Archive for June, 2010


This looks interesting, although could they not have put together a much lower grade single PDF, or even an OCRd text? (I know this is a regular whine.)

Pessimism: if we keep burning the coal, eventually keeping warm will be the least of our worries. Where’s your discount rate now, Timmeh?

Stupidity: can we get out of this Bruce Sterling novel now please?

Blame: it’s Coalistan vs. Everyone Else.

Logistics: China can’t lay railway track fast enough to move as much coal as they would want to burn if they don’t clean up.

Science: energy use drops spectacularly once density goes over 50 people+jobs/hectare.

Schadenfreude: the Murdoch Times retracts its IPCC-bashing. Detail; the text agreed with Prof. Simon Lewis was then mangled to fit with the Party Line.

More schadenfreude: Steve McIntyre hits peak readership and enters inevitable decline.

Optimism: Exponential growth curves cut both ways, dammit. If the wind and solar people keep it up, in 2027 they’ll be in charge. Prepare now for the Danish future.

More optimism: I remember when this used to be in books about the FUTURE.


Here’s a question for you: when you’re not reading blogs, what else do you do?

Adam Greenfield responds, and anyone who uses the BOAC speedbird as their avatar is probably worth listening to:

“But that becomes a political problem, something almost all geeks seem incapable of understanding, probably because its a social rather than a technical problem.”

Well, “geeks” may be incapable of understanding that, Cian, but that happens to be where we start. I mean, you guys’d know this if you actually bothered to look into what happens at a walkshop instead of taking the lazy way out and slagging it as a “kool kids” thing. The whole point, as far as I’m concerned, is to take a good close materialist look at how communities, institutions and individuals contest public space and the public sphere.

In this case, sure, the lens we’re using is technological. But the concerns predominantly have to do with accountability, agency and control, and the language is everyday. Come join us on a walkshop sometime and contribute your insight, and I think you’d be hard pressed to come away with any other conclusion.

I think what I’m getting at here is that in many ways, the power-relationships in our cities aren’t embedded in architecture some much as in software, as it were. Sometimes it really is software, too – the social services’ disastrous computer system that played a role in the death of Baby P, and did so by imposing a sort of dysfunctional and extreme-Taylorist workplace on the social workers, or the systems that allocate tax-credits and then sometimes demand repayments that essentially amount to the recipients’ entire economic surplus.

But it’s broader than that – it’s about people’s expectations, levels of economic security, and the strategies they adopt to cope with life. After all, everyone adapts in some way, it’s just that some local optimisations cut off more options than others.

It’s also about how institutions adapt to people; one difference between having visible, hardware favelas and having them in software is that it’s easier to think that it’s just another damn fool, or someone who is In Need of Care, although the flip is that it’s also easier just to adopt a hardware fix and build a fucking great wall…

In Victorian England, the poor risked going to debtors prisons. In contemporary America, the poor face a different form of lockup.

Its walls are built out of predatory mortgage loans, rent-to-own contracts, payday lending, instant tax “refunds,” the repo man, the old-fashioned pawn shop, bait-and-switch debt consolidators and a rogues’ gallery of scam artists.

their law

Ackerman links to an interesting piece from Antonio Giustozzi (direct here); one of the things that comes over strongly is the degree to which the expansion of the Taliban hasn’t been driven by the acquisition of public support, still less by conquest, but rather by branding, co-option, and freelancing by significant leaders in Afghan society. Arguably, the picture he draws is one in which deciding that your followers are now the Taliban is an option in politics, rather like deciding to block a road, to accept or resist a particular district chief, to tax, molest, or ignore one or the other heroin smuggler.

As a result, their specialness as a movement is being eroded even as they survive as a power. Their opposition to education and to the education of girls is being dropped as unpopular (and presumably, not supported by new recruits to the federal network); similarly, their opposition to tribal and customary law is going the same way.

Interestingly, the chief selling-point of Taliban government, rather than just tactical arrangements, seems to be that they offer basic justice and dispute resolution; this rather reinforces the view that for much of Afghanistan, they are more of an intermediary institution than a revolutionary movement. Of course, the Pakistan-based leadership may not see it that way, and may well not welcome this development. It’s also interesting that Taliban judges are accepted, but aren’t particularly popular – it’s the absence of alternatives that makes them an attractive option.

Another very important point is the primacy of personality – it really is an environment where specific individual leaders deliver their followers to one allegiance or the other.

This interrelates, of course, with the regional politics; rather like a miniature version of Europe in the 1600s, the war is being fought over whether particular princes accept one of several particular versions of Islamic law or some hybrid of the old Afghan civil code and customary law, all of which are supported by major powers for their own political ends. David Ignatius has a sensible take on this:

The recent Washington debate over Af-Pak strategy has had it backward: This war is less about trying to defeat the Taliban militarily in Afghanistan than it is about reaching an understanding with Pakistan that closes Taliban havens there and allows a political reconciliation among the warring Afghan parties. It’s a Pak-Af problem, not the other way around

Which, of course, makes it a Pak-Af-Ind-Iran-Russian problem. There’s also an interesting piece on the various regional actors’ plans for railways in Afghanistan.

Now, what can we say about this? The story is from Gizab, which is one of the places Giustozzi describes as having accepted a Taliban judge. The people are now dissatisfied with him and have taken the shortest way, as they would have said in the English civil war. Of course, the Americans are delighted and are dreaming of Anbar. And this is good news – it demonstrates the thinness of Taliban control, and their dependence on local affiliates of doubtful loyalty. But without attention to the wider politics – a second Geneva Accords, this time with feeling – it won’t change anything.

The Rolling Stone piece on McChrystal is actually surprisingly thin in terms of information. I give as an example this gem:

After arriving in Kabul last summer, Team America set about changing the culture of the International Security Assistance Force, as the NATO-led mission is known. (U.S. soldiers had taken to deriding ISAF as short for “I Suck at Fighting” or “In Sandals and Flip-Flops.”) McChrystal banned alcohol on base, kicked out Burger King and other symbols of American excess

Those Europeans with their Burger King in the field. Really? Most of it’s at that level – the RS guy seems to be as unaware as McC that the week he was in Paris began with the death of a French soldier in Afghanistan. And, as Spencer Ackerman points out, the only substantive criticism that makes it into the piece is Ralph Peters-level yelling for more brutality.

A soldier complains that under the rules, any insurgent who doesn’t have a weapon is immediately assumed to be a civilian.

Right. These remarks from Paul Yingling apply. This is where the RS story comes into its own. In many ways, style is content; it tells us something about the thought processes that will be applied to other issues, about others’ private culture.

But what really interests me is the concurrent sacking of Sherard Cowper-Coles. Londonstani’s piece is vital, and it’s well worth reading down the comments. Certainly, if it’s true that he’s

figured out exactly how to strike a chord with the kind of people who run Pakistan

then losing him is the biggest Taliban strategic victory since the Cheney administration blocked ISAF deployment in early 2002.

I’m especially suspicious of the role of William Hague here. Call me suspicious, but he spent the years 2002-2008 talking exactly like a hardcore neo-con. Cowper-Coles is exactly the kind of diplomat he used to insult during the run-up to Iraq. In the background to this, it seems that Richard Holbrooke is re-gaining influence, and specifically by dealing with the Pakistanis. In that sense, it was obviously intolerable for the General to be campaigning against him with the press.

Laura Rozen, meanwhile, reports on a discreet conference on political approaches to Afghanistan.

So the England Zombies are looking more like Fast Zombies again. If I’ve bored you by talking up James Milner, I’d like to take this opportunity to claim my bragging rights. Here’s something interesting; back at the weekend, in the depths of self-loathing, the Obscurer published a table showing the teams with various statistics, including shots on goal. It struck me that England were looking rather good on that, and that the top four looked mostly like a plausible semi-final line up. So I’ve put together a spreadsheet ranking the teams by shots on target/matches played.

(oh, for fucksake – it’s fucking google spreadsheets., get a clue. here.)

Data source here. Having in my browser history makes me feel dirty for some reason.

That puts England 5th in the world – quarter finals again – but ahead of all the three possible opponents in the second round, Germany (7 on target/game vs. 7.333 – Google Spreadsheets is lax about sig figs), Ghana, and Serbia, and well ahead of the Netherlands and Italy. Further, out of the top four, Spain aren’t looking a cert to qualify out of their group, and they have an even worse tradition of World Cup choking than we do. This may be daft, sunshine and beer optimism; but it’s daft, sunshine and beer optimism with data.

Update: Well, would you look at that.

Here is a really fascinating interview with David Dunning, of Dunning-Kruger Effect fame. As a taste, the incident that inspired Dunning:

Wheeler had walked into two Pittsburgh banks and attempted to rob them in broad daylight. What made the case peculiar is that he made no visible attempt at disguise. The surveillance tapes were key to his arrest. There he is with a gun, standing in front of a teller demanding money. Yet, when arrested, Wheeler was completely disbelieving. “But I wore the juice,” he said. Apparently, he was under the deeply misguided impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to video cameras.

He’d done tests.


Shia rage in Basra, over electricity that goes north to Baghdad. Joel Wing has more, including that the trouble spread to Nasiriyah. He also provides a short history of the Iraqi grid since 1991, including the fact that the first Gulf War reduced capacity to the level of 1920. A few years ago, even suggesting that 1991 damaged anything marked you out as an extremist.

From the same source, details of the raid on the Iraqi Central Bank. Central banking is not a trade that usually demands physical courage; Ahmed Rashid documents a rare example of the contrary with the Taliban governor of the Afghan central bank who was summoned to the front and eventually killed.

On this occasion, the interesting thing is that it’s a complex, integrated attack. Suicide bombers exploded at the entry checkpoints. Infantry charged the breaches and stormed the building. Snipers established themselves on the roof, and other infantry may have created stop-groups in the streets, all in order to block the response.

The attackers destroyed files and computers and killed people. But they didn’t take any money. As Masaryk said and Mao quoted, don’t lie, don’t steal.

A Bout sidelight

Anyone know who this is?

SHARJAH // A former associate of the suspected international arms dealer Viktor Bout, had his appeal against his conviction for murder postponed yesterday because of power cuts which hit parts of Sharjah.

AS, 47, was just one of around 90 cases due to be heard at Sharjah Appeals Court which were disrupted yesterday morning due to the electricity cuts.

The defendant, who is being held at Sharjah Central Jail, was taken to the court building but never appeared inside the court because the electrical systems failed. The power cuts also affected traffic lights, homes and businesses across the emirate.