Archive for October, 2009

Without comment:

Mr Cameron has said he would relish the opportunity: “Prime Ministers Questions in the House of Commons are no substitute for a proper prime time studio debate…”

David Cameron is surely the ultimate anti-blogging candidate; look at what he said. Discursive, textual culture has no value for him.


wkay – update

So where’s WhoseKidAreYou? “Well, I’m working on it” is the short answer. I have recently reorganised the code in the user script, and I’ve been fiddling with Sindice, a semantic/linked data search engine. I’m fairly certain, however, that the first version out will work like this.

User script tries a range of XPath and DOM parsing options to obtain a byline and identify the element in the page that contains it; it then does various paper-specific things to clean up the data and convert it to wiki-style Name_Surname, and templates this into the query. The query is fired as an XmlHttpRequest in the background – because you can do cross-domain requests inside Greasemonkey – and the page renders anyway while waiting. When the queries to Sindice/DBpedia/Sourcewatch/Tobacco Archives happen, the results get templated in a chunk of HTML, if they contain hits, and then this is used to replace the byline.

Otherwise, a default element pointing you to a Wikipedia edit page will be inserted. That way, we get a triangular feedback going.

Speaking of new Soviet men, The GOP Speaks continues to be a fantastic resource on authoritarian thinking. Short version – chap writes to every county- and state-level Republican chairman in the US and asks them to fill in a questionnaire. Blogs the results as they come in. Here’s number 26.

1) So long as it’s in the opposition, where should the Republican Party focus its energy?

Our first priority should be to stop his legislative agenda.

Second we should work to win as many seats as possible in2010.

Fair enough.

2) What is the most worrisome part of Barack Obama’s presidency?

Without question the country has elected a marxist that hates capitalism and liberty

Something does not work with mai cortex, egad!
An interesting event happens between questions 1 and 2, doesn’t it? His response to question 1 is eminently rational, but the next one is objectively crazy. It doesn’t get any better as the questions go on, either.

One explanation here would be that he answered the question about tactics having thought about it, and then switched off. I don’t think so – the language in the following questions suggests someone getting more and more excited emotionally, more and more engaged.

In fact, I think he started thinking after question 1. As far as political tactics went, he was able to answer in the way we use physical skills – a set of gestures and rules that we internalise to the extent that we don’t think about them.

If you agree with the thesis of Max Blumenthal‘s Republican Gomorrah (and I agree that’ll be a grade one on WhoseKidAreYou) and others like Eric Altemeyer, the US rightwing can be seen as a network of group therapy institutions, repurposed for political ends.

The importance of conversion experiences suggests that they are consciously or unconsciously seeking people who need an external cause to stabilise their personalities; adhering to the cult of personality offers emotional relief, and being given a role to carry out offers validation. The tasks involved are essentially arbitrary, but in this case they are those of a political field operation. Blumenthal goes so far as to suggest that James Dobson’s notorious advice on parenting might even be intended to create more raw material.

That would also suggest that external causes of social insecurity are very important to the movement; no wonder the first item on his checklist was to oppose the legislative agenda. And I think I’ve said before that there’s a lot to be said for the tactics of no; with some money, not many activists, and a lot of no, the teabaggers managed to hold the media’s attention across the whole summer.

But once he completed his actions on encountering a question, code execution continued from the return value…

It is not about race it is about ideology Justice Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Condi Rice, Micheal Steele, Alberto Gonzales and many others on the right are ignored or destroyed by the left but never celebrated….No….It is viable. If you talk the talk walk the walk….Liberty is sacred if they can come for me soon enough they can come for you

Each section between ellipses is the answer to a question. As the excitement mounts, the punctuation disappears – perhaps a handy rough indicator of cognitive load.

While we’re kicking the remains of Superfreakonomics around the car park, here’s something else. Via Kevin Drum, it seems that John Meriwether, the chap whose hedge fund LTCM nearly killed the banking sector in 1998, has started another hedge fund, a few months after his come-back ended up being crushed under the financial panic of 2008.

As a comment at RealClimate says with regard to Dubner and Levitt:

So, do Levitt and Dubner list Dunning and Kruger as co-authors on this chapter?

I think you’ll agree this comment wins the Internet. Meriwether seems to be the ideal type of a certain kind of intellectual failure mode, almost an American original – the man obsessed by the notion that his (almost always) numerical expertise makes him an all-round expert.

Nathan Myrhold is another – he even called his post-Microsoft hobby company “Intellectual Ventures”, which ought to put a rough value on the degree of wankishness we’re dealing with here. But, of course, they aren’t intellectuals or even technocrats; they specialise in hyper-specialisation, rather than any broader culture, and by the time they reach this point they are usually many years from dealing with anything practical.

In fact, as a cultural type, they’re almost Soviet figures; believers that if you can get that input-output table\Gaussian copula just right, we’ll be able to achieve the new man and true communism\hedge the entire economy perfectly.

One consequence of the whole Superfreakonomics fiasco, which has been thoroughly reported elsewhere in the blogosphere, is that I’ve changed my mind about geoengineering ideas. Up until now, I was of the opinion that the various proposals to check climate change by doing various things to the atmosphere or the oceans were no substitute for reducing CO2 emissions, but they were worth at least studying in order to have an emergency reserve option. And in fact, I always liked the stratospheric sulphur one because it didn’t involve massive space structures and it was, at least theoretically, reversible – the stuff rains out within weeks to months, so it’s possible to switch the thing off.

I also preferred it because one version – very differently from the daft 18-mile hose with helium balloons and sharks with lasers etc – involved simply changing the specification for Jet-A1 aviation fuel in order to let the refinery leave more sulphur in it. Rather than all that incredibly complicated and expensive fantasy engineering – what James Nicoll would call our viewgraph future – this could be done cheaply.

But the Superfreaks have permitted me, at least, to think this through further. The problems with any climate-engineering, rather than emissions-engineering, approach are just too bad.

The mechanism of action for the sulphate plan is basically that it creates more nuclei for water droplets to coalesce around, and therefore creates high-altitude clouds that reflect heat back out to space. Unfortunately, the nuclei are particles of various sulphate compounds, and when they dissolve in water with sunlight, you get sulphuric acid and hydrogen ions; acid rain. And the plan implies doing this globally, so rather than just damaging forests in northern Europe like we used to, we’d be acidifying the sea at the same time as we’d be acidifying it anyway by asking it to take up a whole lot of CO2.

Then there are the consequences in terms of meteorology rather than climatology, about which the best that can be said is “we have no idea” and the worst that can be said is “there is a nontrivial chance of losing the monsoon, gaining nastier hurricanes, or maybe both”. In fact, these are worryingly like the consequences of acute climate change themselves, which tends to make you wonder what the point is.

Like the really bad climate change scenarios, these all carry a lot of political risk as well; Ken Caldeira, who was misquoted in the book and who came up with the sulphate plan in the first place, remarked back in the 1980s that one solution to climate change would be a nuclear war, which looked if anything more likely at the time. (For the inevitable hard of thinking troll, his point was that a nuclear war would both fill the upper atmosphere with cloud-seeding dusts of various kinds, and effectively stop humanity emitting lots of CO2, by destroying industrial civilisation – not that this was a desirable option.)

Unfortunately, anything that risks the Indians running out of rain, the Chinese out of drinking water, or the Americans out of coastal cities, is by definition a threat of the same class as a medium-sized ballistic missile attack, and you can bet that the powers in question would draw the conclusions that follow from that.

And also, there’s a serious class break for all climate-engineering plans; what happens if it works for an extended period of time, but for some reason we have to stop? If the underlying problem isn’t addressed, as soon as the sulphates rained out, the world would heat up until it hit radiative equilibrium right then, which is as good as any definition of the end of the world. This is the flip side of the advantage of reversibility.

There are, of course, alternative approaches; I think of them as emissions-engineering rather than climate-engineering. They essentially aim to absorb the CO2 rather than change other parts of the system’s response, and are as such significantly less difficult, because they have a more direct feedback loop. Unfortunately, one of the most promising – feeding the ocean plankton – has been subjected to a large-scale trial and doesn’t seem to work, at least not reliably.

I can still imagine a scenario where these could come in handy; but I’m increasingly convinced that nobody who floats them is being serious.

The blog is going to call in Amsterdam this week. I’m going to be attending eComm, the less tiresome telecoms conference. Readers there are welcome to meet up; I’d also be interested in recommendations of anything, really, as I haven’t been there since 1996, and using the various hangouts referenced in Charlie Stross novels as a guide seems to take things too far. The conference is held in an old gas works – I used to live in one in Vienna. Is there any European city that hasn’t converted a chunk of disused infrastructure into something unconvincingly hip at some point between about 1985 and 2005?

Daniel Davies speaks on Afghanistan, and comments ensue. Dan Hardie is mostly making sense; he argues that there are essentially three options – a strategy of trying to win the tribes, one of defending the cities and key locations and pouring in aid to the Afghans, or one of unilateral withdrawal. The first would be expensive, the second, long, and the third wouldn’t guarantee an end to or even a substantial reduction in fighting.

Paying people off, it turns out, can have serious negative consequences, especially in terms of the exit strategy. But it’s probably to be preferred to more violence, if possible. I’ve said before that there might be a lesson in the Soviet withdrawal and the accompanying stabilisation of the Afghan government, which was a sort of mix of all three options – getting Ivan out of the wilds where he wasn’t provoking anyone, providing enough training and equipment to keep the mujahedin from trying to take any of the cities, and providing enough aid (and bribes) to persuade quite a lot of them to jack it in.

I’m beginning to think that the determining factor for any policy in Afghanistan is turning out to be whether it’s possible to identify any issue, territory, group, or whatever to concentrate on. Here’s Spencer Ackerman, making the excellent point that the “surge” in Iraq happened with a smallish increase in forces, highly concentrated geographically on Baghdad, and a political shift highly concentrated on getting the NOIA on our side. If the solution is meant to be “counter-insurgency, everywhere”, then there’s no point – there will never be enough men or enough money.

Meanwhile, Ackerman also criticises the idea of “going to the local level” as a response to the corruption and general Schlamassel of the Afghan government. He has a point, but it’s got to be better than this risible turdspurt from Thomas Friedman…actually, I avoid his stuff, and as a result I’m surprised by Airmiles’ superficial, colonial dickishness every time.

We have been way too polite, and too worried about looking like a colonial power, in dealing with Karzai. I would not add a single soldier there before this guy, if he does win the presidency, takes visible steps to clean up his government in ways that would be respected by the Afghan people.

If Karzai says no, then there is only one answer: “You’re on your own, pal. Have a nice life with the Taliban. We can’t and will not put more American blood and treasure behind a government that behaves like a Mafia family. If you don’t think we will leave — watch this.” (Cue the helicopters.)

Cue the helicopters. His solution to the whole problem is a crappy Hollywood image, and one that involves acting quite a lot like the Mafia family he mentions.

He is, however, right that it’s going to be very difficult to convince anyone that their local governor is fantastic but that Karzai is a crook, and nothing to do with us. An alternative example is mentioned at Abu Muqawama; peace, after all, reigned in Afghanistan for fifty years through the middle of the century, while Europeans, Americans, Japanese, and many other peoples were busy slaughtering each other in ever more horrible ways. The question, of course, arises as to whether this is causation, rather than irony; was Afghanistan stable because everyone else was too busy to interfere with it?

I’m surprised more people didn’t pick this up, but the Guardian quietly confirmed all the rumours about cash points and BACS payments nearly not making it through the banking crisis. Here’s the story:

The Guardian has learnt that a year ago the City regulator was so concerned about customers’ fears over the soundness of RBS that withdrawals on the high street were being scrutinised hourly, as well as the activities of big business and rival banks, which were also losing confidence in the troubled bank.

The FSA was getting reports of the cash outflow from RBS’s machines every hour. It’s already been confirmed elsewhere that they came very close to not opening for business, and the Germans also came within minutes of having half the banking sector fail to open the doors and turn on the lights.

Two weeks before this moment, George “Flipper” Osborne was still pretending there was no need to intervene in the Bradford & Bingley, and that the Bank of England’s asset base of £2bn would be enough to handle anything that was needed. Two months before the banking sector’s Strangelove Day, Greasy Phil Hammond was still pretending that a stamp duty giveaway would fix everything, while pointedly not mentioning his own extensive property interests.

More fake consensus. “It’s like a three ring circus in here!”

Here’s Chris Dillow, making the excellent point that the promises of cuts are significantly less than the average errors on forecasts of the budget balance. Here’s Samuel Brittan making the excellent point that the cure for the budget deficit is economic recovery. Here’s Economic Duncan pointing out that there’s very little point having a weak economy but “sound” public finances.

Swinging off Dunc’s blog, here’s Ben Broadbent of Goldman Sachs predicting that the UK will run a substantial trade surplus if sterling stays in its current range. Bonus points for those who spotted the irony of that forecast appearing in a story bylined to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, last of the gold bugs. Here’s the Torygraph finance editor arguing that it’s actually not so bad and reporting an E&Y ITEM forecast that the pound will stay where it is until 2014 at least.

So you can put together quite a high-powered consensus that There Is No Crisis – a sort of Committee on the Present Modicum of Security. Better, it’s got the data, too. Chuck in Danny Blanchflower and you have the makings of a lobby that a) things aren’t so bad and b) the main threat now is George Osborne. Hilariously, if you were to ask most economists of note for their views on the UK, you’d probably get something like this screed of Austin Mitchell’s.

Yet, this hardly gets into the media-political space. The discourse is all about failure and cuts. Here’s some polling data from the TUC’s fine blog: 50% disagree that the top priority is deficit reduction; here’s some more. That we’re even having this debate is a testament to the continuing power of the establishment to forge false consensus.

Hogging the chamber

You think the attack on libertarians was troll bait? Well, this thing goes up to 11. Douglas Hogg is right, possibly for the first time in his career.

Consider the great kerfuffle about MPs’ expenses. Some of them were in the habit of doing things that were within the rules but looked embarrassingly extravagant, some of them were in the habit of claiming all they could within the rules, and some of them were in the habit of organising their whole lives to maximise their take, often by lying about their circumstances to the House, to the Inland Revenue, or to both.

Obviously, the degree of offence here goes steadily up as that paragraph goes on. However, the official response – the review carried out by Sir Thomas Legg – appears to have been organised around the opposite principle. Legg has said that no-one who claimed up to the maximum for mortgage repayments will be asked to return the money; of course, no-one who claimed more needs to repay the money, because they wouldn’t have received it in the first place. That’s what the word “maximum” means.

A number of MPs have been billed for sums in the low hundreds, but George “Flipper” Osborne walks despite clearing £748,000 and having a different main residence for Parliamentary and Inland Revenue purposes. Click! Ulp! Another fish for the friendly dolphin. Michael Gove hasn’t even been asked for more information; even Julie Kirkbride, who managed to put two houses on the public tab, has escaped a bill. It’s not because she resigned; former MPs back to 2004 are being asked for money.

Just as the Daily Telegraph politely waited for a good day to bury bad news before running the Osborne element of the story, Legg appears to be soft on the top Tories. Instead, he’s arrived at a retroactive cap for gardening and cleaning expenses – oddly, nothing about the famous food allowance – based on an ex ano analysis of the facts. That is, he pulled the numbers out of his arse.

This is where I agree with Hogg. It’s arbitrary and it’s retroactive and it’s wrong. But unlike the fedora-wearing QC and all-round Queen’s bad bargain of a minister, I think there are reasons for it to be arbitrary, retroactive, and wrong. There seems to be a strong effort on to create a false consensus around the following points:

  • It’s about moats, cleaners, etc. Rather, the problem is extravagance, not dishonesty.
  • It’s about Labour people buying TVs. And it’s mostly Labour MPs, because they aren’t the right sort of people.
  • It’s about the duck house. Except when we have a silly old buffer with a safe seat who needs replacing, that is.
  • Nobody really important is involved. Self explanatory, really.
  • It was all a silly season story, and everyone will go back to being proper big-party voters.
  • All that needs to change is that parliament shouldn’t self-govern.

One wonders what the hell kind of a parliament it is that isn’t trusted to run its own affairs. This is an example of a trend of the last 20 years – more and more demands for “accountability”, as long as it’s accountability to accountants. What this tends to replace is responsibility, which is usually owed to yourself and then to intermediary institutions, often elected ones.

The Legg review is just more modern thinking.

The public, sadly, is responding as desired.