Archive for the ‘memorial’ Category

I’ve been reading J.G. Ballard on and off for years. The first thing I read of his was the short story My Dream of Flying to Wake Island, which was included in an anthology edited by (of all people) Frederick Forsyth. I remember vividly the weird, inspiring force of it. Much later I got into him seriously; our local library held a surprising amount of his science fiction.

It was permission to wonder at what mental processes underlay the bizarre things that powerful and respectable people were constantly doing, to treat the present in the same way that other SF writers treat the future and most other writers treat the past. (This is, of course, the distinctive achievement of the New Wave he co-founded.) And, no matter how weird and sinister this history of the future became, Ballard offered us no fear of the future.

I regularly complain that British culture is ridden with compulsory nostalgia. In fact, it seems to me that every citizen is required to complete a term of national service in the past and to remain on the reserve in case of a worrisome outbreak of futurity. I wonder what power relationships this nostalgia conscription serves. Ballard, at least, offered an opportunity to desert from compulsory nostalgia, and a compelling vision of reality-as-fantasy that actually seemed to respond to the forces that govern the future – who fucking cares, after all, about tedious British politics and official literature? (That the Grauniad Review asked Martin Amis of all people to reflect on Ballard is the final, confirming stamp on this.)

The Ballardian environment: someone asks Slashdot for advice about assembling a cluster of servers in tropical jungle, nobody seriously asks why. Brazilians borrow a US Navy tactical communications satellite, which turns out to operate entirely in the clear and unsecured, because who’d do that?

A right-wing US politician advises his colleagues to emulate the Taliban because they

“went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person’s entire processes.”

We know, meanwhile, that the people who did this were the CIA, working for the politicians he supported. As Ballard himself said, of course it’s obscene and intended to be so.

Surprising numbers of people believe that spoof rightwing TV blowhard Stephen Colbert is a real rightwing blowhard.

Additionally, there was no significant difference between the groups in thinking Colbert was funny, but conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.

Accident, or is he deliberately feeding them bad lines? Perhaps that’s how Bush got elected.

Hedi Slimane photographs the cadets of Saint-Cyr; surprisingly basic drugs reactivate an immune mechanism we stopped using 7 million years ago – and what else? In California, people are knocking down houses that were built last year and the swimming pools are famously turning green.

Somali pirates pursue cocaine-white glassfibre Monegasque superyachts; pirates with media spokesmen, that is. RIP, JGB; if you prefer, that is.

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RIP. Gilliard was a master of the snark element, Chris Lightfoot of the hacker element, Tanta of the policy element of great blogging. Together it’s the blogging triathlon. (Yes, I agree this sounds a bit chilly.)

More broadly, folk like “Black Swan” Taleb have to deal with the fact that their great unpredictable validating event was predicted, years in advance, with considerable precision, by unofficial people who weren’t paid six figure bonuses in any currency, as well as by economics professors who were paid considerably more. The CR team can claim to have predicted the housing crash not like economists – There is a significant risk of this happening, but we can’t say when – but like meteorologists. Something like a crash has been observed building up in the North Atlantic, and it is coming closer at a rate of 5 knots. We expect it any time after X hundred hours.

25 years ago today I was a three year old boy, living in a village in the Yorkshire Dales, from where you could see the golfball aerials at the NSA’s Menwith Hill base. Later, people I knew well would protest it for ages, and a man who was supposedly an engineer for LockMart there lived next door.

Via Charlie Stross, today is Stanislas Petrov day. As a Soviet air defence forces colonel, he was in charge of monitoring their satellite early warning system when it indicated five incoming missiles. But he was well aware of the system’s possible failings, and the strategy the US was expected to pursue – after all, what on earth would be the point of firing only five missiles, on a polar trajectory that the Molniya satellites would detect?

And so he declined to give the warning, knowing that if he was wrong, the radar line would light up with panic soon enough. The phones certainly did; they complained he hadn’t filled in the station log right, to which he said that he couldn’t because he’d had a phone in each hand all night. Of course, the radars didn’t go off because there were no missiles – when the ideologues and bureaucrats handed the issue to serious scientists, they worked out that it was an inherent flaw in the system’s design, connected with the unusual orbit of the satellites and rare conditions in the upper atmosphere. A false positive could have happened at any time.

That didn’t wash with the Karlo Rovskis; they sacked Petrov, who had anyway had a nervous breakdown (who wouldn’t?) not long afterwards.

Petrov’s heroic success was based on a few things; the first was his sound understanding of the machines. He didn’t need to ask the experts or believe the big computer. The second was that he understood the political and grand strategic situation. It made no sense to send five rockets. The third was that he feared what the buggers might do anyway; yes, it might be clear that nobody would send five rockets, and anyway the radars would give enough time to press the button, but who knew what the politicians (of every kind) would do under the effect of fear?

The fourth was that he acted, not letting the fools take the wheel. The Soviet Union was in the hands of a middle-ranking air force colonel, as in so many science-fiction horrorshows; but no-one could have been better. I can’t help but think of the lowborn Model Army men of the civil war; Colonel Hewson and Cornet Smith against the Duke of Godknows.

I liked this comment from Chris “Chris” Williams regarding Arthur C. Clarke:

What future? A better one than we’ve got: a worse on than we’d have had without him. Several million fanboys and girls grew up exposed to clear prose, opposition to nationalism, scepticism about organised religion, faith in technology, faith in humanity, and some great comedy.

“The guest of honour pressed a button (which wasn’t connected to anything). The chief engineer threw a switch (which was).” – or thereabouts. From Travel by Wire. All there at the start.

Which amused me; especially as the same post got linked by the Adam Smith Institute. Ha, I can’t imagine two technologies that got commercially deployed whose development had less to do with Teh Market than satellite communications and GSM. Even though there is fierce competition in both fields, a lot of it is down to the fact that the GSM founding engineers designed it in, working for ASI-tastic organisations like nationalised Nordic telcos and the European Commission.

Satellites, well…you do know Bell Labs (itself hardly the most Thatcherite operation, and one Reaganism killed off pretty sharpish) actually considered launching the first comsat on a Soviet rocket? Beyond mockery, what I’m driving at is that Clarke delivered a solid disrespect for ideology as well as religion and nationalism and Western arrogance – surely, the Indian-engineer archetype must have something to do with all his Dr Chandras, next to the IITs and the unintended consequences of IBM being kicked out of India in the 70s? (And what would the ASI make of *that*?)

The political landscapes he delivered were always nicely sceptical of state bureaucracies (2001: A Space Odyssey can be read as an attack on the security-bureaucratic complex) and also of big business. He missed the revival of small business, but then, who didn’t. And his major political flaw was that he was too optimistic about technocratic cooperation – he seemed to believe that politics stopped in low earth-orbit, and Space Station One is essentially the European Union at L-5. Just as you can’t have non-political bread, you certainly can’t have non-political spaceflight; but of all the political mistakes you could make, it’s a pretty minor one compared with some of the others on offer during his career.

From the 1930s to today, he could have variously believed in die-hard opposition to Indian autonomy, to say nothing of independence, that Stalin was an honourable gentleman, that what we really need is a strong leader to discipline the feminine masses, that white people were smarter than other people, that the US intelligence services were engaged in a conspiracy to downplay Soviet power and that therefore we need many more nuclear weapons, that burning the North Sea oil reserves in order to support sterling at an exchange rate high enough to flatten the export sector was a good idea, that the UN is a secret Zionist conspiracy to take your guns, that what we really need is a restored Caliphate, or that invading Iraq was wise. And this is far from an exhaustive list. Literally no other period of human history has offered a richer cornucopia of delusions; as George Orwell said, no ordinary man could be such a fool.

The Clarkean vision was that perhaps, we might be able to imbue reality with the inspiration and excitement various groups of us applied to the list of ideological manias above. Rather than pluricontinentalism or bimetallism or conservatism, we might consider the renal parasites of cephalopods, the neurological basis or otherwise of psychoanalysis, or viewing the surface of Venus in the infrared. Nothing is mere; so said Richard Feynman. It finally poses the question; is a sceptical utopia possible?

He imagined that satellite broadcasting might help a hundred Indian villages save two cows a year and understood what an impact that might have. Says a commenter at PZ Myers’ place, on the occasion of Arthur C. Clarke’s death. Two cows a year; now that’s genius. I can’t presume to say whether this came true; I don’t have any data on satellites and Bos indicus. But I do have some numbers on fish.

Brough Turner likes to keep track of this stuff, and here’s an actual peer-reviewed study. You can get a presentation version here (pdf). On the coast of Kerala, not all that far from Clarke’s home, mobile phone networks deployed in stages down the coast between 1997 and 2000; this graph shows what happened next.

jensenplot.jpg

Price is on the Y axis, time on the X. Not just that, but the improvement in allocative efficiency led to an 8% increase in the fishermen’s profits and a 4% drop in the price to the customer; at the same time, the quantity of fish going to waste went down from 6% of the catch to near zero.

vsat.jpg

VSAT.

20071121_greensite.jpg

Ericsson RBS2111.

I was given Of Time and Stars as a very little boy; I am frankly terrified by the number of people posting all over the Web to say how much it inspired them with the sense of wonder and joy of science…what future was it preparing us for?

Chris Lightfoot

Our regular reader, MySociety prime mover, pythonmeister, sysadmin, hammer of government mainframe psychosis, Chris “Chris” Lightfoot has died, at a terribly young age.

I never met him, but I saw and used enough of his projects, and shared enough blog, to respect his good sense, campaigning venom, and technical chops greatly. In fact, Chris was a prime example for the development of this blog for the last two years, and an example that led me to start regaining lost skills.

The last communication I had with him was on the subject of a campaign against John Reid. I’m not sure whether I should be concerned that this morning I had a moment of dread at the thought of removing the blog from my RSS reader – as if, perhaps, there might be some good news if I left it there. Grief, like all other emotions, will infect all new communications media – I don’t think William Gibson thought of that, or if he did he didn’t write it. It’s not as commercial as saying that sex will infect all new media like a virus.

Chris Lightfoot. Presente!

Chris Lightfoot

Our regular reader, MySociety prime mover, pythonmeister, sysadmin, hammer of government mainframe psychosis, Chris “Chris” Lightfoot has died, at a terribly young age.

I never met him, but I saw and used enough of his projects, and shared enough blog, to respect his good sense, campaigning venom, and technical chops greatly. In fact, Chris was a prime example for the development of this blog for the last two years, and an example that led me to start regaining lost skills.

The last communication I had with him was on the subject of a campaign against John Reid. I’m not sure whether I should be concerned that this morning I had a moment of dread at the thought of removing the blog from my RSS reader – as if, perhaps, there might be some good news if I left it there. Grief, like all other emotions, will infect all new communications media – I don’t think William Gibson thought of that, or if he did he didn’t write it. It’s not as commercial as saying that sex will infect all new media like a virus.

Chris Lightfoot. Presente!

One of the many events I should have blogged but didn’t over the last week or so, due to a combination of elections and unusually short deadlines, was the death of John Kenneth Galbraith. In memoriam, I’m rereading his book on the 1929 Wall Street crash, The Great Crash. It will probably surprise no-one that I come down on the “god-like genius” side of what seems a Manichean division of opinion about him.

Some thoughts.. First of all, one of the routine critiques of JKG is that he lacked “rigour”, which in economics is identified not so much with quantitative methods as specifically with intermediate analysis or “microfoundations”. For non-economists, also known as normal people, these are the juicy bits that explain each step in the process that makes your theory work and are usually left out of explanations intended for non-economists. Although important (after all, the jump from correlation to causation depends on an intermediate mechanism), they often demonstrate diminishing informational returns from quite early in the day. Not coincidentally, as well as being the marker of academic respectability, they also tend to be the least simple to understand.

I don’t think JKG was especially interested, having attained the land of tenure, in the admiration of the profession. The reason why his books are worth reading is that they weren’t written for professional economists. What he was more interested in was what might be termed a critical theory of capitalism, a way of seeing the economy that gave more place to how the people in it behaved. His distinctive contribution will probably be in the economics of bureaucracy, public and private. Time is said not to have been kind to his`work on alternative models of the firm and The New Industrial State, but I have my doubts.

Certainly, the idea that the decision-making processes of big organisations (in Galbraith’s shorthand, the technostructure) were not dissimilar whether those organisations were publicly or privately owned and would have an influence on the economy that grew compared to that of capital might seem to have suffered since the 1960s. That was, at least as a stylised fact, an era of big government, big firms, and big plans. Conventionally, it is assumed that the instability of the 1970s and the conservative turn of the 1980s reversed this trend in a blast of classical competition, as financial deregulation reasserted the power of shareholders.

Well, perhaps. It’s hard, though, to see that Microsoft shareholders are exerting much commercial control over the decisions made in Redmond, or that an average Vodafone shareholder is even aware of the terms of roaming agreements, the ETSI standards committees, or the ITSUG patent pool. In a sense, a new wave of firms appeared, grew, and as they grew they took on the Galbraithian characteristics of technocracy. Another post-New Industrial State trend that was justified on anti-Galbraithian grounds was skyrocketing remuneration of top management, notably through the use of share options. This was meant to reconnect ownership and control, but it can just as well be read as the techno-bureaucratic elite managing things for their own benefit.

Another counter-trend has been the effort to make the State’s bureaucracies more like private-sector bureaucracies through quasi-marketisation, PFI/PPP, management by targets, and the use of consultants. (There is a small classic to be written about the consultant phenomenon. The divorce of ownership and control has been well-understood almost since Marx, but the recent explosion of consultants represents a further subdelegation of control by the controllers themselves.) At the same time, some types of private organisation have been encouraged to take on state functions, and will no doubt become more statelike as a result.

Interestingly, as they were whipped out of economics like redheaded stepchildren, much of Galbraith’s legacy has been welcomed into the security/strategic studies/”defence intellectual” sphere, travelling on a false passport. One of the implications of the technostructure was that it likes a stable environment in order to pursue its goals of institutional growth and technical virtuosity. Hence such phenomena as oligopolistic price stability. Another implication of a multinational technostructure – and the technostructure is nothing if not multinational – is that external political stability is as important as internal economic stability. Galbraith, famously, pointed out that this could be a means of redirecting US/Soviet competition into peaceful activity, and he advised President Kennedy that the space race offered such an opportunity.

Looking at current ideas such as Thomas P.M. Barnett’s Core and Gap, John Robb’s systems-of-systems, Geir Lundestad’s description of the EU and NATO as an empire by invitation, and the “democratic peace”, there’s quite a strong analogy with the NIS. An integrated, transnational technostructure would not tolerate war or serious political trouble within itself, and would have a common interest in mutual protection. It might even take a benevolent view of those outside it. It would likely be rather dull within, but then, that’s what big technical bureaucracies are like.

(Note: My own business, telecommunications, displays the Galbraithian tendencies to excess, which probably influences me. It’s not really capitalism, more a planned economy run by an engineer-bureaucratic complex with some competitive areas.)

Update, 08/05/06 1800BST: Our Word is Our Weapon says it better than I can:

Sometimes John Kenneth Galbraith’s writing reminds me more of Joseph Heller than anyone else. He was the closest thing to a satirist economics had (something it badly needed, and still does). I like to think one of his main legacies, like Jane Jacobs who went the same way only a few days ago, will be to have demonstrated the importance of mischief in any form of social science.

RIP.

One of the many events I should have blogged but didn’t over the last week or so, due to a combination of elections and unusually short deadlines, was the death of John Kenneth Galbraith. In memoriam, I’m rereading his book on the 1929 Wall Street crash, The Great Crash. It will probably surprise no-one that I come down on the “god-like genius” side of what seems a Manichean division of opinion about him.

Some thoughts.. First of all, one of the routine critiques of JKG is that he lacked “rigour”, which in economics is identified not so much with quantitative methods as specifically with intermediate analysis or “microfoundations”. For non-economists, also known as normal people, these are the juicy bits that explain each step in the process that makes your theory work and are usually left out of explanations intended for non-economists. Although important (after all, the jump from correlation to causation depends on an intermediate mechanism), they often demonstrate diminishing informational returns from quite early in the day. Not coincidentally, as well as being the marker of academic respectability, they also tend to be the least simple to understand.

I don’t think JKG was especially interested, having attained the land of tenure, in the admiration of the profession. The reason why his books are worth reading is that they weren’t written for professional economists. What he was more interested in was what might be termed a critical theory of capitalism, a way of seeing the economy that gave more place to how the people in it behaved. His distinctive contribution will probably be in the economics of bureaucracy, public and private. Time is said not to have been kind to his`work on alternative models of the firm and The New Industrial State, but I have my doubts.

Certainly, the idea that the decision-making processes of big organisations (in Galbraith’s shorthand, the technostructure) were not dissimilar whether those organisations were publicly or privately owned and would have an influence on the economy that grew compared to that of capital might seem to have suffered since the 1960s. That was, at least as a stylised fact, an era of big government, big firms, and big plans. Conventionally, it is assumed that the instability of the 1970s and the conservative turn of the 1980s reversed this trend in a blast of classical competition, as financial deregulation reasserted the power of shareholders.

Well, perhaps. It’s hard, though, to see that Microsoft shareholders are exerting much commercial control over the decisions made in Redmond, or that an average Vodafone shareholder is even aware of the terms of roaming agreements, the ETSI standards committees, or the ITSUG patent pool. In a sense, a new wave of firms appeared, grew, and as they grew they took on the Galbraithian characteristics of technocracy. Another post-New Industrial State trend that was justified on anti-Galbraithian grounds was skyrocketing remuneration of top management, notably through the use of share options. This was meant to reconnect ownership and control, but it can just as well be read as the techno-bureaucratic elite managing things for their own benefit.

Another counter-trend has been the effort to make the State’s bureaucracies more like private-sector bureaucracies through quasi-marketisation, PFI/PPP, management by targets, and the use of consultants. (There is a small classic to be written about the consultant phenomenon. The divorce of ownership and control has been well-understood almost since Marx, but the recent explosion of consultants represents a further subdelegation of control by the controllers themselves.) At the same time, some types of private organisation have been encouraged to take on state functions, and will no doubt become more statelike as a result.

Interestingly, as they were whipped out of economics like redheaded stepchildren, much of Galbraith’s legacy has been welcomed into the security/strategic studies/”defence intellectual” sphere, travelling on a false passport. One of the implications of the technostructure was that it likes a stable environment in order to pursue its goals of institutional growth and technical virtuosity. Hence such phenomena as oligopolistic price stability. Another implication of a multinational technostructure – and the technostructure is nothing if not multinational – is that external political stability is as important as internal economic stability. Galbraith, famously, pointed out that this could be a means of redirecting US/Soviet competition into peaceful activity, and he advised President Kennedy that the space race offered such an opportunity.

Looking at current ideas such as Thomas P.M. Barnett’s Core and Gap, John Robb’s systems-of-systems, Geir Lundestad’s description of the EU and NATO as an empire by invitation, and the “democratic peace”, there’s quite a strong analogy with the NIS. An integrated, transnational technostructure would not tolerate war or serious political trouble within itself, and would have a common interest in mutual protection. It might even take a benevolent view of those outside it. It would likely be rather dull within, but then, that’s what big technical bureaucracies are like.

(Note: My own business, telecommunications, displays the Galbraithian tendencies to excess, which probably influences me. It’s not really capitalism, more a planned economy run by an engineer-bureaucratic complex with some competitive areas.)

Update, 08/05/06 1800BST: Our Word is Our Weapon says it better than I can:

Sometimes John Kenneth Galbraith’s writing reminds me more of Joseph Heller than anyone else. He was the closest thing to a satirist economics had (something it badly needed, and still does). I like to think one of his main legacies, like Jane Jacobs who went the same way only a few days ago, will be to have demonstrated the importance of mischief in any form of social science.

RIP.