Archive for September, 2010

Extremists. ur doin it rong

I can’t help but think this is a contribution to the ongoing debate about hero-of-the-blog Diego Gambetta’s work on engineers and terrorism. If stuff is upside down before you start the riot, fire, explosion, etc., your extremist cell could probably do with more engineers. Meanwhile, the SELF THOUGHT SPIRITUAL SCIENTIST guy next to him looks like he’s on a demo to demand that ordinary decent schizophrenics can de-compensate without the EDL lowering the tone.

Due to the 30th birthday, I didn’t cover this at the time, but there’s a really nice piece on the Bradford EDL rally and counter-demo here. “It’s the middle of Ramadan, as if we’re bothered about this lot”, indeed. And the EDL were the only people ever to decide that the Rubble Zone was a great place to hang out.

Something else I missed, except for the last 15 minutes: the Challenge Cup final. Lee Briers got the Lance Todd. Kevin Sinfield got his third runner’s up medal. He must be really desperate to escape the fate of another Loiner, Garry Schofield, who played in four finals and never won, a record.

Elsewhere: I’m sticking the boot in over at Stable & Principled again. What is it about the Blair/Gove academies that makes them so suited to influence peddling?

So I was trying to parse the London Diplomatic List (this month’s edition yet to make an appearance). Cian suggested pulling out the fontspec tags on the grounds that they’re often redundant and it might be possible to identify groups among them. So I did just that and then a little bit of data reduction.

25 tag declarations squash to 11 unique font/size/colour declarations. Mmm, compression. The bad news is that, for example, countries and ambassadors (or rather, chiefs of mission – not all of them are ambassadors) are in font 1 – but font 1 is actually identical to fonts 2, 7, and 8, which include diplomats’ names, spouses, and styles. The good news is that at least font-grouping will help to filter the crap like lists of national days and page numbers and obvious MS Word copy-paste artefacts.

(In case still eats embedded spreadsheets: here’s a link.)

this land is…

I mentioned that the Economics Fairy gives those people who prove themselves worthy of her their greatest wish: a chance to fail. That is, of course, as nothing to the opportunities for failure and disaster offered to people with good ideas about agriculture. (You ask Nikita Khrushchev, come to think of it.) Joel Hafvenstein reports on a British Provincial Reconstruction Team discovering the truth of this in Afghanistan.

In the FZ’s case, while the money was available on time, the expertise was not. The technical advisors hired to help with the project were stuck in Britain. The PRT team on the ground in Helmand (civilian and military) went ahead with buying the wheat to make sure they made the deadline for distribution. Because they weren’t development agriculturists, however, they made some critical mistakes – notably buying most of their wheat seed from local farmers. You can see how this seemed like a good idea.

Yes. Yes.

The UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) has put a lot of work into developing, certifying, and monitoring a network of improved-quality wheat seed producers in Afghanistan. Most of the aid agencies working in Afghanistan are aware of this and insist that any wheat seed bought locally needs to come from FAO-certified suppliers.

Another data point for my as-yet unlaunched campaign to go round newsrooms making journalists say sorry to the UN for all the shit and vitriol they heaped on it over the last 10 years or so.

Unfortunately, the inexperienced Helmand PRT team responsible for FZ did not make use of the FAO network. They – or rather, the Afghan-staffed contractor agency operating under their instructions – instead bought thousands of tons of “seed” from local farmers outside the network. Then, showing that the PRT team knew just enough to be dangerous, they screened the wheat to remove weed seeds and treated it with fungicide. The resulting wheat seed was – in technical language – crap.

Oh dear.

When the distribution started, it was also a major disruption to local markets. A lot of previous US and UK money has gone into supporting agricultural input traders, particularly in Nad-i-Ali district, the heart of the biggest US-funded irrigation network. These bazaar merchants were understandably peeved that their pricy commercial stocks of improved seed now had to compete with handouts that looked suspiciously like trash. They sent samples of the Food Zone seed off for testing. When the test results confirmed that the seed was far below the national standards for seed distribution, they started to raise an almighty stink, with the added voices of Nad-i-Ali elders.

The FAO privately informed the PRT that its seed was flawed, and that the only responsible recourse (since it had been dressed in toxic fungicide) was to destroy all the remaining stocks. This didn’t happen. Instead, the Ministry of Agriculture made an exception to its quality standards to allow the shoddy Helmand Food Zone seed to be distributed, and the PRT sent the seed to district officials for distribution.

And it goes on from there. Unsurprisingly, anyone with any sense is growing poppy, because whatever dangers international heroin smugglers expose you to, at least they don’t pull this kind of stupid crap. There’s more here, including the good point that many of the accusations of direct corruption (rather than just bungling) come from someone who’s probably in the poppy biz.

There’s an interesting data point in there – apparently, Helmand produced about 300 tonnes of opium over and above total world illegal demand last year. Evidently, if it was produced, not seized, and not demanded, it must be in store somewhere. This implies we’ll probably see a significant fall in production some time soon, as the supply chain’s buffers fill up and the market overhang drives down prices.

Am I right in understanding the legal comments in the NYT piece to mean that the only way to get the police to disgorge whether or not your phone was monitored is to sue the Screws and serve a notice on the Yard for disclosure of relevant documents?

It seems that the primary barrier to getting an actual list together is that you have to sue the paper (or the police), and you can’t sue the paper unless you have good cause to think you were spied upon. The police, for their part, have been managing the row down by only telling some of the people on the list that they were spied on. Unless you have some other evidence that you were spied on, you can’t force the police to tell you if you’re on the list.

All clear so far? Frankly, the 2,978 names weighted by the number of calls to each would be a truly classic document of our society.


This is interesting; Brazil is currently carrying out a national census. How? With 150,000 LG 750GM smartphones, and a canny bit of software. Photos are here. Things that struck me – the Americans decided to build a dedicated device and it cost like hell. The operating system on the 750GM, however, is MS Windows Mobile 6.5 – these days, Windows is the cheap and nasty option! But why not, if they’re going cheap?

And one of the biggest problems for the enumerators is getting access to gated communities.

not stable, not principled

Elsewhere: we resume blogging at Stable & Principled.

Via Jamie Kenny, the Conspiracy’s roundup. Here’s the first comment:

so this is the biggest news me the day? Not the fact that the Guardian has endorsed David Miliband?

The Book

Red Plenty is a fictionalised history, or possibly a work of hard historical science fiction, which covers what it describes as the “fifties’ Soviet dream” but which might be better termed the Soviet sixties – the period from Khrushchev’s consolidation of power to the first crackdown on the dissidents and the intervention in Czechoslovakia. This is a big book in a Russian way – it’s always been a science-fiction prerogative to work with the vastness of space, the depth of history, and the wonder and terror of science and technology, but it’s also been fairly common that science-fiction has had a bit of a problem with people. The characters who re-fire the S-IVB main engine for translunar injection, with nothing but a survival pack of big ideas for use on arrival, tend to vanish in the cosmos. At its best, this has given the genre a disturbingly calm new perspective – chuck out your literary chintz, the rocket equation will not be fooled. At worst, well, OH NO JOHN RINGO.

Red Plenty covers a lot of big ideas, some serious hardware and even more serious software, and great swaths of the Soviet Union. But you will also need to be prepared to meet quite a lot of difficult but rewarding people, rather like the geneticist character Zoya Vaynshtayn does at the party Leonid Kantorovich’s students throw in Akademgorodok. In that sense, it has a genuinely Russian scale to it. The characters are a mixture of historical figures (as well as Kantorovich, you will spend some time in Nikita Khrushchev’s interior monologue), pure fictions, and shadow characters for some historical ones. (Emil Shaidullin roughly represents Gorbachev’s adviser Abel Aganbegyan; Vaynshtayn the historical geneticist Raissa Berg.)

So what are they up to?

Rebooting Science

Kantorovich, a central figure of the book, is remembered as the only Soviet citizen to win a Nobel Prize in economics, and the inventor of the mathematical technique of linear programming. As a character, he’s a sort of Soviet Richard Feynman – an egghead and expert dancer and ladies’ man, a collaborator on the nuclear bomb, and a lecturer so cantankerous his students make a myth of him. Politically, it’s never clear if he’s being deliberately provocative or completely naive, or perhaps whether the naivety is protective camouflage.

A major theme of the book is the re-creation of real science in the Soviet Union after the Stalinist era; biology has to start up afresh, economics has to do much the same, and everyone is working in a large degree of ignorance about the history of their fields. Some things simply can’t be restarted – as Spufford points out, despite all the compulsory Marxism-Leninism, even genetics hadn’t been erased as thoroughly as independent Marxist thought, and nobody in charge was willing to even think of opening that particular can of worms. On the other hand, the re-opening of economics as a field of study led to what the biologists would have called an adaptive radiation. Pioneers from engineering, maths, biology and physics began to lay spores in the new territory.

Comrades, let’s optimise!

The new ecosystem was known as cybernetics, which was given a wider meaning than the same word was in the West. Kantorovich’s significance in this is that his work provided both a theoretical framework and a critical technology – if the problem was to allocate the Soviet Union’s economic resources optimally, could it be possible to solve this by considering the economy as a huge system of linear production functions, and then optimising the lot? The idea had been tried before, in the socialist calculation debate of the 1920s, although without the same mathematical tools.

This is one of those events whose significance has changed a great deal over time. The question was whether it was possible for a planned economy to achieve an optimal allocation of resources. The socialists thought so; their critics held that it was impossible, and elaborated a set of criteria for optimal allocation very similar to the ones that are familiar as the standard assumptions in the economic theory of the firm in perfect competition. These days, it’s often presented as if this was a knockout argument. From the firm in perfect competition, we hop to Hayek’s idea that a market economy is better at making use of dispersed, implicit knowledge. Basta. We won.

The socialists weren’t without intellectual originality. In fact, they did actually formulate a mathematical rebuttal to the firm in perfect competition – the Lange model, which demonstrated that optimal allocation was a possibility in theory. The Hayekian critique wasn’t considered that great at the time – it was thought a much better point that the barrier to effective planning was a practical one, not a fundamental one. And even then, it was well known that the standard assumptions don’t, actually, describe any known economy. It would simply be impossible to process all the data with the technology available. Even with the new tools of linear optimisation, who was going to do all those sums, especially as the process is an iterative rather than a formal one? Stalin and Hitler had their own way of solving these arguments – no man, no problem – and the whole thing ended up moot for some time.

Computers: a technical fix

But if it had been impossible to run the numbers with pen and paper in 1920, or with Hollerith machines and input-output tables in 1940, what about computers in 1960? Computers could blast through millions of iterations for hundreds of thousands of production processes in tens of thousands of supply chains; computers were only likely to get better at it, too. Red Plenty is about the moment when it seemed that the new territory of cybernetics was going to give rise to a synthesis between mathematics, market-socialist thinking, and computing that would replace GOSPLAN and deliver Economics II: True Communism.

After all, by the mid-60s it was known that the enormous system of equations could be broken down into its components, providing that the constraints in each sub-system were consistent with the others. If each production unit had its own computer, and the computers in each region or functional organisation were networked, and then the networks were….were internetworked? In fact, the military was already using big computer networks for its command-and-control systems, borrowing a lot of ideas from the US Air Force’s SAGE; by 1964, there were plans for a huge national timesharing computer network, for both military and civilian use, as a horizontal system cutting across all the ministries and organisations. Every town would get a data centre.

The Economics Fairy Strikes Again

But, of course, it didn’t happen. There’s a good paper on the fate of the Soviet internetworkers here; Spufford has a fascinating document on the end of indigenous general-purpose computer development in the USSR here. Eventually, during the 1970s, it became increasingly obvious that the Soviet economy was not going to catch up with and outstrip anyone, let alone the United States, and the Austrian economists were retroactively crowned as having obviously been right all along, and given their own chance to fail. Spufford frames the story as a Russian fairytale; perhaps we can say that in fact, economics is the fairytale, or rather the fairy. Successive groups of intellectuals have fought their way through the stacks of books, past the ideological monsters, and eventually reached the fairy’s grotto, to be granted their greatest wish. And it’s always the same one – a chance to fail.

Why did the Soviet economists fail? Red Plenty gives a spectacular sweep through the Soviet economy as it actually was; from the workings of GOSPLAN, to the management of a viscose factory, to the world of semi-criminal side payments that actually handled the problems of day-to-day survival. In the 1990s, the descendants of one half of the socialist calculation debate swept into Russia as advisers paid by the Thatcher Foundation. Arriving on the fairy’s magic cloud, they knew little of how the Soviet economy worked in practice, and duly got their opportunity to fail. The GOSPLAN officials of the 60s were reliant on data that was both completely unreliable, being the product of political bargaining more than anything else, and typically slightly less than a year out of date. And the market socialists were just as reliant on the management of Soviet industry for the production cost data they needed to make sure all those budget constraints really were consistent.

That’s a technical explanation. But there are others available. Once communism was achieved the state was meant to wither away, and not many of the people in charge of it were at all keen on this as a pension plan. Without the power to intervene in the economy, what was the point of the Party, again? Also, what was that stuff about letting people connect computers to the telephone network and pass messages from factory to factory? Where will it end? The central government, the Politburo, GOSPLAN, STAVKA – they would never accept it.

Another, more radical, is that the eventual promise of Red Plenty was to render not so much the top of the pyramid, but the middle management, redundant. The rapid industrialisation had created a new management class who had every intention of getting rich and staying that way. (This was the Yugoslavs’ take on the Soviet Union – the new class had simply taken over from the capitalists.) What would happen to their bonuses, and their prerogative to control the planners by telling them what they wanted to hear?

And yet another is that the whole project was flawed. Even if it was possible to discern the economy’s underlying cost-structure, write the software, and optimise the whole thing, how would this system deal with dynamic economics? How would it allocate investment? How would it cope with technological change? It’s no help to point out that, in fact, a lot of the questions are nowhere near being solved in any economics.

Soviet History

One view of the USSR’s history is a succession of escape attempts. The NEP of the mid-20s, Nikolai Voznezhensky’s term at GOSPLAN in the 1940s, the Soviet 60s. Each saw a real effort to get away from a political economy which was in many ways a wild caricature of the Industrial Revolution, screwing down the labour share of income in order to boost capital investment and hence industrial output, answering any protest against this with the pistol of the state. As well as trying new economic ideas, they also saw surges of creativity in other fields. They were all crushed.

Arguably, you could say the same thing about perestroika. The people who signed the Alma-Ata protocol to arrange the end of the Soviet Union and the dismissal of Gorbachev were not, in fact, heroic dissidents, but rather career communist bureaucrats, some of whom went on to become their own little Stalins. Spufford says in the endnotes to Red Plenty that part of the book’s aim is a prehistory of perestroika – one view of the characters is that many of them are developing into the people who will eventually transform the country in the 1980s. Green politics was an important strand in the great dissident wave, right across the USSR and Central Europe; Zoya Vaynshteyn’s genetic research, which turns up some very unpleasant facts, is a case in point. Valentin, the programmer and cadre, is going to retain his self-image as a bohemian hacker into the future. Another Party figure in the book is the man who refuses to get used to violence, which will also turn out to be important in 1989.

Anyway, go read the damn book.


Creepy google searches of the week: “who writes the blog for yorkshire ranter” and “identity of yorkshire ranter”. Someone in a BT dynamic-IP pool.