Archive for the ‘weirdness’ Category

Look what he’s up to now. It’s amazing how common the “that hillside is full of warbirds/jeeps/whatever” story is, and how geographically widespread. I worked on a north-west Australian cattle station that included an abandoned WW2 airfield, and more than a couple of people had wasted time and money digging into bits of it looking for them.

Near my dad’s home town in Hertfordshire, there was an old 8th Air Force base and relatives of mine knew about people who claimed there were whole P-38s, motorbikes, trucks, jeeps etc buried, although the status of the story was “you don’t want to listen to old Stick, he’ll believe anything”. Oddly enough, if they waited long enough they were almost right, because the Americans continued to use part of the site, and allegedly some of it was used for something spooky during Iran-Contra. There are similar stories I’m aware of about a couple of places in Yorkshire.

I presume it goes back to genuine tales of how much surplus kit there was sloshing about, and how much of it was basically thrown away, and perhaps to a deeper awareness of the wastefulness of war. It’s also very similar to the cargo cult – like the intersection of buried treasure and cargo cultism.

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It strikes me that much of today’s blog could be summarised as “gut truth, simple message, shout, get cracking”.

Anyway, I found this ironic:

Our financial markets have become a largely automated adaptive dynamical system, with feedback. Furthermore, a dynamical adaptive system with feedback is challenging ordinarily, but this one is also strategic. A flight controller is dynamical, but not strategic. Add an adversarial environment, and there’s no science I’m aware of that’s up to the task of understanding the potential implications of that system.

Hmm, someone could do with a copy of Red Plenty?

Also, this.

“Far more people are investigated, examined and spoken with than actually end up being hospitalized,” says Robert T.M. Phillips, a Maryland-based forensic psychiatrist who worked with the Secret Service for 15 years to assess people who threatened the president.

Sometimes the Person of Concern is referred for mental health services. Other times the Secret Service agents themselves continue to engage the person with frequent visits and calls.

Fein tells of one letter he read, written by a Person of Concern to the Secret Service agent charged with preventing him from harming a government figure. The letter was addressed: “To Agent Smith, my only friend in the whole world.”

OK, back from eComm in Amsterdam; here’s something interesting. Besides all the stuff I was meant to be following for work, we had a presentation from a group of the sort of media-arts types who get a lot of coverage on Bruce Sterling’s blog; in fact the whole gig was faintly Beyond the Beyond-esque when it wasn’t Charlie Stross-esque. Notably, two projects struck me as emblematic of a certain kind of thinking.

The first one was the Isophone, which is a mashup of a flotation tank and a telephone. The idea is that you sink into yummy sensory deprivation while talking to someone else in the same condition; it looks like this.

the isophone, with user

Maybe it’s just me, but having to take phone calls under a state of total sensory deprivation is not my idea of fun. I couldn’t help imagining some sort of nightmarish prison call centre, a whole pool full of them.

Then there was Mutsugoto. Let the official description speak for itself.

Mutsugoto is meant to be installed in the bedrooms of two distant partners. You lay on your bed and wear a special touch-activated ring visible to a camera mounted above. A computer vision system tracks the movement of the ring and projects virtual pen strokes on your body. At the same time these pen strokes are transmitted to and projected on the body of your remote partner. If you follow your partner’s movements and your strokes cross, the lines will react with each other and reflect your synchrony. Special bed linens, silk curtains and other aspects of the physical context have been designed to enhance the mood of this romantic communication environment.

But what are the civilian applications? As they say.

Go on, this is basically a sex toy, isn't it?

Well, I think we can probably guess. Anyway, I found both of them depressing; it also struck me that too many of these projects are all about sucking information out of the virtual space and representing it on a piece of hardware in private space. Basically, a gadget that reads out Twitter feeds, that you’re meant to think is your friend. Further, once you get rid of the microphone, pointing device, keyboard, webcam, etc, you’re basically watching TV on your own. It’s read-only communication into the private realm.

The suit faction in this field, oddly, works the other way round – the M2M (Machine to Machine) community in telecoms, the big IT types, they’re all more interested in getting data from the real world and representing it in virtual space. Basically, it’s all SCADA applications – monitoring the current status of CO2 pipeline valve number 58634. Flowrate, direction, valve setting and temperature, please, and when did you last have your grease changed?

What seems to be missing from this as an artistic project is sending stuff into the public space. A lot of data gets captured from the public space into the private space; CCTV is one version, promoting your demo on Flickr and taking photos of the cops is another. Nothing much seems to be sent back, though; can’t we have truth-screamer robots that run about yelling out under-reported news? Of course, if you or I were to encounter one we’d probably dropkick it into a handy canal. Splosh; “Hey there! CitizenMediaBot is sinking!”

But it would at least be fun, and more fun than gazing at a waldo that turns puce when #drivel is trending again. I suspect there’s scope for this with things like Layar, who were also presenting. Then, we’re deep into the Strossosphere; “what do we want? Brains!” indeed.

Reader “Ajay” has a theory that aviators are uniquely unfitted for government. There are a considerable number of data points in his favour. However, here’s a possible counter-example. Ernest Millington has died; he was one of three MPs for the brief Common Wealth Party, a radical leftist group that emerged during the second world war, and held the Distinguished Flying Cross for completing no less than thirty bombing raids over Germany as a squadron leader in the crack 5 Group.

Later, after the party lost its other seats, he took the Labour whip and served on until he lost his seat in 1950. He later worked as an encyclopedia salesman, rejoined the RAF, and eventually became a teacher and a senior official in the London Borough of Newham’s education service. The stories are predictably fantastic:

He left school because his father expelled him from home after he heard him address a crowd from a street- corner soapbox on behalf of the Labour League of Youth, alongside Ted Willis, the latterly ennobled creator of Dixon of Dock Green. Homeless and penniless, the boy found a clerk’s job. He was sacked when his employer heard him evangelising for ethical socialism at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London. He joined the Labour party – and was expelled in the late 1930s for supporting the Communist party-backed anti-fascist popular front….

While still a flight lieutenant, he went to an RAF conference at which he was the only officer present below the rank of wing commander, but also the one with the most operational experience. He disagreed strongly with plans advanced at the meeting, which he maintained would result in heavy casualties. This was noted by Air Vice-Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane, commander of 5 Group, Bomber Command. Cochrane made him a squadron leader on the spot, promoted him to wing commander a few days later and posted him, in October 1944, as commanding officer of the new 227 squadron, based at Balderton in Nottinghamshire. A remarkable 30 Lancaster sorties followed, with raids ranging across Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Romanian oilfields, and taking in the bombing of Panzer tank groups during the Battle of the Bulge at Christmas 1944….

When Chelmsford’s Conservative MP, Colonel J McNamara, was killed on his way home from Italy, a scratch group of Common Wealth supporters set about finding a candidate. Millington’s views were well known in the area, and a deputation met him in a railway station waiting room. Ten minutes was all the time he could spare, and they made him their candidate there and then…

He first arrived at the Commons with his newly awarded Distinguished Flying Cross ribbon inexpertly self-sewn on to his uniform. A Conservative MP, who was a squadron leader in the RAF police, approached. “You are improperly dressed,” he told Millington.

“If you are talking to me as an RAF officer,” Millington replied, “take your hand out of your pocket and address a senior officer as ‘Sir’. If you are addressing me as a fellow MP, mind your own business and bugger off.”..

Some people just don’t get it… The party was also far from boring, as its Wikipedia article sketches out. Leading figures included J.B. Priestley, the British Battalion of the International Brigade’s former political commissar Tom Wintringham, and the rebel Liberal MP Sir Richard Acland, at a time when he thought Hitler had some remarkably sound ideas. Despite this, the party struck a consistent left-libertarian line based on a critique of managerialism and an interest in decentralisation of government and organisational theory.

So, the provisional wing of Chris Dillow, in short. Not being bound by the pact between the major political parties, under which they didn’t contest by-elections during the wartime coalition so as not to alter the political balance, they stood at several by-elections and won, possibly to their own surprise. I was not as surprised, however, as I might have been that they took Skipton.

Eventually, the party fell apart as some of it wanted to be back in the Labour Party and others lost interest. Comically, it became involved with Plaid Cymru; less comically, a lot of ex-members helped to start Amnesty International.

The Rude Pundit has a very good point.

You can’t even picture Obama pardoning a fucking turkey. Sure, he’ll probably do it. But unlike Bush, who approached such obligations with dunce-like glee, for Obama it’ll be like a kick in the groin.

As usual with Rude, there’s a serious point here, sneaking past the guards while all the noise and snark and chainsaw dust draw their attention. Pardoning a turkey is, let’s face it, exactly the kind of stupid crap most British people look at as just the kind of stupid crap Americans get up to. Can you imagine a British prime minister trying this? He or she would be laughed out of the country; probably they’d end up doing a John Profumo and choosing a life of deliberate monkish obscurity.

But it’s not just ridiculous; it’s morally repellent and politically more than dubious. After all, what is the turkey’s crime? Being a turkey? Pardon implies that you committed a crime, and also that you were punished by some legitimate authority, which has now offered you mercy out of the goodness of its heart. It’s a sort of reversed sacrifice – rather than killing a goat to expiate your sins, it’s not killing a turkey so as to go off and eat millions of ’em with a clean conscience.

Pardon is also interesting because it can’t be separated from executive power. To pardon someone means that the head of state decided, whatever the law happened to be, whatever the judiciary thought of the case, whatever the jury thought of the evidence, just to intervene and make an exception. It’s only possible, after all, because the executive has the power to execute. It also means that the executive agreed to all the other executions; what, after all, would happen if the president pardoned everyone? That would be about as likely as pardoning all the turkeys. Executive clemency is the flip side of executive cruelty. (Note, of course, that a British prime minister isn’t the head of state.)

It’s therefore a profoundly anti-rational, authoritarian custom; no wonder it’s a holdover from absolute monarchy. And this, I think, is what worries me about this ceremony – it’s the sacralisation of the executive branch. Like the King’s touch for scrofula. (He can even un-turkey a turkey!) No wonder, as Rude so wisely points out, Bush loves it.

Before we go on, here’s a video from Talking Points Memo in which you can see both Bush doing the turkey thing and also Sarah Palin’s now-notorious performance in which she pardoned a turkey while a worker slaughtered turkeys in the background. It will help your comparative turkeyology to watch closely.

Now, what about the well-known cockup in Alaska? A couple of points come to mind. For a start, as befits an anti-rationalist movement, neoconservatism has no culture of competence. They never run anything; their natural habitat is the thinktank, the university campus, the elite circle. Hence the Schlamperei that follows them around, like a drugfuddled burglar in a darkened room full of gym equipment. Of course they’d fuck it up – even in Washington, Bush managed to grant the bird a “full unconditional unconditional pardon”.

The second is that perhaps they aren’t trying. Looking back, when did they lie convincingly? The case for war was based not on lies, but on the unwillingness to confront the lies. Later, on things like torture and mass surveillance, they moved beyond this and simply admitted the facts while denying the form. Yes, we waterboarded the guy and pulled your call-detail records – are you with the terrorists? Of course, we do not support torture or illegal surveillance. In a very real sense, they were pardoning turkeys in front of the slaughter live on TV all the time.

I think I’ve said before that I find public sector accounts incredibly weird. Here’s a great example; it’s a very good FT story on the bank nationalisation plan and how it affects the national finances. Bizarrely, the £25-50bn of government bond issuance required to raise the money probably won’t count towards the public sector net cash requirement (what used to be the PSBR in John Major’s days of sound finance…not!); it’s a “financial transaction” and these are excluded.

Well, that makes a weird sort of sense; the liability on one side is matched by an asset (the stake in the banks) on the other, the net change in the government’s cash position is zero (at first, but even later, any dividend paid on the preferred stock would at least balance the interest payments). The next bit, however, gets really strange; although it’s not counted as new public borrowing, it is counted in the figure for the national debt. It’s debt, right? Yes, but if the government was anything else but the government, the increased debt would be matched on its balance sheet by the stash of bank shares. It being the government, however, it’s not.

Now, it gets really counterintuitive when it comes to the really big money – the £250bn guarantee for wholesale bank lending. Apparently, if the Government (as suggested) charges the banks a significant fee for the guarantee, this will force it to take the full wad on its books as a liability of the public sector. (Even though most of any transactions among the eight participating banks will add up to zero; if Lloyds lends Barclays £1bn and Barclays lends HBOS £1bn, and Barclays then goes bust, the state guarantee would only come into it if Lloyds and HBOS couldn’t agree to settle the transaction between themselves.) If the Government offers the guarantee free of charge, however, the rules on public sector contingent liabilities mean they can keep it off the books. Yes, you heard that correctly; it’s in some sense financially better for the state not to receive quite a lot of money.

Anyway, in these weird times, let me propose a weird solution. The Government has promised to put manners on the banks in return for the £50bn, pressing for executive pay restraint and measures to help small businesses. Some people are concerned that they won’t be able to make this stick because preference shares don’t come with a vote. I disagree; whatever the formal terms, anyone who fronts up as much as half of RBS’s capital base is going to have several billion votes, and indeed it looks like the CEO is going to be sacked as a condition of the deal. It’s a question of political will.

EDINBURGH, October 12th: Crowds cheered as the giant statue of Sir Fred Goodwin was torn from its perch by a Royal Engineers’ armoured tractor. As the news spread this morning, a mob gathered around the base of the monument, unavailingly beating it with sledgehammers and dragging at it with ropes. Eventually, Sergeant Mick Kelly’s Chieftain AVRE arrived. After a few minutes, its engine roaring, the huge vehicle succeeded where they had failed and the dictator’s figure crashed into the dust. In a sinister orgasm of rage and contempt, the mob beat it with their shoes, spitting and jeering as the ruin was towed through the streets….

Like I said, it’s a matter of political will.

However, it will be much easier to hold the Government’s feet to the fire about this if they do have formal rights to intervene, as well as safer, as unwinding the stakes in a hurry in order to punish a recalcitrant bank wouldn’t be easy. One option is to buy ordinary shares as well as the new preference ones, and have the Treasury Shareholder Executive manage them; the numbers involved would put the Government in a position to insist on a seat on the board and extensive influence over management. However, this would be riskier, as ordinary shares don’t have the charge over cashflow the preferred kind do, and it would also spook the market even more, as issuing the new shares would dilute the existing shareholders.

It would also be affected by weird public accounting, as this would make the banks into public-sector entities and therefore bring them on the Treasury’s books; in which case, only their liquid assets would be counted against their debts and the national debt would therefore reach unheard-of proportions.

But there’s another option. For many years after privatisation, the Government held so-called “golden shares” in a range of ex-nationalised industries considered to be strategically important. For example, that in Rolls-Royce gave the Government a veto over changes of ownership and the right to reserve the top management positions to British citizens. Some of them were abandoned in the early 2000s at the request of the European Commission; notably those in BAA plc. Now, these shares were legally structured as “special preference shares”, and the Office for National Statistics didn’t consider them to be sufficient state control to put BAE, RR, National Grid plc, BAA and the rest on the books – but they certainly granted the Government special rights over these companies. In fact, they still do at BAE Systems and Rolls.

Update: Oh well, here comes the shock and awe. Sod golden shares, preference shares, whatever – it looks like we’re in for the whole hog, 75% of RBS’s market cap, voting stock, Government directors, sack the board, don’t open the London Stock Exchange…fuck, did they just say that? Looks like the opening of the books must have been quite a dramatic event.

So I took my stupid damn idea off to the stupid ideas club. When we got there, guess who? Spyblog was waiting at the rendezvous with some Dutchmen and an Argentine documentarist and half the No2ID members not currently in hospital. And after we made our way through Jock McZanu’s EU Maddie monsoon (GOOD HERE ISN’T IT???) to the pub, who shows up but Rat; carrying a total of 30GB of mass storage on his person in an array of USB drives, a fob GPS, and God knows what in his piercings.

Anyway, we talked over the thing, and many other things besides; what should happen if secret police become members? wouldn’t it be easier to do an open-source clone of a BMC helpdesk ticketing app? (why? why? I thought my brain would concrete) how would you sterilise an airport fingerprint reader in less than 10 seconds? So I promised to revise the proposals, and well, here they are.

Or would be, but nobody likes a 2,000 word blog post. So instead it’s here on Google Documents, which probably means something badological. Read. Mark. Learn. Inwardly digest. Comment. Here at first, but if you want to take part just tell me and I’ll give you write privileges. If anyone cares very much I’ll get it set up on Sourceforge and set about preparing a list of functions and tables. I still think Django is the way to go, in which case the mapping of the org model into Python classes into db tables should be as straightforward as these things ever are.

Via Calculated Risk, galleries of repossessed houses in Los Angeles. This one can stand for a common theme.

It’s hardly got any windows on the street side at all! Just two huge garage doors. Those doors are a common feature throughout the show – houses whose outward appearance is totally dominated by monster garages, like a great big fat ugly gob. Anything human in the architecture skulks behind the garage, as if ashamed. It’s as if cars designed these buildings for their own use – realising, of course, they needed to make provision for the people, but sadly not being quite able to understand their needs.

This is, of course, not irrelevant to why they are already down one-third of their value. Perhaps we need a word for the opposite of architecture?

Crunch!

That’s what happens when an Antonov-12 runs right off the runway, engines churning, and hits a parked Boeing 727. But that isn’t the interesting bit.

The 727 was 9L-LEF; and what it was doing in Pointe Noire, Congo-Brazzaville, when it’s meant to be with Iraqi Airways is a very good question indeed. Like all the Iraqi Airways planes post-2003, it was provided by a Jordanian company called Teebah Airlines, owned by a sheikh named in the Oil-for-Food case, and registered in Sierra Leone. This particular aircraft, however, served with both Iraqi Airways and also Kam Air, the Afghan operator owned by Abdul Rashid Dostum which operates a range of aircraft from some very interesting partners, such as Viktor Bout and Chris Barrett-Jolley’s enterprise.

More as we get it, as they say…

The story that Israeli satellite TV viewers have been experiencing constant interference for several weeks is an interesting one. As has been pointed out, it can’t be the jamming presumably employed during the Deir ez-Zor raid, which would have been over weeks ago. According to the Israeli government it’s all the fault of the Germans! More specifically they claim it’s the air warning radar on one of the German (or perhaps Dutch) ships in the UN task force off Lebanon. Well, perhaps. Warships have been known to do weird things with radio in the past; but it’s not as if they never exercise the radars in the North Sea.

There’s more detail at Flight International; specifically, it’s the Amos 1 and 2 birds, located at 4 degrees West.

I wonder if it had anything to do with this story from April this year? (I’d link to my own report on it for MCI Telecoms.com, but their website is still very ungooglable.) The summary is that the pan-Arab satellite operator Thuraya, whose satellite mobile telephony and data service is found across the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, had been experiencing serious radio interference for most of 2006.

Intensive efforts to explain it failed; management blamed Israel, but eventually, the engineers decided to have the satellite revolve slowly around its axes in orbit while they logged the strength of the interfering signal. Essentially, it was the same way they used to do radio direction-finding by hand back in the day; that is to say, the second world war. Knowing its azimuth and elevation relative to the satellite, and that it would be coming from a point on the side of the earth facing it (and thank God it wasn’t coming from the reciprocal..), they were therefore able to plot the source of the signal on a globe. It was somewhere in the Libyan desert.

Two engineers flew to Libya at once and headed for the lat and long position; not very surprisingly, they were arrested by machine gun totin’ secret police agents before reaching their goal. Which seemed to lurk somewhere in an antenna farm surrounded by wire and goons and cameras and the like. Case closed. Eventually, the UAE ambassador to Libya secured their release.

It turned out the Libyans were having trouble with Touareg rebels and smugglers and bandits way down south, who tend to pack a Thuraya unit next to their Kalashnikovs; after all, at least one of the groups has got a blog to look after. But this is where it gets, well, Libyan; Libya is one of the countries that jointly own the Thuraya system. They are a shareholder. But for some reason they decided just to point a big dish antenna at the satellite and start frying pigeons.

There have been reports over the summer of disruption to Thuraya and also INMARSAT BGAN satellite-IP service in the Middle East, which could well explain it. Thuraya’s satellite is stationed at 44 degrees East.