Archive for October, 2010


Somewhat in the spirit of this XKCD cartoon. There are memes that allow us to tell if other people are likely to be worth speaking to – like biomarkers for language. For example, someone who disbelieves in plate tectonics probably has a wide range of other weird beliefs.

The latest one of these I’ve noticed is the idea that you have to be unemployed to get housing benefit in the UK. Knobber after horrible knobber shows up talking about claimants “in houses working people couldn’t dream of”. Wrong, wrong, wrong. So unfortunately, I’ve come to the parting of the ways with Tim Garton Ash. In an otherwise mostly sensible column:

It’s surely not right that people can be worse off if they choose to work than they would be on welfare; or that people on inflated housing benefits make rented accommodation in some areas unaffordable for the working poor.

You don’t have to be unemployed to get housing benefit, Tim. I predict bad things.


party like it’s 2008

A bit of Viktorfeed. Scheduled for 1845Z, there’s a flight from Dubai to Mogadishu under ICAO code JBW708. JBW? That’s Jubba Airways, described by as “Formed 24/4/1998 by Canadian (Calgary) interests and the Southern Somali Business Groups (50%), in association with Phoenix Aviation. Started operations on 28/5/98.”

The aircraft roster consists of two Boeing 737s, one of which belonged to both Phoenix Aviation/AVE and Kam Air, the other to Kam Air twice and East Air, a Tajik company started by Eastok Air, an operation banned in the EU since July, 2007 and which, interestingly, leased aircraft to Iraqi Airways.

brief Iraq post

Weird news from Iraq – apparently one of Sadr’s conditions for returning to Iraqi politics is that Allawi and the SIIC are included. There’s a turn-up for you. It does sound like the Iranians are the main actors here, and the point of including Allawi is to get minimal consent from the Sunni. Some day there’s going to be a good book written on the politics between the US and Iran during the Iraq War.

Afghan links

Here at the Low Expectations Journal we’ve been rather optimistic recently about Afghanistan – at least relative to our expectations. This week, there’s been a piece in the Washington Post that completely contradicts this. However, I would point out that this may not be as significant as all that:

Among the troubling findings is that Taliban commanders who are captured or killed are often replaced in a matter of days.

Abraham Lincoln said that he could make a brigadier into a general in three minutes, but a hundred and ten horses were difficult to replace. Isn’t this the whole “Al-Qa’ida’s Number Three” argument again, just with the sign reversed to justify pessimism rather than optimism? Surely the question is whether they are finding good replacements. An optimistic report is here. Exum wonders how the paper manages to run two entirely contradictory stories on successive days.

On the other hand, it’s not the only case of ending up like the man who has two watches and no longer knows what the time is. Here we have two widely divergent opinions on a basic fact like the rate at which IEDs are discovered. You may recall that “Population Density of Afghanistan: Experts Differ” was actually an accurate headline for a while.

Worryingly, Jeremy Scahill reckons that the negotiations are being sabotaged by the old game of reporting whoever you don’t like to the Americans as a Taliban.

Mark Ballard of Computer Weekly is trying to get the details of government meetings with the IT industry, and struggling. Among other things, this seems to be yet another use case for an enduring Freedom of Information Act request. It’s also one of the reasons why I like the idea of a central contacts register. Back at OpenTech 2009 I said to Tom Watson MP, just after he resigned as a minister, that it wasn’t just useful for citizens to be able to find out who officials were contacting – the government itself might benefit from keeping track of who was lobbying it, maintaining a common line-to-take across different departments, and the like. Hey, even the lobbyists might benefit from knowing who else was lobbying.

Of course, there’s an argument that the government quite likes having pathological relationships with its suppliers. But that’s one of the points where as soon as you get radical enough to understand the situation, you’re also too cynical to do anything about it. Watson’s been campaigning about this, and the Cabinet Office recently released some data. With the embarrassing bits taken out.

The bulk of it is here, it looks like they’re planning to split the disclosure between departments as this only covers ministers in the Cabinet Office (i.e. the PM, DPM, Secretary for the Cabinet Office, Leader of the Commons and the whips). It’s also on but it’s going to need reparsing. At least it’s not a PDF. It’s a bit thin, presumably because the bulk of meetings with external organisations go via officials or bag carrier MPs – DEFRA’s is rather chewier.

Shouldn’t Crowdsourced New York Apartment Pushing Limits actually be an Onion headline? Either that or the core of a new ResPublica/New School Network collaboration as the Big Society’s contribution to solving the housing crisis. We’ll crowdsource it! If everyone brings a brick, we’ll have…a pile of as many bricks as users who actually bothered showing up, that the two people who actually care about the project will have to use.

Those coalition housing plans, in pictures!

(Yes, I know this should be on Stable & Principled, but I’m trying to keep that blog Terribly Serious.)

Meanwhile, genuinely serious and interesting points on the same theme are made in this excellent piece on Park Hill in Sheffield and its redevelopment. It’s not as smash-mouth as Owen Hatherley would likely be, but it also makes the point that letting the squatters have their way with it was tried, effectively, and a lot of the work required on the building was basically making good the results. It also strikes me as a good point that it’s not, in fact, easier to run away from the scene of a crime on an access deck. Of course, the real point here is that as the society that built it crumbled, they stopped providing proper investigative policing to the people in it and started treating them as the object of mass public-order policing.

convergent mayors

Is Boris Johnson the right’s Ken Livingstone? It came to mind as a result of his unexpectedly strong remarks about housing benefit. A lot of Tories disbelieve that Johnson is genuinely committed to the party. Ken spent large chunks of his career either at odds with the Labour Party leadership or outside the party. Johnson is now reprising Livingstone’s role in protesting against Thatcher, while also reprising his role a second time around as an alternative version of a government he’s fundamentally sympathetic to.

A lot of people remarked that Ken Livingstone, as mayor, was remarkably keen on facilitating the City’s interests for someone whose staff included John Ross. Johnson is heavily reliant on the remaining ex-Livingstone officials to keep City Hall’s basic functions going. Both of them put a lot of effort into maintaining a public image that is almost a caricature of their party – the whole tedious Shower Jobby act, vs. all the stuff about newts and public transport.

Of course, this overstates a bit. But I do think there’s a significant truth here, and I suspect that future Mayors of London are going to have more in common with Ken and the Jobby than they will with the Prime Minister of the day. They will tend to be noisy and brash, given to ranting, and drawn back towards consensus within London by the administrative realities. There is famously no Democratic or Republican way to collect the garbage*. However, they will also tend to operate in permanent tension with the national government up river. This is an expression of the structural factors – you can’t position yourself politically by replacing the Underground with a network of cable cars over the streets or abolishing school, so you’ve got to do so by picking fights with Westminster.

Given that, you’re either going to be in the role of unofficial opposition leader, or else aligned with the government of the day’s rebels, whoever they may be. Also, it seems that you’ll probably end up being a couple of points to the left of your party either rhetorically or operationally. Despite all the yelling, Ken Livingstone was basically following the Blairite “let the bankers rip and then do some redistribution” plan, but with more aggression and nous. It’s also true of the Jobby – for all the bullshit, he’s not actually changed that much, which puts him some way left of the cuts consensus. Interestingly, this also seems to be true of Bertrand Delanoe and Klaus Wowereit, and perhaps also Michael Bloomberg.

* This argument may no longer seem as convincing as it once did, as there are probably Republicans who want to abolish rubbish collection…

The rate of intrusion attempts on US government networks has fallen this year. Obviously, this is going to be a data series dominated by the spikes, so a good botnet between now and Christmas could change that. But it’s a nice correction to the constant “cyberwar” bollocks. Also, check out the hilariously .com boom era graphic – streams of ones and zeros! Scary words, like ENCRYPTION SOFTWARE, in fake-LED display fonts!

Two things: brief piece about the Toyota Hilux, preferred transport to the world guerrilla, and a fatwa against mobile money transfer. You know you’ve made it when you’ve been fatwa’d.

More seriously, this huge Guardian piece on Iranian policy in Iraq is well worth reading. It’s interesting, to say the least, that the people Sadr wanted to see as guarantors of Iranian good faith were Hezbollah – it would seem they’ve got a foreign policy these days. Also, there’s a sort of disguised alliance between the Iranians and the US. The Americans fought hard to stabilise al-Maliki’s government and to build it up as a credible force. It’s hard to imagine they really want rid of him now.

And there’s this:

It is understood that the full withdrawal of all US troops after a security agreement signed between Baghdad and Washington at the end of 2011 was also sought by Sheikh Nasrallah.

“Maliki told them he will never extend, or renew [any bases] or give any facilities to the Americans or British after the end of next year,” a source said….US officials have strongly suggested they would scale back their involvement in Iraq if the Sadrists, who have been a key foe throughout the years of war, were to emerge as a significant player in any government.

But it’s their policy to leave:

On the 2011 December withdrawal date, the official said: “Any follow-up engagement with Iraq in relation to troops would be at the request of the government of Iraq. There are no plans to keep troops after December 2011. We are drawing down and all will be out of Iraq.”

The piece seems to be heavily influenced by sources in Al Baathi Allawi’s entourage. You do wonder if Allawi was only fetched out of the deep freeze in order to press Maliki into making a deal with the Sadrists.

John “War Nerd” Dolan got a job, as a lecturer at the American University of Iraq. Hilarity ensued. You bet. It’s a tale of un-fantastic right-wing academics, a kind of glaring dullness, a total lack of character, and an endless supply of raw cash. It so happens that John needed that more than anything else, so good luck to him. Read the whole thing – what stands out is the vast gap between the neo-con obsession with The Western Canon! Classicism! Principle! Courage! and the petty, provincial, small-mindedness that people like Joshua “Not The Blogger” Marshall practice in their lives. It’s not even the incompetence. It’s the style that gives them away.

The other interesting thing in the piece is John Agresto’s role. Again and again, he turns up wondering why a string of horrible political thugs treated him with disrespect. Lynne Cheney, his old boss, seems to have been a really awful human being close up. Who knew? But somehow, it never crosses his mind to wonder why this keeps happening every time he associates with the Cheneys or Bill Bennett or some other horrific political gargoyle. It’s….full of bastards, just this particular astronaut isn’t going to get out of the ship.

I also loved the notion of a neo-conservative as someone who got mugged by reality and now never goes into town for fear of running into reality again. A lesser writer would say that he started carrying a gun in order to shoot reality. However, that would imply some kind of grand, tragic struggle against brute fate. You can’t have tragedy without dignity, and that’s one thing the administration of the American University of Iraq doesn’t have.

This reminded me of two things, or rather the other way around. If you want Mitt Romney to speak, you’ve got to take a bulk order for his booky wook. Hence the book is a bestseller (for whatever that means in today’s book trade). Similarly, ‘bagger Sharron Angle’s campaign raised $14m and paid $12m right back to the political consultants who organised the donation drive.

The other thing was this documentary series on YouTube about Americans and steroids. Two points come to mind – the enduring role of the quack, and a sort of grinding optimism. And this quote: “Everyone wants to be a monster.”

A critical point, though – I’m fairly sure the sheaf of documents one of the doctors waves while reading out a list of horrible side effects that turn out to relate to vitamin C is from an open-access “adverse event reporting system”, which basically gathers anything anyone anywhere feels inclined to report. They aren’t verified in any way. Anti-vaccine people often abuse this.

Fortunately, someone’s done the actual journalism and documented that the ties between multilevel marketing, quackery, and extreme-right politics aren’t just style, they’re organisational and financial. It goes back a while, too.