Monday, 31 January 2011

Book review: Brown at 10

After the distinct averageness of Mandelson's book, and the painfully unreadable nature of Blair's I couldnt bring myself to get Brown's particular rewriting of history. Instead I decided to try something a bit different, so I picked out Anthony Seldon's Brown at 10. This is really the first serious attempt at a history of Brown's premiership.

I actually wasn't dissapointed.

Love him or loathe him, Brown was Prime Minister of this country and I think its hard to imagine that he wasnt doing the best job he was capable of. Seldon and Lodge do fine service to a man whose place in history is liable to be uncomfortable at best.

He is everything you expect him to be, angry, difficult and profoundly unable to grasp the nettle that is policy making. He failed to build a team around him, failed to inspire those who would stick with him, and generally wasn't what we (the people) wanted or felt we deserved.

However there is an unexpected and interesting side of him which didnt make it into the UK press, Brown the statesman, a man who could broker deals on the international stage without flinching and who almost never backed down. The narrative was so set against him that there was no interest in telling this story, so its good to see someone writing this fuller version of events.

In many ways this tale is a tragedy, someone who could have been a profoundly gifted statesman who was never quite able to get ahold of what he wanted to achieve. Without knowing this he was unable to create the country he had envisaged for so long. Surrounding himself with toxic people blocked him off from the positive influences which might have made the difference.

The most important thing about this book is that Seldon and Lodge don't just tell a series of events, they tell a story, and they tell it well. Exploring Brown's life couldnt have been an easy proposition, so many people have made their minds up. It is the mark of a good writer to look beyond the existing narrative and build your own, and that is exactly what has been done here.

I would highly recommend this book to any student of contemporary history, I'd also suggest it to anyone who has made their mind up about Gordon Brown. I certainly had, but this made me reconsider some of the things which I had taken for granted, or at least put them in a new light. I dont think Brown is any better a man, but I can certainly reconsider some aspects of his personality and try to put him into his proper context.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Egypt just left the modern world

My blog is a pathetically inadequate place to be reporting this but at the time of writing it doesnt seem like much of the media other than the Huffington Post is interested in talking about this. Hopefully that'll change during the day.

The Egyptian Government has taken a step which has never before been seen, they have taken the country off the internet. That might seem like hyperbole but it seems to literally have happened.

This from the Rensys blog:
Confirming what a few have reported this evening: in an action unprecedented in Internet history, the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet. Critical European-Asian fiber-optic routes through Egypt appear to be unaffected for now. But every Egyptian provider, every business, bank, Internet cafe, website, school, embassy, and government office that relied on the big four Egyptian ISPs for their Internet connectivity is now cut off from the rest of the world.
For those who don't think this significant, citing routine internet disruption in Iran and Tunisia please keep this in mind, also from Rensys:
This is a completely different situation from the modest Internet manipulation that took place in Tunisia, where specific routes were blocked, or Iran, where the Internet stayed up in a rate-limited form designed to make Internet connectivity painfully slow. The Egyptian government's actions tonight have essentially wiped their country from the global map.

What happens when you disconnect a modern economy and 80,000,000 people from the Internet? What will happen tomorrow, on the streets and in the credit markets? This has never happened before, and the unknowns are piling up. We will continue to dig into the event, and will update this story as we learn more. As Friday dawns in Cairo under this unprecedented communications blackout, keep the Egyptian people in your thoughts.
Alongside this it appears that mobile phone signals are also being disrupted in an effort to prevent protestors unifying their efforts.

Today, Egyptians will rise to pray, then they will take to the streets. They will be shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, gassed and there will be deaths. We should keep in mind what they are fighting for, a more fair and just society, free of the rule of a tyrant who has ruled the country for too long with barely a nod to democracy and who has now, in a desperate attempt to cling to power cut his nation off from the tool which has pretty much defined the age we live in.


Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Quotes, quotes, quotes

Good quotations are hard to find, but oh so useful. Hence when I found this document accidentally (I literally don't know where I picked it up, I just discovered I'd opened it in a tab on my browser) I was rather pleased. Its a selection of quotes from military sources and scholars, here are a few of my favourites:
Never interrupt your opponent while he is making a mistake.
Napoleon Bonaparte

My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address

There is only so much stupidity one man can prevent.
Attributed to Andy Marshall, Director of Net Assessment

Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
Thomas Payne, The American Crisis, 1776

Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.
George Santayana
I'm sure a few of these will be turning up in future presentations.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

John Boehner on the way up

Although I follow the UK Conservative Home site I've not made it my business to regularly check in on the US flavour. One of the things I like about ConHomeUK is the tracking perceptions of the cabinet and other key individuals and organisations. This has been going on for some time and has grown to be pretty statistically robust, it is certainly a useful tracker of general trends. Its good to see they're following this model in the USA.

Theres a good set of data up on key players (and movements) amongst Conservatives there which shows that, unsurprisingly, John Beohner is doing rather well at the moment:

Conservatives not only strongly believe that Republicans will maintain control of the House of Representatives in 2012, they also rewarded Boehner's "month of tears and transparency" with a higher approval rating.

With 80% of voters giving him a thumbs-up this month, he passed Sarah Palin as the most highly-approved individual on the list presented to respondents. Only Fox News and the Tea Party get higher marks.

In particular:

  • While respondents are less confident today than last month that the White House and Senate will be in Republican hands after 2012, they remain highly confident that the GOP will continue to hold the House.
  • 2012 hopefuls Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee either remained steady or dropped in their approval ratings from last month, but Boehner's rating rose from 71% to 80%.
  • Boehner's not the only congressional leader to have had a good month. Mitch McConnell's public leadership at the start of the 112th Congress has also rewarded him with an approval bounce from 44% to 53%.

Also, I note that Chris Christine has crept up in approval, from 74% to 77%. Just saying...

Creative use of names

A really smart little project here by a couple of guys (names on the site), who have used publically avaliable data to map, ward by ward, the most common surnames. London Names therefore becomes a map of the most common ethnic communities in each area.

Its a really fascinating study, and well worth taking a look at, there are a few surprises in there.

There's also the equally smart World Names, which tracks surnames globally. Apparently my name is popular in Australia, North America and some of Western Europe. What a shocker.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Update, and interesting internet things

Apologies all for a few days of downtime. Lots on at the moment, both work and personal. This week is likely to be equally disrupted as its my birthday, and I've got an ungodly amount of travel to do. However I will be trying to check in with interesting things I find around the internet.

First up is this crazy article about an online shop for admin rights to a series of US Government and Military websites:

Amid all of the media and public fascination with threats like Stuxnet and weighty terms such as “cyberwar,” it’s easy to overlook the more humdrum and persistent security threats, such as Web site vulnerabilities. But none of these distractions should excuse U.S. military leaders from making sure their Web sites aren’t trivially hackable by script kiddies.

Security vendor Imperva today blogged about a hacker who claims to have access to and control over several top dot-gov, dot-mil and dot-edu Web sites. I’ve seen some of the back-end evidence of his hacks, so it doesn’t seem like he’s making this up. Perhaps out of deference to the federal government, the Imperva folks blocked out the best part of that screen shot — the actual names of the Web site domains that this hacker is selling. For example, the hacker is advertising full control and root access to, a site whose stated purpose is “to develop, acquire, provide and sustain world-class…systems and Battle Command capabilities for the joint warfighter.” It can be yours, for just $499 (sorry, no credit cards accepted; only the virtual currency Liberty Reserve).

Scary stuff, and proof that for all the froth around cyber-(insert scary word here), the reality is that the military and Government are flailing wildly in an environment they don't understand and can't control.


Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Less cyber please

It seems like I can't open a paper or look at a news website without seeing the word "cyber" usually followed by "crime" or "attacks" or "security" or "war" stuck on the end. Here are some recent examples:

The Guardian - London 2012 Olympics faces increased cyber attack threat

London Olympics organisers today warned of the increased danger of cyber attacks that could fatally undermine the technical network that supports everything from recording world records to relaying results to commentators.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog) said it was "inevitable" that its systems would have to repel malicious attempts by hackers to bring them down.

My reaction: Bring as much of the system as possible off the internet, create a secure internal network to process the data in house.

Daily Telegraph - Cyber-attacks could cause global 'catastrophe'

A succession of multiple cyber-attacks could "become a full-scale global shock" on a par with a pandemic and the collapse of the world financial system, the report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said.

Contingency plans to recover systems should be put in place and cybersecurity policies should "encompass the needs of all citizens and not just central government facilities", the report said.

Say what?!: Erm, this doesnt really need a solution. If hackers can do the same damage as a pandemic we're in "game over" territory. This story reads like the plot of a bad piece of science fiction. I can only hope that it is a severe misrepresentation of the OECD report in order to create a more exciting story. Worth noting that the BBC headline for this was "Risks of cyber war 'over-hyped' says OECD study," ironically, pretty much every other media source over-hyped it. Of course they also said...

BBC - 'Cyber war will hit all web users'

The conflict between Wikileaks supporters and the companies withdrawing their services from the whistle-blowing website has been dubbed a "cyber war".

Activists have targeted firms such as PayPal, Mastercard and Visa for their opposition to the site's publication of thousands of secret US diplomatic messages.

But there are fears the online battle could lead to everyday internet use becoming much more heavily regulated.

Say guy, learn the terminology and history: First off, every user of the internet? Thats over 1.5 billion people. Thats a lot. According to this piece there have been no DDOS attacks before now which have been done by anyone other than criminals. Of course DDOS is a crime according to most people, so thats somewhat moot as a point. Honestly, there isnt a single line in the entire piece that makes technical or factual sense. Watch the video, its hilarious if you know the first thing about the issue.

I don't fancy writing up any more because it would take too long, but I do want to revisit an article from some time ago in the New Yorker, hat tip to John Robb for the find.

New Yorker - The Online Threat: Should we be worried about a cyber war?

American intelligence and security officials for the most part agree that the Chinese military, or, for that matter, an independent hacker, is theoretically capable of creating a degree of chaos inside America. But I was told by military, technical, and intelligence experts that these fears have been exaggerated, and are based on a fundamental confusion between cyber espionage and cyber war. Cyber espionage is the science of covertly capturing e-mail traffic, text messages, other electronic communications, and corporate data for the purpose of gathering national-security or commercial intelligence. Cyber war involves the penetration of foreign networks for the purpose of disrupting or dismantling those networks, and making them inoperable. (Some of those I spoke to made the point that China had demonstrated its mastery of cyber espionage in the EP-3E incident, but it did not make overt use of it to wage cyber war.) Blurring the distinction between cyber war and cyber espionage has been profitable for defense contractors—and dispiriting for privacy advocates. [Author's emphasis]
The froth in the papers and news sources about cyber-(insert scary word here) are part of this willful exaggeration of the threat. For those who have watched Die Hard 4, such a situation is nigh on impossible. An event like that would fall into the category of a full blown singularity, an event so momentous that everything after that point would be the result of that single event. This is not something that will happen in the real world.

Even taking a simple civilian website off the internet is hard. It requires a botnet (either voluntary, e.g. Anonymous, or involuntary e.g. Storm) to be deployed at the expense of time and significant effort and for that effort to be sustained over time. The solutions to the problem of this type of attack are manifold and simple and most sites so affected are up and running in hours as if nothing had happened.

So, scale that up to a military network, which is (or should be) prepared for such an attack, do we really think that there are any real players out there who can aggressively take down and dismantle such networks to the extent they cannot be rebuilt and used again after a period of repair?

The most sophisticated cyber attack (known) to have occured is most likely Stuxnet, which did actually succeed in damaging physical infrastructure. But even that incredibly complex and ingenious tool did not stop the Iranian nuclear program, nor did it do damage which could not in time be repaired. Its also worth noting that, contrary to Sky news reports, this was a one shot tool. The vulnerabilities in the operating system have been patched, and cannot now be used to perpetrate similar attacks.

Here's what I see when I read these sorts of articles:

For those unfamiliar with the story of the blind men and the elephant take a look here. In essence it speaks to the fact that without the ability to see the whole of the thing, it is possible to interpret the thing as being an impossible array of things it is not. Thus is the media with the concept of cyber-(insert scary term).

There are some really good opportunities amongst the froth to teach people about the real problems. How their computers can be hijacked by criminals to form part of a botnet for example. Or how prolific internet fraud is. What phishing is. If more people were aware of these very real and very difficult problems then the lives of criminals who exploit the public's general lack of knowledge over the topic would have a much more trying time exploiting these weaknesses for their own gain.

Here's something to consider, from Batman - The Dark Knight

There are people in the real world, who, like the Joker in Batman, want to burn the world down just for the sake of it. But these people are painfully few and far between and almost universally lack the skills to undertake their task.

Who would want to perpetrate a cyber attack as deadly as a pandemic? No one but a madman. It would serve no military purpose, no civil purpose, at best it would be a supreme act of terrorism. But such a devastating event would reprecussions the perpretrator could never envisage, and which would, most likely, turn on them.

As a society we need to start getting a grip on our ability and desire to panic over existential threats to our existance. They never measure up to our expectations, and whilst we look skyward to see if the sun is about to go out, or the moon come crashing down, we miss the fact that there are real problems.

I'd also implore those in the media to take a step back and consider the whole elephant once in a while, as the writers in the New Yorker did in their excellent article.


Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Helping the homeless

A bit off topic tonight, but Ed Staite has a good piece up on homelessness, an issue which I spent a good deal of time working on when I was a lowly Parliamentary Researcher (oh what heady times). Coming off the back of a recent article in The Evening Standard he makes the bold move of flying in the face of the accepted wisdom that providing meals and support to long homeless people is a good thing:
I don't doubt the intentions of these charities - indeed they have probably kept some poor souls alive - but isn't it time there was acknowledgement that long term these methods may be flawed; there could be a better way to spend the money that will get people off our streets for good.
Many of the charities work exceptionally hard, but ultimately they're dealing with a symptom. Of course this is not by any stretch of the imagination a criticism, their role is to deal with the symptoms, but there needs to be someone dealing with the causes.
I know Boris Johnson has invested substantial amounts in schemes to prevent the homeless spending more than one night on the street. It's a long-term approach to solving the problem. To me it's the right approach, but I wonder what the liberal left volunteering in the soup kitchens will think?
For the record Ed (and I say this with a smile) some of us right wingers occasionally volunteer too, although I havent for quite some time.

Back on topic, the problem is that no one has come up with a way of curing the problem, and its deeply intractable. The reasons people become homeless are deeply chaotic, and causes can start to pile up years before the actual thing which drives someone wholly onto the street. Given that, creating homelessness policy which goes to the causes is very difficult, although solid and effective programs dealing with drug and alcohol addiction in particular can help.

What does help, and Ed correctly points it out, are policies which deal with people the moment they hit the street. If you can scoop them up early, identify the problems they are having, and get them into a position where help is avaliable to them, you can make a start. Not all of them will take it, but eventually they will, and then you can begin the process of bringing people back into society.

He also hints at a problem which I think is very unfortunate, the media often get involved in a homelessness story only if it comes from a homelessness charity, its rare to see in depth articles on good intiatives being run by Government (at any level). This means that when you do see an article about homelessness, its someone's PR, and PR amounts to advertising. Scan down to find who the person quoted is and you'll be seeing who it was that wrote the press release.

Its an unfortunate situation, but speaks to the fact that we, as a society, find it easier to talk about homelessness than we do in dealing with it.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The AIs have already won

Lots of things I want to write about at the moment but none of them are working right in my head, so I wanted to draw attention to this excellent piece on Wired. It speaks to the fact that a vast amount of the trading done on the stock market (and every associated market it seems) is done by sophisticated artificial intelligences:
Over the past decade, algorithmic trading has overtaken the industry. From the single desk of a startup hedge fund to the gilded halls of Goldman Sachs, computer code is now responsible for most of the activity on Wall Street. (By some estimates, computer-aided high-frequency trading now accounts for about 70 percent of total trade volume.) Increasingly, the market’s ups and downs are determined not by traders competing to see who has the best information or sharpest business mind but by algorithms feverishly scanning for faint signals of potential profit.

Algorithms have become so ingrained in our financial system that the markets could not operate without them. At the most basic level, computers help prospective buyers and sellers of stocks find one another—without the bother of screaming middlemen or their commissions. High-frequency traders, sometimes called flash traders, buy and sell thousands of shares every second, executing deals so quickly, and on such a massive scale, that they can win or lose a fortune if the price of a stock fluctuates by even a few cents. Other algorithms are slower but more sophisticated, analyzing earning statements, stock performance, and newsfeeds to find attractive investments that others may have missed. The result is a system that is more efficient, faster, and smarter than any human.

Of course theres an issue here, by handing over huge chunks of the market to computers we have lost control of how it actually works and thus it has become unpredicted and unpredictable:

At its worst, it is an inscrutable and uncontrollable feedback loop. Individually, these algorithms may be easy to control but when they interact they can create unexpected behaviors—a conversation that can overwhelm the system it was built to navigate. On May 6, 2010, the Dow Jones Industrial Average inexplicably experienced a series of drops that came to be known as the flash crash, at one point shedding some 573 points in five minutes. Less than five months later, Progress Energy, a North Carolina utility, watched helplessly as its share price fell 90 percent. Also in late September, Apple shares dropped nearly 4 percent in just 30 seconds, before recovering a few minutes later.

These sudden drops are now routine, and it’s often impossible to determine what caused them. But most observers pin the blame on the legions of powerful, superfast trading algorithms—simple instructions that interact to create a market that is incomprehensible to the human mind and impossible to predict.

It certainly puts bankers bonuses into persepective.


Sunday, 16 January 2011

A Diamond performance

For those of you unfamiliar with Bob Diamond he is the incoming Chief Executive of Barclays, and current head of Barclays Corporate & Investment Banking and Wealth Management. Diamond was recently interviewed by the Treasury Select Committee as part of an inquiry into "Competition and Choice. Here's what happened:

For those of you too lazy and unmotivated to watch more than 2 hours of Select Committee investigation (shame on you!), here's a summary, he absolutely owned the room. He was cool, collected and never fluffed his lines. For a slightly more adult analysis Robert Peston is the place to go, he described the whole experience as "gripping theatre", which is entirely fair in my opinion.

I've watched plenty of these 'inquiries' and most of the time the guy being inquired upon is significantly less able. There's usually a wobble no matter how skilled the performer, or an ill considered "ah-hah" moment when they agree with an MP's point.

After watching this video I felt the need to try and codify what it is that stands out about Diamond's performance, in order to get a sense of what we can all learn:
  1. Don't Panic: Its silly to have to say it, but its true. All too often subjects in these settings get asked a question they dont like the sound of, or lose their thread, or simply lose the plot and they panic. Diamond never once suggests that he's intimidated or even impressed by his interrogators, I'm sure he even takes a breath before he answers some of the questions, giving himself the space he needs to stay calm and in control
  2. Don't answer a speech: All too often MPs (and comparable public figures) use their question time to give a speech, adding a question mark to the end and pretending as if its a good use of everyone's time. Diamond deals with these skillfully, without being rude, he steps back from the speech, picks the line to take which fits closest to something approaching the point and delivers it.
  3. Yes and no are never the right answer: At one point Diamond is asked if he is "grateful" to the British taxpayer for their help ensuring the Barclays is protected from the worst of the economic crisis. He refuses to answer with a yes or no, and instead says he is grateful to everyone who has helped. The problem with yes/no questions is they are setups for newspaper articles, this one would have been "Diamond 'grateful' to British taxpayers". By refusing to simplify the issue you avoid letting anyone else simplify it on your behalf later on.
  4. Don't apologise (if you didnt do anything wrong): This only works if you're actually not a bad person. If you're not, go wild. Diamond can reasonably claim not to be a bad guy, his bank didnt take a bailout, and there's no public ownership, so he's largely in the clear on that count. Barclays (like all banks when you get down to it) has done some bad things in the past, but Diamond isnt responsible for them, so when an MP lists off every bad thing (real or imagined) that Barclays has done Diamond doesnt miss a beat, he takes a breath, points out these are accusations not facts, and asks if there's a question. Thats class.
  5. Be right, and get someone else to be right with you: Theres no formula for this, you've got to have every bit of data relevant in any way in your head and be ready to deploy it at a moment's notice. Diamond also brough along Anthony Jenkins, head of Barclays retail, as his wing man. Although Anthony only answers a couple of questions, its clear he is there as a memory backup.
As a friend of mine commented a couple of nights ago, bankers are now hated more than lawyers. I think there's a case to be made that some of this ill feeling is deserved, but much of it isnt. For Diamond to stand up in such an environment and defend his bank and his staff so aggressively speaks to a level of confidence and control which few people have. Its an impressive bit of work, and well worth learning from.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Campaign I want

Hat tip to James at CWR for finding this fascinating bit of polling that shows in a head to head battle, my two favourite US politicians Cory Booker and Chris Christine would be neck and neck from the outset. Booker in particular I could see going a lot further in politics, and its interesting to note that there's some buzz around the idea:
Although much of the focus on Christie's political future has been on a Presidential bid he's a long way from being able to take even a second term as Governor of New Jersey for granted, particularly if Newark Mayor Cory Booker were to challenge him two years from now. Booker is remarkably popular across the state with 46% of voters viewing him favorably to only 16% with a negative opinion. The number of politicians in the country with nearly 3:1 favorability ratings these days is pretty short.

What's most striking within the figures on Booker is how well liked he is across party lines. Although he is unsurprisingly most popular with Democrats at a 51/12 favorability, he also has a 47/17 spread with independents, and even a 36/21 with Republicans. There just aren't very many Democrats who Republicans like right now, especially in a state as polarized as New Jersey.

In a hypothetical contest between Booker and Christie the two tie at 42% each. Those numbers are actually misleadingly good for Christie though. 21% of Democrats are undecided in such a match up while only 7% of Republicans are. That's probably a reflection of 38% of voters in the state still not having an opinion about Booker. More likely than not most of those undecided Democrats would end up in Booker's camp if this match up ever did become a reality.
Christie has never worked hard to be popular, instead focussing on making hard choices for the longer term (what a weird politician he is), something which has earned him a lot of praise and done a lot to improve New Jersey's fortunes.

Booker is the consumate campaigner, and sees opportunities pretty much everywhere it seems. I wrote up the other day about his reaction to the extreme snow in Newark (where he is Mayor), so its hardly surprising he's polling well and cutting across the party divide.

This is one of those "watch this space" scenarios, and one I'll be returning to in the future.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Sensitivity in banking

James at The Campaign War Room has a piece up today on the need for bankers to show some sensitivity as the Government turns its eye towards bankers bonuses.
The financial sector has consistently struggled to understand the levels of public and political hostility towards it, and has therefore never developed the right tone in its communications, or developed the right short-term policies to keep the public and politicians onside. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the bankers' bonus row, the fact is their actions and their tone in the downturn risk further alienating people. And if a campaign starts - backed by senior politicians and the popular media - for action to be taken against the banks, the Government is bound to listen.
Its a fair point. The banking and financial sector has been at times aggressive, surly and defensive, sometimes all at once and there is a need for the sector to take a step back and accept that whether they believe its fair or not, the public don't like them and thats the way things are going to be for a good long time. Of course, the pragmatic reasons for doing this are clear:
If the financial sector shows some sensitivity in the short term - until the worst of the cuts are over and the economy starts recovering properly - the worst of their problems will pass. While the industry may need structural reform - something the forthcoming banking commission will deal with - they have a serious short-term PR problem which they need to pay attention to.
The "why us?" complex is not unique to the banking industry. Many large companies, particularly those at the tops of their industry struggle to accept or rationalise public dislike. It's a particularly British bit of double think that we can use a service/store/misc all the time, yet wax lyrical about how much we hate it. Somehow we're able to rationalise this and life proceeds quite comfortably.

We're a strange people sometimes.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Meme of the month: #cosmoCOIN

I'm not quite sure how it started, but on Friday a bunch of the military/strategy crowd on Twitter decided to pile in on the #cosmoCOIN meme. The premise was simple, how would Cosmo explain counterinsurgency in headlines?

Some hilarious ones made it in, from all sorts of smart and witty people. In many ways it was a great way of finding people who I should be following and I've picked up a couple of new people who have interesting views along the way.

I really recommend you check in with this article on The Atlantic Wire which has a few of the better entries (although not all of them, nor in my opinion the very best), your truly even got a couple of entries which I'm pleased with.

I really recommend you take a sec to check out the feed. Some hilarious stuff in there which has to be seen to be believed.

Guys who get the interwebs: #1 Evgeny Morozov

I was going to fold one of these articles into a wider roundup of recent reading, but a friend of mine sent me a second article by Evgeny Morozov and I felt they deserved their own post. Morozov is, for reference, a visiting scholar at Stanford and one of the better writers on the internet and its impact on the political and security spheres, both domestically and internationally. I'd thoroughly recommend his twitter feed for those who want to keep abreast of this kind of material.

First up is, a piece which recently appeared in Foreign Policy. It details the dramatic failure of the Obama administration's attempts to use the internet as a tool for improving freedom overseas. Personally I have to take any US claims that the internet should be a tool for freedom with a pinch of salt, considering their wildly overdramatic reaction to Wikileaks.

Morozov posits an interesting argument, that by so blatantly pointing to the fact the US is going to use the internet as a tool to undermine opressive foreign Governments they have essentially given the game away, encouraging those Governments to take aggressive steps to limit their population's ability to access the internet as a resource:
Clinton went wrong from the outset by violating the first rule of promoting Internet freedom: Don't talk about promoting Internet freedom. Her Newseum speech was full of analogies to the Berlin Wall and praise for Twitter revolutions -- vocabulary straight out of the Bush handbook. To governments already nervous about a wired citizenry, this sounded less like freedom of the Internet than freedom via the Internet: not just a call for free speech online, but a bid to overthrow them by way of cyberspace.


Where the bureaucrats and diplomats who touted the Internet Freedom Agenda went wrong was in thinking that Washington could work with Silicon Valley without people thinking that Silicon Valley was a tool of Washington. They bought into the technologists' view of the Internet as an unbridled, limitless space that connects people without regard to borders or physical constraints. At its best, that remains true, but not when governments get involved.
Like the printing press, newspapers and every other tool which made public debate easier the internet has helped to ensure that ideas and discussions flow more freely and closer to the public, bringing more people on board. As with printing presses and newspapers public access to the internet will be restricted if governments see it as a threat to their power. By politicising the platforms like Twitter and Facebook they become percieved parts of the American foreign policy arsenal.

A Russophile friend of mine sent me this second article seperately. Morozov analyses the shift in Russia from direct censorship online to using the toolkits which hackers, and online activists like Anonymous, have been using for quite some time to push sites off the internet and limit access by the general public to these resources.
Hours before the judge in the latest Mikhail Khodorkovsky trial announced yet another guilty verdict last week, Russia's most prominent political prisoner was already being attacked in cyberspace.

No, Khodorkovsky's Web site, the main source of news about the trial for many Russians, was not being censored. Rather, it had been targeted by so-called denial-of-service attacks, with most of the site's visitors receiving a "page cannot be found" message in their browsers.
The interesting thing is that the Russian state itself doesnt really have to take an active part in these attacks.
Under the Russian model - what I refer to as "social control" - no formal, direct censorship is necessary. Armies of pro-government netizens - which often include freelancing amateurs and computer-savvy members of pro-Kremlin youth movements - take matters into their own hands and attack Web sites they don't like, making them inaccessible even to users in countries that practice no Internet censorship at all.
Its a simple and elegant solution that allows the Kremlin to avoid the negative publicity of having aggressive policies of limitation to what people can see online, whilst also preventing not only their own citizens but also foreign readers from accessing material which is considered objectionable. Its also decentralised, so no edicts have to be put out, and the Kremlin doesnt have to monitor the internet for things which offends them.
The Kremlin in fact practices very little formal Internet censorship, preferring social control to technological constraints. There is a certain logic to this. Outright censorship hurts its image abroad: Cyberattacks are too ambiguous to make it into most foreign journalists' reports about Russia's worsening media climate. By allowing Kremlin-friendly companies and vigilantes to police the digital commons, the government doesn't have to fret over every critical blog post.
These two articles are interesting in how they dovetail togeather. The world's supposedly most tech savvy nation is failing dramatically to use the internet to promote its agenda overseas through clumsy ineptitude, whilst the Kremin has figured out a PR friendly way to suppress significant amounts of content online.

The lesson really is that the internet is a chaotic space, and to achieve your foreign policy goals in this space you have to embrace the way the internet works at the moment, not try to impose a new order upon it. The Kremlin has taken on board the existing, already working tools which are perfectly effective, wheras America wants to create a new order online. Its a bit of a no-brainer as to why the Kremlin is doing so well.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The next US financial crisis?

There's a fascinating article on CBS on the impending financial meltdown which will occur when state Government's bills come due and it becomes clear that there is no money left in the various pots:
In the two years, since the "great recession" wrecked their economies and shriveled their income, the states have collectively spent nearly a half a trillion dollars more than they collected in taxes. There is also a trillion dollar hole iln their public pension funds.

The states have been getting by on billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds, but the day of reckoning is at hand. The debt crisis is already making Wall Street nervous, and some believe that it could derail the recovery, cost a million public employees their jobs and require another big bailout package that no one in Washington wants to talk about.
The article features Chris Christie (Gov. New Jersey) heavily, something I wholly endorse as one of the few politicians who's A) willing to speak his mind in an honest fashion B) doesnt seem to care what people think about him, so long as he's doing what he sees to be his job.
Then there's New Jersey. It has the highest taxes in the country, a $10 billion deficit and a depressed economy when first-year Governor Chris Christie took office. But after looking at the books, he decided to walk away from a long-planned and much-needed project with New York and the federal government to build a rail tunnel into Manhattan. It would have helped the economy and given employment to 6,000 construction workers.

Gov. Christie acknowledged that's a lot of jobs. "I canceled it. I mean, listen, the bottom line is I don't have the money. And you know what? I can't pay people for those jobs if I don't have the money to pay them. Where am I getting the money? I don't have it. I literally don't have it."
It's always a little startling when a politician makes choices which are hard and then doesnt try to cover it up or give an excuse, I've come to the conclusion that its simply not fair. In our jaded age we deserve the opportunity to try and decipher what our politicians think through a series of buzzwords and half truths, its more fun that way. Christie is just spoiling the game by saying whats actually going on and why.

I can't imagine this story can play out in any good way, and it forms another compelling strand in the story of America's increasing structural weaknesses. I dont pretend to understand the complexities of State vs Federal funding, but if States can't pay their bills a lot of people will lose their jobs, and the USA as a whole will have to pay for those people somehow.

Further bailouts are of course possible, but will only service to weaken the already weak dollar, and this will only deal with the short term problem, not the longer term issues, particularly pensions.

More politicians like Christie might help, men who are willing to make brutual decisions in the short term to secure the long term, but they are few and far between, no matter where you go.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Strategy, friction and Ed Miliband

Christmas was clearly a helpful break for Ed Miliband. It was a useful break for his team to finally start getting their heads togeather and pull togeather a strategy. Since hiring Tom Baldwin and Bob Roberts there seems to be a new energy emerging from the Labour camp. Its still nascient at the moment but I'm increasingly convinced its there.

The media of course is his friend, they want an Opposition party because it makes a better story to have two sides. So much so that with Labour running silent the media has worked hard to create two sides within the coalition, with mixed results. Vince Cable's recent faux pas being the most successful.

The Miliband team seem to have realised something very important, namely that the coalition creates a new faultline in addition to the usual Government/Opposition division. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are very different beasts and, as Tim Montgomerie points out, many in the Conservatives are uncomfortable with the increasingly cosy atmosphere between the two Party leaderships.

Clausewitz described this in terms of 'friction', the grinding togeather of two forces until one collapses. Miliband is actually lucky, he has the natural point of friction which is a perfectly natural part of the UK political system, but he also has the opportunity to turn both opponents against each other to his ultimate advantage. Like any good insurgent he can benefit as much from the discord of his enemies as his own tactical successes.

The Coalition also struggles to present a unified face, just as any coalition must. Unruly backbenchers are all to willing to give quotes to journalists which undermine the party leadership. Building an effective stance against Labour will be very difficult when it is so hard to keep all your ducks in a row back home.

Miliband and his team must recognise that if they have to wait 4 more years for an election it is unlikely their man will be the Party leader. I'm not saying that to be disparaging, for all his fault Ed Miliband is actually a decent politican in my estimation. I've seen him speak on a few occasions and he can be passionate, engaging and quite witty when in his comfort zone. However, the shelf life of Party leaders is not great, and I would imagine at some point in the next 4 years there would be a move against him, leading to his weakening if not his destruction.

However, if there is an election sooner, the Labour party would probably put away their hatchets and focus on actually winning, and a victory would put Ed Miliband beyond any reproach for a number of years.

The chessboard of politics is very different for the first time certainly in my lifetime, and Miliband has real opportunities to play the game differently. It would only take a few Lib Dems walking away from the table and the Government would collapse, thats simple maths, all political scheming aside. Vince Cable does have a nuclear option, although its not limited just to him.

It will be interesting to see if Miliband and his team can embrace this unusual insurgent mindset. They have to move fast, punch hard, and exploit the strategic weakness of their opponents. A wedge driven firmly between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could so easily collapse the Government and usher in a new General Election.

Great round up of science fiction

John Robb has written up a great list of science fiction (with one non fiction) titles recommended by his readers. I've not read all of these (although I just ordered three) but the ones I have read I would say are exceptional examples of the art. I know John's particular interest is in futurism, particularly around the idea of a Singularity. Here's the list with John's comments, my additions are in italics:
  • Makers. Cory Doctorow. The second industrial revolution -- at the micro scale.
  • Daemon and FreedomTM. Daniel Suarez. A second American revolution enabled by software. Resilient communities. Classic. (Daemon is, in my opinion, the substantially better book, but both are fantastic and well written)
  • Schismatrix. Bruce Sterling. Technology causes everything/everyone to diverge. This is where Blizzard got its idea for the Zerg.
  • Islands in the Net. Bruce Sterling. City state warfare (Singapore vs. Grenada).
  • One Second After. William Forstchen. EMP blast melts modern technology. Society collapses instantaneously.
  • Snow Crash. Neal Stephenson. Post nation-state thinking. "Burbclave" city states vs. "Fedland" (a bureaucratic nightmare of what's left of the gov't) vs. Criminal corporate franchises.
  • The Diamond Age. Neal Stephenson. Nanotech warfare. Nanotech future dissolves global social systems. People respond by recreating historical cultures to give meaning to their lives.
  • Eclipse Phase. An scifi paper role playing wargame. Transhumanism and spec ops warfare. The manual is copyleft.
  • Across Realtime. Vernor Vinge. This is the book that kicked off the concept of the Singularity (the idea that exponential technological change will soon, within decades, lead to a break in human history as humanity bootstraps into something unknowable).
  • The Singularity is Near. Ray Kurzweil. The definitive non-fiction analysis of the exponential trends leading towards a break in human history.
  • Ender's Game. Orson Scott Card. Classic of military scifi. Boy trained via endless wargame simulations to fight intergalactic war. (Probably the finest book when it comes to dealing with real strategy in a hypothetical future)
  • Tactics of Mistake. Gordon Dickson. Another classic of military scifi. Guerrilla war on distant planet -- ruse/deception used to force enemies to manufacture their own defeat.
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Robert Heinlein. Colonists fight guerrilla war to secede. A classic.
  • The Windup Girl. Biotech dystopia.
  • Halting State. Charles Stross. Detective thriller about an infowar fought via MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games).
Two I would have added to this list are:
  • Without Warning, by John Birmingham. I would class this as a "bad singularity" novel, as it deals with a post singularity world in which the entire continent of North America is virtually depopulated. Leaving the rest of the world to stumble on in its wake.
  • Singularity Sky. Charles Stross. Personally my favourite of Stross's books, although I'll admit to not having read Halting State yet. Deals with a singularity happening to a planet of people who have already survived one (bad) singularity.
There are probably far more than that if I actually sat down to think about it. But I have to go onto Amazon and spend some of my Christmas money!

Monday, 3 January 2011

Book Review: Without Warning

Its been a goodly while since I reviewed a science fiction book, although its not long since I read Senator's Son. I tend to read a ratio of about 2:1 in favour of non fiction books these days, so I've ploughed through quite a lot in the interviening time, none of it particularly exciting. For my Christmas break one of the books I purchased was Without Warning, by John Birmingham, it'd been lurking in my Amazon recommendations for quite a while, and I decided I needed some brain candy to suppliment the vast quantities of regular candy I would devour during the festive season.

I'm going to say it, but I usually go in with pretty low expectations about modern fiction (sci fi or regular), particularly when it has a miliary bent. Writers tend to be lazy, and basically just bang out a Vietnam war-esque nonsense, with little consideration for anything else. This book, which is science fiction in flavour, despite taking place in the 2003, is really excellent work.

The premise of the book is pretty interesting, America vanishes. Its pretty much that simple. A huge, incomprehensible wave of energy simply obliterates every human (and primate) from Seattle to Cuba. It leaves behind a wall of energy that no human can cross, cutting off most of the North American continent. The world is then left trying to figure out what the heck to do as the world lurches wildly out of control.

One weakness of the book is that several of the characters are pretty dull. They exist to service the audience's need to see how different parts of the world deal with the situation, leaving them a little two dimensional. However, the majority are really engaging, interesting and lively.

The author really gets into one important concept, if you eliminate the majority of people living on the American continent the a very large number of the Americans left will be soldiers overseas. The military is left trying to pull togeather the remaining population and figure out what to do without a Commander in Chief. The way the book is written suggests the author has taken the time to think about what this would entail, and he uses terminology as if he has actually taken the time to learn about relevant topics.

I wanted to write some spoilers into this review but I think I'll stick with just saying that many things which seem pretty realistic do indeed happen. The focus is pretty broad too, looking at the macro political changes, with certain countries on the rise, and others collapsing. The attempts to consolidate the new American political order (mostly in order to create a Commander in Chief for the military), all are examined in a great deal of detail, without being a grind for the reader.

This book is a well paced and entertaining read. Its utterly fantastical, but somehow keeps its feet on the ground. I'd highly recommend it to anyone who wants a bit of fun.