Archive for March, 2010

Progress update on fixing the Vfeed.

Dubai Airport has done something awful to their Web site; where once flights were organised in table rows with class names like “data-row2”, now, exactly half the flights are like that, they’ve been split between separate arrival, departure, and cargo-only pages, they only show the latest dozen or so movements each, and the rows that aren’t “data-row2” don’t have any class attributes but random HTML colours.

And the airline names have disappeared, replaced by their logos as GIFs. Unhelpful, but then, why should they want to help me?

Anyway, I’ve solved the parsing issue with following horrible hack.
output = [[td.string or td.img["src"] for td in tr.findAll(True) if td.string or td.img] for tr in soup.findAll('tr', bgcolor=lambda(value): value == 'White' or value == '#F7F7DE')]

As it happened, I later realised I didn’t need to bother grabbing the logo filenames in order to extract airline identifiers from them, so the td.img[“src”] bit can be dropped.

But it looks like I’m going to need to do the lookup from ICAO or IATA identifiers to airline names, which is necessary to avoid having to remake the whitelist and the database and the stats script, myself. Fortunately, there’s a list on wikipedia. The good news is that I’ve come up with a way of differentiating the ICAO and the IATA names in the flight numbers. ICAOs are always three alphabetical characters; IATAs are two alphanumeric characters, which aren’t necessarily globally unique. In a flight number, they can be followed by a number of variable length.

But if the third character in the flight number is a digit, the first two must be an IATA identifier; if a string, it must be an ICAO identifier.


Oh yes, blog theme tune.

Auto-suggestion psychology. Elimination policy. The military-industrial pollution of democracy. It’s what we stand for. Oh yes, and bifurcation. In order to honour the essentially dualistic nature of the blog, here’s another version – how David Holmes saw it.

manufactured controversy

A question, inspired by this ruckus in Jamie Kenny’s comments. Is the notion of a manufactured controversy analytically useful?

I can see that the ideas of fake consensus, or fear-uncertainty-and-doubt, are useful. But manufactured controversy presumes that someone is manufacturing the controversy. Presumably they are doing this to make a point of some sort, unless they are simply trolling. They want their side of the manufactured controversy to win. Isn’t that, in fact, controversy? The climate-change deniers are full of crap and funded by the coal industry, but they exist.

Arguably, manufactured controversy is a bit of an unspeak concept; if there is no real controversy, therefore there is no real opposition, and my views embody the broad consensus. In some ways, it’s a delegitimiser; in others, a tranquiliser. I don’t need to worry about the opposition – it’s all froth.


Here’s something interesting. I grabbed the last 6 months’ worth of national opinion polls from Wellsy’s and graphed the Tory lead in percentage points. On the tiny chart below, you’ll observe that the mean is 10 points; the hatched area shows one standard deviation each side of the mean, and I’ve plotted a linear trend through it. (You can see a full-size version of it here.)

6 months of Tory leads

The interesting bit; there are 21 polls, out of 158, that showed a Conservative lead of more than one standard deviation greater than the mean. All of them occurred before the 29th of January. There are 24 that showed a lead more than one standard deviation less than the mean. 20 out of 24 occurred since the 19th of February. What on earth could have happened between these dates?

I can't do that, Dave

The posters broke in a big way around the 19th of January and the second wave hit in early February. Clifford Singer deserves a knighthood for this.

Geeky poster is geeky (link)


Yes, the Viktorfeed is indeed down. Dubai Airport has redesigned its Web site, and the parser is now not parsing, and the error handling has failed to handle an error where the target page loads but contains unexpected HTML. I’ve stopped the cron job to save filling up the system logs. There will now be a short break.

Meanwhile, here is some music, or more likely a high-pitched buzzing sound

Note the faintly mischievous expression.

Has there been anyone in British politics quite as depraved as Geoff Hoon? Can my readers help?

Probably the worst defence secretary ever. (You have to realise that he was probably one of the Prime Minister’s two designated deputies for nuclear retaliation – Byers, not so much, and at least he got us the railways back.) Iraqi mothers will thank me. Editors should apologise. And on and on it goes. He signed the letter in an effort to sack Brown but didn’t send it because he wanted a job in Europe. Now, the bungling backstabbing fucko and neocon extras girl is yours for £3000 per 86,400 seconds. It’s almost worth taking a Senlis Council view and deciding that it’s worth paying over the money, collecting his lobbying services in a sealed warehouse patrolled by the army, and destroying them just to get them off the streets.

But. But. Come to think of it, the Blaney precedent governs this case – whatever is worthless cannot be the object of corruption.

Meanwhile, Michael Gove reckons that accepting money from a non-taxpaying non-voter who made the money by squeezing the wages of cleaners and charging Belizeans for phone calls at monopoly rates, before joining the legislature under false pretences, and letting him define your party’s strategy, without any of its members being so much as asked, is OK. Accepting money from the taxable income of millions of citizens who donated it by their free choice and elected representatives to decide what to do with it is beyond the pale. However, if some sort of national network of political activists was to offer Michael Gove donations and organisational support, that’s OK so long as they start with a C.

Of course, Gove personally didn’t need any organisation or money, because he got given a one-party seat and was allowed to keep writing national newspaper editorials in his own cause during his “campaign”. The only conclusion is that Hoon and Gove are equally repellent; you have to make allowances for the opportunities Gove has missed out on, as part of a generation of Tories deprived of power.

Meanwhile, I called my local MP, Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing man in the Commons and 472nd out of 646 for responsiveness about the Digital Economy Bill. Radio silence, of course. I left a comment on Lynne Featherstone’s blog, and you know what? She actually responded to it, saying that it going into the washup was good because all parties had to agree to pass it. True. If anyone remembers to object.

and finally…

A thought: Raj Patel can honestly say that the lurkers really do support him in e-mail. Something quite hilarious about the notion of a blogger getting deified. On the Internet, no-one knows you’re God.

And we’re there! Chapter 6 – Key Questions for the future SDR – attempts to sum up the Green Paper and set some deliverable goals for the full SDR process.

There are six key questions, which also get their own comments threads here; again, one of the salient features is how little there is about the relationship with the US and also that none of the comments seem to find this at all surprising. Not so long ago, suggesting any cooperation with Europe except for the strictest possible interpretation of NATO would reliably get you an avalanche of Tories accusing you of undermining the special relationship. Now, not so much.

It is likely that the American commitment to the NATO Alliance will wane in the next 10 – 20 years…The prospect here, indeed possibly the only prospect, is of closer ties with our European partners through development of the Common Security and Defence Policy….It is obvious that the continual paring down of national capability will end in a Euroforce. Whether this is perchance or by design is a moot point. I think the time has come to stop resisting this and start positively embracing it

The six strategic questions are as follows:

* Given that domestic security cannot be separated from international security, where should we set the balance between focusing on our territory and region and engaging threats at a distance?
* What approach should we take if we employ the Armed Forces to address threats at distance?
* What contribution should the Armed Forces make in ensuring security and contributing to resilience within the UK?
* How could we more effectively employ the Armed Forces in support of wider efforts to prevent conflict and strengthen international stability?
* Do our current international defence and security relationships require rebalancing in the longer term?
* Should we further integrate our forces with those of key allies and partners?

There’s also this one:

* To what extent and in what areas should we continue to refocus our current efforts on Afghanistan?

The rest is basically a summary, but it’s interesting that a couple of specific policies make it through to the final cut:

Options for enhancing our cyber capabilities and structures to ensure we can defend, and take steps, against adversaries when necessary; and where we might increase our contribution to allied space capabilities or invest in our own national capabilities.

More for reference than anything else, here are the official military planning assumptions, and a list of operations since the 1998 SDR.

So we’ve had the grand tour d’horizon; we’ve had the self criticism; we’ve had the very rapid skip over the nuclear issue; we’ve had a careful balance of general-purpose capability and counterinsurgent language. Now for some hardcore bureaucracy. It’s Chapter 5 of the SDR Green Paper – People, Equipment, and Structures.

This kicks off with the MOD’s personnel problems. As in essentially any organisation of the last 15 years or so, there’s an invocation of having to learn new skills many times in your career, etc, etc. There’s going to be a “whole force concept” review of how the MOD manages its people. There are warm words about looking after our veterans being a moral value. And then there’s this:

The provision of accommodation, for example, is a potential disincentive to home ownership and may not represent the best investment we can make in helping families and personnel deal with the demands of Service life.

I would have thought the disincentive to home ownership would be the wages, and the, well, demands of Service life. (How many mortgage lenders are cool with the idea that the signatory may get shot at any moment?) Seriously. What the fuck? Apparently they’re looking at “alternative models for accommodation”, which might be good if it involved killing off the Annington Homes money pit, but it doesn’t sound like it.

On equipment, the general theme of a renewed interest in industrial policy is there, although the section is very general indeed, in fact vague. Tellingly, the issue of operational sovereignty – which has flared up all over again with regard to the F-35 – is raised:

We will have to revalidate our overall approach to:
* Operational Sovereignty. Our Armed Forces rely on assured overseas sources for some important equipment and support but there are cases where specific industrial capability must be located in the UK for operational reasons

There’s also a nod to arms exporters, presumably to pass the document through the bits of the MOD involved with DESO and friends.

On organisational issues, the chapter contains a bit more meat; it appears a major re-apprisal of the MOD’s structure and business processes is coming, although the drafters warn that the costs of constant reorganisation have been a very serious problem.

Change must be considered carefully in the light of the risks associated with reorganisation highlighted in the Haddon- Cave Report. The future Review will offer an opportunity to re-examine the model and to determine whether and how we might be able to improve on it.

Haddon-Cave is the report on the Nimrod XV230 crash in 2006, which demonstrated that the Nimrod fleet was essentially unairworthy in its entirety and that the engineering and management systems intended to guarantee the safety and effectiveness of the MOD’s aircraft. A major issue it identified was the impact of constant organisational change – something of a theme throughout the public sector in the Blair era.

The chapter finishes with a ritual call for greater efficiency. There’s also this worrying statement, in the light of the bizarre property-booster bit:

the scope for further rationalisation of the defence estate;

Not again…

In short, if Chapter 3 was impressive, Chapter 5 is poor – with the exception of the reference to Haddon-Cave, it’s mostly either made up of truisms or else simply too vague to mean anything at all. And what on earth is this stuff about property? Notably, the comments home in on it at once; it’s also noticeable that by Chapter 5, the trolls have landed.

Next slide, please. At last, we’re there – Chapter 4 of the SDR Green Paper tackles the classic question of alignment with the EU, NATO, and the special relationships. And it’s a highly post-American document.

Our current relationships are mutually reinforcing. NATO remains the cornerstone of our security. However, as Europeans, we must take greater responsibility for our security together. Stronger European defence co-operation offers many opportunities, not least in the wider role defence should play in resolving conflict and building peace. The UK will greatly improve its influence if we and our European partners speak and act in concert. A robust EU role in crisis management will strengthen NATO. Playing a leading role at the heart of Europe will strengthen our relationship with the US.

This is the strongest pro-European official statement on defence for quite some time, I think. You’ll observe that any contradiction between the EU and the special relationship is denied, but it’s also true that there’s not very much about the US here at all. In that sense, this is a radical statement.

The Review will need to determine where there is scope to increase the effectiveness of those relationships in delivering our security or to rebalance our investments across the organisations. In particular:
* how we can strengthen European nations’ contribution to global security, including through more effectively aligning resources and priorities;
* how we can further improve cooperation between NATO and the EU;
* how we increase equitable burdensharing within NATO and the EU, particularly with respect to operational deployments;
* whether there is scope for increased role specialisation or capability-pooling within NATO and the EU in order to create a more coherent and capable output;

These are the cliché questions, of course – why won’t Germany let their helicopters fly at night, does Europe really need quite so many conscripts, does Austria having a dozen Eurofighter really contribute to anything much. There is truth to them, although perhaps less than there would be if the US Marines didn’t impose their own national caveats on the US Army. It’s in their nature that they will only be settled by long and imperfect negotiation, and if the UK wants them settled, it will probably have to signal that it’s serious about European cooperation.

* whether we should increase our investment in UN peacekeeping, and in particular our contribution of forces to UN operations;
* where we could offer further assistance in strengthening the strategy and planning functions for UN operations at headquarters level; how we continue to streamline and improve the cost-effectiveness of each organisation; and

This suggests a possible use for the exportable surplus of generals identified in comments here.

* how we most effectively generate influence within coalitions and with our key partners

I would argue that an ally whose support is not totally certain has far more influence than one that will go-along-to-get-along with anything…and I suspect that so would the SDR drafters.

Beyond Europe and North America, the Review should consider the merits of formalising our long-standing bilateral relationships and where new and expanded partnerships could bring mutual advantage and reinforce global and regional security. For example, regional security organisations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the African Union are already playing an important role in ensuring international stability and there is scope to further improve links between these organisations and the EU and NATO. In the recent economic crisis, the G20 emerged as critical to coordinating the response of the international community. Some argue that we must similarly expand the international security architecture to better include emerging powers.

I’m not sure if there’s much in this, but it’s encouraging that the drafting process isn’t focusing just on Europe and the Atlantic.

The “partnership” theme is also used to discuss working with civilian organisations, and the problems of building the reconstruction element of a counter-insurgency strategy. Although the word isn’t used, there’s quite a bit of the language – if Chapter 3 had a Gian Gentile-like concern for general-purpose capability and adaptability, Chapter 4 at least sounds more like Abu Muqawama.

We have made major strides forward with what is called the Comprehensive Approach – a unified approach to defence, diplomacy and development. There has been progressive improvement, driven particularly by our experiences in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, since early 2008 we have doubled the number of deployed civilian experts and we now have an integrated structure, headed jointly by a UK senior civilian representative and the UK Commander Task Force Helmand, and focused on the rapid delivery of stabilisation effect in an insecure environment, alongside military operations.

The Stabilisation Unit – jointly owned and staffed by DFID, FCO and MOD – has improved the UK’s ability to plan, deploy and direct activities in fragile and failing states, including countries emerging from conflict. In particular, it has established a new Civilian Stabilisation Group with over 800 deployable external experts and over 200 civil servants with the right skills and experience to help countries recover from conflict….

Only local people will determine whether, in the long-term, a country or region will establish self-sustaining stability. They have a right to be consulted on the path that they will take towards that stability. Ultimately, they will lead and own this path. Their knowledge and understanding will also enhance the prospects of our success.