Archive for the ‘introspection’ Category

Looking back at Tunisia, and forward at Egypt, I think there’s an important point that this post almost hits but not quite.

Specifically, I’m fairly sceptical about “Twitter Revolutions” and such – if your revolution has someone else’s brand name on it, how revolutionary is it? – but I don’t think it’s irrelevant.

I’m feeling a little sorry for Evgeny Morozov at the moment. He’d just hacked out a niche as Mr. Grumpy by royal appointment to the blogosphere, when first Wikileaks and then Tunisia and Egypt came sweeping through, and the Tunisian secret police hacked all the Facebook pages in the country, and the Egyptians turned off the Internet, just pulled all the BGP announcements… Sometimes it’s not your day.

I do think, though, that there is an important way in which a whole lot of Internet tools contributed to the revolutions. I recently posted on the way in which people can at least for a while function as if they were part of an organisation just because they shared certain assumptions. It’s the idea of the imagined community, which can be defined as a group of people who are behaving as if their weak social ties were strong ones. If you want a mental model of this, the revolution happens when enough people change state and start doing this, and it stops again when they revert to pursuing their interests in the normal way. Of course, what happens in between may have changed what those are and how they do it. From a different direction, look at Chris Dillow’s post here – it’s theoretically irrational to take part in politics, until it’s not. The point when it stops being irrational, though, is the point when people stop thinking it’s irrational.

In that sense, a lot of the work of starting a revolution is starting a myth. An ironic salute to this was the Egyptian government’s decision to turn off the Internet, and later the GSM networks as well. If the value of the Internet really had been as a way to pass on the time and place to assemble, this would have been a serious blow to the movement. But once you’re a really angry Egyptian, where else would you protest but Tahrir Square? It wasn’t that they needed it for tactical communication, but rather for strategic propaganda. Also, once they took this step, they had also inadvertently demonstrated to the other world media that This Was It. The mainstream media remains very good at bringing its own connectivity, and the main barrier to them covering the news is usually that they don’t think something is news. Giving Al-Jazeera and friends – who had been heavily criticised on the Web for being soft on the Egyptian government – a monopoly may have been a really bad idea as it forced them to cover the news or look indistinguishable from Nile TV.

I suspect that a lesson here is that the last thing authoritarian governments will do in future is turn the Internet off. For a start, they will increasingly need to keep it up for economic reasons – the ISP that serves the Egyptian stock exchange and central bank was left alone, and with time I would bet that it would become increasingly porous to information. But much more importantly, this is not a policy that has a great track record. Burma managed it, but started with advantages (not many users, only one network, and a strong position to start with). Iran did far better with its throttle-down-and-spy plan. Even though the Tunisians funnelled all the Facebook accounts in the country into one, controlled by the secret police, it didn’t seem to help.

Jamais Casco (via here) asked if you could start a genocide on Twitter – a sensible point, as we know you can do so with the radio, the cinema, television, the newspapers, and (thanks to Serbian turbo-folk) rock’n’roll*. Terrorists tried to start a nuclear war with a spoofed caller-ID. Whether or not you could do that, you can certainly start a mob of quasi-fascist loyalist paramilitaries on QQ. Out of all authoritarian governments, China does best, with strategic trolling and semi-official moderators, which may be more important than direct censorship. Andrew Wilson’s Virtual Politics makes the interesting point that Russia in the early Putin years didn’t so much censor the Internet, as distribute government talking-points and favours to carefully selected bastards.

Then again, was the greatest success of the wumaodang model the 2004 US presidential election? The best way to fight one myth is perhaps with another. And the best ones are distinguished by the fact they are sometimes called principles. The really depressing consequence of this is that Paul Staines probably has a job for life, although the less depressing corollary is that he gets to herd several hundred idiots yelling about ZaNuLiebour for the term of his natural.

A couple of other interesting links: Charles Bwele makes the point that in much of the world, the so-called new media are more like the first ones. Did you know about the Grozny riots of 1958?
*The world’s first genocidal remix is yet to come, but I wouldn’t rule it out by any means. All art aspires to the status of music, and just look what people get up to with books.

Also a neat remix here, although my Internet link still tends to jam every time a comment comes up on soundcloud.

Tangentially, I saw a poster for Jon Pleased Wimmin (of all possible DJs) the other day, which made me think “Bloody hell, I thought he was dead? Or at least rendered generally harmless?” So much so that I was about to pass some remark to that effect, when I realised I was enormously tempted to follow up with “I know he’s dead…because I killed him.” Also, I didn’t ask someone if the haddock, as a blackboard appeared to say, really was “21 days aged”. This sort of thing is funny, and then it gets less funny. It rather worries me that it wasn’t so long ago I’d have been unable not to say it. I mean, I told a cold-caller who asked if I was the homeowner that I was a burglar, and another that I was monitoring the line for MI5 in the interests of national security.

Progressively realising that “brilliantly funny” is quite often “fucking tiresome”. It took a while. Fortunately there’s you, reader, to take it out on.

I disbelieve strongly in all attempts to define “generation this or that”. So I was reading this with at least a pint of scorn, when it occurred to me that I was working in a tech start-up and I’d been to a 2-Tone gig at the weekend.

This is sad: ITV kills the Yorkshire Television studios in Leeds. The wikipedia article should tell you why – the first studios in Europe designed for colour TV, the biggest working TV studio in Europe, and a lot of very impressive programmes. The history is interesting, too – the station set up in 1967 was a Wilsonian shotgun marriage between a rich TV-rentals enterpreneur (who had the money), and a ramshackle coalition of interests including Leeds University, various trades unions, and the Yorkshire Post, who had the ideas. Oh yes, and a lot of Leeds vs. Sheffield Yorkshire tribalism.

So, to Michael Lewis‘s article in Vanity Fair about Iceland and crazy financing. I didn’t find it belittling to fishermen, which a number of stockbrokers I consulted did (I couldn’t find any deep sea fishermen to ask); if anything I thought it was quite snarky with regard to Anglo-American finance.

It did, however, remind me quite a bit of growing up in the Dales; everyone knows each other, there’s a liberating sense of not giving a shit, but everyone is always right, and the thing about men and women socialising on opposite sides of a pub is painfully familiar. And the cocktail of small pond syndrome and raging ambition. At school we had a saying: you’ve got to get out of the valley.

25 years; the strike was the first political event, indeed one of the first events, I actually remember. At least I remember power cuts and TV news broadcasts with the number of weeks the miners had been out counting up. After that, I recall Chernobyl – they set up a radiation monitor in the car park and my mother was interviewed on TV in front of it – and Gorbachev (we had a photo of him, complete with birthmark!), and then, it all starts rolling past.

Years later I actually met Scargill, at a conference of economics students; it was some testimony to his oratory that he was cheered to the echo by an audience that included about fifty per cent Young Conservatives. Perhaps it was the other fifty per cent. The organisers certainly aimed for stimulation – the other keynote speakers were John Redwood and Patrick Minford, of all people. Around the same time I met my first Scargill-hater, who actually was an ex-miner. History is like that.

Here is the man himself’s version. I don’t know the detailed history well enough to criticise it, although it strikes me that his idea of cutting off the coal supply to the steel industry, a sort of John Robb-ish cascade-failure attack, was based on a fundamentally false assumption. Namely, it assumed Thatcher cared what happened to the steelworks; as we now know, she was just as keen to screw them as she was the miners, and not much better with regard to the downstream steel-consuming industries either.

But one thing I don’t think anyone has mentioned about this is that whatever had happened in 1984, there could only ever have been a stay of execution for ten years. In 1995, the starting gun for serious climate fear was fired when the IPCC scenarios crossed the 95% confidence interval into significance; and as James Hansen says, it’s the coal. Essentially lumps of carbon, with some added toxic heavy metals for laughs, and there’s so much of the stuff that we won’t run out before we cook the planet.

Consider the alternate history for a moment; NACODS walk out as well, the government is forced to give in. Thatcher, of course, doesn’t quit, but there is either a 1922 Committee coup or else she loses the 1987 election, or perhaps there is a repeat of 1974 – she calls an election for a mandate to take on the miners again, and loses. Neil Kinnock walks into Downing Street, either in a Labour government or a coalition with the Liberals and SDP.

Where do we go from here? The TUC-driven European turn in the Labour Party hasn’t happened yet, but neither has the D-Mark shadowing and ERM fiasco. The Labour Party has taken a goodly dose of the new social movements, as in the original time-line, but the prestige of the NUM on the Left would be immense.

But whatever happens in the Kinnock-Steel government, at some point in 1995 the Chief Scientific Advisor walks into the Cabinet Room, and about ten minutes later, all hell breaks loose. After all, in this scenario we’ve been merrily burning much more coal than in the original timeline for the last ten years, and the coal lobby is the strength of the Left.

The political implications would be more than weird. The activist Left, all other things being equal, is heavily green-influenced, so it ends up against the miners. The mainstream Labour Party is wildly conflicted. And the rightwing science-dodger ecosystem has no choice but to support the miners; Anthony Browne and friends in Doncaster, probably with bags of Exxon-provided cash. Thrill as they try to tack between screwing the government and keeping their North Sea investments.

So the strike 2.0 happens in the late 90s/early 2000s, with mobile phones and the Internet on the protesters’ side (flashmobs at Ferrybridge), tasers and pervasive CCTV on the police side, and all the party affiliations surreally flipped. God knows how that would have played out.

Someone ought to write the book.

One thing this brings up is just how necessary social democracy is; sometimes, it’s not enough to be right, and huge impersonal forces are going to work their will, like the steadily rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And then, it’s up to the society we create around ourselves whether the changes that will happen will be humane or brutal and tragic.


There is a Russian IT company that tends to rent huge stands at tech conferences and have a squad of practically naked girls gyrate on them; I mean, booth babes are one thing, but they are going too far. The result is a constant line of the ill-bred standing in front of their stand, ogling. Anyway, on the Wednesday of MWC I happened to walk out of an aisle behind the stand, with the result that I appeared from behind some SIM-verification company’s placards, facing the line of oglers. It was a depressing sight – what struck me was that they didn’t even appear to feel anything as humane as lust, which implies more participation. Sex with the sex taken out is a highly sinister concept; Orwell made good use of this in 1984.

I am in awe of this. Surely this must be some sort of brilliant artistic prank? Where is Chris Morris?

Yes, that is Richard Branson

Yes, that is Richard Branson

The story behind it is that he’s a simulated refugee in an event held during the WEF. Many jokes are of course possible regarding the fact that the people pretending to be refugees are themselves thousands of miles from home, packed into a remote location surrounded by armed guards and dogged by grandstanding journos. If you follow the links from the post at Foreign Policy, you’ll find that they have all been made.

My objection to this is that even if it helped to induce empathy in the participants, that’s not enough; in fact it’s more likely to play into confirmation bias by relieving them of some cognitive dissonance. And then, of course, it’s back to the toolkit of pat solutions you carry with you. Pigeon religion again.

For example, consider this ruck in the comments at Abu Muqawama. I really don’t get why, for some people, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict seems to be framed by rightwing nostrums from 1980s urban policy about “dependency culture”; what next, a zero tolerance drive to fix all the broken windows, vandalism obviously being a gateway drug to terrorism? But I’ve repeatedly seen this, almost always from Americans. And it’s not just a debating point – Donald Rumsfeld thought of appointing Rudy Giuliani chief of police in Baghdad, after all, and aren’t you almost disappointed not to have seen that epic cluster-fuck?

But quite a lot of people’s political views are best understood by posing this question; what qualifies my opinion as serious in a given peer group? Analysing Gaza as if you were running for election in New York City circa 1987 on a law-and-order ticket is objectively insane – it makes as much sense as using one’s remembered views on pay-beds in the NHS from 1978 as a guide to EU-Russia diplomacy.

And the outputs from it are as bad as you might expect; yer man is absolutely furious with me, although we appear to agree that there must be a Palestinian state and by corollary the Israelis will just have to cut their coat according to the cloth. The chief difference is that he thinks that abolishing the UN Relief and Works Agency will somehow lead to the state, rather than the other way around. Again, it’s very 1980s – slash their child benefit until they become better people, dammit, because otherwise…a generation of superpredators will knifecrime the suburbs!!!

There must be a reason for it, though; a meme this strongly conserved is conserved for a reason. I’d guess it’s twofold – one, this is the sort of thing a sensible conservative citizen is meant to say, two, it’s a screen-statement which protects against the fact that we are, after all, discussing the creation of a Palestinian state. And just as the only way to make Richard Branson a refugee is to persecute him out of London…

But then, what kind of pat solutions and dead ideas am I carrying about?

OK, so have you heard the one about the bloke from Goole who was planning to start his own race war? Probably not, because it’s not been on the news at all. Rather like the BNP guy in Burnley, whose trial was also shrouded in tebbly tebbly concerned silence. Martyn Gilleard, a 31-year old lorry driver, is currently standing trial for making nail bombs, as well as collecting a variety of weapons. The prosecution alleges that he’s a fascist who was planning to use them on his local mosque, and they seem to have a strong case – as well as the bombs, the bullets, and the knives, he collected American white-supremacist propaganda material. The BBC reports; I’m amused by his defence that he “said he had become less racist recently”. Indymedia has more, including photos.

Here’s the head of counter-terrorism in Scotland, making sense:

Fife’s assistant chief constable said the public is at risk because racism is being used to unite people into violent causes. He said this also undermines police work to reassure the Muslim community following the attack on Glasgow Airport last year.

Burnett said: “We’ve had a number of right-wing issues recently [in the UK] that again have raised their head in Scotland. There have been serious cases down south that have been really well dealt with by the police down there, but we shouldn’t be complacent about it. There’s no point promoting positive race relations if, in claiming to be everyone’s co-ordinator of counter terrorism, you take your eye off the right-wing.”

But it’s strange how little media/political attention is paid to the guy with the actual real explosives, compared to, say, the “Lyrical Terrorist”. Perhaps it proves that intellectualism really is valued in Britain, at least by the Security Service – and who is to say they are wrong? After all, it wasn’t the street fighters who put Hitler in power.

This is, however, another shot in the greater intellectual struggle of our times. I mean, of course, the debate between Dsquared, Jamie Kenny and myself about exactly how jihadi radicalisation works. Jamie has in the past argued that there is a sort of climate of nonspecific extremism abroad in our culture, which doesn’t have to fit any particular political world-view, but instead makes its way to earth by any handy conduit. I wasn’t very convinced of this to begin with, but I’m beginning to think there’s something in it.

Evidence: here we have an actual prison-gang jihadi recruiter, who’s being held in seg to stop him propagandising other prisoners. The key facts, however, are that his name is Stephen Jones and he used to be a member of the BNP. Clearly, Jamie’s thesis is valid at least for some people. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones were to become, or have been, a Maoist, a deep-ecologist who thinks getting rid of people in general would be a good thing, a hardcore libertarian nutcase, or just a random thug. 10 years ago, perhaps he might have become a road-protesting raver, given the right drugs and influences. I particularly like the statement from the Prison Officers’ Association rep that the sheer magnitude of the threat is shown because “if someone as right-wing as this can be radicalised, what could happen to the normal prisoners?” On that score, we’d surely want to worry about the screws.

Come to think of it, perhaps this free-floating extremism explains more than just the anglo-jihadis – there are the Decents, for one, and maybe even me. Dsquared has in the past expressed his concern at the speed with which Mohammed Sidique Khan, possibly the most capable person this movement produced, went from something approaching normality to suicide terrorist – come to think of it, it’s a bit like what I think of as the Decent Death Dive. Taken together with this post, perhaps our society is organising itself around a defining tension between free-floating authoritarianism and non-specific extremism?

So I actually bought a printer; in fact, a printer/scanner. And I considered buying two pairs of jeans after showing up at the count with interesting new holes. Am I descending into bovine consumerism? And the obvious next step was to qualify it with the Linux Lappeh.

It wasn’t quite the “And then my troubles began…” experience like the BIOS reflash in January, but I was very amused by the fact that XSANE both throws a dialog box containing the following words:

You are trying to run Xsane as root! This is DANGEROUS! Please do not file bug reports for anything that happens when running Xsane as root: YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN!

and also suggests running as root as a generic troubleshooting option in its documentation. Well, I did, and all went OK. As I said to Soizick: the great thing about using Linux is that you get to feel like a mad scientist.

I recommend and endorse hplip.