Archive for the ‘class’ Category
Taped to the inside of a Sainsbury’s window in King’s Lynn, a printout of a map reminds teenagers of the town’s restrictions. Next to it, a notice on Norfolk Constabulary headed paper spells out the terms of a dispersal order: within the marked area, groups of two or more youngsters can be broken up by police not only if they have caused intimidation, harassment, alarm or distress to members of the public but also if their behaviour is deemed likely to do so. Initially, the order focused mainly on the area around the supermarket and adjacent bus station, but when groups of young people who were deemed to be behaving antisocially relocated, it was extended to cover most of the town centre. Drinking in groups, verbal abuse and reckless or dangerous cycling are among the antisocial activities listed.
It must be deeply weird to grow up with this stuff. Years ago I blogged that in the future, the government would introduce universal ASBO conscription – everyone would be given an ASBO at birth, and the restrictions would be removed progressively as they demonstrated that they could behave responsibly, in a manner that balanced the rights they were granted.
But in this case, they’ve implemented pretty much that. Of course some idiot will show up to say that they shouldn’t misbehave, but note that the terms of the order give the police essentially total discretion. After all, if you can’t think of a reason off the top of your head why three young people might not potentially, at some point in the indefinite future, annoy any hypothetical citizen, you simply lack imagination and you’ve got no business being on the force.
PS, what would we say if, say, a government in central Europe declared a “Roma dispersal zone” across one of its cities? Probably not much, although the EU was in fact pretty aggressive about it during the accession process and British representatives in it were no different. But you see what I mean.
Swinging off a discussion at Jamie Kenny’s of climate deniers, I wonder what Jamie thinks about Steve Levine’s thesis here that China’s emerging culture of mass protest, the famous Mass-Group Incidents or MGIs, may have major and positive consequences for Chinese energy policy and therefore for the world.
It’s surely time we started calling the MGIs a movement; they are big, they are angry, they are common and increasingly so. Also, they seem to be getting more simultaneous as well as more frequent. The range of issues involved is enormous, from pay to police violence via public corruption and land appropriation. And they’re effective – the Chinese Communist Party, although it has more than enough brute force to crush them, often seems to semi-tolerate mass protests by trimming policy or sacking discredited officials. I’ve suggested before that the top level of the Party may actually see them as a useful force in disciplining the industrial bosses and territorial proconsuls who rule below it. The emperor may be far and the mountains may be high, but that’s the last thing you want when an enraged mob is trying to burn down the Public Security Bureau offices.
Beyond that, it’s conventional to say that the Party wants stability above all and that the organising principle of Chinese politics is Hobbesian fear of chaos. JK would probably point out that they’re damn right – if you had China’s history, you’d be obsessed by chaos because there’s been so much of it and it was so fucking chaotic. Anyway, Jamie is the blogosphere’s MGI expert and therefore I’d like his opinion.
Levine’s argument is that forecasts of China’s economic and energy future tend to arrive at an enormous and prolonged boom in coal-fired generation. They do this by projecting current rates of growth into the future. This scares the shit out of everyone with any sense, as it’s this huge, epochal belch of CO2 (and a lot of other stuff besides) that will eventually fuck us all up. Of course, if the CAGRs for coal consumption were wrong quite a few assumptions would need to be reviewed.
Levine argues that it’s the other stuff you get with coal, especially the low grade brown coal China uses a lot of, that will intervene. Basically, he reckons, air pollution, power-plant development, and mining will become a major and rising source of serious MGIs and will result in the Party restraining the coal industry before the mob does it for them. L
Levine points out that Chinese interests were quite restrained during last year’s rush of coal-related mergers and acquisitions – which is interesting when you think that if the Party wanted them to, they could bid almost without limit thanks to SAFE’s enormous foreign exchange reserves.
Further, and I seem to remember James Hansen making this point, there are real constraints on how much coal the Chinese economy can get through, in that moving that much coal from mines and ports to power stations will fairly soon use up most of the State Railways’ freight capacity. As most of this coal is going to drive the machine tools in all those export processing factories…well, either the bulk haul trainload of coal moves or the intermodal linertrain of containers of exports moves. Are you feeling lucky, punk? Building a completely new railway is of course the sort of thing that gets people in an MGI mood.
From a technocratic perspective, as Joe Romm explains here, restrictions on all the other stuff coal-fired power stations shit into the atmosphere are basically as good as a ban on them.
The question is therefore whether “green MGIs” are a serious possibility. It’s not actually necessary that the MGIs be specifically about what Greenpeace would call a green issue, of course. Rioting over pay or safety down the mines, over ethnic resentment in the coalfields, or over land appropriation for new power stations or railway lines would do as well. But it’s worth noting that environmental protests happened in the 1980s in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and acted as a sort of gateway drug to dissidence more broadly. Not that people who are willing to burn down the police headquarters and run the mayor out of town when they feel their interests are insufficiently recognised need one.
Relatedly, and also via LeVine, meet the Unitec Model 5 pneumatic hacksaw, guaranteed by the manufacturer to slice through a 24″ pipeline in one blow and only 16lbs dead weight to tote away from the scene of the crime. And it’s nothing but good American workmanship, too. Mesh wireless is so pre-Iraq by comparison, don’t you think?
This LA Times story about the Boeing 787 Dreamliner (so called because it’s still a dream – let’s get the last drop from that joke before it goes into service) and the role of outsourcing is fascinating. It is partly built on a paper by a senior Boeing engineer which makes among other things, this point:
Among the least profitable jobs in aircraft manufacturing, he pointed out, is final assembly — the job Boeing proposed to retain. But its subcontractors would benefit from free technical assistance from Boeing if they ran into problems, and would hang on to the highly profitable business of producing spare parts over the decades-long life of the aircraft. Their work would be almost risk-free, Hart-Smith observed, because if they ran into really insuperable problems they would simply be bought out by Boeing.
Even in its own financial terms, the whole thing didn’t make sense, because the job of welding together the subassemblies and hooking up the wires doesn’t account for much of the profit involved. Further, the supposedly high-margin intellectual-property element of the business – the research, development, and design of the plane – is only a profit centre after it’s been built. Until they’re done, it requires enormous amounts of investment to get right. The outsourcers were expecting the lowest-margin element of the company, assembly, to carry the costs of developing new products. Whether they were funded with equity or with debt, this implies that the systems integrator model, for aircraft at least, fundamentally restricts innovation.
This is one of the points I’d like to bring out here. Hart-Smith’s paper – you can read it here – is much stronger on this than the LA Times was willing to be. It’s a fascinating document in other ways, too. For a start, the depth of outsourcing Boeing tried to achieve with the 787 is incompatible with many of the best practices used in other industries. Because the technical interfaces invariably become organisational and economic ones, it’s hard to guarantee that modules from company X will fit with the ones from Y, and if they don’t, the adjustment mechanism is a lawsuit at the financial level, but at the technical level, it’s rework. The dodgy superblock has to be re-worked to get it right, and this tends to land up with the manufacturer. Not only does this defeat the point of outsourcing in the first place, it obviates the huge importance of avoiding expensive rework.
Further, when anything goes wrong, the cost migrates remorselessly to the centre. The whole idea of systems integration and outsourcing is that the original manufacturer is just a collection of contracts, the only location where all the contracts overlap. Theoretically, as near to everything as possible has been defined contractually and outsourced, except for a final slice of the job that belongs to the original manufacturer. This represents, by definition, all the stuff that couldn’t be identified clearly enough to write a contract for it, or that was thought too risky/too profitable (depends on which end you look at it) for anyone to take the contract on. If this was finance, rather than industry, it would be the equity tranche. One of the main reasons why you can’t contract for something, of course, is that you don’t know it’s going to happen. So the integrator essentially ends up holding all the uncertainty, in so far as they can’t push it off onto the customer or the taxpayer.
This also reminded me a little of Red Plenty – one of the problems is precisely that it’s impossible to ensure that all the participants’ constraints are mutually compatible. There are serious Pareto issues. There may be something like an economic law that implies that, given that there are some irreducible uncertainties in each contractual relationship, which can be likened to unallocated costs, they flow downhill towards the party with the least clearly defined role. You could call it Harrowell’s U-Bend. (Of course, in the macroeconomy, the party with the least well defined role is government – who you gonna call?)
Anyway, Hart-Smith’s piece deserves a place in the canon of what could be termed Sarcastic Economics.
I suspect that the problems he identifies have wider consequences in the economy. Given that it’s always easier to produce more or less of a given good than it is to produce something different, the degree to which it’s possible to reallocate capital has a big impact on how quickly it’s possible to recover from a negative shock, and how bad the transition process is. I would go so far as to argue that it’s most difficult to react to an economic shock by changing products, it’s next most difficult to react by producing more (you could be at a local maximum and need to invest more capital, for example), and it’s easiest to react by producing less, and that therefore there’s a structural bias towards deflationary adjustment.
Hart-Smith’s critique holds that the whole project of retaining product development, R&D, and commercial functions like sales in the company core, and contracting everything else out actually weakens precisely those functions. Rather than being able to develop new products quickly by calling on outside resources, the outside resources suck up the available capital needed to develop new products. And the U-bend effect drags the costs of inevitable friction towards them. Does this actually reduce the economy’s ability to reallocate capital at the macrolevel? Does it strengthen the deflationary forces in capitalism?
Interestingly, there’s also a presentation from Airbus knocking about which gives their views on the Dreamliner fiasco. Tellingly, they seem to think that it was Boeing’s wish to deskill its workforce as far as possible that underlies a lot of it. Which is ironic, coming from an enormous aerospace company. There’s also a fascinating diagram showing that no major assembly in the 787 touches one made by the same company or even the same Boeing division – exactly what current theories of the firm would predict, but then, if it worked we wouldn’t be reading this.
Assembly work was found to be completed incorrectly only after assemblies reached the FAL. Root causes are: Oversight not adequate for the high level of outsourcing in assembly and integration, Qualification of low-wage, trained-on-the-job workers that had no previous aerospace experience
I wonder what the accident rate was like. A question to the reader: 1) How would you apply this framework to the cost overruns on UK defence projects? 2) Does any of this remind you of rail privatisation?
Apparently the interesting bit is:
the extent to which the public vastly overestimates the prosperity of lower-income Americans. The public thinks the 4th quintile has more money than the median quintile actually has. And the public thinks the 5th quintile has vastly more wealth than it really has…You can easily see how this could have a giant distorting effect on our politics. Poor Americans are simply much, much, much needier than people realize and this is naturally going to lead to an undue slighting of their interests.
The other interesting bit is the political breakdown. If you look at the second chart, which represents what the sample thought would be an ideal distribution, two things become obvious – one, the ideals are not very different, two, they are all significantly more egalitarian than the reality. People who admitted to voting for George Bush wanted to redistribute wealth quite radically – even when you compare their preferences with their illusory beliefs about the distribution, they want a very significant change. Compare them with reality, well…
The rest is pretty obvious – the least egalitarian group is those earning more than $100,000, the most are those earning less than $50,000, women are more egalitarian than men as a group, but no more so than declared John Kerry voters.
The problem is clearly much wider than their estimates of the lowest quintile’s wealth – in fact, although the people studied were unaware of quite how bad things were, they are clearly very well aware of inequality and they want it to change. And this sweeps right across the board. Even if they were unaware of the full poverty of the poor, they were well aware of the rich.
What they need evidently isn’t Blairism – scrape a bit off the top and pay it out to the poorest, with all kinds of interlocking and perverse conditions drawn up by the Yglesians of this world. This is why universalism is important – it’s possible that the whole discourse of “targeting” as applied to social policy reinforces the delusion that the poor are actually rich.
So we’ve discussed GCHQ and broad politics and GCHQ and technology. Now, what about a case study? Following a link from Richard Aldrich’s Warwick University homepage, here’s a nice article on FISH, the project to break the German high-grade cypher network codenamed TUNNY. You may not be surprised to know that key links in the net were named OCTOPUS (Berlin to Army Group D in the Crimea and Caucasus) and SQUID (Berlin to Army Group South). Everyone always remembers the Enigma break, but FISH is historically important because it was the one for which Bletchley Park invented the COLOSSUS computers, and also because of the extremely sensitive nature of the traffic. The Lorenz cyphersystem was intended to provide secure automated teleprinter links between strategic-level headquarters – essentially, the German army group HQs, OKW and OKH, the U-boat command deployed to France, and key civilian proconsuls in occupied Europe. The article includes a sample decrypt – nothing less than AG South commander von Weichs’ strategic appreciation for the battle of Kursk, as sent to OKH, in its entirety.
Some key points, though. It was actually surprisingly late in the day that the full power of FISH became available – it wasn’t enough to build COLOSSUS, it was also necessary to get enough of them working to fully industrialise the exploit and break everything that was coming in. This was available in time for Normandy, but a major driver of the project must have been as a form of leverage on the Americans (and the Russians). The fate of the two Colossi that the reorganised postwar GCHQ saved from the parts dump is telling – one of them was used to demonstrate that a NSA project wouldn’t work.
Also, COLOSSUS represented a turning point in the nature of British cryptanalysis. It wasn’t just a question of automating an existing exploit; the computers were there to implement a qualitatively new attack on FISH, replacing an analytical method invented by Alan Turing and John Tiltman with a statistical method invented by William Tutte. Arguably, this lost something in terms of scientific elegance – “Turingismus” could work on an intercept of any length, Tutte’s Statistical Method required masses of data to crunch and machines to crunch it on any practical timescale. But that wasn’t the point. The original exploit relied on an common security breach to work – you began by looking for two messages of similar length that began with the same key-indicator group.
Typically, this happened if the message got corrupted by radio interference or the job was interrupted and the German operators were under pressure – the temptation was just to wind back the tape and restart, rather than set up the machine all over again. In mid-1943, though, the Germans patched the system so that the key indicator group was no longer required, being replaced by a codebook distributed by couriers. The statistical attack was now the only viable one, as it depended on the fundamental architecture of FISH. Only a new cypher machine would fix it.
The symbolic figure here is Tommy Flowers, the project chief engineer, a telecoms engineer borrowed from the Post Office research centre who later designed the first all-electronic telephone exchange. Max Newman, Alan Turing’s old tutor and the head of the FISH project, had shown Flowers a copy of On Computable Numbers, which Flowers read but didn’t understand – he was a hacker rather than a logician, after all. He was responsible for the shift from electromechanical technology to electronics at Bletchley, which set both Newman and Turing off towards their rival postwar stored-program computing projects.
Another key point from the book is the unity of cryptography and cryptanalysis, and the related tension between spreading good technology to allies and hoping to retain an advantage over them. Again, the fate of the machines is telling – not only did the FISH project run on, trying to break Soviet cypher networks set up using captured machines, but it seems that GCHQ encouraged some other countries to use the ex-German technology, in the knowledge that this would make their traffic very secure against everyone but the elect. Also, a major use of the surviving computers was to check British crypto material, specifically by evaluating the randomness of the keystreams involved, a task quite similar to the statistical attack on FISH.
Finally, FISH is exhibit A for the debate as to whether the whole thing has been worthwhile. What could have been achieved had the rest of the Colossi been released from the secret world, fanning out to the universities, like the scientists from Bletchley did themselves? Max Newman took racks of top-quality valves away from Bletchley when he moved to Manchester University, and used them in the very first stored-program, digital, Turing-complete computer; Alan Turing tried to do the same thing, but with a human asset, recruiting Tommy Flowers to work on the Pilot-ACE at NPL. (Flowers couldn’t make it – he had to fix the creaking UK telephone network first.) Instead, the machines were broken up and the very existence of the whole project concealed.
On the other hand, though, would either Newman or Turing have considered trying to implement their theories in hardware without the experience, to say nothing of the budget? The fact that Turing’s paper was incomprehensible to one of the most brilliant engineers of a brilliant generation doesn’t inspire confidence, and of course one of the divides that had to be crossed between Cambridge and GPO Research in Dollis Hill was one of class.
Via Bruce Schneier’s, an interesting paper in PNAS on false positives and looking for terrorists. Even if the assumptions of profiling are valid, and the target-group really is more likely to be terrorists, it still isn’t a good policy. Because the inter-group difference in the proportion of terrorists is small relative to the absolute scarcity of terrorists in the population, profiling means that you hugely over-sample the people who match the profile. Although it magnifies the hit-rate, it also magnifies the false positive rate, and because a search carried out on someone matching the profile is one not carried out elsewhere, it increases the chance of missing someone.
In fact, if you profile, you need to balance this by searching non-profiled people more often.
The operators of Deepwater Horizon disabled a lot of alarms in order to stop false alarms waking everyone up at all hours. Shock! In some ways, though, that was better than this story about a US hospital, from comp.risks. There, a patient died when an alarm was missed. Why? Too many alarms, beeps, and general noise, and people had turned off some devices’ alarms in order to get rid of them.
Unlike Transocean, they had a solution – remove the off switches, because that way, they’ll damn well have to listen. At least the oil people didn’t think that would work. Of course, they didn’t think that if your warning system goes off so often that nobody can sleep when nothing unusual is going on, there’s something wrong with the system.