Charlie's Diary

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Sun, 11 Jun 2006

Pointing the finger

(Warning: politics ahead. May be distasteful for some. You're getting it because I'm angry. Normal service can wait.)

"They have no regard for human life. Neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetric warfare against us."

This statement emanated from US Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris. And now it's quiz time! Was he talking about:

  • Al Qaida members attacking members of the US military
  • Detainees at Guantanamo Bay committing suicide
  • If you guessed (2), you win! Yes, committing suicide after being held in a concentration camp, subjected to torture, and refused legal redress for over four years is now "an act of asymmetric warfare against us". That's asymmetric warfare committed by camp inmates, some of whom were 12 years old when they were detained, some of whom were taxi drivers, and a whole bunch of whom were ordinary folks handed in by neighbours who bore a grudge against them and wanted a cut of that reward money, thanks.

    Are there guerillas among the inmates? Probably. Are there innocents? Definitely. And are they being mis-treated? Well ... Let's see. A good yardstick to look at when examining morale among human beings is the suicide rate. What does it tell us?

    There are roughly 460 inmates in the concentration camp. They've been there for four years. The camp administration admit to 41 suicide attempts, although defense lawyers say this is a gross underestimate -- certainly hunger strikes to the death that are broken only by forced feeding are usually classed as suicide attempts in other jurisdictions, and Camp X-Ray has had over 128 inmates on hunger strike. The best figures I've been able to root out suggest prison suicide rates are typically on the order of 50-200 per 100,000 inmates per year; let's go with 100 per 100,000, or an incidence of 0.1% per year. (The Lancet recently reported that in British prisons, men are five times likelier to attempt suicide than on the outside; this is in line with these figures for overall mortality.) If we assume a ball-park figure of ten attempts per successful suicide, then if Camp X-Ray was a normal prison, we would expect 4-5 attempts per year. Instead we have, by the Pentagon's own admission, at least 10 attempts per year, and by defense lawyer's claims, an average of 20-30. Moreover, a rate that seems to have spiked to over 100 per year recently (and can only be denied by asserting that a hunger strike that is broken by nasogastric feeding tube and restraint chair isn't a suicide attempt).

    I'd say that a prison with a suicide rate two to five times higher than normal -- let alone spiking to 20 times higher than normal -- has a problem. A big, festering, shitty problem. And sticking fingers in ears and chanting "they're all terrorists, they're in prison so they must be guilty," is a big part of the problem.

    As to how to fix the problem ...

    It'd be a good start if Rear Admiral Harris washed his mouth out with soap and started investigating why prisoners at Guantanamo Bay seem to think that hanging themselves is an improvement over their current situation. It'd be an even better start if his bosses in the Pentagon and the Department of Defense were arrested and sent to the Hague for trial for crimes against humanity -- to wit, torture, waging illegal war, acts of terror against civilian populations, collective punishment, and most of the rest of the bill of goods that applied at Nuremburg in 1946 -- but that'll have to wait.

    But meanwhile, kindly reflect: if you support the war on terror, then you're also supporting a policy that has brought concentration camps back to the western world.

    [Link] [Discuss Camp X-ray trials]

    posted at: 16:34 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry


    I'd like to quote briefly from the report The Guantanamo Detainees: The Government's Story, prepared by legal academics from Seton Hall Law School who acted as defense advocates for the detainees.

    From the executive sumary:

    1. Fifty-five percent of the detainees are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its coalition allies.

    2. Only 8% of the detainees were characterized as al Qaeda fighters. Of the remaining detainees, 40% have no definitive connection with al Qaeda at all and 18% have no definitive affiliation with either al Qaeda or the Taliban.


    4. Only 5% of the detainees were captured by United States forces. 86% of the detainees were arrested by either Pakistan or the Northern Allaiance and turned over to United States custody. This 86% of the detainees captured by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance were handed over to the United States at a time in which the United States offered large bounties for capture of suspected enemies. (Emphasis mine.)

    Read the rest here.

    posted at: 16:33 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 17 May 2006

    A report on the state of the National Identity Register, May 2016

    I'm currently working on a novel, HALTING STATE, which is set in 2016. Being an SF author, I try to do some background legwork to make the world the novel's set in seem vaguely realistic. Extrapolating on the basis of existing large government IT projects, I figure the state of play of the National ID Card by 2016 is going to look something like this:

    The National ID Register has been implemented, and (as No2ID are currently predicting) it was a train-wreck.

    Large scale civil disobedience (accelerating from mid-2006, with the introduction of compulsory interviews for passports, then from 2008 with the opening of the first ID card processing centres) prevented the ID card itself from being made compulsory. Bluntly, people who are agnostic on the idea of carrying an ID card when interviewed in 2005, suddenly turn out to be rather against it when they receive a letter ordering them to show up for processing (and to fork over somewhere between £50 and £150 for the privilege). Even disguising it as a driving license or passport or proof of age in the boozer doesn't make them happy, and the proportion of goats in the population is high enough that beating the problem over the head with a stick is going to cause a crisis rather than making resistance trickle away.

    So the card itself is theoretically voluntary, except there's silly shit on the books that make it an offense not to show one to the police when challenged, because the Home Office has predicated its entire legislative program since 2005 on the assumption that the ID card would be compulsory. So conformists carry them, but goats (and your typical petty criminal is always a goat, even though most goats are law-abiding) don't.

    Dangerous illegal immigrant criminals (see current newspaper scandal) do not carry ID cards, by definition. Indeed, they're no more identifiable than they are now.

    Businesses use the ID card for authentication ... except that the government doesn't want J. Random Corner Shop (which might be owned by a crazed Al Qaida-trained bomb maker -- you can never be too sure) poking around their super-secret database. So to keep the wheels of commerce turning, there's a chip and PIN mechanism rather than actual on-line biometric authentication against the government's database, and the PIN is stored on-chip (as with the British credit/debit card system, described in several APACS specifications). In 2006, the chip and pin system was already looking worryingly insecure just three months after its national introduction; by 2016 the system has been successfully attacked by trying to reverse-engineer the chip. (Oops.) What this means is, checking someone's identity using the ID card is no more secure than glancing at their credit card, unless you're a government agency with a biometric scanner and online access to a secure database server -- and credit card fraud is just as rife in 2016 as it was in 2005. But most folks don't realise this, because it is not in the banks' (or the government's) interest to trigger a panic. (There is a precedent for this behaviour; given a choice between sweeping it under the carpet/denying everything, and letting the UK banking system collapse, the government and regulators picked the former option. What did you think your shiny new chip'n'pin card was all about?)

    The lion's share of the complexity in the ID card scheme was actually the software to manage the national identity register -- the largest single distributed database system ever implemented by the British government and its contractors. As is usual in such projects, it was farmed out to the bidder who most egregiously low-balled the initial phase costings -- that is, those that would be spent on the watch of the then Home Secretary.

    The first law of British government IT contracts is "lowball the first five years", because five years is the event horizon of elected political office -- anything that happens five years and a day from now is some other guy's problem. And the contractors milk this egregiously -- you can read about it every couple of weeks in Private Eye. Unfortunately, the software development life cycle in the IT business is such that costs are always front-loaded (development is expensive, maintenance/support is cheap), and development of a large system is therefore always cash-starved just when it most needs investment. It therefore should come as no surprise to learn that the national identity register was delivered massively over-budget, several years late, and insufficiently flexible to do the jobs it was thought to be needed for. Especially as, once the system was under development, everyone ambitious greasy-pole-climbing consultant the government had hired to tell the civil service what to do kept thinking up new jobs for it. The register, with its provision for holding lots of unspecified we'll-fill-in-the-blanks-later data on its subjects, became a moving target. And we all know what happens to database projects that succumb to functional creep ... the additional work of meeting the new requirements puts the project even further behind schedule. Which means more time for idiots to dream up new requirements. It's a vicious circle.

    The other big ticket job was registering individuals and handing out their cards. This was initially to be carried out at regional processing centres for registering individuals, where everybody in the adult population was to be interviewed in person. Unfortunately, the civil service is not set up to interview fifty million people every decade -- or to deal with the hospitalized, the senile, the insane, and the just plain recalcitrant. Thus, the processing centres failed to cope with the interview/registration workload. It turns out that interviewing people is a labour intensive job, labour intensive jobs are expensive, and you can't speed them up by throwing technology at them.

    The final nail in the coffin was a panic measure, ordered by a computer illiterate Home Secretary (is there any other kind?) in 2009. At this point, the project was already 18 months overdue, the government was facing an election, and the ID card -- by now a core plank of Labour party policy -- was seen as vital to the credibility of the Home Office. Processing was an abject failure, so what to do? The answer was clear (to the computer illiterate Home Secretary): cut the Gordian knot, and begin merging existing data into the Identity Register without actual in-person interviews to authenticate it. (The phrase used was: "put it in the database now, we can check it's valid later -- anyway, who'd lie to us? It's a criminal offense!")

    By way of illustrating how totally bone-headed this is, here's an example. If they don't have time to interview you, they can create an entry for you from existing public sources: your driving licence might be merged with that DNA sample the police took when they arrested you three years ago, along with the money launding disclosure for your mortgage application that proves you're not a front for the Medelin cartel. Except that you were never arrested three years ago -- someone else gave your name in the cop shop. And because they accepted a caution, and your spam filter ate the email from the police, you don't even know you've got a criminal record and a DNA sample on the database.

    By 2016 it is believed that 5-10% of ID Register entries are false positives (i.e. false identities created by people who are illegal immigrants, or who just want a spare name for some reason -- e.g. benefits fraud), 15-20% of the population are false negatives (people who refuse register), and 30% of the actual entries that correspond to real people are just plain wrong in one or more details (e.g. the criminal conviction above). The system has been systematically poisoned by the initial influx of bad, unchecked data and by the fact that it is a nice fat central target for identity thieves (see chip'n'PIN authentication, above). Finally, there's a problem with corruption among processing centre staff (some of whom will, for a nice fee, create false identities with your own biometrics -- so you can prove you're someone else).

    There are other, more subtle, problems with the national identity register. Biometric identifiers change over time. People lose fingers and eyes. A lot of protesters discovered that atropine eye drops cause their iris to dilate, to the point where it's impossible to digitize. Middle-aged Filipino women have fingerprints that just plain don't work with the recognition software -- there's insufficient variation to tell them apart. 15% of the population have eczema, half of those have it on their hands, and their fingerprints are (in many cases) differently fucked from week to week. Post-operative transsexuals who have received hormone treatments have facial bone structures that mess up attempts at face recognition. Only DNA fingerprinting works, and even that is fallible, with multiple false positives (e.g. identical twins, and even random folks with identical matching sequences).

    The police hate the thing, but they're stuck with a Police and Criminal Evidence Bill (2008) that was drafted on the optimistic assumption that the thing would work as specified by the Home Office. So they have to pretend it works, even though everyone knows it doesn't. Although it is handy for fitting up people for crimes you really need an urgent clean-up on. (On the minus side, it means real villains, who want to disappear and have sufficient cash to suborn a processing centre worker, can create valid new identities for themselves that will stand up in court.)

    Personally you're against it because you're stuck paying for a new card every couple of years, because you have to carry the damned thing if you want to prove your age in the pub or visit your bank manager, and we all know what the life expectancy of a piece of plastic is. Plus, you can't get that bogus caution scrubbed from your record because your DNA sample doesn't match, and -- to prevent the identity register from being corrupted -- there's no way to revoke a record attached to your identity without proving that you are the same person one the record was created for. The program is costing the country, and you personally, close to £2Bn a year, rather than the initially projected £5Bn over a decade, and it has totally failed to achieve its objectives. It is, in fact, the biggest fiasco since the Poll Tax.

    ... All because of the quid pro quo the French government demanded in return for closing the Sangatte refugee camp (i.e. that the UK adopt an ID card), and Tony Blair's Americanophilia (which caused him to demand that the British ID card follow the example of the US REAL ID Act and use biometric authentication), and the gravy-train instincts of the usual government IT project contractors.

    [Discuss ID Cards]

    posted at: 15:24 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 31 Mar 2006

    On the unworkability of the National Identity Register

    Over at ("Chronicling the demise of the New Labour Project") Tom has an interesting post in which he estimates the workload the NIR registration centres will have to handle, just 32 months from now.

    So adding it all up, from NIR Day 1 for ten years you've got to keep processing people at the rate of 50 per hour at every centre, or one every 72 seconds, each of whom requires a scan of the whole central NIR to avoid multiple registrations, so the database has to be up and accessible every minute of the day to avoid delay.

    In the early days it's a nailed on certainty that we'll get failures, resulting in potentially hundreds of people making pointless journeys ...

    Assuming 99% reliability (which is pretty hysterically funny for a large distributed government program lashed together in 32 months, as it exceeds the MTBF of the client desktop PCs the staff will be accessing the register through) he figures the NIR will be processing 700,000 people a year and roughly 71,000 people are going to be making trips to the office in vain. "I'd suggest that anything much below 99.9% reliability is going to be seriously political in terms of people claiming loss of earnings, loss of holidays etc.," he remarks.

    I think Tom is an optimist (in favour of the NIR being unrealistically efficient). The devil is in the details of what the NIR is trying to track. This isn't just a passport system, folks, they want to know where you live, they want to know where your dog goes to school. Unfortunately the Blairwatch comment system seems to have swallowed my reply, so here it is. (I can't be bothered re-writing it, as I've got an annoying cold and it's time to go get some dinner. Go read his figures first, then come back here ...

    There is a reason we need to renew our passports every decade; the photograph ages. The same is going to be true of the biometrics on the ID card. There are also all those status changes to take into account. The average marriage lasts just 12 years, for example, and getting married or divorced is obviously an ID Register update. Right?

    On top of the on-going 700,000 teens per year I think you need to add the following ongoing overhead updates:

    • Marriages: (90% of folks get married, so that's another 650,000 p/y)
    • Divorces: (40% of marriages end in divorce, so about 300,000 p/y)
    • Deaths: (100% of us die, cumulative death rate is roughly equal to birth rate, so 7,000,000 p/y leaving the register)
    • 10 year biometric updates: 7,000,000 per year. (Do you look the same at 39 as you did at 29? I think not ...)
    • Mutilations: people who lose eyeballs or fingers or otherwise experience changes to their body that would interfere with the biometrics are obviously going to need their records updating. (I'd say this is probably cumulative to somewhere between 5 and 10% of the population, so another 350,000-700,000.)
    • Change of Address: people who move are required to provide proof of change of address. Say we live in a given house for an average of roughly 10 years. Yippee! We've just doubled that 7M figure again!
    • Loss or damage to ID Card: that's going to be a report-to-processing-center job too, isn't it? In 25 years I've damaged one passport and lost another. But these ID cards are going to be riding around in wallets, an environment more like that in which credit cards are used. Personally, I'd be surprised if the half-life of an ID card was much over 2 years in practice, so that'd actually multiply the replacement processing rate by a factor of 5. But that's ridiculous so I'm going to leave it out of the calculation below.

    In upshot, I reckon the mature system will have to handle more like 15M to 25M updates per year on an ongoing basis, rather than Tom's 7M updates at first and 700K after 10 years. If we include a card life more like a credit card than a passport, make that 50-100M updates per year.

    And this is in addition to the initial registration rate during the first decade as they try to shovel us all into the database!

    Bluntly, they're not going to be processing people at the rate of one per 72 seconds -- it's going to be an order of magnitude worse, minimum.

    And that's before we look at other updates. Maybe 500,000 people come into contact with the criminal justice system every year -- their records are going to be updated. (If resistance to the ID Card reaches levels associated with the Poll Tax in Scotland in 1989-90, you can ramp that number to more than 10 million a year -- believe it or not, the Councils in Scotland are still trying to clear up the Poll Tax backlog.) As we integrate further with the EU, I'd be unsurprised to see immigration/emigration figures close to 500K per year, too.

    Bluntly, the figures don't add up. They're not going to be able to process people properly without an order of magnitude expansion of the processing offices. Nor have we factored in the half-million or so folks a year taking days off work (with a vaunted 99% efficient system), or a whole load of other special cases.

    Build a distributed high-security database that's got to add a complex record every second, add three-nines or better availability, will be checked probably an order of magnitude more frequently as well, and ensure that the data integrity is preserved? And do it in 32 months, using the usual New Labour contractors like Capita and EDS? Go pull the other one, Mr Clarke.

    [Link] [Discuss ID Cards]

    posted at: 21:26 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    The UK National ID card

    You may have noticed the House of Lords resistance to the ID Card bill collapse earlier this week. You may have shrugged and wondered what it means to you. If you live in the UK, here's what it means:

    You Will:

    ATTEND an appointment to be photographed, have your fingerprints taken and iris scanned, or be fined up to £2500. Additional fines of up to £2500 may be levied each time you fail to comply until you submit to these procedures.

    PROMPTLY INFORM the police or Home Office if you lose your card or it becomes defective, or face a fine of up to £1000. If you find someone else's card and do not immediately hand it in, you may have committed a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment for up to two years or a fine, or both.

    PROMPTLY INFORM the National Identity Register of any change of address or face a fine of up to £1000 (you will supply evidence of your previous addresses, not just your current address).

    PROMPTLY INFORM the National Identity Register of significant changes to your personal life or any errors they have made or face a fine of up to £1000. You may also be obliged to submit to being re-interviewed, re-photographed, re-fingerprinted and re-scanned, or face a fine.

    PAY between £30 and £93 (Home Office estimates — every other body involved says it will be substantially more) to be registered, with further charges possible to change your details and to replace a lost or stolen card.

    When ID cards were introduced in this country during World War II, they had three functions. By the time they were abolished in 1952 they had 39 administrative uses. So what won't we be able to do without an ID card, according to Government plans?

    If you don't have an ID card ...

    You will not (be able to):

    Rent or sell a home

    Stay in a hotel

    Buy or sell a car

    Buy a mobile phone

    Open or close a bank account

    Travel overseas

    Obtain medical care

    Attend an institute of education

    Work or run a business

    Be declared dead (or alive)

    Be registered to vote

    I have four words to sum this up: Tony Blair's Poll Tax.

    And if you don't like this and want to do something about it, you should start by supporting the No2ID campaign and/or The Open Rights Group.

    [Discuss ID Cards]

    posted at: 17:36 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Sat, 14 Jan 2006

    On the attention economy

    Irritable? Easily distracted? Have difficulty focussing on written text for long enough to read more than a sentence? Welcome to the club.

    According to some researchers, we are exposed to up to 3500 advertisements per day by way of television, internet, radio, shop windows, buses, and other pervasive display media. (And somehow I don't think they're counting the 400-600 spam emails that end up in my Junk folder every day, either.) This cognitive overload is the end product of an arms race between advertisers (who want to buy a share of our attention) and their target audience (those of us with attention to spare). Advertisements are distracting nuisances most of the time, unless you're specifically looking for something -- say, you want to buy a camcorder so you buy a camcorder magazine and comb through the reviews and ads. We therefore screen them out. Advertisers in turn resort to more and more eye-catching methods in an attempt to get our attention.

    Personally, I don't like advertisements. I don't like it when someone tries to sell me something I don't need by hinting that I am socially inadequate if I don't own it. I don't like it when insurance companies or lenders try to sell me insurance or loans by playing on fears of financial insecurity. I really hate telesales: telesales calls are like someone standing outside your front door and ringing the bell until you go to the door to find out what's causing the racket, then exhorting you through a megaphone. Spam is even worse, mostly because the content is either incomprehensible, revolting, or fraudulent. And as the spam and telesales problem gets worse I'm gradually finding that my attitudes are hardening -- not just against spammers and telesales firms, but against all advertisers, because they merely represent different points on the same slippery slope.

    They all nag for my attention -- attention which is not freely given except when I deliberately go looking for a particular product or type of product. And it occurs to me to wonder where it's all going to end. Spam filtering tools block the most obviously mechanized mass-mailings, so spammers resort to more complex tools that try to personalize their pitch; ultimately the job of separating spam from real communication is Turing-complete -- you'd need a human-equivalent AI to do it properly, and by the time we get there the spammers will probably be using AIs of their own to outwit our personal secretary bots.

    You can try to get away from ads on TV by switching to watching only DVDs or downloads, but this stops working when the media conglomerates realize that the DVD purchasers are a captive audience for secondary content on their disks. You can render yourself less vulnerable to telesales by using the Telephone Preference Service statutory list, or by using an answering machine, but the former only weeds out the better-socialized telesales outfits (scammers don't bother with it) while the latter reduces the usefulness of the communications device. Usenet got overrun by spam so lots of us switched to weblogs; which was fine until the blog spammers arrived. Instant messaging? SMS texting? Hello IM spambots and spimmers. Try to escape by playing a computer game and some asshole in marketing is going to realize that there's prize real estate in their MMORPG and start selling advertising billboards in Middle Earth. Even going for a walk in the country is no guarantee of safety, from the posters gummed to the walls of rotting trailers parked in fields, to the skywriting on the clouds overhead.

    In the short term we may be able to build advertising censorware into our glasses. But it's still only a partial solution to the blight.

    About the only really advertising-proof entertainment media are the 19th century hold-overs: theatre, opera, novels. (And maybe live music events at venues too small and primitive to have been nobbled by the likes of ClearChannel.) Get rid of electricity and most of the tools the advertisers rely on stop working. Maybe that's the way forward.

    Meanwhile, we have a terminally fragmenting society, self-medicating through alcohol and other drugs, that is losing the ability to discriminate between trivia and important issues -- largely because of the way news has becoming a marketing vehicle for advertising eyeballs, the consumer society is driven by fear and insecurity rather than the meeting of actual needs, and we're growing so used to receiving information in ten second long compressed bursts that we can't read books any more.

    Ban the advertising industry. Ban it now, before it's too late.

    (This rant brought to you on the back of nearly 500 spams and just two meaningful messages in a 24 hour period, to a primary mail address I've maintained for just 5 months short of a decade and which I may have to abandon shortly because, unfortunately, it's no good being bloody minded: the bastards have won.)

    [Discuss spam]

    posted at: 15:39 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 23 Dec 2005

    Paranoid thought for the day

    Like somewhere over 80% of the UK's adult population, I have a driving license. Like over half the population, I have a car. And I was somewhat taken aback (but not too surprised) to read a report in the Independent that from 2006, every journey by car will be monitored by camera. Existing roadside CCTV cameras are being hooked into the police ANPR system (automatic number plate recognition) and by next March, they're expecting to be logging up to 35 million number plate reads per day, along with precise time and location information.

    (They're waving the Terrorism bloody shirt around a lot, seemingly in ignorance of the fact that the July 7th bombers did their stuff on public transport. But that's about par for the level of logic I'm coming to expect from our public servants these days. It seems to be a case of "if something is possible it must be done" in respect of any and all possible surveillance technologies. Presumably because of a misplaced neo-Benthamite trust in the panopticon ...)


    As I said, I own and drive a car. I'm not much of a boy racer (I'm actually that sluggish Volvo Estate driver you're fuming because you're backed up behind ...) but I've got a feeling that it would be prudent to make a new year's resolution to drive precisely within the legally allowed maximum -- within, in other words, 10% of the speed limit -- from now on. In fact, preferably from a couple of years ago on. Even when there's not a GATSO or a police car in sight. Because ...

    These CCTV cameras are already up and running. And it's highly likely that some or all of the take from these cameras is being recorded for posterity.

    It's quite feasible to log all our motorway traffic. Let's say they're using MPEG4 as a compression standard. MPEG4 footage at TV resolution, in colour, runs to about 0.5Gb/hour, but you can compress it a lot further by only recording segments where some object of interest (i.e. a vehicle) is moving through the field of vision, or only recording in black and white, and so on. A ballpark figure is that a motorway camera is going to deliver 5-7Gb of data (one DVD full) per day, and warehousing that kind of amount of data for a network of a couple of thousand cameras is eminently practical -- it's only a couple of terabytes a day for the entire country.

    Now, these cameras aren't being used for speed enforcement just yet, and indeed ANPR is primarily aimed at traffic analysis, not speeding. However, it's a fair cop that if you drive onto the M1 motorway at Junction 1 and leave it 200 miles later, at Junction 40 or thereabouts, in three hours or less, you must have exceeded the speed limit. So, once the ANPR network is chewing down all that juicy data, persistent speeders -- people who cruise up the motorway at 80mph instead of 77 -- are going to get a nasty shock.

    Finally, as image analysis kit gets faster, it's only a matter of time before some bright spark at the Highways Agency gets the idea of pulling any and all archival footage and scanning it for speeders, then issuing tickets. Never mind that it'll be a couple of years in arrears -- they were breaking the law, weren't they? It's no different from using databases of archived DNA samples to crack cold case crimes. And if you object to it, why are you trying to protect lawbreakers ...?

    [Discuss Big Brother]

    posted at: 17:13 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 02 Dec 2005

    Conspiracy Theories

    I generally try to avoid getting political in this blog, because (being a mercenary sort) I'm not inclined to piss off one sector or another of my audience and potential customer base. (Hey, you can read, can't you?) But I think I can safely admit to a certain degree of fascination with the policy train-wreck currently unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic (and, to a lesser extent, in London).

    It is, perhaps, more important to study the political circumstances that made the Iraq war possible than to consider the war itself. At this point there's relatively little wiggle room in Iraq; it's more than two years since the invasion and it's doubtful that any new directions in western foreign policy can make much difference to the eventual outcome -- too much water (and blood) has flowed under the bridges on the Tigris and Euphrates. The big questions we ought to be worrying about are: how did we get into this mess, and more importantly, how do we avoid getting into similar messes in future?

    First of all, it's apparent that the mess in question is the outcome of several interacting political processes, which go back a very long way indeed. I'm not talking about George W. Bush and his need to one-up his daddy here. I'm not talking about Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz or Dick Cheney. It'd be tempting to blame Winston Churchill -- after all, he's dead (so he can neither defend himself nor be personally harmed), but he, too, is a Johnny-come-Lately in the terms I'm thinking of. If we really want to assign blame, the person to nail it on is that long-dead Liberal British Prime Minister, William Gladstone.

    There are no bedrock certainties in politics other than change. The 1874 general election, into which Gladstone led the Liberal Party to defeat, was fought on such issues as the abolition of the income tax and the pressing need to invade lots of third world principalities and bring enlightenment (not to mention Christianity) to the natives. (His rivals, the notorious tax-and-spend Conservative followers of Disraeli were in contrast to go on to raise the income tax in order to pay for the peaceful purchase of the Suez Canal.)

    Looking at the policies and the labels from today's perspective is like looking into a curious funhouse mirror version of politics as we know it: the 19th century Liberal Party was largely the party of the zealot free-marketeers, today's self-identified Libertarians, with a smattering of socialist radicals muttering into their beards, and a curious mixture of Benthamite utilitarians trying to remake society as a smooth-running machine. The Conservatives were, in contrast, both the party of the rich landowner rentier class and the aspiring shopkeepers and mercantilists. If there was an axis of debate that defined mid-Victorian politics it seems to have been a tug-of-war between the Libertarians and the Utilitarians.

    Having lost the election, Gladstone got a bad case of do-goodism (tempered by religious help-yourself-ism) over a nasty little uprising then going on in the Balkans, at that time under the thumb of the Ottoman empire. His pamphlet Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East (1876) set the pattern for much wrong-headed thinking on the subject of the middle east in the English-speaking world: as others have noted, the western attempts to answer the question of what to do with the East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire took little or no account of the interests of the people who lived there. And the acuity of the question became severe once the Versailles Treaty threw into sharp relief the concurrent collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the dependency of modern western war-fighting methods on the availability of oil (which was, coincidentally, something the Ottoman Empire sat upon a great deal of).

    Now, let us hit the fast-forward button and zip across several time zones and nearly a century of history. From 1953 and the CIA-backed coup against Mossadegh in Iran onwards, and definitely since the Suez Crisis of 1956, the major western influence in the Middle East has clearly been the United States. And American politics and foreign policy on the eve of the 21st century is not like unto British 19th and early 20th century foreign policy -- or is it?

    Well, looking deeper than the resemblance between current plans to replace US troops in Iraq with air power and Winston Churchill's poison gas memo or the use of RAF bombers to police Mesopotamia (Iraq) during the 1920 uprising, it seems to me that the really interesting point is the doctrinal belief that it is possible to invade a nation and completely change the ideology of the governed -- a belief that is not unique to and original to today's neoconservatives, but which was shared with a number of other political or religious creeds. In the 19th century, it was the Gladstonite missionary zeal that contemplated the conversion (or at least the subjugation) of the heathens to the cause of modernizing, expansionist Christianity. Today, there seems to be a similar political dynamic at work in the inner circles of American foreign policy as formulated by the post-cold-war Right: from the Project for a New American Century to the White House is but a short hop.

    The key insight I'd like to bring to your attention at this point is that the purported political axis of the latter half of the twentieth century -- between capitalism and socialism or communism -- is a canard; in historical terms it's an aberration, for the historical pattern is a struggle between the proponents of authoritarianism and those of what is today called libertarianism (and used to be Liberalism). The aberrant conditions of the cold war made for strange bed-fellows, so that the socialist and capitalist factions were themselves coalitions of libertarian and authoritarian types: and today the old power axes are breaking down and the deeper historical factions are surfacing.

    It has been argued that there are two key influences on the neoconservative policy makers: the Shachtmanite version of Trotskyism, a somewhat mutant American variant, was clearly an influence of many of the neocons in their earlier 1960s incarnation, and the views of right-wing crypto-Nieztchian philosopher Leo Strauss. There's a curious intersection between the views of Trotsky (it is the job of the vanguard to lead the proletariat but not to represent them, to form their opinions and give shape to the revolution that will overthrow the bourgeoisie) and those of Strauss (the rise of the bourgeosie is a tragedy for western civilization: the correct order for society is one oriented towards struggle, led by warriors whose actions will be shaped by an elite of behind-the-scenes philosopher-princes). And it's worth noting that former leading denizens of Trotskyite organizations -- in the UK, the former Revolutionary Communist Party is the leading example, as dissected by George Monbiot -- have developed a habit (especially noticable since 1979) of suddenly turning up wearing suits and driving BMWs while working for right wing think-tanks.

    So here's a neat conspiracy theory for you.

    Trotskyism, like old-fashioned muscular British liberalism with its noncomformist Christian side-track, is to some extent an elitist ideology that expects its followers to shape the world (and especially to direct the vast mass of shapeless unopinionated ordinary folks). It is 1979. You are sitting with your mates in a squat, discussing the writings of the great man, when a thought occurs to you. Capitalism is, of necessity, doomed -- in the long run. But in the short run, sitting in a damp squat discussing Trotsky while living on lentils is uncomfortable and dull. Wouldn't it be neat if you could further the revolution while making out like a bandit? What you do is, you buy a suit and you get a respectable job as a researcher at a political think-tank -- a right-wing one, because right now the right are flailing around looking for clues about how to overturn the frankly counter-revolutionary social democratic consensus of the 1960s and 1970s. If anyone asks, you just tell them you've seen the light. You then get the capitalists to pay you to feed them outrageous nonsense -- policies that in the long run will either punish the ignorant masses for not following your advice when you were there to offer it, or that will radicalize them and goad them into a pre-revolutionary frenzy. Policies such as, oh, de-nationalizing the air traffic control system, privatizing the water companies, replacing the electoral machinery with easily corrupted voting machines and the free press with a neatly disciplined network of media machines.

    It's a pretty good wheeze, and you and your mates -- over a period of a couple of decades -- get well bedded in in the west: you've got your Porsches and Maseratis and Armani suits and you're still working towards the revolution! It's the best of both worlds, you get to have your ideology and eat cake. But there are some bits of the world that won't buckle under, and every so often it's necessary to make an example of one of the inconvenient independents pour encourager les autres. Like, oh, that fascist dictatorship over there in the middle east, the one with all the oil. And, hey, why don't we use them as a test bed?

    We'll say we're going to Install Democracy, then we drop the ball and radicalize the hell out of them by stealing everything that isn't nailed down, and if that induces a Trotskyite revolution, wa-hey! -- and if not, well, if it induces an Islamicist revolution instead, who cares? It's a new inconvenient independent, a new broken state, and we can put them in the queue for re-processing later. Meanwhile, it plays at home by increasing our strategy of tension, damaging conservative patriots' faith in the ability of their government to organize a piss-up in a brewery, and in the long term this works towards the eventual goal of bringing the revolution home. All we need is a handsome rock-jawed front man to stick up on top of the tree, waving the flag and explaining that this is necessary in grunts of one syllable that they'll all think they understand.

    In short: the Invasion of Iraq, and the forthcoming Invasion of Whereverstan that will follow it whenever the hangover shows signs of wearing off, do not serve any rational foreign policy agenda. Rather, they're about sustaining a strategy of tension that plays to the agenda of entryist factions who are gradually reverting from 20th century play rules to those of the 19th century. And attempting to make sense of Iraq (or indeed, of the neoconservatives) without an understanding of historical Liberalism, is a losing game.

    (Oh, and yes, I am arguing that George W. Bush is a communist dupe. Good night, and God Bless America.)

    [Discuss Iraq invasion]

    posted at: 17:28 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 22 Sep 2005

    Whoops ...

    (Been quiet recently due to finishing a novel about six weeks late and having to start work on another right away ...)

    So, Hurricane Rita looks likely to be a full category 5 storm by the time it makes landfall. And even if it misses Galveston (which was last hit by a hurricane in 1900 -- a disaster that was at least as bad, and quite possibly worse, than last month's horrors in New Orleans), it's heading for the thickest mass of oil refineries on the Gulf coast. Three of the five largest refineries in the US are square in the path of the hurricane, and the area accounts for 26% of US oil processing capability.

    To make matters worse, this is happening relatively late in the season -- late September -- as demand for winter heating oil is about to surge. (Living here in the UK, I used to find it hard to appreciate just how cold it gets in winter in most of the United States. Fact is, the environs of Boston invariably get much colder, and for longer, than the Scottish highlands -- the coldest part of the UK -- despite being more than a thousand nautical miles south. That's the effect of the North Atlantic circulation on the UK.)

    The storm hasn't made landfall yet, and it's already having international political repercussions.

    Oil futures are already up, as are crude futures, nearing their post-Katrina peak even before Rita has made landfall. OPEC is increasing its output by up to 2 million barrels/day for three months, starting in October -- a 3% increase on its normal daily ceiling of 28 million barrels/day. But I'm unsure what effect this is going to have if a large chunk of the USA's refinery capacity is taken out by a storm. Immediately after Katrina, the US bought up a large quantity of refined gasoline on the Rotterdam market, triggering a spike in the price of oil worldwide, and a sharp spike in the cost of fuel in the UK that triggered protests (which were only prevented from causing serious shortages by immediate government and police action -- the government is paranoid about avoiding a re-run of the September 2000 fuel protests). But if the refineries and port facilities where the tankers can unload their fuel are damaged, is there any reason to buy up tanker-loads abroad?

    What I am concerned about is the likely long-term economic impact of this hurricane. (Thankfully, this time there are signs of a real evacuation plan being implemented properly, so the prompt death toll will almost certainly be orders of magnitude lower.) The USA is much more oil-dependent than many other developed nations, but it's a major integral part of the global economy and if the cost of repairing the damage from Rita is comparable to that of Katrina -- even if it's only a tenth as great -- it's going to have a huge impact eventually.

    We're still only just seeing the first economic signs of the effect of Katrina (other than the immediate oil supply disruption). The Fed has just upped the base rate by 0.25% -- but is that enough? They're stuck between a housing bubble where a single percentage point can batter millions of home-owners into bankruptcy -- home-owners whose debt driven spending drives the consumer side of the economy -- and the need to make credit easier for businesses trying to pick up the pieces after the storm (and consequent spike in their transport costs). This does not strike me as a good place to be, even before you take into account the backing of the current US administration for predatory disaster capitalism as an engine of "wealth creation" (at least, for their cronies at Halliburton and Brown and Root). The requirements of running a successful disaster capitalism economy seem to be at odds with those of a successful consumer economy, and in the wake of Rita I'm (cynically) putting my money on the disaster capitalists winning, as they appear to have won in New Orleans.

    [Discuss Katrina]

    posted at: 11:20 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 08 Sep 2005

    Defend your rights

    While I've been moping around worrying about the country going to hell in a handbasket as our civil rights are eroded by a government that appears to be run by control freaks, some good folks have been trying to do something about it.

    A couple of months ago, Danny O'Brien set up a pledge (via Pledgebank, an online tool intended to make it easier to put your money where your mouth is, secure in the knowledge that you're merely one of a whole bunch of people to be doing so) to establish a campaigning organization to protect our civil liberties online.

    (If you wonder why this is necessary, I'd like to refer you to Home Secretary Charles Clarke's recent statements that Europe must trade civil liberties for security -- alarmist statements made in support of a British government initiative to institute universal communications monitoring throughout the EU. This is typical of the sort of wrong-headed rhetoric that the government -- who have so far created one new crime for every day they've sat in Parliament since winning the election in 1997 -- uses to muddy the waters around their own inability to use their existing and not-inconsiderable powers: "trust us, the other guys are a lot worse" is a fatuous excuse for tearing down the constitutional freedoms that define our entire way of life. But I digress.)

    Anyway, the pledge drive is now 85% of the way to establishing the number necessary to set up ORG, the Open Rights Group, including hiring office space and the core administrative staff necessary to get a new campaigning organization off the ground. Initially envisaged as a British counterpart to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, ORG is coming into existence in much more fraught times than the heady internet boom days of the early 90s; and the task ahead of it is much more daunting, as their preliminary statement explains:

    The Open Rights Group is committed to protecting your digital rights, to fighting bad legislation both in the UK and Europe, and to fostering a grassroots community of volunteers dedicated to campaigning on digital rights issues.
    Your civil and human rights are being eroded in the digital realm. Government, big business and industry bodies are taking liberties with your digital liberties, actions they could never get away with in the "real" world.
    Our goals are:
    • to raise awareness within the media of digital rights abuses
    • to provide a media clearinghouse, connecting journalists with experts and activists
    • to campaign to preserve and extend traditional civil liberties in the digital world
    • to collaborate with other digital rights and related organisations
    • to nurture and assist a community of campaigning volunteers, from grassroots activists to technical and legal experts
    Your right to privacy is being eroded by the government's ill-conceived ID card scheme, by biometric passports and the threat of vehicle tracking systems. Your right to free speech and freedom to use digital media is under threat from corporations who believe that 'fair use' of copyrighted works should exist only at their sufferance. Your right to private life and correspondence is under threat from a proposed European directive to log traffic and geographical data for every call you make, every SMS you send, every email you write, every website you visit.
    It is essential in this time of international tension and uncertainty that we vigourously defend our digital civil liberties, ensuring that the our hard-won freedoms are not taken away simply because they've moved to the digital world.

    I'd like to add that in my opinion, this isn't about being "soft on terrorism" (although that's inevitably how the Home Office will try to paint us) -- rather, it's about making sure that in their zeal to defend us against terrorism, the government doesn't end up constructing a police state. Terrorism is undeniably bad, but a stampede towards repression will usher in a new regime that is disastrously, monstrously, worse.

    If you live in the UK and you agree that seeing your country incrementally turned into a police surveillance society would be bad, I urge you to sign the pledge.

    [Link] [Discuss Civil Rights]

    posted at: 13:39 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 14 Jun 2005

    Stupid, stupid

    There are days when I get out of bed, look at the news, and conclude that our political lords and masters are, to put it bluntly, as dumb as a sack full of hammers. (Either that or they're technologically iliterate – or both.) These days I try not to blow my top over stupid politics, at least not in public; but sometimes you've just got to bite the fat wriggly bait.

    Today, the UK government has adopted two policies that – among a galaxy of other stupid policies – qualify as pure supernova flashes of negative brilliance. They are the National ID Card and Alistair Darling's pay-as-you-drive road pricing scheme. These proposals are sinkholes of pure stupidity for two reasons. Firstly, they are fundamentally dishonest insofar as they are presented as solutions to a problem that doesn't actually exist – they solve problems, but not ones that ministers are willing to talk about in public. Secondly, they don't work. They're technological snake-oil. They can try to make them work – at a cost of many billions of pounds each – but in the end the countermeasures and ramifying complexity of enforcement will kill them stone dead. And only a technological illiterate – or a government minister – could love them.

    The National ID Card is a pet hate of mine, but I'm not going to bang on about it just now because the Home Office has successfully started the public debate by tarring all opponents as woolly-headed liberals who are soft on terrorism and illegal immigration. I'll plead guilty to being a woolly liberal, but I think you'll agree I'm on firmer ground if I take an axe to the initiative where they haven't yet succeeded in painting me as a woolly-headed liberal who's soft on traffic jams.

    So: pay-as-you-go road pricing as a solution to congested roads. Good idea, or something stupid?

    Transport Secretary Darling's proposal sounds superficially plausible at first, if you're the kind of gullible creature who believes technology can fix all problems – a science fiction writer, for example. Britain has a problem: too many cars on the roads. The government has unsuccessfully tried to control this by introducing price signals to reduce demand, i.e. by taxing petrol until it costs roughly £4.50 per gallon at the pump (roughly three to four times what it is in the USA, for example). They discovered the hard way that if they push it too far, they'll generate a campaign of civil disobedience. Last time, truckers and campaigners nearly shut down the nation's oil refineries by blockading them with their vehicles – and the press and media by and large applauded these plucky individualists for standing up to the taxation-mad treasury.

    Words fail me for describing the stupidity of this blockade, by the way. I'm not normally a law and order fanatic, but if I'd been running the Home Office I would have been very tempted to clap the lot of 'em in leg-irons and haul them off to prison under terrorism charges. Playing with fire barely begins to explain the lethal danger that a fuel blockade presents to a modern economy. Our supermarkets as well as our factories now run on just-in-time supply chains; they're no more than 48 hours away from bare shelves. If those idiots had succeeded in shutting off the fuel supply to the road haulage industry for just 72 hours, we'd have been well on the way to a state of emergency and riots on the streets of all our major cities. If Al Qaida were serious and intelligent (as opposed to murderous clowns) they'd just get their friends jobs in the haulage industry and join the fuel protestors.

    As you can imagine, the 2000 fuel blockade got the government's attention. Trouble is, because the protestors actually had public support – because, to a short-sighted and ill-informed public, campaigning for cheaper gas is of course a good thing, even if you go about it by trying to bring about the collapse of civilization – continuing to try to control traffic congestion by purely fiscal tactics was no longer seen as workable. Yet if our roads succumb to gridlock, that's potentially every bit as devastating as a refinery blockade. We're desperately dependent on smooth-running transport, in a way that our predecessors weren't, and because our rail freight infrastructure is a shadow of its former self, transport means roads.

    Hence the Darling proposal. In the Radiant Future, all cars and trucks will come with a Black Box. The miraculous tamper-proof black box will use a GPS receiver – okay, a Galileo receiver, otherwise it would need differential GPS and be prone to crashing the Treasury's money pipe whenever the Pentagon got its knickers in a twist and shut down the civilian unencrypted signals – to locate the vehicle at all times to within a couple of metres. The vehicle will have a database of the national road network. So far so good; you can buy a PDA with a GPS unit and a road atlas built-in for under £500, so this side of the tech isn't obviously broken.

    What the DoT want to do, though, is to price road usage. Say you're wanting to use the M25 motorway or Sphagetti Junction at rush hour. Obviously, this will cause congestion – so your black box will add a high per-mile charge to your monthly road usage bill. Alternatively you can go via a winding country lane that nobody ever uses and pay less. The black boxes will be inspected annually and tampering with or disabling one will be a crime.

    First problem: this is going to displace traffic from high-capacity motorways onto rural and urban rat-runs. Unless there's some way of updating the black boxes with road prices established in real time on the basis of current traffic densities, some cheap roads are going to end up gridlocked all the time while the expensive ones are going to run at well under capacity.

    Second problem: the Chelsea Tractor (aka SUV or big-ass imported American Lifestyle Truck) is currently penalized by paying more for fuel. Darling has (unwisely) already committed to reducing fuel duty. Which means, in effect, he's introducing a subsidy for huge gas-guzzlers.

    But let's say problems #1 and #2 can be finessed; in the case of #1, by dynamically re-weighting the road costs on a daily basis and broadcasting them to the automotive black boxes (say, via a DAB radio channel), or in the case of #2 by taxing big engine blocks. We are then left with a fundamental technology problem. Which is this: have you ever tried to navigate a city via GPS?

    GPS or Galileo cluster satellites aren't magic compass pixie dust sprinklers. They broadcast a signal which, by the time it reaches ground level, is pathetically faint. Worse: the UK is damn close to the 60th parallel. I live in Edinburgh, fifty miles north of Moscow. GPS coverage is patchy to non-existent in the city centre because the satellites mostly orbit south of 60o and the signals are blocked by three-story apartment buildings, never mind skyscrapers. They're going to have to put a hell of a lot of high-power satellites into highly inclined orbits if they want to cover the UK adeqautely.

    And even then, the coverage at ground level is weak. The signal strength is tiny, because the satellites orbit hundreds of miles up and have less than a hundredth of the broadcast power of a typical local radio station. Your mobile phone puts out a signal hundreds of times stronger.

    Now, imagine you want to spoof your black box so that (a) you don't pay any road usage tax (or pay less), or because (b) you're a paranoid who thinks the government is keeping an eye on where you're going.

    I'd like you to imagine another kind of black box, probably similar in appearance to a present day police radar detector. You buy it (illegally) and put it in your car. It has three satellite boxes which you stick in your engine compartment and under the driver's seat and in the boot. It's your PDA with road atlas, and the three satellite boxes are just that – low-powered transmitters that send out an unencrypted Galileo signal that is undetectable more than a couple of metres from your car but is (inside the vehicle) strong enough to swamp the distant feeble witterings of the satellite cluster. These signals stay in the same place. They tell the black box, "look! you're stationary!" Hey presto, you're driving tax-free.

    Now, obviously the Department of Transport will take a dim view of this. So the first sign of smart countermeasures arrive in the black boxes a year or so later: if the wheels turn and the car doesn't move for more than the five minutes or so you could expect for a vehicle inspection on a rolling road, you're committing an offense.

    The obvious countermeasure to that is that your black box can itself contain a genuine Galileo receiver – one that can tell the difference between its own dummy fake satellites and the real thing. (After all, it's telling the fakes what signals to send.) It tracks your road usage, and in real time plots a route that is optimized for cost and vaguely parallels your actual path. You pay tax, but at the minimum (not the maximum) rate.

    If this sounds esoteric or fantastic, you haven't been paying attention to the way technology develops. This is a neat cognitive radio business start-up opportunity for someone living outside the UK to exploit. It can, of course, be defeated – but not trivially. And that's the point: the government need to be able to track thirty million vehicles to make this foolish, foolish scheme work. The cost of the technology to fool the black boxes is currently on the order of £2000 for the hardware – plus some work by a programmer who knows what he's doing – but in principle I see no reason why a black box jammer can't be built for under fifty quid, and a more sophisticated black box route-faker should be doable for well under five hundred. And they're portable and non-invasive, so if you remember to take them with you when you get out of your car the cops or the vehicle inspectors won't be able to see a thing.

    The real fun happens, of course, when smartphones converge with CR technology. Right now, my Treo has two radios: a GSM stage working at four frequency bands, and Bluetooth at 2.4GHz. My PDA also has two radios – Bluetooth and 802.11b. Next-gen phones have all of the above and maybe more besides; FireWireless, Wireless USB, Bluetooth 1.1/2.0, 802.11a/g, WiMAX, and so on. The cost savings to be made by replacing the whole shooting match with a decent DSP and DAC and doing the protocol conversion entirely in software is creeping up and the power consumption of phone-grade RISC processors is creeping down and when the two meet in the middle, your mobile smartphone/PDA will be a desert topping and a floorwax, and (for the cost of a dodgy software download) a road pricing Black Box spoofer/jammer to boot.

    So. Pay-as-you-go road pricing. Firstly, we have to retrofit 30 million vehicles with a tamper-proof electronics suite that includes a GPS receiver and a mobile phone and smartcard reader (for paying the tax). Secondly, we give up the basic right to travel anonymously – a corollary of the basic human right to free public assembly. (All so that the government can try to make an end run around an extremely stupid and damaging form of civil disobedience practiced by greedy arseholes who want cheap fuel and damn the costs to society as a whole.) And does it work? Does it buggery. It's going to run into the usual government IT project overruns, and then the black box hackers are going to get rich. Darling will be long-gone by the time the shit hits the fan, and we're going to be left forking out of our wallets to cover the cost. The UK still won't have a viable transport infrastructure. And all because it's politically inexpedient – read: unpopular – to deal with the fuel tax protestors in the manner they so richly deserve.

    [Discuss politics]

    posted at: 15:15 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 08 Nov 2004

    I'm back

    (Albeit somewhat exhausted from my share of the 320-mile drive.)

    Novacon was a gas, modulo the not entirely satisfactory hotel arrangements. I'm off on Friday to P-Con II in Dublin, and planned to take a couple of days off in between to do some work. However, I've now been led to expect a > set of copy edits to arrive on my doorstep tomorrow or the day after. It'll be the second novel I've had to check the copy edits on this month! I thought I was going to spend this month tidying up GLASSHOUSE; that now looks like a December job to me.

    The prospect of starting work on the next novel (the one I sold last week) is receding into 2005 ...

    [Discuss writing]

    posted at: 22:15 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 04 Nov 2004


    I'm off to Novacon in a couple of hours.

    Hopefully the world will still be there when I get back.

    posted at: 08:35 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 05 Aug 2004

    Electoral fraud in the USA

    Yoshitsune has a personal anecdote about the way electoral fraud seems to work in the USA:

    Today, around lunchtime, I went with my parents to the polls to vote in our primary election. When I got there, I found that I had somehow been removed from the books, and hence could not vote.

    Frustrated, I took the day off work and my mom took me down to the Election Board at 18th and Walnut. When we got there, we found that the reason I was not on the books is that SOMEONE had sent in an address change card for me. I live near 76th and Troost, but the voting database now had me down as living at 52nd and Locust - I've NEVER lived there, and have in fact lived at this address all of my life ... It took about two hours, but the elections commission director straightened it out and I was finally able to vote. However, she told me why this has been happening, and it's very worrisome.

    Apparently there are groups out there who buy copies of the voter registration rolls, then send in new registrations for registered voters giving them a new address. It's really a more sophisticated version of the whole thing with the felony lists in Florida in the last election - however, people aren't being REMOVED from the voting rolls, and hence there's no red flag being raised.

    By the way, I'll just say that I think it's significant that I happen to live in a largely minority, heavily Democratic district in a swing state. You can draw your own conclusions from that.

    This is a type of attack that could, in principle, hit the UK just as easily as the US. It can affect paper or electronic voting systems. It could be fixed trivially, by requiring the election board to mail a "did you want to change address?" letter to the original address, just to authenticate the data (with personal attendance as an alternative if the voter has already moved). The implication that some political groups view this kind of electoral fraud as a legitimate strategy is really disturbing -- because, if elected, they've already demonstrated their willingness to use illegal means to obtain and hold power.

    [Link] [Discuss politics]

    posted at: 16:33 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 07 Jun 2004

    So, one down, one to go

    Ronald Reagan's body is finally dead.

    This isn't unexpected -- he was, after all, very old and had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for at least ten (and more likely twenty) years. And I find myself contemplating the situation with mixed feelings. I hate to think of myself as the kind of person who'd rejoice in anyone's death, but in this case my visceral reaction to the news could only be described as relief.

    That man tried to kill me. And I take that personally, even though he neither knew nor cared that I existed.

    Back in the years of his first presidential term, Ronald Reagan -- an actor as well as a politician, and a consumate sculptor of public opinion -- engaged in rhetoric so blood-chilling that he convinced the elderly, beleaguered, and somewhat paranoid incumbents of the politburo that he was actually willing to start a nuclear war. Their response, Operation RYAN, almost led to the outbreak of such a war during the Able Archer 83 exercises, when the Soviet planners became convinced that a NATO invasion of eastern Europe was in train. It was a major war scare, perhaps the closest the world has ever come to a strategic nuclear exchange, and it occured almost entirely as a consequence of Reagan's bloodthirsty rhetoric, typified by his speech about the evil empire.

    Lest we forget, in 1981-83 the Soviet Union had achieved rough nuclear parity with the USA. Over ten thousand tactical nuclear weapons were in place in Europe. The UK, as one of the most heavily armed NATO members and the site of numerous ports, airports, munition factories and supply depots, was targeted by several hundred thermonuclear devices. Even the more optimistic government estimates predicted a mortality rate of 50-65% in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange; more realistic estimates were 60-70% dead within the first day, and 90-95% of the population dead within six months.

    The cold war blighted the dreams, expectations, and lives of a generation that grew up in the UK between 1960 and 1986. We had nightmares; we didn't expect to survive to adulthood: the apocalypse loomed large, and every mindlessly jingoistic speech by this amiable sock-puppet of corporatism seemed to bring it closer. Never mind that the Soviet empire was undoubtedly a gray, unpleasant place, and the threat of Bolshevik expansionism very real in the wake of the Prague Spring and the Afghan invasion -- the phrase "better dead than red" posed a very real and immediate, not to say unpalatable, dilemma. It's very easy to trot out such a platitude when you do not face personal, painful extinction as a result of it. But it sticks in the throat when you contemplate its' immediate personal relevance to your own life, and that of everyone you hold dear.

    It's true that Reagan moderated his tone sharply after the Able Archer incident, apparently genuinely shaken when he learned how close to the brink he'd stumbled. I don't believe he genuinely wanted to start a nuclear holocaust. But through his actions he demonstrated a remarkable blindness to the mirror-image concerns of his cold war rivals, a chilling lack of empathy that highlighted the emptiness behind the folksy mask. And, as Juan Cole notes, in his reckless pursuit of his goals Reagan was instrumental in the emergence of the Taliban and Al Qaida and in sponsoring fascist dictatorships throughout Latin America -- dictatorships which for the most part expired, once deprived of US support after the cold war ended.

    So it's with relief rather than regret that I note Ronald Reagan's death. It closes a chapter and draws a line under the unpleasant nightmares of the eighties. But it is with some chagrin that I am forced to concede that he wasn't the worst president: as Patrick Farley put it, I now know what it's like to have a genuine moron in the White House.

    [Discuss politics]

    posted at: 19:57 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 06 Apr 2004

    More Tales From The War On Convenience

    The Madrid train bombs were, it seems, command-detonated using mobile phones.

    This is a bad thing. It implies that mobile phones are dangerous. Accordingly, the Liberal Democrats' London Mayoral candidate Simon Hughes called for the scrapping of plans to install cellphone base stations on the London Underground. (Background: about half of the Underground's 410 kilometres of track -- it's more than twice as extensive as the Tokyo, New York, or Moscow subways -- runs very deep, so deep that cellphone signals can't penetrate. Transport for London has been talking about installing cellphone base stations in the deep tunnels to make things more convenient for passengers.)

    Two thoughs occur to me.

    Firstly: only incoming mobile phone calls are a hazard. Only incoming calls are going to set off command-detonated rucksack bombs. It's considerably harder to design a rucksack bomb with a brain that phones home regularly and asks "should I detonate now?" than it is to wire up a phone's vibrate alarm circuit to a firing cap. So outgoing calls are still relatively safe, and it's a bad idea to block them -- they might be somebody calling for an ambulance or the police (or, trivially, phoning home to say they'll be late). Therefore, rather than simply blocking all calls, it makes sense to allow outgoing calls but divert incoming calls and text messages to voice mail.

    Secondly: what are the implications for public WiFi hotspots? For bluetooth? For ad hoc mesh networking? For the future of UWB mobile-IP nodes everywhere? For RFID tags? Radio used to be a convenience. Now it's becoming a necessity because the old, inconvenient paper systems it was introduced to supplement are being retired. Stuff doesn't work without it: drivers charge up their car parking credits by cellphone, information kiosks around stations use broadband (and, soon, WiFi) to hook into timetable databases, and so on.

    Here's a scary thought experiment. Many GPS receivers have serial or USB interfaces that allow them to talk to computers -- some PDAs now appearing on the market have GPS built in, and they're aimed at the in-car navigation market. It should be relatively easy to ride a bus around a capital city and identify the GPS coordinates of, for example, the American embassy or important government offices. Then, with the aid of a PDA, some software, and a digital to analog converter, it is possible to build a GPS-detonated suitcase bomb -- a bomb which will go off when it comes within a pre-set blast radius of the target, rather than at a pre-set time. There's no reason for the terrorist who planted it to hang around in the same country once it's on the bus. Or to actively send it a detonation command. It's entirely passive, highly accurate, cheap to build -- plant a dozen of these on busses and you have all the makings of another Madrid atrocity. Should we therefore block GPS signals in cities?

    We need a public debate on this, and we need it now, because the future is wireless, and as we're discovering wireless technologies massively lower the barrier to causing havoc.

    [ Discuss terrorism]

    posted at: 14:33 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 31 Mar 2004

    A very American holiday

    Tomorrow is National "I'm Embarrassed by my President" Day.

    [Discuss dumb] (Take this as you will)

    posted at: 21:39 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 25 Feb 2004

    Spin Control

    It's a cold day today -- I've just been outside and the wind chill is somewhere between -5 and -8 degrees. Feels colder than Boston eight or nine days ago. Brr.

    It's been a cold day in hell for the British government, too, with the Crown Prosecution Service dropping charges against Katherine Gun. Gun was the GCHQ whistle-blower who leaked the story about the NSA and GCHQ bugging UN embassies of countries that were sitting on the fence over the Iraq invasion; as The Guardian drily put it, "for her defence, she had planned to seek the disclosure of the full advice from the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, on the legality of the war against Iraq, which could have been potentially damaging and embarrassing for the government."

    Which is the classic British understatement of the year. If the trial had gone ahead, and she'd been found not guilty after introducing that kind of evidence in her defense, it would have amounted to an implicit accusation -- with attached "guilty" verdict -- that the Blair government had waged an illegal war in Iraq. And it is particularly telling that despite an open-and-shut case that Gun spoke to the press and gave away classified information, the CPS declined to present any evidence against her. Someone obviously realised that if this spun out of control Slick Tony might end up occupying the cell next door to Slobodan the Horrible.

    (Parenthetically speaking, one might wonder -- a trifle wistfully -- what the upshot would be for Bush if Blair's government suddenly found itself on the losing side of a jury trial that hinged on the assertion that the Iraq invasion was illegal. But 'twas not to be ...)

    Which leads me to ponder a related matter of the cover-up being more poisonous than the crime, etcetera: the alleged goings-on between the sheets involving that fine upstanding supporter of Texas' sodomy laws Governor Rick Perry of Texas (Republican, of course) and Secretary of State Geoffrey Connor.

    Let's not get into the dirty details here; I'm sure it'll all come out in the wash (and the tabloids) over the next week or three. The point is, the timing couldn't be worse for George W. Bush, who nailed his colours to the mast by backing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage this week. Y'see, to anyone who's been watching British politics for the past decade, the echoes of John Major's ill-starred Back to Basics campaign are deafening.

    To quote the BBC's apt summary:

    In 1993, the Major government - perhaps fatally - launched the 'Back to Basics' campaign. It was notorious for its high moral tone and sparked intense media interest in MPs' private lives. Environment Minister Tim Yeo let the side down almost immediately after a tabloid expose in January 1994 revealed he had fathered an illegitimate child by Conservative councillor Julia Stent.

    Mr Major then lost two parliamentary private secretaries and a second minister in the same month. PPS Alan Duncan resigned in January 1994 after news that he had made £50,000 from an illicit purchasing deal on a council house.

    PPS David Ashby also quit after admitting that he shared a hotel bed with another man.

    Minister for Aviation and Shipping, the Earl of Caithness, then resigned after the suicide of his wife, who shot herself in despair at his relationship with another woman ...

    No, the list doesn't stop there -- I just got bored with cut'n'paste. Suffice to say, the government's announcement of a morality campaign, followed by a first sex scandal, triggered a media feeding frenzy in which numerous ministers were hounded out of office for failing to adhere to the values being promoted, culminating rather memorably in the death of Stephen Milligan, MP, an event so bizarre it would be dismissed as completely unbelievable by anyone reading it in a work of political satire.

    Bush has given his enemies a hostage to the fortune of the entire Republican party. If the US press are even a tenth as salacious and active as the British press were a decade ago, they'll have a field day outing hypocrites who, like Governor Perry, say one thing while doing the opposite.

    In the case of the UK, it took nearly a year for the "Back to Basics" shit-storm to die down in the UK, as newspapers competed for the next juicy scandal in a circulation war; by the time it was over, the Tory party's already battered reputation had taken a further nose-dive, leaving them a by-word for sleaze rather than a party of probity. (The only really astonishing thing about the whole business is that John Major and Edwina Currie managed to keep their affair secret for another eight years.)

    In the case of the USA, it hasn't started yet. Arguably, the American press are simultaneously more uptight and less inclined to bite the hands of their political masters than the British press. However, the Tories weren't facing an election year deadline and managed to limp on for another few years -- Bush is potentially a lame duck, with a battered economy and a war on two fronts that isn't going so well. By firmly coming out on the side of the bigots Bush has put his entire party in the frame, and if the press corps scent blood in the water and start looking for more evidence the scandal will be reaching its peak intensity round about the time of the next presidential election.

    [Link] [Discuss politics]

    posted at: 23:46 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 04 Feb 2004

    The Digital Death Rattle of the American Middle Class: A Cautionary Tale

    Dion Dennis writes a cautionary tale which explains, basically, why neo-liberalism (the economic dogma of choice for libertarians and hyper-capitalists everywhere) is a really, really bad idea in the long term:

    our techno-corporations are our contemporary colonial powers, restlessly traversing the rhizomatic arrangement of people and places in search of profit and performative nirvanas. By doing so, they aggressively reshape social routines, values and relationships in the process. As such, they bring more than cut-rate employment opportunities to Indian or Romanian computer programmers. What is imported into these developing countries is an entire social philosophy (neo-liberalism), which effectively sees the developing world exclusively as a new techno-colony, a means to its performative and profitability ends. [26] If culture, history or boundaries do not serve these short term ends, then the tendency is to undermine or discard these elements of world culture, replacing it with a self-obsessed techno-corporatist Social Darwinism ...

    Along with the elimination of other redistribution functions (such as the estate tax), the overall tendency will be to reduce social mobility, and reconstitute the U.S. in the direction of a closed and more static social system. Restricting access to higher education will simultaneously allow for reduced state expenditures, which will lead to reduced taxes, while shaping reduced expectations of social mobility among the poor and the lower middle classes. And that reduction of expectations and the consequent reductions in the number of U.S. "symbolic workers" will be line with the declining competitiveness of U.S. intellectual labor in a global intellectual labor market.

    If all this is so, the American digerati have become the vanguard of this round of global restratification, signifying the digital death rattle of the American middle class.

    Here's a hint: America today, here tomorrow.

    Note that Dennis is not presenting a prescriptive solution to the problem. He's just pointing to the fact that the problem exists, and it's spreading like cancer. Charging students fees for access to higher education, privatising transport networks and water supplies, the creeping corporatisation of civil life -- these are all familiar symptoms here in the UK, the early markers of a disease in progress. Exporting call centres to India is another symptom, like the sneeze that exports coronavirus capsids from the cold-ridden individual. The current implementation of capitalism isn't merely inequitable, it's infectious and incapable of surviving without expansion. The implications are pretty frightening when you pause to think about it: we're sowing the seeds of a global system that grows like a weed and leaves devastated infrastructure and shattered societies in its wake. And as action begets reaction, I'm beginning to think that the dominant ideology of the 21st century -- from, say, 2030 onwards -- will be Socialism 2.0. And for good reason.

    [Link] [Discuss politics]

    posted at: 13:30 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Tue, 27 Jan 2004

    Update on Dean

    Looks like the original information about Dean and TCPA came from rather questionable sources -- the Register is referring to Declan McCullagh, who is not exactly noted for being a Democrat party partisan (clue: that was British understatement at work there). The stench of a political smear job hangs heavy over this story, although it's a worryingly plausible one in view of the historical association between Democrat politicans in the US and the mass media (specifically the RIAA and MPAA -- anyone else remember Senator Hollings' fun little CDBTPA proposal?).

    NB: If you're new around here, kindly bear in mind that I am not an American. I don't get to vote in your elections, read your newspapers, or know all about the axes the various pundits are grinding (and whose necks they want to use them on). This was an enquiry for additional corroboration or refutation, not an attempt to disparage your candidate. If I wanted to diss your candidate I'd be comparing him to George W. Bush, a fellow who I feel was accurately characterised -- by Richard Dawkins -- as "an unelected and deeply stupid little oil spiv."

    [Discuss politics]

    posted at: 22:49 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Wrongheaded Dean

    I've tried to stay away from talking about the US election process this year, because (a) I don't get to vote in it and (b) my preference should be obvious (anyone except Bush). However I've been watching the Democratic primaries with some interest. A lot of people I like and respect are leaning towards Dean, and indeed if I was an American voter I'd probably be voting for him.


    The Register has got the skinny on a Dean policy that is so screamingly at odds with individual freedom that if I was an American voter (I'm going to stop saying that qualifier from here on in, but try to bear it in mind) I'd have to consider it a stinking black mark against him, as bad as taking the wrong position on reproductive rights or the right to keep and bear arms; indeed, it's the internet geek equivalent of coming out and saying "I believe abortion is evil and must be banned" (Democrat candidate) or "guns? civilians don't need guns" (Republican candidate).

    ... a speech that Dean gave to a conference co-sponsored by Wave Systems in March 2002 entitled "Workshop on States Security: Identity, Authentication, Access Control" reported by Declan McCullagh at CNET today, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary.

    In the speech, which you can read on Wave Systems website, Dean describes privacy as an "urban myth" and explains "little has been spent to secure the most vulnerable part of the network - the PC, the laptop, the government and corporate desktop computers - all at the perimeter of the computer network system." Yes, it's the national security angle that TCPA-vendors have been peddling, with the active encouragement of the law enforcement lobby.

    The Register points the finger of guilt at campaign manager, Joe Trippi: "Trippi was a stockholder, employee and booster for Wave Systems, the company contracted by Intel to implement TCPA (Trusted Computing Platform Alliance) specifications. Microsoft's implementation of this architecture was unveiled as 'Palladium' two years ago; now it's called NGSCB."

    Let's get this straight: TCPA is spy-in-the-box technology. You won't be able to boot an operating system or run an application which isn't cryptographically signed by the vendor. You won't be able to download and use content that isn't cryptographically signed by the copyright holder. It's the copyright fascist's wet dream, an end to open computing. It's one step away from keystroke loggers feeding everything you type or mouse straight to the NSA for analysis. And Dean wants this? I'll go further: if it happened it would be the first major step towards a Panopticon Singularity (about which I'll be posting a lengthy essay on Cyborg Democracy later today).

    I really hope there's some mistake, because if not, this policy is going to play with Dean's internet-savvy supporters about the way that coming out in favour of banning all handguns along British lines would play with the NRA. It's shoot-self-in-foot with guided missile time. This is so hostile to the public interest (in the narrow sense of the general public, little guys like me and thee, not the big corporate interests that usually dominate US politics), and the grass-roots internet campaigners who've backed him so far that I've just got to wonder if the DLC have gotten their hands on Karl Rove's orbital mind control lasers. Unbelievable! And I don't mean that in a good way.

    [Discuss politics]

    posted at: 10:41 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Wed, 21 Jan 2004

    State of the Union Redux

    CNN gives us the full story:

    Wild Chimp? Or President?

    (By way of Avram Grumer, Atrios, and numerous other sources.)

    posted at: 14:27 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Fri, 21 Nov 2003

    The void stares also

    I try to stay off the topic of politics and the middle east, I really do. It's not good for my blood pressure, it irritates a large proportion of my readers, and it doesn't achieve anything. But yesterday's bombings in Istanbul demand comment ...

    I really don't like George W. Bush. In fact, when I see him on television I have to change channel before the urge to put my boot through the screen becomes irresistable. (I haven't felt such a visceral anger at a politician since Margaret Thatcher was laying around her with an axe in the 80's.)

    However, there are some issues I agree with him about.

    Item number one on the list is that Al Qaida blowing people up is Wrong, and should be stopped. Item number two on the list is that it is not acceptable to stop Al Qaida blowing things up by giving in to all their demands, which in maximalist form would amount to surrendering the whole of western civilization to a barbarous mediaevalist fundamentalism. And third on the list is that Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party was a vile and repugnant dictatorship (and North Korea doesn't look too good, either).

    So why did I go on an anti-George W. Bush march on Tuesday, and why do I want to put a foot through the TV screen whenever I see his face?

    The devil is in the details.

    Bush's response to the 9/11 disaster was grossly inappropriate on every level. He started with a huge international outpouring of goodwill -- an unprecedented discontinuity in the diplomatic firmament which a cannier politician could have parlayed into a widespread international campaign against the causes of terrorism, Instead, the response of his administration varied from a polite "no thanks, we don't need your help" to biting the extended hand. Iran was offering to help back in September 2001, for example. The UK sent its largest military deployment since the second world war, and got clobbered with trade sanctions by return of post. And that's just for starters; rather than going after the root causes of the disease (of Middle Eastern terrorism, that is), the Bush administration decided first to tackle one of the symptoms (Afghanistan), then to go and beat up the neighbour (Iraq) who had nothing to do with the problem in the first place. We can take it as read at this point that there were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction posing a threat to the west; I believe there's also an extreme shortage of reliable evidence pointing to any connection between the late Iraqi government and Al Qaida (who, it should be noted, hated everything Ba'athism stands for).

    The Iraq invasion was foredoomed to be a disaster. Since March, the US and allied forces have succeeded in killing more Iraqi civilians than the blood-drenched dictatorship's thirty-year batting average. They've destroyed infrastructure, increased unemployment from 30% to 70%, and committed war crimes (collective punishment, attacks on civilians, detention without cause, and the planned sale of state assets in a flat violation of the Geneva Conventions). And some of us haven't forgotten who made the monster in the first place. (Yes, that is Donald Rumself shaking hands with Saddam Hussein, in an episode he'd probably prefer to see swept under the carpet these days.)

    Back home, they've done their best to destroy what was left of a proud tradition of civil rights -- already damaged badly by the succession of wars that shaped the agonizing history of the 20th century. I'm not the best person to discuss what has happened to civil liberties in the USA, but I would like to note at this point that I'm no enemy of the US: I seriously considered emigrating in the early 1990's. Now I'm very glad indeed that I didn't; I have an uneasy feeling that I would have been in the position of a Polish Jew emigrating to Germany in the late 1920's.

    And now we come full circle, back to Al Qaida. They're still murdering people. They've turnned the US occupation of Iraq into a recruiting stand! What went wrong?

    Basil Liddell-Hart described the two biggest mistakes a Great Power could make, historically, in his two rules: "never start a land war in Asia, and never start a war on two fronts". Afghanistan is the classic "land war in Asia" mistake. There are no frontiers; unless the US forces are able to sweep through the North-West Province of Pakistan with fire and the sword they will be unable to touch the Taliban in their heartland. (Not that the Taliban, however odious they may be, are the roots of the Al Qaida problem; they actually discussed handing Osama bin Laden over in early 2001, an offer which the US State Department screwed up by insisting on adding conditions that the Taliban couldn't agree to.) Afghanistan is a very dangerous place to get bogged down in militarily, as the Soviets, and before them the British discovered to their cost. But it's not the tap-root of Middle Eastern terrorism; Afghans don't come pouring out of the mountain country in their countless hordes to strap on suicide belts. Rather, the angry young men gravitated to Afghanistan as a refuge and a place to meet their own kind and form common cause. The Jihad got its start there in the 1980's, with CIA backing for the religious factions of the Mujaheddin fighting against the Soviet occupiers.

    As for Iraq ...

    Iraq is the "war on two fronts" error writ large. Rather than going after the causes of terror (again, how many times do I have to repeat this? Keep your eye on the ball!) Bush seems to have hared off after the man who he believes tried to have his daddy assassinated in 1993. (Saddam is a sore loser -- so would you be, if your friends like that nice Don Rumsfeld turned around and declared war on you in 1991.) I'll leave the postmortem on how the neoconservative faction hijacked the war to the US foreign policy wonks, and the grandiose PNAC conspiracy theories likewise. The point is, Iraq wasn't a source of Middle Eastern terrorism. But it is, now. The anger and despair coming out of the occupation is a motor driving large numbers of angry young men throughout the Middle East closer and closer to the point at which they feel like doing something a lot more serious than merely kicking the TV set. Something that they feel will shake us in the west to our core, by demonstrating the depth of their rage.

    Israel. Palestine. Suicide bombings. And now, Turkey. The question that always occurs to me when I see the aftermath of another hideous explosion on TV is, "what kind of anger is it that drives a person to do this kind of thing -- to themselves, as well as to their enemies?" It's easy for us, in our capacity as potential targets, to write suicide bombers off as unfeeling monsters. But I think that's a mistake. They're clearly angry about something. And it's typically something personal. Orwell painted a grim dystopian future in 1984: "picture a boot stamping on an unprotected face, forever". These people aren't lying down; they see what they're doing as kicking back. And I don't see any good coming of it, because the harsh fact of the matter is both sides are equally wrong.

    Declaring a war on terrorism in the wake of 9/11 was good politics for George W. Bush. But it's a misleading metaphor; because war is terrorism by other means, just as terrorism has become an extension of diplomacy by the weak against the strong, to fold, spindle and mutilate Von Clauswitz's famous dictum. If a war against terrorism is to be successful it must be fought in peoples' hearts and minds, with unusual weapons like trust and respect, and a willingness to negotiate with the moderates before our intransigence turns them into desperate extremists.

    Insisting that a war on terrorism is a literal war, involving bombers and tanks, is foolish in the extreme. Handing them a victory on a plate -- by surrendering our civil liberties on the altar of security -- is insane. Killing terrorists generates more anger among the communities the terrorists are drawn from, and anger breeds more violence. But negotiation works. It worked in Northern Ireland, where the depths of religious bigotry rival anything to be found in the Middle East. And it can work in the Israel/Palestine mess, if negotiations can be arranged and both sides are willing to back down from their maximalist positions. I doubt negotiation has any chance of working with Osama bin Laden or his closest followers, but as the Ha'aretz interview above suggests, even suicide bombers aren't completely beyond hope.

    But back to Bush. George speaks of a clear-cut conflict between good and evil, right and wrong. He's sure it's a war, and he's sure that good will prevail. Well, I agree with him about that, too -- but I'm not sure which side he's on. He's too enthusiastic about splitting the universe into clear-cut categories; and he seems to lack the ability to negotiate or compromise in pursuit of his goals. It seems to me that a talent for convincing yourself that your enemies are evil, and that you are therefore justified in using any means against them, is itself one of the most clear-cut forms of evil. As Neitzsche put it, "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you." Bush has plenty of monsters to fight -- he's surrounded by them. And the effects are clearly visible.

    [ Discuss Bush ]

    posted at: 12:08 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Thu, 20 Nov 2003


    I was late getting out last night, so rather than trying to figure out where the Edinburgh march had gotten to I headed straight for the US Consulate, which is just over the road from where I live. As a point of note, it's well-known -- to the marchers, if not the general public -- that the US Consulate in Edinburgh is staffed during office hours only, and by local Scots employees. At the time of the march (6:30pm onwards) there was nobody there. So, probably for this reason, the police presence was no heavier than you'd expect for any other peaceful but large demonstration.

    I don't have an accurate count of the size of the march, which in any event was a side-show to the big event due in London today, but if it's anything to judge by the Metropolitan Police -- who are said to have been preparing for up to 100,000 marchers -- are in for a very nasty surprise. I'd say this one had somewhere in the range of 3000-6000 demonstrators; the column took a quarter of an hour to walk by, ten-abreast. That puts it close to the same scale as the largest of the anti-war demos in March, and if it's indicative of the size of the London protest today it suggests there could be up to half a million people on the streets of the capital protesting about Bush's visit.

    There's not much else to say. The crowd were cheerful and fairly well-behaved, and in addition to the usual subculture protestors included a lot of folks who seemed to have come straight from their office jobs to join in. The police were professional, unprovocative, and mostly bored (from what I saw of them) and I'm not aware of any arrests or trouble. Afterwards I met up with Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks, and we decamped in the direction of a pub where we ran into Andrew Greig, Ian Rankin, and a couple of other scribblers.

    [ Discuss Bush ]

    posted at: 12:03 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

    Mon, 17 Nov 2003

    Bizarre links of the day

    Tomorrow George W. Bush arrives in the UK, an event so unspeakable in its ghastliness that I think we could all do with some practice at coping with hideous things. Without further ado (or reference to I therefore suggest you desensitize yourself by following some of these links. (NB: mostly work-safe, but vomit bucket recommended.)

    To start off slowly, by way of Grouse! we have the Ugly Wedding Dress of the Day weblog, clear evidence that the Fashion Police death camps in the Appalachians aren't working nearly fast enough. Now we turn our eyes to Budapest, where artistic insensibility acquires a whole new meaning with the discovery that the corpse of a man who hanged himself a year ago was mistaken for an abstract sculpture for more than a day by students and workmen entering a newly re-opened university building. Looking further east, those whacky Japanese can always be counted on to invent such a bizarrely recherche new perversion that the rest of us are left scratching our heads (and then swallowing). Mind you, we occidentals have created our own in-your-face offenses against sensibility -- notably brutalist architecture, BIFF's web page, and G. G. Allin.

    Thank you, thank you. If you're still with me after that little lot, and you haven't thrown up, then you are ready to cope with a state visit by George W. Bush.

    [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]

    posted at: 17:47 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry


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    (I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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