Archive for May, 2011

This is incredibly great, and will instantly catapult you into the top 3% of the information distribution on top-level Chinese politics. One for the RSS queue, even if his views on economics are very much what you might expect.

(Alt. title: Look, it’s like a society but smaller!)

OK, so you may remember the case of Startupbritain.org, a well-publicised eye-catching initiative that turned out to be little better than spam paid for with a government grant to some whose-kid-are-you types. It seems that the whole pointless wankabout was kicked off when one of the WKAYers cornered poisonous old Thatcherite gargoyle Lord Young and pitched his eye out.

Ah well, the Big Society was always going to be a happy hunting ground for grantsmanship, wanktanking, and various other kinds of ligging and general availability entrepreneurship. Small business grant programs – which it essentially is – are notoriously vulnerable to fraud and general dodgy dealing.

And then it came to the MySociety listserv. So this message plunked into the trap last Monday. In it, a thing called “Sidekick Studios” offers to hire some software developers. Note – because this will be important later on – that they didn’t make any bones at all that they were making an offer of employment. (A shorter version of this post is in the list archive.)

“*We’re Sidekick – And We’re looking to hire 3 Developers…We’re a social innovation organisation – we develop web and mobile tools to tackle social issues and public services in a different way. We have 3 different jobs – please take a read and get in touch if the roles spark interest

Fair enough. The first one is for a Ruby on Rails developer with 3-5 years’ experience, for an 8 week consultancy gig at their headquarters in London Bridge, working alongside a mobile developer and a user-interface designer on a project for an unnamed client. Nothing to see here.

But here’s the problem.

*2 x Creative technical leads / senior developers *
Project – “SS3”
*Key info: *
· 3 month contract – maybe more
· Social innovation projects
a) Social Care Swap “wife swap for your gran”
b) Youth Justice Game Project “4 square for criminals”
· Experienced and creative developer to build proof of concept for an
innovative social project
· Start up experience preferred
· No language preference – but solid front and back end web-dev skills
required – whatever environment you’re used to
· Work in small dynamic team
· Based at Sidekick studios, London Bridge
· Read more hear http://sidekickstudios.net/ss3/

To be honest, it was the peerlessly idiotic “concepts” that caught my eye. “Wife Swap for your gran”. Had Nathan Barley been contracted to write the requirements statement? Or was the whole thing a reality-TV show? Had I stumbled upon a new Chris Morris project? We could read more “hear”, and some of us did.

SS3 is an experimental technology and design incubator to create new types of public services. We’ve assembled a team of 10 people, with diverse skills across research, design, technology, social venturing and commerce. Over 3 months, the team will work together out of a studio in London Bridge to launch 3 social businesses, each with the potential to deliver sustainable, social impact. And rock the world.

OK…well, it would appear from the next paragraph that the team is us. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that part of the team is us – the 10 ground crew have apparently been recruited already. It just remains to find Laika and Strelka the space dogs.

We’re offering 3 people the chance to become the resident entrepreneur for each venture. And have their salary paid for 3 months. And have the opportunity to become the full-time Managing Director of the venture at the end of the SS3 experience.

Note that the software jobs are additional to this. So you’re being offered the chance to implement…”Wife Swap for your gran”…over three months, and if you succeed you get to keep it. And they’ll pay your salary. Or maybe not – let’s skip ahead here…

How much will I get paid? Good question. And we’re going to duck it. Sort of. We are not saying exactly because we might pay people differently depending on their level of experience. We can say the salary will be more than enough to live off in London, pay exorbitant rent, travel to and from work, and have money left over each month. The value of SS3 is the awesome and talented people who’ll help build the venture. If you can’t see that, then we’re not for you.

Note that they have no interest in any ideas you may have:

I have my own idea / startup / service – will you help me with that? No. The startpoint is the ideas that we’ve already developed with partners, providers and people in the sector and which we know have some potential.

and reserve the right to terminate you at any moment:

What happens at the end of 3 months? We don’t know! The venture could be up and running, with money coming in. In which case, you’ll be in the box seat to be the person to get the job on a permanent basis. That might be paid at a higher salary, at a lower salary, or no salary at all. If the venture has limited chance of getting to market, we’re going to just kill it and you’ll be left with a whole load of training and skills, and some happy memories we hope. If the venture has a chance of going somewhere, but we’re not right for each other, we move on and find someone else. Sounds risky, huh? That’s the point.

So even if the project is a success, in fact, there’s no guarantee of getting the job, contrary to prior statements, and no guarantee of any pay even if you get it. And there is a lot of horrible macho Alan Sugar rhetoric and passive-aggressive expectations-wank.

But if you don’t do a good job, or your venture isn’t going anywhere fast, we replace you…Or we kill it…No remorse…We’ll try not to come to blows and then move on…Sounds risky, huh? That’s the point…Entrepreneurial..Committed. Passionate..Not an idiot…If you want exits / earnouts / options, we’re not for you…No…you have to be in the office in London Bridge…Or out telling people how great this is / learning / selling…If you can’t see that, then we’re not for you….It’s all about the team….If you’re afraid of sales, we’re not for you…Definitely not. Full-time. 100 MPH. Absolutely committed. As if your life depended on this. Well at least, your financial security. Because it does.

Indeed it does, but not so much that they’re willing to offer anything lame like a job. As previously noted, they’re not actually promising any money or any commitment of any kind, but they do keep using the word job:

If you do well, and the venture is doing well, you’ll get a job. A good job.

Ahem? What was that again?

In which case, you’ll be in the box seat to be the person to get the job on a permanent basis. That might be paid at a higher salary, at a lower salary, or no salary at all.

Now, I mentioned that the projects are non-profit and are to stay that way. Fine. This doesn’t, however, mean that Sidekick itself is non-profit. In fact it’s a commercial company, registration no. 6707987, and its customer in this project is, well, us. Specifically, they’ve scored a grant from the UK Technology Strategy Board.

So, to summarise: You get to work your arse off trying to make some daft idea like “Wife Swap for grans” fly. For this you get a suspiciously unspecified sum of money. You may be terminated without cause at any moment. After three months, you may get a job, you may get the same job but without the money, or you may get “no tea and walk home”, depending on no conditions that anyone is willing to state at the outset. You may not profit from the business, no matter how well it may do, but Sidekick’s directors get theirs whatever happens. And we’re all paying for this exploitative, cynical, spammy, hilariously ill-thought out shite.

Further, and just in case anyone thinks I’m biased in any way, does anyone else think The Guardian could perhaps make its pay-for-play Guardian Professional advertorial and events operation look and feel distinct from the actual newspaper’s website?

Why am I talking about this?

Well, Sidekick also recommended “a Guardian article” to us – this one. Now, unless you follow Fleet Street politics closely you’d probably think that’s just another Guardian URI. But the key bit is that it’s in their “Social Enterprise Network”, one of their “Professional Networks”. Guardian Professional’s front page is here. It’s possible that there is some difference between Guardian Professional Networks and Guardian Professional, in which case it might be more professional to make this obvious. But I suspect that this piece is advertorial.

It is, however, informative.

Over the past year, in the face of chaotic reorganisations and relentless manager bashing from politicians, we’ve seen many of them decide to take up generous redundancy packages, in some cases over a year of full pay…

Those civil servants who have been made redundant – they collected their redundancy money! The bastards.

Aside from the huge drop in productivity during the prolonged reorganisation, this mass firing and re-hiring carries huge risks for costs going forward. The same manager is thinking of moving on to work for an international research agency. If the GP consortia wants her unique skills and community relationships in twelve months time, they’ll find her charged out to clients at £1000 a day….

Indeed, just like last time. Perhaps it would be better not to do the privatisation and mass sackings in the first place?

If all this sounds a bit gloomy, social enterprises could offer a way to stem the flow of this talent and make use of the experience and knowledge that the taxpayer has invested in…the fear is the shadow of large private sector companies coming in and cleaning up….At Sidekick Studios, we’re going t try to grab some of this talent first. Our reasons are pretty selfish – if public services don’t want these people, and their knowledge, and their skills, and their networks, then we sure do….From May 1st, we’re starting SS3…

I think this might have been improved by an admission that Sidekick Studios is in fact a private sector, for profit, company. What offends me about this is that they are quite openly trying to help push public servants out of real jobs with pensions and union recognition and that stuff and into the hyper-precarious code-for-pizza status we just outlined. Come to think of it, if you can’t get hipster interns living off the Bank of Mum & Dad you might as well try sacked civil servants living off the redundancy money.

But then, what else would you expect from people who want to replace the poor sods working in local authority social care with “Wife Swap for your gran” and the police with “Foursquare for criminals”, all held together with sales-training day bullshit and shameless volunteer-mining?

Here’s an interesting story about a successful response to the seizure of a ship, MV Full City, by pirates in the Indian Ocean. Indian, Chinese, and Turkish (NATO) ships responded, and the pirates abandoned the prize after an Indian Navy aircraft (slightly ironically, a Tupolev Bear) overflew the ship. But the really interesting thing isn’t so much that there was good international cooperation, or even that there were pirates 450 miles off the Indian coast, and certainly isn’t that Indian naval aviation was flying a Tu-142 (they have been for decades).

In fact, it’s that the Chinese Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre was in charge of the whole thing. The China MRCC is based in Beijing (not very maritime, but it is essentially a control room full of computers). The British one is at RAF Kinloss (so presumably will be moving pretty soon) and has coordinated operations everywhere in the world. This is the first time I’ve heard about an oceanic rescue being coordinated from the Chinese one, though. It’s a data point.

Meanwhile, they’re loading up on PhDs.

Errr

Following up this post, here’s a really interesting piece in Dawn on the Indian-Pakistani nuclear balance and the implications of the COLD START doctrine. It’s an especially good point that if India really wanted to punish Pakistan after a “Mumbai II” terrorist attack, they could do so very effectively and much less dangerously through economic sanctions, given how much fuel Pakistan imports and that most of it passes through one port.

In the light of this, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Indian military preparations are simply unwise – in a classic post at Arms Control Wonk, Michael Krepon discusses why Pakistan is continuing to build more nuclear weapons and concludes that the factors at work are as follows. First of all, Indian leaders’ public statements are threatening – to use cold-war terminology, although their military planning is moving towards “flexible response”, their declaratory policy contains a lot of “massive retaliation”. The combination is toxic. Trying to make the conventional forces more usable is potentially provocative. Statements about nuclear strategy like this one, combined with faster response times, begin to look a lot like an offensive doctrine:

The Indian Chief of Army Staff, S. Padmanabhan, sang the same tune – that if Pakistan resorted to first use, “the perpetrator of that particular outrage shall be punished so severely that their continuation thereafter in any form will be doubtful.”

Secondly, although nuclear weapons cost a lot to acquire in the first place, they get much cheaper once the programme has been capitalised and the process industrialised. This was a major theme in the high cold war – the original Manhattan Project was designed to scale up to five bombs a month, achieved that ahead of schedule, and in fact scaled even further. Also, they are often considered cheap in terms of their strategic value. Nukes scare people; Pakistan will never be an industrial power like India, but now it has the production line going, it certainly can add more bombs and more target packages faster than the Indian economy can grow. Krepon makes the interesting point that the limiting factor isn’t the nukes so much as the delivery systems – a country like North Korea can build a nuclear device of sorts, and Pakistan can run a bomb factory, but only a fully diversified industrial economy can make the aeroplane or the missile to carry them.

This has certain consequences for the Pakistani strategic targeting plan. In comments at ACW, someone asks whether they might be thinking of making use of man- or at least vehicle-portable weapons, the famous suitcase nukes. Another, slightly less terror-licious point about this is how the Pakistan Air Force is operating. If they have plenty of bombs but relatively few aircraft, they have to preserve the strike-force (the P-Force, perhaps, by analogy with the 1960s RAF V-Force) at all costs. This implies putting as many planes as possible on quick-reaction alert, dispersing them early in a crisis with the weapons, and keeping open the option of dispersing them in Afghanistan. (We may now begin to see why they care so much.) It also suggests that it would be very difficult to target anything in the Pakistan Air Force without threatening the nuclear assets, and that they might be keen to use tactical nuclear weapons – it’s a relatively cheap substitute for a much bigger army, and (as NATO found out in the high cold war) if you have more and more atom bombs hanging about, pure bureaucratic logic tends to get them assigned to targets.

This is a special case of the principle that mayhem is easy and order is difficult, of course.

The good news, such as there is, is contained in this wikileak, a 2008 cable from the US Ambassador to India. Interestingly, he points out, there are good reasons to think that COLD START is likely to be well named. It takes longer than you think, and when you turn the key there’s a lot of grinding and coughing and fuss before anything happens. So you might be tempted to go for a nice cup of tea and come back later, or perhaps have some biscuits and another cup of tea and turn to page 3, or just do something else.

Although the doctrine is explicitly designed to avoid threatening the existence of Pakistan as a state, and therefore to permit Indian military retaliation without triggering anything nuclear, it is seen as threatening both because it is intended to permit military action – to sneak under the wires of deterrence – and also because it is intended to reduce the relevance of Pakistani nuclear forces. The Indians, if the ambassador’s analysis is sound, are aware of this and are actually quite unlikely to implement it. One way of looking at the complex administrative machinery and politics he outlines is as a deliberate brake on doing anything hasty. Alternatively, it may not have been created deliberately as a check on the military, but if that is the case, it is interesting that it is tolerated. A state that really did intend to carry out a partial mobilisation and a 72-hour blitz from a standing start would have made sure that the code-word would be given. To some extent, the Indians may be experiencing self-deterrence.

The cable also points out that the terrain has changed since 1971 and that some of the ground is now much more urban and more defensible, and also that there are logistical problems that have yet to be solved. Taking an interpretative view, you might say that the real purpose of COLD START is to reject the idea that the international community has any veto on Indian action and to signal non-deterrence to the Pakistanis, while not actually doing anything dangerous. However, the problem is that the signalling succeeds all too well. In fact, the point that all arguments based on “credibility” are crap strongly applies. Either they are taken at face value, in which case they are dangerous, or they are seen through, in which case they are useless.

So, the D-word. What should anyone do about it? This is traditionally the moment at which it becomes obvious why the abbreviation for the discipline of international relations is pronounced “Errr”. But I think the answer is that Kashmir is still the issue. Only real concessions affect perception. Further, it would be very good news if the Indians disavowed COLD START and looked at an alternative reaction plan, perhaps concentrating on the economic side as mentioned in the Dawn link. But you try getting them to do that. Finally, and again spinning off that Dawn piece, the real role of the Pakistani nukes is to secure the special place of the military. Errr, indeed.

It has just come to my attention that both Dubai and Sharjah airports have redesigned their websites. Also, I’ve added 395 more meetings to the scraper this weekend, but for some weird reason the DFID disclosure isn’t actually being treated as a csv file by the csv module. Scraping, scraping, scraping, always bloody well scraping. I even had to write a scraping script for work last week.

Also, does anyone else find the OpenTech schedule a bit thin?

Meanwhile, I think I may be about to buy a laptop. Does anyone have experience of the new, cheap-end Lenovo ThinkPads or indeed their top-end netbook-cum-tablet?

I have recently been reading David McKittrick (et al)’s Making Sense of the Troubles. An interesting point, which I wasn’t aware of before, is their contention that the late 70s and Roy Mason’s tenure as Northern Ireland secretary was an important turning point. In fact, you could make an interesting comparison with Iraq in 2007-2008.

Mason’s policy was to forget about further top-level negotiations, after the collapse of the Sunningdale agreement, and focus on security and economic issues in the hope that progress from the bottom up would bring the conflict parties back to the negotiating table on better terms. In fact, during his tenure, there was a dramatic drop in the rate of killings that was never reversed. This is the hub of McKittrick’s argument – having surged in 1971 and peaked in 1972-3, levels of violence stayed very high until 1977 and then dropped to a new, much lower average level.

The British government in this period tried various expedients. The military used more special forces, and integrated their intelligence systems and those of the police and security services. Overall, there was a deliberate effort to project the whole war as a law-enforcement problem (very much a theme of US and Iraqi government propaganda during the “surge”), and to launch as many criminal prosecutions as possible. They tried hard to recruit informers and to make use of supergrasses.

McKittrick and his co-authors argue that there was a sort of cycle-of-recruitment effect at work – terrorism caused recruitment into the loyalist terrorist organisations, whose violence caused further IRA recruitment, which led to more military intervention and more loyalist violence. They further argue that this cycle was broken or at least slowed down in the late 1970s – whether the government was succeeding in providing security or not, it at least reduced the demand for unofficial, privatised violence. The government also tried hard to recruit potential paramilitaries into its own forces, and demonstrated that it was willing to use force against loyalists as well as republicans (they argue that the failure of the 1977 loyalist strike was important). This is all quite familiar.

However, the drop in violence was an over-determined event. There was a major change in the IRA leadership and strategy, which emphasised holding out for the long term and eventually led to an increased emphasis on the ballot box. (The parallel with the Sadr movement stands out.) There was a major protest movement demanding peace, which is another way of saying that the people were unwilling to tolerate so much violence any more.

Although this turning point meant much less violence, it didn’t solve anything in and of itself. And it involved quite a lot of state violence in itself – especially during interrogations. This Musings on Iraq roundup is telling – rather than gunbattles and mass bombings, the war continues with a low-level assassination campaign. In Northern Ireland, the best any security solution could ever do in the absence of a political solution was to hold the levels of violence down around the post-77 average, with a very significant cost to society as a whole.

This came up in my twitter feed recently. Charmingly 90s-ish, but I did like the point that it’s very difficult to get decent bass out of a mobile device/laptop/whatever, and this probably has consequences for the kind of music people will make with them. Come to think of it, there’s an interesting economic angle. The electronics will only keep getting cheaper, and the software can be free. But some things require a large physical lump that needs transporting and storing awkwardly. It’s a little like Baumol’s cost disease.

Meanwhile, I read the Grauniad interview with Adam Curtis this weekend and it didn’t make me want to see his next after all. This post sums up why. It’s TV thinking – if the edit is right, it doesn’t matter if the logic contains more handwaving than might be ideal.

What were the most successful public policies of the last 30 years? Apparently, the minimum wage, devolution, privatisation, and the Northern Ireland peace process. I suspect they may not use my definition of success, but even on their terms it’s telling that three out of four of them come from the 1997-2001 Labour government.

Finally, some music.

A lot of their other stuff seems terribly dated now but that one holds up.

Economic facts

Owning the walls of a building separately may seem eccentric and ill-advised, but perhaps it will make a comeback in the light of stories like these? Deutsche Bank “Stuffed Mortgage Reviews In a Closet”. They’re also accused of being a slum-lord and a public menace. More slums, via Felix Salmon. And there’s a slightly unnerving macroscopic take, from Hernando de Soto. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen anyone link the housing bubble and financial crisis itself directly to the mortgage-servicing fuckups. Via.

Alliance Géostrategique is having an interesting-sounding meetup on the theme of walls, borders, and checkpoints. Here’s a little contribution.

In my home village in the Yorkshire Dales, there lived two men, who both owned a large shed they used for their business. Somehow, one of them owned the roof and two walls, and one of them owned the other. There was some arrangement about the land under it, but this bit of the story escapes me. Anyway, years pass, eventually they give up the business and sell a chunk of land next door to a property developer. But they can’t agree on what to do with the shed. They fall out to the extent that only genuine Yorkshiremen can; and the shed is left to rot quietly.

Eventually, bits of it start to fall down. One day, down goes a great chunk, and the local council decides that the building is a menace to the public. So they knock it down. Surely this must resolve the issue one way or the other. Or can the wall exist in a purely legal, moral sense, without the tiresome requirement of a couple of hundredweight of rocks? It turns out that it can, at least for a while. The owner of the roof sells the plot of land, less the strip the wall actually occupied, to another property developer, who builds on it.

At this point, our man gets worried about his interest. Even if the legal position was clear, it might be difficult to assert his rights if the question had actually been physically built over. So he visited the site and put up a sort of temporary favela barrier of corrugated iron, tape, and cones along the route of the wall. Rather like the original, overnight barricade the East Germans set up before the more permanent Berlin Wall was created. On this he stuck a sign reading “For Sale: Valuable Amenity Land”.

It’s worth stopping here and thinking for a moment. Strangely, the replacement of the original wall probably strengthens his position from an economic point of view. If it was a sound structure of traditional Yorkshire stone, would anybody notice it? Probably not. They would treat it as a wall, not an economic interest. Nobody would think of removing it, or even that someone else owned it. It would just be a brute stone fact. The wall, however, has been replaced with a sort of deliberately absurd, theatrical monument to the guy’s ego. (Actually, the original wall wasn’t Yorkshire stone or any stone – it was made of breeze-blocks.)

Of course, the other parties to the dispute have not been idle. They are still unwilling to pay the greenmail required to make the whole thing go away, and the very ridiculousness of the new wall makes it clear that destroying it would solve nothing. So they came up with a plan of their own – they painted the whole thing pink, in the hope that this would embarrass the other guy into giving in.

He still hasn’t.

OBL links

Doing real-time PCR in unusual conditions. Just how Obama watched the raid in real time.

Hoping for the end of the war in Afghanistan.

After weeks of debate among civilian and military leaders, the National Security Council recently endorsed key elements of the State Department’s reconciliation strategy. Starting peace talks has now become the top priority for Marc Grossman, who succeeded Richard C. Holbrooke as the U.S. government’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On Tuesday, Grossman met in Islamabad with Pakistan’s foreign secretary and Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister. The three agreed to constitute a “core group for promoting and facilitating the process of reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan,” Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. U.S. officials expressed hope on Tuesday that Pakistan’s failure to find bin Laden — or its possible complicity in sheltering him — could lead Islamabad to adopt a softer position on Afghan reconciliation. They think that Pakistani officials, who have interfered with peace efforts in the past, have an opportunity to play a more constructive role.

“Our hope is that they are so embarrassed by this that they try to save face by trying to help their neighbor,” one U.S. official said.

More expectations for a quicker end. You can’t rely on the ISI any more.

The crucial information may have been that nobody ever mentioned the courier’s name. Indian politicians rock the boat a bit more. Good piece and discussion at Arms Control Wonk.