Archive for May, 2010

the big computer

I really need this book. It’s already on order. Relatedly,

mystery space rocket

After that somewhat depressing post, let’s cheer up with…war. Here are the proceedings of a conference on whether or not the aid ISAF boasts of delivering in Afghanistan actually works, whether on its own terms or as a military strategy. I notice that “winning hearts and minds” has achieved the ultimate honour of being granted an MLA (Multiple Letter Acronym) – WHAM – even at a conference where Templer’s criticism of his own remark was repeatedly quoted. There is much interesting stuff in there – notably that greater “religious seriousness” was correlated with less violence, and that field studies tend to bear out the Kilcullen interpretation – the people they interviewed didn’t want the Taliban to take over, rather, they supported them in order to exert pressure on the Afghan government, as an intermediate institution.

Also, they point out that small-scale aid projects are effective in both the aid sense and the counter-insurgency sense, but that the big ones suffer from the false perception that economic development and modernity are forces for stability – they are not.

I’d quote more, but their server is 503ing.

Here is the British contribution to another conference on the Afghan war, which I find to be one of the most interesting parts of the whole thing (Jason Sigger has links to the whole lot here). A British company commander gets $4,000 to spend on reconstruction work – specifically, the kind of quick-reaction small scale projects that the Wilton Park conference found to be most effective – during his tour, but any one of his soldiers can spend $100,000 on destruction at any time by firing off a Javelin anti-tank missile, and the last British brigade in Afghanistan got through 254 of them in six months. It doesn’t help that they rarely get brought back unused – simply because once you’ve fired one, you don’t have to tote the damn thing any further. Oh, and the intelligence people are struggling with dire government IT. Perhaps the camo app store might help?

The US National Security Strategy uses the word “energy” more often than “military”, and “climate change” more often than “intelligence”; but I’m surprised that it only uses the word “urbanisation” once.

And here’s a really excellent article on the logistics of Afghanistan.

Well, this is grim. Intelligent comment is to be found here, in Jamie Kenny’s interview with David Wilson.

Would you say that serial killers are a kind of negative indicator of the health of society in the sense that the fewer victims there are, the better society functions?

Serial killers function best within fractured communities, where people don’t look out for each other, and when the gap between those who have and those who have not is wide. In cultures such as these no one really bothers to notice the elderly neighbour living by themselves, or the kids who are homeless because they don’t view these people as having value, or being connected to their lives. Serial killers also exploit homophobia and our laws related to those young people who sell sexual services. When I was in Ipswich in 2006 I used to point out that less than an hour’s flight away was Amsterdam and that no Dutch serial killer had ever targeted prostitutes.

There’s also a nasty surprise; according to Chris Williams, who actually met him, he was working on precisely that question, whether the 19th century’s apparently low murder rate was explained by the fact that the victims of Victorian murderers were more likely to just vanish rather than be reported to the police.

Well, Yorkshire scores another historic first. I used to work off Thornton Road, and also in Dockfield Mill in Shipley; they’re both places where the death of the textile industry left behind a lot of rotting mill buildings that then got re-purposed by all kinds of odd little businesses. Dockfield Road is less so, more traditionally industrial, and there are terraces of classic working-class homes part of the way along it, just about where the pie van parked up when I was working in an envelope factory.

Thornton Road, though, is nothing but old mills and warehouses, now become small engineering workshops, garages, curry wholesalers and the like, a sort of Yorkshire favela development. The district, in the valley between the university and Great Horton Road on one side and Manningham on the other, is not identified with any community – hardly anyone lives there, they only work there or cut through the backstreets to avoid the inner ring road. (Oddly enough, the anarchist 1 in 12 Club is round there too, up the hill towards Westgate. And so are the Quakers.)

The vice trade moved down there after the girls were driven out of Lumb Lane, further uphill (uphill and downhill are always important directions in Bradford) and northwards in the centre of Manningham; this event has been variously considered to have been an example of community vigilantism, Islamism, and also to be associated with control of the drugs market and black/Asian tension, which later led to serious violence. In the 1990s, you could drive past any time of the night or day and see drug dealing going on – I also remember that one of the corner shops still had a sign outside advertising paraffin.

When I worked in an industrial bakery further up the road towards Lidget Green (and its Pathan community), and would walk back down towards the city centre, stinking of roasted high fructose syrup and cream-style product, I remember passing a huge billboard for Coca-Cola with some pouting model reclining across it. Some Four Lions character had decided to deface this example of imperialist decadence and fitna, but rather than aiming for the cleavage or the thighs, or for that matter the Coke, they’d chosen to tear down the face.

I disbelieve strongly in all attempts to define “generation this or that”. So I was reading this with at least a pint of scorn, when it occurred to me that I was working in a tech start-up and I’d been to a 2-Tone gig at the weekend.

OK, so we took the piss out of the Policy Exchange crowd for seeing reds under the seats on the bendy buses. The group rights agenda. But the interesting thing about the Borisbus is that in a sense, it bears Dean Godson and Andy Gilligan out – design and architecture are, of course, deeply political activities. We shape the things we build, and thereafter they shape us, as Winston Churchill said to RIBA (twice – he believed in making aphorisms earn their corn).

Essentially, the new bus – pics here and here– is a bog standard Wrightbus double decker with some fibreglass styling features, meant to evoke the look of the Routemaster; there’s a funny asymmetric front end, a staircase, and an open platform that isn’t actually open, because it is behind a door which will be locked while the bus is in motion. This stuff is pure ornament – it is utterly without function. Neither is there actually going to be a conductor; the existing revenue protection patrols will occasionally be on board, and that’s it.

Now, the thing about adding a lot of nonfunctional stuff for the sake of style is that it has costs. The Postmodernist architects were fascinated by the way Las Vegas casinos and the like were basically huge industrial sheds, covered with playful flourishes of style, plush carpets, neon signs; but the reason why they could get away with this is that a huge clear-span shed is a pretty efficient solution for housing a business process of some kind, whether it’s a semiconductor fabrication line, a giant distribution warehouse, a brewery, or a giant exercise in legalised fraud controlled by Lucky Luciano. The huge plaster likeness of Nefertiti draped in purple neon canted over the entrance at 27 degrees from the vertical isn’t getting in the way of anything.

But this doesn’t work in a setting of engineering rather than architecture. Changing the internal layout of a bus affects its primary function directly; one of the key limiting factors in the capacity of a bus route is how long it takes to load and unload the bus, which determines how long it waits at each stop and therefore how fast it travels. Making people climb the stairs to get in and out has real performance consequences. As pointed out here, when the rear door is shut, anyone trying to get off the bus will have to push past people getting on to use the middle door.

Also, carrying around a platform and a staircase takes up space that could otherwise be used for…well, that could otherwise be used rather than pissed away on content-free curlicues. As pointed out here, the new bus has fewer seats downstairs than a Routemaster despite being 3 metres longer. I thought we were trying to take up less space on the street and improve the turning circle?

Of course, the reason why giant motorway-side warehouses and casinos can be like they are is that they are usually built in places where land is cheap and there is lots of space…like central London, right?

So what does this tell us about the design politics involved? The first, and obvious, point is that design has consequences. As a result of the whole daft crusade, for years to come, bus users will be putting up with a worse quality of service. Frequencies will be lower, because dwell times will be higher. Alternatively, London will just have to buy more buses to maintain frequency, and fares will go up. Using the buses will be a more exasperating and unpleasant experience than it is now (and that’s saying something). Further, people who for whatever reason find the stairs difficult are going to be punished.

Second, it’s the victory of form over content. It’s not a Routemaster; it certainly hasn’t had the years of kaizen that went into the original design and specifically into the hard engineering of it, the engine and drivetrain and running gear. It doesn’t even look much like one, but the key stylistic tropes are there in order to pretend it does. I’m surprised they didn’t stitch a Lacoste croc on it. And, of course, the costs of this shameless fuckery will endure.

Third, the past must have been better. There is really no reason at all to try to make a modern bus look vaguely Routemasteresque other than kitsch and nostalgia, and it’s no better for being Gill Sans/Keep Calm and Carry On kitsch rather than the Laura Ashley version. You bet there’s going to be a lot of this crap in the next few years. (Fortunately, it also looks like the official aesthetic of David Cameron is going to be achingly unfashionable, like an official aesthetic damn well should be.) But if there is any reason to be nostalgic for Routemasters, it should surely be for the unrivalled engineering record of high reliability; being nostalgic for slower boarding times is like being nostalgic for the good old days of rickets. Come to think of it, Tories do that as well.

In conclusion, this is modern conservatism, implemented in hardware, with your taxes. The obsession with PR, spin, and guff in general? Check. The heel-grinding contempt for the poor? Check. The pride in technical and scientific ignorance? Doublecheck. The low, ugly, spiteful obsession with getting one over on political enemies? (It’s of a piece with behaviour like this.) Check.

Key quotes:
(via Boriswatch): “Never underestimate our masters’ obsession with outward form, as opposed to function and content.” That’s Gilligan, of course.

Via Adam Bienkov, “When there is no extra staff to mind them, the platforms will be closed with what Boris called a “shower curtain type jobby.”

There’s a point where his risible little village idiot act crosses over into a demonstration of overt contempt for the public, and this is it. I propose to refer to him as Shower Jobby from now on, and I would like to see this elsewhere.

It’s a rare day when Andrew Wakefield gets struck off and Nick Griffin is forced out of the BNP leadership. But this will not do:

Today’s verdict ‑ the striking-off of Wakefield and Prof John Walker-Smith, who was in charge of the department of paediatric gastroenterology at the Royal Free hospital in London, where the research took place and the acquittal of the-then junior consultant Simon Murch, who had doubts about the project ‑ was about ethics and honesty, not science.

It was about the attitude of the doctors to their child patients. While Walker-Smith made errors of judgment and ultimately paid the price because of his position of responsibility, Wakefield emerged from the hearings as a tarnished character, branded dishonest. He was found to have subjugated the needs of vulnerable children to his desire to prove a theory….

But Wakefield’s disgrace will not stop him arguing over the science, flawed as experts say his arguments are. Based in the US, where he will still be able to work as a scientist ‑ if not a doctor ‑ and with a considerable following among the desperate parents of autistic children who get too few answers about the distressing illness, he will continue to portray himself as the victim of the British medical establishment. It is not all over yet.

As Anthony Cox says,

However, while Wakefield has gone, the media environment that allowed him to drive down vaccination rates continues to exist.

Bizarrely, the papers – not even the Grauniad – still seem unable to even mention the fact that Wakefield’s results were worthless. For that, you’ve got to go to some random blog – like Holfordwatch, devoted to harassing the tiresome media nutritionist of the same name. Fortunately, Mr. Holford decided to get involved in the Wakefield affair, and so some of Holfordwatch’s light was shed on Wakefield. As they rightly say:

But Holford is concerned about the measles antibodies in the cerebro-spinal fluid and the gut tissue of the children Wakefield examined; Holford believes that Wakefield found evidence of this. Whatever significant problems there may be with the rest of Wakefield’s work, surely this is the crux of the matter?

Indeed; if there was evidence of measles virus, then there is at least the faintest possibility that he might have been on to something. But there was no such evidence, or rather, the evidence he presented of them was spurious. Dr. Nick Chadwick, Wakefield’s student in the late 90s, actually carried out most of the tests for measles RNA – and he repeatedly got either negative results, or else results that turned out to be false positives on closer scrutiny.

Chadwick and Wakefield were using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to look for measles viruses. It works by using the enzymes that copy DNA sequences in nature, causing base molecules to polymerise – link together in strings – in the same order as they are in the original sequence. Many millions of years of evolution went into this process, and it is very efficient indeed at copying the nucleic acids. There is the rub. If there is any DNA at all anywhere near the sample, PCR will copy it, and once copied, it will copy it again, and again, until the concentration is high enough for other methods to be used.

The danger of high sensitivity is the creation of false positive results. It is absolutely essential to success that experimenters with PCR take truly obsessive precautions against cross-contamination. In order to check the validity of the positive results, Chadwick sequenced the RNA (measles viruses don’t have DNA – technically, what he was doing was RT-PCR, using a reverse transcriptase to copy the measles RNA) from the positive results and compared it with that in the MMR vaccine. If the viruses were those from the vaccine, the sequences would be identical; if not, the result was invalid, as whereever they came from, it obviously wasn’t the vaccine. He also compared the sequences with samples of measles collected in the wild.

All the nine hits achieved with PCR turned out to be false positives.

Wakefield was also sending samples elsewhere for analysis; Chadwick found that, again, the results were false positives, and that the lab in question was producing an unusually high false positive rate, evidence of possible contamination. Also, some of the samples sent away were duplicates, included as a check – if measles was present in one duplicate, it would also be present in the other, so both of them would be hits. If only one of the duplicates was a hit, this would suggest that something was wrong.

He formed a theory that the measles antibodies they were using to detect the virus were suspect, and might be reacting to one of the gut bacteria rather than measles, which if true would have required tearing up all the results and starting again. The sequences did match an artificially bred strain of measles, unknown outside the lab environment, which strongly suggested that some of the material or equipment in use was contaminated.

But none of this bothered Wakefield, who pressed on; Chadwick eventually refused to be cited as a co-author of the paper Wakefield sent to the Lancet. The whole sorry story is on the public record – Chadwick testified in a lawsuit in the United States in 2007, and his testimony is here. Elsewhere in the case, there’s also an interesting technical discussion (go to page 145) about PCR and false positive results.

Can anyone guess why the British press doesn’t want to discuss this part of the story?

Has anyone ever accused Amnesty International of being silent on (insert abuse here) and not been lying through their teeth? Seriously; I’ve had this argument so many times on the Internet since, ooh, 1996 or thereabouts. It always follows this pattern:

A: Amnesty International says that some government/movement/company/faceless mob B supports is doing something incredibly evil.
B: Amnesty International? Well, A, why doesn’t Amnesty do anything about government/movement/company/faceless mob, opposed to my cause, and their incredible evil?
C: Actually, Amnesty organised a entire campaign against it. It’s in their annual report for YEAR, which is online, at LINK.
B: Woof woof woof. *waves hands*

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this happen when B actually had a point – time after bleeding time, it followed this exact course. I therefore intended to declare this as a law, like Godwin’s Law. The Amnesty rule – anyone who asks “why doesn’t Amnesty speak out on X?” is lying.

What Sunny said. One of the most depressing things about the Labour leadership candidates’ focus on The Very Real Concerns is that it enforces a deeply negative, ungenerous, and futile definition of what those Very Real Concerns are. If you’re concerned about – to be brutal – the labour share of national income, and how it might possibly nudge up a tad, about housing, about unions, about green issues, you’re out of luck. Your concerns are not Very Real ones.

These issues only get to the status of being Very Real if you can somehow work an immigrant in there. It’s a circular process – the Serious People are only interested in Very Real Concerns if the Concerns concern immigrants. Why? Because only concerns concerning immigrants are Very Real Concerns that interest Serious People.

Of course, this is probably because it’s hard to use a privatised immigration detention centre to build council houses. Once you’ve acquired certain skills, habits of mind, contacts, networks, etc, you will try to apply those solutions to everything. Part of the problem, of course, is that toughosity has a zero lower bound, a bit like the interest rate; there is no utopia of immigration detention.

As relief from that 1,210 word wall o’text, this:

Things to Make and Do was an oddly foreshadowing title for 1999.