible tax rise.

Another inevitable temptation, especially for Tories, would be to make the voucher valid with the private sector. Not only is this a giveaway to a client group, it also opens a second route for the user to get screwed – over the pricing of services, as it’s really unlikely that you could take your social care voucher very far from home. The option of integrated public service provision has to remain open in order to contain other service providers’ pricing, to guarantee universal service, and to signal to everyone involved that the service will still exist.

Now, those low-cost airlines. Whoever at Barnet Council or elsewhere thinks they’re going to use “the EasyJet business model” is a prize oaf. For a start, both EZY and FR (Ryanair) borrowed it in some detail from Southwest Airlines in the US, and if you don’t know that you don’t know much about it. Secondly, it can be summed up in two words – yield management. Every airline does this, but Southwest and its followers simply did it harder and more.

What it means is that the fares follow a curve as the date of the flight approaches – some time out they are cheap, then they rise very sharply during the period when the average ticket is bought, and then they fall drastically in the last few days because even a couple of quid is better than transporting the empty seat. Hence the “1 million seats for £1” ads – you won’t actually get a seat for that, but they are on offer in a legal sense.

I really struggle to see how a local council can apply this. But then, as I said, they don’t mean it. Instead, they like to talk about “making the price of everything transparent”; this refers to all the extra-cost options and distress sales involved. But this is either silly or mendacious.

Does anyone imagine that one transaction on the Web application that does Ryanair’s online check-in actually costs £5? If so, their IT department is incompetent to an unimaginable degree. In fact, transparency is the last thing to expect here, rather than a selection of suspiciously round numbers there is no possible way of checking and no competition against. But I suppose it’s a viable model of society, if you’re a Tory: Welcome to Britain, where life is an extra-cost option.

modern thinking

Charlie Stross wants to know what the future holds in terms of ideology – what the killer memes of tomorrow are likely to be. He’s working from the position that the huge ideological systems of the 20th century were all ways of coping with, or seeking, modernity; thus you have the big two, communism and fascism, plus (in Charlie’s view) a third ideology that never took off, technocracy.

There was, actually, a formal Technocratic Movement in the interwar US and elsewhere, which foresaw a future dominated by a benign hegemony of engineers organised in an economically integrated world state. Like the others, it was fascinated by the potential of technology, and well aware that classical liberalism and conservatism were no longer sufficient; just like them, it imagined that the replacement would need to be hyper-centralised and opposed to the formalities of parliaments, judiciaries etc.

To some extent, of course, the other tyrannies were also technocracies. This brings up the notion of the developmental dictatorship – the 20th century was full of people who thought that they could Drag This Country Into the Future, if only the Serious Technocrats were in charge, and that the Incorruptible, Decisive Military – or the Party – could achieve this. It’s possible, in fact, to consider all the regimes in this way.

It was an era in which tyranny was usually future-oriented; a major difference between the Left and the Right was whether the deep past was an era of grim oppression from which it was necessary to escape, or whether it was the source of the ideals that showed the way to the future, but there were no takers for pure conservatism. If the past was important, it was important as a motivation or as a guide to the future.

Charlie is especially interested to know what strange new political ideas might be brewing in the new fast-industrialising states; but giving it some thought, I’m fairly optimistic. This is because the core package of future-oriented tyranny has been tried out in most of them, with bad results. The repertoire is limited, and everyone’s seen it before. You could object that this doesn’t help; what matters is power. But power craves legitimacy, and there has never been a tyranny that had zero public support. And there are reasons why individuals, groups, and classes compete for power in one way and not in another; coups are frequent in some similar countries but not in others.

Brazil, for example, experienced two waves of authoritarian technocracy – in the late 30s, and more recently, in the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. Unfortunately for the claims of future-oriented tyranny, the dictatorship roughly parallels years of stagnation and frustration in which not much at all was achieved; the optimism of the postwar era, and the industrial breakout since the 1990s, book-end the dictatorship neatly.

India had its own flirtation with dictatorship in Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule, although there was always a strong degree of authoritarianism and of technocracy before that – inherited from the Fabian influence on the Congress and from the colonial civil service. Again, the achievements of the last 15 years had to wait for much of this tradition to be abandoned after 1991.

Turkey seems to have discovered a replacement for dictators, in that it now has a strongly bourgeois, liberal-conservative party which is often described as being like German Christian Democracy, but with Muslims. There was a very significant strand of Dragging This Country, etc, in the history of apartheid South Africa – all those huge military-industrial projects, carried out with the benefit of cheap labour and the secret police (two critical elements of a good future-oriented tyranny). Poland was a development dictatorship before the Second World War, went through occupation and Stalinism, and spent the 1980s as a dictatorship that outsiders often thought was more like a Southern Cone junta than communism. Spain and Portugal successfully exited perhaps the classic technocratic juntas and joined the EU.

So it seems unlikely that anyone will think that the future wears jackboots. Of course, there will be future tyrannies – but what sort?

The ideas that seem to be winning in the fast growth countries are:

Disappointing but acceptable social democracy.

Both Brazil and India seem to be sticking fast to this. The alternatives in these cases are clientelist nationalism and Muslim or Hindu Democracy. Historically, it’s an idea with legs and remarkably few corpses in its pile. Not that anyone will be happy about voting Lula, again. But they never are – as Clement Attlee said, “they think I’m not socialist enough…I know them of old”.

Muslim Christian Democracy

Basically we’re thinking of the AK party in Turkey here, but its name and ideas are spreading, and if Moussavi had won the Iranian elections, he’d probably have offered something similar. In India, this is the upside potential of the BJP – that it becomes a roughly conservative party with religious stylings. It appeals heavily to the middle class and the business community, but especially to the Mittelstand element of industry rather than the FTSE-100.

Modern Thinking: the Post-Liberal Consensus

This is the turd in the punchbowl; Thaksin Shinawatra and the Three Bs, Berlusconi, Blair, and Bush. A form of soft authoritarianism, keen on micro-intervention in social life and public-private blurring in economic life, with a bizarre delight in big events like the Olympics and the Champions’ League. Whereas the others talk left, or right, of where they govern, the Modern Thinkers govern to the right economically and to the left socially of where they campaign, which is straight down the middle.

They are the classic users of the postmodern politics package; which may explain why despite their constant promises of modernity and demands that we all keep up, they tend to struggle with big technical projects. Like old-fashioned junta technocrats, they often deny any political views or ideological claims, which should tell you plenty about their real mental history.

Oil rents

Thomas Friedman is an idiot, but he is right that there is almost an ideological class of states that are defined by oil. His pet example is Venezuela, which shows that he’s a fool; mine is the UAE, with its tiny population of official Emiratis who get the oil rents and its huge army of semi-slaves from the Indian subcontinent. The key markers here are authoritarian government, generous but usually highly circumscribed welfare benefits, and concealed inequality. Of course, the very definition of this group makes it self-limiting.

Of course, the swing factor here is China. Jamie Kenny has long argued that the Chinese Communist Party should be considered as part of group three, as another group of modern thinkers obsessed with the Olympics, closed-circuit TV, and big business. I’m not sure; their leadership is much more genuinely technocratic than most of the Modern Thinkers’. Further, it seems clear that the Party sees the future as something other than communism, but with its own leading role preserved.

It’s now been quite a while since entrepreneurs were recognised by the Party, and far more importantly, the Party has shaped its entire economic, social, and foreign policy in their interest – the whole idea of holding down the RMB and thus parking huge quantities of China’s economic surplus in dollar assets, perhaps the dominant fact of the last 10 years, doesn’t make sense except as a way of maximising industrial investment growth, and absorbing internal migration. Capitalism with Chinese characteristics isn’t *that* far from Muslim Christian Democracy, conceptually.

So, I’m quite optimistic about ideas; even if a lot of this is based on the principle of having tried all the other systems and found them worse. What really worries me is what more damage the Modern Thinkers can do.


How did I miss this? A Sikh who thinks he’s a native American shaman? In Bradford?

Where else? Weird religion is a Bradford thing, and it’s in our best tradition that it should go all syncretic like.