Archive for November, 2010

public service announcement

Sometimes, somebody does a web site listing protests against the cuts so you don’t have to.


Odd thought, working on NetworkX visualisations of lobbying activity. So much of whether the finished image is any use or not is an aesthetic decision, nothing to do with the actual graph metrics in any formal or programmatic way.

Randomly fiddle with the scaling factor, or increase the multiplier you apply to the nodes’ link degree, and things look different – and possibly better. Also, more information may not be better – I can’t help but think it was a lot easier to derive conclusions before I gave the various ministries node weights to reflect their relative power and divided the ministry weighting on each link by the number of organisations taking part in the meeting, which should be an improvement.

Also, after sweating quite a bit over this, does anyone know if NetworkX even lets you position nodes using polar coordinates? This looks useful.

June's government meetings

This is far from ideal

This is far from ideal, but it should give some idea. This one is using the standard force-directed spring layout and just the data I have from June, with the nodes coloured by their degree in the chart and sized by their meeting count. Downing Street (the large purple plook) is fixed in place and the others adjusted. I rather like the fact that the lobbyists look like bacteria swarming into a cell, or possibly sperm trying to fertilise David Cameron.


So Viktor Bout got extradited at last. As a result, I was interviewed by Radio Free Europe’s Irina Lagunina. They wanted to hear about how the whole Viktor-blogging project got started – I told them about the Defence Energy Support Center files and the T-DODAACs and the like, and the plane spotter websites, and the fact I basically borrowed the idea from the people who were trying to monitor CIA rendition flights.

They wanted to hear about bloggers, and I thanked everyone who took part in Operation Firedump and made the point that all sorts of people across the ideological spectrum had taken part. They asked about my feelings about the extradition, and I said that I’d done the rejoicing when he was arrested and had since been mostly interested in seeing if there was any noticeable change in air movements through the UAE. What really cheered me was when the UAE government kicked out the An-12 operators.

They also wanted to know about the Russian government using VB’s companies to move humanitarian aid. Specifically, they referred to something in Doug Farah’s book that apparently quotes me on this. Unfortunately, my review copy never turned up so I’m completely in the dark as to what this might be. I said that given the numbers of heavy, ex-Soviet tactical airlifters that he controlled at the peak of his career, it was unlikely that many humanitarian agencies had been able to avoid occasionally dealing with him, and that they were probably right on balance to do the job rather than worry too much. If you need to move 40 tons of drinking water or flour labelled “Gift of the European Union” or whatever before people starve or get cholera, I’m not going to whine about it.


In the last month or so I’ve begun adding blogs to my RSS queue again. I’m surprised by this; I didn’t expect to find that the form still had so much energy. Perhaps this isn’t so optimistic after all. Meanwhile, watch this space.

I wrote about this piece about brewing beer in southern Sudan, and incidentally creating a power station and a water works and a tiny industrial working class.

Well, SAB-Miller did a scenario-planning exercise about this sort of thing and came up with some truly odd answers. In the worst-case scenario:

a market with limited access to water and high energy costs, where people would migrate from areas of water shortage or turbulent weather

their proposed solution involved installing a brewery aboard a ship, so it could sail to wherever the thirsty masses had pitched up. Interestingly, as the story was released through the Grauniad’s “Guardian Professional” advertorial division, this is also something SABMiller management was willing to pay good money to tell us about. Time was when big business wanted to keep its apocalyptic fantasies secret.

(Tagged “uncategorized”, but should probably be under “uncategorizable”.)

We keep having power cuts. In eight days, we had three, all of them between 5.30am and 6am, which all lasted most of the morning. I know exactly when they happen, because the smoke alarms start beeping and wake me up. My partner claims she was warmer on a demo than she was in the flat during no.2. As they seem to follow a pattern of happening at the same time every other day – just about when power demand starts to turn back up in earnest – I was wide awake at 0545 today waiting for the plaintive beeps. But no – looking at the chart, the ramp-up is later on a Sunday. Mind you, later in the day the lights flickered repeatedly for half a minute.

So I rang up UK Power Networks’ (what used to be EDF Energy Networks, what used to be the London Electricity Board) press office and announced myself as a blogger. And the lights immediately went out…no, actually, they issued the following statement.

UK Power Networks would like to apologise to some customers in the
Holloway Road area of London who have experienced a series of power interruptions over recent weeks.

In the latest incident, power was interrupted to 327 customers at 5.54am today and restored to all customers affected by 11.20am.

The cause of the problem is believed to be an intermittent fault on an underground cable which our engineers are currently trying to trace. This can happen when the heat generated within the cable seals the damaged section, making it difficult to trace

Can it indeed. Let’s hope they don’t end up needing to do one of these.

hoisted from comments

From comments on this post, Against Viktorfeed:

*sigh* When is it going to get recognised that you can’t spot an arms flight just by who used to own the aircraft. Jubba Airways isn’t some unknown cargo entity – it’s one of the main commercial passenger carriers into Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia. Are they a bit dodgy? Probably. Do they have dodgy planes? Yes. Does the fact that their dodgy planes may have been formerly owned by arms traffickers mean they’re arms traffickers themselves? No.

To illustrate this whole *you can’t spot an arms flight through the ownership of the plane* thing: Amnesty recently reported that arms were being flown from Bulgaria into Kigali in late 2008, just as Kigali was ramping up support for the CNDP in eastern DRC, on a *standard Air France passenger flight*. Which I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have shown up on the ‘Viktorfeed’.

The key question is always who owns the cargo, and (for charter flight), who is *chartering* the plane. Not who owns or even operates the plane.

I’ve never been entirely confident on this point. Thoughts?

So the government thinks this is clever. They also think it constitutes a “searchable online database”. It is not searchable, nor is it a database. It is a collection of links to department web sites, some of which actually lead to useful documents, some of which lead to utterly pointless intermediary pages, some of which lead to documents in a sensible format, some of which lead to documents in pointlessly wrong formats, and some of which lead to PDF files. It provides no clue how often this data will be released or when or where. The URIs sometimes suggest that they might be predictable, sometimes they are just random alphanumeric sequences. Basically, what he said.

Meanwhile, very few of these documents have made it onto, the government’s data web site (pro-tip: the hint is in the name) which provides all that stuff out of the box. This is not just disappointing – this is actively regressive. Is it official policy to break

Anyway, I’ve been fiddling with NetworkX, the network-graph library for Python from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Sadly it doesn’t have a method networkx.earth_shattering_kaboom(). I’ve eventually decided that the visualisation paradigm I wanted was looking me in the eye all along – kc claffy‘s Skitter graph, used by CAIDA to map the Internet’s peering architecture.

The algorithm is fairly simple – nodes are located in terms of polar coordinates, on a circular chart. In the original, the concept is that you are observing from directly above the north or south pole. This gives you two dimensions – angle, or in other words, how far around the circle you are, and radius, your location on the line from the centre to the edge. claffy et al used the longitude of each Autonomous System’s WHOIS technical contact address for their angles, and the inverse of each node’s linkdegree for the radius. Linkdegree is a metric of how deeply connected any given object in the network is; taking the inverse (i.e 1/linkdegree) meant that the more of it you have, the more central you are.

My plan is to define the centre as the prime minister, and to plot the ministries at the distance from him given by the weighting I’d already given them – basically, the prime minister is 1 and the rest are progressively less starting with Treasury and working down – and an arbitrary angle. I’m going to sort them by weight, so that importance falls in a clockwise direction, for purely aesthetic reasons. Then, I’ll plot the lobbies. As they are the unknown factors, they all start with the same, small node weighting. Then add the edges – the links – which will have weights given by the weight of the ministry involved divided by the number of outside participants at that meeting, so a one-on-one is the ideal case.

When we come to draw the graph, the lobbies will be plotted with the mean angle of the ministries they have meetings with, and the inverse of their linkdegree, with the node size scaled by its traffic. Traffic in this case basically means how many meetings it had. Therefore, it should be possible to see both how effective the lobbying was, from the node’s position, and how much effort was expended, from its size. The edges will be coloured by date, so as to make change over time visible. If it works, I’ll also provide some time series things – unfortunately, if the release frequency is quarterly, as it may be, this won’t be very useful.

Anyway, as always, to-do no.1 is to finish the web scraping – the Internet’s dishes. And think of a snappy name.

CSM: a useful tip-off

Following up on this post, I get e-mail from Matthew Turner, who points to an explanation. Communications & Strategy Management Ltd. does indeed have a web site of sorts, at It appears to be a political consulting/lobbying firm that does the Tories’ demographics/voter-database work, which basically consists of the Richard Murphy mentioned in the past post. The Web site was registered in April, around the same time as the company, through an American proxy registrar. Although the company is registered in somebody’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon, its operational address places it at:

The Manor
Coleshill Manor Campus
Birmingham Road
West Midlands
B46 1DL

Coleshill Manor is the headquarters of a variety of Tory organisations, notably the West Midlands Tory party itself and the commercial entity known variously as Constituency Campaigning Services Ltd. or Coleshill Campaigning Services Ltd, which essentially provided the services of the party’s central institutions to individual Conservative Associations against a contribution, organising things like junk mail, phone calls, and other jewels of our society.

The purpose of this structure was to render CCS a commercial company in the meaning of the Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Act – if you gave money to an individual MP’s campaign, who then used it to pay for the services of a political consultancy, you would fall under the provisions of the Act and your donation would be both recorded and limited. If, however, you gave it to a commercial company which then sold its services to the campaign, not so much. Here’s the Other Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Various investigations have occurred into Coleshill – notably that the Tories use large amounts of office space there paid for by various millionaires via the companies based in the building. CCS alone received £1m in donations before the 2005 election. There’s also a major call centre there.

Rounding it up, we have here part of a political campaign structure designed to accept external donations outside the legal framework, that is plugged into the Whips’ Office at the far end. Neat!

Well, this looks pretty ugly. I have a question. We know that unofficial, non-doctrinal training material was being circulated around the joint services intelligence centre in Chicksands in 2003-2005 – there’s an interesting quote about it in the Guardian piece here:

Any public inquiry into the activities of the JFIT would be expected to examine the extent to which it was supervised by military lawyers. It is now known that at least some of the training material used by F Branch at Chicksands between 2003 and 2005 escaped the scrutiny of the training centre’s in-house lawyer, Brigadier David Yates, who told the Mousa inquiry that he did not “have the capacity” to check it.

This is important because, as the piece also points out, most of the interrogators were reservists. They would have gone first of all to the Chilwell mobilisation centre to do fitness tests, draw additional kit, get their vaccinations, complete their admin, and to do refresher courses on things like first aid, marksmanship, and anti-terrorist precautions. Then, later, they would have gone for a period of pre-deployment training, which would concentrate on preparing for their specific role in Iraq, before finally shipping out via South Cerney and RAF Brize Norton. It would make sense if the reservist intelligence people were sent to their trade’s headquarters, which for most of them would also be their unit’s peacetime depot, for their specialised pre-deployment course. (I think I have the process right, but several readers can correct me.)

Now, we also know that the Americans began with the torture in 2002, and that Major-General Geoffrey Miller was transferred from Guantanamo to Iraq with his infamous directive to “Gitmo-ize” the detention camps in the summer of 2003. So, where did this documentation come from?